August 2006 Archives

Mastering the Basics of Float Fishing

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Part I: Safety, Preparation and Rowing Techniques
Part II: Advantages of Kick Boats and One-Man Rafts
Part III: Float Fishing Strategies

Note: The Waterstrider rafts depicted in this article are build by Dave Inks in Hamilton, Montana.


When I moved to Wyoming in my twenties, I signed up for a hunter’s safety course. At least thirty people of all ages shuffled into the Game and Fish meeting room and took their seats on the folding chairs. People talked quietly, as if they were in a church. Presently a uniformed spokesman, after some preliminary discourse, asked a profoundly simple question. “How many of you attending this Hunter’s Safety Class have experienced an accident or a near accident involving firearms?”

I was shocked with how quickly at least three-fourths of the attendees raised their hands. I was also struck with the honesty and quickness in raising their hands. My own hand had been slow to rise, in part from some deep seated shame of having pointed an “unloaded” gun at an adolescent friend with my finger on the trigger. Fortunately, a respected family member’s instruction a year or two previous to this horrific moment came to the forefront of my senses, and I lowered the .22 rifle. I opened the chamber for my friend’s inspection. When the .22 shell ejected, I apologized and made a hasty retreat to the bathroom where I quelled my nausea.


I would submit that any assemblage of river floaters, if asked to raise their hand owning up to a water accident or boating accident, would be slow to respond, not from a lack of honesty but out of sheer ignorance. Unlike firearm accidents, boating accidents do not have a smoking gun. They do not have a pulled trigger. What they do have is a perilous temptation with death or injury that is perpetrated out of ignorance or carelessness. Unlike the discharge of a firearm, with its instantaneous report of death or injury, potential river tragedies often go unnoticed. Float fishing from a personal water craft rewards anglers with increased fishing success and miles of scenic beauty; a successful outing, of course, requires safe preparation, good rowing skills, self-rescue knowledge, along with effective fishing techniques.


Anyone who has lost a loved one from a boating accident knows the importance of wearing an approved life jacket. I have always distained wearing a life vest, as they are hot and get in the way of my casting. After a near drowning accident at age 60, I wear a suspenders vest with an inflatable C02 pull-string. I don’t even know that I have it on, and I do keep it on even in shallow, innocuous looking water. Keep a lifeline or throw rope handy, especially if you are floating with a group. Bring along plenty of rope and a first aid kit. A dry bag for extra clothes is essential. Keep this bag where it can be easily reached. Add to this bag the necessary provisions for starting a fire, and be sure to throw in some extra batteries for the flashlight. For years I carried a flare in my dry bag when I floated in the late fall or winter. A flare is a quick fire starter. Beware of the vagaries of weather. Hypothermia is always a present danger in the mountain states. Even water temperatures in the 50s can drain one's strength and rob the body of heat. Being immersed in water temperatures in the high 40’s is an instant shock to the system. Strong swimmers without life jackets have perished under these conditions, especially when the air temperatures are in the high 60’s or low 70’s and floaters have shed outer garments.

A good knife and rain gear is essential. The biggest safety tip is the most obvious and most often overlooked: the oarsman should be completely sober and alert at all times. This means scanning the river ahead 100 yards at a time and pulling over to scout any difficult passage. Taking your eyes off the river or helping a buddy land a fish is the primary factor in many river accidents. Prior to launching, examine all of the equipment for damage.


The next step is preparedness. Call the local fishing shops or rv parks close to the river and ask for updated river information, or ask for the name of a local guide or ranger. Each year after spring run-off, professional river runners navigate stretches of the river noting new channels, strainers and sweepers. This information gets passed around locally and shared with everyone who asks for it. Beginning floaters need to understand the power and dynamics of moving water. The most common obstacles or dangers are in-stream obstacles such as rocks and boulders, strainers, pillows, hydraulics, chutes and cliffs, which deflect the full force of the current. Shoreline obstacles also include rocks, strainers and sweepers.


Broaching and obstacle sideways in a boat creates “a clear and present danger.” With the possible exception of allowing the current to spin the boat backwards with the rower facing upstream, broaching a boat or raft is clearly the most dangerous position a rower faces. Sweeping broadside into an obstacle requires instantaneous reaction. Any delay and a rower is at risk of the obstacle sucking the boat down under the water, sometimes creating a wrap-around effect.

