If you want to be a great fly fisher, it’s going to take some time — perhaps time you can’t afford to spend. Recently, I saw a blog post claiming it takes a minimum of 50 days a year on the water to be a great fly fisher. 100 days is ‘way better,’ and 200 days is “better yet.” According to the post, if you spend only ten days on the water per year, you can only be an “adequate angler.”
I don’t dispute this. Yet, I’d argue that you can be a good fly fisher if the 10 days you spend on the water are well-spent. Not every day on the river is created equal.
Practice makes permanent
There’s an old adage that piano teachers and basketball coaches and, perhaps, fly fishing instructors quote: “Practice makes perfect.”
Well, not necessarily. The truth is, practice makes permanent. It takes practice to get better. But if your next practice is not better than the last one, then you are only reinforcing bad habits. This is the reason why a couple days on the water with a professional guide or with a fly fishing friend who is better than you will be more productive than ten days on your own — at least when it comes to the rudiments of fly casting and reading water.
Substitute for time on the water
Another comment I frequently read in fly fishing blogs is that there is no substitute for time on the water.
Actually, there is — provided that it takes place between the times you spend on the water. I realize that casting in your backyard is not quite the same as casting into a river. But I’ve seen newbies learn casting basics in their back yard and then translate those same basics into good casts on the river.
Between trips to the river
So then, if you can only fly fish 10 to 15 days per year, the key to improvement is what you do between trips to the river.
In addition to practice your casting, you can watch videos and read fly fishing books. Taking a fly tying class at your local fly shop will boost your skills as well. Even if you never tied a fly once you completed a class, your knowledge of streamside entomology (what bugs are hatching in what stages) will help you the next time you cast your fly upon the water.
Another difference maker
There is an additional difference maker that factors into whether you move from adequate to good to great.
It’s your natural aptitude and your athletic ability.
Perhaps “athletic ability” isn’t quite the right descriptor. But some people just have the fly fishing gene. I think of a guy who fishes fewer days than I do per year. He has not read nearly as much as I have about fly fishing; nor has he ever taken a fly tying class. Yet this guy is a natural fly fisher and can outfish me any day of the week.
Here, then, is the takeaway. You can be a good fly fisher if you make the most of the 10-15 days you spend on the water and if you use the time between them strategically.
I honestly don’t know if I’m an “adequate” or “good” fly fisher. I definitely know I’m not great. But as one who spends 15 days or less on the water a year, I get better every year, and I catch a lot of fish when the conditions are right. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
I have a novel proposal for fly fishers who are not catching fish. It may seem a bit extreme. But hey, if you’re not catching fish, you’ll try anything, right?
If you think you have the right fly size and pattern, if you mend your line to reduce the drag on your fly, if your casts don’t send fish fleeing for cover, and if you’re getting your nymphs deep enough, then here is my suggestion:
Step away from the river.
That’s right, stay out of it. Stop wading.
What Fly Fishers Do
I told you my suggestion sounded a bit extreme.
Wading in the river is what fly fishers do. That’s what a friend figured the other day when he heard I was a fly fisher. He is not. But he was interested and said, “Oh, is that the kind of fishing where you stand in the water?”
Yes, I suppose that’s our mental image of fly fishing. And yes, I will admit there’s something enchanting about standing in a river as you cast—especially on a late fall morning when the snow is softly falling or at dusk on a warm summer day.
But I’m more and more convinced that fly fishers who are not catching fish should stop wading. It’s not a punishment! Nor is it always and forever. But fishing from the river’s edge should be your default mode; wading is the exception. There are at least two reasons why.
Fishing near the bank
First, follow the lead of the fly fishers in drift boats. They typically cast to the banks. That’s where the trout are lurking. Sure, there may be some runs on the other side of the stream or perhaps fifteen feet away from the bank. But a lot of feeding lanes crowd the bank.
If you must wade, find an entry point between runs and walk out far enough so you can cast back toward the bank.
Whenever I hike up the Yellowstone near Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park, I leave my waders in the truck. I’m not a fan of hiking 3-4 miles up the river in waders before I start fishing. Surprisingly, there are few places where not having waders puts me at a disadvantage.
