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Fly fishing tips by Walter Wiese

Streamer Fishing the Yellowstone River: Tips and Tricks

Streamer Fishing the Yellowstone River: Tips and Tricks

Streamer Fishing the Yellowstone River in its Black and Grand Canyons

Streamer cutthroat
June streamer eater from the lower Grand Canyon

A lot of folks are surprised to learn our single most effective tactic in the Yellowstone’s Black and Grand Canyons, both for numbers of fish and larger fish, all through the season, is stripping streamers aggressively. Cutthroat trout love chasing streamers, whether these fish are six inches long or twenty. They tend to like very specific flies and presentations, however. The following article provides some tips on streamer fishing the Yellowstone River.

Fish Six and Seven-Weight Rods

Your five-weight dry fly rod won’t cut it with the big, weighted streamers and sink-tip lines (or sinking polyleaders) that are usually necessary. In fact, we usually use six-weight rods at all times on the Yellowstone, whether we’re streamer fishing the Yellowstone River or throwing dries or nymphs.

Fish Short, Fast-sinking Sink-tips or Polyleaders

There’s no need for subtlety here. A short sink-tip line or sinking polyleader that sinks between five and seven inches per second is what you’re after. Yes, it lands with a clunk and sinks too fast in slow, shallow water. When streamer fishing the Yellowstone River, you’re going to be fishing deep, often fast water where you don’t get long presentations. Fish a tip that helps get your flies down fast.

polyleader in package
RIO Trout Versileader packaging. This is the polyleader we prefer.

Fish Heavy Tippets

Regardless of the time of year or clarity of the water, you should fish heavy tippets when streamer fishing the Yellowstone River. I generally use 1X or 2X mono to my first, larger fly, and 2X or 3X to the dropper. Always drop down a size between the first fly and the second.

Fly Choice: Keep it Simple

There is seldom any reason to make complicated fly choices. Articulated streamers with more than one intact hook are banned in Yellowstone Park (alas), as are lead-headed flies. This means many contemporary and popular flies are out. My choices are pretty simple: Woolly Buggers, Slumpbusters, and Muddlers, for the most part, with all save the Muddlers weighted with cones, tungsten or large brass beads, or brass dumbbell eyes. Here’s a sample fly list that will cover 95% of your bases through the season, listed in approximate order of importance:

  • Chocolate Brown Minch’s Bully Bugger (ostrich-bodied leech-like beadhead Bugger), #10-12
  • Olive Conehead Flash-a-Bugger, #4-6
  • Black Conehead Flash-a-Bugger, #4-6
  • Gold Minch’s Bully Bugger, #10-12
  • Tan Wiese’s PT-Bugger (sculpin-hued Bugger with dumbbell eyes), #4-6
  • Muddler Minnow, #8-12
  • Olive Slumpbuster, #6
  • Golden Brown Slumpbuster, #6
  • Gold Tung Minnow (marabou-winged sculpin pattern), #6
  • Hornberg, #8

Last season, I don’t think I had a client use anything besides the flies listed above when streamer fishing the Yellowstone River in its canyons. Other stretches are a different matter.

minch's bully bugger
Minch’s Bully Bugger

Double Up Your Streamers

Fish two streamers in tandem. Usually this means securing your larger streamer to your main leader, then running a smaller one on a dropper from the first hook. This might seem like the mouse chasing the cat. In reality, the first fly gets the trout’s attention and causes it to chase, while the second offers a smaller, less-threatening meal. Unless the fish are really aggressive, more will take the second fly. They often don’t do so fishing the smaller bug by itself.

Strip Your Streamers Aggressively

While swinging can certainly work, and is often important for getting your flies down regardless of whether a fish eats while the fly is swinging or not, it’s not the main retrieve you should be using. Instead, use an aggressive strip, with significant pauses between each strip. I can’t stress this enough. Most strips are “wimpy.” Jerk the line abruptly at least a foot, and perhaps as much as eighteen inches, so that the fly moves sharply up and towards you, then stops and falls. The fly should have a significant “jigging” action in the water, one reason weighted flies are so important. The abrupt strip is what makes the fish chase, but they usually eat when the fly drops.

