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Hebgen Lake - A Dry Fly Fishing Primer

Fly fishing Hebgen Lake can be a daunting task. Hebgen is a large lake with 65 miles of shoreline. For fly fishing, it is best to divide the lake into areas of access. The main body of the lake consists of the North shore (Hwy 287) and the West shore (longest shoreline) and its many wind protected bays. The three Hebgen Lake Arms are the Madison Arm, the South Fork of the Madison Arm and the Grayling Arm. Hatches occur throughout the lake, however, the best concentration are found in the Arms where the Curly Leaf Pondweed and Eurasian Watermilfoil is abundant and aquatic insects flourish.

Hebgen Lake is home to the most prolific hatches of any stillwater fishery in North America. This nutrient-rich lake receives its main source from a unique river system. The Madison River forms at the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers where warm temperatures provide perfect aquatic chemistry continuing fourteen miles to the mouth of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake.

The second major inlet for Hebgen Lake is the South Fork Arm.  The South Fork of the Madison is the smallest and coldest of the three Hebgen Arms and is fed from a year-round spring creek. Though diminutive, the South Fork Arm has all the major hatches as the rest of the lake, however, with its summer home crowd and lakeside campground, lake fly fishing becomes futile by mid-summer. Pontoon craft. SUP and Kayakers should take note there are no wake limits throughout the lake so if you're wake-sensitive or a novice consider the smaller bays along the West shore.

The third Arm of Hebgen Lake is the Grayling Arm.  The Grayling Arm does not have the special nutrients feeding it as the South Fork or the Madison Arm, however, it is equal in aquatic habitat.  It has a more subtle littoral zone than the other Arms promoting early seasonal hatches. The Grayling Arm is often more wind protected than the main body of the lake and the other Arms. Fly fishers that employ the "strike indicator" technique often find excellent success in the West shore bays like Cherry Creek, Rumbaugh, Watkins Creek and Spring Creek Campground along with the East shore of the Grayling Arm. The Grayling Arm hosts the largest campground on Hebgen and a public boat launch. The Grayling Arm is the preferred location for guided trips and the technique of choice is a dry fly with dropper. The fish tend to be "easier" than the Madison Arm.

These nutrients provide an aquatic smorgasbord for Hebgen trout and its unique feeding habits. The feeding sound these fish produce makes an audible gulp, hence Gulpers. The major insects the trout feed on are Midges, Tricos and Callibaetis. There can be mayfly spinners by the millions depending on winter lake levels and summer temperatures. Hebgen Lake is one of the top dry fly lakes in the country, but its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding blue ribbon waters make Hebgen just another body of water to consider when most anglers come to the Yellowstone region. 

There are many factors to consider when fly fishing Hebgen. As with any large body of water, check out the isobar forecast the day you plan to fish. The earlier it is in the season, the more likely the wind will be a factor. For most lakes, you want a calm overcast day. With Hebgen, this is also desirable however during sunny, summer, calm days, the lake is alive with mayfly spinners.


Now let's review the equipment and techniques necessary to put success in your favor when stalking these wily surface feeders. 

EQUIPMENT: The following recommendations pertain to dry fly fishing Hebgen Lake. If you choose to use a bobber or other means of hanging a nymph, you need not read further. 

Fly Rods - A 9 4 or 5 wt medium fast action rod is perfect. After many years filming and observing the reaction of fish and fly line, I now only use 4 weights. I prefer to eliminate all the varibles that put down fish and anything I can do to swing the odds in my favor I will.

Hebgen Lake is visual fly fishing at its finest. This is not river fishing. The trout are perpetually on the move and faster than most people think. The most common mistakes are; too many false casts, casting on or behind the fish. A medium fast action rod is perfect to get the fly there NOW with a minimal amount of false casts while allowing a good strike for longer casts without breaking light tippets. One other quick tip for those using the popular fast action rods. Do your arm a favor and SLOW DOWN that casting stroke. Let whatever rod your using, do all the work. A 6 weight line will only spook fish. The water density on a 6 line alone produces enough spray to alert most fish in the pod. My preferred fly rods are a Winston BIIIX 9'-4 wt or the Echo Dry Fly Rod 9'-4 wt (see review).

