Fishing the iconic Salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) hatch on the Fifty-Mile Riffle is an epic experience to say the least. Snow-capped mountains and lush green hillsides frame a robust river flush with the bounty of early season snowmelt. Tremendous browns and rainbows rise eagerly to engulf massive insects from the surface. It’s the stuff of legends.
Though, like many phenomenons, they are all too often elusive. One day you’re a bit too far upstream of the hatch, the next day you’re too far behind it. Sometimes you’re right smack in the middle of the hatch, but the fish have seen too many bugs and reject your fly as if to say “sorry Sucker, better luck next time”.
Every so often, when the stars align, you get to watch in amazement as big trout erupt on your dry fly, and tear upstream in a violent and powerful run. On days like these you can do no wrong, it’s as if every trophy trout in the river has been waiting all year just to eat your fly. Though, sadly, that’s not the norm. The reason those epic days are so special is because they so rarely happen.
I’ve spent many days watching perfect drifts go unrewarded during the Madison’s salmonfly hatch with perfectly presented stonefly imitations. Over the years I’ve been forced to look past the obvious attraction of the Hollywood Hatch, and look deeper for other ways to feed these crafty trout. More times than not, the answer has been with Arctopsyche grandis.
Arctopsyche grandis is a large (size #8-10) chocolate-colored caddis that is conveniently at its peak of activity on the Madison River when salmonflies are hatching.
A. grandis are predominantly nocturnal, but at their peak abundance, the sheer volume of insects provides an ample supply of unlucky individuals who fall or get blown from stream side vegetation into the drift. Just like Salmonflies, Arctopsyche adults can be seen fluttering haphazardly across the surface, especially close to the banks, on windy afternoons.
Conveniently, many of the Madison’s best brown trout occupy those prime lies along the bank, hunting opportunistically for any and all insects that come their way, not just the immense stoneflies.
I generally prefer to present a single dry fly to these sneaky bank feeders. I like a 10-12 foot leader (depending on wind), with a long 2-3 foot tippet section of soft monofilament. When casting from the drift boat, I find a downstream presentation with a reach cast to be the most effective. When wading, I like to approach from below my target, fishing upstream with an elevated pile cast and a slight reach to the bank side.
Dry fly patterns like a size #10 Royal Stimulator, #10 Micro-Chubby, or #10 PMX are all great searching patterns when Arctopsyche are active. All of these flies are also great imitations for the multitude of smaller stoneflies which are present at these times.
When dry fly fishing isn’t producing, often in the week or so leading up to the hatch, larval imitations of A. grandis can be seriously effective. These large larvae are found in size #8-10 on the Madison with a bright olive body and a dark brown head. Nymph patterns like the BSA Beadhead Caddis Pupa, and a Tungsten King Prince are a great choice.
Don’t get me wrong, on days when the infamous fish on the Madison are crushing Salmonfly dries I will cast them until my arm falls off. But when they’re not, you will most likely find me fishing an Arctopsyche imitation….with a bent rod.
So, keep an eye out for these large, chocolate-colored caddis the next time you’re fishing the Madison during stonefly activity, and keep their imitations on deck if you’re watching too many of your own perfect drifts with a Salmonfly go unrewarded.
Hello there from West Yellowstone – the Trout Capital of the World!
Snow fell last weekend and winter returned for a few days leaving a blanket of white gold in the high country to melt at some point down the road. At times it was dumping sideways with half-dollar sized flakes sticking to everything and then melting almost right away. The grassy hill sides are electric with shades of green and yellow as arrowleaf balsamroot pop along the Madison River near 7 Mile Bridge. June is rolling right along on with bugs hatching and trout rising in all of the usual locales. Descending the Ashton Hill, the Tetons emerged and after a storm like this life almost seems to stand still, at least for a few moments to allow us to take it all in. It’s a heck of a sight to see, that’s for sure.
The fly shop is OPEN daily from 8am to 8pm. The days are longer and there are more and more visitors around as fishing season gears up in full swing. Yellowstone National Park has been a joy to drive through. While the roads are not empty, it has a late 90’s feel to it inside the West Gate. Bookings for this season came on strong and we are currently running guides on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, the West Side of YNP, the Madison in Montana and on the Missouri River in Craig, Montana. We have set up the shop to be a clean and healthy environment for both our customers and staff members. There is a sanitation station at the door complete with hand sanitizer, nitrile gloves and masks if you choose to wear one; the staff will continue wearing masks for the unforeseen future. Our fishing report is written on the whiteboard right outside the door for your enjoyment, but as always, the freshest report is inside the doors of the fly shop. Stop on by, say hello and we’ll get you taken care of.
