Phil’s Favorites for Yellowstone Country

Phil’s Favorites for Yellowstone Country

Phil Rowley is a well-known Canadian angler who has made a real name among the stillwater fly fishing community alongside his good buddy Brian Chan.  His love of fly fishing has taken him across North America and beyond pursuing trout, Atlantic and Pacific salmon, char, pike, walleye and numerous other species on the fly. Phil is a super friendly guy who is always eager to share his knowledge and stories with a fellow angler.  His unofficial motto is “Because you never stop learning!” which we totally dig here at Big Sky Anglers.  Phil and Brian’s Stillwater Fly Fishing App has brought the old school fishing book format into the 21st century with a very fresh, visual, and constantly updating format that really matches well with the idea of fly fishing as a journey filled with exploration and learning.

We struck up a relationship with Phil during his most recent trip to Yellowstone Country and were super excited to find out that he makes semi-regular trips to our area to fish the local stillwaters.  Phil is a signature tier for Montana Fly Company, and we’ve carried a few of his patterns in the shop since our doors opened.  When we found out that he has some real first-hand experience fishing our area, we began comparing notes on effective patterns and presentations.  It didn’t take long before we hatched an idea to share Phil’s Favorites for Yellowstone Country with our readers, and combine our own experiences with the patterns with Phil’s thoughts and suggestions on when, where, and how to use his flies in your own angling adventure.

If you are just getting started in stillwater fly fishing in our area, or are looking to take your fly selection to the next level, these patterns are a great way to do it.  We stock all of these in our fly bins at the shop if you are looking to get a few, and we are also happy to help you get the materials and tips you might need if you are looking to tie your own.

Balanced Leech – Bruised, Black, and Claret

According to Phil, the balanced fly philosophy has had a huge impact on his fly tying in recent years.  He is not alone.  The concept, introduced originally by Jerry McBride of Washington State, is nothing short of a revolution, bringing the effectiveness of jigging and drop shot presentations used by conventional anglers to the fly fishing universe. These leeches are designed and weighted to suspend in a horizontal manner, imitating the swimming orientation of many stillwater food sources like leeches and baitfish. By Phil’s account, a balanced pattern will outperform a traditionally tied version by a wide margin when presented under an indicator.

Fishing Tips: When fishing any fly under an indicator, but especially a balanced leech, do not make the mistake of thinking that you are merely casting it out an waiting for a bite.  Covering the water, moving, and incorporating retrieves that move the fly horizontally and vertically through the water are all parts of the indicator approach.

We find the balanced leech especially effective fished under an indicator in marginal or very cold water conditions in which the trout become less likely to chase a faster moving, retrieved offering.  The approach lets you put the fly in the zone and keep it there while adding enticing action without rapid movements.  On the river, most anglers will quickly shift from retrieved streamers or swung soft hackles to dead drift nymphing when the temps drop and fish get lethargic, but for some reason the adjustment is often considered “cheating” in the stillwater environment.

Balanced flies work well cast and retrieved, too.  They jig, dip, and pitch when stripped, creating a different action than a standard tie.

BSA stocks the balanced leech in all of Phil’s Favorite colors, plus a few others that we’ve found to be equally deadly, like Olive/Burnt Orange, and Olive Pumpkin.

Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own Bruised Balance Leech or  Olive Pumpkin Balanced Leech . If you just want to hear Phil say “Laser Level”, skip right to 6:45. ?

Pearly Damsel

According to Phil, the slim lines of the Pearly Damsel match those of the natural nymphs and when fish are in a selective state this pattern has worked for him consistently to coax a take or two.  Based on our experience with this bug, Phil is likely downplaying the patterns effectiveness, as we’ve had days where “a take or two”  happens every few casts!

Damsels are a critical food item on several area lakes, with July emergences on Henry’s Lake often being described in legendary terms.  When the damsels are migrating, the biggest trout in the lake take notice and go on the feed.  Damsels are also important food sources on Hebgen, and other weedy stillwaters like Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, MT.