Large Arbor Reel - I have been an advocate of large arbor reels since the moment I used the first generation made by Loop fly fishing for steelhead on the Deschutes River with my good friend Ralph Cutter over 30 years ago. Large arbors are now quite the rage and for good reason. They pick up line fast aiding in fish recovery and leave no memory when stripping line near the end of the spool which is often necessary when casting to these fast cruisers on Hebgen. It becomes quite comical to witness angler friends of mine make their first cast of the year. They strip out an amount of fly line they believe necessary to cover the target only to be well short of the cruising fish followed by some obscene remark about their fly line in a rats nest. I presume this is the exact scenario bonefish guides witness the first time their sport attempts their first cast. 

Weight Forward Long Belly (LB) Fly Line - A long belly taper is the best line available to help aerialize a line. If you're casting in close, 35 or less, then it obviously doesn't matter. Aerializing a longer line will produce a more accurate cast. You still must shoot your line, only with an LB you’ll have less to shoot because you’ll have more of it in the air. It will enable you to pick up a fair amount of line to quickly re-cast with less false casts. A standard weight forward, with its thin belly, doesn’t allow this. A double taper line also allows aerialzing a longer line however it will become over-lined for that particular rod when attempting distance so the alternative would be to underline a DT line for distance casting. My line weight and rod of choice is a 4 wt.

Summer fish will rise every day as long as the winds are under 3 mph. For me, I enjoy casting to targets (up to 85') as long as it isn't too windy. One should also know your casting accuracy distance and mark your fly line accordingly. I have all my 4 wt lines marked for this very reason. If you're not hitting your mark, it's a good indicator to let you know when there's a problem. In essence, I know my capabilities, so I gauge my efforts based on how my fly line performs. Maybe a breeze is developing or your tippet is getting too short or your fly line needs cleaning or your rod is separating etc. It's similar to how a pro golfer knows when it's time to change clubs or a tennis player knows when his strings are going bad (I also like to blame my shitty casts on my fly line).

Why use a 4 wt line (full review) and rod? Line spray during calm conditions does matter. Quite often I'll chase sipping browns in 2 - 3' of shallow water. The thicker the fly line the thicker the spray and shadow. This is also the main reason I use long leaders. 

Leader - 15 leader - Your goal here is to place your tiny dry fly precisely in the trouts feeding lane without alerting the fish. On flat water, the leader is a critical union between stalker and prey. I always use a 14 or 15' leader. "Guffaw" you say, be my guest, try using your 9' or 10' leader over 2-4' of flat shallow water on feeding fish. You'll most likely be fishing the Madison the next day. For a 15' leader with tippet, start with a 3' 20 or 25# butt section and taper it down to 5 or 5.5x tippet. The 3' tippet section is tied off a tippet ring. Always use a tippet ring. This will keep your leader at a fixed length then you just need to replace the tippet when it falls below a critical length which for me is about 24".

Avoid tippet curl. If you can see any part of the tippet curled up and glistening, so can the fish. More on this in Casting. On occasion, it may be necessary to use 6x with 20 Midge pupa’s or mid-season Tricos but this is the exception. For more on tippets and leaders see here: Leaders

* Note the following suggestions are applicable on a typically calm, sunny day when conditions are tough but, as usual, the trout are feeding.

Casting - Hebgen Lake is one of the finest dry fly waters in North America renown for its surface feeding trout, however, the term "Gulpers" is over-used. Most anglers (guides included) believe any surface feeding Hebgen fish is a Gulper. Not quite accurate. During mid-June, there are enough adult and Midge Emergers that small clusters of surface feeding trout transition into Gulpers (a sound they produce while feeding). As the summer heat progresses, Tricos and Calliebaetis spinners will attract large pods of Gulpers. Casting to Gulpers is fun and at times they can be extremely finicky but it is more challenging stalking the fast moving single Cruisers over the slow pod feeding Gulpers. When casting to Gulpers, as long as you're not flailing away flock shooting, you will have plenty of time and multiple chances for success. When casting to Cruisers, you may have two chances at best and you must deliver your dry fly within say four to five seconds before your fish is gone. IMO, stalking Hebgen Cruisers is the ultimate in fly fishing especially at distance.

