Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson

Spring Creeks Cover

Fly fishing in Puget Sound for sea run cutthroat trout and coho salmon means the typical fly is a baitfish or crustacean pattern – think Clousers, Deceivers, and the like. And most of the casting is blind casting surface or sub surface patterns where presentation isn’t always essential.

As a saltwater fishery it doesn’t quite prepare a fly fisher for going to storied streams in the Rocky Mountains like the Madison or Henry’s Fork where the life cycle of insects dictate the type of fly to be used – and where presentation, particularly of dry flies, is essential for catching fish. Knowing terms such as Blue Winged Olives or Pale Morning Duns doesn’t help much when there’s lack of understanding of the fishery and how to fish it.

There are several steps in preparing for such a trip. First, it goes without saying practice of presentation casts with the appropriate tackle is needed. The next is to read up on the fishery and the flies and techniques needed. Finally, if schedules and finances allow, hire a guide.

In terms of the second step, one of the best books I’ve read is Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson (Stackpole Books, 2003). Mike is the founder and now general manager of Henry’s Fork Anglers and a founding member of the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

Spring Creeks begins with chapters on spring creeks and trout behavior. As an aside, for those who’ve forgotten or never knew, spring creeks form from underground sources; freestone streams arise from snowmelt or rain.

Spring creeks such as the Henry’s Fork or Silver Creek in Idaho are celebrated for their dry-fly fishing and the skills needed to catch their resident trout; it was a revelation to me that the more constant water temperature of spring creeks results in low diversity but high density of insects – meaning the trout are finicky about what they eat. Freestone rivers on the other hand support a great diversity of insects.

The remaining chapters discuss matching/unmatching the hatch; mayflies, caddisflies; midges and craneflies; terrestrials; presentation; and strategy. But this book is neither a catalog of flies and their recipes or a book on entomology.

While not a book on entomology, there is a fascinating discussion of how mayflies emerge from nymphs to duns. After molting up to thirty times, the nymph’s internal digestive organs begin to shrink creating a cavity that fills with internally generated gases enabling the nymph to float to the surface. The same gases then splits the exoskeleton allowing the mayfly dun to emerge.

It’s a brief discussion, but one that reminds me of the complexity and wonder of all the life with which we share this planet.

Much of the rest of the chapter and those that follow are filled with recommendations for how to fish a particular insect mixed with anecdotes of past fishing successes – and failures.

The final chapters on presentation and strategy represent a lifetime of fly fishing experience and wisdom. Studying them will benefit any fly fisher on any trout stream.

Many books are read and then put on the shelf soon to be forgotten. Mike Lawson’s Spring Creeks is not one of them. I will use it before my next trip to the Henry’s Fork.

Highly Recommended.

Return to the Henry’s Fork

As part of a visit to my son and his family in Bozeman, I decided I needed to make a slight detour and fish the Henry’s Fork again.

The trip out from Gig Harbor was sunny and mild with hours of easy driving – I like long road trips in general and road trip days like that in particular. The only disappointment along the way was the lack of autumn colors; most trees were still green. As I dropped into Silver Bow Creek valley to spend the night in Butte I did notice the snow on the distant ranges.

The next day I spent two hours driving over Montana highways along both the Jefferson and Madison rivers making my way through Ennis and ultimately Island Park. Stopping at Henry’s Fork Anglers (HFA), I picked up a few dry flies and drove to my favorite place – Wood River Road.

Jefferson River Montana

Arriving at the river, I noticed fish sipping the surface and hurriedly got into my waders and rigged up my rod. HFA had suggested blue-winged olives and mahogany duns as flies and I selected a blue-winged olive size 16 to start.

I got at least two brief tugs indicating fish had taken the fly – only to spit it out before I could react. That was a bit disappointing, at least until I talked to a couple of other guys working the river who said the same thing. So either the fish weren’t very hungry or after a summer of being chased by fly fishers along they were very discriminating.

Wood River Road Henrys Fork

The wind began to pick up – the temperature was in the low 50’s – and I got a bit cold. I had brought my Patagonia Rio Azul waders and left my much-warmer Simms G4Zs at home. Unfortunately I had neither my winter wading pants or long underwear. So after lack of success with dry flies, I switched to a nymph and did a bit of wet-fly swinging. But no fish was interested.

Packing up I made my way back to Island Park to spend the night in the Angler’s Lodge. It is a beautiful wooden lodge on the banks of the Henry’s Fork. There’s nothing like looking out the window and seeing a river outside. The sunset made a perfect ending to the day.

Anglers Lodge Sunset, Island Park

Next day up and early and back to Wood River road. This time I had the area to myself. Low 40s and no wind made for pleasant time in the water; that required ignoring how cold my legs were.

