5 Weather and Water Conditions that Affect Your Fly Fishing

A couple weeks ago, I fished Montana’s Madison River three days in a row. The first day was stellar. The second day was not. The third day was a combination of fantastic and frustrating. All of this was due to the weather and water conditions. Such conditions force fly fishers to make adjustments.

Here are five weather-and-water conditions that affect fly fishing:

1. Water Level and Color

My first day on the Madison consisted of only two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon.

I spent the prime fly fishing hours on a Delta flight to Bozeman. Yet I still caught eight healthy rainbows (and lost several more). The next day, after some good rainbow fishing at dawn on the Missouri River near Helena, I drove back to the same spot I fished on the Madison the previous day. I arrived during a prime time window.

But I noticed that the water level was slightly higher and that the color was a bit murkier. As I feared, the fishing was slow. I caught nothing the first two hours even though I tried different patterns and presentations. The adjustments eventually yielded a couple small rainbows. But nothing like the previous day.

Sometimes, no adjustment with my rig makes a difference on days with higher water levels and more color. Sometimes, though, switching to a San Juan Worm or throwing a big streamer gives me a better chance.

2. Sky

If you’re new to fly fishing, you might be surprised to know that the sky has as much effect on fly fishing as the water conditions.

An old John Denver song says, “Sunshine on the water looks so lovely.” Yes, but not to a fly fisher. A cloudy, gloomy day will often trigger insect hatches, which in turn give trout something to feed on. So whenever I see grey skies, I expect to have some decent dry fly fishing. I look for Blue-Winged Olives or whatever else might be hatching at that time of year on that particular stretch of river.

When the sun shines bright in a cloudless sky, I anticipate nymph fishing. This is exactly what I did on the Madison on day one. I saw a few mayflies on the surface, but there were no trout rising. The trout were happy to take nymphs.

However, dry fly fishing can be productive on a sunny day later in the summer when hoppers are active. A hopper pattern — or even a big attractor like a Red Humpy or a Spruce Moth — may coax a large trout from its lair.

3. Moisture

Related to the sky is the moisture in the air.

The most ideal conditions for fly fishing are not the most ideal conditions for fly fishers. Rain and snow trigger insect hatches. I had light rain throughout my third day on the Madison, and the trout were quite active.

The only adjustment to make here is to invest in a good rain jacket. If you’re new to fly fishing, never quit because it’s a rainy or snowy day! That’s a prime condition for catching trout.

4. Water Temperature

Water temperature matters, too. I used to carry a thermometer in my fly vest to check the temperature of the rivers I fished.

Honestly, it was more interesting than helpful.

But I’m keenly aware that trout are more active in colder water and more sluggish in warmer water. A guide in a fly shop in Ennis told me that the Upper Madison had incredible dry fly fishing the previous year because most of the water released from Hebgen Dam was through the pipeline at the bottom of the dam. The water at the bottom is, of course, colder than the water closer to the surface.

The stretch of the Madison I fished on day one tends to be good in the spring but one to avoid in the summer. Or, if I fish it in the summer, I fish it in the cool of the early morning — before the warmer temperatures make the trout more sluggish (and susceptible to danger if played too long).

Besides, the warmer summer days trigger the “inner tube hatch” (dozens and dozens of people and their coolers floating down the river)!

5. Wind

I can put up with moisture (which makes the fly fishing better). But nothing frustrates me more than a day where the wind whips like it does on Mount Everest. I hate wind.

My third and final day on the Madison was almost thwarted by wind. I was floating the Upper Madison with a couple of buddies, and the oarsman (a veteran rower) struggled to keep us from slamming into the bank.

Still, the fishing was fantastic — between the gusts.

Some adjustments made the difference. While I saw rising fish (due to the clouds and moisture I already mentioned), the wind made it impossible to keep a dry fly from plowing through the surface film. So I switched to nymphs. I also shortened my casts and waited to make them between gusts of wind.

Weather and water conditions are unpredictable. But that’s why it’s called “fishing”!

