Here at Sweetwater Fly Shop, we’ve been working rather feverishly to complete “Fly Fishing in Paradise,” our informative little booklet on all things related to fly fishing in our area. It’s got a little of everything, from articles on fishing the Yellowstone River and the Paradise Valley spring creeks, to fishing, fish handling, and photography tips, to restaurant suggestions. If you’re headed our way this summer (or sooner), give it a read. Just click on the cover photo to the left to download a .pdf version. Prefer a printed copy? Email us with your address and we’ll get one in the mail as soon as they arrive (sometime next week).
Did we leave anything out? Let us know by leaving a comment to this post. If we like your suggestion, we’ll update the online version and send you a dozen pretty good flies. What a deal!
A male “Western” March Brown Dun
I’d seen my first one a little more than two weeks ago, flying from the Yellowstone River into the cool, early-spring air. It was trying to clear the rocks near shore, searching for a place to rest in the sagebrush and shrubs to change into a spinner and complete its life-cycle. I tried to net it with my hat, but I missed, and it slowly motored beyond my reach. It was a big mayfly, bigger than the midges and Blue Winged Olives (Baetis) that were also emerging. Because of its size and the time of year it was emerging, I knew what it was, though I had never before seen one in person. Two days ago, I found a lazier one just sitting on the rocks near shore. I took it home to photograph. That’s him in the above picture.
Six months ago (before I moved to Montana), I would have called this mayfly a Western March Brown; truth is, out of habit, I still sometimes call mayflies “Western” March Browns or “Western” Green Drakes. But now that I live in the west, I can most assuredly drop the “western” part of all mayfly common names. After all, no one back east calls their legendary Green Drakes “Eastern” Green Drakes. And no one there attaches “Eastern” to their March Brown either.
A female “Eastern” March Brown dun
Western March Browns and Eastern March Browns have a few traits in common besides their angler-given names. But they are not related, and much of their similarities end at their names. Eastern March Browns are from the Genus Maccaffertium (species vicarium). Their angler-given name belies the fact that Eastern March Browns usually hatch in May. So why would a mayfly that hatches in May be called a “March” Brown? It’s because the first European Americans who witnessed Eastern March Brown emergences thought the bugs looked very similar to a mayfly that lived in their former homeland–England. This mayfly often hatches in March, but it is from the genus Rhithrogena (species germanica). The same genus as the Western March Brown (species morrisoni )
Both Western and Eastern March Brown nymphs are classified as clingers. They are similarly shaped and are most often found holding themselves flattened against submerged rocks in riffles. But these two mayflies emerge quite differently. Western March Browns emerge on the stream bottom and quickly swim to the surface as fully formed duns. This is similar to how Eastern Quill Gordons (E. pleuralis) and Pink Cahills (E. vitreus) emerge, but very unlike Eastern March Browns. Eastern March Brown nymphs migrate from riffles to areas of slack current where they emerge, most often, in the surface film. This makes emergers tied on curved hooks with trailing shucks quite effective for impersonating Eastern March Brown emergers. But you’d be better off swinging wet flies if you want to imitate the emergence of Western March Browns.
Both Eastern and Western March Browns are big mayflies, around a size 12, and though I didn’t find fish eating them this week, they will be soon in many rivers and streams throughout the country. March Brown hatches can be some of the most anticipated of the year, whether you live in the east or the west.
I enjoy nymphing. There, I said it. Let the mockery and derision begin.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If the trout are eating on top, I prefer to fish dry flies. I like nothing more than to see a fish come up and slurp down my fly. And I’ll strip streamers on occasion. The lure of big fish gets my heart pumping as much as the next guy. But especially early in the year, and anytime that the dry fly or streamer action is slow, I’ll tie on a couple of nymphs without hesitation or guilt. We’re not talking competition-style nymphing here, just good-old indicator and split-shot nymphing. And I’ll not just switch to nymphs because of their effectiveness. I’ll do it because I like it.