As I did the previous day, I rigged up another dry fly – this time a size 18 Mahogany dun. Unfortunately, there were no fish sipping the surface. Looking around, I saw no hatch in progress as expected. HFA had said the hatch was occurring between 11AM and 4PM. I still thought I might find a hungry trout.

Two tugs later I had the same experience as yesterday: a quick bite and then release.

I kept at it for another couple of hours until I had to leave to get to Bozeman at the time I said I’d be there. Fortunately, I had time to stop in West Yellowstone and get lunch at Bullwinkles.

After a day and a half of a very pleasant visit – I follow Ben Franklin’s observation that guests like fish begin to stink in three days, it was time to drive home. The previous two days forecasts had predicted widespread snow for my day’s drive and I was particularly concerned about the drive over Homestake Pass.

As it turned out, the snow was delayed by 12 hours, Homestake Pass only had a bit of snow on the sides of the road and I had only snow flurries in the area west of Butte. Still, it was a good reminder: winter is coming.

Looking back at the fishing, I think I understood that I really didn’t know as much about dry fly fishing as I should. Out here on Puget Sound, blind casting wet flies to searun cutthroat trout and resident Coho, presentation and fly preparation aren’t generally a big issue.

But dry fly fishing requires a more in depth understanding of trout behavior and insect hatches as well as a good deal more refinement in presentation casting. Thinking about all that’s involved I can understand the obsessiveness that dry fly fishing can engender. I do think the next trip back will require a day with a guide to get more insights into dry fly fishing.

Henry’s Fork Country

Last year, my wife and I fished the Henry’s Fork for the first time (see trip report). Thanks again to Justin Waters of the Gig Harbor Fly Shop for giving us recommendations for where to fish – particularly the Wood River Road.

Today i came across the following video – set to music by The Blue Aces – of scenes of the Henry’s Fork. Lots of trout and salmon flies throughout.

Hopefully we can make it back again this year in time for one of the hatches – or late season browns.

Watch the video here.

Fly Fishing The Greater Yellowstone: Lessons Learned

Firehole River Yellowstone National Park

Any experience, or set of experiences, in life will result in memories; hopefully more good than bad. But experience without an opportunity to learn from that experience means

Travel, and most life experiences for that matter, result in memories – hopefully more good than bad. In addition, if we pay attention to what we’ve seen and done, there are lessons to be learned.

Don’t Overlook the Obvious

I spent months working on the itinerary, planning and making reservations for our stays, deciding where to fish rivers; what flies we might need – with some to buy here and others to buy from local shops; which rods to bring (a 5 weight Scott Radian and 6 weight Sage Accel for me; two Reddingtons – a 5 weight and 6 weight for my wife); water temperatures; and last minute weather forecasts to figure out which clothes to bring.

The only thing I didn’t think about was waders.

I use Simms G4Z waders in Puget Sound. Unless it is very hot and midday, I’ve never found them to be too warm. Given those were the only waders I had, I wore them on our first morning on Rock Creek. It took very little time to realize I was overheating. At it hit me at that moment that I had never thought when packing them that they would be too hot for where we were going. I made it through the morning but decided I’d need to buy a lighter pair.

During our stay in Bozeman, I picked up a pair of Patagonia Rio Azul waders at the Orvis dealer, Fins and Feathers They worked great for the rest of the trip. Light and easy on/off, they were a life saver.

Next trip to Yellowstone – unless it’s winter, I’ll leave the Simms G4Zs at home and take the Rio Azuls.

Changing the Paradigm

I watched a fly fisherman while we were on the Henry’s Fork. He was upstream of us and stood in the middle of the river unmoving for what I guess was at least 45 minutes. He then shook his head and moved down and off the river. I got a chance to share a few words with him a bit later and saw that he had a dry fly on a bamboo rod.

During that same time he was standing in the river, my wife and I were swinging nymphs, getting hits and landing a nice Rainbow trout.

The Henry’s Fork has renown as a dry-fly fisherman’s dream. Most people go there with the hopes of catching a rising trout on a dry fly. We did. But when it was apparent there were no hatches underway we switched to nymphs and had a great time.

Perhaps that fly fisherman would rather stand in the river and catch nothing than switch flies and go with a nymph. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are many people who think of fly fishing as only using dry flies. For me, dries, nymphs, and streamers are all ways of catching fish.

Of course then there’s the flip side.

While we were using nymphs for the entire trip, we basically stuck to a tight line swing. That worked well on the wide easy moving Henry’s Fork, but not on the pocket waters of the Madison and Ruby.

Over the years,I have disdained indicator-type nymphing as clunky casting and as too much like the cane pole and bobber fishing on the first fishing I did as a child in Missouri. But the guy who pulled the 20-inch brown out of the Ruby was using a round indicator as were all his friends.