Take care and read on,
Henry’s Fork of the Snake – by Jonathan Heames
This is an exciting time of year on the Henry’s Fork, some of the best fishing of the year is now happening and will continue through the middle of July. From the upper river, high in the Island Park caldera, to the river’s confluence with the South Fork of the Snake, some 70 miles of river, the Henry’s Fork has a tremendous diversity of fishing experiences and exciting angling can now be found throughout the system.
Strong hatches of mayflies are happening in both the upper and lower river, PMDs (pale morning duns) are the building block of the system and a hatch is a daily occurrence. Spinner falls in the mornings and evenings and emergences throughout the day will begin to consistently define trout movement throughout the month. These PMDs will last through the entire parade of hatches that is to come over the next 5-6 weeks and will provide a baseline opportunity in the absence of some of the glory hatches in the day to day.
Be on the lookout for this parade to get started this week with green drakes, flavs, golden stones, olive stones, yellow sallies, caddis, brown drakes and grey drakes all on the docket in the coming weeks. This is a good time for the Henry’s Fork angler to prepare and round out his or her fly box with all of the above in all phases of imitations: nymphs, emergers, duns, and spinners. I wouldn’t go anywhere on the Fork right now without at least the following in my fly box:-Jojo’s Green Drake-Variant Cripple Green Drake-#14 PMD Sparkle Dun-#14 Rusty Spinner-Henry’s Fork Golden Stone-#6-10 Rubberleg stonefly nymphs-#14-16 Pheasant tails and perdigon style nymphs-#14-16 tan and olive caddis-#12 Flav imitations
This is also a good time for the angler to revisit some basic bug knowledge so they can better understand the movements and tendencies of some of these major hatches. Revisiting some of our blog posts from last year is a great way to do this and keep the knowledge fresh. Here’s a good one to start with, Hatch Profile – Green Drakes. You can explore our Blog for more Hatch Profiles, and up your entomology game. Also, be sure to stay tuned to this report every week for more great hatch info.
With exciting fishing throughout the system, we are also just around the corner from the much anticipated opener of the Railroad Ranch section, or the Henry’s Fork in Harriman State Park. This is some of the most famous fly water in the United States and is one of the sports’ most iconic venues. Some of the opening day activities that usually surround this event have been cancelled or postponed due to Covid, but this section of river is scheduled to open as usual on June 15th. Due to the relatively lower water conditions these past weeks in the upper river, anglers can hope for the presence of green drakes as well as strong pmd and caddis hatches. Water levels should remain relatively consistent through opening week and we are optimistic about the fishing these next two weeks. Taking your fly rod for a walk through the Railroad Ranch while looking for a target is one of fly fishing’s great experiences, this will be a good year to consider it.
Usually our guides are booked at least a year in advance during the upcoming time frame due to the great fishing that is here for the next month. This year’s Covid situation has resulted in enough cancellations and re-bookings that we still have some limited availability. For those of you that have wanted to experience what the coming weeks have to offer but haven’t been able to find a guide in the past, this is a good year to call the shop and book a last minute trip.
Madison River – by Joe Moore
As of Tuesday morning, the flows out of Hebgen Lake started to decrease and will continue for roughly another week – the big flush is over. Hebgen is just shy of two feet from full pond and is normally full by the end of June. Cabin and Beaver creeks cleared up a bit with the cold overnight temps that brought on frosty mornings here in West Yellowstone. The creeks will blow out again, that’s for sure. As the flows drop out of Hebgen Lake over the next seven days, expect the fish to move around as well. With the recent cold and snowy weather and the drop in flows, one should expect the Wade Stretch, it’s green, to fish pretty well this week. Even as flows drop, the Madison below the West Fork is humming right along and floating under the bridges (Sun West..aka Shelton’s Bridge and Wolf Creek Bridge) is still questionable. The river below Lyons is blown out with mud and gets a little worse the closer you get to Ennis. Floating the Madison right now requires skill on the oars and for most folks out there, it’s best to stay on foot for now. Fishing subsurface with big stone flies, dead drifted black bouface streamers, biot stones, San Juan Worms, Prince Nymphs, olive Arizona Hare’s Ear and of course a smattering of different perdigon nymph patterns is the best route. Bring your rain jacket but expect some sunshine in the forecast.
Salmonflies? Hmmm….hard to say. Give us another week to watch flows and river temps and then we’ll attempt at guessing when the hatch will start in Ennis.
Missouri River – by Joe Moore
PMDs emerged over the last week and right along with it the flows ramped up to 8000 cfs out of Holter Dam. While the river a bit high for trout to rise, there are trout rising in some sneaky spots. The nymph bite has been quite good up there and it looks like flows are dropping. Now is a great time to fish the Missouri River, that’s for sure. Greg Falls will be on the river nearly everyday for the next few months and we’ll receive reports from him each week. Flows in the tributaries have dropped to historic levels and barring any huge rain storms on The Front, the Dearborn should continue on a downward trend. Wire Worms, split back PMDs, Green Machine, Tom’s nymph are working with the emergence of PMDs. Dead drifting a Thin Mint or Zirdle is a great way to start out the mornings right now and if the clouds stick around, the trout might key on the larger meal. Summer on the Mo’ can be a great time to find hungry brown trout in shallow fast water looking for a big meal. Adjust the indicator according and hang on. There have been some big brown caught over the past week, Greg keeps sending us pics from the Canyon Reach of big brown trout and happy anglers.
