Getting Ready for BWOs

Baetis dun. Photo: Paul Weamer

Baetis dun. Photo: Paul Weamer

This weekend doesn’t look great for fishing, what with the predicted highs below freezing. But it would be a good time to tie up a few flies in preparation for the upcoming baetis (blue-winged olive – BWO) mayfly hatch which typically starts on the Paradise Valley spring creeks (and the Yellowstone River) sometime in March. This may be our favorite hatch of the year on the spring creeks, as the summer crowds aren’t around and the trout are a bit more eager to take an imitation than they are later in the season (and the rod fees are still low). And it’s the first real dry fly action of the year, which really gets the juices flowing.

So plan to take a sick day (BWO fever is extremely contagious) some warmish cloudy day towards the middle or end of the month and get out on Armstrong, DePuy’s, or Nelson’s. If the wind’s not blowing too hard, it’s likely to be a day of fishing dries to rising fish that you won’t soon forget.

If the dry fly fishing is so good, why am I talking nymphs today? Well, the hatch proper typically starts in the early afternoon, and you’ll likely want to do some fishing before then. The baetis nymphs will be getting active prior to the hatch and you can often do quite well drifting some imitations as you wait for the fish to begin rising to the emergers and/or duns. One of our favorite spring creek mayfly nymphs is the Sawyer Pheasant Tail, which is a slimmer version of the traditional Pheasant Tail. It’s tied with copper wire for the thorax, rather than the usual peacock herl, which gives the fly a subtle flash and a bit more weight. In natural or olive, size 20 or 18, it’s a great bug to fish before the hatch. Start out fishing it near the bottom, then shorten up the distance below your indicator as the hatch approaches (the naturals will begin swimming towards the surface, and the fish will follow them up). Be aware that baetis are swimming nymphs, so imparting a little action to your usual dead drift can trigger strikes. Give your bug a bit of a lateral movement as it approaches a sighted fish; you might be pleased with the results.

Here’s a good tying video for the Sawyer Pheasant Tail. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about dry flies.

Nelson’s First-Timer

Winter? Could it be? It was a bit refreshing to see the Yellowstone River steaming and slushy this morning. After all, it is February. Except for Tuesday (high 40’s), temperatures are predicted to be a little cooler than they have been lately. It’s a good time to stay inside and tie a few flies for the next comfortable fishing opportunity. Perhaps some Zebra Midges, which are simple enough for even the novice tier, the main issue being their diminutive size. See below for a tying video and a couple of tips.

Despite having lived in the area for more than 10 years, I had never fished Nelson’s Spring Creek. Until Friday. I had often heard that this, the shortest and smallest of the Paradise Valley spring creeks, was also the most technical (and perhaps most difficult). I found that assessment to be on the money. Nevertheless, if you’ve had some angling success on Depuy’s or Armstrong Spring Creeks, you should be able to get into fish on Nelson’s. Still, I wouldn’t recommend Nelson’s for the spring creek novice. Unless you’re going with a guide, which isn’t a bad idea for your first trip to any of the spring creeks.

Upon my arrival in the early afternoon, I walked past the fish hatchery runs (Nelson’s supplies trout to many area lakes) to the first modest pool below the small pond that bisects the creek. The section between the pond and the trestle that marks the bottom end of the fishable part of the creek is probably the easier area for the less-experienced angler, especially during this part of the year, when there isn’t a lot of top-water action. Anyway, I saw a good number of fish holding in the pool and in the faster water at the head of the pool. I tied on a Sawyer Pheasant Tail (size 20) with a black Zebra Midge dropper (also a 20), about 3′ below a white Palsa pinch-on foam indicator. No added weight, 6X fluorocarbon tippet. A few casts, and bam – a nice trout, but foul-hooked. Then another foul-hooked trout, and a little bit later, a whitefish. But despite the fact that I was clearly running them right by a bunch of fish, none were showing my flies the right kind of interest.

On a whim, I decided to switch to a red Zebra Midge. Same pattern, same size, just a different color. In quick succession, I landed 3 nice trout, all fair-hooked. A fourth trout took the Sawyer Pheasant Tail. I should have netted it, but instead tried to release it by hand. The tippet broke and the fish swam off with both of my flies. Looking in my spring creek box, I made a sad discovery. It held only black Zebra Midges, no more red ones. A couple of lessons here. Sometimes a small change can make all the difference. And check your fly box before you hit the water; don’t carry only one of any pattern you think might be effective.

After a late lunch, I tried the water above the pond. It’s all relatively flat and shallow, with a slow current. Logs have been laid part-way across the water to create a series of “pools,” but it’s all pretty challenging territory, especially with nymphs. Stealthy wading is a must here. I saw a number of fish, mostly holding in the center of the pools where the current is a bit stronger. But most were lying stationary, not appearing to be feeding actively. And my results bore that out. I did get one more trout (on the black Zebra Midge, no less). But then the snow began falling more steadily and I decided to call it a day. I’ll be back, but probably not until the spring baetis mayflies start to hatch. That upper section could provide some fun, challenging dry fly fishing.

If you do go to Nelson’s, don’t forget about the pond itself. Really just a broader section of the creek, it has sufficient current to drift flies, and protruding logs that you can walk on to get closer to the fish that I saw holding in that current. Though I didn’t try it myself, my guess is you could pick up some fish there.