Trout Flies and Color

Whenever I fish Montana’s Madison River in the spring, I use a tiny red nymph as a dropper. It may be a Copper John or a Dave’s Emerger (a pattern developed by Montana fly fisher Dave McKee). But the body always has red wire. I insist on it because I have had great success with tiny red nymphs. But does color really matter?

Does red work any better than black or copper? Or is it simply, uh, a pigment of my imagination?

The truth is, the color may attract me — the fly fisher — more than it does the trout. Here are a few insights about color:

1. Trout see colors, yet water changes their perception.

Gary Borger observes that “water absorbs and scatters light.” In fresh water, red is absorbed completely by six feet down. Trout see it as a shade of gray. Perhaps the red wire on my nymphs makes a subtle difference since I’m typically fishing it one to two feet below the surface on my favorite runs in the Madison.

According to Borger, orange, yellow, and green get to ten feet before turning to gray. Blue only makes it to four feet.

2. Fluorescent materials retain their colors as long as there is light.

Borger makes this point and adds that “black is always black, and flash is always flash.” Surprisingly, black may be the most “visible” color due to its contrast. Perhaps that explains why a black Copper John or a Zebra Midge can work so well.

3. Trout are more perceptive to the violet side of the color spectrum.

Kirk Deeter made this point in a recent issue of TROUT magazine. Now I know why I’m seeing a rise (no pun intended) in purple Beadhead Prince Nymphs and in the Purple Haze patterns (essentially a Parachute Adams with a purple body) in the bins in fly shops.

4. Use something bright or translucent in your attractor patterns on the surface.

It’s always good to match the hatch. As Kirk Deeter says, go “as natural as possible.” But when you are using an attractor pattern on the river’s surface, red or orange will appear bright. It’s why I like a Red Humpy or the trusted Royal Wulff (with its band of red).

5. The amount of variables determining the way trout see color can make a fly fisher crazy.

The way trout see color depends on several variables – the clarity of the water, the light conditions (cloudy vs. sunny, evening light vs. mid-day light), and the depth of the fly.

So, the best advice may be to keep it simple: The size of your fly and the pattern may matter more than color.

Know Your Pattern: The San Juan Worm

When I was a boy, I caught trout with a bobber and a worm. I gave up bait fishing long ago. Now I use a fly rod. But I still catch a lot of trout with a bobber and a worm.

The bobber is a strike indicator. Yes, I like the little round plastic bobbers because they never get water-logged like the indicators I’ve tied with strands of nylon.

The worm is a San Juan Worm — a controversial “fly pattern.” Some fly fishers scoff at it. When they do, I simply smile, nod, and go back to catching fish. Here is the scoop on this beloved and maligned non-fly fly.

1. How it originated

There are as many accounts of this pattern’s origin as there are variations of it in the fly bins at your local fly flop.

What we know for sure (I think) is that a fly fisher developed this fly to imitate the red worms in the silt-coated channels of New Mexico’s San Juan River. The fly fisher is unknown to us, although I’ve heard several suggested names. The time period was likely the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The pattern is so simple that it is silly. It consists of a two-inch length of red chenille tied onto a scud hook — that is, a hook with a curved shank. That’s all. It’s the easiest fly in the world to tie. So it’s a great place for beginners to start.

2. How it has been modified

You might get dizzy when you think about all the colors and styles of chenille with which the San Juan worm has been tied.

I even experimented (at the suggestion of a friend) with putting a beadhead in the middle of the hook’s shank and then tying a one-inch piece of chenille on the front and then a one-inch piece of chenille on the back. This takes a lot of extra time and effort. It looks impressive, but I haven’t found it any more effective.

In the last six weeks, I’ve caught several trout in both Wisconsin and Montana on an odd assortment of San Juan Worm patterns. I’ve meant to tie some new ones, but I didn’t get to it. So I ended up using the left over patterns in my fly box — that is, some of the ugly ones I tied when I was experimenting with different sizes and colors (red, crimson, tan). The good news is that all of them worked.

