Six noted fly fishing guides share their favorite flies, tactics, and advice for fishing the most technically challenging rivers in the world.
[by John Fedorka]
TAKING OFF YOUR HAT WITH ONE HAND, you use the other hand to wipe perspiration off your brow, not because it’s hot, but because you’re frustrated. Scratching your head, you can still see a slab-sided trout holding deep and comfortably ingesting the majority of its daily protein. But it has refused almost everything in your fly box. You’ve doctored your leader more times than you’d like, and yet your finned quarry intermittently flashes its flanks, signaling it’s still hungry. Trying to close the deal is frustrating, but it’s fun, and it’s why so many anglers flock to technical fisheries.
Each year anglers from across the globe migrate to western tailwaters like the Big – horn, Missouri, Henrys Fork, Lees Ferry, San Juan, and Green Rivers. Each one offers its own mix of cool, clean water; robust aquatic bug life; and thousands of fish per mile (surrounded by some of the most beautiful backdrops in North America)— to name just a few reasons why fishermen distinguish those rivers from others. What’s more, if you’ve ever fished those waters, you likely know firsthand how equally famous the football-sized trout are for their snobby dispositions and reluctance to be fooled by anything but perfect drifts, gentle casts, and accurate imitations. Naturally, to get an edge, it helps to go to some – one in the know.
To help tip more of the odds in your favor the next time you visit a tailwater, six of the West’s most knowledgeable tailwater guides offer up their advice on tactics, pattern selection, presentation, and equipment. Tie a few of the patterns they recommend, and remember their suggestions the next time you’re plying dam-controlled waters and you just might land that one trophy fish you’ve been waiting a lifetime to catch.
The sowbug and scud are a trout-food staple in the Missouri River (and other tailwaters) and can make up around 35 percent of our trout’s available food, so my go-to is a size 16 Tailwater Sowbug. But I also like Wilcox’s Little Green Machine in size 18 for PMDs in the summer, and Mason’s Peep Show in size 18 is a great spring and fall Baetis pattern that also works year-round as an attractor. I also find myself using the Tungsten Rainbow Czech Nymph in sizes 10 to 14. And then, of course, the famous Zebra Midge in sizes 20 and 22 works 365 days a year.
HOOK: Dai-Riki 070, sizes 12 to 16.
THREAD: Red 6/0 Uni-Thread.
RIB: Small silver UTC Ultra Wire.
BODY: Hairline Dubbin Rainbow (light shade) Scud Dub.
BACK: A stripe created by a brown marker or Loon Outdoors UV Clear Fly Fishing (thick)
For a leader, I recommend people start with a 7½-foot-long 3X leader because you can add tippet and turn it into anything, which allows for flexibility in modifying your rig. Although nymphing is often the most successful technique on the Missouri, it’s not unusual to have to switch to dry flies or streamers on any given day, and you can tailor a leader in this way to suit each. In most cases, you’ll want to drop 18 inches of fluorocarbon to the lead fly, like a scud, and then another 16 inches of 4X or 5X to the trailer fly, possibly a small midge. I recommend fluorocarbon because it’s less visible underwater and it sinks faster than traditional monofilament. For weight, start with a size B split shot above the tippet-toleader knot and add more as needed.
For a rod, I like the 9-foot-long, 6-weight Sage Pulse matched with a Sage 2250 reel spooled with a weight-forward Rio Extreme Indicator line. It’s a fast-action rod, and though it’s not Sage’s top-end rod, the action on it is terrific.
Words of Wisdom—Tailwater fish don’t always line up on the banks as they sometimes do in big freestone rivers. Look for the “not so obvious” structure points like shelf lines, weed lines, slower-water seams, and especially the slow inside bends and slow outside bends. On the Missouri, that means looking for the sexiest water you can find, then turning around and fishing the water behind you. Also, remember to mend, mend, mend.
Bighorn Trout Shop
My go-to flies are a size 18 Flashback Quill Nymph because I can use it to imitate a midge or Baetis nymph yearround. Next would be a size 16 or 18 Ray Charles because it’s such a great sow bug pattern. The Tung Teaser midge pupa in sizes 16 and 18 works well as a dropper and serves double duty as a drowned Trico or caddis pupa. A common Bighorn River scud, the Gammarus, turns amber when it molts, so a simple size 16 or 18 Orange Scud is a good pattern, and can also imitate an egg. An olive Flashback Pheasant Tail works well as a black caddis imitation and outfishes most caddis pupa imitations. The camel-dubbed Soft-Hackle Sowbug is a good pale morning dun (PMD) nymph or orange scud imitation. Finally, a burgundy San Juan Worm is always a good choice.
Flashback Quill Nymph
HOOK: Dai-Riki 060, sizes 16 to 20.
THREAD: Black 6/0 Uni-Thread.
TAIL: Natural pheasant tail.
RIB: Extra-small gold Ultra Wire.
BODY: Black 6/0 Uni-Thread.
THORAX: Peacock herl.
WING CASE: Medium pearl tinsel.
The only time you should use any leader shorter than nine feet long is during low-water conditions—then use a 7½-foot-long leader. You should add tippet to the leader anyhow, and if you use a two-fly setup, your entire leader is well over nine feet long anyhow, which is adequate for spooky tailwater fish. It’s also a good compromise between presentation and castability, especially in windy conditions. Otherwise, during the high-water flows of the early season, use a nine-foot-long leader tapered to 3X with a dropper tied to 4X tippet. Later in the season, switch to a nine-foot-long 4X leader with another two feet of 4X tippet to the lead fly, and 5X to the dropper.
If you need to add weight to your rig, use Hareline Dubbin Tungsten Tacky Weight. The trick is to roll out the material into a long cigar shape and attach it to your leader above the tippet knot. The cigar shape makes casting a little easier, and it’s less prone to snag. Last, it’s infinitely adjustable—add or subtract material as needed to suit each hole you fish.
For a rod, I really like my CF Burkheimer 9-foot-long 5-weight paired with a Hatch Finatic 4 Plus Reel spooled with Scientific Anglers’ Shark Wave GPX. The rod has a good moderate-fast action that I personally like; you can feel the whole rod work. Fly rod preference is a highly personal thing, but a quality rod that flexes down into the midsection mends line easier than a fast-action, stiff rod does, protects tippet from breaking because it flexes, and is just more pleasant to fish with over the course of a day.
Words of Wisdom—Since the Bighorn is a large river with big gliding runs, long-line nymphing is key, especially with pressured fish. Once the indicator drifts parallel to you, keep the drift going with stack mends. In other words, mend slack line above your indicator and feed the presentation downstream. You’ll increase the number of hookups when you get those flies downstream and away from you.