Fishing Tips: Fish a damsel slowly, just above the weed tops, anytime during the early to mid-summer as an attractor, as the nymphs are always crawling about.  The pattern really shines during emergences though, where casting and retrieving the fly on an intermediate or midge tip style line (depending on the feeding depth of the fish) is the presentation of choice.  If you see numbers of damsel nymphs swimming near the surface, crawling up in your boat or float tube or on to shore, get ready!  Try a series of short but quick pulls followed by a significant pause that imitates the natural movements of the damsel nymph, and don’t be surprised if most of the grabs come during the pause.

Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own to dial in your colors to perfectly match the damsels on your favorite stillwaters.

Black Sally

Chironomid fishing is nearly synonymous with Canadian stillwater angling, and black and red is Phil’s first choice in chironomids colors when he doesn’t have any inside information or when he starts out exploring a new stillwater.  Often, the results don’t warrant a change from this color choice.

This color combo has always been a killer on Hebgen, and the Black Sally makes for a really nice alternative to a standard Ice Cream Cone style pupa that uses a white bead to suggest the gills, especially late in the season and in parts of the lake that see the most angling effort.

Fishing Tips: Phil says that maintaining presentation depth is key when fishing any chironomid pupa.  The more emerging pupa there are the more focused trout become to a specific depth.  It’s just an efficient way to feed.  Suspending chironomid pupa under an indicator is a deadly way to suggest staging chironomid pupa.  Plus, it’s just plain fun to watch the indicator disappear beneath the surface.

He recommends that you begin with your fly a foot off the bottom and work your way up from there in one foot increments until you find where they are feeding.  In MT, where it is legal to fish two flies at once, we like staggering two chironomids by 18 to 24” on the leader, which can really shorten the time it takes to dial in the depth, or to pick up on changes in the depth at which the trout are feeding.  The deeper the water, the greater the fly spacing can and should be.  Phil suggest the following presentation – Keep an eye out for emerging adults and cast pupal shucks.  Anchor amongst them if you can.  After completing the cast allow sufficient time for the fly or flies to sink.  Let the sit still for a while.  If there are no takers begin a slow hand twist retrieve to cover water.  Move the line slow enough so it creates no surface wake.  Add the odd strip to attract fish to the fly.  The strip rises the fly up and the pause lets the fly settle once again.  Always watch the indicator right after the strip as this is when a take is most likely to occur.

This is not only a great imitation to fish during active chironomids emergences, but also a no brainer as a second fly/dropper fly to fish while exploring or prospecting during non-hatch times.

Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own.


According to Phil, this is probably his favorite chironomid pupa pattern, and a pattern that he has popularized with the help of thousands of trout across the western US and Canada.  The Chromie produces well when chironomid pupa are actively hatching, as the silver body does a great job suggesting the trapped gases the natural pupa use to aid their ascent and final transformation to winged adult.

Fishing Tips:  Fish this pattern like the Black Sally or your other favorite chironomids imitations.  The Chromie seems to be a real standout in Yellowstone Country when fishing in darker conditions, in deeper water, or in algae clouded or otherwise colored water.  My personal experience is that the reflectivity can be a bit much in shallow water combined with calm water and bright sun, but I know others who swear by this pattern in nearly all conditions.

Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own.

Clearwater Pupa – Black

According to Phil, this ultra-realistic chironomids pupa really shines in clear water conditions or when the trout are getting wary of seeing too many beadhead style patterns.  This fly is super slim and translucent, but with just the right amount of flash.  It also includes the wing pads which are not typically a part of simpler beadhead patterns.

Fishing Tips: Fish this pattern like the Black Sally or your other favorite chironomids imitations.  It’s a great one to fish as part of a tandem rig with a weighted chironomid during a hatch.  Around our area, the place I automatically think of when it comes to this pattern Wade Lake.  The crystal clear water and pale mud shoals are a local proving ground for realistic stillwater insect imitations, and this one has passed the test.

