What a Fly Fisher Saw One Fall Day in Yellowstone

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:

fall day in Yellowstone

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.

Two Weeks before Your Fly Fishing Trip

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.

before your next 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?

Tips for Fly Fishing Trips to the Greater Yellowstone Area

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.

fly fishing trips to the greater yellowstone area

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.

Best Time of Day to Fish

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.

best time of day to fish

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.

Early morning

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.

Mid-day

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.

After Dark

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.

So what is the best time of day to fly fish?

Well, it depends.

Dressing for Fly Fishing Success

Too bad trout are not brand-savvy; I’d have more reasons to buy more gear and a pair of Simms pants. No, it’s not about the brand. Dressing for success on the river is all about staying comfortable and healthy.

fly fishing success

So here are some essentials to wear to the river:

1. A long-sleeved polyester shirt

I always start with this, whether the air temperature is 40 degrees or 90 degrees.

Why polyester (or some other kind of micro-fiber)?

I want a shirt that wicks moisture away from my body and offers sun protection. I wear long sleeves even on a hot day. I want to avoid the short-term (sunburn) and long-term (skin cancer) effects of the sun’s rays. A long-sleeved shirt also offers protection against mosquitoes.

Now what about a fly-fishing shirt?

Sure, these shirts look cool (and they are cool in the summer). I often wear one over my long-sleeved polyester shirt. A fly fishing shirt is the next layer you want to add to your upper body.

Of course, if you like pockets, a fly-fishing shirt is a fine alternative to a long-sleeved polyester shirt—even on a warm summer day. Simply wear it over a short-sleeved tee-shirt, preferably a polyester one which wicks away moisture.

However, a fly fishing shirt is not indispensable. I sometimes wear a cotton-polyester blend dress shirt that feels as comfortable as any of the fly fishing shirts I own. It’s light-weight, stretchy, and it cost me less than my fly-fishing shirts.

Whatever else you wear over it, start with a long-sleeved polyester shirt. It won’t let you down.

2. Nylon pants

Nylon pants are light-weight, so they dry out more quickly when than jeans and feel less waterlogged. They fit better under waders, too. If the weather turns cold, I’ll wear a pair of long johns under them. Layering is the key rather than a bulky pair of jeans or heavy pants.

Even when I wet-wade, I prefer long pants to a pair of nylon shorts. You can probably guess why — skin protection from the sun and from mosquitoes. The only time I opt for nylon shorts is when I plan to wear my chest-waders or waist-waders on a warm day. You can also purchase nylon pants with removable pant legs. This lets you choose instantly between long pants or shorts. But I don’t like these because the zippers tend to irritate my legs.

I’m not as picky about brand or quality as I am about a long-sleeved shirt. Don’t be fooled by descriptors like “guide pants” or “insect-shield pants.” Nylon pants are nylon pants. I buy the marked-down pair or the off-brand pair at the big box outdoor stores (Bass Pro, Cabela’s, REI, etc.).

3. Neck gaiter

Don’t overlook this little item!

A neck gaiter provides your neck with the same protection from the sun and insects that a shirt does for your arms. Besides, I’ve used one on cool, windy days to keep my face warm.

My neck gaiter is rather bland with its light-tan color. But a lot of fly shops sell these with more colorful fabric which has the same patterns as the body of your favorite species of trout.

Studies have shown that neck gaiters which look like the trout you’re trying to catch — cutthroat, for example — will increase your catch rate by about 23%.

Alight, I’m just kidding. But studies have shown (I think) that you’ll pay more for a neck gaiter in your local fly shop than at an outlet store.

Remember, trout don’t give you style points when it comes to what you wear — although your fly-fishing companions might. Whether it’s bland or colorful, don’t leave home without a neck gaiter.

4. Moisture-shedding hat

I used to wear a blue St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap (the kind the Redbirds used for away games). It was comfortable, but it was made out of cotton. Whenever it rained, it got water-logged. I did have the sense, though, to wear a wool cap (made by Woolrich) on cooler, rainy days. It handled the moisture fine.

Now, I wear either a Simms GORE-TEX lightweight cap on summer days or a Simms GORE-TEX fleece-insulated hat with flaps to cover my ears on colder days. I hope more fly fishing cap manufacturers will offer some with GORE-TEX. The stuff is amazing.

There are other features in a hat you might consider, too. Some fly fishers like hats with a bill all around them (such as a cowboy hat or a sombrero hat) for more sun protection. Others prefer a cap with a long brim and a cape to cover one’s neck and ears (an alternative to a neck gaiter).