Honing your observation skills
The second reason is related to the first. If you commit to fishing from the bank (at least for awhile), you will likely pay more attention to what is happening near the river’s edge.
I remember a time on Montana’s Madison River when I was getting ready to wade out to a run about 20 yards from the bank. Seconds before I stepped into the water, I saw two trout rise five feet in front of me. If I had not seen them, I would have sent them racing for cover when I walked through the little run where they were feeding.
Have I over-stated my point? Perhaps. But with so many prime places for trout to feed along the bank, it’s worth fishing that area before you think about setting foot in the water.
So, when all else fails, step away from the river.
I love fly fishing with streamers. I suppose it reminds me of those days long, long ago when I fished Mepps spinners with an ultralight spincast rod and reel. Streamers also catch large trout — especially in the fall when brown trout are on the move. Mainly, though, I love the shock of a trout attacking the streamer as I retrieve it.
If you’re new to fly fishing (or fly fishing with streamers), the good news is that there are a few basic patterns which work consistently — from season to season and year to year.
Here are my top five favorites.
The Woolly Bugger is the poster-child of streamers. I’ll bet I fish with one 85% of the time I fish with streamers.
The construction of this “fly” (if you can call it that) is simple. It’s basically a chenille body – with hackle wrapped through it — followed by a maribou tail. This pattern looks lively as it darts through the water.
I prefer garden variety colors—black, brown, and olive. The color combinations are endless, though.
For example, I tie my olive Woolly Buggers with black hackle and sometimes with black maribou. I’ve even used red chenille with sparkles along with black hackle and then black maribou with a couple strands of red crystal flash.
Fly fishers often refer to patterns like this as Crystal Buggers.
My preference for size is anywhere from 6 to 10, and I rarely fish a Woolly Bugger without a beadhead or conehead. Weight is important.
Technically, a JJ Special is a Woolly Bugger with a bit different color scheme.
But the pattern is so popular and unique that it deserves (in my opinion) its own entry. The JJ Special features a brown (chenille) body with gray hackle and yellow rubber legs. Then, the tail is brown over yellow maribou.
The brown and yellow color scheme makes the fly resemble (you guessed it) a young brown trout. This has been a go-to pattern for me when I’m fishing browns in the fall. Also, I am partial to the conehead version of this fly — although a beadhead will work just as well.
To be honest, I rarely fish with Muddler Minnows. It’s not that they don’t work. They really do. It’s just that I do so well with Woolly Buggers and can tie them rather easily.
A Muddler Minnow imitates a minnow (surprise!) or a sculpin. Or, if you skim it on the surface of the water, it can imitate a floundering moth or mouse.
The head consists of spun deer hair. Some fly tyers enjoy the artistry of spinning hair. Others, like me, find it time consuming compared to slipping a conehead or a bead onto the hook! The other prominent feature is a wing and an underwing.
This is another pattern I rarely use since a Woolly Bugger works so well. But the Zonker is a classic. It can be terrific on big rivers because it is a super-sized meal for large trout. A long strip of rabbit fur with the hide attached gives this fly its heft.
I don’t always fish with something the size of a 1957 Chevy Wagon. But when I do, I opt for the Dolly Llama (aka Dali Lama, aka Dalai Lama).
Like a Zonker, it uses a strip of rabbit fur attached to the hide. But this fly is long because it includes a second hook which is connected by wire to the first hook, trailing behind a couple inches.
This fly worked superbly a few years ago when I fished Alaska’s Clear Creek a few hundred yards upstream from where it emptied into the Talkeetnah River. I caught several 19-20 inch rainbows on a white Dolly Llama. To be honest, I haven’t used it in the big rivers in Montana (that’s why Woolly Buggers exist), but my friends in the Pacific Northwest like the Dolly Llama for steelhead.
You can’t go wrong with any of these patterns. Learn to fish them effectively and you’re bound to have a blast.
If you want to catch trout, you need to know the truth about trout lies. I’m referring to the places where trout lie — as in “hang out and spend their time.”
Gary Borger is the expert on this. In his book, Reading Waters, he defines a lie as the “place that the fish holds in the current.” Then, he identifies three basic categories of trout lies. Fly fishers who understand these will know where to look to find trout:
The Sheltering Lie
Trout need protection from predators.
