In many ways the hopes and dreams of fly fishers rest on the existence of bugs. Sure, you can venture out onto your favorite piece of water on any given day and catch some fish, many times lots of fish, when there is seemingly no bug activity. But, those aren’t the days that get etched into your memory. Those aren’t necessarily the days that inspire you to make life decisions. Like, say, picking a college that is surrounded by the most prolific dry fly fishing on the East Coast, or, perhaps picking a wedding date in late September which, conveniently, doesn’t overlap with any major trout stream hatches…hypothetically speaking, of course.
Streamer fishing has its virtues; “the tug is the drug”. And, nymph fishing most certainly produces more than it’s fair share of memorable days and 3-dimensional challenges. But, nothing in our sport tops the visceral experience that is watching a body of water come to life with an exuberance of bug activity, and the ensuing trout feeding frenzy. In my opinion, nothing illustrates that better than a Callibaetis spinner fall on western stillwaters.
Callibaetis mayflies have a massive distribution across most of North America. It is the western subspecies (Callibaetis ferrugineus hageni), though, that produces inspirational fishing on countless lakes, and several notable rivers, in the Rocky Mountain West.
Callibaetis mayflies live in stillwater environments. They thrive in water that has rich weed growth. And, while the emergences are often inconspicuous, the spinner falls are the stuff of legends.
Callibaetis mayflies, along with their diminutive brethren Tricos and Midges, are responsible for the legendary “Gulper” fishing that happens on Hebgen Lake each summer from late-July to mid-September. The shallow, weedy arms of Hebgen Lake are such ideal habitat for Callibaetis mayflies that they produce an awe inspiring amount of insects. Dense spinner falls occur here, and trout rise to the spent adults with such rhythm and regularity that you can hear the fish rising with an audible gulp that resonates across the glass flat waters.
Warm, calm mornings are ideal conditions for these size #14-16 speckle winged mayflies to form mating flights. It is impossible to miss them when they are around as seemingly billions of adults will dance above the water in a rhythmic undulation. When it is good, and it often is in Big Sky Country, spinners will blanket the water, and everything on the water, including fishermen.
Callibaetis spinners are unmistakable due to the unique speckled blotches present on only the leading edge of their fore wings, and their two long, widely separated tails. Their bodies range in color from brownish-olive to tan to light grey with a majority of spinners displaying a lighter tanish-grey coloration on the bottom of their abdomen and a darker, blotchy charcoal color on the top.
Here are Three Geeky Bug Facts about Callibaetis that will help you catch more fish.
1. Callibaetis are Multi-brooded
When we think about the life cycle and seasonality of mayfly hatches, we generally reference a particular bug with its spot in the seasonal lineup of hatches. Certain bugs, like March Browns, hatch in the early season, and they are followed by summertime hatches of PMDs, and autumn hatches of Mahogany Duns, etc. These hatches occur at roughly the same time every year with the progeny of those hatches growing and developing in the river until the following season when it is their turn to complete the cycle.
There are certain bugs, however, that breed multiple times during the course of the fishing season. Like their cousins the Baetis (Blue Winged Olives), Callibaetis will begin hatching early in the season (June in Big Sky Country), and those early bugs produce the ones that we fish later in the season. Also, like their Baetidae cousins, the size of individuals decreases with each brood of the season. Spring hatches of Callibaetis can have duns as large as size #12, whereas September emergences will produce size #16.
Early hatches of Callibaetis are often available in fishable numbers far earlier than when we begin paying attention to them. Unfortunately, the unsettled early season conditions of June in the Rockies don’t often produce dense mating flights of spinners, or the glass flat lake surfaces required for dry fly fishing.
Most years, those early season emergences go largely unnoticed, and it is their offspring that draw our attention later in the summer when weather conditions are more conducive. The warm, calm mornings of mid-summer in Big Sky Country provide both the perfect environment for massive flights of spinners and the glass flat waters needed to bring hordes of trout to the surface.
While average June conditions are generally not optimal for Callibaetis spinner falls, it’s important to remember that the bugs are still active. Duns will continue to emerge, sometimes trickling off one at a time, randomly throughout the day. On the rare day in June, when conditions are cloudy and calm, emergences can be concentrated, and provide outstanding dry fly fishing with duns. The occasional warm, calm morning in June can also generate a fantastic dry fly session with Callibaetis spinners. More often than not, these early season spinner falls are sparse, providing just enough food on the surface to get fish hunting on top, but not so much that your fly is competing with hundreds of naturals for the attention of gulping trout.
