Hebgen Lake ranks as one of the world’s greatest dry fly lakes. Actually, it’s probably the greatest, but that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that from ice-out around the end of April until late October, barring gale-force winds and possessing just a modicum of local knowledge, you can find trout surface feeding every day. Plenty of them, without fail. Rainbows and browns both, averaging 17-18 inches. Pretty good stuff. But serious Hebgen anglers, in the three-plus decades that I’ve known the lake, have always had a slightly uneasy feeling about the rainbow portion of the fishery. As good as it is—and as much fun as it is—we’ve always been left to wonder: To what degree is this fabulous fishing a function of stocked trout?
For years the state of Montana has stocked fingerling rainbows in Hebgen Lake, a fact not widely known among visiting anglers (all browns are wild). The numbers of fish planted have varied dramatically over the years. I can’t locate the stocking records offhand, but I recall anywhere from around 50,000 fish per year recently to as many as 200,000 per year thirty years ago. Now, neither I nor anyone I know has ever caught a rainbow from Hebgen that looked or acted in any way “artificial”. Not a big surprise, considering that by the time a fingerling grows large enough to surface feed on aquatic insects, for all intents and purposes it is wild. Despite not having any sensation that we’ve been catching stockers, many of us have wanted to know for our own edification the contribution these planted fish make to the fishery. So, too, has Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (though I’m pretty sure the heart of their interest lies in the economics of raising and planting fish). Three years ago, with help from Montana State University, they began a study to look into this matter.
Every body of water has a unique chemical makeup. That chemistry is mirrored in the inner ear bones (otoliths) of fish that were hatched there. By comparing the chemical signatures of sampled otoliths to the signatures of Hebgen’s tributaries and the hatchery waters where the fingerlings originated from, it’s possible to assign a place of origin to a fish with a pretty high degree of confidence. According to the study results, it appears that approximately 84% of Hebgen rainbows have wild origins. Hatcheries account for 13%. The remainder couldn’t be assigned accurately. (I’ve glossed over a lot of fascinating details here, if you’re given to science. The study results can be found on the Montana FWP website.)
And from which tributaries, exactly, did the wild rainbows come? Here the study isn’t as definitive as serious anglers might wish for, but that’s okay. It’s purpose wasn’t to breakdown the contribution of each individual tributary to the fishery as a whole. But the study was able to segregate most of its sampled fish into two tributary groups. One group was comprised of Grayling Creek and Duck Creek. The other included the Madison River, South Fork of the Madison, Firehole River, Gibbon River, and Cougar Creek. (If the Cougar Creek placement seems odd—it’s actually a tributary of Duck Creek—the study recognized this aberration and deemed it a spatial anomaly.) The Madison River group produced the most rainbows, in a roughly 3:1 ratio to the other. Seems reasonable enough, without knowing more specific details.
What plans Montana FWP has for the future stocking of Hebgen Lake are unknown. It’s an important fishery for the state, and a reduction in catch due to a cessation of stocking is something they’re sure to hear about. But no matter what they decide, it seems safe to say that whenever conditions dictate, there will still be plenty of rainbow trout rising. Most likely with no concern at all for where they began their lives.
Photo courtesy of John Juracek
Bucky came up with this pattern after observing the number of Trico spinners that remained upright on Hebgen Lake. He has since used this pattern with success on the Henry’s Fork and Bighole rivers. This pattern is easy to tie and easy to see. It can be tied to imitate any number of smaller mayflies by changing the material colors. Baetis, Callibaetis and PMDs are some of the other patterns that have been used with success.
Hook: Tiemco 206BL, size 20
Thread: White Veevus 16/0 and Black Veevus 16/0
Tail: Dun Coq De Leon
Abdomen: White Veevus 16/0 Thread
Thorax: Black Superfine Dubbing
Wing: Spinner Wing EP Trigger Point Fibers
For detailed tying instructions, watch Bucky tie this fly in our How-To video HERE.
