Photos by Craig Mathews
It was already 32 degrees when Tim, my elk hunting partner, and I left my truck at 5am to begin our elk hunt. The forecast called for a record high temperature of 64 degrees. We knew we’d have to hunt early that early November day. The bulls would seek cool, shaded cover in black timber, their favored security area, to loaf away the day and chew their cud.
Tim worked southeast uphill to a saddle separating the two drainages we planned to hunt. I headed uphill to a meadow I knew bull elk would graze in during the early morning hours before finding their way to the black timber. I got to the meadow before daylight, stood next to a huge Douglas fir tree and hoped for a big bull to skirt the upper part of the meadow before going to its day bed.
Legal shooting time arrived, but no elk showed. I was confident I’d take an elk that day. I decided to hike slowly, at a snail’s pace, further up the mountain then enter the black timber to look for a bull. I’d gone a short distance then began to side hill to a small flat where I knew elk often bedded during the day, as I’d been this route a few times before.
I’d gone less than a hundred yards when I spotted a bull looking at me, or so I thought. I ducked behind small Lodgepole pines and risked a peek at the bull through my binoculars. He lay facing my way, head up, ruminating and fast asleep. He became my 38th bull elk in as many seasons, a nice six point. My luck ran that way in 2016, and I hope it continues in 2017!
In January, Cam, Aaron and I headed to Boise, Idaho for the Western Idaho Fly Fishing Expo. I presented several Tenkara shows there, as well as in Idaho Falls, Idaho in March. In April, I headed to Pierre, South Dakota and Minneapolis, Minnesota, to present conservation, Tenkara, and Yellowstone fly-fishing and fly-tying programs.
The year began with strong winter midge fishing. January, February and March all fished well on the Madison and Henry’s Fork. We saw good snowpack last into April when temps warmed. It rained all of May, and then June temperatures soared into the 70s and 80s and we saw snowpack dwindle. This resulted in early mayfly and caddis emergences that brought strong dry fly fishing for us. But, most early season visiting anglers would not arrive until many of those reliable mayfly and caddis emergences had peaked and finished early for the year.
My log for April 1st indicates I had a fine evening on the river when midges emerged from 6:00 to 7:30pm. That day the temperature remained at 58 degrees with calm winds, and fish rose to emerging midges. Strong evening midge fishing continued all month.
On the 24th of April, spring Baetis began emerging afternoons on the river when overcast conditions occurred. Our #20 Improved Sparkle Dun was the only pattern needed to take big rising trout then.
We could only watch as PMDs and caddis emerged on the Firehole and Madison Rivers in the Park before the fishing season opened in late May. Fish rose freely while we watched, happy and undisturbed.
Aaron had already spent some time developing his new White Miller Razor Caddis, but we couldn’t test it until the season opened. Once it did, this new caddis proved deadly, and now all of us carry them to fish the Firehole and Madison River in the Park during the early and late seasons when White Millers are present. This fly is highly buoyant, due in part to the Razor Foam body, and is perfect for when fish are chasing skittering adults moving on the surface.
The month of May saw fine fishing on nearby Cliff and Wade lakes . Strong rises of trout sipping Callibaetis mayflies and midges were the rule and those of us who love fishing big trout on stillwaters schemed to get time off to fish. Aaron had soon heard enough complaining from those of us who fished Callibaetis spinners, as we had a hard time keeping track of our spinner flies in flat light, often the case on lakes, so he put together our simple new Hi-Vis Callibaetis Spinner to remedy the problem. The guides and all of us at the shop used it last summer and it took many great trout for all who fished it.
On June 5th, I found caddis emerging on the Madison near the West Fork. We spent several evenings fishing Iris, X and X2 caddis to early season trout rising to emerging caddis. Most evenings locals were the only anglers on the river, since these strong caddis emergences were three weeks early, and the arrival of visiting fly-fishers were weeks away.
On June 16th, Yvon Chouinard and I taught 13 Japanese anglers how to fish Tenkara. The entire day was captured on film by “Fly Fisherman of Japan” magazine. Make sure you stay connected through our weekly email newsletter for a full report and photos of this day due out in 2017.
Early season saw some solid dry fly fishing on the Henry’s Fork, but water conditions were fickle and made the hatches difficult to predict. PMDs and caddis came off and green drake emergences lasted only a few days on the Fork. Air and water temperature quickly warmed and hatches came off early and in short duration in the early season.
Salmonflies showed up the same day green drakes began emerging on the Madison near the West Fork, June 24th. Green drakes on the Madison emerge in the late evening and it was a strong emergence this summer, lasting the next five evenings.