What about those Zebra Midges that you were going to tie up? If you’re a relative novice, maybe start with some size 18s to get the process down, then move down to some 20s. The larger flies will work great in the Yellowstone River this time of year. And keep them sparse; avoid making too many thread wraps. Finally, tie some in red, as well as black. On any given day, the red ones might just be the ticket to success! Here’s a nice tying video:

 

 

Spring Creekin’

Yesterday truly felt like spring on Armstrong’s Spring Creek. I took my own advice and took advantage of the weather and the $40 winter rod fee to challenge myself a bit. And challenging it was. But I did manage to catch some nice fish. A tandem nymph rig with a size 20 Sawyer Pheasant Tail and a size 20 tungsten bead Zebra Midge in black did the damage, with fish caught on both flies. There are plenty of fish in the creeks right now. I certainly spooked enough of them. Lots of midges were in the air, and I saw a few sporadic rises, but none of the fish were eating consistently on top. Still, you might want to have a couple of midge dry patterns at your disposal, just in case.

Just before I was going to quit for the day, I hooked into one last fish. It gave a big-fish head shake, then took off downstream. I never got a look at it. It might have been 17 inches; it felt bigger than that. After it pulled out a good deal of line, I decided I’d better put on a bit of pressure to keep it out of the weed beds. Then it was gone. The 6X tippet (and my knots) had held; it just came unbuttoned.

A very good guide once told me that whenever he loses a good fish, he stops for a moment to think about what he did wrong. Sage advice, as far as it goes, and a recipe for doing better the next time. But sometimes the catch is just not meant to be, despite your best efforts. I suppose you could blame my disappointment on an inadequate hook-set. I chose to blame bad luck, and headed home for a Valentine’s Day dinner with my wife.

Today’s seen a rather dramatic change in the weather; tomorrow’s likely to be more of the same. But the longer-term forecast has temperatures rising again. The spring baetis mayfly hatch is just around the corner. Consider getting out on one of the Paradise Valley spring creeks while the rates are still low, the crowds usually absent, and the fish not quite as finicky as they get in mid-summer.

Take Advantage!

This unseasonably warm weather can’t last forever. Can it? In the meantime, get out there and do some fishing. Plenty of folks have, with good results. There have even been a fair number of boats on the Yellowstone River, which is almost unheard of in February. If you do plan to float, just be sure to check the ramp at the takeout, to ensure that you won’t be dragging your boat over an ice cliff.

Paul2

A nice winter rainbow in the net. Photo (and angler): Paul Weamer

I really like wade fishing this time of year. It allows you to thoroughly work the water where most of the fish are concentrated. I’ve said it a number of times before, but the slower, deeper water is usually where you’ll find them right now, given the low water temps. When the water is a bit colored up, as it has been lately, I prefer to use darker-colored nymphs and streamers. Something black, brown, or dark olive fits the bill. Dead-drifting you flies under an indicator, including small streamers, is my typical approach. But you could also try stripping a streamer, even a big, articulated one. A slower strip than you would use in the summer or fall is usually going to be more effective with the colder water.

These warm days are also a good opportunity to take advantage of low winter rates on the Paradise Valley spring creeks. It’s still primarily nymphing right now, but on cloudy days you might see a fish or two rising to midges. If it’s sunny, you might be able do some sight fishing. When it comes to nymphing, there’s nothing more exciting than drifting your flies past a nice-sized fish that you’ve spotted in the clear water. It helps to have a “buddy” watch the fish for any signs of interest or a take, while you make an upstream or up-and-across presentation from outside of the fish’s sight window. Leave your big pink Thingamabobbers at home. Smaller, more subtle indicators, such as a small piece of yarn dressed with dry-fly floatant or a white Palsa pinch-on are less likely to alert the trout to your evil intentions. 6X tippet should be sufficient; I prefer fluorocarbon for nymphing. As for flies, midge larva and pupa patterns (e.g., Miracle Nymphs, Zebra Midges) are an almost sure winner. You might also try a small (say, size 20) Sawyer Pheasant Tail or similar sparse mayfly pattern. Scuds and sow bugs are always around. Swap things up until you hit the jackpot.

Stop by Sweetwater Fly Shop on your way to the river or spring creek. We’ll set you up for success in this strange “season.”

Last Chance?

Josh Mills with a nice winter brown

Josh Mills with a nice winter brown

Today and tomorrow might be your best opportunities for a little while to get out and do some winter fishing. At least reasonably comfortably. There are dropping temperatures and a chance of snow in the forecast, starting on Sunday. So don’t waste this chance. Put on some layers and warm socks and head out for a couple of hours.

There’s plenty of open water on the Yellowstone River, so I won’t tell you where to go. It is worth noting that if the wind is blowing (which it’s not supposed to, at least not much, these next couple of days), it tends to moderate as you head up higher.

We’re still talking mostly nymphing at this point. There have been some midges flying around, but only a few sporadic rises from the fish. You could take along a couple of midge dries, just in case. The Sprout Midge is one of my favorites; and, of course, there’s the good old Griffith’s Gnat. But most likely, you’re going to be watching an indicator. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been having good luck lately with a size 8 Rubberlegs, particularly in the goldenstone color, but also in brown and black. I also dredged up a couple of fish the other day on a worm (the fly, not the annelid). Midge larva and pupa patterns should be good as a dropper. A Zebra Midge in red or black might be just the ticket. Or a small Copper John (say, size 18) in red, copper, or black.

Deeper, slower water is my winter mantra. But not too deep, or you won’t be able to reach the bottom with your nymphs. Somewhere around waist deep is a good rule of thumb. And not too slow. About the speed of a slow walking pace. At that depth and speed, one size B split shot should keep your flies down low in the water column. If you’re not seeing evidence of you flies bouncing off the bottom occasionally, adjust your indicator. And if you do catch a trout, be sure to fish that area thoroughly. Where you find one, you’ll often find more. And don’t regret catching a few whitefish. Those eager natives can enliven an otherwise slow day of winter fishing.

Have fun! That, of course, is the most important rule of fly fishing in any season.

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