After some skiing at Red Lodge, Montana over the holidays, we stopped in at the Bighorn River, which is not too far south of Billings. A couple years ago, we heard rumors of great Christmas fishing and wanted to check it out. It was January 2, the sun was shining, and the air temperature was about 39 degrees – almost tropical! I was bundled up but it really did feel like a warm spring day. (Perhaps because I’m from Manitoba?)
The Bighorn River is a “bottom-draw” tailwater that never freezes up. We walked and waded and drifted tiny nymphs and split shot through a lot of promising water. Although we didn’t get anything, it just felt great to be fishing. Around 4 PM the light was getting low. I noticed some good-sized wakes moving up through a very skinny riffle in a side channel. I switched to an unweighted egg pattern, about a foot below a small indicator, and cast just upstream of the riffle. The water was maybe 8 inches deep… Fish on!
Hello, brown trout! As darkness fell and the temperature dropped, I was on my knees, about 25 feet from the wakes pushing through the riffle. After every second cast, I dipped my rod in the water to unthaw the guides. A bad case of “rising fish” jitters made sure that my line got tangled way too often. Nevertheless, two more browns honored me. The last fish had to be stripped in ’cause my reel was completely frozen. But I was feeling completely toasty.
The next day, before leaving, we could see the redds in the gravel above the riffle. The fish were spawning but aggressive. The Bighorn is about 1200 km away from my home. Cost of gas: $250. Sight-fishing in open water on Jan. 2: priceless….
(The Bighorn Fly and Tackle Shop, located right by the river and also in Billings, was a great source of info.)
A cruise ship is an excellent way to get teenagers into the outdoors and also fly fishing!
This past summer, my 15 year old daughter and I boarded the Norwegian Sky for a 3 day/4 night Bahamas cruise. We swam with dolphins in Nassau, kayaked through mangroves on Grand Bahama Island, and snorkeled with reef fish near Great Stirrup Cay. And I distinctly remember parasailing as well…
Between these ports-of-call, our time on the boat flew by. Immense buffets – and the gym equipment to work it off – kept me occupied. I also spent a fair bit of time scanning the open ocean, hoping to witness some tuna or mahi-mahi churning the surface to a froth. (I actually did see one feeding frenzy. Even though the species was unidentifiable, it kept me and another guy– also an angler – absolutely glued to our binoculars for a good twenty minutes.)
My daughter, Kerri, loved the boat’s supervised teen club. Hanging around with kids from all over the continent was a great experience for her. To be honest, once we were on the boat, I didn’t see too much of her at all.
But how does fly fishing fit into all this?????
Miami was our home base for a couple days before the cruise departed. We did some shopping, some South Beach sightseeing, and some fly fishing.
Hamilton Fly Fishing Charters (www.flyfishingextremes.com) out of Palm Beach took care of the fly fishing. The idea was to go just outside the reef and chum a bunch of false albacore up to the surface. However, the wave action was a bit rough and the albies stayed deep, so we headed back “inside” to the Intracoastal Waterway. As it turned out, this was a real blast! It was very visual – the guide tossing out bait and all kinds of jacks crashing it.
I was using a streamer and an intermediate line. My daughter was armed with a spinning rod. Both her and I thoroughly enjoyed it – Kerri was actually landing fish out on the boat’s deck in pelting rain. Unfortunately, some nasty wind and thunderstorms cut our day short.
The accompanying video shows the whole adventure. It isn’t in chronological order – South Beach and the cruise ship activities come first and then the fly fishing. (And then the nasty wind and thunderstorms.) I also have to admit that Kerri did all the video editing… Enjoy!!!
When I look at a sculpin, I see a bottom dweller with a huge head, big pectoral fins, and a long, skinny body. I always wondered about an easy way to incorporate these characteristics into my sculpin imitations. One day, while looking at a pink Puff bonefish fly, I had my answer…
Use brass or lead eyes to get it near the bottom. Add a long body of bucktail or squirrel tail. Tie in some nice, round hackle tips for the fins. (Hen hackle works great!) Lastly, build up an oversize head with chenille. The pictures below should give you the general idea:
Brown is my “go to” color and the two brown patterns are tied using natural bucktail on #4 and #6 hooks – my “go to” sizes.
The version with the orange head is for high, dirty water. It is tied on a #2 hook with squirrel tail.
The green version gets dunked in spring creeks – or wherever there is an abundance of weeds. Olive bucktail covers its size 8 hook and bead chain eyes help swim it over submerged growth.