There’s no need, then, to get hung up on size or color. Whatever you use will likely be “the only thing that’s working on the river today.”

3. Why it works

You don’t need a PhD in zoology to figure out why the San Juan Worm is so trusty. It imitates a worm — the kind which resides in a silty river bottom. Enough said.

4. When to use it

The San Juan Worm is a great go-to pattern in most conditions.

But it works especially well after it rains or when a river rises a bit. This results in churn that can loosen up the earth along a bank or the silt at the bottom. Worms get displaced by this churn. It’s hard for a trout to pass up such a large dose of protein for the little effort it takes to grab the worm as it drifts through the current or bobs along the bottom.

If a purist asks you later what you were using, tell him or her you were simply matching the hatch — imitating the aquatic life below the surface. You’ll be telling the truth.

Fly Fishing Crowded Waters

A few months ago I introduced my brother-in-law to the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. We had a summer afternoon to fly fish. I warned him that we might run into a couple of other anglers in my favorite spot.

I was wrong. The number was much higher. I counted seven pairs of waders—filled with bodies — in the run I like to fly fish (pictured above). So what is a fly fisher to do?

Here are seven tips for fly fishing crowded waters.

1. Remain calm.

When I’m feeling annoyed, I have to remind myself that other anglers have every bit as much right to fish in my spot as I do. I am as responsible for the crowded conditions as they are. My kids’ advice is good in these moments: “Take a chill pill.”

What ruins a good day are not the fly fishers who beat me to my spot. It’s my response. If I relax, I can usually figure out a solution.

In fact, one of the best days I’ve ever had on Montana’s Madison River (I landed 25 browns on the last day of March) was the result of finding every one of my favorite spots on the Gallatin River filled with fly fishers. I’m glad I calmed down enough to formulate Plan B and drive to the Madison.

2. Arrive early (or late).

I’m fishing with a friend in a few days on the Missouri River near Helena, Montana. My friend has a favorite spot where he catches large rainbows in the spring. But he gets there at dawn.

Last week, he landed seven big trout in an hour and a half of fishing. Then he left as the crowds started rolling in about 9 a.m. The evening can be productive, too. I’ve found great solitude (and fishing!) on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley in the spring and summer after 5 p.m.

3. Avoid the weekend.

Yes, I know that you may only have weekends to fly fish. But if you have any flexibility in your schedule, try Tuesday or Wednesday, and then work on Saturday. Or leave work early if you live near a river.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I like to fly from Chicago to Bozeman, Montana, on Sunday night or Monday morning. Then, we fly home on Friday as the weekend frenzy begins. It’s worth our vacation days to fish mid week.

4. Wait for your spot.

Don’t crowd the fly fishers in the run you want to fish. That is simply bad fly fishing etiquette.

But you can hover (at a distance) in the run below them. You’ll find out soon if they are moving or planning on staying put. The twenty minutes you think you are wasting, waiting for them, might turn out to be a good investment of time. You may be using a different pattern or approach, so don’t assume that the run needs to rest for two hours before you fish it.

5. Look for an opening.

Sometime we give up too quickly and assume the river is too crowded when there are spots open.

My youngest son, Luke, is working in Madison, Wisconsin, at the moment. He had day off on a Friday, so I suggested he try the Blue River about an hour west of him. I told him to get there early, and he did. But he saw cars parked in both access spots. So he called me and asked where else he could fish. I told him to try to find an open spot on the river (well, it’s really a small spring creek). It turned out that a couple guys were leaving, and there was a long stretch of open stream to fish. He ended up catching several nice brown trout.

6. Walk the extra mile.

Dave and I have talked about this before. If you’re willing to walk farther than the other fly fishers on the river, you might get into some fine fishing. I realize this doesn’t work everywhere. You may walk a ways only to come to another fishing access with more fly fishers! I had this happen last year on the Provo River in Utah. But if you keep walking, you may find a golden spot.