Admittedly, I prefer to nymph while wading. It has a certain timeless rhythm to it. Cast, follow, mend, follow, take a couple of steps upstream, repeat. And it requires unwavering focus and attention.
On a guide trip last summer, a client accused me of “dumbing-it-down” when I switched from a dry/dropper to an indicator rig. No, I was just doing my best to get her into some fish, and the other method wasn’t doing it for us that day. The negative perception is out there. Just when did indicator nymphing become the dreaded, yawn-inducing “bobber-watching?” The purview of the beginner and the unenlightened? Yes, it is a great way to get introduced to the sport. But to do it well requires as much practice and skill as any other method of fly fishing. And more concentration.
So here’s to all you closet nymphers out there. Let others sneer; it’s their loss. Let’s nymph and be proud.
We continue to unpack box after box of new products, and what we’ve found has us very excited for the upcoming season. The boxes from Fishpond were particularly juicy. Let me just mention a couple of items that we unpacked, in addition to all of the exceptional quality packs, bags, and tools that are the forte of the Colorado company.
First up are the Nomad Series nets. These babies are crafted from a combination of carbon fiber and fiberglass. They’re incredibly light for their size (considerably lighter than wood), but are built to last. They’re weatherproof and buoyant, lest your buddy drop your net in the river. The handles are coated with rubberized paint, so they won’t slip out of your wet hands. The come with a “ghost net” clear rubber bag. I’m not fully convinced that the clear bag makes a difference in netting a fish, but the rubber sure is easier on the fish than mesh and also easier to untangle your flies. These nets sure look nice as well.
We also love the new CO-Lab wool pullovers, Fishpond’s collaboration with Voormi, another small Colorado company (it took me a while to figure out that the CO in CO-Lab stood for Colorado). Made with locally sourced Merino wool, these pieces are butter-soft on the inside. On the outside, Voormi has come up with a process to coat the wool fibers such that they are more water resistant and also more durable than plain wool. These pullovers would be ideal to wear as an outer layer on a cool spring morning, or as a layering piece when the cold wind is blowing or the rain/snow begins to fall. You’ll look great in one when you’re just hanging out at the sidewalk tables of Gil’s Goods. We’ve got the High-E Hoodie for women and the somewhat lighter Access Pullover for men. Check these out, for sure!
In the more traditional fishing packs category, Fishpond has a winner with the new Delta Sling Pack. Made with Fishpond’s Cyclepond (recycled fishing net) material, it’s light but durable. Unlike most sling packs on the market, this one can be worn over either shoulder, so you can switch off during the day. It’s big enough to carry a ton of gear, as well as your rain jacket and lunch. It has plenty of attachment points to keep all of your tools at hand and a slot for a guide net. It even has a Velcro attachment point for a pistol holster, if you’re one to carry heat in bear country. Load one of these up and head to the backcountry; the mesh back panel will keep it comfortable even when it’s full of heavy stuff.
With the first blue-winged olive (baetis) mayflies starting to appear on the Paradise Valley spring creeks, I thought I’d post a few words (ok, a few more than that) I recently wrote about these world-class fisheries:
Before I had even moved to Montana, back in 2004, I knew about the Paradise Valley spring creeks. I knew that they were world-famous fisheries, where the best anglers paid a fee to challenge themselves against highly “educated” trout. That they hosted prodigious hatches of mayflies that had to be imitated nearly perfectly. That they were clear and shallow, with tricky currents. I knew all this. And frankly, I was intimidated. Intimidated enough that I never set foot on any of them the first 5 or so years that I lived half an hour away, despite the thousands of hours I spent waving my rod over the local waters. Then one day I screwed up my courage and booked a day at DePuy’s Spring Creek. Armed with a little advice and a few flies from a local fly shop, I made my way to the creek. And, lo-and-behold, I caught some trout. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to make my former trepidation seem a bit foolish. Since then, I’ve fished the creeks in all seasons, with nymphs, dry flies, and even streamers. I’ve guided them a few times. I’m far from a spring creek expert, but I’ve learned that even an intermediate angler can be successful on these storied waters, if prepared with the right approach.
