S2:E28 One Fine Day on Willow Creek

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Willow Creek is a gorgeous tailwater stream that flows out of Harrison Reservoir about an hour west of Bozeman, Montana. The willow-thick creek makes its way to the Jefferson River, which eventually flows in the Missouri. This fall, we spent a day fishing streamers on Willow Creek, and it became one of several highlights of our fly fishing year. Click on One Fine Day on Willow Creek now to listen to the podcast in your browser.

Listen to our episode “One Fine Day on Willow Creek”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

Describe a recent fine day on the water? What make it a terrific day? What made the experience more than simply a day of catching lots of fish?

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Fishing Streamers on Smaller Creeks

Fishing streamers is one of the most consistent ways to catch bigger fish. Trout that gobble up bait fish and larger aquatic insects like helgrammites get more bang for their caloric buck. More calories with less effort. A sure way to gain some heft. Pretty much how I would love to live my life, though I can’t because I’m a middle-aged guy with a slight paunch already. Some would say not so slight.

Steve, my podcast partner and I, recently fished streamers on two different-sized rivers in Montana. One day we each caught twenty browns and rainbows on a smaller stream called Willow Creek, ranging from 12 to 18 inches. Two days later, we each caught one big rainbow on the Missouri River just below Hauser Dam, after four hours of slinging.

Two days of fishing streamers. Two completely different rivers. I realize this may be patently obvious, but it needs to be said: Fishing streamers in smaller trout streams is simply different than slinging a rig in larger waters like the Missouri. Here are three adjustments that fly fishers need to make when fishing streamers on smaller creeks:

Cast Downstream When Fishing Streamers

For starters, you tend to get only one or two shots at the pocket of water in a smaller stream, so your cast needs to be precise. Most likely you’re not going to rip out four or five fish from one small run.

On Willow Creek, with the stream as low as it was this year, more often than not I got above the run, cast downstream, and then made three or four strips. Sometimes, I crawled to the bank near the middle of the run and then cast downstream and then stripped back the streamer.

On the Mighty Mo (Missouri), I cast as far as I could sling the streamer, slightly upstream, with a nine foot, eight weight fly rod. I mended my line once after the cast and then let the streamer drift until it began to swing. Then I stripped back the line. There were three of us fly fishing, and we cycled through about a 200-yard stretch of river.

Big river, big open spaces, big casts.

Quicker Retrieves

In the smaller creek, of course, there isn’t a lot of time to retrieve the line. Casts are shorter, and the distance from the end of the swing back to your fly rod is short. Sometimes, shorter, one- to three-inch strips seem to work best. Other times, six-inch strips seem to work.

In tight spaces, you may get only three or four strips, and then it’s time to cast again. On the Missouri, stripping the line was less frenetic. I had lots of time to retrieve the streamer.

There’s a rule of thumb that I am not sure works all the time. It goes something like this: If you’re fishing slower water, then make your strips faster, and if the river is faster, make your strips slower.

The more precise rule of thumb is: Try several ways to retrieve your line, and go with one that works.

Weight Forward Works Well When Fly Fishing Streamers

Our day on Willow Creek, I used my nine foot, six weight fly rod with weight forward line. No sink tip line. The runs were not that deep, maybe mid-thigh at most. Occasionally deeper, especially in the beaver ponds. But the runs were short and shallow.

However, on the Might Mo, I switch to a nine foot, eight weight rod. With sink tip line. Later in the morning, after I had caught a fat rainbow, I switched to my six weight rod with weight forward line. I simply couldn’t get the streamer down fast enough and deep enough. I gave up trying to streamer fish without a sink tip line and switched to nymphs.

The point is that it’s okay to use a weight forward line on smaller creeks, but on the larger rivers, its essential to have a spare reel with sink tip line in your truck.

10 Ways to Cope with the Fly Fishing Off Season

I am three weeks removed from my last fly fishing trip. Winter looms. I may not pick up my fly rod again until spring. Now the coping begins. It wasn’t always this way.

When I lived in Montana, I fished into November. Then, I ventured out at least once a month in December, January, and February. This satisfied my fly fishing urge until a new season began in March.

But how do you cope if you live in the city or the suburbs? How do you manage if you live far away from prime trout fisheries? I’ve figured out a few coping strategies since I moved a decade ago to the north suburbs of Chicago.

1. Go through the photos of your last trip.

Thumb through the photos on your cell phone. This brings back good memories and helps you re-live the best moments. Warning: Your photos might result in you laughing out loud or shouting “Yes!”

2. Make a list of the year’s best memories.

After you’ve thumbed through your photos, write down your favorite memories from the last year of fly fishing. For me, the list from last year includes:

  • Catching browns at dusk in Rocky Mountain National Park;
  • Hauling in fish after fish on streamers in Willow Creek (near Three Forks, Montana);
  • Landing a big rainbow on the Missouri River (near Helena, Montana); and
  • Catching a ridiculous number of browns in October on the Gardner River (in Yellowstone National Park).

Making a list will preserve your memories and maybe even remind you of a detail you had forgotten.

3. Take inventory of your gear.

This is an act of hope. It’s a reminder that you will fly fish again. Besides, it really does prepare you for your next trip.

4. Shop for something new.

This is the benefit—or liability—of the previous strategy. When you take inventory of your gear, you may discover your need for a new reel, new gloves, a new fly box, or a new net. This sends you on a mission to research options and prices. It keeps your mind off the reality that you are not able to fish.

5. Visit the trout at your local Bass Pro Shop.

A couple times during the winter, I visit our local Bass Pro Shop (nine miles from my house) and stand on a little bridge and look wistfully at the twenty-inch rainbows that swim in the little creek on the edge of the aisle with coffee mugs and pocket knives. Seriously!

Now I’m trying to muster the courage to ask the store manager if I can fly fish the stream since I’m a catch-and-release fly fisher. Seeing me catch these rainbows might get more people interested in fly fishing, and then they would spend more money at Bass Pro.

It’s a win-win, right?

6. Watch fly fishing videos.

The internet is loaded with videos of fly fishers catching trout. Start with websites like Orvis or Winston. Then, go to YouTube and search for about any river or species of trout which piques your interest.

7. Tie a few flies.

This only works if you are a fly tyer. If you’re not, the off-season is a good time to take your first class.

8. Read a good fly fishing book.

Read about the areas you want to fly fish. For example, if you’re headed to Montana or Wyoming, get a copy of Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the West. It’s an entertaining read with humor and history woven into it.

Read for skill-development. Gary Borger’s “Fly Fishing” series is ideal for this. His fourth book in the series, The Angler as Predator, helped me a lot.

You might even educate yourself on the flies you’re trying to imitate with a book like Pocketguide to Western Hatches by Dave Hughes or Matching Major Eastern Hatches: New Patterns for Selective Trout by Henry Ramsay.

Don’t forget to read through the lists you compiled from previous years (see #2 above).

9. Plan your next trip.

There’s nothing like planning your next trip to get the juices flowing! The off-season is a great time to do some research on new places or to plan for a visit to some good old places.

10. Watch “A River Runs Through It.”

You owe it to yourself to watch this at least once a year. The cinematography alone makes it worthwhile. The story is gripping, too. Real men might even shed a tear or two at the last scene.

Alright, something in the above list is guaranteed to help you cope with the fly fishing off-season. If not, watch college football and college basketball. Go hunting. Remodel your kitchen.

Oh yes, you might even consider a few hours on the water in the dead of winter if you’re within a day’s drive of a river or stream. Whatever you do to pass the time, winter will lift and the rivers will come to life in the spring.

Let a new season begin!