Continuing his Montana exploits, Peter arrives at what he regards as the main course: Hebgen Lake and its Gulpers.
Once outside Yellowstone National Park, the Madison River runs through man-made Hebgen Lake, constructed in 1908. It is this lake in particular that I keep coming back to fish, time and time again. I will never get sick of it.
The long and relatively wide and shallow Madison Arm has beautiful weed beds that are chock full of literally billions of Callibaetis mayfly nymphs, which hatch around 10am to 1:30pm every day in late summer.
During my recent 4 weeks of fishing there, I don’t think I would ever have seen more than a dozen other anglers on any given day. Most fish from float tubes, a few from boats, and fewer again from the shore.
The deeper northern end of the lake also has exceptional fishing in some areas, but it needs to be shared at times with water skiers and jet boat riders. It’s no big deal, but not what I signed up for on my holiday.
For years before I had ever been to Montana, I had heard on the flyfishing grapevine about the Hebgen Gulpers. I’d read an article or two about them in Fly fisherman magazine too. It was said that you could hear the sizable trout while they were literally gulping their way across the surface of the lake eating the prolific Callibaetis mayflies and occasionally Tricos. It sounded a bit like the fabulous early morning wind-lane fishing I’ve experienced at lakes Burbury and Pedder, only at a more respectable hour than 5am!
I finally managed to fish Hebgen Lake for the first time in 2008, and I’ve been going back as often as possible ever since.
On every fishing day from 10am to 2pm, every cast I make is with a dry fly to a fish that’s in a constant feeding frenzy within 70 feet of my boat. Most often there are three or four fish I could cast to, and sometimes it is downright confusing as to which is the better prospect! There will also be a dozen times each morning when I could throw my small parachute dun into a pod of perhaps a dozen frenzied fish.
If this sounds like a heap of BS, then simply go and Google ‘Gulpers on Hebgen Lake’. See for yourself.
Now, just because every cast I make in a 4 hour day, and for 28 consecutive days, is to a furiously feeding fish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I catch many at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If you could catch a couple a day regularly then you would be my hero. There are many days where I can’t catch a single fish. There are many frustrating days when we are clearly humiliated by a fish with a brain the size of a pea. Having said that, I think on my best day I might have landed 7 trout. My next best day may have been three.
The main problem is, there is simply too much food on the water. I’m not joking when I tell you that sometimes, there is a bug on the water every square inch. If your dry fly is not a very good representation of the lifecycle of the type of bug the trout want, and landed like thistledown EXACTLY in front of the fish, at the right time and distance from their previous rise, you are rarely ever in the game. After a while, you can tell as soon as the line goes over your head if you are in with a chance on that cast.
This is without doubt the most technically demanding fishing that I have ever done. Period. The good thing is though, you know that every day is going to be the same as the previous one. The weather conditions will be right, the hatch will happen and billions of Callibaetis will emerge. The trout will respond – again. There is a month of consecutive days to refine the flies, the leaders, the boat handling, the cast, etc.
I’m sorry to tell you however, that at the end of taking detailed diary notes every day, then trying each day to refine the techniques and methods, we still had days when I was embarrassed to call myself a fishing guide.
Here are some notes directly from my diary. This was a random day about 2 weeks into my holiday. It’s typical of each day.
Saturday 30 July
Up early and went for a walk. Grabbed my first coffee from Aileen at ‘On the Fly’ coffee shop. Met Randall at Black Butte coffee for a second cup at 7:30 am.
Supermarket to buy packed lunch, Sure Shot coffee for breakfast then onto the lake to launch by 10 am.
It’s a 4 star day today (phone fishing predictor app).
Best times: 1:55 – 3:55 pm
Moon rise: 07.51am
Moon is coming @4.3%
Barometer is 1023.7 and falling ever so slightly (ended up at 1022.4 at 3 pm).
Forecast top temp. 33C
30% cloud cover today
Dead flat calm when we launched. No Callibaetis bugs obvious. However, there were clouds of millions of swarming boat ramp Tricos. There were six boats on the water. Bobber chuckers. The weed beds are much more evident on the surface now and this is just what we need to wall the fish in and condense the food. Blackbirds are gathering five duns at a time before heading back to nests.
There are plenty of sippers 200m from the ramp but no hatch yet. The fish seem slightly subsurface on emergers – makes sense. Randall caught a 17” rainbow that fought really well into the backing. Then another one that dropped off. 10:45 am and the bugs were really starting to rock and roll. The hatch peaked at 11:30am and it’s the best hatch I’ve ever seen in my life. It must be what the Shannon Rise was like. The bugs are inside my glasses and inside my ears.
