"Western Fishing for Eastern Anglers "
(As appeared in The Maine Sportsman)
By Bob Mallard
With more and more Maine anglers heading west to fish these days, I thought I would share some of what I have learned about western fishing over the years. Having first fished out west roughly 15 years ago, I have gone out every year since with one exception (the year I opened the shop!). I have spent no less than 12 days and as many as 28 days on each of my trips. During this time I feel I have gained a pretty good understanding of what western fishing is all about. I have fished extensively in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. I have been blessed to fish many of the waters that most anglers only dream about.
As I see it there are two times to head west to fish; when the fishing is best out there or when the fishing is worse back here. As a full-time fly fisherman (I would fly fish year-round if there were more opportunities to do so!), I opt for the latter. Specifically, I head west when Maine fishing hits the summer doldrums. However, while I get some great fishing at a time when good fishing is scarce back home, I admittedly miss some of the finest fishing that the west has to offer. The sad reality however is that bad western fishing usually rivals good eastern fishing.
Another thing to consider is crowding. While the rumors of extreme crowding out west are grossly exaggerated, like Maine there are times of the year that are more crowded and there are times of the year that are less crowded. As you would expect, western rivers are at their most crowded during the so-called peak season. Interestingly enough, peak season out west is not that different than peak season here in Maine (June-July and September-October). Like here in Maine, many folks out west fish primarily when the fishing is best (fair weather fishermen are found everywhere!)
On the subject of crowding, I have felt far more crowded here in Maine than I have ever felt out west. Even on popular western rivers that see hordes of sportsmen, guides, and driftboats, people seem to give their fellow anglers a much wider berth than we give each other here in the northeast. If you have ever fished the Warden’s Pool on the Roach River, Second Riffle on the Rapid River, Mailbox Pool on the Magalloway, Aquarium on the Presumscot, or the Big Eddy on the West Branch you know exactly what I mean. By eastern standards, western fishing is simply not that crowded.
As I said earlier, I prefer to head west when the trout fishing here in Maine is slowest. As such, I now target August for my annual western trip. I have had quality fishing throughout the Rocky Mountain States in August. Even southern WY, CO, NM and AZ, which are better fished earlier or later in the year, offer quality fishing in August. However, MT, northern WY and northern ID are a much better bet in August. For prime CO, NM, AZ or southern WY fishing, consider March-May or October-November. For prime northern WY, MT or northern ID fishing, consider June-July or September-October.
Regardless of when you go, there are a couple of areas that will provide you with the most options and I believe best fishing. In my opinion, West Yellowstone Montana and Jackson Wyoming is your best bet for a western fishing primer. My second choices would be Ketchum/Sun Valley ID, Basalt CO, Missoula MT, Livingston MT, Ennis MT, and of course Yellowstone National Park. Lesser known, but worth considering, are Star Valley WY, Dillon MT, Crested Butte CO and Last Chance ID. There are also “destinations” (single fishery towns) such as Ft. Smith MT, Craig MT, Alcova WY, Lee’s Ferry AZ, Dutch John UT, and Navajo Dam NM.
For variety, quality, and infrastructure, nothing beats West Yellowstone or Jackson. Both areas offer small stream, large river, and stillwater fishing as well as a variety of species including native cutthroat, and wild browns and rainbows. As for infrastructure, these are fly-fishing towns! West Yellowstone alone has roughly six fly shops and Jackson has several. Legendary anglers such as Bud Lilly, Jack Dennis, Bob Jacklin, and Craig Mathews started these shops. There are guides; all types of lodging, and restaurants that continue serving until well after you are forced off the water by darkness. While West Yellowstone provides a family-like atmosphere, Jackson is as upscale as it gets!
West Yellowstone is arguably the best fly-fishing destination in the country. With the Madison, Gallatin, and Henry’s Fork all within a short drive of town, you have access to three of the west’s best-known rivers. In addition, with Hebgen, Henry’s, Quake, Island Park, Cliff and Wade lakes all within striking distance, West Yellowstone offers the countries finest Stillwater trout fishing. Add to this Duck, Cougar, and Grayling creeks for small stream fishing and you have it all! As an added bonus, you can day-trip into Yellowstone Park to fish the upper Madison, lower Gibbon and Firehole rivers.