There are a lot of options. The key is to choose a hat which is comfortable, sheds moisture, keeps you warm or cool (depending on the conditions), and provides ample protection from the sun. Plus, it shouldn’t cost as much as your fly reel.

5. Lightweight rain jacket

Prepare to spend the money you save on your hat or neck gaiter on a rain jacket. This is an essential, although I don’t wear it unless it’s cool or rainy. Instead, I stuff it into my fly fishing vest.

I have an older, no-frills Simms lightweight rain jacket that is no bulkier than a fly fishing shirt. It has been a life-saver on sunny days when a rain-shower seems to come out of nowhere. It also provides an extra layer of warmth on a cool morning or evening.

Successful fly fishers dress for success. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. Nor do you need to look like a model on a fly fishing website. Just make sure you dress for comfort and protection.

Fly Fishing Nets: Bigger May be Better

fly fishing nets bigger

I like to travel light. For a long hike into the river, I’ve always preferred my small Brodin net. It’s so light I hardly know it’s attached to my fly vest. Besides, it’s compact enough that it rarely gets caught in brush and snaps back at me.

Yet, I’m gradually changing my mind and carrying my Fishpond Nomad Emerger. It’s a larger net with a bigger basket and a longer handle. There are three reasons why bigger may be better when it comes to nets:

1. A bigger basket makes it easier to land a larger fish

The principle here can be illustrated by shooting a basketball into a regulation-sized hoop and one with the circumference of a bushel basket.

Bigger makes easier.

If you’re trying to land a trout quickly, it will still have a lot of energy when you bring it to the net. It will likely dart one way or another. So a larger net increases the odds that you’ll scoop it up the first time. With a smaller net, there is less margin of error—especially when you’re trying to land a 20-inch trout!

For example, my smaller hand net has a basket that is 13.5 inches long and 8 inches wide. By contrast, the basket on my Fishpond Nomad Emerger is 19 inches long and 9.5 inches wide. This gives me a significant advantage when trying to net a fish.

2. A longer handle makes it easier to reach a larger fish

The larger the fish, the longer the reach you need.

It’s tough to maneuver a trout close enough to scoop it up with a short-handled net. But a longer handled-net makes the job easier. For comparison, my small hand-held net has an 7-inch handle, while my larger one has an 13-inch handle.

A longer handle also gives me more space when I’m trying to land a trout on the end of my buddy’s line. I hate crowding my fly fishing friends when trying to land their fish.

I still remember the time my son was fighting a 20-inch (or so) brown, and it circled around me, wrapping the line around my leg and snapping it off when I moved in to net it. A longer handled net would have given me more distance and time to prevent that from happening.

3. The weight of a bigger net is negligible due to technology

The frame of newer nets consists of composite materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass. That’s the case with my Fishpond Nomad Emerger. The composite materials make the frame both lightweight and durable.

But what about bulk?

Surprisingly, I don’t snag it that often on brush and tree branches when I’m walking along the river. Its design is still fairly sleek.

Also, I suspect that a larger net makes me pay closer attention to potential snags, which I tend to forget when I’m carrying a smaller net. Whatever the case, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the feel of my larger net.

When it’s clipped to the back of my fly fishing vest, I don’t notice any it any more than my smaller one. Bigger may really be better.

Hidden Dangers for Summer Fly Fishers

We have talked ad nauseam about some of the obvious dangers while on the river on our podcast: lightning, venomous snakes, drowning, and grizzly bears. But there are other hidden dangers for summer fly fishers to consider:

hidden dangers for summer fly fishers

1. Livestock and (big) game on the road

Perhaps the most dangerous part of your fishing trip is the drive to and from the river. This is especially true if you’re driving early in the morning or late in the evening.

A few years ago, legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight totaled his SUV when he hit a cow while driving at night after fly fishing a Wyoming river. Dave, my podcast partner and I fished the same river the next day. On our drive to the river, we noticed that it was open range. We saw several mule deer, too, at dusk.

Just the other day while in Rocky Mountain National Park, Dave came up on a five-point bull elk as he rounded a curve from the Fall River to Estes Park. Fortunately, Dave wasn’t on his phone, or its velvet-covered antlers may have adorned the small truck he was driving.

Stay alert even while you’re driving and dreaming about the fish you’re going to catch – or fretting over the strikes you missed.

2. Ticks

One of our listeners just informed us about a fly fisher in Wisconsin who ended up with Lyme Disease as a result of a tick. According to the CDC, Lyme disease is “transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans.”

