The exact arrival of the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yellowstone River is unpredictable.
As its name suggests, the hatch often peaks around Mother’s Day. By then, warm temperatures have caused enough snow runoff so that the Yellowstone swells and looks like chocolate milk. But every so often, cooler temperatures delay the runoff, giving fly fishers a few days to fish during the fabled hatch.
On one of these late April days, I drive over the Bozeman Pass on Interstate 90 to fish a favorite section of the Yellowstone below the Pine Creek Bridge. As I walk down the river along its east bank, I enter a stretch where huge cliffs of dirt and rock loom over the river and obscure the view of the Absarokee-Beartooth Mountains. A deep, narrow run flows right beside the bank.
The caddis are fluttering all over the water. In fact, they are climbing on my hat and on the lens of my sunglasses. Every few minutes, these tan bugs seem to come off in waves. When this happens, the run beneath the bank comes to life. The water seems to boil as trout after trout rolls over and ingests one fly and then another.
My first cast is terrible. It is too short, so I decide to lift the line off the water and make another cast. But as I lift the tip of my fly rod, a 14-inch rainbow cruises to the surface and attacks my imitation caddis fly. I land the fish and try it again. My second cast is better. My fly floats a few feet, riding the roller-coaster current before another trout launches an attack. This time, it’s a 15-inch rainbow. For the next ten minutes, this scene repeats itself several times. Every cast gets a strike. I miss my share and even manage to land my flies in a tangle on my hat. You’d think I had never fly fished before. I hate to waste the five minutes it takes to untangle and re-tie my lead fly and dropper. But I have no choice.
For the next hour, I have at least four ten-minute stretches where the fishing is just phenomenal. Then the action subsides for a few minutes until another wave of caddis emerges from the deep.
But now the dreaded wind is picking up. It whips up dust from the dirt bank behind me, and my eyes cannot take it because I am wearing contact lenses behind my sunglasses. The wind also makes it impossible to cast. Even when I land my fly where it needs to be the wind forces it to plough through the water like a water-skier. It’s time to take a break. So, I hook my fly into the little hook near the cork handle on my fly rod. I cross my arms, and hold my rod to my chest. Then I close my eyes to wait it out.
Skills for the Caddis Craze
Suddenly, I feel my rod jerk. Something is trying to rip it out of my arms. I’m so startled that I almost fall into the water beneath my feet. I get a grip on my rod, open my eyes and can’t believe what I see. I am fighting a fish! I quickly realize that the wind had dislodged my fly from the hook on my rod and that the fly had been fluttering in the wind while my eyes were closed. It obviously touched down on the surface of the river. When it did, a trout made its move. After recovering from the shock, I start laughing as I land a 13-inch rainbow.
A few months later, I share this story with Bud Lilly and Paul Schullery. They are at the Magpie Bookstore in Three Forks, Montana to sign their book, Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the West. Bud and Paul both laugh, and Bud says: “Sounds like it didn’t take too much skill that day.”
Indeed, it did not.
Insect hatches on trout rivers are a crazy phenomena. They sometimes drive the trout crazy, and sometimes they make fly fishers go crazy when the trout go into a feeding frenzy but refuse to take an angler’s fly. Or sometimes they will attack your fly when you’re not even fishing! You never know what to expect.
It is part of the mystique of fishing the hatch.