Firehole River – by Steve Hoovler
After a late start, some less than perfect water conditions, and predator prey relationships working themselves out in realtime on the river, the Firehole has kicked into gear, and we’re seeing some classic spring fishing. Cold, scuzzy weather came back to Big Sky Country this week. Passing snow showers, temps in the 40’s, and dark skies are…perfect conditions for the Firehole in June, or any time for that matter. Good hatches of PMD and Baetis Mayflies brought fish to the surface this week. Though, the strongest hatches were late in the afternoon due to the cold conditions. For those anglers that chose their fishing time wisely, or for those who endured long enough, the river produced some excellent dry fly fishing. As conditions change in the coming days, and we see a return of the sun and warmer temps, expect to see sparse hatches of PMD’s earlier in the afternoon, and look for both spinner falls and caddis activity in the mornings and evenings. Bright days are always good for swinging soft hackles on this iconic wet fly fishery too. So, be sure to have a few of your favorite Partridge and Yellow patterns handy when the rising fish are hard to find.
Hebgen Lake – by Steve Hoovler
Conditions were nothing short of brutal on Hebgen this week as Mother Nature reminded us once again what “springtime” is really like in the Rockies. Now that we have some warmer days ahead, Hebgen will once again be a great bet for solid early season stillwater action. Take advantage of any calm mornings and evenings by searching the shallow bays along the North Shore for rising fish. Good numbers of midges are still active, and the first hatches of Callibaetis are just beginning. When fish aren’t rising, try playing the Chironomid game in any of the bays around the lake. Remember, it’s early season and the weed growth has barely started. So, spend some time experimenting with your depth, and don’t hesitate going deep while you can. As always, another great subsurface option is stripping leech patterns. As with the Chironomid tactics, be sure to experiment with your depths, and speed of retrieve. Hebgen’s trophy Browns and Rainbows are actively bulking up after a long winter under the ice, and streamers like leeches can produce some vicious takes these days.
River Flows and the Weather Forecast
Below are links to the flows in Montana and Idaho as well as. This time of the year flows and the weather are changing daily, if not by the hour. Click the links below for the most up to date information.
Montana River Flows
Idaho River Flows
West Yellowstone Weather Forecast
On a whim, we decided it was the perfect day to float the river. The name of the game was salmonflies, and our plan was to toss big dry flies in an attempt to entice a quality trout to feast. Aussie Mickey, Belen, and I rotated between working the oars and casting the big bug close to the banks. Hummingbird-sized naturals buzzed around us as we drifted downstream. It was not only the perfect day to be a fly fisher, but it also felt like it was the perfect day to be alive. Birds were chirping, the sun was out, and we had the usual Montana breeze to keep us comfortable. When I set out that morning I had one goal in mind: catch a quality fish on a big salmon fly dry pattern. “Just one”, I told the guys, “just one big eat from a quality fish.”
Early on, our day was mostly about fighting through the wind with our casts and with the driftboat, untangling our flies from the bushes when we tossed them too close to the bank, and listening to Mickey raise his voice in frustration each time he missed a fish. Wave-trains came and went, and we fished on. Every time we passed an overhanging bush someone would say, “There has to be a fish there.” We knew it was only a matter of time until that statement would ring true.
Over the years I have discovered that there is a vast diversity among fly fishers, and their angling goals. Some anglers are out to catch as many fish as possible, some want to catch only big fish, and others are in it just for the sake of being outside. And, some anglers have more elaborate goals such as catching a specific species of fish, maybe on a specific body of water, or on a specific fly. Goals vary and change regularly, and it is not uncommon to change them multiple times within a trip.
The more I am out on the water the more I find myself in pursuit of new (to me) goals. If my varied pursuits have taught me anything it’s that fly fishing is not always about catching high numbers of fish. Don’t get me wrong, I love days where it seems like I can’t keep the fish off of my flies even if I tried. But, fishing for numbers isn’t the only thing that makes this sport worthwhile. On this specific day, for example, I was pursuing one specific “eat” with one specific fly.