Eventually I bought some indicators. Being rigid in one’s thinking doesn’t always bring in the fish.

It is What It is

I had first seen someone fly fishing in 1975. It was a cold snowy Sunday in October and I was heading out of Yellowstone on the west side road. In the area of 7 mile, I saw a lone fly fisherman casting in the light snow. That image has stuck with me ever since.

But, in all the years since, I had never gone fly fishing in Yellowstone. Until this year.

And as I recounted in the previous post, it was a bust.The Firehole and Gibbon rivers were already in late summer conditions – too warm for fishing. The Madison was running dirty in high winds.

It was a bit disconcerting. But then again I knew we had other rivers to fish and we were in Yellowstone National Park and I was fly fishing there.

No success is guaranteed. Fly fishing on Puget Sound reflects that. As I once heard it described by Jason Cotta from Orvis Bellevue, “the only thing consistent is the inconsistency.”

Already being back home I smile when I think about how I finally got to fly fish in Yellowstone. There was magic even in that. And it’s only a very long days drive from here.

New Perspectives

This is the first vacation, now more properly termed a trip, since I retired last year. So this was the first time I did not have to return home and dread thinking about returning to a corporate job. And so it’s been possible to savor all the experiences and live with a different sense of time than when one’s return to work with all its overburden of pressures and stress crush the life out of the experiences.

It made me appreciate that this next stage of life has even more rewards.

Fly Fishing The Greater Yellowstone: The Trip

Henry's Fork, Road 313

Any journey, even to a familiar place, can lead to discovery, whether that discovery is seeing something new or learning something new – even about oneself.

So it was with the trip my wife Terri and I took to Greater Yellowstone. Except for visiting our son and his family in Bozeman, the focus of this trip was fly fishing. Our plan, over an eight day trip, was to fish Rock Creek, Yellowstone National Park (and the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison rivers), Henry’s Fork, the upper Madison, and the Ruby River.

Though we had been to Yellowstone many times, this was our first time fly fishing on the rivers. And we created an element of adventure by facing the unknown without hiring fly-fishing guides.

That choice was based on a number of major cash outlays on the house, which meant cutting some costs on the trip. That meant turning this into more of an exploration of the rivers rather than an effort to get a high catch count in trout. That’s not to say we weren’t hopeful. We took advice where we could get it; and the recommendations from some of the local fly shops was outstanding. Credit also should be given to Justin Waters from the Gig Harbor Fly Shop, who put us on a truly beautiful part of the Henry’s Fork; Justin also recommended stopping by Mesa Falls, which was spectacular.

As might be expected, the Henry’s Fork was the highlight of the trip. The slow-moving current and easy wading, together with the distant vistas of the Tetons and the lyrical feel of the place, made it a place of magic. We spent parts of two days on the river and it wasn’t enough.

Ruby River Below the Dam

Our next favorite river, which was a bit of a surprise given the rivers of Yellowstone National Park and Upper Madison, was the Ruby River. We fished below the dam, which was recommended by Maggie Mae Stone, one of the guides at The Tackle Shop in Ennis, Montana. Her recommendation on where to fish and which flies to use was very helpful. While we did not have the success of a fly fisherman across the river from my wife who pulled out a good 20-inch brown trout while nymphing, we’ll remember what she told us and will go back on our next trip to Montana.

Madison River Three Dollar Bridge

Sometimes just seeing a storied place is enough. That was the situation with our visits to Three Dollar Bridge on the upper Madison River and Rock Creek. We got on the Madison river on a warm and windy afternoon and fished the area of the bridge. We tried the pocket water but couldn’t even get a strike. But I was struck by the unreality of standing in a place I had seen so often in photographs.

Rock Creek

We fished Rock Creek on a sunny Saturday morning. We drove up the road about three miles and found what looked to be a great spot with a small island to work from and three channels to fish. However, my first attempts at wading were a problem. Even in less than 12 inches of water the creek was too dangerous to wade in. We had arrived at the creek early but as we were fishing we watched a number of cars move up the road. We exited the creek and explored up the road. The next pullout was near what would have been a great place to fish, but we had been beaten to it.

Gibbon River Yellowstone National Park

And then there was Yellowstone National Park. It was our first stop after our visit to our son in Bozeeman. Except for visiting the park, we should have just skipped it. It had been years since I’d been in the park during the summer and the crowds and traffic, even prior to the Independence Day holiday, were more than I was used to seeing in the park; off-season is the time to visit. The fishing was poor. We started on the Firehole River a few miles above the Firehole canyon. Water temperatures were in the 70s. Moving down to the Gibbon River, near where it joined the Firehole to form the Madison, again we found the water warm. Moving downstream we fished the Madison near Nine-mile where the water was turbid. Nymphing produced not even a strike.