2. Callibaetis Nymphs are Strong Swimmers and Fast Emergers
Callibaetis nymphs are a perfectly evolved product of their weedy, stillwater environment. Their bodies are slim in profile with feathery gills, and pronounced variegation on their tails. Coloration ranges from light olive to tan, or gray.
Callibaetis nymphs are agile swimmers, dashing from one weed tendril to the next with short, powerful bursts of speed. Frequently, nymphs will pause for a brief second between sprints, hanging motionless in the water column with their abdomen hanging down. This choreography is important to imitate when fishing Callibaetis nymph imitations. Short, swift strips of 4-6” with a definite pause between movements is the best retrieve as fish will commonly pounce on the fly at the pause.
Just as they move through the water with speed and momentum, Callibaetis nymphs emerge into duns quickly at the water’s surface. It’s common for the nymphs to make several trips back and forth to the surface in preparation to emerge, but once they commit to the meniscus and break through the surface tension, they make quick work of the act. During these “practice runs” the nymphs are prepared to make their quick escape at the surface with fully formed wings bulging beneath their dark brown thoracic carapace (wing pad).
For more great info about Callibaetis nymphs check out this great Callibaetis Nymph Article from our Blog archive written by our very own fanatic of all things stillwater, Matt Klara.
3. Callibaetis aren’t just found in Lakes
Callibaetis mayflies may be the most infamous stillwater hatch, and Big Sky Country is home to some of the most legendary spinner falls of these speckle winged mayflies.
Hebgen Lake, outside of West Yellowstone, MT, is ground zero for the notorious activity known as Gulper Fishing. Named for the nail biting sound that echoes across the glass flat waters of Hebgen’s weed-laden arms and bays as large trout gulp Callibaetis spinners from the surface, Gulper Fishing is an annual pursuit that rivals the most celebrated spectacles in Fly Fishing.
As epic and addictive as Gulper Fishing is, it’s not the only Callibaetis game in Big Sky Country. The same slow water environments that harbor fantastic populations of Callibaetis on lakes also exists on several of our most legendary rivers. The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, the Yellowstone River in YNP, and the Missouri River all boast substantial populations of these speckle winged mayflies.
When Callibaetis are found in riverine environments, they aren’t present in the same abundance as stillwaters. Emergences and subsequent spinner falls are generally sparse in comparison to the activity seen on legendary waters like Hebgen or Yellowstone Lakes. What Callibaetis lack in numbers on rivers they more than make up for in the influence they have on feeding fish. When Callibaetis are present on rivers like the Henry’s Fork and Missouri, they are usually the largest bug around at that time, and trout go way out of their way to feed on them.
Now Get Out There and Find Some Callibaetis Mayflies
If you haven’t experienced the thrill and suspense of fishing to cruising gulpers on a warm calm morning in Big Sky Country, do yourself a favor and explore one of the many still waters in our region during Callibaetis time. Remember, Callibaetis will be active as early as June when conditions permit. The bugs will be larger (size #14) in the early season, and later broods will be smaller (size #16). If you fish the nymph imitation, do so with short, brisk strips of 4-6”, and be sure to pause between strips. And, don’t forget to have some Callibaetis dun and spinner imitations when fishing the Henry’s Fork, Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers (in YNP).
It’s now December here in MT. Well, everywhere really. But here, that means we’ve gone way past the tipping point between Autumn and winter conditions. Big game hunting season has ended, and the stillwaters are freezing over. We have many rivers that are open to year round fishing, though. So, that is what I’m starting to think about these days.
The real tricks to successful and enjoyable winter fishing for me can be easily summarized into three bullet points:
- Pick good times to go winter fishing.
- Find where the trout are and fish there.
- Slow down the presentation.
To me, picking good days means going out when the weather is less wintery. Warmer, sunnier, less windy. Simple. Not only am I happier when I’m not freezing my butt and fingers off, but the fish are typically more active when conditions allow for even a slight increase in water temps. I used to drift nymphs between the spaces in the drifting slush and ice, but now if you catch me doing that it’s probably because the weather report was really wrong.