Epeorus mayflies (pink ladies) began June 27th. Their emergences and evening spinner falls helped save the Madison’s evening fishing opportunities when normally reliable evening caddis (Hydropsyche sp) waned in mid-July, weeks earlier than “normal” due to warm air and water temperatures. Three other aquatic insects kept the summer evening fishing great for anglers: tiny black caddis (Glossosoma sp), Oecetis sp (Longhorn) caddis and midges. My notes indicate midges and black caddis brought good evening rises from late June into August. When Longhorn caddis emerged and their egg-laying periods occurred on the Madison below Earthquake Lake our #16 Amber X2 Caddis worked best. My log indicates several late afternoons when Longhorns brought up good rises of fish. There are several Amber X2 Caddis pasted in my logbook with twisted hooks and fly bodies torn apart that scored big trout in July and August.
I found black caddis and midges on the river every evening I fished in July and August, and big trout rose to them whether at $3 Bridge, the West Fork area or Windy Point. I just counted 23 chewed #20 Black X Caddis and three dozen #20-24 Zelon Midges pasted in my log with the dates I fished and notes indicating how well they worked. Terry and I spent a few evenings on the river in mid-July, when the only fly we could get fish to take were #20 Black X Caddis until dark when the big head and tail rising trout would then switch to tiny midges and take #22-24 Zelon Midges.
Hebgen, Cliff, Wade, Trout, Ennis and Earthquake Lakes saw strong Callibaetis mayfly hatches in July and August. Our new Hi-Vis Callibaetis Spinner was the ticket for successfully fishing heavy spinner falls on these stillwaters and spinner falls on the Henry’s Fork’s Railroad Ranch section.
In late July, Yvon, Mark and I head to the Bighorn River for our “Tenkara for the Tribe” program. For three days we taught Crow Indian youngsters how to fish with Tenkara. It was a grand time. Every one of the kids caught several fish and learned Tenkara techniques. We’ll return in 2017.
Most August evenings I’d find myself alone on the river fishing Pink Lady (Epeorus sp) spinner falls, and tiny black caddis and midge emergences. On the 15th our guides reported huge swarms of ants along the river. For the next two weeks we had fine fishing on all area rivers, lakes and streams during afternoon ant periods. The Lamar, Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison Rivers came alive with rising trout, as did Soda Butte and Slough Creeks in the Park.
Cam and I took John Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and his crew fishing on the Yellowstone in the Park in August. After our guiding stint that day, on our way back to the shop, we thought we might as well fish since we were there anyway! What an awesome two hours we had taking big rising Yellowstone Cutthroat trout on drakes and Chubby Chernobyls.
In August, anglers were perplexed when arriving on stream and finding fish rising to several different insect species. One might locate a fish rising to ants, another to midges or black caddis and the next to Pink Lady or Margarita mayfly duns or spinners. To be successful I had to change flies many times. Even though it appeared fish were rising to ants and I’d take a trout on my first presentation with an ant, the next rising fish might not give my ant a look. I’d stop, sit on the bank and watch. I might see the trout tip up and take a Pink Lady spinner, tie one on and score that riser. I’d head to the next pool and find trout rising to midges or black caddis. I burned through lots of tippet material for three weeks changing flies in order to take those challenging and selective trout. I looked forward to a weather change and fall Baetis, I did not have to wait long.
On September 1st, John and I headed to the Ennis Fly Fishing Festival and put on our latest “Fishing the Evening Rise on the Madison River” presentation. By mid-September, Margarita spinner falls, ant swarms and black caddis finished their times on area waters. On September 4th, the weather patterns changed. That day my log indicates 48 degree temps with rain, and the beginning of Fall Baetis emergences on rivers like the Firehole, Madison and Henry’s Fork. One thing we all noted last fall: Fall Baetis were tiny, size #22-24s, and the fish were finicky. Pages in my journal are littered with pasted in #22-24 Baetis Sparkle Dun and #20 Improved Baetis Sparkle Duns. Same with midges last fall, we had to use #22-24 Zelon Midges for success when fish rose to them on many Yellowstone waters.
Bucky loves to fish both spring and fall Baetis hatches, and his new Almost There Baetis pattern has been killing. Tied on a short shank Daiichi 1140, hook this simple pattern worked its magic on rivers from the Henry’s Fork to the Yellowstone and spring creeks. Check with Bucky, he has some fine fishing stories on how he came up with this gem, and why!