According to Borger, these “sheltering lies” exist under something. This might be a place under the bank, under a rock, under a log, under deep water, or under vegetation. Typically, fish do not eat when they are in these places. Borger says they zip their mouths shut and hunker down until they feel it is safe to go out again.
The Feeding Lie
Trout, of course, need to eat.
They need protection from the currents in the river, yet they need those currents to bring food. So they will often lie in slower current, right at the edge of faster moving current. We refer to this spot as a “seam.” Borger notes that the slow current behind a rock or another obstruction is a great place for trout to feed.
One of the easiest ways to spot a feeding lie is to look for the line of bubbles which meander down the current.
This is the food line! It’s where insects drift through the current.
The Prime Lie
Fly fishers hit the jackpot whenever they fine a prime lie.
According to Borger, this is both a sheltering lie and a feeding lie rolled into one.
A classic example is an undercut bank. The bank itself provides protection from birds of prey. Yet, the current brings the food close to the bank. That’s why trout will dart out from under a bank to take your hopper pattern or even a tiny dry fly. Sometimes, you’ll find a prime lie in a deeper pool or in water under a foam patch. The key is to look for places which provide both cover and food.
Good fly fishers shouldn’t tell lies. But they should be able to spot them.
My nephew texted me a few days ago to ask me about winter fly fishing. He said, “I’m not sure I want to wait until spring to fish!” The same day, I saw on Facebook that a guide-friend from New York state thanked his clients and fellow fishing guides for a spectacular season.
It reminded me that the fly fishing off-season is here — or almost here. I consider the off-season November through February. If you’re a fly fisher, what can you do to survive it?
1. Go fishing
Personally, I’m not a big fan of winter fly fishing.
One year when I lived in Montana, I caught trout on a fly rod every month. But after doing it to say that I did it, I rarely made it to the river in December and January.
Other than Midges, the hatches are minimal. Plus the temperatures are frigid most days.
Still, if you’re patient and content to catch fewer fish, you can do well in the winter on nymphs and even on the surface with Midge patterns (yes, a size #20 Parachute Adams will work). My podcast partner, Dave, and I had a fantastic February day last year on the Blue River (really, a small creek) in Wisconsin. The temperatures were in the high 50s, and the browns were hitting our nymphs.
If you live near brown trout fisheries, play close attention to when these waters close for the year.
For example, the fishing season in Yellowstone National Park runs through the first Sunday in November. If I still lived in Montana, I’d take a break from elk and deer hunting to make one last trip to fish the Gardner River for the “runners” that are heading to their spawning beds.
2. Reflect a bit
I’m convinced we (fly fishers) need to get better at this. We need to savor the moments we’ve had over our past year of fly fishing.
So go back through your photos to re-live your best fly fishing memories. Review your journal if you keep one. If you don’t keep a journal, grab a sheet of paper (or open a file on your word processor) and write down your top ten favorite memories from the past season.
The tendency to rush from one run on the river to the next one can carry over into rushing from one season to another.
Stopping to reflect a bit on the past year of fly fishing can provide a lot of satisfaction. It will also create anticipation for next season.
3. Get ready
Use the time from November through February to do what you can never find time to do during the prime months of fly fishing (March through October).
Tie some flies. Watch some You Tube videos on fly casting. Read The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists (couldn’t resist). Go through your gear and take inventory. Re-organize your fly box. If you’re planning on purchasing a new rod or waders or whatever, the off season is a time to do some research—whether online or in your local fly shop.
It’s almost November, but March is coming! We will all survive the off-season (I think).
When my son, Luke, played tight end for the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, he played football on two kinds of surfaces. All his home games took place on artificial turf in an indoor stadium. He even played on red turf at Eastern Washington University on a field dubbed “the Inferno.” But when he traveled to the University of Northern Colorado, the game took place on a natural grass field.
These two different kinds of surfaces — artificial turf and natural grass – required different kinds of cleats and different approaches.
