(c) Jack Ballard
In most circumstances, you’ll consistently catch more trout drifting a nymph than floating a dry fly. But for sheer drama and excitement, it’s the rare and disturbed angler who would rather watch a strike indicator dip with a trout’s nip than watch the same salmonid rise to sip or devour a dry fly. From tiny midges fished during the short days of winter to summer afternoons flinging hideously large flies bearing the look of genetically altered grasshoppers fed a diet of growth hormones, Montana’s menu of dry fly fishing is second to none. Here’s a brief list of excellent places and intriguing circumstances for plying the dry.
Hidden Lake, Caddis – Among connoisseurs of America’s National Park system, Glacier National Park is known for its soaring mountain vistas and hiking paths. Trek the trails and you’ll find shaggy mountain goats and bands of sleek, suave bighorn rams with spiraling horns and a penchant for inhabiting the most picturesque meadows in the park. Stunning waterfalls and awe-inspiring views also lure those seeking the real Glacier experience beyond the single, narrow ribbon of asphalt that bisects the park.
For anglers, Glacier’s sparkling gems of brook and loch are also reserved for those willing to hit the trails. However, you don’t need to log a daunting ten miler to sample the park’s fine fishing. Hidden Lake lies just three miles from the Visitor’s Center at the top of Logan Pass. The first 1.5 miles of the hike winds along a series of boardwalks to the summit of Hidden Lake Pass, an invigorating hike through fields of wildflowers. At the crest of the pass, mountain goats and bighorn sheep are often spotted, especially if you trek in the early morning. From Hidden Lake Pass, the trail winds along the flank of Mount Clements before descending a fairly steep 700 feet to the lake.
What will you find for your efforts? If the prospect of tangling with big, wild cutthroats sets your heart to throbbing, you’ve come to the right place. Hidden Lake boasts a healthy population of cutthroats, thick, vigorous fish that may press the scale to three pounds and beyond. Like cutthroats in other backcountry lakes, these crimson-jawed hunters prowl near structure along the shorelines, ever on the lookout for an easy meal.
While the trail to Hidden Lake actually crosses the outlet and continues on the south side, I’ve found very good fishing on the north side along the steep slopes of scree that plunge into the lake. No matter which side you choose, be prepared to move around in search of fish, as the cutthroats often fin together in small pods. Rising trout make this job easier, but the pristine water of the lake also makes it possible to easily spot fish from an elevated vantage points unless the surface becomes choppy in the wind. Angling pressure is most concentrated where the trail reaches the lake at the outlet, so a hike of a half-mile down the shoreline is well worth the effort.
The day before I first hiked to the lake, I asked a guide at Wild River Adventures what I’d need for flies. “Just one,” he replied with a grin, “a light elk-hair caddis.” Though my fishing lasted but a precious two hours, his advice put me into the largest cutthroat I’ve ever hooked on a backcountry lake (notice I didn’t say it was landed). Hidden Lake receives relatively high fishing pressure, but catch and release regulations assure a robust population of large, healthy cutthroats. These cutts are more discerning than those found in many backcountry lakes, but cast a small caddis from a concealed vantage point and the odds are extremely high you’ll catch your cutthroat.
Gallatin River, Spruce Moths – Under the right conditions, you can entice a trout with a dry fly on the Gallatin on every month of the calendar. The standard fare of Western dry fly fishing — caddis, mayflies, terrestrials, etc. — all find their place on the river. But for sheer novelty, there’s little that rivals the spruce moth hatch of August.
Spruce moths (or spruce budworms) were first noticed in North America in the Pacific Northwest in the early part of the 20th century. Outbreaks of the creature can cause significant damage to forests where the larvae bore into new growth and young twigs on coniferous trees. Younger trees and saplings can be killed by spruce moths, older, mature trees often lose the needles on their tops and outer branches to the pests.