Taking it in turns, I caught two more and Randall had another. I can’t believe we didn’t fill the boat, but the fish were super tricky. Some see the leader in the air and spook. Occasionally I see a swirl under the fly indicating a refusal. Most fish swim by the fly just an inch or so to the side – there’s no need for them to deviate from their path because there are so many bugs.
Randall stuck with 6X today and I feel it is clearly better than my 5X. I don’t think many can be caught on thicker line except for fish coming directly in line and up to the fly: fly-first. Maybe. I’m constantly needing to degrease tippet because of the film on the water surface. I saw no other fish landed by any of the other boats, but I wasn’t particularly paying attention.
Now, keep in mind that at the end of every day, I wrote my diary. The following day, I made adjustments and repeated the process.
My final diary entry
Thursday 25th August 2022
I write from 30 000’ somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, heading home at nearly 1000 kph.
In my lifetime of fishing, I have never felt more demoralised than yesterday’s effort at Hebgen. I’m sort of glad that I was rowing and not fishing to them. Chuck’s standing and constant false casting put them too far away for regular accurate, quality landings. I spent too much time rowing from behind them and having to chase tails. It was a tremendous hatch; as good as I’ve ever seen. We changed flies more than a dozen times and despite Chuck using a long tippet of 6X fluoro, I felt his leader was way too short at 12’.
I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it can be very nearly impossible to catch these fish with a dry fly when the food is so abundant and the day so still and bright.
Having written that final entry, below are my lessons from Hebgen in order of importance.
As I wrote earlier, Hebgen Gulper fishing is the most technically difficult fishing I have ever done, and many Hebgen lessons are also lessons that apply back here in Australia. It’s just that often, things are not as obvious here.
- Don’t stand up in the boat – especially when it is still and bright. Stay seated or kneel.
- Don’t use a short leader. Make leaders long and without a thick rear end that shines and sinks.
- Always float the back end of your leader and degrease the tippet. Don’t be lazy about this. Some days you need to do this 5 times a day.
- Constantly maintain your fly. Keep the weed and algae off it and keep it floating tidily.
- Maybe dull all future leaders in strong tea to take the shine off.
- Always use a fly you can see, or at least a sighter fly 30cm up. You need to know when it’s in front of a fish and when it gets eaten.
- Minimise the false casting. To be successful regularly, I don’t think you should make even one false cast. The fish often see it, plus they change direction too often during your casting cycle time.
- Minimise boat movement – the fish definitely come closer to us during our periods of no movement, such as fly and leader changes.
- Don’t chase tails. Wait for an oncoming fish or a cross path fish.
- Whilst frenzied mob fishing is tempting, it’s important to look for the ‘right’ fish – see below.
- Pick the right fish. You need to find a head-rocking and constantly tracking fish. Preferably on its own, as other fish influence the tracking fish’s feeding direction too much. It’s worth rowing 100m to a fish like this.
- You must throw the fly exactly in front or gently pull it in front if you have time and distance. If you throw too far in front, the fish can change direction 7 times before he gets there. Too close, and it can spook or you risk landing behind, as the fish are often moving faster than you anticipate. You must also have your fly at the right distance in front of the previous rise. There are several times a day where the fly lands exactly in front, but the fish rises to a natural just inches before your fly. It is on a downward path, and it just has to swim under you. This is super frustrating.
- You must have more-or-less the fly that they want.
- You must always be able to see your fly. Too many times we strike because we think it is us and the fish spooks. If it’s not an accurate enough presentation in the first place, then the sooner you know that the better.
- The right leader is critical, and it must function properly. For my 3 weight LDL floating line, I found 21’ to be about right. It’s glue joined in, which is clearly best for several reasons. It’s not a particularly thick butt so it floats, and picks up well without a slurp. Using 6X from the get-go is a no brainer, as it takes another issue out of the equation from the start. Treat the leader as often as necessary to ensure it floats at the butt and sinks at the front.
- Try not to get sucked into long casts. At 50’ the angles are much better, the lift offs are tidier, and the casting cycle time is faster. You can get multiple deliveries at each fish. At 70’ you get one not so accurate shot, and the next will likely be to a tail.
- Stay Low. It’s important. There is a reason why the better local anglers take their power boats out into the lake then anchor them near the weed beds before getting into their float tubes!
So that’s Hebgen Lake and its Gulpers – one of the finest classrooms you’ll find to truly better your stillwater flyfishing.