7. Research other options.

If you keep encountering crowds on your favorite stretch of river, start exploring some other options.

A couple years ago, we noticed more fly fishers on a lesser known stream in southwest Wisconsin. So Dave did some research and found a beautiful creek a couple hours west in southeast Minnesota. We rarely see crowds (as long as we avoid weekends), and it fishes well. It reminded me that there are other fine waters out there waiting to be discovered.

The Reel Truth about Fighting Trout

A little mistake cost me a big fish. I was fishing Montana’s Madison River several years ago when I hooked into a large trout. It began running down the river, and I could not get it to stop. So I started running after it — well, as much as one can run in knee-deep water.

About one-hundred yards downriver, the trout circled around a large boulder near the river’s edge. Suddenly, the line went limp. I felt disgusted. I had seen how big the trout was when it leaped out of the water before it started its escape route. I had made a few mistakes trying to land the trout. But one costly little mistake was failing to set the drag properly on my reel.

How many fish are lost as the result of reel-related mistakes?

It’s hard to say, but I suspect it is more than we think. A reel is not simply an apparatus for line storage. It is an integral tool for fighting fish. If you are new to fly fishing, here are four ideas to help you use your reel more effectively so that you land fish rather than losing them.

1. Retrieve the slack line so the fish is pulling against your reel.

The first tip has to do with that awkward moment right after the trout takes your fly. The thrill of setting the hook is replaced by the realization that you have a wad of line at your feet — or on the surface of the water. The loops of line you need to retrieve may add up to as much as twenty feet! So you have to retrieve it so that fish is pulling against your reel.

It sounds simple. But it is not. How do you multi-task and retrieve the line while fighting the fish? Very carefully.

While reeling in the slack line, use the index finger of the hand holding your rod to keep the right tension on the line. You can tighten the tension as the line runs through the groove in your index finger by pressing the line against your rod handle or by simply tightening the crease in your finger. Too little pressure means the fish can throw the hook or run into a place you don’t want it to go (usually there is brush involved). Too much pressure means the fish can snap your tippet when it surges.

I have even figured out how to use the little finger on my rod hand to guide the slack line and create the right amount of tension as it is being retrieved. Yes, I can do that even as my index finger on the same hand is controlling the section of line against which the fish is fighting.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and the slack is gone.

2. Adjust the drag as needed.

Once the slack is gone and the fish is pulling line from your reel, it’s time to think about the drag. This is the amount of pressure a fish must exert to pull the line out of the reel. Your fly reel has an adjustable drag—a lever or a dial which will adjust the tension.

The basic rule is to set the drag on the light side. If it’s too tight, a sudden surge by the fish will snap the tippet. But if it’s too light, the fish will invariably run for cover and snag or snap your line on a submerged branch or other obstruction.

You may even need to tighten and lighten your drag as you retrieve your fish. With a larger fish, I will typically tighten my drag as the fish tires.

3. Alternate between reeling in your line and letting the trout take it out.

There is a lot of give and take when you fight a trout. You want to land it as quickly as possible to enable the fish to survive. So retrieve the line when the trout takes a break. But when it wants to run, let it do so within reason.

Some fly fishers like to fight trout by palming the reel. That is, they press their cupped hand into the side of spool where the little handle is spinning around. This stops or slows down the spool from releasing line. It looks fun, and it can work with smaller fish. But expect a bruised palm if you try to do it with larger fish.

4. Develop the feel for your reel.

Some experts will give you formulas for how many pounds of tension to use when setting your drag. Newer fly lines even change in color to help you gauge how many feet of line you have in the water. But I still think you have to get a feel for this rather than relying on a particular formula or guideline.

Fun Facts about the Movie “A River Runs Through It”

The movie A River Runs Through It celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year. It premiered on October 9, 1992. Based on the novella by Norman Maclean, the film launched the career of Brad Pitt and boosted interest in fly fishing. It continues to captivate viewers who resonate with its story of tragedy, family, the American West, and fishing.