Slowing down the presentation is another simple one. Nymphing, dead drift, right near the bottom rules the day. With streamers, the quick strips and run and gun of summer must be altered to accommodate to colder, less aggressive fish. A deep, slow strip, smooth steady swing with subtle additions of action, or even a dead drift usually wins in winter. Dries are certainly not the norm, and quickly searching with dries for eager fish isn’t a winter tactic. If you see fish rising, by all means, go dry, but otherwise, stick subsurface.
So that just leaves finding where the trout are. You’ve got your warm gear on. It’s a nice winter day. You have made it out to your favorite river. Your rod is rigged with some nice nymphs (or maybe you have a streamer rod and a nymph rod along). The first thing that many anglers do in this situation is float or walk to their favorite spring-summer-fall honey-hole, and start casting. The next thing that many anglers do in this situation is wonder why they aren’t catching any fish. In my experience, the issue isn’t the presentation as much as the fact that the fish just aren’t there. Fish hang out in different places in the winter. They hang out in the “Winter Water”.
What the heck does that mean? Well, each river is a little different in my experience, but, I’ve found that there are some similarities that stretch across the board. Because most anglers are familiar with where to find fish in summer, AKA “Summer Water”, I’ll refer to that as a point of comparison.
First, note that winter is colder than summer. Yeah. I know you are thinking, “Thanks, Master of the Obvious.” OK fine. But what does that mean? The air is colder. The water is colder. Sun arrives at a lower angle, for a shorter time each day. Cold water hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water. Also, remember that fish are cold blooded, and their energy and metabolic rate is directly tied to water temperature. Fish are more sluggish in very cold water, and they need to eat less food to maintain themselves. Water temps also relate to insect activity. Bug hatches are few and far between. Food sources may not only be reduced, but they may also change completely from summer.
So, if the fish are colder, more sluggish, need less food, and the food producing areas may have shifted from where they are in summer, it’s no surprise that the fish will be hanging out in different places than they do in summer. But where?
The quick riffles, pockets, and shallows that are highly oxygenated bug factories all summer long may still be producing some bugs, but not nearly as many. The cold water has the fish sluggish, and not interested in fighting that faster current, given the reduced food availability and metabolic need. Also, dissolved oxygen is likely not an issue in winter, so the fish can breathe easy about anywhere in the system. Lastly, at least when still or very slowly moving, the warmest water will actually be on the bottom in the dead of winter, thanks to water/ice’s unique density vs. temperature relationship. So, from the fish’s perspective, it’s easier and better to stay in water that is DEEPER and SLOWER than preferred in summer. On some rivers that means 5-10 ft deep or more, and dang near still water. On other rivers, the available winter water might only be 3 ft deep and moving at a walking speed pace. As a general tip, I’d say start with the slowest, darkest, deepest spots that you can find that are still fishable and then adjust accordingly until you find fish.
Does that mean riffles and other quicker water are pointless to fish in winter? No. Not all of them at least. I think that there are fish that will happily move into quicker water to feed in response to some sort of environmental conditions, sun warmed water, or a pulse of insect activity like a midge hatch. But, they probably won’t move a mile just for an hour of feeding. So, in my own mind, it seems like quicker water that is immediately adjacent to really good winter water is far better than quicker water which is surrounded by only more quick water.
The more you really get to thinking about water temperature, the more you may start exploring your own fisheries in a new way. Are there springs that run cold in summer but relatively warm in winter? Is there a dam that releases water from the bottom/middle/top? Are there other natural or human caused factors at play? It’s worth some thought and research at the very least.
Lastly, don’t be disheartened if you don’t catch a fish from a really likely looking spot, or a spot that you know is a good winter spot based on prior experience. The fish don’t need to eat as much to maintain themselves in the cold, so winter feeding windows can be dreadfully short. Today’s feeding window might be 2 hours from now. Or maybe you missed it. Or maybe there isn’t one today. It pays to fish as many good spots, slowly and thoroughly, that you can in an outing in hopes that your location, presentation, and the fish activity overlap at least a little bit. How do you ever really figure out if a spot is good in the winter? Fish it a bunch of times, along with the other likely looking spots, and over time, the pattern will emerge. The knowledge is there for those who put in the time.