The timing and scope of spruce moth outbreaks are a mystery to entomologists. Historically, spruce moth infestations have occurred randomly through the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains. However, their appearance seems to have become more prevalent in many locations in the past decade or so. One such region is the steep, heavily forested mountainsides along the Gallatin River.
Unlike other insects that hatch from beneath the surface of the water or errantly plop into a stream from land, spruce moths haplessly flutter from nearly evergreens into the river or get blown there on the breeze. They’re most prevalent in the mornings, with the moth stage (and the fishing) normally erupting from late July to mid August, depending on climatic conditions.
Jeff Labbe, a senior guide with East Slope Outdoors in Big Sky offers the following advice to those seeking to experience this unique dry fly opportunity. “It’s more of a morning thing,” he notes. “About when the first sunlight hits the water is when they start flying.” Labbe believes the intensity of the hatch has diminished somewhat in recent years, possibly due to spraying for the tree-injuring insects in residential areas along the Gallatin, or perhaps simply as a function of natural, cyclical fluctuations associated with the presence of the moths. However, trout still key on this late summer smorgasbord.
“On a good day, any fly that reasonably imitates a moth will work,” this Gallatin guide explains. “There is some variation in the color of the moths from light tan to yellow, although most are white. A large, light elk hair caddis or yellow stimulator will take fish.” When the trout are more selective, Labbe suggests popping into one of the local fly shops to purchase specific spruce moth patterns or tying one of your own.
High Lakes, Hoppers – Grasshoppers are most commonly associated with the croplands and pastures of the prairies, or the lush hayfields along major riverbottoms such as the Yellowstone, Bighorn, Madison and Missouri. However, high in the Absaroka Range north of Yellowstone National Park lies a glacier. Grasshopper Glacier, as it is named, perches at 11,000 feet. Embedded in the ice are millions of grasshoppers, or rather an extinct form of locust believed to have been blown onto the glacier in a wayward migration some 400 years ago.
An extreme phenomenon, Grasshopper Glacier isn’t so high above the normal range of everyday hoppers. Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll discover small grasshoppers jumping about on alpine vegetation at or above timberline in many Montana mountain ranges. Like trout in the streams of the lowlands, the brook, rainbow, cutthroat and golden trout of the high mountain lakes are very fond of hoppers.
I love to fish the treeless tarns in the Boulder drainage south of Big Timber. One of my first trips to Elk Lake acquainted me with the pond’s numerous, healthy cutthroats. Seeing a few little grasshoppers springing about at lakeside, I tied a parachute hopper and cast it toward the shadowed dark back of a cutthroat cruising some ten feet below the lake’s surface, clearly visible in the crystalline waters. When the hopper plopped onto the surface, the fish immediately shot from the depths to take the fly. A minute later, delighted with the 16 inches of dripping salmonid in my hands, I released the fish only to spot a small pod of cutts cruising my direction along the shoreline. Though a bit sodden and slimy, I immediately whipped my fly back onto the water and was promptly rewarded with another red-jawed trout. Deciding to experiment, I threw every hopper pattern in my fly box over the course of the afternoon: Dave’s hopper, Joe’s hopper, Henry’s Fork hopper and a large, high-floating foam-bodied hopper. The cutthroats more often opted for the smaller offerings, but I caught at least one fish on every pattern. Thinking the trout merely suckers for any leggy, sizeable fly, I whipped a clinch knot onto a Chernobyl ant. Nothing. Grasshopper were definitely the preferred selection at the cutthroat cafe.
Trout in high mountain lakes will fall for a variety of dry flies. They’re often unsophisticated, making these excellent destinations for novice anglers. If you make the hike, don’t forget some hoppers.
Bitterroot River, Skwalas – Garnering water from a host of alpine springs and creeks on the lofty flanks of the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho-Montana Divide, the Bitterroot Rivers winds through one of the most scenic valleys in the state. In the early 1980s, when I first visited the Bitterroot Valley in my late teens, it was a idyllic, pastoral vale populated by family ranches and small, decidedly rural communities. Then it was “discovered.” Now heavily populated with subdivision and ranchettes along its corridor, at least one part of the valley hasn’t lost its character: the river.