Broaching Escape Maneuver: In the following photograph, Dave Inks, inventor of the Water Strider one-man raft, demonstrates how to escapes broaching a rock. He quickly pulls on his right oar, which spins him around to the side of the rock. He has already pulled in his left oar, and with his left hand he can push off the rock. What he doesn’t do is lean too far into the rock, nor does he panic and shift his weight upstream, which could easily flip the boat, as he completes the maneuver.



(Note: I asked Dave to wear a life jacket and he declined.)

When I was a young fly fishing guide in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I was guiding an elderly couple on the Snake River early in the summer. The water was very cold and still flooding its banks. I decided to take a small side channel. The tall meadow grass spilled sparkling rivulets of water into the side channel, and the pebbled bottom cast glittering rays of stream light. Wildflowers were abundant, and the cottonwoods showcased their new, yellow-tinted foliage. The Tetons loomed over us still snow-capped with their majestic, cragged peaks. We all sat in silence just taking in the scenery.

Rounding a corner we picked up speed as the gradient dropped. Suddenly in front of us was a strainer, a bare, single cottonwood trunk angling up out of the water and facing upstream. Strainers are extremely dangerous because the current is pulled downwards as it courses over a partly submerged tree. Wrapped around the strainer underwater was a green, seventeen foot Coleman canoe. We quickly glanced up to the bank overlooking this scene of disaster and observed three sullen men. I pulled into the eddy under the verdant bank they were resting on and asked, “Is everyone alright?” They were drenched. One man avoided our gazes entirely by resting his head between his knees. Apparently, we had just missed the accident. One of the men soberly replied, “We’re alright now, but it was a close call.”

The lady client turned to me with a quizzical look. I too was perplexed. At the deepest spot in this side channel, and on both sides of the strainer, the depth of water was no deeper than two and a half feet. Below the strainer the water welled up across a shallow riffle. The entire pool was less than ten yards long, and yet these men had ashen complexions and were clearly in shock.

It was impossible to extricate the canoe with four strong men. I thought it was a useless folly, but I joined in to help the men, as I sensed they needed to do something besides silently staring at the water. The force of water kept the collapsed canoe in place. I offered them a ride to the highway bridge. The nearly drowned victim said nary a word. The other friend was also reticent about sharing information on their mishap. The third man spilled his guts. He couldn’t stop talking.

Captains and titans of the business world, these three imagoes were on a mission to buy a ranch or spread in Jackson Hole. Since it was a warm day, on impulse they decided to float the river. They stopped in at a sporting goods store, picked up a canoe and some paddles, bought a cheap ice chest and stocked up on beer. Life jackets were considered a frivolous expenditure for this spontaneous expedition. They drank heavily all day. By their own admissions, they had a number of close calls and near misses with the canoe. Each incident they roared with laughter and reached for another beer. Wanting to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery, they took the side-channel and let their guard down. After all, it was shallow water.

On one of the turns through the meadow, the canoe turned sideways. The men laid down their oars and drank their beer, laughing out loud at all the anecdotal stories they would be able to tell their friends and family. Coming around the final corner, the water compressed into a fast riffle. Their view was obscured by the tall grass on the banks. They made no effort to straighten their course. Dropping down the riffle into the pool, they saw the strainer. The men clumsily grabbed their oars knowing they were going to capsize, get drenched and pull their laughing bodies up on the shore. It worked just as they had planned.

Into the water the man at the bow of the boat and the stern of the boat fell. Gasping for breath from the cold water they slipped and fell and dragged themselves up to the shore laughing like boys who had just pushed each other into a swimming pool at a birthday party. It was more than a minute before the duo realized they weren’t a trio. They bolted upright and were stunned to see a scene completely absent of their friend, who had been seated in the middle of the canoe. The canoe was now under water and completely wrapped down both sides of the strainer. The top of the cottonwood was bouncing in agitation, as if it was in pain from the foreign obstacle enveloping it. The men shook off their stupor and charged for the capsized canoe.

They could feel the body of their friend under the canoe. He was wedged at the waist at the bottom of the tree trunk in less than three feet of water. His upper torso and his legs divided the strainer’s sweep from the bottom to the surface. The two men could neither budge the canoe nor extricate their friend. Finally, one man pulled his friends legs downstream, while the other friend dove under the water and pushed the head and trunk up and around the trap. At least three or four minutes elapsed. The victim, thankfully, had just taken a deep breath as he glanced below the tip of the outreached tree trunk. He fought with all of his might to turn and twist free while under the water. At the moment his lungs gave out, he felt his friends tugging and pulling on him. He regained consciousness when they pulled him ashore.