When you have a working fish (Gulper or Cruiser), target your cast ahead of the fish by timing its rise form. There is no purpose in saying "lead the fish by so many feet". There are too many variables. Different rod actions, different casting strokes. You're dealing with distance and time here. You must lead your cast according to the fishes feeding pattern plus add a little buffer. You want to have the opportunity to re-cast and not spook the fish. There is no golden rule of how much to lead a fish. Every pod is different. Gulpers feed in short intervals. Cruisers can feed every 3 - 8 feet. Chop-feeders are surface feeding trout when there is a slight breeze or "chop" on the water. 95% of the time, Chop-feeders feed into the wind so you're wasting your efforts casting into the wind, unless they're within short casting range, those fish are gone. Typically they are Cruisers feeding on Callibaetis emergers. The main advantage when casting to Chop-feeders is the trout become less diffident and widen their feeding parameters. Chop feeding Cruisers are present every summer day. It behooves the fly fisher to learn how to spot and cast with a slight breeze, it's the best dry fly fishing of the day!

I have fished with many seasoned flats fly fishers and witness their exceptional distance skills only for them to realize (or worse not) they just spooked that fish. More often than not most anglers like to test their long distance skills and in the process scatter the school. Be patient and be selective on your target. Casting long distance with a dry, at a cruising target, is my absolute favorite form of fly fishing. At the same time, I do so with the understanding I just cast over a school of unseen fish that may have risen a lot closer. Patience will give you more opportunities for quality targets. 

Another common casting situation for Hebgen is your casting stroke. It is always desirable to keep your rod tip in a straight line path for maximum distance and accuracy. When fish are rising all about, almost in a frenzy, you must redirect your cast with a minimal amount of false casts and, preferably not at the target. When you pick up and change direction, there's no way your rod tip is going in a perfectly straight line path unless your fish is at distance and you have time for two false casts. Regardless of how many false casts, on your final backcast and power stroke, your rod tip must be in a straight line path (both horizontal and vertical planes) toward your intended target. On bright days, when fish are feeding directly at you and you false cast straight towards them, you just put down that fish, unless it's at distance. This is why I often implement a Belgian style first false cast at fish pointed at me. For fish feeding at angles, quartered or better yet parallel with me, a straight line rod tip path is always desirable.

A common scenario, when you've had multiple targets throughout the day, is "my casts were perfect" (yeah sure they were), you were using a 4 or 5 wt so your line wasn't spooking the fish and "I was using a fly that is known to produce" but they stopped rising after the cast. Three things quickly come to mind. You were false casting too much (the #1 culprit), your fish bolted from tippet flash or your fly pattern sucks. Always present the fly, fly first, to your target. If that fish is going away from you, save the effort, there's no chance it'll take your fly.

During and after your cast,  always have your line hand in touch with your fly line. When your fly touches the water, more often than not, where your tippet is attached to your dry fly, it is curled up out of the water. You say you always straighten your tippet when attaching the fly. Yeah, that's what everyone says about their fly line too. I have witnessed, with a zoomed in view while filming, countless refusals due to tippet curl flash. The problem arises after you've landed your first fish or after you've handled/changed your fly. If that curl is visible to your fish, it will refuse your perfect cast every time. So be sure to give it a little nudge at touchdown to straighten out that loop plus it adds a last second tease to your fish. If you do this, and you always should unless there's chop, you must account for that extra second on your casting lead or that nudge just spooked your fish that wasn't going to take anyways because it saw your tippet curl flashing like a neon sign.

If all this seems excessive, it is if all you intend to do is go flock shooting with a bobber. In saltwater terms, you can catch Permit all day long off the wrecks or would your rather have the chance for a few stalking the flats. I usually fish about 3 1/2 hrs each time I'm out, so to me, my time is valuable and I've got other shit to do so I need all the advantages I can get.