Notice that I said an intermediate angler, not a novice. The spring creeks are challenging, to be sure. To be successful, the angler needs to be able to cast fairly accurately, if not particularly far. A drag-free drift, at least for moderate distances, is a must. A day on one of the creeks is likely to be an exercise in frustration, and a waste of money, if the basic skills haven’t yet been mastered. All that said, the spring creeks are actually a great place for relative novices to improve their nascent fly fishing skills with the help of a guide. They tend to reward good technique, and a guide can help you develop that technique. In truth, a day with a guide is a good idea for anyone who’s new to the spring creeks. If you’ve already spent a bunch of money travelling to Montana for a multi-day trip to the spring creeks, one day’s guide fee is a small price to pay for some expert instruction to get you started in the right direction. Some anglers who fish the spring creeks multiple days every year still hire a guide for every one of those days. Don’t just read this article and head to one of the creeks. Hire a guide; you’ll be glad you did.
But let’s say you’re a committed DIY’er, or that hiring a guide would be an undue financial burden. You can still be successful doing it on your own. Go ahead and book a day on one of the spring creeks. Leave your intimidation, and your box of size 12 Princes, at home. Stop at one of the Livingston-area fly shops (preferably Sweetwater Fly Shop) and tell them where you’re going. They’ll help you select some flies for your day and provide some advice about where and how to fish the particular creek you’re visiting. And then go and have fun. And remember to look up once in a while. The creeks are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. They don’t call it the Paradise Valley for nothing.
First, let me say a few words about the Paradise Spring Creeks (and their trout). The three creeks are really two. The first flows into the Yellowstone River from its west side. It rises from the ground on, and flows through, the O’Hair’s Ranch, where it is known as Armstrong Spring Creek. It then flows through the DePuy’s Ranch, where it is not surprisingly known as DePuy’s Spring Creek. Those two creeks are really different stretches of the same creek. The second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) flows through the Nelson’s Ranch on the east side of the Yellowstone River. This is, you guessed it, Nelson’s Spring Creek. Depuy’s is the most beginner-friendly, as its riffles, runs, and pools are the most like a classic freestone. Nelson’s is the most challenging, and probably not the best of the creeks for a first-timer.
Spring creeks, by their nature, have a nearly constant flow and temperature (around 52 degrees). The constant temperature means that the trout in the creeks tend to feed consistently all year round. The spring creeks also contain a high concentration of nutrients. This leads to a high concentration of insect and crustacean life, at least of certain types of trout food, most of it relatively small. They creeks are conducive to midges and small mayflies, not to large stoneflies, for example. Most of the food available to spring creek fish tops out at around a size 16, and much of it is considerably smaller. If you’re my age, some magnifying glasses can be almost a necessity, if you ever want to get your tippet through the eye of these diminutive flies.
One of the most useful tidbits of spring creek wisdom was offered up by master spring creek guide Brant Oswald. Spring creek trout are not actually any smarter than other trout, Oswald pointed out. They can, however, afford to be more selective in their food choices. Because of the plethora of food that is available to them, particularly during hatch periods, spring creek trout can “key in” on a single bug (or even a single stage of that bug) and still get enough to eat. The simply don’t have to be as opportunistic as freestone trout. It is possible to catch trout on the creeks with attractor dries and nymphs, but you’re likely to do better if you do a good job of imitating what they’re currently feasting on.
For this reason, the spring creeks can actually be a bit easier to fish during times when no hatches are going on. In the winter, for example, the fish are somewhat more opportunistic in their feeding. Because the water temperature stays relatively warm even during the cold months of the year, spring creek trout continue to feed steadily, unlike their freestone brethren. And they’re not feeding as selectively as during the summer. A well-presented mayfly nymph, midge pupa, scud, or sowbug can be quite effective on a warm day in the winter. As a bonus, the rod fees are lower ($40) and you’re less likely to be aced out of a good-looking spot by another angler.