Many years later I pulled a baby from a cottonwood tree in the middle of a slow section of the Bitterroot River, in Montana, just behind Hamilton High School. In their panic, the mothers kept diving into the water only to be swept below the tree and the stranded baby. When I came into view around a turn in the river, the women were screaming and waving their arms hysterically. I began pushing on the oars. I couldn’t understand a word they were yelling, and then I spotted a year old baby.

The mothers had been inner tubing on a hot summer day with their children. None of them had life jackets on them or tied to their tubes. The hysterical mother with the lost baby had prudently prepared her baby for the float trip behind town. She placed Angel Wings on her baby’s arms. In truth, the Angel wings saved the baby’s life. When the current sucked the baby down between the branches, the arm floatation devices jammed in the branches. When I pulled up close to the drowned tree, I observed that the baby was face up. Her mouth was barely above water. She was coughing and spitting up water. The rescue was neither gallant nor noteworthy. I did not calmly return the baby to the mother. My own shock set in, and I found myself angrily lecturing this poor, sobbing mother as I delivered the baby to her arms. Later I felt miserable about my reaction. It was clearly not appropriate for the situation.


One nemesis for float fishers is sweepers. As the name implies, half-fallen trees overhanging the water lie in wait for anglers who concentrate more on their fly than the river ahead. After I gave up guiding in western Montana, my wife and I opened up a bed and breakfast establishment for fly fishers. I offered guided float trips on gentle sections of the river. Since I was not operating as a guide or operator of a boat or raft, I felt I was free of any liability in case of an accident. I gave a presentation the night before on oaring and safety. I repeated all the points prior to launching the next day. I insisted everyone wear life jackets, and I reminded them that we were all captains of their own little boat, and they were fishing and floating independently. In one summer I had a teenage boy and an elderly man knocked out of their small boats by sweeping branches. My son Darin was taking a business law class at the University of Montana. When the professor heard about these two incidents, he impressed upon Darin that I was risking a major law suit that I would lose. I ended the trips. I too have been surprised by sweepers on occasion. The advice seems too simple. Keep looking up and targeting obstacles for at least a hundred yards!


. A Hydraulic is a powerful, deep hole, which is usually found below a diversion dams (weir) or at a confluence with another river, when the water drops over a ledge. They should always be avoided. Sometimes they look very safe. Avoid them by portaging.

As a beginning rower, the beginner should immediately look for his or her first obstacle. An obstacle can be a mid-stream boulder, a strainer, a sweeper, a narrow chute, partially submerged rocks, current breaks, hydraulics and any other potential danger. It can even be the bank or shoreline that the current is moving towards. Once the first obstacle is established, the rower should position the boat so that the bow is facing the obstacle with the stern of the boat partially facing up stream. The rower is now in a position to row away from the first obstacle. As the rower faces the first obstacle, he or she should glance downstream for the second and third obstacle. Note in the following photograph that the first rower has allowed her boat to turn sideways, a dangerous position. Although Dave Inks’ rafts are quick to respond, one should stay in the correct position to immediately row away from an obstacle. Note the angle of Dave’s boat.


Look at every obstacle closely. Don’t over react and expend a lot of rowing effort when a few pulls of the oar will be sufficient to slip by the obstacle. However, if the current is swift, and you are on a collision path, start ferrying your water craft laterally across the river away from the obstacle. Many beginners make the mistake of allowing the stern, or the back of the boat, to slip downstream ahead of them, which leaves them facing upstream in a dangerous situation. To avoid this keep the bow downstream with the stern at a 30 to 40 degree angle. In this position the rower will make progress across the stream away from the obstacle. Keeping the stern of the boat at an angle allows the boat to make progress laterally without danger of the stern of the boat spinning around. Rowers should never get in the habit of trying to push a boat to safety. To row away from an object, begin by thrusting your arms and the oars directly facing the object.


Dip the oars into the water (not too deep), and pull the oars to your chest. Most of us have more muscle, pulling power than pushing power.


