The Heart of the Season

The Heart of the Season

As we approach the middle of July each year, I tend to feel a little bit of anxiety as I begin to consider the bewildering diversity of fishing opportunities that surround us here in West Yellowstone.  As a guide, now is when I begin to have almost TOO MANY good options and the difficult thing can be to decide which one to take each day.  As an angler, I begin to think of all the places that are still on my list after a lifetime of exploring Yellowstone country and I grapple with the reality that I might only have time enough to tick just one more off of what seems to be a growing, rather than shrinking list.

We at Big Sky Anglers choose to live here in West Yellowstone because of its incredible diversity of water types and virtually endless fishing options for anglers of all skill levels and interests.  We not only live here because of the opportunities found to engage all anglers as customers but also because we, as anglers, remain engaged in angling pursuits here even after a lifetime of flyfishing in the area.  Draw a simple 100 mile radius around West Yellowstone on any map and you will have encapsulated more squiggly blue lines and world class fisheries than can be found in a 100 mile radius just about anywhere else on the globe.  This place both keeps us on our toes and inspires us.  We love to share it with others and look forward to chances to introduce anglers to new experiences.

The middle of July represents to us the heart of our season.  It is exactly in the middle of what we would call our prime time, which arguably ranges from the beginning of May through the beginning of October.  Summertime dry fly fishing is in full effect, good hatches are occurring during the daylight hours and good evening fishing can be found with regular spinner falls and caddis emergences.  At this point in the year, there is more quality fishable water around us than at any other time.  Terrific fishing can be found on the Henry’s Fork and Henry’s Lake in Idaho, Montana’s Madison, Gallatin, Missouri, Yellowstone Rivers as well as many of the region’s stillwaters, of which Hebgen sits atop our list due both proximity to the shop and the angling diversity it offers.  Yellowstone National Park, with the exception of the waters warmed by geyser influence like the Firehole and Madison, numerically dominates the area’s options and great trout fishing can be found in any quadrant.  Many of the high country and back country streams are just now coming into shape for their short but productive time of year. 

Perhaps foolishly, I have decided to attempt to summarize some of the option available to us during the Heart of our season.

Let’s start in Idaho.  The Henry’s Fork is perhaps the single most diverse river in our lineup.  It has everything from technical spring creek fishing on a large scale to wild and seldom traveled wilderness canyon sections that offer a high quality outdoor experience on just about any day of the summer.  Though some of the fantastic fishing that we experience in June on the Fork has shut down due to high irrigation demand and high summer temperatures in the valley, the river fishes consistently well all the way to the town of Ashton.  Just below the Island Park dam the remarkably consistent fishery of the Box Canyon is entering its prime season, which will extend through the middle of October.  The Railroad Ranch has good hatches throughout the month of July before shifting into more sparse and technical August fishing with fewer bugs and terrestrials.  Evening fishing is still high on the list of great ideas here at this time and will continue to be so until the end of the month or first weeks of August.  The canyon country below the Ranch and the water just outside of the caldera remains highly oxygenated and offers consistent fishing almost every day for beginner and intermediate level anglers.  Henry’s Lake begins to weed up and the hardware/trolling traffic begins to lighten up a bit, leaving most of the water to fly anglers.  This will continue into August and the fly opportunities continue to increase from now through the middle of October.  The Henry’s Fork provides on very large piece of a large puzzle of opportunity at this time of year.

In the portion of southwestern Montana that is immediately around West Yellowstone, the Madison River and Hebgen Lake dominate the list of options.  The Madison is now at its most active time of year and this represents the heart of the dry fly season on one of our nation’s finest dry fly fisheries.  Good hatches provide great action for anglers of all skill levels throughout July, and the classically wide-open landscape of this iconic Montana river lends itself to the production of a great many terrestrial insects during the month of August.  Water temperatures stay consistently cool throughout the heat of summer here, especially now that the Hebgen dam has been repaired, and dry fly fishing remains an excellent option through the end of August.  If the Madison is on your list of rivers to experience, these next two months are some of the best times to experience it.  Hebgen Lake is a robust Stillwater fishery, perhaps best known in the flyfishing world for its incredible hatches of tricos and callibaetis, as well the large trout that gobble the spinners from the surface of the water in easy rhythm, those we refer to as “gulpers”.  This is some of the most entertaining Stillwater fishing available to fly anglers, and it is located right in our backyard.  If you are a repeat visitor to Yellowstone country with a fly rod in hand, experiencing “gulper” fishing is something that should most definitely be on your list.  Hebgen also offers an incredible variety of subsurface fishing opportunities throughout the summer, similar to Henry’s Lake.