Head over to Phil’s Youtube channel for a video tutorial and materials list if you want to tie your own.

Rowley and Chan’s Stillwater Fly Fishing App – A Review

Rowley and Chan’s Stillwater Fly Fishing App – A Review

Stillwater fishing is just one part of fly fishing that truly fascinates me, and every year I seem to devote more and more of my water time to the lakes, ponds, and reservoirs.    And, like most things that I become interested in, I collect literature on the subject.  I love to read and study different theories and approaches to things like fly fishing.  By reading well written works by other experienced anglers, I feel that I am able to gain experiences that I might not otherwise have the opportunity to have myself.  I guess the hope is that one day, should I be confronted with a unique situation in my own angling, that I might be able to recall an obscure passage in an angling text and apply it with glorious, fishy results.  But I also think that I enjoy just reading different perspectives, opinions, and approaches to similar situations, and trying to sort out the biases, while throwing it all into my own melting pot for forming my own (admittedly biased) perspectives, opinions, and approaches.

But I digress.

For a long time, “literature” essentially meant books, magazine articles, and maybe some VHS tapes.  Now, as more and more information becomes available through electronic means, it also includes things like DVDs, blog posts, podcasts, e-books, You-tube channels, and now, smartphone apps.  I’m able to find new material to study everywhere I turn, making the long Montana winter a bit easier to pass.

I’m a little old school, and I still like books the best, but it is difficult to argue with the power of a well-organized and presented video as a teaching an learning tool.  Not long ago I came across Phil Rowley and Brian Chan’s Stillwater Fly Fishing App.  As I understand it, this App is the first of its kind in many ways.  What makes this information source fairly unique is that it is video based, but organized similar to a cookbook of recipes or fishing tidbits that are hopefully easy to find at a moment’s notice. 

From Phil and Brian:

“Phil and Brian have combined their 75 years of experience fly fishing for trout and char in lakes to develop this valuable educational tool. This App will become an essential tool in the toolbox for anglers of all skill levels.

The app is broken down into chapters covering such topics as entomology, leaders and knots, techniques and tactics, equipment and favourite stillwater flies. Each topic is presented in video format that can be easily downloaded and saved to your mobile device.

Once downloaded, the video tips can be watched anywhere. No Wi-Fi connection is required to view the tips once they have been downloaded.”

MK’s Breakdown

I personally have found the Stillwater Fly Fishing App to be a welcome addition to my collection of stillwater angling “literature”.  I’ve learned plenty of new things, particularly about entomology and rigging for stillwaters.  I’ll go into the 2019 open water season with plenty of new ideas to try out.  But what makes the App better, or at least different than a book written by Phil or Brian?  The App format allows for continuous additions, updates, and modifications as the authors develop and test new theories and methods.  In theory, this can reduce the built in obsolescence found in some printed media. 

When I downloaded and subscribed to the App in early October 2018, I think there were about 105 +/- videos available among these 5 chapters. 


Leaders & Knots

Techniques & Tactics

Equipment, and

Stillwater Flies

Now, just before the start of the New Year, there are 126 videos.  At this point, I’ve probably watched 90% of them.  Of course, I watched the Entomology and Tactics videos first!  I’ve been messing around with the App enough that I feel like I can offer up a list of what I’d call PROs and CONs, for lack of a better terminology.  Remember, you can download the App for free and check out all the free content, along with listings of all the content that comes with a paid subscription.  So, what have you got to lose?


Content, Content, Content!  I feel very confident saying that, regardless of your experience level with stillwater fly fishing, you will learn some really interesting new things from the App.  There are some videos about really clever and sneaky stuff on there!!!