This is true of the rivers you fly fish as well. While every place you fish is unique, you can group rivers into one of three kinds of rivers. The better you understand the characteristics of each type, the better you can make adjustments and set yourself up for success.
1. Freestone Rivers
Surface waters provide the main source of water for freestone rivers and streams.
This means rainfall and snow runoff.
Not surprisingly, then, freestone rivers rise and fall with the conditions. They can flood easily. When the spring temperatures warm and the snow melts, freestone rivers swell with water. This heavy water churns through the river or stream bed, displacing stones—hence the name “freestone.”
All this has a definite effect on fly fishing.
Of the three kinds of rivers, freestone streams may be the most volatile. Anglers must re-learn familiar stretches of river from year to year. A flood may scour out a larger undercut bank where large trout lie in wait for food. Alternatively, the same flood may deposit silt in a productive channel or run so that trout abandon it as a feeding lie.
Conditions can change rapidly, too.
I’ve had good fly fishing on Montana’s Yellowstone River one day, only to find it swollen the next day. In dry years, water levels drop, and water temperatures rise. This means staying off rivers when water temperatures creep into the high 60s. Fighting fish in such warm conditions endangers their lives.
One year, my podcast partner and I fished a creek that Dave and his brother had fished a couple years earlier with great success using hoppers. The stream is a smaller creek that flows into the Gallatin River. But the year Dave and I fished it, we could hardly find a run that was deep enough to fish. There was little snowfall the winter prior, and the creek was so low that the fish were bunched up in small pockets of water.
2. Spring Creeks
Since their main source of water is underground, spring creeks are more uniform in water level and temperature throughout the year. They typically flow through mineral-rich soil. This translates to significant aquatic plant growth which translates to an abundance of aquatic life (insects, scuds, crayfish, leeches, worms, etc.) which translates to a healthy fish population — both in terms of numbers and size.
The spring creeks I fish in the West and in the Midwest tend to have more silty areas than rocky areas. This makes for easier wading.
Spring creeks typically run crystal clear, so trout have the advantage.
When I used to fish Nelson’s Spring Creek south of Livingston, Montana, I found the trout to be more selective than spooky. These clear spring creeks have a few riffles, yet the runs tend to be gentle with slower current. Trout get a clear, long look at what you offer them. So fly size and tippet size matters.
In recent years, Dave, my podcast partner and I, have fished more spring creeks than freestones, given that we both now live in the Midwest. I’ve come to appreciate the more technical chops needed to catch fish in a spring creek.
A tailwater is essentially the river or creek that flows out of a reservoir or lake created by a dam. These, these fisheries resemble spring creeks with their even flow. Because water is often released at the bottom of a dam where it is cooler and where the sediment is rich with nutrients, tailwaters can produce some large fish.
Tailwaters are often a bit off-color, so the fish tend to be less spooky.
I have been able to sneak up a lot closer to feeding fish in the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon — a fine tailwater full of brown trout—because it is slightly off color on most days. Like spring creeks, tailwaters resist the volatile swings that weather conditions create on freestone rivers. Conditions are more likely to change from of a discharge from a dam than from a snow runoff or a heavy rainfall.
So the next time you head to the river, identify its type. A little bit of understanding can go a long way towards success. All three kinds of rivers have their challenges, but all three are fun to fly fish.
You never know what you will see during a fall day in Yellowstone. Here are 9 sights from a memorable day of fishing in Yellowstone National Park:
1. A bull elk bugling at Mammoth
Even though this huge herd bull and his harem were occupying a manicured Park Service lawn, his raspy bugle reminded me of the days when my dad and I hunted elk during archery season about 35 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.
An elk’s bugle is one of the most stunning sounds in nature.
2. A tourist trying to coax a deer to eat an apple
No kidding. A tourist with a camera in one hand and an apple in the other outstretched hand had a mule deer doe within twenty yards. Apparently, the font size on the “Don’t feed the wildlife” sign at the park entrance wasn’t large enough for this tourist to see.
3. A grizzly track on the bank of the Yellowstone River
I felt a chill go down my spine when I spotted this track right along the river. At this point, my fishing partner and I were on a remote stretch of the Yellowstone about 3.5 miles from our trailhead. We both checked the position of our bear spray canisters on our belts.