Yellowstone country’s fall run of rainbows and browns began in mid-September, when big run up fish began to gather in rivers like the Park’s Gardiner, Yellowstone, Madison, and Gibbon and Firehole below their falls. Aaron, a fan of spey rods and big fall run flies, had been playing with a couple patterns for ticking off big fall run trout, both browns and rainbows. His new Prospector pattern makes fish mad, and they attack his new flies with a vengeance. The olive and white Prospector can be counted on to fire up big rainbows and browns year-round, and the yellow and brown Prospector drives big fall run-ups crazy! Their colors and the way they move in the water makes fish want to attack the fly and gobble them up in a territorial frenzy to rid their area of the intruding Prospector. You’ll fish both, I guarantee, and the fish will be the final judges!
Late October fished well, until 29th when we had several inches of rain that put the rivers in spate for a few days. When they cleared, fall Baetis and midges continued to bring the fish to the surface through November. On November 28th, anglers saw the last fall BWO come off at $3 Bridge as we wrapped up an incredible run of 90 days of mayfly and midge fishing on rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone, Gallatin and Henry’s Fork.
It’s now early 2017. We’re tying flies, working on tying materials and looking forward to winter midge fishing on our rivers. Make sure you stay tuned for the latest in flies, fly tying and fishing gear in our weekly email news and blog. We will keep you posted. We are here for you, so never hesitate to call or email for advice on when to come, where to stay and fish, and best flies to use, or questions on flies patterns, how to tie them and the best materials to use.
All of us at BRF fish, we are proud of that. We’re clued in on what’s going on with hatches, where and when to fish, the best flies and the latest and greatest products, because we use them ourselves on our local rivers, lakes and streams. I spent 149 days on the water in 2016. Our crew – Cam, Bucky, Aaron, Peter, Garrett , Michael, Emily, John and I, and our guides spend their time fishing and developing new, effective flies, techniques and fishing strategies. We wrote the books on fishing Yellowstone country, so never hesitate to call on us for advice.
I’ll be at the Snake River Cutthroat’s Fly-Fishing Club’s March 8th meeting in Idaho Falls, Idaho for a presentation on March 8th. On March 11th and 12th, I’ll be at the Midwest Fly Fishing Expo at Macomb Community College Sports and Expo Center in Warren, Michigan for two days of Tenkara and Yellowstone fly-fishing and fly-tying presentations. I will also be spending time in Patagonia’s booth greeting friends and customers, as well as promoting conservation programs we’re involved with.
Lastly, here’s an early heads up for February 28th, 2018, when Yvon Chouinard and I will be at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa headlining our 1% for the Planet initiative, sustainability programs and more. We’ll keep you posted!
We look forward to seeing you this year and thanks for your patronage and support! Let’s hear from you soon, and often.
We've been spending most of our time lately processing materials, including dying zelon, drying bird skins, and tanning hides. Our last few deer hides are currently drying, and we'll be cutting and grading the hair in the next few days. If you've been in search of some Sparkle Dun hair, now is the time to get it!
Photo courtesy of John Juracek
Our second new fly for 2017 is the White Miller Razor Caddis, designed for the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park. White Millers are notoriously difficult to imitate, since they flutter around constantly and almost never sit still on the water. We've been tinkering with highly buoyant patterns for a few seasons, trying to design a pattern that can be skated and twitched without sinking, and the Razor Caddis is the result. The body is tied by wrapping Razor Foam around the shank, hence the name, and the addition of Micro Zelon and deer hair adds excellent floatation as well. We've had a lot of luck with this pattern, and we're excited to pass it along to fellow Firehole enthusiasts.
Thread: Chartreuse 8/0 Uni-Thread
Body: Chartreuse Razor Foam
Wing: Bleached X Caddis Deer Hair
For detailed tying instructions, click HERE to watch a video of Aaron tying this fly.
Photo by Aaron Freed
An Article by Peter Scorzetti
Fishing is fickle. Our cherished on-water affairs can turn out differently than we’d dreamt them to, often to our displeasure. We prime ourselves through the winter by reading about fly hatches, fishing tactics, and fish behavior, then wait along the water in the spring with the hope that a bell will ding, and the emergence will roll out just when expected. But unlike the flies of our mind-fishing, real insects act on their own accord—at times, not even the most experienced entomologist can tell you why they behave the way they do.