When Stripping isn’t Possible, Use Your Rod Tip

When there’s no room to strip your flies, either because they’ve gotten too close to you or because you cast into a small slow spot, provide action with your rod tip. These twitches can be of smaller magnitude than your strips, since at short range more of the motion you impart will transfer down the line to the fly.

Note that most retrieves will include both stripping and twitching: stripping through the main part of the retrieve, then twitching when the fly is getting close to your and/or when the fly is in a good spot such as just above or below a rock.

Retrieve All the Way to the Drop-Off

Cutthroats love to chase streamers for long distances, and they’ll often follow them almost to shore, before either eating just before the first sharp dropoff or turning away. For this reason, it’s important to retrieve all the way into shallow water. A good rule of thumb (when the water is clear, at least) is to retrieve all the way until the general emerald green color of the river transitions to a shade wherein it’s easy for you to see the true color of the rocks. The last foot or two over the transition is the place to twitch rather than strip, just in case a following fish wants a change in retrieve to make it strike.

streamer fishing on the Yellowstone
Pay close attention to his fly line. The line-polyleader transition is only about three feet from the end of the fly line, meaning the fly is only about twelve feet from him. Nonetheless, he’s still working the fly, right along the boulder line under the rod tip in fact.

Watch Your Flies!

I can’t stress this enough. Streamer fishing the Yellowstone River is visual, often as visual as dry fly fishing. Watch to see how your flies are moving: where they are in the water column, whether they’re moving across the current or up or down stream. Watch the fish. Are they chasing long distances? Not moving much at all? Are they flashing at your fly but “missing it?” Usually the latter actually means they’re spooking at the last moment and perhaps you should go with a drabber or smaller fly.

When it comes to strikes, this is often visual too. If you feel a pluck or even just weight on your line, great. This should not be your main strike trigger. Instead, you should look for the fish flashing or opening their mouths. Since many of the strikes are at short range, this is easier than it might sound.

Change Everything Else, before You Change Your Flies

Cast upstream, across stream, or downstream. Change your retrieve speed. Change how long your strips are. Twitch the rod tip rather than stripping. Swap to a heavier or lighter fly or tip, so your fly rides differently in the water column. The fly is usually the last of your worries. Every fly I gave in the list above will typically get some strikes when streamer fishing the Yellowstone River. The real trick is making the fly behave how the trout want it. Once you get it right, you’ll often be into a bunch of fish when five minutes before you couldn’t buy a strike.

New Sizes of Bob Hoppers for 2019!

New Sizes of Bob Hoppers for 2019!

new sizes of Bob Hoppers
Peach Bob Hoppers will be available in #10-14 for 2019.

For 2019, all of the most popular and effective colors of Bob Hoppers will be available in additional sizes. Peach and pink, the two most effective colors in general, will be available in #10 through #14. Depending on color, we’ll have most colors in at least one additional size, sometimes #10 and sometimes #12, and we’ll certainly be playing with even larger versions. Salmonfly Bobs, anyone? In the past, we’ve only had these in #14. The larger versions worked great with the high water and plentiful grasshoppers we had last year, and are big enough to float tungsten-headed nymphs. Full availability for these new sizes of Bob Hoppers will be in late May and June. We expect to sell out of all of them no later than late August, except for guide use, of course…

Check out this post for a video on how to tie these larger Bobs.

Top Three Spring Creek Flies for Late February

Top Three Spring Creek Flies for Late February


Provided it’s warm enough you can stand it and not so windy you blow away, late February can be a great time to fish the Paradise Valley spring creeks. While streamers can draw a few big eats and if you luck into a calm day in the 30s or 40s there could be midge or winter BWO hatches, nymphing is the way to rack up the numbers. Here are my top three flies for late February. They remain good in March, too.

If you don’t care to tie these flies, we sell the first and third in the shop.

NOTE: rainbow trout spawning activity begins on the creeks in February. It’s important to let them do their business in peace. Make sure to avoid fishing or walking over redds (spawning nests), which are areas of shallow gravel that the fish have swept clean of algae and debris. These areas will look paler or brighter in color than other gravel. Some redds can be quite large, larger than a dining room table, but most are perhaps three feet in diameter. It’s okay to fish the deeper water downstream of these redds, and in fact these areas are often the best areas to target non-spawning fish, since the spawning activity leaves eggs in the drift and also disturbs aquatic insect larvae/pupae and nymphs, which the fish in the deeper water pick off.