I usually cast Puffy sculpins slightly upstream and let them sink a bit; then I give them a bit of action with the rod tip as they drift downstream. I try to keep a tight line and don’t worry too much about drag. Occasionally, I fish them under an indicator like a nymph with a twitch here and there.
Baby tarpon react to a hook like their oversized parents; they try to put as much air as possible between themselves and the water. However, they are far more accommodating. When fishing for adults, a great day is 5 fish jumped and 1 landed. With babies, jumping 15 and landing 5 is definitely not out of the question. And the babies aren’t exactly puny – 5 to 10 pounds is a common size.
I am by no means a seasoned tarpon hunter, but over the last few years I’ve managed to visit some of the Yucatan’s premier baby tarpon fisheries. Although not definitive, my impressions might be helpful if a trip is germinating in your brain.
It should be noted that all my trips took place in July or August. Visiting the Yucatan in the heat of summer sounds a bit twisted but it’s actually prime time for baby tarpon.
The gear for baby tarpon is simple – an 8 or 9 weight rod, a floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag. Most baby tarpon will not take you into your backing. Some veteran baby tarpon fishermen recommend stripping them in without putting them on the reel. A decent fly selection would include baitfish patterns, poppers, and Seaducers – all on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. A very functional leader looks like this: 5 feet of 50 lb mono for a butt section, 2 feet of 25 lb mono for the tippet, and 2 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon as a shock tippet.
Now, here’s a look at some baby tarpon destinations…
Tarpon Cay Lodge in San Felipe (Rio Lagartos) www.yucatanflyfishing.com
San Felipe, about 100 miles west of Cancun, is a sleepy, pleasant village where walking around gives your camera a taste of real Mexico.
The baby tarpon fishing starts after a 5 minute boat ride. It’s mostly blind casting the mangroves off points or in the rios, which are saltwater creeks. Oftentimes, rolling fish provide targets.
Once you’ve shaken the jitters when fishing to babies, San Felipe can give you the opportunity to come unglued in front of much larger fish. A boat ride of an hour or so will take you to a spot offshore where migratory adults up to 100 pounds hang out. This is sight casting to rolling fish over deep water.
Isla del Sabalo at Isla Arena www.yucatanflyfishing.com
If San Felipe is sleepy, then Isla Arena is comatose – in a good way. Even though you are only 100 km north of Campeche, it’s like the edge of the world.
The fishing is very similar to San Felipe with the addition of sight fishing on the flats in front of the mangroves. (N.B. Tarpon are much easier to see than a bonefish.) Some of the guides like to go WAY up the tiniest of creeks. Bring a mosquito repellant and don’t forget to duck under that mangrove branch! I found a Sage bass rod a great tool for such close quarters.
You will likely fly into Merida, which is an incredible colonial city. It’s like being in Europe, but the tarpon are much closer.
Paradise Lodge on the Costa Maya Coast www.tarponparadise.net
Between Chetumal Bay and Espiritu Santos Bay, Paradise Lodge has a breathtaking variety of fishing opportunity.
Baby tarpon are the backbone of this fishery; they hang out in cenote lakes, which are land-locked lagoons connected to the ocean via underground channels. Each day starts out with a truck ride as your boat is trailered to one of these lakes. Bring your casting arm – you’ll blind cast the mangroves like crazy. Nevertheless, you’ll probably see enough tarpon to keep your motivation in high gear. One of the lakes has a good population of both snook and barracuda.
During your stay at Paradise, you’ll probably drive south to sprawling Chetumal Bay to chase bonefish and permit. I caught my only permit in Chetumal Bay. I’d like to say I made a 70 foot cast to a tailing fish but I actually flipped a crab pattern about 30 feet into a HUGE mud. The permit that popped out was VERY small. At dinner that night, I downplayed my catch and was promptly chastised by the lodge owner. “A permit is a permit!” he insisted.
If baby tarpon are the backbone of the Paradise Lodge fishery, then Espiritu Santos Bay is the jewel. It’s a long, pre-dawn drive to the north. Punta Huerrero, an obscenely picturesque fishing village, guards the bay’s entrance. Once your skiff ventures into Espiritu Santos Bay, you’re not on the edge of the world, you’ve actually gone over it!
Very few people fish Espiritu Santos. Its flats are beautiful, wild and abundant, just like its bonefish. Chances are you’ll see permit, too. My guide even pointed out a few wily snook underneath the mangroves. I didn’t believe they were there until he chased them out with his push pole.
Isla Blanca by Cancun www.yucatanflyfishing.com
Cancun, as you probably know, is fueled by thousands of beach and bar-seeking tourists.
