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Hebgen Lake -Montana's premier fly fishing lake

Hebgen Lake has the most prolific hatches of any stillwater fishery in North America. This nutrient rich lake receives its source from a river system like no other. From fourteen miles up where the Gibbon and the Firehole meet to form the Madison River, the unusually warm temperature that inhabits the Upper Madison helps to form the perfect chemistry and nutrients that the Hebgen aguatic life thrive in.

But what sets it apart are the trout’s feeding habits that indulge in Hebgen’s aquatic smorgasbord. The feeding sound these fish produce makes an audible gulp, hence gulpers. The actual insects these trout feed on are midges, Tricos and Callibaetis spinners. Spinners at times, by the millions, depending on winter lake levels. Even though Hebgen Lake is considered to be one of the top dry fly lakes in the country, 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. Ideally, you want a calm overcast day. However what sets Hebgen Lake apart from any Stillwater fishery, especially as it gets later into the season, is knowing that even on a bright bluebird day, the fish are usually rising during one of the three prolific Hebgen hatches.

 


Now lets review the equipment necessary to put success in your favor when stalking these wily gulpers.

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. You only get so many chances on this lake. Hebgen is visual fly fishing at its finest. This is not river fishing. The trout are on the move and faster than most people think. The most common mistake is casting on or behind the fish. A medium action rod is perfect to get the fly there NOW with a minimal amount of false casts. 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. 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.

Large Arbor Reel - I have been an advocate of large arbor reels since the moment I used the first generation made by Loop, fishing for steelhead on the Deschutes River with my good friend Ralph Cutter. 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 that’s 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 your casting in close, 30’ 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 a LB you’ll have less to shoot because you’ll have more of it in the air. You will also want to be able to pick up a fair amount of line to quickly recast. 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 overlined 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 can cast to any target (up to 85') as long as the wind is calm or low. So why use a heavier line 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 - 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 You do not want curl. If you can see any part of the tippet curled up and glistening so can the fish. On occasion, it may be necessary to use 6x with 22 midge pupa’s or midseason tricos but this is the exception.

Casting - Our favorite technique is casting to targets with a dry fly matching whatever's on the menu at the time. When you have a working fish, target your cast ahead of the fish by timing its rise form. You must lead your cast according to the fishes feeding pattern plus add a little buffer. You want to have the opportunity to recast and not spook the fish. There is no golden rule of how much to lead a fish. Every pod is different. Gulpers feed is short intervals. Cruisers can feed every 3 feet. 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. 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 straight line path unless your fish is at distance. So be aware on your final backcast to have it lined up, as straight as possible, toward your intended target.

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, small copper or silver 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.

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 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 can be up to 4 lbs. The problem is flying ants may or may not be around plus heat and the wind are 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 going on at once. 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 they 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 be schooled 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. But we have not seen the last of the Neolithic insect. They will be back.

June Callibaetis - By mid-June another stillwater superstar make its first appearance. The Callibaetis is the mainstay for Hebgen Trout. Its arrival in June is low key. Very few fly fisherman seek out the June Callibaetis because of its emergence location. In mid-June, the weedbeds where the Callibaetis thrive are sporatic and only appear on the southwest bank of each part of the lake. The important thing to remember about the early season Callibaetis is the nymph and emerger stage. Under the right conditions and location, the nymph fishing is exceptional just look for the weedbeds. In late August, when the Callibaetis can be in the millions, the spinner becomes king. It's important to know that the Callibaetis are multi-brooded and emerge from June to September. No other insect besides the midge last as long.

July Tricos - By mid-July the phenomena are known as "gulpers" becomes apparent. These feeding trout or "gulpers inherit their name from their surface feeding gulp they make while cruising along at a deceptive pace. The Trico 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 you casting close. The gulpers are not easily spooked. 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 closer and you alert the fish. Anglers who have a tendency to splat their dry fly 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 Dry Fly Callibaetis fishing on Hebgen Lake during the month of August. Often you will hear anglers complain about the doldrums in August, 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 working 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.

As the season progresses, unlike the rivers, the Hebgen fish will become less cautious. Casting for Hebgen gulpers is the most satisfying of all dry fly fishing. Your stalking a fish at any given range. It becomes a personal challenge to try for working fish beyond your casting ability and when you get humbled you can always pick one off at point blank range and feel like a hero. I believe fly casting is what fly fishing is all about otherwise we would all be dapping with "poles". One final note about accurate fly casting with distance - it’s fun.


 

 



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