Prior to floating a Class II or Class III river, practice spinning your craft 90 degrees, 180 degrees and 360 degrees from both directions. My son Brandon Archer demonstrates this technique in one of my Little Dippers. In the photograph below, Brandon pulls on his left oar while simultaneously pushing on his right oar. Practice these maneuvers until they become second nature or reflexive.


High Siding is an accident waiting to happen on the water. When passengers shift to one side of the boat, the weight shift tips the boat and robs the rower of his control. It is not uncommon to have someone spill out of a raft or drift boat when embarking for shore in shallow water. Someone falling and hitting their head on a rock can easily be avoided. The rower should take charge when he anchors the boat near the shoreline to exit passengers. The rower should exit first. If the water is not too deep on the outside, the rower should stand a thwart towards the middle of the boat and steady the boat as one angler at a time exits without rods in their hands. The easiest maneuver is one leg at a time with a shift in weight balance. Hold on to the gunwale or raft frame firmly. The rower can lift or tilt the boat slightly to help the departing passenger.

High Siding while the boat or raft is in motion rarely happens. People just know the obvious. High Siding on a strainer or a pillow seems to be a natural reaction that places everyone in the boat in danger. My first boating accident was when I had been guiding for three years in Montana. It was spring and the waters were high, fast and cold. Although the white water enthusiasts were enjoying themselves, it was folly to fish. My outfitter had out of town guests who wanted to fish large nymphs. I insisted they wear life jackets and belts on their waders. One of the clients did not have a belt, so I gave him mine. When I went to put on my own life jacket, I was surprised to discover that I had inadvertently grabbed a child’s vest. This was probably twenty-five years ago, and I was wearing Seal Dry waders, a thin latex plastic wader that stretched and ballooned out like a sea anchor.

I was being as cautious as I could be. The clients were asking to move in closer to the shoreline and the spring sweepers. One of the gentlemen was fishing with a rod he had built. He was clearly proud of his creation. He was fishing with a lead-core shooting head with weighted Woolly Buggers. I repeatedly reminded him that he was catching the bottom, and with the speed of the current, if he hung up, the rod would be jerked right out of his hands. Right after the second caution, he hung up. His rod bent in an unbelievable arc, and he shifted the rod to the upstream side of the raft. He uttered something between a sigh and a short whimper and reluctantly surrendered the fly rod to the swift current.

I shot a glance downstream and noted the strainer towards the shoreline. I was convinced I had enough distance to save his rod. I spun the raft around using the push-pull oaring technique, flung the oars to the center of the raft, dropped to my knees on the bottom of the raft, leaned overboard and grabbed the tip of his fly rod. I jumped quickly to my rowing seat and gauged the distance to the outstretched tree trunk looming up in the middle of the river. I was lined up to broach the strainer dead even on the side of the boat. No problem I thought to myself, but when I leaned on the oars, I was shocked to discover how fast I was floating and how little progress I was making.

I faced a dilemma that all beginners should understand without equivocation. Never try to push the boat with the oars. Always pull away from the obstacle. I correctly reacted to the situation once I realized I was going to broach the strainer. I spun the boat around so that the bow was now facing the obstacle straight on. I yelled to the two men up front to reach out and push us away from the tree trunk, while I tried another hard pull on the right oar. It was a successful maneuver. We were just going to take a glancing blow. I didn’t even need their help.

Just as I touched the strainer on its side, the two men stood up in the bow of the raft. I went mute as I watched in astonishment. Standing on the soft floor of the raft, both men leaned over the side and pushed. We were instantly high sided, and the bulging water along side the strainer pulled the boat under and flipped the 14-foot raft, all its equipment and three men like paper dolls. The two men floated over to the shoreline easily. When I came up to the surface, my waders had ballooned out with water, and I immediately began to sink, but not before I grabbed a roped which was tied to the side of the raft. Dropping down into a set of waves, I got spun around under the tipped raft. Then I lost my rope grip on the left side of the raft when I large wave pulled me completely out of the water.

I dropped under the water like a cannon ball falling off the poop deck. My eyes were open, and I could see trailing branches from a willow tree. I managed to grab a thin branch no thicker than my thumb. It was the last bush I could have grasped. A few yards downstream a log jam pulsed and shook from the current.. After I dropped off my two clients and filed a report, I went home to an empty house. I had just gone through a divorce. I was in shock for hours and couldn’t sleep. The news of my accident spread through the guide ranks up and down the valley. I was ashamed of my incompetence and poor judgment, and I dreaded meeting the other guides. Strangely, no one ever made reference to my accident over the next fifteen years or asked me about it. I should have talked about it. It still haunts me to this day. I jeopardized the lives of my two passengers for a fly rod.