The movie is set in Missoula, Montana, though most fans know that it was filmed 200-plus miles east of Missoula in Livingston, Montana. Livingston served as Missoula, and the Gallatin River served as the Big Blackfoot River.

But there are some fun facts about its filming which you won’t find in most reviews or articles. This information comes from two primary sources. First, I lived in the very area where the filming took place. I could take you to the exact spots on the Gallatin and Boulder Rivers (and Mill Creek in Paradise Valley) where the scenes were shot.

Second, my podcast partner, Dave, and I had an extensive conversation with Gary Borger about his role as a consultant. So if you’re curious about some of the details, keep reading.

The House

The “Maclean house” is across the road from the Springhill Presbyterian church, fourteen miles north of downtown Bozeman, Montana. The porch was built specifically for the scene where the Maclean brothers climb out of their bedroom window.

Then, when they drive away in the dark with their cronies, the church is visible, and it looks as much like a schoolhouse as it does a church.

Fly “Pole”

In the scene where the father teaches his young sons the art of fly casting, Tom Skerritt (the actor who played the role of Rev. Maclean) originally said: “Go get the fly poles.”

This happened to be Gary Borger’s first day on the set, and he told the line producer that a fly fisher never would have referred to a fly rod as a “fly pole.” So the line producer got producer Robert Redford’s attention.

“Go get the book,” Redford said.

He found the passage that says that “it is always supposed to be called a rod” — not a pole. And rod it was.

Fly Casting

Most of the fly fishing scenes were filmed on the Gallatin River in the Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman.

In these scenes, Gary Borger’s son, Jason, did almost all the fly casting for the actors in the movie. This includes the memorable “shadow-casting” that Paul Maclean performed while standing on a big rock in the middle of the river. When Jason did that particular cast, an elderly, long-time friend of the Maclean brothers was on the set. After the scene was filmed, he approached Jason and said, “You are Paul.” The friend was stunned that Jason had captured the essence of Paul’s artistry with a fly rod.

While Jason did most of the fly casting in the movie, the actors picked it up rather quickly. Tom Skerritt (the elder Maclean) had done some fly fishing previously. Both Craig Sheffer (Norman) and Brad Pitt (Paul) were quite athletic. Jason made sure that Skerritt and Sheffer used the traditional forearm style, while Pitt used the more open freearm style that Paul Maclean would have used.

Fighting Trout

The “trout” the Maclean brothers hooked into and fought were mostly non-fish.

In several scenes, the fish on the end of their line was actually a half gallon milk jug with rocks in it. In the scene where Paul fights a fish hidden from view behind a large boulder, the fish is actually John Bailey of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston, Montana. John was behind the rock, pulling on the line!

In the final scene, when Paul is fighting a monster trout, the producers filmed the water flying off of his fly reel in a city park rather than in the river. The city park was Lindley Park in Livingston, and the producers created this effect by dipping the fly reel in a bucket of water. Then, after an actor lifted it out of the bucket, someone on the end of the line immediately started pulling it to get the spool spinning and flinging off beads of water.

Riding the Rails

The scene where Norman’s girlfriend, Jesse, pulls her car onto the railroad tracks and drives through a tunnel was filmed on the CA Ranch forty miles or so north of Bozeman. The exact location is the Eagle’s Nest tunnel on an old railroad grade that the Ringling brothers used to haul their circus equipment to Ringling, Montana, for off-season storage. The railroad trestle leading into the tunnel towers over Sixteen Mile Creek. There is a brief view of the creek in the movie.

My podcast partner, Dave, and I have both caught trout underneath that trestle (pictured above – Dave, in fact, took the picture). In the movie, Jesse and Norman actually enter and exit the same end of the tunnel.

A Final Thought

Sometimes, knowing insider information on how a movie was filmed can spoil it. But both the cinematography and the story itself prevent his from happening. If you’ve never watched the move “A River Runs Through It,” you simply must. Even if you watched it years ago, it’s worth revisiting. I’m convinced that after watching it, you, too, will be haunted by waters.