Fly Patterns - The three major hatches on Hebgen Lake in hatching order are Chironomid, Tricos and Callibaetis · Chironomid - Key features to remember when tying or selecting a midge pupa pattern is to make sure it is slender, .003 DBW ribbing and a distinct thorax or head. Adding a slight "flash" will help especially for the smaller patterns later in the year. You can’t go wrong with black or light olive colors on Hebgen or anywhere else. I tie all my flies that closely imitate the exact stage of the Hebgen hatches. All my patterns are tied to catch multiple fish. I tie my patterns slender in the body and robust in the wing, especially my Callibaetis spinners. I can spot them at any distance. Nothing is more irritating than a dry fly that is good for one fish before total meltdown sets in. Most fly shops have one or two patterns that are close enough to simulate a Callibaetis or Chironomid, however. they always seem to be 1/2 size too big or too small. Easy enough to prove, capture a spinner specimen and compare it. Great for moving water or failing light, not good for flat water selective fish. Select patterns that are an exact stage imitation, that is durable and that you can see at any distance. If a dry fly is too sparse and you can't see it, what good is it? For dry flies, you will need emergers, duns and spinners.

When the lake is flat, the fish are spring creek sensitive. If a fly shop suggests a certain dry fly, look them in the eye and ask them point blank, "Is this what you use?" Many commercial or local Callibaetis dry fly patterns look good but may not consistently work. Many fly patterns are sold based on third party heresay. Avoid purchasing dry fly patterns based on speculation. The sad part is, it's difficult enough to do everything right only to have refusal after refusal over a lousy imitation. It's no wonder novice anglers fall back to hanging nymphs.

Any fly shop will sell you attractive dry flies but whether they work or not whos's to say. I'm sure they mean well. Anything will work as a dry fly indicator but to me, I find it too boring and no challenge. Leave that technique for the novice.

Midge Emerger - My definition of an emerger is an emerging pupa or nymph that has become a dry fly, period. At least that's how I tie it. Yes, it is half nymph/pupa and half adult but it is a visible dry fly. If you can't find one that looks like a dry fly, that you can see at any distance, then go to another fly shop. Without question, a Midge emerger should be at the top of your fly assortments. Size 12 to 20. Same goes for Pupas. Midge cluster is a non-factor at least nothing compared to the area rivers. 

Tricos - There are many Trico patterns available. Most will work just fine. All you need are two stages, the adult, and the spinner. Colors - black and olive. Unfortunately, with Tricos, it’s not that easy. Of the three major hatches on Hebgen, size is most important with Tricos. This is because there are so many for so long a duration and almost always when the water is dead calm. As with a Midge pattern, go with a Trico you can actually see. Dainty, sparsely tied flies you can hardly see at 25' is a joke. Select a Trico pattern with a visible tuft of white CDC so it will be obvious amongst the hordes of freshly emerged Hebgen Tricos. 

Callibaetis - There are four Callibaetis stages. All are very important, the nymph, emerger, dun and the spinner. An excellent Callibaetis nymph pattern you probably have is the Pheasant Tail nymph. A good emerger should be one you can see, again at distance, and be sure to have a variety of size. For a dun, I use a multi-purpose fly called an Upright spinner that also serves perfectly as a dun. Sizes - 14 and 16. Flying Ant - Late summer Ants can provide some of the best dry fly fishing of the year. Not just any fish, the largest pre-fall run browns. These brown trout can be up to 4 lbs. The problem is flying ants may or may not be around plus heat and the wind is necessary. Sizes will range from a large 14 to 18 and black or brown will work fine. 

The Hatches

Midges - Any one or all three can be active. What about Damsels? They are around for a few weeks in late June and early July, just as they are on all the major lakes in the Yellowstone region, but are not a major hatch on Hebgen. The Chironomid is a major force beginning in late May. The early season midges will be a size 12 to 14 and the fish will school up in the open water gorging on overcast days. The three Arms, Grayling, Madison and South Fork of the Madison, are in runoff stage during the early season and consequently are not a factor until mid-June. You can, however, find fish feeding on Midges in any one of the Arms, just not in numbers like the main body. These early open water fish are hot and not so selective during the early morning as compared to the evening risers. Towards late May fish can be found feeding on Midges whether it’s calm or overcast. However, if it is overcast, the fish go into a frenzy and you’ll find wave after wave of working pods of fish. The main Chironomid hatch will last until mid-July as each brood progressively shrinks until they reach a size 26.

June/July Callibaetis - Early June, another stillwater superstar makes its first appearance. The Callibaetis is the mainstay for Hebgen Trout. Its arrival in June is low key. Few fly fisherman seek out the Hebgen June Callibaetis because of the anticipation of the famous river hatches. Guides are antsy to pump the oars down the Madison, other anglers are planning their stategic positioning on securing their favorite 'spot" in Yellowstone National Park waters and many are just winging it.

