The Cell Phone Years

Rise of Synthetics

The rise of synthetic fly tying materials is often associated with the late great John Betts whose best work bloomed a bit earlier than the cell phone years. John paved the way. One of my best dry fly ideas I is based on his work. The fruits of that ground breaking work started to happen after the millennium. Fly shops in Bozeman now carry rack after rack of synthetic fibers dubbings foams sheet materials and fuzzes. Synthetic materials are cheap and easily repeated. Store owners can restock synthetic materials when ever they want. Synthetic materials were going to happen anyway. John Betts or no John Betts.

Companies like Metz and Whiting have done a good--no fabulous job supplying us with better-than-ever-before rooster hackles and with their corresponding hen feathers. But materials like Red Fox, Arctic Fox, Fox Squirrel, Badger skins, Show Shoe Rabbit's Foot and Wood Duck feathers are increasingly difficult for fly shops to find. The quality of natural materials varies wildly too while synthetics are always available and always the same. Top of the line rooster necks, although eminently available, often cost over $100 bucks now. Many of our good young tiers are are still trying to make the rent while Senyo Laser Dub costs less than three bucks.

Perhaps the worst part about natural materials are moth infestations, or worse yet carnivorous beetles. I now keep my natural materials in zip lock bags with packages of desiccant to keep it dry, and with flea collars meant for dogs. Flea collars aren't cheap but infestations can be ruinous. The three part combination of zip lock bag, chunks of flea collar and desiccant works well enough. It is a bit fussy to keep it all organized but the alternative is worse. Synthetics are easier. You don't even need to put them away.

Synthetic fly tying materials are definitely on the rise. One of Bozeman's relatively new fly shops, The Bozeman Fly Supply, has a Wednesday Night tying gathering populated by a good mixture of tiers including a few old farts but mostly by enthusiastic young tiers in their 20s and 30s. It's often hard to find a natural material there on Wedneday nights. The times they are a change'n.

Big bushy all synthetic streamers

One of the things I occasionally see when the youngsters are tying are absolutely giant streamers. Some of them like two handed 10" inch long tiger shark Game Changers. Four and five and six inch long streamers are common. When I was tying 5" inch Roadkill Streamers in the 1980s people smiled and looked at me like I had a screw loose. They might have been right. Big long streamers--of all shapes and colors--are common now. Among the young tiers anyway.

Among streamers the big trend now is toward all synthetic fibers sculpted into nicely tapered minnow shapes groomed and trimmed and often adorned with glued-on dome eyes, sometimes with slanted magic marker striping along the sides. They are handsome and effective minnows made with cheap, easily acquired materials. Many of today's tiers make those sculpted synthetic fibers a bit too dense for my tastes. I like my streamers sparse, so they're easier to cast and faster to sink. But that's a subjective taste preference. The new tiers could tie that way too. The minor beef I do have with synthetic hair streamers is their tendency to turn into a tangled mess of multi-colored dread locks after they have been used a few times, and especially so after they've caught a few fish. Old fashioned Joe Brooks and Keith Fulsher style Blondes and Thunder Creeks never do that. Among natural materials buck tails do remain both cheap and available. Hallelujah, heavenly father buck tail.

Guides and Bobber Fishing

There is so much cool stuff going on in fly tying now. There are also a few trends I'm not so fond of, even though I've been a part of it to some extent. I was an early adopter of foam Hopper Dropper Rigs. I fished them a lot for many years, mostly in the 1990s and in the first decade or so since the turn of the century. How I fish changes constantly. I fished Woolly Worms for two or three years straight at one point. And then went on a ten year binge of fur strip streamer fishing. Then I got into spring creek flies in a ten year way. Now I'm getting a bit sick of hopper droppers. They do have their limitations.

Hopper Dropper rigs (which most guys do with a Chubby these days) are great for trolling off the side of a boat on guide trips with clients who aren't Olympic quality fishermen. But in any no-boat wading situation a big hopper does have a tendency to put fish down. You only get two shots at any given hold and then you have to move on. When I was younger I liked to fish and move quickly. Now I need to slow down a bit. Whether I like it or not.

