Spring Creek Flies
Spring Creek Flies have been a frequent theme. I do love fishing on the creeks. This time around I'll try to concentrate more on flies and a bit less on strategy and habitats. But they are hard to separate. Fly choices usually relate to strategies and habitats. And to time of day and seasons.
During the early 1980s I had a Montana Outfitters licence and often did overflow "pickup" guiding for local shops late in the season when I wasn't busy building boats. I worked that way for most of the local shops, including the Yellowstone Angler. When 1990 rolled around I was 42 years old. I decided to re-shuffle the cards and started college as an older-than-traditional-age student, studying computer science. Almost the first thing I did was call George Anderson, to see if I would be able to work closer to full time during the summers, in between old-fart classes. George hesitated. "How good are you at the Spring Creeks?" George asked me. I lied and told him I'd been fishing the creeks forever. I got the job I wanted. I also knew I had some catchup to do. Fast.
My old friends Randy Berry and Chuck Tuschmidt, who both worked for George, helped me out. A lot. Randy Berry put about two dozen flies in my boxes and told me to start off fishing Pheasant Tails, Brassies and wet flies in the riffles early in the day when noting was rising yet. Then, when the water started to dimple at 11:00am or so to find slick water below a riffle, and to tie on some mayflies. Wet or dry. And also to change flies a lot. "Don't let any fish refuse the same fly more than twice," Randy said. That was pretty much it. The main thing was to use small sparsely-dressed flies of vaguely the right size and color. Tiny and gray for Blue-winged Olives. A tad bigger and more yellow (although I gradually began to prefer olive over the more traditional yellow) for Pale Morning Duns. Wet or dry or spent wing didn't matter. Start with something you like (or your customer likes) and run with it. Until it comes time to change.
I managed to get through the first few weeks of Spring Creek fishing--as a guide--without getting fired. By the end of the second or third season I felt like an old hand.
In order to mix things up--the way my buddies coached me--you needed a well-stocked cornucopia fly box with Sparkle Duns, No-hackles, parachutes, spent wing patterns and various cripples and emergers. And pheasant tails, soft hackle wets, brassies, flashback nymphs, scuds, hoppers and streamers. About the only flies that do not work on the creeks are Royal Wullfs, Stimulators and Humpies. When midges or mayflies are hatching that's what you do. That's what your customers came for. But when the bugs are not hatching and the fish have lockjaw anything goes. For hoppers almost everybody else went small. I didn't go big I went huge. Big three inch long clacking/flying locusts are endemic on the creeks I
. If you catch one pinch its head and throw it in the water it seldom drifts more than ten feet before a loud plop and a big dimple marks its demise. On rainy days I used huge streamers, big 4" to 7" inch long Roadkill Steamers, especially in the deep fast water below culverts. On sunny days, after the hatches were done for the day, I used either the big foam hoppers or tiny white micro-streamers--as small as I could make them. Small white streamers were never available in the shops so I had to supply my own. They usually paid their way in tips. I often caught fish when nobody else did.
Late in the season when it was tough for everybody else, I often did well. I remember one day at the first culvert upstream from the swan ponds at DePuy's when my clients caught nine fish, late in the season when everybody else was getting skunked. We were using 2" inch long yellow foam hoppers and small white streamers. Bob Auger came around with his log book at one point, and said "Sandy you've out-fished everybody today. It was tough today. You out-fished Al Gadoury!" It's worth pointing out that's a rare event. Al of 6x Outfitters was and still is one of the great creek masters. That was also an example of me fishing the creeks in oddball ways nobody else did. During the hatches I followed suite and fished the same as everybody else. Casting small dry flies to dimpling fish is what the customers want. Me too. That's the most fun fishing there is. But when the fish are not dimpling you sometimes have to apply an attitude adjustment.
The creeks are lined with weeds all summer long, which are covered with scuds. I have watched fish foraging for scuds on both the creeks and on some of the big tail waters. I've seen the same behavior in both places. Scud foraging fish dive into the weeds and shake their heads vigorously, presumably to dislodge scuds. They seldom keep that activity up for long. After a minute or two of head shaking they usually head back to a well-defined holding spot. Real, still alive scuds camouflage themselves by adopting the same green color as the weeds they live in. That's an example of the Background Mimicking behavior described by Hugh Cott in Adaptive Coloration in Animals.