Mickey was on the oars, Belen was up front, and I was pulling duty as the “tailgunner.” We were coming upon one of those infamous fly-hungry, overhanging bushes. Mickey slid the boat into position as we approached our target. “Get it in there! Get it in there”, Mickey repeated. Belen took the first shot and barely missed what we all thought was the feeding lane. It was my turn to take a swing. We were halfway past the shadow being cast by the bush. This was my window. I plopped my false Pteronarcys down on target and it floated into the shadows right off the bank. All of a sudden there was a wake and a fish’s body halfway out of the water coming at my fly. It hit the dry like a freight train and before I even had time to think I was locked in with a fat female brown trout. We all jumped and hollered with excitement as I fought the bulldogging fish.
With that “one quality fish” on the big bug in my hands I found myself overwhelmed with satisfaction. We conducted a quick photo shoot as I held her in the water to regain strength after our brief encounter. I admired the sheer beauty of this fish. Her buttery-brown skin glistened in the sunlight and her belly spilled over my fingers, filled with salmonflies. She swam away as quickly as she ate my fly leaving me with wet hands and an incredible memory. After multiple high-fives and a few moments of reliving the event we pressed on downstream. We rose a few other fish that day, but nothing compared to the strike of that brown beauty.
No other feeling in the world compares to the feeling of accomplishment. That feeling of being on top of the world and nothing on Heaven or Earth can tear you down. To me, that feeling is one of the main reasons why fly fishing is such an addictive sport. As anglers we find ourselves in relentless pursuit of fish, and often times that pursuit is riddled with failures and near successes. It’s these trials that make the successful days that much more satisfying, because we know how much work it took to find ourselves in those moments of triumph. On this particular summer day I found myself basking in triumph. From the moment we launched the boat that morning I knew what I wanted that day to be all about. That day was all about the eat.
The venerable king of all hatches in Yellowstone Country, the Salmonfly Hatch lives in infamy among fly anglers world wide. Nothing generates more excitement, for both fish and fishermen alike than salmonflies, and with good reason. The chance to see a wild trout rise to the surface and inhale a three inch long insect (or better yet, your three inch long fly) is the stuff that fly fishing dreams are made of. Salmonflies are not unique to Yellowstone Country. Pteronarcys californica (Tare-uh-nar’-sis cal-uh-for’-nuh-kuh) is found throughout the American West, and its diminutive cousins are found across North America. What sets Yellowstone Country apart from other areas is how long the bugs are active during our season. From Mid-May through the end of July you can find salmonflies somewhere within striking distance of the Big Sky Anglers World Headquarters in West Yellowstone, Montana. Timing this hatch from year to year on a particular river can often be an exercise in futility. On dry years it’s early. On wet year’s it’s late. When the weather is hot, the hatch moves quickly upstream. When the weather is cold and wet, the hatch stalls out. Generally speaking, we see the first big bugs of the year in mid to late May on some of the area’s warmer waters like the Henry’s Fork and Firehole. As the activity is winding down on those rivers, we start to look to the Madison. Finally, we turn our attention to the high country, and rivers like the Yellowstone and Gallatin which are usually the last to warm up and clear from run off. Everything about this hatch is big. The bugs themselves are massive. Mature salmonfly nymphs have two stout tails, a dark chocolate brown coloration, and can reach a length of nearly three inches. Fly imitations are a whopping size 4-6. It takes 3–4 years, a virtual eternity in bug years, for the nymphs to reach their impressive size. This means that there are always multiple year classes, and multiple size classes of nymphs in the river at any given time. The volume of insects can be staggering. Nymphs migrate to the stream bank of select areas in preparation to emerge, and it’s not uncommon to find handfuls of them under a single rock along the bank. To emerge, mature nymphs will crawl out of the water (usually at night) onto riparian rocks and vegetation to molt into winged adults. When conditions are right (warm, sunny, windy), clouds of adults swarm upstream in tremendous mating flights. Salmonflies love big water. These studly bugs require a ton of oxygen, and they’re well-equipped with large, strong appendages to hang in rough, turbulent water. Luckily, from the Madison’s fifty-mile riffle to canyon sections on the Henry’s Fork, Yellowstone, Firehole, Gallatin and many more, we have no shortage of this type of water in Yellowstone Country. Big fish love these big bugs. On several Yellowstone Country rivers this is one of the very few times of the season that you can find the largest fish of the system feeding aggressively. Big bugs and big fish can also draw some of the biggest crowds of the season. Boat ramps and fishing access sites fill to capacity as guides and anglers hope to catch the hatch just right. As the hatch moves upstream through a system there’s an imaginary line of “good fishing” that moves with it. Ahead of the line, the fish aren’t looking for the adults yet, but are keying on the nymphs. Behind the line, every fish is gorged on adults like a family sitting on the couch after a gluttonous Thanksgiving dinner, and not feeding. Further behind the line, fish have had some time to digest, and start to head back for second and third helpings. The salmonfly hatch epitomizes everything in Yellowstone Country that anglers dream about – big landscapes, big rivers, big fish, and big hatches.