Even less appealing are the flat out bobber rigs that are so common today, especially so with guided trips. The guiding business has changed considerably. Independent outfitters have their own customers, many of whom come every year. It takes a half a lifetime to gather a flock of happy customers who come again and again because they like fishing with you in particular. Most repeat customers are good fishermen too. They're the ones who make an outfitter's life rewarding. Guides, on the other hand, have to work for outfitters, usually for the fly shops who book the actual trips. Guides cannot book their own trips.

Guides have to work with who ever comes into the shop. For better or for worse the fly fishing community is changing. There are still plenty of highly skilled fishermen out there who think of fly rodding as at least part of their personal identity. But today's clientele, more so than ever before, now includes groups of young professional people who go to places like Big Sky to do one day of white water rafting, a day or two of hiking in the Park, then zip-lining for one day and then "Hey, let's try fly fishing!" Those customers are not so easy for guides to deal with. Fish in the net are what makes tips and happy fly shop employers happen. The most reliable way to make that come to pass, with enthusiastic, energetic young people who don't know much about fly fishing, is to use a bobber rig.

I've done it. I'm no saint. On reservoirs in late fall a bobber rig (or a big foam hopper dropper) is the best way to catch fish from the bank. Wind helps a lot too. On a reservoir on a windy day the waves jig the fly hanging down below the bobber. It's fun. I try to do it at least once every two or three years. I've even used bobbers on the river. If you want to know what the boundaries are you have to try everything. At least once. I have fished bobber rigs and now I don't. I'm getting diverted. My purpose here is not to ban bobber fishing. It's part of the landscape now. Oddly it is perhaps most common to see bobber rigs for guided trips on the big tail water rivers. If I'm going to fish nymphs I do still, occasionally, use a Hopper Dropper rig, although not with frequency I once did. I mostly fish two bead heads with a long leader, with the point fly lighter than the other. At this point I don't even own any bobbers. They aren't part of my repertoire.

Czech Nymphing

Czech nymphing is new and growing, particularly so among younger fly fishermen. I've been a BB fisherman for 40 years now. It's almost the same thing. Czech nymphs have weight built into the fly so you can fish short and deep with a long supple leader. I've heard it is a technique developed in Eastern Europe for fishing competitions where weight on the leader is not allowed.

In my book almost anything is allowed. I just choose not to sometimes. I have no reservations at all about weight on the leader. That's how I fish most of the time. Dry fly fishing is great but for Montana locals who fish all year long, good dry fly days are a minority experience. For native Montanans nymphs wet flies and streamers are the mainstays.

Instead of BBs I sometimes use a sparkplug fly. Among other things BBs cannot a catch fish while sparkplugs can. A sparkplug rig is a bit like the mirror image of a hopper dropper rig. A big heavy sparsely tied skull cracker gets you down there fast, but you still get to fish with a small unweighted or only lightly weighted wet fly behind that. BB fishing and sparkplug fishing are a lot like Czech Nymphing. In both cases you use a long leader and fish short, so you can probe the bottom. Actually it's worth pointing out sparkplug flies do not have to be all that big or heavy. Sometimes all you want is to get a small fly down there a few feet. A small sparkplug does that nicely. And catches a few fish too, in the process.

This is an extra-heavy sparkplug but they don't have to be. One fly gets you down there. The trailing fly wafts with currents. On wind storm days I sometimes put the sparkplug on the end, as the trailing fly. But the small lightly weighted fly out at the point usually works best. I never put the sparkplug on a dropper. I mainline the rig, with the point tippet knotted to the bend of the sparkplug. The point fly always catches many more fish. But the sparkplug often--if not usually--catches the one or two biggest of the day.