Working on Your Fly Fishing Swing

If you want to get more hits, you need to work on your swing. This truism is just as true in fly fishing as it is in baseball. It is particularly critical for fishing streamers, although it can also work for nymphs.

The “swing” is that moment when the current begins to drag (swing) your fly back across the stream so that it suspends in the current directly downstream from you. At this point, you will begin to strip in your streamer (or pick up your nymph).

I have had a lot of trout hit my streamer or nymph as it swings across the current, so it pays to perfect the art of your swing. What initiates the swing is drag. Ordinarily, drag is the kiss of death. This is always true for dry fly fishing, and it’s true for nymph fishing – until you reach the end of the run.

Here are couple different approaches.

The Drift and Swing

Four years ago, I landed ten rainbows and a Dolly Varden — all fifteen to twenty inches—in Clear Creek, upstream a hundred yards or so from where it empties into Alaska’s Talkeetna River. I caught all but one on the swing.

My approach was to drift my streamer, a Dalai Lama pattern, down the run like a nymph. Then, when it reached the area where I knew the trout were waiting, I let the line go taut. This tightening of the line resulted in the current dragging the fly so it swung downriver from me. I quickly realized I needed to be ready for a strike as soon as the fly started to swing.

After I caught several trout, I decided to tie on a big attractor dry fly pattern. I had no action on the first two casts. But on the third, my fly got water-logged and disappeared beneath the surface. When the fly reached the end of the drift, I prepared to haul it in to dry it. But as soon as the submerged fly started to swing, an eighteen-inch rainbow attacked it.

I used this same technique whenever I fished nymphs in Montana’s Gallatin River south of Four Corners. I found a couple long runs, and invariably, I caught the most trout when my nymph reached the end of my drift and started to swing across the current. That’s not the norm for nymph fishing. But in certain situations, it works.

So be ready when your nymph reaches the end of the drift.

The Cast and Swing

The most common technique is to bypass the drift and simply cast downstream at a forty-five degree (or so) angle. Veteran angler Gary Borger likes this tactic in smaller streams where he can cast his fly as tight as possible to the other bank. It might take a strip or two to pull it into the current. But be ready when the swing begins! Trout on the opposite bank will chase it to keep it from escaping. If it makes it across the current and into the slower water along your bank, be ready for trout to dart out and grab it — even before you begin stripping it.

In a larger river, like the Missouri, I will even cast streamers straight ahead or slightly upriver. As soon as the fly hits the water, I will wait a couple seconds to allow it to sink. Then, I start stripping it. This results in a long, sustained swing.

Gary Borger also reminds fly fishers to give their streamers plenty of time to swing across the current. He even suggests letting the fly hang in the current for a few seconds before beginning the strip or picking it up to cast again.

Work on perfecting your swing so you can get more hits. Yes, it’s just as true in fly fishing as it is in baseball.

Fly Fishing Conversations

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

So true. Sure, I go to the river to catch trout—and hopefully lots of them. But I go to relax. I go to experience the great outdoors. I go to get lost in my thoughts.

I also go for the conversations.

Words and Silence

My podcast partner, Dave, and I are close friends. That might even be an understatement. When I think of Dave, there’s a proverb in the Bible that says, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” So when we are together, we engage in a lot of conversation. We debunk the stereotype of men who simply grunt at each other. Real men do more than grunt. They talk.

Now this doesn’t mean our time on the river is a constant barrage of words. We do our share of grunting. But the sound of silence is frequent. There can be long stretches of hiking or fishing or even driving with no words.

When we do talk, though, the conversations seem to run much deeper than they do when we are eating lunch in a café in one of the towns where we live. Certainly the longer stretch of time we spend on the river or on the road to the river (compared to a booth in a café) makes this possible. But I suspect that the environment has something to do with it too.

Conversational Themes

So what do we talk about?

Well, fly fishing, of course.