Still, understanding hatches, studying new techniques, and learning about the character of a fishery are essential labors for preparing ourselves for a day’s fishing. But what to do when conditions line up perfectly, yet the fishing doesn’t develop? In my angling infancy, (which lasted my entire college career), I was considerably frustrated when the bugs didn’t pop up when expected, or the wind blew harder than expected, or the fish decided not to rise. But after spending time with a few wise Yellowstone anglers, I learned there’s usually a lot left in a fishing day that doesn’t start out exactly how I’d planned.
For years, Aaron Freed has been instrumental in my growth as an angler. He’s generous with his fishing knowledge, both to me and everyone that passes through Blue Ribbon Flies. A few seasons back, he and I were stoked to fish every alpine lake within our reach. Every week during the summer, we pried off the claws of deep sleep and hit the trailhead by sun up. The first leg of our campaign began at a crystal-clear backcountry lake.
After hiking a long stretch of the lake shore, we found exactly the type of water we were seeking: a shallow flat. It was a prime launch point for Callibaetis to hatch, since it was shallow enough that their ascent would be short and less perilous. The sandy bottom would also make it easier to see fish while they cruised by looking for insects. But for now, the lake was barren of rise forms or emerging Callibaetis, so we waited and watched through polarized lenses. There wasn’t a breath of wind, so the rustling of squirrels and birds rung crisply along the lake. Fluffy clouds passed over us, offering relieving moments of shade from the warm sun. The glassy lake was set for the idyllic morning we’d brewed about over many evening shifts in the shop.
But nothing developed. The flat was lifeless. No fish were passing through to investigate the status of their prey. No Callibaetis were on the water, except a handful of lonely spinners that had fallen with few comrades. “This isn’t happening right, let’s keep cruising,” Aaron said around noon. He knew of another lake nearby. As we trailed off, I saw the tree tops begin to sway slightly, and my hopes of a sight fishing experience began to sink.
A half hour later, we reached the second lake. The threat of wind had matured, as the breeze was now enduring, causing the tall Douglas Fir to sway freely and the grasses to bristle. I looked up to see new clouds coasting into the patch of sky above the little lake. They were dark and dense, and their volatility marked disaster for dry fly fishing. We watched from the shelter of a tree as the once calm and innocent lake turned dark and cold. My fishing dream settled on the bottom of the lake, and my thoughts became overly pessimistic. Our chances were shot. The wind would never lie down once it was up. I was not sad, but sour.
Fortunately, Aaron looked out at the water and did not see my bitter expression. “Well, there’s no use sitting around here, let’s move on again,” he said. To my surprise, he didn’t sound pessimistic or disappointed. A few more lakes were nearby, so we spent the next hour exploring them. But they too were blown out, so we looped back to the flat on the original lake. I was amazed to see blue sky when the tree tops cleared from view. My heart leapt from the depths when I saw the ring of a rise form on the flat. The shadow of the rainbow was easy to spot as it moved across the sandy bottom, away from the rise. Only a slight breeze pushed across the water, leaving the surface calm enough to see through. After scanning the water for more fish, I noticed that a big batch of gray mottled duns sat on the surface. The hatch had finally come, and fish were rising to the flies across the lake. We quickly knotted on dries to match and cast in front of fish as they moved in and out of the flat. Adrenaline pumped through our veins each time a fish came within range. We were glad for the fight each time we hooked a fish, but we truly relished the moment when a fish’s demeanor changed from leisurely, to fiercely predacious, once our fly caught its eye.
That prosperous day solidified our addiction. We were drunk on sight fishing from that moment forward, and we didn’t sober up until September nights cooled off the high-country for good. Had I been alone on that excursion, anxiety would have consumed me, and I would have bailed early and headed for a nearby river. Instead, Aaron’s patience and stable spirit led us to exceptional fishing, even though it didn’t come at the time we’d expected.
Patience and prudence are traits of the veteran angler. You sense such characteristics any time you’re with a seasoned guide or longtime fisherman on a day that doesn’t turn out how they thought it would. Time on the water has taught them that a dud hatch is cause to explore, observe, or try something new, but never cause to do nothing and settle into despair.
When Aaron and I finally made it back to the trailhead, there were only a few hours of light left. We were both drained, and I was ready to head back to West. But Aaron still had fishing to do. “I have to try the Henry’s Fork again,” he said. I thought him crazy after hiking so much country that day. He’d been fishing the Ranch every night with hopes of catching a proper hatch of Brown Drakes, but he hadn’t quite hit it on the nose. Those failed attempts had brought him little but a lack of sleep. An angler of less experience might have given up after the first few failed attempts. But his drive endured, and I was sure he’d been rewarded greatly when I received a text from him late that night which only read, “Got ‘em.”
Quake Lake on a gloomy January day