Flures of Revelation

When I was in middle school in Princeton New Jersey the Aquaduct where the Millstone River flowed under a concrete channel that held the Delaware Raritan Canal, where the Millstone flowed under the canal and into Lake Carnegie, was a favorite place to fish. The clearer and cooler waters of the Millstone River made a dramatically different habitat from the warmer muddier waters of Lake Carnegie. Below the Aqueduct was a particularly fertile spawning nursery for sunfish and bluegills, which made it a foraging bonanza for bass pickerel and fishermen.

One day when I rode my bicycle down to the Aqueduct, with spinning rod in a backpack, I watched a middle-aged Italian man cast a large deep diving plug far down current. He cranked the lure in quickly so it dove all the way down to the gravel beds formed by the currents of the Millstone river. He hooked and caught a largemouth bass a good ten pounds. A day or two later the Princeton Packet ran story and photo of him smiling from ear to ear, holding that giant fish overhead. I was there and saw it happen. Moments like that get burned deep into your neural networks. I can still see him holding that giant bass today.

I own a half a dozen or so spinning rods but seldom use them. Salt water expeditions are the only time I ever do. I'm 74 in 2022 and I don't get to fish as often as I once did. When I do fish I want a fly rod in my hand. That doesn't in any way mean I don't want to use a lure however. I often do. I like making lures even more than fishing them. I make wigglers both big and small. Heavy and light.

Halford's Ghost the spring creek wiggler

There was a damp, early-morning fog at Ed and Helen Nelson's Spring Creek Ranch, a few miles south and across the river from Armstrong Spring Creek, near Livingston, Montana. This was to be the first of three guiding days I had scheduled with Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy. I was plenty nervous about it. Greg had just won the Tour de France for the third time. He was the first celebrity I had worked with as a fishing guide and he was coming at the wrong time of year. The last thing I wanted now were three days of slow late August, low-water heat-wave fishing with the most important clients of my guiding career. As it would turn out, good luck would shine on me one more time--because I would somehow manage to string together three of the best-ever fishing days in a row. But I didn't know that at the time.

Halfords Ghost jpg

Starting off at Nelson Spring Creek was a stroke of good luck in itself. The fishing there is usually good and often great. Greg and Kathy turned out to be generous and friendly folks. And Greg was a fishing fiend. When he fell in a nasty spill in the Pyrenees, he told me, "I tried to fall on my forearms, so I wouldn't ruin my casting hand." Greg told me early on he wanted me to spend most of my time with Kathy. "I need you to tell me what flies to use," he said. "But basically, I know how to fish."

I was feeling better already. Greg had boundless energy and an almost pathologically competitive spirit. I never saw a man move so quickly cast so many times and fish so hard. Kathy was a quick learner too. There were plenty of bugs on the water that morning. But the spring creeks are a hard place to learn fly fishing. Starting a first-day fly fisherman off at Nelson's Spring Creek is a little like asking a teenager to compete in the Master's Golf Tournament.

By midday, when we finally broke for lunch, Greg had caught too many fish to count. But Kathy, who had jumped missed nicked and been refused by a zillion trout, had only actually netted one fish. She was casting well though. All she really needed was to get a few more fish on the line, to learn how and when to strike a fish and to get her confidence going. I had a 3/4" homemade wiggler in my box that I had been carrying around for months. Now might just be the time to try it, I thought.

When we started back in again after lunch I sent Greg up to fish amidst a pack of rising trout below a small diversion dam. Kathy and I went straight to the weed channels immediately across from the picnic tables. The fish are exposed there so it is a notoriously difficult place to fish, but we had to start somewhere. The wiggler turned out to be a bombshell. I don't think I've seen anything quite like it before or since. Nelson Spring Creek trout are so fussy and so nervous I have many times seen them refuse a natural mayfly. So when a huge fish--on the first cast--cruised up behind the wiggler, sniffed it once and then darted back into the weeds, I thought "Oh well, it was worth the try." But no sooner did I finish the thought when out came the same fish again then back into the weeds and then back out again. And then bang! We had him. It turned out to be the same with all of them. They tried to resist, but they couldn't do it. Two, three, four times apiece they would refuse. And then out they would come one more time to nail the wiggler. It was hard to believe!

