September 14, 2017
By Eric Paulson
"Biggie, I am worn out," I declared to one of my favorite fishing buddies and oarsmen, Josh Stanish aka Biggie. "You are worn out?" Biggie quipped back, slightly amused, but slightly annoyed as well. "We've floated over 40 miles today and I've rowed most of it—you've been fishing."
Biggie was right, I had done most of the fishing that day, further proving my relationship with the Salmonfly hatch was part of an expanding obsession. This obsession first struck me as a college student at Montana State in the early '90s. To this day, I can clearly recall that first take by a monster brown on the big bug. That's the moment I became a fanatic of chasing the hatch and fishing the Salmonfly. It's an enthusiasm that has, at times, spread me thin—fishing and guiding throughout a renowned 300-mile circle that includes Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
It's also a hatch that has taught me, and continues to remind me, that being witness to a large surface-feeding trout in a Western landscape is a moment of bliss. Keep in mind that fishing these big bugs is not all rainbows and unicorns; the hatch can be elusive, its timing can be geographically difficult to predict, and simply, that moment in time can be hard to come by. Other uncontrolled elements like high and/or dirty water, Mother Nature's daily delivery of the weather, and angling pressure on any specific stretch of water thicken the plot for fly fishers.
It's no secret that fly fishing is no simple sport. This method is challenging, with a rich history filled with pioneers and legends. For me, there have been a handful of influential and legendary anglers. George Grant, Bud Lilly, Charlie Brooks, and the "River Rhino," George Anderson (affectionately nicknamed this by his longtime friend and fellow angler Tom Brokaw) have had considerable influence on my angling, and have ultimately shaped the way I fish the Salmonfly hatch.
With Salmonflies arguably in flight on various stretches of river across the Northern Rockies from late May to mid-July, even the best fly fishers find themselves gambling—playing the odds and looking for a return. Over the years I've found that at times, the best fishing during the Salmonfly hatch is often on a busy river fluttering with bugs, boats, and bowing rods. At other times, however, you get that skunked feeling when it becomes obvious that, despite your best efforts, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you've got the river to yourself.
Some regulated stretches of water like Bear Trap Canyon on the lower Madison can arguably prove themselves as some of the finest places to catch large trout at the height of the hatch. Only a few outfitters hold a permit allowing them to guide on its formidable and fantastic water, and that wilderness float can produce an epic day on the water. Mother Nature throws formidable navigation obstacles in Bear Trap Canyon's ultra-technical waters, but this section holds no fishing restrictions for do-it-yourself fly fishers. DIY anglers should plan to encounter an infamous rapid named The Kitchen Sink, and if you decide to portage, poison ivy can be lurking in the foliage, and rattle snakes often sunbathe and feed on Salmonflies along the edges.
Idaho's Henry's Fork also has a handful of restrictions placed on outfitters and guides. Back in the '90s, two of my college buddies and I were on a short road trip to pick up my new drift boat in Idaho Falls. When I picked up the boat, Steve Hyde suggested that we float below Lower Mesa Falls on our trip back home. Naturally, we followed his advice, and I vividly remember when we got out of the truck at the access below Lower Mesa. The canyon was alive with thousands of fluttering Salmonflies. We lowered that shiny, new aluminum boat down the steep access slide with ropes in overwhelming excitement. Fish were exploding on the surface in a feeding frenzy up and down the river—we had found Utopia. When we got on the water, the fishing was nothing less than magical. I recall thinking to myself, "Why is there no one here?" just as we came to a spot called Surprise Falls, which explained why this stretch was so quiet. I remember that "river right" was the best passage even though river left looked good . . . Or was it the other way around? It's been awhile.
If there's anything I've learned from endless hours, days, and months spent on the water, it's that there's little more important than fishing with somebody who is solid on the oars and also using the right fly pattern. From the time I was young, I've always relished tying flies. Western Salmonfly patterns became staples in my fly box while I was in college at Montana State; tweaking and perfecting my own imitation became part of my obsession.
Back then, my favorite Salmonfly pattern was Mike Lawson's Henry's Fork Salmon Fly. Historically, feathers and hair were the primary materials for most surface dry flies. Foam later began to appear in fly shops and that was a game changer. The first time I used foam in a Salmonfly pattern was on a fishing trip on the Madison with a handful of buddies.
We camped along the river at Varney Bridge. After a fisherman's dinner of Keystone Light and Top Ramen, I pulled out my vise and started to tie under the light of the camp lantern. I am not completely sure how the fly came together that evening, but it did. It was a masterpiece of foam, feathers, and hair that purely represented the fluttering surface insect in distress. To this day, I still tie and use this pattern, later called Paulson's Flutter Bug.
When it comes to the individual behind the oars (man or woman, I know a lot of gals who excel behind the oars), high, swollen spring runoff is the norm and boat handling is nearly everything. Wading is tough in these conditions and the best water is often where fast current pushes up against boulders, rip-rap, and willows. Wading and casting into these areas from shore is nearly impossible, so having a boat and a partner on the sticks who can safely navigate the water, and constantly keep you in the most advantageous position are essential. A great oarsman who is physically fit and mentally prepared is part of the equation, but the "fun factor" and success is equally shared by the angler and the rower, making it a team event. When a good team comes together, the outcome can be a helluva good time.
Several years ago, following a full day of guiding a couple of longtime clients on the Madison, I called my good friend and fishing buddy Brian "Bird" Morris. That June day of guiding produced a copious number of nice fish for my guests, but I was haunted by "the one that got away" so I asked Bird if he would like to go for an evening float. Shortly after Bird's "hell ya!" we were back on the water, and the Salmonfly hatch was still in full swing.
The dwindling evening light provided a good spell of additional time behind the oars while I lived vicariously through my friend. The evening also showed the allure of Montana's landscape while the sun settled onto the horizon, and big browns fed at the surface. Finally, it was my turn.
Bird and I swapped places in the boat. I grabbed my favorite old Winston—a rod given to me by my friend Doc, that still bears his name—and I tied on a Flutter Bug. Bird positioned the boat, setting me up for the ideal drift along the next bank. Moments later I said to Bird, "This is where I saw the one that got away earlier today, we are on it right now, and here he comes!" At that moment, I'll be damned if that very fish didn't take my bug. What a rush to see that strike, and what a specimen of a brown trout—just north of 27 inches.
Our team effort was precise; technical rowing, an accurate cast, the right fly, and the fish was ours. We did our part, Mother Nature graciously played along, and that's all you can hope for when you gamble on an insect with the biggest reputation in the West.
Eric Paulson is a Montana guide and holds his own permits for the Madison, Beaverhead, and Big Hole rivers. He is a Patagonia fish ambassador and a fly designer for Umpqua Feather Merchants. His patterns include the Flutter Bug, Hot Head Ray, and The Tick.