There are over 1,800 miles of squiggly blue lines in Yellowstone National Park and just over 220 lakes within its boundary.   Virtually all of this water holds trout of some sort: Rainbows, Browns, Brooks, Lakers and Cutthroats, both Yellowstone and West Slope.  There are also Grayling and Mountain Whitefish to be found.  Outside of the waters that directly receive geyser effluent (the Firehole River, portions of the Gibbon, and the Madison), most of this water is in prime shape and is now ready to be explored.  In the Northwest, the Gallatin and Gardner Rivers are in their prime and will remain so through the end of August.  In the Southwest, the more remote river systems beckon the backountry angler with some fine fishing, hot spring soaking, and waterfall exploring opportunities.  In the southeast, lies the headwaters of two of the United States’ great rivers, the Yellowstone and the Snake.  Much of this water hasn’t been fishable until just now due to regulations and runoff conditions. The Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, as well as Slough and Soda Butte Creek in the northeast are now in shape and begin to draw anglers from around the globe.  The open Serengeti-like terrain of this corner of the park provides not only exciting fishing but also some of Yellowstone National Park’s best wildlife watching.  Now is the time to begin fishing in earnest the bulk of the water in the crown jewel of our National Park system. 

Whether you are bound for Yellowstone country with plans to fish every day or have come to simply experience this part of the world and would like to fish for a day or two, the next two months offer some of the most consistent and diverse fishing to be found in this remarkable region surrounding West Yellowstone.  We are truly and fortunately, located at the epicenter of trout fishing in the American West. 

Tactics, Tackle, and Timing on the Railroad Ranch

Tactics, Tackle, and Timing on the Railroad Ranch

Simply put, it is one of the most iconic pieces of trout water on Earth.  The very mention of the storied Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork conjures images of expansive flats with large rainbow trout sipping away on the surface.  Anglers who frequent this water tend to abide by a largely unwritten code of conduct, and generally hunt those heads patiently, often waiting on the banks or walking and hunting until a rise is spotted.  A careful and well thought out approach greatly increases the chances of success on this very technical piece of water.  Tackle is well thought out as well, leaders are prepared with great care, and the most trusty of flies are often fastened to a well tended tippet while in wait.  This process is part of the joy of fishing The Ranch, and gives the angler plenty of time to admire the day’s tackle selection from his or her quiver of available arms.  Both failure and success here often result in a thoughtful recapture of the day’s activities and careful consideration to the why’s and how’s of the day’s events.

Though it is the trout that most immediately draw anglers to The Ranch, anglers quickly learn that by timing their efforts with certain hatches or even certain phases of hatches, they are able to increase their opportunities.  These hatches become part of the focus of Ranch anglers and exist throughout the summer and fall, usually starting with a bang when the drakes and heavy pmd hatches pop.  Next, Ranch insect activity eases into flavs, then to flying ants and other terrestrials, and finally to the mahogany duns and baetis of Autumn.  Caddis are present throughout the summer in a variety of species.  There are even micro-habitats scattered throughout the 7-mile-long reach that can present fantastic and fascinating hatch matching opportunities when other sections are blank. 

Everyone seems to have their favorite times of year here, and as a guide on the Ranch, I have my favorite times to take anglers.  As an angler myself, my favorite time to fish The Ranch is whenever I can go.  The magic of this piece of water is never lost on me and I consider it a privilege to spend a morning, afternoon, evening, or if I’m lucky, a full day walking its banks in search of a target to try and wrangle.  This is usually when I reach for that special rod I’ve been waiting to cast, the one I keep in my truck for just this moment.  There are, however, other times that I reach for my highest performing rod and this is determined by what it is that I expect to see. 

Rod selection is one of the first things I consider for a day on the Ranch.  Fly fishing advertisements often favor a moderate or slow-action rod for this sort of fishing.  A rod that exemplifies the feel of a smooth fly cast.  Sometimes that is reflected in my selection as well.  Other times, the elements/weather or the bugs that I expect to throw push me to select a faster action rod.  For example, when fishing a spinner fall, when I know that the water will be littered will millions of spent mayflies, and trout will be eating only 1 out of any possible 50 drifting over them at any point in time, I reach for my SAGE X 590-4 rod.  This trustworthy, high performance rod is capable of picking up long amounts of line, 40 plus feet, and makes it easy for me to convert a single back cast into a tight-looped forward cast that delivers the fly right back into the lane it came from.  It is this efficiency of many drifts in the same feeding lane that brings success to the spinner-fishing angler.  This is harder to accomplish using a softer action rod as the angler may have to make more strips of line in after each drift in order to execute a proper back cast, resulting in more false casts and ultimately into more shooting of line and less accuracy.  In this game of inches, I favor the stiffer SAGE X, and I appreciate the bit of touch the rod has in the softer tip (compared to some of SAGE’s other models), which helps get the cast started in just the right way.