After a dozen or more fish the wiggler finally disintegrated. It was incredible fun while it lasted and Kathy had learned what to look for and what to expect. She had learned when and how to strike a fish. Later that evening, when the sulphur duns were hatching, I had Kathy rigged up with a small foam grasshopper--as an indicator--and a #22 Cream Midge Larvae, a generic small nymph that works well as a Sulphur emerger. Nymph fishing during the Sulpher hatch is the most challenging fishing imaginable. Unlike Pale Morning Duns, which ride the surface for 20' or more before flying way, mature Sulphur duns take off as soon as they get their wings up, so the trout key in on the drifting nymphs and emergers. The trout take so gently during the Sulphur hatch they seldom make an indicator move. You have to fish by instinctive radar. When you see a fish move anywhere in the vicinity of your fly you have to set the hook, even if the indicator hasn't budged. In one log-jam spot up above the midge pond Kathy caught four or five fish on a #22 nymph, without ever taking a step!

Since then I have fished with mini wigglers many times in many places. Like all flies their success seems to vary from day to day and place to place. But for some reason I am at a loss to explain they are the most consistently and predictably effective on the spring creeks. Fishing the water with an attractor, downstream and across with a tight straight line, isn't what spring creek fishing is all about. So I never use wigglers when a hatch is on. But I do find myself falling back on them in the late afternoons when most fishermen resort to beetles or ants, or take the afternoon off while waiting for the sulphurs to start in again.

When I'm out there on a spring creek, when the sun is hot and the fishing is slow, when I've got a wiggler in my box, sometimes I just can't resist, no matter how hard I try.

Larger but Still Light

I remember a late 1980s Trout magazine article where the late Dave Whitlock referred to hand made fly rod wigglers as "impossibly difficult to tune." Among other things those few words meant Dave, like me, was clearly interested in wigglers too. Dave had apparently tried to make a few as well, but failed. I, on the other hand, stuck with it longer and eventually figured out how to make them. Reliably. So they work. This isn't a how-to-do-it book but believe me. Once you know how it's not hard to make a wiggler. They are a bit time consuming. Maybe 15 minutes each.

The diving bill on all crankbaits, small or large, light or heavy, does its best to spin the flure around in a circle as it meets resistance from the water, as it is pulled back toward the fisherman. A small amount of weight placed placed low and forward on the flure combined with strong floatation on top and behind help to keep the flure from spinning all the way around. Instead the flure almost flips over and then stops, reverses and wobbles in the opposite direction. That way you get the perpetual side-to-side wobble of a Flatfish or a Lazy Ike--from a hand made creation light enough to cast with a fly rod. Most of my wigglers are ighter than the Conehead Yuk Bugs sold at all Southwest Montana fly shops.

In mid to late March on my favorite tailwater the late morning midge fishing can be hot and heavy. But it isn't always. On some days those pesky little bugs don't show themselves. On other mornings they do but even then they're usually done for day by mid-afternoon. Bright cold sunny afternoon fishing in March can be tough. Dead drifting streamers into winter water is one way to go, wherre winter water means a deep and slow almost but not quite still current over a gravel bottom. Another technique that sometimes works is to cast deep diving wigglers across and behind a dirfting boat. Another flyrod technique, that sometimes brings up the biggest fish in the river, is to drift the middle of the river rather than the banks, and to troll an extra-deep diving wiggler downstream like a Northwest Coast Hot Shot, where the oarsman does most of the fishing, pulling back on the oars just hard enough to make the wiggler bite the water and dive, down into the edges of seams between current and still.


Riffle Darts

My favorite way to fish wigglers is when I'm alone and on foot. There is a section of the Lower Madison, at the base of the Beartrap Canyon that belongs to me. The only legal boat launch is a 1/2 a mile downstream from the trailhead parking lot. The few boats that do come down from above are all white water rafters and kayakers who are at that point exhausted from 11 miles of canyon. A fair number of fishermen, both spinners and fly rodders ply the banks. I'm the only one who fishes the middle of the river. I still do. It's not that hard. The Madison there is mosly knee deep. There are a few belly button deep fast runs you cannot wade but that's were the good fish are. I wade out from the parking lot and hit the middle of the river right away. The current is too strong to stay put. You have to tip toe down stream going with the current. Every 20 yards or so you'll lose you footing and start to drift. You don't sink. You've got waders on. Just lift your downstream legs and drift. After another 20 yards or so you can put your feet down again. There are no boulders and there are no log jambs in that section. I've been fishing that section, that way, for decades.