As for a Hebgen lake hatch, most are usually unknowingly informed, fly shops are giving their best guess, "there isn't anything going on". Callibaetis emerge around the first of June (size 14) and continue until mid-September. I'll leave it at that.

In mid-June, the littoral zone weed beds where the Callibaetis thrive, are less sporadic and they will emerge as the days and nights become warmer. The important thing to remember about the early season Callibaetis is the emerger stage. Under the right conditions and location, the nymph and Emerger fishing is exceptional just look for the weed beds. Callibaetis emerge every day in June, July and August. If you know when and where to find them, it's dry fly emerger fishing at its finest. During June and July and into late August, the Callibaetis can be in the millions and the spinner becomes king. It's important to remember Callibaetis are multi-brooded and emerge from June to September. No other insect besides the Midge last as long. No other body of water in and around Yellowstone National Park maintains such a prolific hatch.

July Tricos - By mid-July, the phenomena are known as "Gulpers" becomes apparent. These spinner feeding trout or "Gulpers inherit their name from their surface feeding gulp they make while cruising along at a deceptively slow pace. The Trico spinner is what they're after and it triggers their distinct feeding habit until the end of September. If your preference is short range casting, then Tricos is for you. Hebgen Tricos requires you to keep your casting close so the Gulpers are not alarmed. They have an agenda all you need to do is select the correct stage and keep your cast within 2 feet of a working fish anything tighter, you alert the fish. Anglers who have a tendency to splat their dry fly with short leaders, have a very difficult time with Tricos. Remember, Tricos are not caddis - no dive bombing. The Trico hatch will last until the mid-August. 

July / August Callibaetis - Despite fishing conditions around the country, nothing compares to Callibaetis dry fly fishing on Hebgen Lake during the hot summer months of July and August. Often you will hear anglers complain about the summer doldrums, though this can be true if you're into nymphing the famous rivers around Yellowstone, it's a shame they don't widen their angling experience and visit one of the country's greatest dry fly fisheries in Hebgen Lake, just minutes away from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. 

Casting to working fish on a river is simple. You select a matching pattern, you position yourself as close as possible, you target your fish and you cast to your stationary target without spooking it until it takes or refuses in which case, you change your fly. Life is simple, all is well. Casting to rising fish on Hebgen can be as simple as long as you remember to lead the fish and don’t spook them with too many false casts. Know your casting range and accuracy level. You’ll know what their taking - just look. If you need to move closer, just remember the closer you get the more chance there is to spook them with your presence, false casts or fly line. Pick out single fish and get your fly a few feet ahead of where the fish should come up next. Allowing a buffer zone on your cast accomplishes two things: You won’t spook the fish, with the leader or fly splat and 2) It gives you a chance to slightly move the fly in the path of the fish. (If you don’t know where or when it will rise next, then quit casting and observe unless you’re out there for fly casting aerobics in which case flail away). Remember, splatting a dry fly is counter-productive unless your hopper or salmonfly fishing. 

Late summer, as the trout become more selective, try Fly Ants in sizes 12-18. Though you may not see any ants, the fish are just getting to get a taste of them. Fly Ants will be a factor to the end of September. As the season progresses, unlike the rivers, the Hebgen fish will become less cautious. Casting to Hebgen trout is the most satisfying of all dry fly fishing. You're stalking a fish at any given range. It becomes a personal challenge casting to working fish beyond your ability and when you get humbled you can always pick one off at point blank range and feel like a boss. I believe fly casting is what fly fishing is all about otherwise we would all be dapping with "poles" and bobbers (hmmmm.). Hebgen Lake is a unqique dy fly fishery situated amongst the surrounding world class waters. Nowhere in North America will you find fish feeding on mayfly spinners for three solid months out of the year.

For me a typical Hebgen summer day is about 3 1/2 hrs. During this time I'll put myself in range of, at least, one qualtity target every minute or so. This article was written and intended for my friends as a Hebgen primer before I take them out. It was written so I didn't have to be so redundant and constant technical jabbering while I'm on the lake (excluding normal joking around talk). For my friends that are very experienced anglers and decide or forget to read this primer, I typically don't say anything..... It becomes a very long day.



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