4. Healthy cutthroat trout
We both caught some fat, colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. They were all 14-17 inches with football-shaped bodies. I caught them on hoppers, terrestrials, and streamers. The fishing was solid. We each landed 8-10 cutts.
I’ve had days where I’ve caught more on this stretch of river. But it was still a satisfying day.
5. My fishing partner sliding off of a rock into the river
Since we had such a long hike (see below), we decided not to wear waders. We opted for hiking books and nylon pants. We knew from prior trips that wading the stretch of river we planned to fish was not essential.
At one point, though, my fishing partner was crouched on a rock fighting a fish when his feet slipped and he slide into the water. He got wet but was never in danger.
I may or may not have laughed.
Also, I will not confirm whether or not this fly fisher was my podcast partner, Dave.
6. A bull bison blocking our trail on the way out
On our return, we climbed to the top of a small plateau and instantly spotted a brown animal on the trail in front of us.
My first thought was “Grizzly!”
As I reached for my canister of bear spray, I realized a bull bison was lying down on the game grail in front of us. We made a wide circle and left the bull undisturbed. He stood up to face us and confirm we were leaving.
But he didn’t make any hostile advances (unlike the bull bison we encountered a few years before on the same trail).
7. My Fitbit watch showing 22,324 steps
At the end of the day, I felt like I had hiked 8 miles. But my Fitbit showed 22,324 steps and calculated the distance as 10.4 miles.
My response was “10-4, good buddy!”
8. An elderly couple struggling to stand on a retaining wall above Tower Fall
I saw this right after leaving the Tower Fall parking area. Their view was stunning. But so was the drop-off below them. I shuddered when I thought about how many people in Yellowstone have fallen to their deaths.
9. A wrecker pulling a jeep up a steep bank
The final “sight” which impressed me was a wrecker pulling a Jeep Wrangler up a bank. The driver had obviously driven off the road—whether by swerving or simply veering off the edge where there was no shoulder. Thankfully, the bank was not steep or the driver would not have survived.
So what should I make of what I saw?
I’m not sure I learned anything new. Still, what I saw on that fine fall day reinforced some long-held convictions:
The sights and sounds of a fall day Yellowstone are stunning. Aspen leaves burst with color, and the bugles of herd bulls and satellite bulls pierce the morning air. It’s hard to beat mid-September.
It is wise to carry bear spray.
It’s better to share the experience with a friend than to be alone — especially when your friend provides a bit of entertainment.
Fall tourists are no smarter than summer tourists.
There is a new vista and a new danger around every bend in the road or trail.
Mid-September is simply an awesome time for a fall day in Yellowstone.
I am currently in preparation mode for a fly fishing trip. Dave, my podcast partner, and I are leaving in a few days for the West. Last week, I shared some tips for planning a fly fishing trip to a specific region—the area in and around Yellowstone National Park. In this post, I want to zero in on what I do to get ready for a trip two weeks in advance, what to do before your fly fishing trip.
This is about preparation, not planning. Here are three simple ways I prepare:
1. I ramp up my workouts
I usually make it to a local workout facility about three times a week.
But when I’m two weeks away from a trip, I ramp up both the frequency and the intensity of my workouts. I take some longer walks on days when I’m not doing my lifting and elliptical regimen.
Yesterday was too nice to work out inside, so I rode my mountain bike on the Des Plaines River trail and stopped to run up a long sledding hill a couple times. On my way back, I paused to look at the muddy Des Plaines River and reflect on how I’ll see clear water in a few days! I make sure, of course, not to overdo it. I intentionally do not work out on the two days before I leave for a trip.
We have a hard hike planned for day one of our trip, so I want to give my body time to rest and recover from my intense workouts.
2. I read some “pump up” material
When my son played college football, he had his air buds in several hours before a game to get pumped up and ready to hit the field.
Honestly, I haven’t found any tunes that seem to fit a fly fishing trip. Suggestions, anyone?
Maybe John Denver’s American Child would work if I was “going up to Alaska” to fly fish. But it seems like overkill to jam to Taio Cruz’s Dynamite or one of U2’s more raucous hits.