When you need a rowing break, and you find yourself in dangerous, boulder strewn waters, look for an Eddy – a pocket of quiet water behind a large boulder or a narrow slice of shoreline from a slope or boulder field. The water tends to circle around and move upstream. Here you can rest quietly by just feathering the oars before you push off again.


Always scout the river ahead. If need be you can easily tie a line to your boat and safely walk the boat through a dangerous section. If you are in a group, the most experienced rower should be the lead rower. He or she can wave the group on if the route is safe. Let the leader navigate through the rough section first, and one-by-one the rowers behind may follow his or her path to safety.



Sometimes a Pillow, which is an up surging pillow of water when a strong current is pushed up against a bridge abutment or large rock, can actually deflect you away from the wall, abutment or cliff. However, they are, nonetheless, dangerous and the rower should take action to avoid them.

These are just some of the challenges of floating a river. Beginning float fishers should begin on slow, moving water in order to practice good rowing techniques and casting techniques. Only experienced rowers should attempt to navigate mountain streams strewn with boulders.


Instead, practice boat handling skills and fishing skills on slow moving waters that hold big fish. What follows is a quick summary review.


Summary Review: One of the best books that I have read on river floating is Stan Bradshaw’s book, River Safety. ISBN: 1-890373-08-7

1. Wear a Life Jacket at all times.

2. Stock your Dry Bag with safety provisions. Include the following: a first aide kit; a pocket knife; extra clothes and rain gear; a stocking cap; rope; flash light; food; a plastic tarp; water bottle and water filter; patch kit.

3. Obstacles: Look for your first obstacle, such as the current pushing into the approaching bank. Other obstacles are rocks, side-currents, sweepers, strainers, hydraulics, log jams, bridge abutments etc.

4. Practice ferrying across current, and practice the push-pull oaring technique for quick boat maneuvering.

5. If you are thrown or tipped out of your raft, roll on your back with your feet facing downstream. In this position you may push off rocks and other obstacles. Once you are in the clear, swim for shore. (Bradshaw’s book is filled with self-rescue techniques, as well as assisted rescue. It should be required reading!)

6. Check out river conditions prior to launching, and be prepared for adverse weather changes.

7. Always scout challenging or dangerous water. If necessary, line-out your boat or portage around the section.

8. Always keep your boat pointed at the next obstacle. Be prepared to PULL the oars. Your boat should be at a 30 to 45 degree angle.

9. Keep looking ahead as far as a 100 yards. Do not allow your fishing to interfere with safe boating practices.

10. Never drink or take drugs prior to floating a river, and certainly not while you are on the water.

Top 20 Trout Flies

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Basic Fly Patterns and Presentation


I always drop by a fly shop if I am away from my home waters. The price of bugs is generally the same, but the information is invaluable. Shop owners frequently buy regional and specialty flies from their guides.

Keep in mind that each day shop outfitters send out their guides with the simple goal of getting their clients into fish, and everyday information is traded back and forth on what works, where it works and when it works. Shop owners and clerks readily pass on this information to first-time customers for half a dozen flies or less! Naturally, every shop has their killer flies that they use to expand the sale, but I don't believe that I have ever been duped. Fly shops have short seasons. In order to survive, they depend on customer loyalty, which in turn depends on their credibility. Regarding published hatch charts, take them with a grain of salt. Although I personally admire the dedication and perseverance that it takes to compile a hatch chart, the vagaries of Mother Nature generally render them in the category of "You should have been here last week." The best source of information will be from the local fly shops. Regardless of where you buy your flies, stay out of the bargain basement. Not all flies are tied equally.


For years I would shake my head in puzzlement when a client would open up his fly box and pull out a cheap and poorly tied fly. Rather than upset a client's out-of-state purchasing acumen for Montana trout flies, I would just resort to some swaps if I knew I was dealing with a tightfisted bargain hunter. Look for stiff neck hackles that will keep the fly high and dry. The next simple test is to look at the body to see if it is slender and proportionate. Finally, a good dry fly should have a three-point landing. When the fly is resting in the palm of your hand, the hackle and the tail should be aligned so that the bottom of the hook is barely resting on your palm. If the tail is too short, the fly will not land as well, nor will it offer the same profile to trout.