We talk about the day ahead and what we hope it will be. We talk strategy, and we trade information on patterns that might work in the stretch of river we’re going to fish. We discuss the pros and cons of the gear we want to purchase. I suppose all the talk about fly fishing is a diversion from the stress points of life.

But I like to think it is a parallel challenge which keeps our minds sharp and our spirits refreshed.

We also talk about people — how they fascinate us, frustrate us, and inspire us. We talk about our wives and how we both married up. We’re grateful for how supportive they are of our friendship and our fly fishing habit.

We trade stories about our children — their challenges, their futures, and their dreams. We talk about our friend, Dennis, and the journey he and his wife are taking into the darkness as her memory loss becomes an increasing reality. We talk about Marty, a college friend, who has shockingly been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. We talk about the career of Don Henley, the drummer and co-lead singer for the Eagles. We talk as well about fly fishing guides and shop owners we know.

Then, we gossip about ideas.

That’s preferable to gossiping about people. We talk business strategy and political philosophy, though we quickly tire of politics. We discuss the big ideas we encounter in literature. On our last fly fishing day trip, we talked about some great lines from Wallace Stegner’s novels. Dave shared a quote from Remembering Laughter, while I brought up a poignant statement in Crossing to Safety.

Our faith is always a topic of conversation. Our worldview springs from this and provides our lives with ballast. Occasionally, we’ll circle back to the how the river is such a key metaphor in the Bible. Rivers figure prominently in both its opening and closing chapters. But lest you think our conversation is always deep and reflective, we spend a lot of time laughing (often at each other) and debating whether we should find a steakhouse or a pizza place for dinner.

On a recent fly fishing trip, we drove out of our way on the way home to eat at a supper club, only to wind up disappointed with the Friday night fish fare. We left the establishment graciously but chuckled about the third-rate experience on the drive home.

Laugh Kills Lonesome

When I lived in Helena, Montana, I would frequently go to the Montana Historical Society so I could gaze at C. M. Russell’s painting, “Laugh Kills Lonesome.” He actually painted himself in this picture. He is standing by a prairie campfire with a group of his cowboy friends. The scene evokes solitude. Yet, as the title of his oil-on-canvas suggests, the laughter effectively killed the loneliness.

I suspect that Charlie Russell liked riding the range for some of the same reasons I love to fly fish — the solitude, the scenery, the feel of freedom, the wind in his face, and the scent of sage. But he also loved the conversations and the laughter. That’s a side of fly fishing I treasure. I’m after more than trout when I pick up my fly rod and head to the river. I’m after some rich conversations.

Know Your Pattern – The Royal Coachman

Not everyone likes the Royal Coachman. According to Paul Schullery, one angler called it “an act of aesthetic vandalism, a grotesque violence perpetrated on a fly box.”

But I am rather fond of this fly. Actually, I am rather fond of couple of its modifications — the Royal Wulff and the Royal Trude. The following profile will help you appreciate this dry fly pattern and use it more effectively:

1. How it originated

Paul Schullery’s essay, “Royal Coachman and Friends” (found in his book, Royal Coachman: The Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing), tells the story of this magnificent pattern. John Haily, a professional fly tyer in New York, first tied this pattern in 1878. He simply created a more flashy version of an older British pattern, the Coachman. He added some red silk in the middle and a little sprig of wood duck feathers for a tail. Then, he mailed his sample fly to L.C. Orvis, the brother of Charles Orvis, who founded The Orvis Company.

Yes, the Orvis rod or waders or vest you may use comes from that company.

The rest is history.

2. How it has been modified

Legendary fly fisher Lee Wulff famously modified the Royal Coachman in the 1930s by replacing its wings and tail with white calf hair. Dan Bailey promoted this fly to western anglers in his fly shop in Livingston, Montana, and through his mail-order business. He gets the credit for suggesting the name “Royal Wulff.” The calf hair makes this fly float well in rough water of western rivers.

According to The Orvis Company, the Royal Trude originated even earlier in Island Park, Idaho (near Henry’s Fork of the Snake River). Apparently an angler in the early 1900s tied it as a joke. But it turned into a serious pattern.