As I tip toe downstream I throw a Riffle Dart with a long long leader, downstream and across, into the deepest fastest water. If I want my flure to swim left I roll cast a big loop sideways to the left. And then point the rod. In all the years I've been fishing that private, for Sandy only, 1/2 mile section of the Madison I don't think I've ever caught more than two fish. But the ones I do catch there all seem to start at 18" inches. The deepest fastest water in the middle of the river is a secret holding sanctuary for the river's largest fish, that most fly rodders do not even consider, let alone target intentionally.

I use Riffle Darts on the Big Hole too, when smaller flies are not working anyway. You have to be a lot more careful on the Big Hole. Downstream from Fish Trap, if it's early in the season the water may not be faster than the Madison but it's deeper in many places, and pock-marked with boulders, sweepers and log jambs. I use more caution there but I still find places to wade the middle of the river, tip-toeing downstream swimming a diver left and right. Boat fishermen tend to spend the whole day poking the banks. They are missing some of the best big fish holding water on the river.

Diving Riffle Darts are not the only way to fish that deep mid-river water. Large floating streamers from a boat work too. And so does a Sparkplug fly with a trailing Marshmallow Nymph, or maybe a Jellystone, with or without a boat. Or even a Sparkplug followed by an extra heavy Three Dollar Dip. The current is only fast on top. Below those fast and furious flows is the safest holding sanctuary on the river. At least when I'm not there.

Deep and Fast -- with or without Riffle Darts --

I remember a day now probably 15 years back when my neighbor Earl rang the doorbell and suggested fishing the Firehole the next day. "It''s Salmon Fly time," Earl said. "Everybody will be on the river. We'll have the Park to ourselves!" That seemed like a good idea. And so it was. The Firehole was not red hot but it was largely empty and we did have a fun day. On the way home we stopped at the Three Dollar Bridge. It was late in the afternoon. There were Salmon flies hanging the willows. The parking lot was full. The banks were so crowded with fishermen it seemed impossible to fish. But I was still young and strong then, fifteen years back. About 500 yards up from the Three Dollar Bridge there is a mid-river current that bends to river fight around a big, only partially exposed boulder. But there is or at least then was a gravel bar too, right next to a run really deep and fast mid-river water. That gravel bar at Salmon Fly time was current covered and three feet deep. Wading out to there was out of the question for Earl. I doubt I could manage it now either. But I could then. It was prime Salmon Fly time and I found two hundred yards of river that was all mine. And boy did I wack'em too, using a Sparkplug and and a Marshmallow Nymph. They all came out of the deepest fastest water. I was the only one catching fish too. Earl and everybody else had a tough time, poking at the willow branch edges.

I love those mid-river places. They're a gold mine and they're usually all mine, at least at places like the Three Dollar Bridge where boat fishing is not allowed. Wading and fishing Deep fast water can be a bit dicey. If you do lose your footing pull your feet up and point them downstream, so you can kick away from an obstructions. Hold the rod with one hand an swim with the other. It will get shallow again soon. You cannot fish places like that and hope not to lose your footing. You have to expect it. You have to like it. It has to be part of the deal.

My concluding deep and fat memory happened on the lower Firehole with friends. We were three couples in July picnicking in the Park. Fishing that day was an afterthought. We stopped way down low on the Firehole at one point, downstream from the meadows in a spot where the road paralells the river--right before entering the canyon above the Firehole Falls. I waded downstream swinging a small but heavy streamer into what deep fast water there was. It was late in the afternoon on a bright sunny day. The fishing was extra-slow. A drift-and-swing streamer seemed like the only resonable choice. I lost my footing, tripped and face-planted head first into the water, but I had a waders with a belt. I was like a cork. I pointed my feet downstream, sat up almost upright and started to fish, almost as if I was casting from a boat.

I hooked a fish and simultaneously heard loud tire screeching and honking horns. I was lying on my back drifting downstream with a bent and bobbing rod tip. I looked over my soaking wet shoulder. Three sets of smoking tire cars came to a sudden sideways stop without actually bumping eachother. I could see what happened. The lead guy thought he saw someone drowning the river, floating downstream while waving his arms. He stomped the brakes and nearly caused a three care pileup.

I put my feet down, stood up and showed them a nice 15" inch brown trout. And then released him. It was time to call it a day. If you want to fish the deep fast water in the middle of the river, it helps to use a long leader and weight, in order to get your fly below the furious part of the current. The fish think it's a sanctuary there. And it is for the most part, unless you know how to sneak in too.