Take care, fish on, and stay warm,
The stats are true: there are lots of fish in the Missouri River. I don’t pay huge attention to MT FWP’s numbers, because honestly, we are gonna fish anyway. A high percentage of these trout are spawning in the river, and it seems to me that over the past few years, there are more and more redds in the river. Why? Hmmmm……probably because there are so damn many rainbows. Fish have always spawned in the river, but from my memory and from conversations had back in the 90’s, a majority of the rainbows spawned in the Prickly Pear and the Dearborn. While trout still use the tribs, they are definitely using the Missouri. This also just might have something to do with all that high water a few years in a row, which cleaned up the river’s gravel and flushed the silt.
The Missouri is busier, earlier in the season, each year. It seems as if everyone has cabin fever and they are on the Mo’. Or, they all read fishing blogs and the word is getting out. A dozen years ago, we were fishing skwalas in the canyon and those who knew, never talked about it. I’m guilty of writing about the Missouri, so are others. Is this a bad thing? I don’t believe so, as long as folks are respectful to each other and the fish, things will move along with ease. July might be another story. My guess, is that the Missouri will become the most fished river in the state as the season is stretching out to almost year around. Will this pressure change the fishery in the long run? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
While nymphing was king, we did manage to find a few trout willing to rise and eat a dry fly. The wind was prevalent for most of the week and at one point it was down right Western out there. BWOs and March Browns were hatching, the latter in smaller numbers. Without too much difficulty, one could catch fish on dries. We witnessed a blanket BWO hatch from bridge to bridge and hardly a fish rose. Their brains, while small, are still thinking about procreation. Would you rise up to eat a BWO dun or eat protein rich eggs that are drifting by your nose?
This is gonna be another banner year on the big river below Holter Dam. We will be guiding the Missouri all season long and if you’d like a change of pace from the Madison, Henry’s Fork or YNP waters, give us a shout.
…………a great river and nasty weather which provides solid angling in late October. Thirty five some odd miles of trout stream with spectacular scenery and minimal pressure. Gritty folks who enjoy the elements of snow and wind – cold temps, which push most folks inside to watch sports from the couch or bar stool.
The past five days on the Missouri River were such a joy. The fellas who come out and fish with Greg, Mike, Pete and myself in late October are a class act. They know we’ll get on the river soon enough each morning and realize that the fishing holds second chair to the experience in and of itself. Time on the water is what they want….five days will provide enough time to decompress from the real world, yet leave you wanting more.
This year, on their forth trip to the Missouri River, several of the clients wanted to up their game and make the jump from chasing bobbers from ramp to ramp, to stripping streamers and dry fly fishing. Here lies the root of why I guide – teaching the game, in it’s entirety – as the angler progresses in their ability. Those wanting to enhance their experience will fore go the bobber rig when the opportunity presents itself and learn something different. Evolving your skill set with a fly rod opens up doors to a better understanding of why we all go fishing.
The weather in the photo above is on it’s way out. As I sit here in West Yellowstone, the clouds are hanging low with moisture not too far away. In a hour, my rig is heading north, back to the Missouri for a few days of guiding and with any luck a little fishing of my own. Mother Nature is giving us what we need – a break from the warm sunshine and 65 degree temps. Don’t get me wrong, this is gorgeous weather for October, but most fishers want the clouds, some wet stuff and yes – dry fly angling.
A phone call the day before from my clients yielded just one question: “Are they eating mayflies and streamers on the Missouri?”.
Yup. They are.
Jonathan Heames has been living on the Missouri for the past three weeks, giving me updates on an almost daily basis. He has yet to tie on a bobber and beadheads, fishing streamers and dry flies the entire time. We hooked up last week for a string of guide trips together and I will see him again this evening.
We have been fishing Freestone Fly Rods in all types of situations. Recently, I ordered two nine and half foot 7 weights for the clients arriving later in the weekend. Let me tell you this – these are the finest fly rods ever made. No bullshit. Yea, they are expensive, but you will never buy another rod – ever. Bernard at Freestone is building just one model for the graphite series of rods and this will not change. That’s right, this rod will not be discontinued for next year’s “new line of rods”. Available in 4 weight through 8 weight and custom built for 9 weights. Never heard of Freestone? Check em out.