Top Flies

All of these pattern should generally be ticked along the bottom with or without a shot, and should be fished in pretty small sizes. Use 5X or 6X tippet. Fluorocarbon is not a bad choice.


wd-40 nymph
WD-40 Nymph

This simple nymph is my favorite pattern overall in February, regardless of where I’m fishing. It does a good job imitating both BWO nymphs and midge pupae, making it an excellent crossover pattern covering the two most important food items on the menu at this time of year. Fish it in #18 and #20, with or without a gold beadhead. The wing case can be replaced with tinsel if you want a bit more flash in the pattern.

  • Hook: #18-22 scud.
  • Bead (optional): gold brass.
  • Thread and Abdomen: 8/0 olive-dun.
  • Tail: lemon wood duck flank.
  • Wing Case: lemon wood duck flank.
  • Thorax: gray dubbing.

Red/Black/Brown Triple Threat Worm

triple threat worm
Triple Threat Worm

San Juan Worms of all kinds are good choices in late winter and spring, but on the creeks they must be slender and sparse. The tricolor Triple Threat Worm has worked well for me on the creeks for more than a decade.

  • Hook: #16-18 scud (on the creeks, #12 is great on larger water).
  • Bead: gold brass.
  • Thread: 8/0 or 10/0 black.
  • Front Segment: red midge Ultra Chenille.
  • Rear Segment: brown midge Ultra Chenille.
  • Body: Black micro tubing coated with head cement.

Pink Flashtail Mini Egg

flashtail mini egg
Flashtail mini egg

Some might regard eggs as cheating, but they do “match the hatch,” since as I noted above some eggs drift loose after spawning. These eggs invariably die, and take on a pale creamy pink appearance when they do. This particular egg pattern adds a hint of flash and is realistically small. Other similarly-small egg patterns are also worth a shot.

  • Hook: #16-18 scud.
  • Thread: white 75-100 denier gel spun.
  • Tail: small pearl or opal tinsel.
  • Egg: January or other pale pink McFlyFoam, with an orange eye spot, spun and clipped round.
Choosing Leaders for Yellowstone Park, and the Top Five Leaders

Choosing Leaders for Yellowstone Park, and the Top Five Leaders


Tips for Selecting Leaders, and the Top Five Leaders for Yellowstone

Leaders don’t get the love that fly rods, lines, or even reels do, but they’re very important parts of making good casts and presentations, and having the right leader also helps you fight fish harder. This post gives tips on choosing the right leaders for Yellowstone and Montana, then gives the top five most important leaders in this neck of the woods. This article focuses on leaders used with floating lines.

How to Choose the Right Leaders for Yellowstone

The following general rules will help you get in the right ballpark when you’re trying to decide on which leader to buy or put on.

  1. When choosing the diameter (the “X” rating) of leaders for Yellowstone, divide the approximate fly size you’ll be using by four. So if you’re using mostly #12 flies, use a 3X leader. If you’re using #16 flies, use a 4X leader. If you get a fraction when you do this division, it’s generally best to drop to the next smaller size leader. So if you are fishing #18 flies, use 5X. This rule isn’t set in stone, but it puts you in the right ballpark. For example it’s fine to fish a #16 fly on 5X especially when the fish are spooky, or to use say 2X when fishing a #10 streamer, when the fish aren’t as spooky.
  2. Choose longer leaders for spookier fish and shorter leaders when they’re not spooky.
  3. When fishing turbulent or murky water, opt for a shorter leader. When fishing gentler/slower/clearer water, opt for a longer one.
  4. When fishing deeper water with nymphs, opt for a longer leader, while if you’re fishing shallow, go short. This is because longer leaders have a longer thin section near the tip (the tippet and front portion of the taper) sink more quickly than thicker portions.
  5. Always fish short leaders (under five or six feet) with sink-tip or full-sink lines. This article does not go into details on choosing the correct leaders for Yellowstone when you’re using a sink-tip. I’ll just say you should keep them short and simple.
  6. Don’t add tippet to a standard packaged leader unless you have to. Most of the time, you don’t. Just tie your fly to the leader as it comes straight out of the package, only adding tippet when you’ve switched flies a few times or had to repair a tangle. About the only times it makes sense to add tippet right away is when you are wanting to make a super-fast sinking nymphing leader (when you should add a foot or so of tippet) or are confronted by spooky rising fish in flat water with many micro-currents, in which case it might make sense to add several feet of tippet to make your leader lay more limply in the mess of currents.