So I read a good fly fishing book. It may not make the adrenalin run, but it does stir my sense of anticipation. Since I’m headed to the West, I’ve been re-reading Yellowstone Runners by Chester Allen—a memoir about three weeks of fishing the wild trout that migrate from Hebgen Lake into the Madison River.
Of course, any good fly fishing book will do.
3. I take inventory of my gear
This seems obvious. But if I start doing this two weeks in advance rather than the night before, I end up being a lot more prepared.
My fly boxes need re-organizing, and I need to figure out if I have enough tippet material, dry fly dressing, and first aid kit ingredients. I make sure my rods are and reels are ready to go. I also set aside some of the little items that can easily be left behind — neck gaiter, thermometer, headlamp, and plastic bags (for wallets and keys on days I wet wade).
Then I remember to look for my favorite hat and favorite fly fishing shirt. How can I expect to enjoy the trip if I forget them?!
T-minus two weeks. What will you do to get ready for your next trip?
Fly fishing trips to the Greater Yellowstone area in Montana or Wyoming are not cheap. I’ve made not a few fly fishing trips to the Greater Yellowstone area. And I’ve assembled a few tips that come from a decade of making annual trips from the Midwest to the West, as well as from the two decades I lived and fly fished near Bozeman, Montana.
I suspect these tips will apply — at least to some extent – to other regions in United States. But they relate specifically to fly fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park.
1. Go in the Fall or Spring
If summer is your best or only option for a trip, you can have a great time. But there are a couple reasons for planning a fall or spring trip.
First, you will avoid the crush of tourists and crowded rivers which come with summer. Second, you can fish “runners”—the fish headed up-river either to spawn or to wait below spawning beds for eggs which drift down the current. If you’re new to fishing, rainbows spawn in the spring, while brown trout spawn in the fall.
You can even catch the tail end of grasshopper season if you go early in September.
I should also point out that fall flights, vehicle rentals, and hotel rooms or cabins are cheaper during the off-season.
2. Choose a Fly Shop
Fly fishing success depends on knowing where to fish and what fly patterns to use. The best information you will get comes from the staff at a fly shop. I recommend visiting a handful of local fly shops on your first trip. Then pick one and build a relationship with the fly shop owners. The advice is free, yet you may get even more helpful intel if you are a paying customer year after year. So buy your leaders or next pair of waders at the same shop once you find one you like.
3. Book a Guided Trip
I can’t over-emphasize how much you will learn and how much intel you will gather when you hire a guide for the day—or for a half-day. You might be able to go back again and fish the same stretch of river on your own. Some fly fishing guides have even encouraged me to do this. But it’s a courtesy to ask a guide if he or she will take clients on this stretch another day. If so, ask about some other places you might try.
Splitting the coast with a friend always makes sense. Drift boats are set up for two fly fishers anyway. Also, the custom is to tip 15-20%. If you can split the cost with a friend, a day in a drift boat or wading with a guide will be worth every penny.
4. Create a Sustainable Schedule
When Dave, my podcast partner, and I fly to Montana for a 4-day or 5-day trip, we fish every day. However, we’ve learned to pace ourselves. We act like we are in our mid-30s, at least for day one. Then, reality hits. We are both in our mid-50s. So if our Fitbits tell us we have hiked 8 miles during a day of fly fishing, then we might get a later start the next day. Or, we might follow a more strenuous wade trip with a float trip
Also, build in a bit of down-time. If you hit the river at the crack of dawn, take time for a nice mid-day lunch. Or stop early to get dinner at a popular steakhouse before it gets crowded.
Enjoy the drive along the river or through Yellowstone National Park.
5. Keep the Last Day or Two Free
It took us a few years to figure out this tip. We sometimes wished we had an extra day to return to the hotspot we stumbled into on day one. Now we build a “flex day” or two into our schedule to make this possible. Where we go on day four or day five depends on where we had the best success. This means you are better off scheduling your guided trips earlier in the week.
Fly fishing trips cost time and money. So do your best to make the most of them. These simple tips will help.
What is the best time of day to fish? After fly fishing for more than four decades, I’m rather adamant about my answer. I’ll stand by it no matter what any other fly fisher says.