Photo courtesy of John Juracek
The Gulp Beetle comes to us from from Jake Chutz of Montana Fly Company, and it has proven to be a very effective beetle pattern all over Yellowstone Country waters. The effectiveness of beetles is well known on the Henry's Fork, but they work in plenty of other places as well. It is not uncommon for trout to become hesitant to take hoppers later in the summer, as they see so many huge foam creations floating by every day. In these situations, a smaller beetle is often just what the trout are looking for instead. Fished blindly along the banks or cast to selective, rising trout, this fly will consistently produce excellent results.
Hook: Tiemco 100, size 12-18
Thread: Black 8/0 Uni-Thread
Dubbing: True Peacock Phoenix Dubbing
Body: Black 1/8" Evasote Foam
Legs: Black Lifeflex
Indicator: Orange 2mm Fly Foam
Step 1: Start thread behind the eye and wrap back the shank to the bend. Tie in a strip of foam over the rear of the hook about 1/4" to 1/8" wide, depending on the size of the fly being tied.
Step 2: Dub a shaggy body of Phoenix Dubbing forward to just behind the eye.
Step 3: Pull the foam strip forward and tie down just behind the eye, and trim the foam just in front of the hook eye.
Step 4: Tie in a piece of lifeflex on each side of the fly for the legs, and tie in a small piece of orange foam on top of the fly to add a visible indicator. Whip-finish.
Photo courtesy of John Jurackek
Bees are a highly underrated terrestrial pattern here in Yellowstone country, but they certainly can be highly effective here during the dog days of summer. Trout relish any large terrestrial meal, and cutthroat in particular seem to be very fond of this fly. Area rivers like the Lamar, Soda Butte, Slough Creek, and the Yellowstone all have bees present nearby, and they often end up on the water on windy days. The Yellowstone Killer Bee is the best pattern we have found to imitate these insects, checking all the boxes with high visibility, excellent flotation, and simplicity. Make sure to give this fly a try the next time you are chasing trout in August!
Thread: Black 8/0 Montana Fly Company Thread
Body: Rainy's 1/8" Foam Bee Bodies
Wing: White Straight Zelon
Hackle: Grizzly Whiting Hackle
Step 1: Start wrapping tying thread behind the eye and wrap about halfway back the hook shank.
Step 2: Split one cylindrical foam bee body down the middle lengthwise with a knife, and then tie in flat side down at the middle of the hook shank, so that some of the foam extends back from the bend of the hook and also out over the eye.
Step 3: Tie in a strand of zelon with figure eight wraps over top of where the foam is tied in. Then pull the zelon strands backward and wrap thread over the base of the zelon to keep the wings swept backward. Trim wings even with the hook bend.
Step 4: Just in front of the wings, tie in a grizzly hackle feather. Make about two turns of hackle and tie off. Trim the excess feather and whip-finish.
Step 5: Trim the foam in the rear so that it extends just beyond the hook bend, and in the front so that it extends just out over the eye.
Photo courtesy of John Juracek
Ants are a staple in any trout's diet come mid-summer, and every angler should be sure to have some with them on the water in August. Yellowstone country is famous for it's flying ant swarms this time of year, and when these bugs hit the water, trout will often rise carelessly, eating every insect they can find. The Cinnamon Flying Ant will match these bugs perfectly on area rivers and lakes, and the addition of a hi-vis wing material also makes it much easier to see than many previous ant patterns. We find the yellow wing to be highly visible, but don't be afraid to substitute white or another hi-vis color if you are able to see it better.
Hook: Tiemco 100 Size 14-16
Thread: Rust Brown 8/0 Uni-Thread
Dubbing: Epeorus Spinner Superfine Dubbing
Wing: Yellow EP Fibers
Hackle: Grizzly Whiting Size 14-16
Step 1: Wrap thread back to the bend of the hook. Dub a thick ball of dubbing about half way up the hook shank to form the rear body segment.
Step 2: Tie in a clump of EP fibers for the wing and trim about even with the hook bend.
Step 3: Tie in a grizzly hackle feather just in front of the wing. Make two to three wraps of hackle and then tie of and trim the excess feather.
Step 4: Dub a smaller ball of dubbing up to the hook eye to form the head, and then whip-finish.