When fishing larger flies, either the drakes in the early summer or terrestrials in the heat of summer, I know that fewer presentations will be required as the natural competition on the water will be less than during a thick emergence or spinner fall.  In these circumstances, I still favor a rod that I enjoy casting, but one with a softer action that places more emphasis on the pace of the casting stroke.  This same softer touch is more efficient at feeding line, a technique that goes hand in hand with larger flies on The Ranch.  The trout feeding on them are often moving targets in search of fewer but larger morsels.  Less rhythmic feeding is characteristic of these situations, so between presentations I’ll often be bringing my flies to hand to wait for the targeted trout to show himself again before I re-cast.  In these situations, I’ll reach for one of my classier rods – a rod that I appreciate for its performance as well as its artistry.   My Burkheimer 590-4 Classic, for instance.  Burkheimers not only are finished with an artists touch, they also are built with a sense of feel and smoothness not equaled in other rods out there.  They are capable of throwing a tight loop on short casts and perform very well up to 60 feet or so.  Though there are many that prefer a 4 weight for some of this fishing, I always prefer my 5 weight, for its versatility in windy conditions.

During terrestrial season, an angler is likely to encounter spinner falls in the morning, ants in the late morning, and maybe even sight fishing with nymphs, and targeting grasshopper-searching trout in the afternoon.  Often, the Ranch has plenty of aquatic vegetation (which most of us unceremoniously refer to as weeds) at this time of year.  In August, large weed banks reach the surface and isolate trout in little channels that funnel bugs and change the river’s currents.  In the afternoon, weeds will often cut loose and begin to drift down the river.  Having a rod that can maintain lots of pressure on a hooked fish without breaking a fine tippet is a must.  A Winston Pure in a 5 weight, nine foot is a great tool for the job.  I find that this rod excels at short range casting.  Many times the answer to getting a drift in these variable weed bed currents is to sneak up close to your target and make shots from 30 feet or less.  On windy afternoons, “Hoppertunities” arise and being able sling a large fly in the wind and stack out lots of slack into a long drift can make the difference between catching nothing or hooking the largest trout of your year.  Again, the deep bend in Winston’s Pure lineup does this well, and allows me to put maximum pressure on the line while minimizing the chance of breaking a fine tippet on a large, angry rainbow trout.   

If you and I were to discuss historical advancements in fly tackle over beers some evening in Last Chance, we could start with the transition from bamboo to fiberglass and on to graphite, or Red Ball Flyweight waders to Gore Tex.  But I would argue that the greatest advancements in the last decade have been made in the area of fly lines.  The new breed of fly lines by companies such as Scientific Anglers, RIO, Airflo, and Cortland are leagues ahead of where they were 10 years ago.  New finishes allow for easy shooting and feeding slack, as they move through the guides with less friction.  Complex tapers offer unprecedented control over energy transfer and leader turnover.  Modern lines are stiffer in the bodies of the heads in a wider range of temperatures and can be more supple in the tips, which both helps with casting in the wind and getting drifts in swirling currents.  They also have less stretch than older generation lines which increases contact with fish during the fight and for a quicker, more responsive hook set.  For fishing on the Ranch, I prefer the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth in an MPX taper for my SAGE X and Burkheimer, and a Scientific Anglers Trout taper for the Winston Pure.  The RIO Gold is a great all around line as well and I find it fishes well with all of the rods mentioned. 

In this game of stealth, hatch matching, and drag free presentations, a long, fine leader is a must.  Tippet you can believe in is critical as well.  There is no sense taking all this time to find a target and plan your approach if your tippet is going to break when you finally do hook your Ranch fish.  This is a trophy hunt, and every fish is special.  You’ll come across anglers that swear by 15+ foot leaders in 6 or 7X, and that seems to work for them.  Usually, however, I’ll select a Trouthunter 10’ 3X leader as a base and then modify it with fluorocarbon tippet in a length that favors accuracy versus overall length.  I like the Trouthunter mono leaders because they have a longer butt section than most, designed to turn over long leaders in windy situations.  I have yet to find a stronger tippet than the Trouthunter Fluorocarbon.  It is impressive stuff and is often stronger than the steel of the hook the fly is tied on.