Our poor results were confirmed by the staff at Madison River Outfitters, who told us their guides were seeing everyone was having a tough time. The weather and water had both been warmer earlier than was typical.

And finally we fished the Yakima Canyon on our way back home where Terri got the last fish of the trip.

It was quite a journey, one with some lessons that will be detailed in my next post. But one thing for sure. Next trip we will hire guides for trips on the Henry’s Fork and the upper Madison. And we will return to the Ruby River.

“Learning from the Water” by Rene Harrop

Rene Harrop

January can be a challenge for many fly fishers across the northern latitudes.

Bitterly cold air, numbing water temperatures, shorter hours of daylight, and languid fish holding in deep pools mean few to no days on the water. With the exception of winter steelheaders, fly fishing for most in January is just not fun.

So many find ways to cope with time away from the water.

A relatively few, with time and means, fly to warmer climes and water to chase bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Others take a break from fishing and park themselves in front of big-screen televisions watching the NFL playoffs. The dedicated fly fishers spend hours at the tying bench, building and designing the flies they’ll use in the coming season.

In addition to some of the above, I use this time to read books related to fly-fishing. (I’ve only started fly tying and will need to work on that next).

In past years I’ve spent time primarily reading books on fly casting – after reflecting on weak aspects of my casting from the past year. A careful reading of Kreh, Wulff, and others gave me insights to practice casting to get ready for the days of February and March for the early hatches on the Yakima and the chum fry entering Puget Sound.

This year I decided to expand my focus to improving my skills as a fly fisher not solely as a fly caster. And that led me to Learning from the Water by Rene Harrop.

Anyone who’s ever heard of the Henry’s Fork (of the Snake River) undoubtedly has heard of Rene Harrop – a highly respected fly fisherman, fly tier, artist, conservationist and writer. He’s spent a lifetime (over 50 years) focused on this region’s fishery – a fishery of legend and difficult fishing challenges: fish that have experienced goodly fishing pressure and that shun all but expert presentation.

His book has many practical recommendations but it’s more than just that. It’s a philosophy of how to be part of the fisheries we fish, and how that connection opens our minds and souls to a respect for all forms of life.

That connection comes from observation and experience, and requires study, practice, and determination. Harrop readily acknowledges a relatively few will approach fly fishing with this determination and dedication, but for those few the rewards and joy are immeasurable.

The first five chapters have the most applicability to all fly fishers. From the introductory words to the deception needed in approaching a fish, to the fly boxes needed, to casting and the take – there are deep lessons here for those willing to pay attention.

He advocates the skills of the hunter in going after the large trout. Deception is key. A fly must be presented at the right time and in the right size or wary trout will pass on it. To this end, he carries up to 18 fly boxes in his vest during the peak season. (He does note that very few share that dedication to having that many flies available).

And not every fishery requires that many flies. Puget Sound saltwater can be fished most of the year with variations of Clouser Minnows and a few other seasonal flies. The Yakima and other local rivers can be fished with a small number of nymphs and streamers. We do not have the fishing pressure of a Henry’s Fork here.

But the same philosophy applies. Are we observing the water we fish? Do we understand the life cycles of the fish and what they feed on? If we do then we are pursuing the same path he advocates – even if we are able to get by with one small fly box in our vest or pack.

Chapters on casting and leader length follow. Presentation is a critical skill, if perhaps a bit less so on Puget Sound. Not many of us even on the Yakima would choose 14-foot leaders. But again it’s the principles that are key. Do we focus solely on the long cast, i.e., “cast to the backing”? Or do we think about the structure and how best to present our fly, even in the common blind casting we do?

One interesting thing he mentioned was that on Henry’s Fork he carries at least a 150 yards of backing for the big trout– and that’s with a 4-weight line he typically uses. Big fish and light tippet (6X) mean the fish have to run. Think about that next time you’re using 0x or 1X tippet on Puget Sound.

Chapters follow on the entire range of flies he uses during all the seasons of the year. And there is a chapter on the river guides, and how the profession of guiding has changed over the years. There is an element of wistfulness in his writing as he talks about the pioneers of guiding and the changes in places like West Yellowstone, Montana.

It’s a beautiful book, both in its writing and in its photographs. I recommend it for anyone looking for a path into the deeper aspects of fly fishing.

One thing. Rene is a Scott pro. I read a comment that someone saw Rene and his wife Bonnie last June near the Harriman State Park (Railroad Ranch) on the Henry’s Fork. He said they were both carrying Radian 5’s and Hatch Finatic 4 reels. As he noted, they can fish whatever rods they want.