Jackson offers the fly fisherman a great variety of moving water angling. The Snake and South Fork offer unmatched scenery and miles of floatable water while the Gros Ventre and Hoback rivers offer great wading. The Teton River north of town is one of the countries best kept secrets. In addition, Jackson has two public spring creeks. While not technically a spring creek, Flat Creek offers spring creek like fishing for large wild cutthroat. Just east of Flat Creek lies Blacktail Creek which tests even the most seasoned angler. For an added bonus you can day-trip to the upper Green, New Fork, Salt or Gray’s rivers.
Having gone west with many first-time anglers there are a few things that I would like to share with you. First is that summer is hopper time. While it looks easy, I have seen many traditional New England anglers struggle to consistently catch fish on hoppers. My advice is simple, cast to the bank (within inches or less!), dead drift your hopper when you can, and twitch ‘em out when you can’t. It is also important to keep moving while covering every inch of bank. While traditional flies will catch fish at this time, in my opinion hoppers will catch bigger fish.
You can also leave your traditional feathered streamers and bucktails at home. Most western rivers are sculpin waters and as such large western patterns such as Zoo Cougars, Double Bunny’s, Zonkers, etc., are a far better option. Unlike the eastern “cast and swing” method of streamer fishing; western streamer fishing is all about “bank banging”. Like hopper fishing, this is a game of inches not feet. Few things rival the excitement and action that throwing large streamers from a driftboat does. If you want truly large fish this is the way to go. However, like hopper fishing, it is not as easy as it looks.
As for hatch matching, be prepared for flies that are either larger or smaller than that which you see here in Maine. The western salmon fly makes an eastern golden stone look small. Conversely, the tricos, PMD’s, and sulfurs found out west make our spring Quill Gordon’s; Hendrickson’s, etc., look huge. The biggest mayflies you see on most western lakes and ponds are a #14 callibaetis. Hatches on both lakes and rivers can change multiple times in a day. For example it is not unusual to see tricos and/or midges in the early morning, PMD’s mid-morning, and sulfurs in the afternoon. There are also gray and green drake hatches, which can rival any traditional eastern hatch.
Tackle is another area where first-time western anglers often make mistakes. Western fish are mostly wild and live primarily in water that is cold by New England standards. As such these fish can put some distance between themselves and the inexperienced angler fast. If you still believe that a reel is simply a place to “store line”, you should rethink your strategy before heading west. My first trip west I carried one reel with a poorly designed drag and one with a click-and-pawl. Neither reel held up well to the fast moving, hard fighting fish of the Madison, Beaverhead, Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. I ended up buying a new reel while I was out there!
I also recommend 9’ rods for most western rivers and all western lakes. Even most western streams (“cricks” as they call them!) can be fished with a long rod due to the lack of shore side trees. The long rods will help muscle the large fish on light tippets while allowing you to reach out a little further and mend a little better. You should bring at least two rods with one being an all-around (medium to fast action) 5-wt and the other being a 4-wt or a 6-wt. A rod of 4-wt or less may be required to protect light tippets on certain waters. When fishing hoppers and streamers, tippet of 3x or less is the standard. However, you may have to go down as far as 6x or 7x to fool wary spring creek trout.
The west is a fly fisherman’s paradise. Roadside angling out west often rivals the best remote fishing that we have here in the northeast. While they may not have the rich fly-fishing history that we do, they have a fly-fishing culture unmatched anywhere in the northeast. Make no mistake about it; the west has embraced fly-fishing and quality angling. Fly shops are everywhere and many local economies are dependant on tourist anglers for their survival. Quality fishing is a part of the western life-style. Until you have experienced western fishing firsthand you can’t possibly know what you are missing.
As for what it cost to go out west; it can far less than you may think. In fact, I usually spend less than $1,000 per week plus airfare. Flights vary radically based on what airports you use. Avoid tourist airports such as Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone choosing instead Idaho Falls, Billings, etc. The price of a rental car is also much less in the non-tourist airports. Lodging can be as cheap as $50 per night for two people if you target motels. Cabins will cost $100+ per night. Guides can be your biggest expense at $350 to $450 per day plus tip. Pay-to-fish spring creeks average roughly $100 per day per angler. Licenses are similar to a Maine non-resident.
Bob Mallard has been a flyfisherman and fly tyer for over 25 years and is the owner of Kennebec River Outfitters on Route 201 in Madison, ME. He can be reached at (207) 474-2500 or www.kennebecriveroutfitters.com.