However, 30 minutes north of the sunscreen-slathered hordes lies Isla Blanca and its tremendous variety of fishing environments – hidden lagoons, picturesque bays, mangrove tunnels, small flats, large flats. Is your boat careening towards a solid wall of mangroves? Relax, the guide knows exactly where the opening to the other side is. Baby tarpon, a few bonefish, and smallish permit roam all over these waters. The permit, although small, are numerous.
If you want a break from fishing, and perhaps Cancun’s frantic pace, there are loads of guided excursions to Mayan ruins, traditional villages, and cenotes.
Isla Holbox is comfortably touristed but in a golf-carts-on-funky-sand-streets sort of way. It is about 60 miles northwest of Cancun; the last part of the journey is onboard a ferry.
Although Holbox is noted for big, migratory tarpon in the open ocean, the backcountry flats and channels in the lagoon behind it have excellent populations of babies. Tired of slinging 500 grain heads on a 12 weight? The babies chase poppers and streamers and put on a great show when connected to an 8 weight. I found sight-fishing for the babies to be excellent.
Another attraction at Holbox is the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks.
Nichupte Lagoon (Cancun) and Campeche
These are a couple places I have yet to visit. The former is the lagoon directly behind the Cancun hotel strip. The latter is a colonial city.
When the spring is wet and prairie rivers are high, I’ll stop my car where they spill over their banks. If I’m lucky, I’ll spot some carp. Flooded fields and ditches are usually the best.
Carp can be tough to catch but the ones cruising these places seem particularly ravenous. It’s all sight fishing – either from the bank or wading. For cruising fish, I like a large, buggy nymph – dragon fly imitations work great. For tailing fish, I go with a size 8 or 10 Woolly Bugger with brass eyes. An 8 weight rod and a 9 foot bonefish leader deliver the fly and land the fish. Although a 10 pound carp will often successfully dispute the latter.
Even with reasonable water clarity, casts to tailers – with their snouts in the bottom – have to be very precise. And seeing or feeling a take can be almost impossible. I have to admit, my luck with tailers ranges from rotten to so-so.
Cruising fish, however, are much more accommodating. Lead them by a few feet, let the fly sink to their level, and then give it a few short, slow strips. Magic!
Below are a few pics taken while wading a flooded field and nearby ditch…
My girlfriend loves the look of a trout stream and flyfishing intrigues her. Although a talented half-marathoner, she freely admits her athletic ability does not extend to false casts and shooting line. She is busy with 4 teenage kids and has no desire to spend a lot of time lawn casting.
Enter the roll cast – a quick and easy way to get someone started in fly fishing. Think about it… If someone can roll cast 10 feet of line with a 9 foot rod and a 9 foot leader, their fishing range is 28 feet. I know I’ve caught a lot of fish within 28 feet.
Get your budding Lefty Kreh into a shallow run with a moderate current. Their rod should be rigged up with an indicator, split shot, and your favourite nymph. The split shot is important because it helps turn over the leader.
Have your student strip off about 6 to 10 feet of line and show them how to roll cast it upstream. (Make sure they forcefully push the rod tip in a horizontal line towards the target; many people rotate the rod around the elbow, moving it in a circular path.) As soon as the fly lands, they should get their hands in the proper stripping position. At this point, don’t worry about actively stripping line or mending. Just get their hands positioned correctly and have them follow the fly with the rod tip.
Once that is mastered, introduce stripping to control slack. With younger kids, it might be time to start some serious trout hunting. Generally, I would recommend a brief lesson on how to avoid drag by mending. Finally, teach feeding line as the fly goes downstream. This last step lengthens the drift and helps set up for the next roll cast. At all times, keep the length of line manageable, perhaps adding a few feet if the pupil can handle it.
Spend about 10 or 15 minutes on each step – first demonstrating and then having the student practice a few repetitions. After 30 to 45 minutes of instruction, it is definitely time to go fishing. Location is key. Someone shouldn’t wade onto a bonefish flat armed with only a roll cast. Or stalk sippers on a spring creek. A roll-casting specialist needs the proper water!
Small, bouncy streams hold many fish within the reach of a roll cast. But don’t overlook larger rivers. Places like the Elk River in B.C. and the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley have a lot of fish close to their bank.
My girlfriend’s first fish on a fly rod actually came from the St. Mary’s River in B.C. This is a large freestoner but the cutthroats love to hang out in the boulders in thigh deep water – 10 feet from the bank at most.
After some experience with an indicator rig, the new flyfisher can start roll casting dries and streamers, too. High-stick nymphing is another technique they can pick up quite easily. Before you know it, your new partner might not be outcasting you, but they will certainly be outfishing you! The cutthroat in the picture was the biggest we saw from Racehorse Creek, Alberta. I didn’t catch it…
Should a Woolly Bugger kind-of-guy celebrate March Madness in Paradise Valley at a BWO hatch?