Top Five Leaders for Yellowstone

All of the above being true, a small number of leaders will usually prepare you for almost anything. These are my picks, and those of Parks’ Fly Shop’s other guides. They are listed in order, beginning with the most important (or most general-purpose) and getting less important.

  1. 9′ 3X Leader: Nine-foot 3X leaders are useful on their own through much of the season on all bigger rivers and streams. You can use them straight out of the package with a lot of small stonefly dries, terrestrials (hoppers), big caddisflies, and attractors like our beloved #12 Coachman Trude. They’re even the right choices for the largest Green Drakes in the Lamar Drainage in the early part of the season, and can be used with flies up to #6 if the water is clear, for example during the Salmonfly hatch during drought years. In addition, they’re easy leaders to modify if you need to go heavier or lighter. If you need to go lighter, cut off most of the tippet, then add 4x to create about a 9’6″ leader. Need to go heavier? Cut back slightly into the taper and add 2X.
  2. 7.5′ 4X Leader: A fairly short 4X leader is yourr ideal leader for short-range dry fly fishing on fast, broken creeks and streams through the entire season. It’s also a good choice on larger streams like the Gardner or Gibbon when smaller dry flies are the tickets, and can be lengthened and lightened to 5X in the event of a sudden hatch.
  3. 9′ 4X Leader: This is your do-it-all leader on flatter streams populated by spooky fish, including the Firehole, park section of the Madison, and the Lamar and its tributaries. Only on the Paradise Valley spring creeks is it a good idea to start with something lighter and/or smaller (and even there I would never drop below 5X for my base leader). This leader is also an excellent choice for a late summer and fall base leader on almost all waters. 4X is the right size for small hoppers or larger mayfly patterns that typically produce larger fish at this time, and by fishing a 5X dropper it’s ideal for the small BWO mayflies, ants, and midges that often produce at this time as well.
  4. 9′ 1X Leader: This is your “big nasty” leader, regardless of time of year. When I have clients fish “bugger bobber” rigs on the Yellowstone, dead-drifting streamers with nymph droppers under an indicator, I run this leader direct to a #4 streamer, with a 3X or even 4X dropper with a nymph or caddis pupa. In spring and fall when stonefly nymphs dead-drifted in deep holes move the big boys, I’m more likely to tie the base leader to a swivel or tippet ring, then add about a foot of 2X fluorocarbon to serve as my tippet. A big Girdle Bug with an egg or San Juan Worm dropper sinks like a brick but still casts well with this setup.
  5. 7.5′ 2X Leader: A short 2X leader is most useful early in the summer on the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers, when the fish are tight to the bank in only a foot or two of water, eating stonefly nymphs and other large “junk” flies near the bottom. Use them as-is straight out of the package. These leaders are also good choices for fishing Salmonfly, Golden Stonefly, and similar large dry flies right in tight to the bushes, or for fishing the “bugger bobber” streamer technique slightly later in the season, especially with slightly smaller streamers.

Of course, you could “roll your own,” and that’s when things get really complicated.

Why Guides Dress Like Guides

Why Guides Dress Like Guides


guide and angler
This shot was taken in late July, on a day without rain. Why the long sleeves, broad hat, and neck gaiter?

Any readers who’ve been fishing with guides, or even been fishing in the West, will recognize the standard summer “guide uniform.” Except for a few old salts, we all tend to dress like this:

  • Long-sleeved shirts, whether “tech tees,” lightweight sun hoodies, or button-ups, almost always made of something lightweight, wicking, and synthetic
  • Long pants made of nylon or some other quick-dry lightweight fabric
  • Ball caps or broad-brimmed sun hats
  • Neck gaiters (BUFFs and the like)
  • Polarized sunglasses
  • Wading boots rather than light sandals or old sneakers, even when we’re fishing from the boat

Many of us also wear sun gloves.

Why do we dress like this, and why should you, when fly fishing in the West?