For the newcomer to stillwater fly fishing, dive into videos like “Essential Tackle”, “Choosing a Fly Rod”, “Choosing Leech Patterns”,  “Retrieve Essentials”, and “Simple Chironomid Techniques”  (all available free without subscription).  The basics are all there for you to build on.  Get yourself an intermediate sinking line to go with the floating line you already have, and go strip some leeches or hang some chironomids!

If you end up hooked on stillwater fly fishing like me, you’ll find that every outing will generate more questions in your mind.  When that feeding binge happens that you can’t seem to figure out, you can dive deeper into the App and watch videos like entomology presentations on “Zooplankton”, “Dragonflies (Crawlers)”, “Dragonflies (Darners)”, or “Scuds”.  When you are ready to experiment with new ways to move your fly, check out clips like “Strip Retrieve”, “Hand Twist Retrieve”, “Pinch Strip Retrieve”, “Rolly Polly Retrieve”, and “Indicator Retrieves”.  When you finally buy that new boat, check out the two videos on boat setup with stillwater angling in mind.

Fishing tricks.  I mean simple tricks that solve annoying everyday problems in the fishing life that you wish you’d thought of yourself.  Phil and Brian offer up more than a few of these that they have figured out over their years of fishing.  Some are explicit, with their own videos, and others are nested within other topics.  It pays to watch with an open mind.  Using electrical tape to fix a worn out slip float, and incorporating barrel swivels into rigging are two of my favorites.

Fly Tying Tutorials.  Step-by-step video instruction for piles of proven stillwater patterns.  At least two dozen are available for free without a subscription to the App! It’s winter in Montana.  Get in there and tie some new stillwater flies!

Regular Updates.  When I spoke with Phil about his plans for the App, he mentioned that their goal was to add 4 or 5 new videos to the App each month.  And, last month they did just that!  Compare that to your average print mag subscription, factor in how rarely print mags cover detailed stillwater topics, and the $3.99/month (or less if you sign up for a season or a full year) subscription suddenly seems like a bargain.

Offline Capability.   Once you have downloaded video content to your smartphone, the App no longer needs any Wi-Fi or other wireless cell coverage for you to watch the videos.  So, you can download all the videos you’d like at your house on a fast Wi-Fi signal and then get on the bus to work, or on the airplane to West Yellowstone or Jurassic Lake, and you’ll be ready with something to do.  You can even download all the videos about fishing Callibaetis and then watch them in the boat while you wait for the hatch to start out on Hebgen Lake without dealing with spotty 3G coverage that will gobble up your data allowance.


Broad Topic Organization With No Search Function.  You have to organize things somehow. The format of the App, while very clean and based on relatively short, individual video tips sorted into the categories/chapters listed above, may not be the ideal format for covering a complex, detailed topic in an orderly, step-by-step manner.  Of course, this is an opinion based on how my own brain organizes things.  For example, if you are interested specifically in learning about the ins and outs of, say, Chironomid fishing, you will need to skip around within the App chapters and watch three Entomology videos, multiple Leader & Knot rigging videos, and two or three Technique & Tactics videos, before diving down the rabbit hole of fly pattern selection and tying tutorials.   Perhaps in the future, the App could be updated to include a search function so that a user could search for, say, “chironomids”, and then be presented with a list of all the relevant videos from among the five organizational chapters.

Quirky Updating.  I’m running a Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Android version of the App.  That said, last time Phil and Brian announced a new set of video uploads, I had a hard time finding them on the App.  I ended up uninstalling the App and reinstalling it, and the problem was solved.  No biggie, but I’m glad that I follow the guys on social media for the announcements for new updates.

In Conclusion

I actually reached out to Phil and Brian about these CONs after writing this.  They were very receptive and responsive to a little bit of constructive criticism and it sounds like they will be looking into some improvements that will enhance searching and trouble shooting in the very near future.  In the end, I think that’s a very good sign to see that they are interested in and committed to not only adding new content but improving the functionality of the App over time.  As far as I’m concerned, I think I’ll be renewing my subscription when it comes up later in January.  There’s still a lot more winter left!