Our listener suggested we reconsider our habit of wet wading on a hot summer day. Perhaps chest waders are the way to go for protection against ticks.

At the very least, use insect repellent, and wear long sleeves and pants. Some of the light Dri-Fit products make long sleeves and long pants bearable even when the temperatures creep into the 90s. Whatever you wear, check yourself carefully at the end of the day for ticks.

3. Sun burn and dehydradation

The sun is your friend. But it is also your enemy if you don’t take the proper precautions. Skin cancer is a serious concern. So, either use sun screen or cover up. I prefer the latter. As suggested above, go with long sleeves and long pants. Use a neck gator or a hat which provides more coverage than a ball-cap does. You might try a cowboy hat. Yes, you’re allowed to wear a cowboy hat even if you don’t own spurs and wouldn’t know what to do on a good cutting horse!

Also, summer heat means you need to drink more water than you think you do. According to Mayo Clinic, “Dehydration occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in, and your body doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions. If you don’t replace lost fluids, you will get dehydrated.”

So it’s worth the extra weight in your fly vest or pack to include an extra bottle of water. That weight will disappear soon enough. For longer hikes to the river, you might consider water purification tablets or a bottle with a built-in water purification system.

I also drink as much water as I can before starting out on the hike.

4. Food poisoning

Huh? Yes, think twice before packing a chicken salad sandwich or anything else with mayonnaise. By the time you pull out your sandwich for lunch, the heat may have spoiled it.

If you can’t eat a turkey or beef sandwich without mayo, then include some packets of mayo (from a fast food restaurant) in your lunch. Your stomach will be glad you waited to smear on the mayo.

Effective Dry Fly Patterns for Summer

If you are headed to the Rocky Mountain west to fly fish this summer, make sure your fly box is full of effective dry fly patterns. There are some obvious choices: Parachute Adams (for Blue-Winged Olive hatches), Elk Hair Caddis patterns (for the ubiquitous caddis flies), Pale Morning Duns (PMDs), and, of course, grasshoppers.

Don’t leave home without an ample supply of hoppers!

The Purple Haze (a variation of the Parachute Adams, but with a purple thorax) is an effective dry fly pattern, too.

Other patterns, though, get easily overlooked. Yet they can be highly effective. We suggest you consider including the following seven in your fly box:

1. Stimulator

This is a terrific all-around pattern for stoneflies.

My brother, Dave, has had great success with this in the small streams in the high country in Colorado. I like it in sizes 14-18, although a size 12 can work well too. I always go with orange — whether an orange body or an orange head with an olive body.

This fly also works during the salmon fly hatches on the big western rivers in June.

2. Spruce Moth

A couple years ago, my friend, Brand, put me on to this pattern while fly fishing the Boulder River south of Big Timber, Montana.

Since then, I’ve used Spruce Moths successfully on other rivers throughout the west—wherever Spruce and Fir trees are found. These moths can be bad news for the trees, but they are good news for fly fishers. Trout jump (literally!) at the opportunity to feed on them because, like grasshoppers, they provide a lot of calories in one gulp.

I’ve used Spruce Moths throughout the summer, but they work especially well in August when there are hatches. I prefer them in sizes 12 or 14. They can even imitate small grasshoppers.

3. Renegade

This fly has been around for a long time, and it’s one of the first patterns I used in the late 1970s when I started fly fishing.

It’s a classic attractor pattern, meaning that it doesn’t imitate a particular insect. It has white hackles on the front, brown hackles at the back, and a peacock herl abdomen in the middle. The white and brown hackles make this fly visible to fly fishers.

Now it doesn’t take a lot for it to get waterlogged and sink just under the film. When this happens, don’t get frustrated. Keep fishing it, because trout love taking it when it has been submerged.

Standard sizes are 14-18.

4. Beetles and Ants

Perhaps these terrestrials do not get ignored as much as I think they do. But I’m surprised how many fly fishers will fish a hopper pattern without dropping a terrestrial behind it. When I fish a hopper plus a beetle or a hopper plus an ant, I seem to catch as many on the terrestrial as I do on the hopper!

I prefer smaller sizes like 16 or 18, although a size 14 is fine.

5. H and L Variant

Dave, my podcast partner, has already sung the praises of this flythis fly. I like it, too, because it’s a highly visible fly which holds its own in rough water.

In fact, I think of it as a vanilla Royal Wulff. It has the bushy hackle without as much color. Once again, the standard sizes (14-18) work well.

6. Royal Trude

This is a cousin of sorts to the Royal Wulff.