When I was a teenager back at Henryville on the Brodheads you were supposed to fill out the log book for every day you fished. I don't think I ever did. I didn't have anything against it but I usually fished until I dropped. Among the few times I did glance through the log book there it quickly became clear there were two club members who routinely caught many more fish than everybody else. Or claimed they did anyway. One of those two guys was a relatively short, wide as a tree stump guy who was a tradesman of some kind. I don't think I ever saw that guy without a short stubby cigar in his mouth. He ran a successful plumbing business I think. He tied his own flies which were all relatively large wet flies and nymphs that were extra extra heavy. I visited with him one day while he fished. He wore waders but he tried to keep his feet not too far into the water and he never made a cast longer than 35 feet. Usually shorter. He caught fish right out in front of him. All day long, usually in deep runs the bamboo rod guys passed right by. Was that Czech Nymphing? I'm not sure what Czech Nymphing is. I'll have to ask Zac Sexton. I'm primarily a BB and sparkplug fisherman.

Mouse Flies

When I first started guiding in Montana we used to tell jokes about mouse flies. There was always somebody's story about somebody's Grandpa who liked to drink whisky and fish all night while burning tires, who put a live mouse on a piece of plywood and...I don't really have to finish that story. It's a bit like a farmer's daughter and the travelling salesman story.

Then for a few years after that people I knew started tying and carrying mouse flies but didn't actually fish them often. More recently I keep running into people who not only make them but fish them too. A lot. This is a band wagon I missed out on. Perhaps mouse flies are a bit like Willy Self's floating streamers. I need to get my act together and start tying. I do remember a photo that was going around the internet a few years ago, of a giant ten pound or so brown trout caught and killed in New Zealand that had seven mice in it's stomach. I'm convincing myself as I write. I need to tie some mouse flies.

High contrast shiny all synthetic nymphs and wet flies

I'm sure nymphs like the following got tied even 20 or 30 years ago. They are a lot more common now they used to be. Wet flies with natural materials on Wednesday night tying nights in Bozeman are increasingly rare.

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Insect Declines

I ended the last section on a low note when I mentioned the degradation of our lower rivers due to new ever more powerful industrial irrigation practices. On another such note we need to start talking about the rapid and undeniable decline of aquatic insect populations across the State. These declines are real but not evenly distributed, which is interesting. Some drainages have been hammered harder than others. Some drainages have hardly been effected at all.

Are you really still not convinced? In the early 1990s the Pale Morning Dun hatches on the Paradise Valley spring creeks were so thick you could take your pick of a half a dozen regularly rising fish without ever taking a step. We had two big flood years in 1997 or so that wiped out all the culverts on the creeks, which set them back a bit, for a year or two anyway. After the floods, during the first few years of the new century the hatches were thicker than ever. I had finished school in those years and was by then writing code for several software outfits in the Bozeman area. Instead of guiding I bought rod slots on the creeks in those years. I remember one day, maybe 3 years after the big floods when my wife Adele caught close to thirty fish in Betty's Riffle on DePuy spring creek, during an early summer Pale Morning Dun hatch. She was fishing with dry flies and emergers. She know how to change flies when ever a particularly stubborn riser began to refuse.

I can't remember well enough to put a date on it but the hatches soon thereafter began to decline. Yearly. Others have written about it. What is the cause? I don't know. New Zealand mud snails? Is it pesticides? No one can say for sure but the insect declines are not in any way debatable. I went to the O'Hair ranch on the fourth of July 2010 to photograph the Pale Morning Dun hatch. I got some great photos that day but I must say even then I noticed there were not as many bugs as the previous decade.

Now it's twelve years later yet as I write this in 2022 and the Paradise Valley spring creek Pale Morning Dun hatch is clearly in big trouble. Clearly in big time decline. I went this year with a new super macro camera setup to photograph PMDs. I hardly saw any. I couldn't find a single one I could get close enough to justify pressing the shutter button on my camera. There are still fish in the creek and a few scattered bugs. Guiding on the spring creeks has become more like New Zealand fishing now where you spend most of the day hunting walking and stalking, doing your best to find a rising fish. Once you find a rising fish you could argue it's even more fun than ever before because the challenge is so much greater. But that would be double speak at work. There is still fun to be had but denial is dangerous. We need reality now.