My answer is: it depends.
Yes, the best time of day to fly fish depends on time of year, weather, water conditions, and the unique characteristics of each local stream or river. The best way to determine the best time to fly fish a particular stream or river on this day under these conditions is to gather intel from a local fly shop or from some successful anglers.
Or, you can experiment yourself.
For years I avoided the early morning.
I loved dry fly fishing so much that I preferred waiting until mid-day (see below). But a couple weeks ago, on a day when I was prepared to spend my early morning hours on the front porch of my cabin on Montana’s Boulder River, my son, Luke, reported that he was catching some nice rainbows on Caddis flies at about 7:30 a.m. — right about the time the sun peeked over the mountain to the east and flooded the river with light.
For nymphs and streamers, early morning typically works well all the time. This is a no-brainer on the Lower Madison River in Montana during the dog days of summer. By mid to late morning, the river temperature creeps into the high 60s, and fighting a fish under such conditions can be lethal (for the fish).
However, early morning also works well on cooler—or downright cold—days in the fall and spring. A couple falls ago, Dave (my podcast partner) and I started catching trout after trout on the Gardner River in the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park as soon as it was legal to begin fly fishing. (Hours are daily from sunrise to sunset.)
We were using nymphs. These trout were feisty, not sluggish, even at 7:30 a.m. The following spring, we tied into big rainbows on the Missouri River near Helena, Montana as soon as it was light enough to see and to sling and strip streamers.
Lesson: Get up early if you’re fishing with nymphs or streamers. But don’t take the early morning for granted when it comes to dry fly fishing. Check a fly fishing report for your river online. Or, better yet, visit the river in person to see if there are any early morning insect hatches.
The prime window for dry fly fishing is 10 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Or 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Or 11:00 to 1:00 p.m.
Or even 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
You get the idea. There is a prime window for dry fly hatches. The time will vary, though, from region to region — and even river to river.
For example, Tricos on the East Gallatin River north of Bozeman can start as early as 9:00 a.m. and finish by 11:00 a.m. But Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs) and Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) will wait to appear on the East Gallatin until about 11:00 a.m. regardless of the season. At least that was the case more than a decade ago.
Recently, a listener posted a comment about a fly shop near Big Sky, Montana, told him to focus on “bankers’ hours” — 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. — rather than early or late in the day. Yet a few more miles to the south, the best chance for summer anglers to catch trout on the Madison River just inside Yellowstone National Park is late in the evening when a final wave of Caddis flies show up.
I’ve typically had good success with nymphs or streamers during the middle of the day — particularly if nothing is happening on the surface. Yet, I’ve also had some summer days when the middle of the day is best spent taking a nap because that’s what the trout seem to be doing.
Lesson: Think mid-day, but find out from a fly shop or the local experts exactly when to expect a particular hatch to begin and end.
Late Afternoon and Early Evening
Fly fishers often speak glowingly about the “evening rise.”
I remember a terrific late afternoon and early evening on a little stream in the Black Hills of South Dakota many moons ago. The water seemed to boil as trout slurped insects off of the surface.
One of my best days on a little stream in the Wisconsin Driftless (near Timber Coulee) happened when the day was about done. A half hour before sunset, both Crane flies and Blue Winged Olives (BWOs) started emerging, and the trout did too.
Yet I’ve had mixed success during evenings on the same stretch of the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, Montana. Some evenings were gold; others were coal.
Lesson: Keep the evening rise in mind, but remember that it might be hit or miss. Again, you’ll need good intel — whether you get that from your own “trial and error” or pick it up at a fly shop.
It is common knowledge that the best time to catch large browns is after dark. Stripping streamers or “mousing” (stripping a large mouse pattern on the surface) can lead to a violent-but-satisfying strike. I’ve even caught brown trout in the Colorado high country on a size #20 Parachute Adams when it was so dark I could not even see the fly’s white post. In northern Michigan, fly fishers float the Au Sauble River and catch some of their largest trout between 10:00 p.m. and midnight.
Lesson: If you really want to have some fun, plan an after-dark night of fly fishing. But make sure you know what you’re doing! Dangers seem to be magnified after dark.