When scuds die, for what ever reason, they quickly become surprisingly bright bright orange. I have always, no matter what, had better luck fishing orange scuds than green ones.
Scuds are an underrated spring creek fly. For reasons that don't necessarily make sense scud flies are common on the big tail water rivers, but used less on the spring creeks. On the creeks, in the early season, from late Winter through to the end of the rainbow spawn in early April local fishermen often use hot fluorescent pink or orange egg flies. As the season progresses I see progressively fewer egg flies every day, until they are all but extinct until perhaps late fall. I don't know anything about steelhead fishing, where egg flies originated. How big is a King Salmon egg? I don't know, but I do know trout eggs are tiny. Scuds are a lot bigger. I find myself wondering if Rocky Mountain trout that eat hot pink egg flies during the winter season are responding to impulses more closely related to scud behavior than to trout egg behavior. Orange scuds are effective flies on the spring creeks all year long. I also feel more confident fishing orange scud patterns than green ones. Pink, orange and green scuds can all be said to match the hatch, but only green scud patterns can be said to match the camouflage.
The Best Flies
Even in prime Pale Morning Dun season the mayflies only hatch for maybe three hours a day, usually from 11:45 to 2:30 or so. They'll sometimes hatch longer but it does have to be cloudy to make that happen. There are always at least a few midges around and sometimes a good midge hatch will unexpectedly happen. Late March can be really fun midge fishing. It's possible to catch midgeing fish on dry flies. If you do want to ply visible dry flies during a midge event most the most trendy midge dry flies look like a black Serendipidy Nymph tied with a bit more white wing tuft on top, which helps keep the fly both afloat and easier to see at a distance.
..........dry fly midge image here
I find Brassies more reliable than their dry fly counterparts. I often like to fish white-tufted dry fly midge like the one above, with a Brassie trailing along behind. In fact that's my goto midge hatch setup. In a wider, not necessarily midge event context the three most all-around anytime of year and anytime of day flies to use are Brassies, Pheasant-tail Nymphs and Soft Hackle Wet flies. The soft hackles can be more or less any color. I like black the best but brown yellow and olive all work too. There are a zillion other fly choices but they do tend to be special purpose choices, like Sparkle Duns or No-hackles at noon on the Fourth of July, when there is a PMD hatch in full swing.
In an earlier chapter about mayfly designs I mentioned a gradual evolution of silhouettes from the high-riding Classic Catskill mayflies to sparser patterns like the Swisher/Richards flies that sit lower and closer to the surface. That design trend is so strong out West it can be hard to find a Classic Catskill dry fly in Rocky Mountain fly shops. Does it really matter? Is an extra-sparse Quill Gordon a better choice than and thick-bodied, heavy-hackled Sparkle Dun?
One memory that sill makes me smile happened at the picnic tables at Nelson's Spring Creek. I had three young Japanese computer programmers from Yokohama for three days. They wanted one day on the Spring Creek, one day floating the big river and one day hiking into grasshopper meadows in the Park. Those guys were all fly tiers. I never saw so many flies. How did they have room for clothes on the flight over the Pacific? Each one of them had a stack of large clear plastic fly containers four or five boxes high. For each pattern, for each of 2 or 3 sizes they had a dozen flies packed into each square compartment. They had Compara Duns, Sparkle Duns and No-hackle duns, plus nymphs and emergers too. But all they wanted to actually fish were classic Catskill Dry flies. I tried to get them to fish nymphs in the early morning. "We'll fish dry flies when the bugs start to hatch," I told them. They acted like they understood everything I said but they mostly replied in Japanese. They spoke more English than I did Japanese but communication was still difficult. They never did change flies. They fished Hendricksons and Quill Gordons all day long. From beginning to end. It was a bit weird. They never did get more than 20 feet apart. And boy did they catch fish, at least once the hatch started anyway.