Protection from the Sun, Without the Problems of Sunscreen

This is the biggie. The Rockies are a lot closer to the sun than most places in the United States (elevation), the air is clearer, and the sun is usually shining. Beyond that, we’re out in it every day. Most fishing guides have to get some skin zapped from ears, face, or hands at some point in their career, to be on the safe side. We all want to keep this to a minimum, and so cut out as much UV as we can.

Why not wear sunscreen? We mostly do, but keep it to a minimum. I only wear it on the backs of my hands, on my face below my eyes, and on my ears. Why not lather up? Sunscreen is bad for the environment in many cases, which is why Hawaii has banned many brands, and it’s really bad for fly lines. The chemicals in it can degrade fly line coatings and make them collect dirt, hurting their casting and flotation. Sunscreen also probably isn’t great for leaders, and the scents in most sunscreens may deter strikes (because trout do have a sense of smell).

Protection from Other Things in Nature

At Parks’ Fly Shop, we do a lot more hiking than most guide staffs. In Yellowstone Country, this means we’re constantly shoving through brush, rose bushes, and even prickly pear cactus, and climbing over downed trees. Then there’s the steep banks covered in sharp rocks we often traverse, sometimes faster than is prudent when our clients have a good fish hooked and we’ve got the net. Even when guiding in the boat, we often jump out to hold the boat to fish good spots (sharp rocks) or have to scramble along the banks do dig client flies out of bushes (thorns and sharp twigs). Long sleeves keep us from getting too torn up by these various snags and stickers. We’d rather our clothes get torn up, and they do. Most of us don’t get more than a couple years out of any one shirt or pair of pants.

Protection from Clients, Ourselves, and Flopping Fish

Every guide spends from four to seven days a week with flies whizzing by our heads all season long. Sometimes we’re the ones casting these flies, but more often our clients are doing it. Some clients are great casters. Some… aren’t. I get hooked, garroted by errant fly lines, and so on at least once a week, even when I’ve got a run of skilled clients. Sometimes the clients aren’t responsible. A flopping fish I’m trying to release is, and I get stuck with either the fly the fish ate or the other one (since we usually fish two flies at once). Long sleeves and other coverings usually absorb the brunt of such abuse.

Of these, sunglasses are by far the most important. We actually require clients to wear them, or at least some form of eye protection. Richard Parks was once hit in the sunglasses by a heavily-weighted streamer with such force that it shattered the lens. Better the lens than his eye…

Staying Cool

Huh? Long sleeves and extra layers keep you cool?

Yep. Notice that the list above mentions lightweight, quick-dry, synthetic materials. Synthetic materials breathe, and moisture evaporates quickly from them. Southwest Montana is a dry place, and evaporative cooling works great. Many people don’t have air conditioners here, even though daytime highs in the latter half of July and first half of August can flirt with triple digits from time to time. Instead they use “swamp coolers,” fans that blow air across a damp mesh that’s replenished from a reservoir containing water and often ice. Such evaporative coolers can chill a room by 10 degrees. Quick-dry lightweight clothes are like swamp coolers for your body, whether this moisture is sweat or stream water that soaks your clothes during wet wading (or falling in while wet wading) or dipping these clothes in the water (gloves, hats, and BUFFs). Moisture from my sun gloves evaporates so quickly that sometimes my hands get cold, even when it’s 90 degrees out.

Staying Warm

Huh again? Didn’t you just say that lightweight synthetic long sleeves make you stay cool? How do they make you stay warm?

Often the same reasons. Sudden cold showers in summer often catch us out. When we’re rowing, we can tell our clients to throw on their rain coats more easily than we can, since we’re helming the boat. When we’re on foot, it might be hard to get at our raincoats if we’re wading or standing in a bad spot where it’s hard to take off our backpacks. Even if we get our raincoats on, we’ll often be a bit damp. Even if rain isn’t an issue, we often get soaked while retrieving clients’ flies, reviving fish clients have just caught, etc. This is less a problem when clothing dries out fast.

Even if it’s cold out and we’re wearing a lot of layers, or synthetics under waders, the breathability of these fabrics keeps us from getting clammy. Any exertion is going to create sweat, even if it’s below freezing. The faster this sweat dries, the better as far as warmth is concerned.

The Upshot

Maybe you ought to think about dressing like your guide does, when you’re fishing with a guide or when you’re fishing on your own…