Construction of my own Ranch leader goes as follows:  Starting with Trouthunter 10’ 3X leader, I cut about 15 inches off of the fly end.  I then attach a 15 to 20 inch long section of 4X Trouthunter Fluorocarbon to the end of the tapered leader using a double surgeon’s knot.  This knot is important when joining mono to flouro.  Lastly, I add a 2 foot long section of 5X Trouthunter Flurocarbon tippet to the end of the 4X, using a blood knot.  The result is a leader with a total length of about 12 feet.  If I need to step down further, I might trim the 5X section a little shorter and add another 2 feet of 5.5X or 6X for an overall length of 13 to 14 feet, that is typically my maximum leader length.  Having the 3X leader as my base also gives me the flexibility to trim back to a 4X tippet in a pinch and throw a bigger beetle or hopper at an opportunistic target along the way. 

The final component of Ranch tackle is the one that makes the magic happen, and probably the one that receives the most attention –  the flies.  On this subject, I could probably write an entire book, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet here.  One should always start by familiarizing themselves with the bugs they might expect to encounter during your visit.  A quick stop or phone call into Big Sky Anglers will give you a heads up to what’s happening out there.  Generally speaking, you’ll want to be prepared to match mayfly spinners in a variety of colors and sizes, and the Harrop Paraspinner is a good start.  JoJo’s Green Drake, conceived by BSA’s own Joe Moore, is, without fail, the first pattern I put over a trout feeding on these chunky green sailboats.  As a bonus, it’s design allows for significant on-stream modification (bring tiny scissors) to adjust the way the fly rides on the water, giving this pattern unprecedented value.  Emerger patterns are a must for any of the mayfly hatches you might encounter.  These can vary from hair wings like the Challenged Emerger PMD or CDC versions like the Last Chance Cripple PMD.  Comparaduns and Sparkle Duns in the appropriate color and size for the hatch are solid choices as well.  High-riding duns in thorax ties are great for mahoganies and PMDs.  Low profile and spent versions of both olive and tan caddis occupy permanent spots in my Ranch box and can be effective throughout the year.  Most Ranch anglers are also never without a few black ants, hoppers, and beetles, and definitely not without a Harrop’s CDC honey ant.    

I will conclude with a bit of philosophy.  Fly fishing is filled with opinion.  It has been my intent in this post to illustrate what has worked for me over the years, and offer some insight to the inquiring angler.  I hope this information helps the reader make a decision that leads them to success, whether it be on the Ranch or on another piece of water.  One of the joys of fly fishing in general, and certainly for the Ranch angler in particular, is the process of thoughtfully considering the scenarios you might encounter, preparing a selection of flies and your leader for the day’s fishing, and selecting tackle from your quiver that represents what you wish to use.  There is no right and wrong here, or it could be said that any choice is both right and wrong, as adapting to changing conditions is usually the name of the game.  I hope that every fly angler that comes across this article gets a chance to stand ankle deep in this most special of places and has an opportunity to tango with one of its residents.

The Lakes of Patagonia

The Lakes of Patagonia

Stillwater fishing with flies is, in some ways, the final frontier of fly fishing to the United States angler.  Our rivers get all the attention and most people’s romantic mental images of fly fishing are of standing waist-deep in a trout stream, making long casts to rising trout.  As such, many of our rivers are well known.  Lakes are something we have in great numbers here in the US, but they are regularly overlooked, and solitude isn’t so hard to come by.  Though I am still primarily a river angler, I have become more of a lake fishermen over the last 15 years.  I owe much of this to my experiences in Patagonia, where the incredibly dynamic and exciting angling situations in stillwaters are numerous, eye opening, and in many ways, transformative.

In my years of guiding trout fishermen on the waters of Patagonia, I have often heard from guests that they “aren’t really into lake fishing” when they arrive.  Nine times out of ten, though, anglers who are open minded enough to give it a go with me are converted by the end of the week after a few of the incredible experiences that I’m about to describe.  Many of them learn techniques and gain enough insight and confidence to take this new perspective home with them and apply these methods to their home area.  Their list of home waters usually grows significantly once they add their local stillwaters to their circuit!

In the Austral trout fishing zones, the lakes play an important role in the watersheds.  Many of the rivers that hold large fish do so because they are connected to lakes both upstream and downstream.  This allows for full range of movement of large trout, so they can choose the optimum environment depending on the food source and time of year.  It is only natural that one chases these trout into the stillwaters when the larger specimens have retreated into the lake habitats.