An excellent fishery for rainbow trout, the Bitterroot is home to respectable numbers of browns and cutthroats as well. Winding through a valley that normally sees milder weather than most in the state, spring fishing picks up sooner on the Bitterroot than many other locations. It’s this early season that offers some of its most inimitable dry fly fishing.
Around mid-March, a big stonefly dubbed the “Skwala” emerges on the river. Pete Shanafelt of the Missoulian Angler describes the Skwala as “the first big bug of the season, generally matched in flies sizes 8 or 10.” A veteran guide on the Bitterroot, he notes that unlike salmonflies, Skwalas are “poor fliers.” Hence, anglers will often see them floating on the surface.
For those unacquainted with fishing for trout dining on this olive or light tan bug, Shanafelt likens the experience to fishing with hoppers. The hatches are local and spotty, but once trout realize the Skwalas are in the river, they’ll attack them with abandon. “Like hopper fishing, the best approach is to work likely spots to incite a rise.”
Warm days yield the best fishing. If you’re of Irish descent or simply seeking a diversionary celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, that’s about the time the Skwalas emerge on the Bitterroot. If you’re timing is right, after a memorable day on the river your spirits will be high enough to tolerate an evening of bad green beer, dry corned beef and tasteless cabbage. The hatch persists for about a month, sometimes a bit longer depending on the weather.
Blackfoot River, October Caddis
There is something singularly fascinating about a Montana river that sways a professor at the University of Chicago to the extent his soul seems inextricably bound to the stream. So reads the relationship between author Norman Maclean and the Blackfoot River in his acclaimed novel, A River Runs Through It.
In the four decades spanning the primary time-frame for the book and its publication in 1976, the Blackfoot River experienced a serious decline in water quality and fish habitat to the point a reader might wonder why anyone would confess such devotion to this second-class river. However, by the time Robert Redford’s film of the same title debuted in 1992, the river’s status was on the upswing. Redford’s work was nominated for several Academy Awards. But forget Hollywood. More significant to Montana anglers was the rebirth of Maclean’s river. Today, the Blackfoot fishes, and perhaps feels, more like the stream of A River Runs Through It than at any time since the events chronicled in Maclean’s tale.
For sheer peace and serenity of the type described in the novel, there’s no better time to hit the Blackfoot than in the fall. The stream is less crowded. Most out of state anglers have gone home and the interests of sporting residents have been piqued by bird and big-game hunting. Vibrant colors of turning cottonwoods and willows brighten the streamscape. On the water, fish rise to one of the finest fall hatches in Montana, the October caddis.
This exceptionally large caddis is also known as the fall caddis or giant orange sedge, a moniker hearkening to the coloration of its body. On the Blackfoot, like other places these bugs are found, sporadic hatches usually begin in September, becoming more consistent toward the end of the month and peak in early October. As their name implies, these caddis are often found well into the month of Halloween. Brenden Bannigan, retail manager with the Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop in Missoula, notes that a few October caddis can show up as early as late August, triggered by cool nights. The hatch ends on the Blackfoot with a spate of “colder weather in October.”
“You won’t see the typical caddis cloud of October caddis,” says Bannigan, “but the fish really key on them. Even if you spot one or two, fish for them.” October caddis wind up on streamside trees and brush and then are blow back into the water. Females return to the river to lay eggs. Loop your flies toward the banks over a couple feet of water for best results.
“There are some good, specific October caddis patterns out there.” However, Bannigan feels an Orange Stimulator in size 6 or 8 is an excellent all-purpose fly for October caddis. Another option is tying (or buying) a large Elk Hair Caddis with an orange or yellow body.
Whether it’s Skwalas on the Bitterroot, October caddis on the Blackfoot or one of the myriad of other hatches on Montana lakes and rivers, opportunities abound for fly anglers. Fish any way you like, but if there’s a choice, I’ll make mine high and dry.