But “matching the hatch,” particularly with dry flies, is what makes the spring creeks a draw to anglers from around the world. Fooling a rising fish with your floating imitation will make you feel like you really have this fly fishing thing down. Especially if you’ve had to change your fly several times to find just the right one. The Paradise Valley spring creeks are most renowned for their mid-summer Pale Morning Dun (PMD) mayfly hatches. However, I find the spring and fall baetis (blue-winged olive) mayfly hatches to be more friendly to the angler who’s still on a spring creek “learner’s permit.” The creeks aren’t as crowded (in fact, it can often be difficult to get on any of the creeks on short notice during the summer months), the rod fees aren’t as high, and the fish aren’t quite as wary.
Regardless of which hatch you are fishing, there is a predictable sequence of events that unfolds. The nymphs swim to the surface, where they shed their nymphal shucks. The newly emerged duns rest on the surface for a brief time while their wings harden, and then they fly away. A few of the emerging duns get stuck in their shucks and others emerge with a crippled wing. These become easy pickings for trout. Your fishing strategy can follow this sequence. Before the hatch begins, fish nymphs progressively closer to the surface. If you’re able to spot feeding trout, “follow” them up the water column as they feed higher. Just before the hatch begins, you may only have a few inches of tippet below your indicator. During the hatch proper, you’ll be tempted to switch to a dun pattern. After all, you’re seeing hundreds of duns floating down the river past you. And yes, you can catch fish, sometimes may fish, on duns. But it pays to remember that duns are “risky” food for the trout. The duns have the tendency to fly away just as the fish rises up to slurp them off of the surface. Energy wasted. An emerging nymph or cripple doesn’t present this risk. For this reason, it often pays dividends to fish an emerger or cripple pattern, either on its own or as a dropper off of your dun pattern. It also pays to remember that more nymphs are swimming to the surface, even as duns are emerging. An unweighted nymph dusted with a powdered floatant, such as Frog’s Fanny, can be an effective dropper fly.
If you’re planning to be on the creek into the evening (or in the early morning), don’t neglect the spinner fall. The mayfly completes its life cycle by metamorphosing from a dun to a spinner. The spinners fly in clouds over the riffles, where they mate. The females then fall the water, where they lay their eggs and expire. The males also fall spent. Trout will eagerly feed on the fallen spinners. Though the spinner falls typically take place in the riffles, the biggest trout will usually be found feeding in the slower water below the riffle, where they can expend less energy.
Presentation is probably the most important determinant of whether an actively rising fish will take your fly. A drag-free presentation is critical. Mayflies rarely skate across the water’s surface, and your dragging fly will immediately alert the trout that it’s not the real thing. Always take a moment to plan out your presentation strategy before you begin casting to a riser. How can you present your fly such that it’s not dragging when it passes over the fish? Casting from upstream and across from the fish can often be your best bet, and also assures that your fly will reach the fish before your leader does. You can also cast from directly above the fish, using a pile cast to provide slack line to feed down to where the fish is rising. Just remember to tip your rod tip to the side after the fly has passed the fish unmolested, so that you’re not picking up directly over the fish. A longer leader can also help prevent drag, particularly in the complex currents of the spring creeks’ flat water. If you’re getting refusals, try tying on a bit more tippet. Don’t go wild and end up with a rig you can’t cast, but a couple of feet of extra length will give you a few seconds more of drag free drift, and that can make all the difference. And you can also go to a thinner diameter of tippet. I usually start with 6X and then go down to 6.5X (yes, TroutHunter makes half size tippet material) or 7X if I’m getting refusals. Any lighter than that, and you’re likely to break off any fish that you do hook.