I used to look forward to a week of skiing in Montana at the end of every March. And somewhere along the line, probably as I passed through Livingston - with the sun shining and the Yellowstone River underneath the Interstate – I got to wondering about the fishing.
As it turns out, it’s pretty darn good. The crowds are gone, the rivers are in good shape - ‘cause it’s pre-runoff – and the temperature is likely to be 50 or 60 degrees.
So a few weeks ago, on our way to ski, my girlfriend and I stopped by the Yellowstone Angler in Livingston. They pointed us toward Armstrong’s Spring Creek and stuffed our fly box with egg imitations, BWO’s, and midges.
A day on Armstrong’s during the height of the summer PMD hatch means booking a year in advance and paying a $100 rod fee. We got there on a gorgeous Sunday morning and paid the off-season rate of $40. And had the river all to ourselves. All the snow was on the ski hill and would have to wait…
I have to admit. I was a little apprehensive. Spring creeks and their technical, flat water are a bit of a mecca for small fly gurus. But I’m no small fly guru. To me, finesse is replacing the big split shot under my indicator with a small split shot.
Nevertheless, for every flat water glide, there was a deeper, rumpled run. A 20 mile per hour wind was keeping the BWO hatch at bay. We tied on indicators, beadhead zebra midges underneath eggs, and a split shot. I must have been in finesse mode; it was a small indicator and a tiny split shot.
There were six or seven browns and rainbows in those deeper, rumpled runs that definitely wanted to play. The browns smacked the eggs and the rainbows sucked in the midges. The browns bent the rods double and went deep. A couple ‘bows did cartwheels. The biggest fish was a solid 16 inches. Not a spectacular day’s fishing, but extremely satisfying. Especially when fishing back home would be not much more than gazing at an eight inch hole in the ice.
Next year, we may just forget about the skiing altogether…
(We actually spent the next day wading the big, broad Yellowstone River. There were risers in the slack water by the bank as we pulled up. I was eager to work on my small fly skills but a 30 mile per hour wind came up and ended the hatch. So back to an indicator rig with zebra midges and small pheasant tails. A few eager rainbows and cutthroats soon found our flies. Unfortunately, after a couple hours, the wind started to feel like a gale and it was time to quit. Or at least think about going skiing.)
My teenage daughter, Kerri, likes to fish. Once a year, we catch a few crappie on spinning gear and she’s happy. Especially if I bring along her favorite junk food. However, she LOVES big, scary roller coasters. Or anything that sends her equilibrium for a loop – quite literally.
Last summer, I suggested a trip to Yellowstone Park. My exact words: “Geysers, waterfalls, white-water rafting, zip-lining – that’s what we’ll be doing.” She was excited. I also asked her if she’d like to try fly-fishing. From a boat… Drifting down at river… With rapids… She said sure.
I booked a float trip with guide Hank Bechard and asked him if he thought Kerri would be better off with a spinning rod. He replied, “When in Rome…” He was confident the fly rod would work.
We spent a day white-water rafting down the Gallatin River. And another day zip-lining over it. One afternoon we waded a gentle run and I taught Kerri how to roll cast, mend line, and control slack. She wasn’t Lefty Kreh, but she could flip an indicator rig 20 feet upstream and let it drift back down.
After a day sight-seeing in Yellowstone, I phoned the guide to check arrangements for the float trip. Hank told me our original destination, the upper Yellowstone, was still clearing up; we would be fishing the Boulder River instead. He promised whitewater rafting with fly rods. Kerri was pumped! (And so was I!)
The next day, we were in his raft, heading down the Boulder River. Big, ugly rubber-legged nymphs were hanging underneath big, ugly foam indicator flies. I have to admit that I thought I made a mistake for about the first ten minutes. I’d been in drift boats before but I wasn’t used to my rear end hanging WAY out over the back of the raft. The targets were zipping past as we bounced down the river; I had a mess of line in my lap and not much in the river. I had NO idea how Kerri was doing at the front of the boat.
Finally, I shortened up my line and starting dropping the fly where it was supposed to go. Hank stopped the boat in a calm spot and gave Kerri a few quick casting lessons. In no time, he had her picking the fly up and slapping it back down about 20 feet away. (Forget about roll casts!)
The rest of the day was tremendous! The raft rocked and rolled through riffles and rapids. The casts were short and the fish were eager. Kerri caught her first fly rod fish – a 15” ‘bow – and at least 6 or 7 more.