It isn't just the Paradise Valley spring creeks. Pale Morning Dun hatches on Big Spring creek in Lewistown used to be a semi-legendary semi-secret place for locals to fish. Now it's OK to talk about Big Spring Creek because the hatches are absolutely gone. Some of the big tail water rivers have suffered too. The Missouri up near Wolf Creek still has good bugs in Summer and Baetis in Fall. It still has good fishing. But anyone who claims the bugs are still as thick today as they used to be needs counseling. Salmon flies in the Beartrap Canyon on the Madison used to be thick. Now they are essentially gone. Salmon flies on the Madison above Ennis get a bit sparser every year. There is good fishing there still to be had. But it's nothing like it used to be. So too on the Big Hole. And on the Yellowstone. I used to fish salmon flies on the Yellowstone right through the town of Livingston. The water was usually still high and muddy but the bugs were there. Now you have to drive 40 miles up river almost to the Point of Rocks to find big bugs in early July.

I wrote to a retired MSU (Montana State) entomologist who specialized in Montana's aquatic insects. Getting him to say anything was like pulling teeth from a donkey. He retired as a scientist trained never to say anything without well organized data to back him up. I pressed on. At one point he almost blurted out "Sure. Absolutely. It looks like our aquatic insects are in free-fall decline. But we have no data! To say anything at all you need a 20 year population study and there aren't any. All the natural ecosystem money goes to Grizzly Bears and Wolves!"

Ouch. But perhaps this does suggest a starting point. We need some data. A highly publicized long term population study in Germany a few years ago documented dramatic insect declines across all of central Europe. That study was about insects in general. Declines among aquatic insects appear to be even more dramatic. But until there is real data no one can say much. There are institutional interests who want to keep it that way. The time to act is now.

So here we are in a position were we know aquatic insect population declines are real but we cannot yet say quite how bad it is. We can say nothing about the causes. Not yet. We can speculate freely but knowledge at this point is elusive. It is also interesting how the declines are less dramatic or even non-existent on some places while dramatic in others.

The hatches on Montana's Big Horn River have suffered least of all. If at all. Mike Kelly reports the 2021 hatches there, for both Pale Morning Duns and Baetis were essentially as good as they ever have been. Is that because the Big Horn flows through an arid semi-desert high plateau above the reservoir, where there is little agriculture? No one knows. In Yellowstone Park, high altitude meadows and the Big Horn there seem to be no declines at all.

One interesting side note on the decline of aquatic insect populations relates to all the spring creeks I'm familiar with. When I was guiding the spring creeks in the early 1990s the hatches, even in prime time, usually tapered off by 2:30 in the afternoon. A lot of guys just left at that point. They came for the Pale Morning Dun hatch and once it was over they took the afternoon off. Most others switched over to small terrestrials. Tiny beetles and small Letort Hoppers were common. So was not catching many fish. Other guys insisted on Copper Nymphs and micro Pheasant Tails. They often got skunked. I fished huge 2" inch long foam locust hoppers and did fairly well.

Now the afternoon spring creek ticket is white micro-streamers. They work better than hoppers of any kind. It makes sense when you think about it. The spring creeks still serve as spawning nurseries for the main stem rivers they dump into. Insect populations are way down compared to thirty years ago. But the creeks are stilt filled with small minnow frye. The bigger creek fish have noticed.

Something bad is happening here and we don't know what it is. It is a ominous development that has to be taken seriously. We have a sport based on imitating insects that are disappearing as we watch and speak. Solutions cannot yet materialize when we don't for sure even know the causes. The first important steps have to start with conversation. And with research. Who will pay for that research? I'm a bit of a loner introvert who doesn't participate well in organizations like TU and the FFF. I'm doing my recluse's part by writing about it. Now let's begin to talk.