There was a steady spring creek customer the guides all knew and liked in those days. He as a wide-bodied jovial guy who tipped well. He was a Hollywood producer of some kind. I think he made TV shows rather than movies. He loved to fish and he always had the most expensive gear. I can't remember his name but at one point he walked up to me, near the weed beds adjacent to the picnic area. While smiling and waving his hand toward my closely grouped Japanese clients, who were knocking'm dead with Classic Catskill dry flies, he said: "Sandy! You're making me feel like General Motors!"
Flies so sparsely tied they are hard to keep afloat, according to the moral of that story, is more important than overall profile. Those guys helped make me a believer. Messy-looking classic Catskill flies are easy to tie. Beautiful, neat and tidy Art Flick or Dette-style Catskill flies are not so easy. That's my only remaining complaint. Classic Catskill dry flies are hard to tie but beautiful to look at. And they work. I like Compara Duns too but I'm no longer convinced they work any better. Classic Catskill flies are part of my "change flies a lot" repertoire now. No more no less than any other.
A Spring Creek Fly Box
When customers came to the shop early on a Spring Creek day it was our routine to circle around the fly bins, picking out the flies we wanted our guys to fish that day. During Baetis and PMD time what we chose were mostly Rene Harrop and Craig Mathews flies, including a good mixture of upright duns as parachutes, no-hackles and Sparkle Duns with a few emergers and even a few soft hackle wet flies thrown in. One or two shiny olive or black Woolly Buggers was always a good idea. Small white Woolly Buggers are and were a favorite for me too but the shops seldom had them. We usually stopped stuffing flies when the customers started to look a bit nervous. A well-stocked fly box puts more fish on the line, which generally puts more tip money in your pocket at the end of the day. That's market place incentives at work.
Meriwether Lewis, July 29 1805, on the Jefferson River a few miles above the Three Forks of the Missouri
We see a great abundance of fish in the stream some of which we take to be trout but they will not bite at any bate we can offer them
The following is a collection of flies I might have pulled out of the bins for a high roller. We did get a few of those. I even had--well--I doubt he's still alive because I was a lot younger then and even I'm an apprentice geezer now. So I won't say his name. It was fun to have customers for whom money did not in any way matter. The following might have been a collection I would have put together for him.
If you're a tier you could make this collection. Buying all the materials might cost more than the flies. But still. Tying is life.
...and image gallery, with captions, appears here....
Male Pale Morning Dun -- aka the PMD
Pmd males are smaller than the females, more yellow than olive and they are hyper-active. They seldom drift more than 12" inches before they fly off the water's surface. This one has no tail fibers. This turns out to be fairly common. Do they sometimes break off during the eclosion process?
Female Pale Morning Dun
The females are larger and far more lethargic than the males, often drifting 20' feet or more before flying off to the willow bushes where they perch quietly for the balance of the day--at least until mating time.
Most PMD fishermen use small yellow dry flies or emergers. Yellow is interesting because only the male PMDs are yellow and they do leave the habitat almost the instant they hit the surface. I
Male PMDs wiggle furiously and spin left and right as they drift, but seldom float for more than 12 to 24" inches on the surface before they fly off. After that they're away from the water for the rest of the day. Male PMDs are highly active and they do fly over
the water all day long so they're the ones you see. But once airborne they are never in contact with the water again. Not until after mating time anyway. The slightly larger and substantially more lethargic olive colored females are the ones that ride the surface for 20' feet or more. You never see the females after they fly. They go straight to the willow bushes and perch there motionlessly until mating time arrives. Nobody fishes olive PMDs and yet they're the ones the fish are gobbling off the surface. Yes males get eaten too but far fewer because they fly off so quickly. Upright adult males are not there on the surface long enough to get eaten as frequently as the slower moving females.
The Big Picture
As mentioned earlier, if you run out of PMD patterns in the middle of a hatch you can switch to smaller grayer Blue Winged Olive imitations and never miss a beat. Mimicking dry fly color does not hurt your chances, but it is not at all clear how much it helps. Matching the Hatch is important to some degree. But only during a hatch and too big seems to matter a lot more than too small. Royal Wulffs do not work well at all. That is true. But a large variety of shapes colorings and sizes ranging from a bit too big to a bit too small do work. They work well too. It's also worth pointing out small not-weighted soft hackle wet flies can be absolutely deadly during a PMD hatch. As a guide I can't remember a single customer who came wanting or expecting to fish with soft hackle wet flies during a PMD hatch. But I often put them on when it seemed time to change flies. Soft hackle wet flies are a goto fly for me during a hatch, especially so during Fall Baetis.