Rather than two hair wings which resemble a fly in its dun stage, the Royal Trude has a long white down-wing. This gives the trout a different look. In fact, the Royal Trude can work both as a salmon fly and a grasshopper imitation. I have a friend who fishes nothing but this fly on the Yellowstone River in Montana. He always catches his share of trout. Some even fish this as a wet fly or a streamer. But it’s highly effective as dry fly.

I like it in sizes 12-16.

7. Humpy

This is another rough water fly, and perhaps you wonder “why bother?” since other attractor patterns like a Royal Wulff or an H and L Variant work effectively.

But the Humpy is so bushy that it seems to stay “dry” longer these two. The lower abdomen of the fly is either red, yellow, green, or even purple (the “Humpy Haze,” anyone?). As for sizes, I am partial to a size 16, although a 14 is fine, too.

What are some other overlooked effective dry fly patterns that work well for you? Please leave a comment and let us know!

Great Quotes from “A River Runs Through It”

In 1987, shortly after I moved to Helena, Montana, I bought a copy of “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean.

A River Runs Through It

I was browsing in a little bookstore in Last Chance Gulch, looking for the next Montana author to read. The movie had not yet popularized the novella, but a friend had recommended “A River Runs Through It.” So I picked up a copy. Ivan Doig, A. B. Guthrie, and other Montana authors would have to wait. The first paragraph captivated me, and I found that the book touched me deeply. Both the first and last lines are classic.

    “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

    “I am haunted by waters.”

There are, of course, several other lines worth pondering. Here are a few of my favorites, along with my musings about them.

It’s a Rod!

    “Always it was to be called a rod. If someone called it a pole, my father looked at him as a sergeant in the United States Marines would look at a recruit who had just called a rifle a gun.”

The funny thing is, I was looking at high-end Orvis rods in a fly shop a few weeks ago, and the clerk (obviously a newbie) said, “Those are some really pricey poles you looking at.” I bit my tongue, but thought of the Rev. Maclean and how he would have frowned on this.

On Casting Technique

    “Until a man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air.”

Been there, done that. I also witnessed it a few weeks ago while helping a new fly fisher with his casting. Bringing your rod back too far on the back cast will also result in hooking brush or tree limbs or in slapping the water behind you if you are casting straight upstream.

The Montana Mindset

    “My brother and I soon discovered [the world outside] was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.”

Residents of Bozeman, Montana would beg to differ!

There is a heated rivalry between the University of Montana (in Missoula) and Montana State University (in Bozeman). I won’t repeat some of the names fans from each city have called each other!

Bait Fisherman Take One on the Chin

    “When [bait fishermen] come back home they don’t even kiss their mothers on the front porch before they’re in the back garden with a red Hills Bros. coffee can digging for angleworms.”

This was the younger brother Paul’s line. He was no fan of bait fishermen!

I’ll admit that I started out catching brook trout with worms. I have no qualms with this method if an angler is trying to catch dinner and honoring the limits set by a state fish and game agency. But there is no place for bait fishing — or spin-casting with treble hook lures — when it comes to catch and release.

The Glory of Nature

    “Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory.”

This is simply beautiful prose, and it comes from one who has interacted deeply with nature. Fly fishing is not just about catching fish (although I’m all about catching fish!). It’s about experiencing nature and seeing its patterns reflect that way the Creator has designed life.

The Twists and Turns of Life

    “The fisherman even has a phrase to describe what he does when he studies the patterns of a river. He says he is ‘reading the water,’ and perhaps to tell his stories he has to do much the same thing.”

This quote comes right after Norman Maclean observes that “stories of life are more often like rivers than books.” I think he is saying that stories of life are fluid and take twists and turns that we do not anticipate.

The Big Idea of A River Runs Through It

    “You can love completely without complete understanding.”

This is what Norman said to his father when they were discussing his younger brother Paul’s death. I believe it is the big idea of the book. Maclean’s novella is about more than fly fishing. It’s about family and about living with and loving those who elude us. And yes, it’s about how all things eventually merge into one and how a river runs through it (per it’s last full paragraph).

And yes, like Norman Maclean, I am haunted by waters.

What to Wear When You Wade

Every fly fisher knows what to wear when you wade the river. The Simms and Cabelas’ models have shown us. We need to don a pair of chest waders and pull on our wading boots. But sometimes, the conditions dictate another approach.

wear when you wade

If you’re new to fly fishing, here is a guide for when you wade the river.

1. Chest Waders + Wading Boots

This is the default approach.