In the parts of Chile and Argentina where I have spent a bulk of my time, most of the lakes are crystal clear, and the fish highly predatory in nature.  Sight fishing situations abound, often comparing to angling scenarios one finds in a saltwater flats environment while fishing for bones, permit, snook, or tarpon.  These Patagonian trout cruise in search of dragonfly nymphs, scuds, midges, caddis and mayflies.  They can be found assaulting dragonfly and damselfly adults, snatching them out of the air, at times coming 3-4 feet out of the water to do so.  The first time you experience this, a memory will be etched on your mind that will last your lifetime.  On a calm day, they can be found sipping mayfly spinners or flying ants from the surface.  Generally, if you can spot them, and you can make a good cast, you can coerce them to take your fly.  If you are a hesitant stillwater angler, these situations can easily make a quick convert out of you as they bridge the gap between the sporty scenario of throwing dry flies to rising fish in a stream and the far less visual yet still challenging scenario of probing the depths with sinking lines in the search of willing participants.

Blind fishing methods are highly productive as well, of course.  Throwing streamers and leeches on sinking lines is generally effective, as is skating large dry flies on the surface with floating lines.  On some lakes, the scud populations are so large that the bigger trout will filter feed through clouds of scattering freshwater shrimp.  In these situations, a slow retrieve with a scud imitation on a floating line or under an indicator can produce tremendous results.  This type of lake produces trout with a body mass that can be astonishing.  Some of the lakes around Esquel and Rio Pico are good examples of this.  Perhaps the most well known lake of this sort is Lago Strobel (aka Jurassic Lake) in the arid steppe country of southern Argentina.

As for gear requirements, Patagonia Lake fishing is generally not very technical, but every part of the kit needs to be able to handle big fish, and big wind.  I use the same line that I use in the big rivers for streamers, much of the time and its versatility is outstanding for both kinds of fishing.  Hands-down, my preferred line for Patagonia sink tips is the Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 25 Cold in 200 grain.  The running line has zero memory and hardly ever tangles and the head is just long enough to carry a loop tight enough to fire into holes in the willows when river fishing.  If things get a bit more complicated and we need to slow down our subsurface presentations, I’ll use a slow sinking line like the SA Sonar Stillwater Hover line, primarily with dragonfly and damselfly nymphs over shallow weed beds.

For rods, I always favor versatility, and a faster action rod is what I recommend for casting in the wind and covering water.  I really like to use 6 weight, 9 foot rods for streamer and lake fishing down here.  In recent seasons, my two favorites have been the SAGE X  and Orvis H3F.

If you do decide to try your hand at the giants of Strobel, you will likely want to pack some more specific kit to account for the sheer power of the wind and the trout, and because the fishing is done from shore!  Justin has found the following kits to be very handy over the last two years at Jurassic:

  • Sage Igniter 10ft 7wt or G. Loomis Asquith 9ft 8wt, both paired with a Rio Grand 8wt floating fly line, and 8wt Rio intermediate streamer tip. The extra line weight really brings the Igniter to life!
  • Sage X Switch Rod 7wt 11ft 4 pc with Rio Outbound Short 9wt floating and Type 3 shooting heads for overhead casting.

As for flies, standard lake food sources abound, and baitfish are often important to imitate.  Many of the imitative as well as suggestive stillwater patterns and streamers that have become famous in the States and Canada are perfect.  On many lakes, patterns with a hint of burn or bright orange are absolutely deadly.  But regardless of pattern or color, one thing is absolutely critical – make sure flies are tied on stout hooks.  When you travel so far and hook the fish you came all this way for, you want the best irons available to give yourself the best chance of being able to email your buddies a photo like this…

Dispatches Volume 1:  Fly Fishing in Chile with Jonathan Heames

Dispatches Volume 1: Fly Fishing in Chile with Jonathan Heames

Welcome to the first edition of Dispatches, a new series which reports on the Big Sky Anglers crew as they travel the globe in search of angling adventures. Each edition of Dispatches will feature an interview with one of our angling pros while they are on assignment or travelling for fun. Our crew might be hosting anglers in a remote destination, guiding clients on our home waters, or exploring new fishing territory at home and abroad.

This edition features BSA co-owner and head guide Jonathan Heames who is reporting from a remote island in Chilean Patagonia. Jonathan has been fly fishing in Chile for nearly 20 years, and his perspective and knowledge are impressive. Give a listen to what Jonathan has been up to, and stay tuned for more reports from the BSA crew.

“Where are you right now? How did you get there? Where are you off to next?”

 

“What is your target species? Why did you pick this location and time for that species?”

 

“How are you targeting these fish?”

 

“What’s one thing that’s happened on your trip so far that you didn’t expect?”

 

“What are the conditions like?”

 

“What’s been your favorite piece of gear on this trip so far, and why?”

 

“What’s the best thing you’ve had to eat?”

 

“Have you learned any new words or phrases?”

 

“What’s your playlist been on this trip…what tunes are you listening to?”