Entire books have been written on spring creek flies. I won’t go into specifics about particular patterns here. Your best bet is to stop in to one of the fly shops near the spring creeks and ask a friendly employee (most are) to point out a few favorite patterns. Just be sure not to head out to the creek undergunned. Get one or two patterns in each of the types I’ve discussed, nymphs, duns, emergers, and probably cripples (and maybe spinners). Get them in the size suggested by the expert, and possibly also in one size smaller. Switching the size of your fly can often entice a wary trout to take. But I’ve found that it’s usually a smaller bug that the trout are looking for, not a larger one. And don’t sweat the color too much. Artificial flies vary in color from fly to fly, but so do the naturals. Get the profile and size right, and you’ve got a good chance of fooling the fish, regardless of whether you’ve got just the right shade of olive. And get at least 3 of each pattern. Yes, it’ll end up being a bit of an investment, but you don’t want to work hard to find a fly that’ll work, then lose your only one to the first fish that takes it, or to a tree on the bank.
Remember to wade slowly and stealthily at all times. Waves travel far in the relatively slow and flat water of the spring creeks. And there can be fish just about anywhere. If you’re “blind” nymphing (i.e., not fishing to a sighted fish), cover the water systematically, first with short casts, then with progressively longer casts. Then move a few feet and start the process over with. And don’t worry if you spook a fish (you will). There are plenty more fish out there.
Above all, enjoy your time on these special creeks, regardless of how many fish you catch. Pause and relish each fish that you do catch. Fishing the spring creeks is not a numbers game. Think of it as a puzzle that is yours to solve. There’s little more satisfying in our sport than to put those pieces together.
I’ve just been unpacking the box of rods that we received from Sage, and I must admit to having to wipe a bit of drool off of my chin a couple of times. We’ve restocked the usual suspects: The exceptional fast-action One, the slow-action Circa, ideal for the spring creeks, the TXL-F, great fun on small creeks, and the Accel, Sage’s new moderate-fast action rod. And for those starting out or on a budget, the Response and Approach. But we’ve also added a few new rods that we like a lot.
First up is the ultrafast-action Method. This one is not for the faint of heart, either in appearance or in performance. The blank is a deep blood red (Sage calls it “magma”). And when they say ultra-fast, they mean it. In the hands of an experienced caster, this rod will boom out the casts, even in a stiff wind. It’ll handle big streamers and heavy nymph rigs with aplomb. It’s capable of producing loops about as tight as is humanly possible. And with the help of Sage’s Konnetic Technology, it’s incredibly light, especially for a rod this powerful. But it’s certainly not for everyone, or for every fishing situation. A less expert caster is going to make a mess of things. And it’s not going to be fit for fishing small dries on the spring creeks. But if you’re up to the task, you’ll amaze your friends with the monster casts that you can shoot out there.
Do you make an annual bonefishing pilgrimage to the Bahamas or the Keys? Have you been looking for the ultimate saltwater rod? Sage’s new Salt rod is a more than worthy candidate. Like the Method, it takes advantage of Konnetic Technology to fashion a rod that is exceptionally light but strong. Accuracy at distance is the name of the game for saltwater fishing, and the Salt fills the bill. But that distance must be achieved with a minimum of false casting, and the fast-loading Salt is capable of shooting line like no other rod you’ve tried. Like the Method, the Salt is not a rod for the less-experienced caster; it’ll tend to amplify casting faults. On the other hand, if you’ve already cut you teeth on the flats, the Salt could take your saltwater fishing to the next level. And it’s very pretty as well, sporting a deep blue color.
What if you’re making your first trip to the salt? You don’t want a rod that’s going to cost you a fortune and that is going to be difficult to cast up to its potential. Take a hard look at Sage’s Motive. At $425, it’s about half the cost of the Salt. And it actually weighs the same as that rod. It has a medium-fast action, not as fast as the Salt, and will therefore be more forgiving. But it’s still a powerful, fast-loading rod that will be able to reach those distant feeding bones with a minimum of false casting. I loved casting this rod; you can really feel it load up in preparation to shoot a bunch of line. A bit lighter blue than the Salt, this rod’s also pretty snazzy in appearance.