A good pair of chest waders will keep you dry and warm as you wade a cold river. They will also keep you safe if you fall in, provided you use a wading belt. Please, don’t leave home without a wading belt! Some fly fishers tell us they use two for added protection. A wading belt seals the waders around your waist or chest so that they cannot fill up with water and weigh you down.

A good-quality pair of wading boots are a must, too.

This is where it gets a bit tricky because the best sole for traction is felt (in my opinion). But conservation-minded fly fishers frown on felt because it can trap the microorganisms and thus spread invasive species as a fly fisher moves from one river to another. So I don’t use felt, ever.

Frankly (and unfortunately), rubber-soled alternatives do not work as well as felt.

But Dave, my podcast partner, and I are sold on Patagonia Foot Tractors (we receive no kickback for recommending them). The aluminum bars on the sole really do provide good traction. But you’ll want to wait until you get to the river to put them on. Your local fly shop will appreciate you for waiting — especially if the shop has hardwood floors; the aluminum bars are meant to dig into bottom of the river.

So when should you wear chest waders and wading boots?

The most obvious answer is any time you will be wading in water above your thighs. By the way, the term “chest waders” does not demand that you wade in chest-high water. I highly recommend that you do not do this for the sake of safety.

You can also wear chest waders if the weather is cold or cool — even if you’ll will only wade in ankle deep water. You could “layer up” with other kinds of clothing, but if you sit on the bank in the early morning when the dew is on the ground, you’ll be thankful for your waders.

And obviously, you always using your wading boots with your chest waders.

2. Waist Waders + Wading Boots

Sometimes, though, the weather is too hot for chest waders.

We wish a large gentleman we saw a few years ago would have gotten this memo. He was fishing a spring creek on an 80+ degree day and was wearing chest waders. There was no need to wade the little creek except to cross it at a few points (in ankle deep water).

No need to sweat profusely.

One alternative is waist waders plus your wading boots. This works well if you want to stay dry but want to avoid over-heating. I ordered an inexpensive pair from Cabela’s and they seem sturdy enough.

I’ve wondered if waist waders provide a safety risk to those fly fishers who wade into thigh-deep water. Could they fill up with water more easily if you slip and fall in the river?

I suspect that the belt around your waist would keep them from filling up with water. But I haven’t fallen in with my waist waders (only while wearing my chest waders!), so I’m not certain about this.

3. Wet Wading + Wading Sandals (or Wading Shoes or Wading Boots)

If it is a hot day in the summer, wet wading is an alternative.

I’ll talk about clothing alternatives in a moment, but this means your clothing will get wet — yes, soaking wet. Footwear for wet wading is either wading sandals, wading shoes, or your wading boots.

I prefer a pair of Simms wading shoes. They are light. The downside, of course, is the rubber soles (see above). Some older wading sandals have felt soles, but these are going the way of cassettes, VHS, and CDs (for the environmental concerns mentioned earlier).

Wading boots work fine, although they are a bit heavier.

If you wear wading boots without waders, you’ll want to use Neoprene wading socks. Almost all the major manufacturers of waders make these. However, don’t expect that these will keep your feet dry. I’ve never had a pair that really sealed around my calf so that water didn’t seep down into them. But these socks will keep your feel from slipping around in your boots — even if your feet get wet.

What Clothing to Wear When You Wade

While we’re on the topic of wet wading, let’s address clothing. One alternative is a pair of frayed, cutoff shorts, which you make from your worn-out jeans.

Oh wait, it’s not the 1970s!

A better alternative is a pair of nylon pants or shorts. Go to your local sporting goods store and buy the cheapest pair you can find. They work as well as the high priced wading shorts and pants you’ll find in your local fly shop. The reason you want nylon is because it doesn’t feel as heavy when it’s waterlogged, and it dries out fairly quickly. If you’re wondering how well jeans work, well, try it once. We guarantee you’ll never do it again!

Downsides to Wet Wading

One is more exposure when you are fishing in areas where there are venomous snakes.

We talked recently on a podcast about a fly fisher who got bit by a copperhead in Shenandoah National Park. Now we’re not guaranteeing that waders will protect you sufficiently (unless you can figure out how to make a pair out of Kevlar!). But loose waders and a pair of wading boots may protect you a bit more.

A listener of our podcast also recently reminded us that wearing chest waders is a deterrent to ticks in the summer. Good point!

Also, you can’t store your wallet, car keys, and cell phone in your pants pockets if you are wet wading.

However, you’ll be relieved to know that neither Dave or I have discovered that our white legs scare away the trout when we wet wade in nylon shorts. Sorry to leave you with that image!

Whatever you wear when you wade, wade safely.