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Hebgen Lake - Montana's Premier Fly Fishing Lake

Hebgen Lake has the most prolific hatches of any stillwater fishery in North America. This nutrient rich lake receives its source from a river system like no other. From fourteen miles up where the Gibbon and the Firehole meet to form the Madison River, the unusually warm temperature that inhabits the Upper Madison helps to form the perfect chemistry and nutrients that the Hebgen aguatic life thrive in.

But what really sets it apart is the trout’s feeding habits that generously indulge in Hebgen’s aquatic smorgasbord. Even though Hebgen Lake is considered to be one of the top dry fly lakes in the country, its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding blue ribbon waters make Hebgen just another body of water to consider when most anglers come to the Yellowstone region. The excuses are many: "It’s too crowded", "I prefer moving water" , "Not enough action" etc. For those of us who love large selective rising fish, enough said!

There are many factors to consider when flyfishing Hebgen. As with any large body of water, check out the isobar forecast the day you plan to fish. The earlier it is in the season, the more likely the wind will be a factor. Ideally you want a calm overcast day. However what really sets Hebgen Lake apart from any stillwater fishery, especially as it gets deeper into the season, is in knowing that even on a bright bluebird day, the fish are usually rising during one of the three prolific Hebgen hatches.

 

 

Now lets get down to the equipment necessary to put success in your favor when stalking these wily gulpers.

EQUIPMENT
· Rods - A 9’ 5 wt medium or medium fast action rod is perfect for Hebgen. Hebgen is visual fly fishing at its finest. This is not river fishing. The trout are on the move and faster than most people think. The most common mistake is casting on or behind the fish. A medium action rod is perfect to get the fly there NOW with a minimal amount of false casts. One other quick tip for those using the popular fast action rods. Do your arm a favor and SLOW DOWN that casting stroke. Let whatever rod your using, do all the work. My favorites are a 9’5 Sage Lightline, A Winston 9’5 (hate that tiny stripping guide) and a Sage 9’5 SP. A 6 weight rod will work just fine if you can delicately lay the fly down. I’ve seen so many good casters out there make a perfect cast only to see the fly flop down and spook the fish. A 6 weight also increases water saturation on the fly line aiding in "casting spray" when false casting.

· Large Arbor Reel - I have been an advocate of large arbor reels since the moment I used one many years ago fishing for steelhead on the Deschutes River with my good friend Ralph Cutter. Large arbors are now quite the rage and for good reason. They pick up line fast aiding in fish recovery and leave no memory when stripping line that’s near the end of the spool which is often necessary when casting to these fast cruisers on Hebgen.

· Double taper Line - Say What! A double taper line is the best line available to help aerialize a line. If your casting close, 30’ or less then it obviously doesn't’t matter. Since were talking Hebgen Lake then you’re much better off using a 5 weight DT. Aerializing a line will give you a more accurate cast. You still must shoot your line only with a DT you’ll have less to shoot because you’ll have more of it in the air. You will also want to be able to pick up a fair amount of line to recast quickly. A Weight Forward, with it’s thin belly doesn’t allow this. Ever seen someone strip out line in a hurry to a working fish only to have wrapped up chicken gumbo coming out of their reel.

· A 16’ leader - Start with a 3’ butt section using 25# Clear Maxima. Next tie on a 9’ 4x tapered leader and finally a 4’ 5x tippet. This may seem in excess compared to your river leaders but don’t fret the stiff butt section will compensate and your tippet will lay out nice and "straight". You do not want curl. If you can see any part of the tippet curled up and glistening so can the fish. On occasion, it may be necessary to use 6x with 22 midge pupa’s or midseason tricos but this is the exception.

 

FLY SELECTION
Contrary to the general opinion, the fly selection for Hebgen Lake is one of the least factors to consider. A basic knowledge of insect hatches and a matching pattern is all you need to remember. The three major hatches on Hebgen Lake are Chironomid, Tricos and Callibaetis.

· Chironomid - Key features to remember when tying or selecting a midge pupa pattern is to make sure it is slender, small copper or silver ribbing and a distinct thorax or head. Adding a slight "flash" will help especially for the smaller patterns later in the year. You can’t go wrong with black or light olive colors on Hebgen or anywhere else.

· Midge Emerger - Any style paratilt with a trailing shuck made of Zelon or Crystal Flash will work fine. Again using black or light olive and you’ll be covered.

· Midge Adult - The midge adult is the poor man’s ant and highly underated. When’s the last time you seen or used a midge adult pattern. Try to buy one, you’ll likely get the " this will work" routine. Clip the wing off your parachute, tap it with superglue and clip the tail off and you have the best adult midge pattern available. Colors - you already know.

· Tricos - There are many Trico patterns available. Most will work just fine. All you really need are two stages, the adult and the spinner. Colors - guess what, black and olive - Hmmm! Unfortunately with Tricos, it’s not that easy. Of the three major hatches on Hebgen, size is most important with Tricos. This is because there are so many for so long a duration and almost always when the water is dead calm.

· Callibaetis - There are four stages to pattern after on Hebgen. All of which are very important, the nymph, emerger, dun and the spinner. A excellent Callibaetis nymph pattern you probably have, is the Pheasant Tail Nymph. Any callibaetis cripple pattern is a good emerger, a Hebgen Upright is a good dun imitation and for a spinner imitation, you can’t go wrong with a Mathews Foam Spinner in light gray. Sizes - 14 and 16.

· Flying Ant - This is not a major hatch on Hebgen but if you see ants, you better try them - even if you don’t see ants besides you probably have a few in your box. Sizes will range from a large 14 to 18 and black or brown will work fine.