Fly size and vaguely the right color is easy to get right for any given hatch situation. But real hatches are relatively rare. Most of the time we fishermen have to deal with coaxing reluctant fish fish rather than eager ones. When there is a hatch, and when the fish dimpling all around us are still hard to catch, what is really going on? In the Western USA States there has been a gradual fly design evolution toward mayfly and caddis dry flies that perch closer and more parallel to the water's surface. Rene Harrop no hackle duns, parachute patterns and Sparkle Duns now sell better than traditional high-riding Catskill dressings. The differences are real I think, but small.
Fishermen tend to focus with laser intensity on their drifting flies. Fishing makes it hard to soak in the bigger picture. A spring creek guide has a bit more time on his hands than his clients. In between netting fish and changing flies I couldn't help notice real flies seldom get refused. Real flies do occasionally
get refused, but rarely and only on the most heavily and intensely fished waters. I have seen a fish "compound refuse" a real mayfly once or twice, on Nelson's Spring Creek and at Depuy Spring Creek in the Yellowstone River Valley for instance I
. But for the most part real mayflies get eaten, almost every time. Perhaps the answer is there right in front of us--like the Emperor's new clothes. Real mayflies look a lot like mayflies while our feathery hooks do not. It doesn't take me long to know whether I'm looking at a real mayfly or a hand-tied artificial. Maybe the fish can too, especially so after they've been caught a few times. Perhaps it's it's a minor miracle we ever catch fish at all. Perhaps severe backlighting in the Snell's Window is the only thing keeping us in the dry fly game.
What Matters Most?
So far I've proposed dry fly size is important, during an active hatch, while the roles of color and silhouette might matter too but if so less less so. What matters most of all is the fishermen. Call it Chi, Moxey or Aura, what ever it is some fishermen have it in spades and others do not. My lifelong fishing buddy Patrick Jobes has consistently out-fished me for the past 40 years while using some of the fuzziest, ugliest flies known to Western Civilization. It's worth mentioning too that Moxey is not the same as presentation. Casting skills can be learned and refined. The predatory eyes ears instincts and reflexes of the hunter are bequeathed at birth. We have to live with who we are and to make the best of it. You could fish for a hundred years and never catch up to George Anderson. The Universe does have certain fundamental rules that cannot be altered or changed. Moxey is one of them.
None of that discounts the obvious importance of what so many writers refer to as 'presentation.' Practice and skills matter almost as much as Moxey. Years of coaching, long hours of film sessions and on-court experience gradually and inevitably improves basketball players like Jamal Mashburn or Ben Simmons. But it never turns them into Michael Jordon. At playoff time Michael, Magic, Koby, Larry and Akeem matter most of all.
Elaborate, sometimes complex fly tying is fun. Fly tying has been and continues to be a lifelong hobby for me. But I know with great certainty my old friend Patrick will out-fish me the next time we meet on a stream. And Patrick never has much more than a few old time standards in his box, like Gray Hackle Yellow, Parachute Adams, George's Brown Stone, bead head Zug Bug, Latex Caddis and maybe a Yellow Sally or two. And none of them well tied.
With almost equal certainty I feel confident my creative fly collection helps me to keep that disparity in check. If Patrick had access to my fly boxes I would be left even further behind. Cool flies help. A little anyway. The fisherman makes the biggest difference of all.
I ended and earlier 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.
Post Script: It is Winter 2023 as I write this, half a year since the massive 2022 Yellowstone floods that washed roads houses and bridgew away on live TV, for us all to see. The last big Yellowstone Valley flood happened in 1997 when all the culverts were washed out of Armstrong and DePuy spring creeks South of Livingston Montana. The hatches in the next decade after 1997 where spectacular--better than ever bofore. The spring creeks took quite a waxing last year. Will they bounce back again now? As they did for almost a decade after 1997? This will be a fun show to watch. I do have my fingers crossed.