The Royal Trude has a long wing of white calf hair which runs the length of the fly. A friend swears by this pattern on the Yellowstone River. He is a one-fly kind of guy, and he has used it successfully during the salmon fly hatch and during hopper season.

3. Why it works

Who knows?

It is definitely an attractor pattern. Paul Schullery notes that fly fishers “want to believe it looks like something — a dragonfly, a moth, a crippled hummingbird, a lightening bug; there is a desperation in these efforts to label the fly. And it’s unnecessary. Trout take flies for lots of reason we know and for some we’ll never understand.”

4. When to use it

The Royal Wulff or Royal Trude is a great pattern to use when you are trying to coax a trout to the surface when there is no obvious hatch in play.

For awhile I stopped using The Royal Coachman and its derivatives because they were so popular. I feared the trout would get tired of seeing them. So I gravitated more towards Humpy patterns and even an Elk Hair Caddis for those times when I wanted an attractor pattern that would stay afloat in choppy water.

But I have a hunch that the “Royals” have a lot of life left in them. Trout may see fewer Royals these days due to the myriad of other patterns available. So I’m predicting they will make a comeback as they give new generations of trout a fresh look.

I do hope the comeback happens. After all, as Schullery points out, “the Royal Coachman is the first great American fly pattern.”

My Love-Hate Relationship with January Fly Fishing

Baby, it’s cold outside!” This celebrated song title popped into my head when my podcast partner, Dave, texted me about fly fishing on a recent January day. For better or worse, I had work commitments that kept me from spending a few hours mid-day on the Blue River in Wisconsin.

The truth is, I have mixed feelings about fly fishing north of the Mason-Dixon line in January or even February. I’ve spent enough January days on the Madison and Gallatin Rivers in Montana to form an opinion.

What I Hate

Let’s get this side of the relationship out of the way. To be frank, I hate the cold, the ice, and the slow. Yes, the slow. I don’t mind snow. It often helps the fishing. But the slow is a different story.

First, what is there not to hate about the cold? I don’t mind mid-30s and above. But fly fishing ceases to be fun when the chill stings my fingers. Nimble fingers turn into fumble fingers. Tying a fly onto my tippet becomes nearly impossible. Any moisture at all makes it worse.

The ice is also a problem. It clings to the guides on my fly rod and seems to freeze (pun intended) my casts. Then there is the ice at the river’s edge. Do I walk on it or not? Even if it is solid, it can be slick.

Then there is the slow. The trout move and feed more slowly, so the action on most days is predictably slow. I’ve caught a few trout in January, but I have never even come close to a banner day.

What I Love

But lest I come across as a grumpy old man, I want to affirm what I love about fishing the northern rivers on January days. I love the solitude, the rhythm, and the moments of success.

What is there not to love about having the river all to yourself? I love solitude, and I don’t have to hike very far to find it on a typical January day. It’s usually as close as the river’s edge a few steps from my parking spot at a fishing access. I rarely encounter other fly fishers on a January day.

Then there is the rhythm of casting and mending and stripping line. It feels good to pick up on rod again after the holiday season and weeks without fly fishing. Even if the fishing is slow (see above), there is something hopeful about getting back into the rhythm of fly fishing. January will soon give way to February. Then February — the shortest month of the year — will give way to March and the glories of fly fishing in the spring.

Finally, there are occasional moments of success. Hooking into a nice rainbow makes my day. In July, landing only one rainbow may disappoint me. But in January, it makes me ecstatic.

A Final Thought

Occasionally, the Chinook winds along the eastern slopes of the Rockies will warm January temperatures into the 50s and 60s.

For the most part, though, the temperatures will rise at most to the mid or high 30s. I hate those kind of conditions for fly fishing. But my love of fly fishing usually trumps my desire to stay warm and comfortable. So I venture out into the cold. My fingers may get numb, but at least the hot chocolate in my thermos tastes better than ever.