The Hatches
Any one or all three can be going on at once. What about damsels? They are around for a few weeks in late June and early July, just as they are on all the major lakes in the Yellowstone region, but they are not a major hatch on Hebgen. The Chironomid is a major force beginning in late May. The early season midges will be a size 12 to 14 and the fish will be schooled up in the open water gorging on overcast days. The three arms, Grayling, Madison and South Fork of the Madison, are in runoff stage during the early season and consequently are not a factor until mid-June. You can however, find fish feeding on midges in any one of the arms, just not in numbers like the main body. These early open water fish are hot and not so selective during the early morning as compared to the evening risers. Towards late May fish can be found feeding on midges whether it’s calm or overcast. However if it is overcast, the fish go on a frenzy and you’ll find wave after wave of working pods of fish. The main Chironomid hatch will last until mid July as each brood progressively shrinks until they reach a size 26. But we have not seen the last of the Neolithic insect. They will be back.

June Callibaetis
By mid-June another stillwater superstar make its first appearance. The Callibaetis is the mainstay for Hebgen Trout. Its arrival in June is low key. Very few fly fisherman seek out the June Callibaetis because of its emergence location. In mid-June, the weedbeds where the Callibaetis thrive are sporatic and only appear on the southwest bank of each part of the lake. The important thing to remember about the early season Callibaetis is the nymph and emerger stage. Under the right conditions and location, the nymph fishing is exceptional just look for the weedbeds. In late August, when the Callibaetis can be in the millions, the spinner becomes king.

July Tricos and Callibaetis
By mid-July the phenomena known as "gulpers" becomes apparent. These feeding trout or "gulpers inherit their name from their surface feeding gulp they make while cruising along at a deceptive pace. The Trico is what their after and it triggers their distinct feeding habit until the end of September. If your preference is short range casting, then Tricos is for you. Hebgen Tricos requires you to keep you casting close. The gulpers are not easily spooked. They have an agenda all you need to do is select the correct stage and keep your cast within 2 feet of a working fish anything closer and you alert the fish. Anglers who have a tendency to splat their dry fly have a very difficult time with Tricos. Remember, Tricos are not caddis - no dive bombing. The Trico hatch will last until the mid-August then the fun begins.

August Callibaetis
Despite fishing conditions around the country, nothing compares to Dry Fly Callibaetis fishing on Hebgen Lake during the month of August. Often you will hear anglers complain about the doldrums in August, though this can be true if you're into nymphing the famous rivers around Yellowstone,
it's a shame they don't widen their angling experience and visit one of the country's greatest dry fly fisheries in Hebgen Lake, just minutes away from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

Casting to working fish on a river is simple. You select a matching pattern, you position yourself as close as possible, you target your fish and you cast to your stationary target without spooking it until it takes or refuses in which case, you change your fly. Life is simple, all is well. Casting to working fish on Hebgen can be as simple as long as you remember to lead the fish and don’t spook them with too many false casts. Know your casting range and accuracy level. You’ll know what their taking - just look. If you need to move closer, just remember the closer you get the more chance there is to spook them with your presence, false casts or fly line. Pick out single fish and get your fly a few feet ahead of where the fish should come up next. Allowing a buffer zone on your cast accomplishes 2 things: You won’t spook the fish, with leader or fly splat and 2) It gives you a chance to slightly move the fly in the path of the fish.
(If you don’t know where or when it will rise next, then quit casting and observe unless you’re out there for fly casting aerobics in which case flail away). Remember, Splatting a dry fly is counter-productive unless your hopper or salmonfly fishing.

As the season progresses, unlike the rivers, the Hebgen fish will become less cautious. Casting for Hebgen gulpers is the most satisfying of all dry fly fishing. Your stalking a fish at any given range. It becomes a personal challenge to try for working fish beyond your casting ability and when you get humbled you can always pick one off at point blank range and feel like a hero. I believe fly casting is what fly fishing is all about otherwise we would all be dapping with "poles". One final note about accurate fly casting with distance - it’s fun.

Hebgen Lake has 3 major hatches that are of special interest to the fly fisherman, The Chironomid or midges, the Tricos and my favorite the Callibaetis. The Chironomid is a major force beginning in late May and is the first major hatch up in Yellowstone Country. The early season midges will be a size 12 to 14 and the fish will be schooled up in the open water gorging on overcast days. The three arms, Grayling, Madison and South Fork of the Madison, are in runoff stage during the early season and consequently are not a factor until mid-June. You can however, find fish feeding on midges in any one of the arms, just not in numbers like the main body. These early open water fish are hot and not so selective during the early morning as compared to the evening risers. Towards late May fish can be found feeding on midges whether it’s calm or overcast. However if it is overcast, the fish go on a frenzy and you’ll find wave after wave of working pods of fish. The main Chironomid hatch will last until mid July as each brood progressively shrinks until they reach a size 26. But we have not seen the last of the Neolithic insect. They will be back.


Hebgen Lake is one of the best sight fishing lakes in the country and we will take advantage of this special type of fly fishing by mentioning a few techniques we use to catch these Hebgen trout.

Our favorite technique is casting to targets with a dry fly matching whatever's occuring at the time. When you have a working fish, target your cast ahead of the fish by timing its rise form. You must lead your cast according to the fishes feeding pattern plus add a little buffer. You want to have the opportunity to recast and not spook the fish. More often than not most anglers like to test their long distance skills and in the process scattering the school. Be patient and be selective on your target.

The riseforms on Hebgen are for adults, spinners or emergers. Each riseform is distinct so spend time observing the insects and feeding behavior and you will have success.

 

 



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Hebgen Lake