It is the fly that triggers the strike. The one topic guaranteed to generate instant conversation among fly anglers is the mention of fly patterns. No other facet of fly fishing evokes so much enthusiasm and reverence. Through the years many surveys have asked prominent fly fishers to share their favorite fly patterns. Lefty Kreh, in an article in Field and Stream, published February 1972, polled 12 expert fly fishers. The following list of dry flies, nymph flies and streamer flies represents a composite of the most frequently used flies for each category among these 12 experts.

* Dry Flies: Light Cahill, Adams, Royal Wulff, Irresistible, Quill Gordon, Humpy
* Nymphs: Trueblood Otter Shrimp, Quill Gordon, Ed Burk, Yellow Stone Fly, Muskrat, Woolly Worm
* Streamers: Black Nose Dace, Spruce Fly, Muddler Minnow, Gray Ghost, Black Marabou, White Marabou

Dan Abrams, in a similar type survey published in Sports Afield, October 1975, polled 30 notable fly fishers regarding their top four fly patterns. Seven of the 30 were prominent Rocky Mountain fly fishers. A generalized list of the most popular patterns produced the following: Adams, Royal Wulff, Humpy, Muddler Minnow and Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph. Add the Woolly Bugger and a Light Cahill in varying sizes and I would be content for quite some time. Well, of course, I would need to add a hopper pattern and a PMD and maybe a....

One of the great joys of fly fishing is sharing what works. If you are a beginner and meet a friendly fly fisher, pull out your fly box and ask, "Which one should I use?" I fondly recall many occasions when someone took me under their guidance and shared their secret fly for the day. Through the years my own collection of fly patterns grew in direct proportion to my fly fishing budget. Like most of the fly fishers I know, I can never have enough patterns. I have a number of match-the-hatch patterns for those special days, and I have my reliable stand-by attractor patterns and generic patterns that I started out with 40 years ago.

I have prioritized the following recommendations for the young beginner who has an empty fly box and a thin wallet. If you would like to begin tying your own flies, I highly recommend Jack Dennis's manual, Western Trout Fly Tying Manual. For a more in-depth approach to matching hatches, I recommend The Complete Book of Western Hatches by Rick Hafele and Dave Hughs.

For those of you who are new to the sport of fly fishing and have never fished in Montana, I offer 20 patterns that will cover about 90% of the fishing from Glacier to Yellowstone. Be observant of what the trout are feeding on and use a small aquarium net to scoop up the bugs and look at them closely. Purchase a fly box with a foam backing and sort your dry mayfly patterns by color and size. For example, I start out with light, cream-colored Cahills and pro-gressively move across in increasingly darker shades to pale yellow, bright yellow, yellow-green, green, olive green and into the green-browns and finally mahogany and rust colors. I set up a separate row of gray and tan mayfly patterns. Personally, I am less concerned with Latin identification as I am with finding the right sized imitation in as close to the natural color as possible. Organizing my fly box in this manner helps me to locate a pattern quickly. It also reminds me what colors I am missing or what sizes I am missing. The following 20 patterns are the ones that "I never leave home without." If you plan to fly fish in the Eastern Sierras or the Cascades, be sure to stock up on these patterns.
Dry Fly Patterns

Royal Wulff: Sizes 10-16

The Royal Wulff is the definitive attractor pattern. Created by the famed Lee Wulff, it imitates nothing, and yet it of-fers to the trout an equivalent of an exquisite Julia Child masterpiece. Derisively called the "Dude Fly" because of its white calf-tail wing, this extravaganza brings the fish up! Best of all, it is a fly the caster never fails to see. To digress for the beginner, keep in mind that you have to set the hook, as the trout will spit the fly out on its dive back into the water. Most beginners miss the take because by the time they react, the fish is safely on its way. Wear Polaroid sunglasses so that you can begin to train your eyes for underwater movement. Early detection allows you to react more quickly.
Presentation: Classic, upstream dead drift.

Humpy (Goofus Bug): Sizes 10-16


The Humpy's origin, according to Jack Dennis, is shrouded in controversy. Whether the fly originated in Jackson, Wyoming, or elsewhere is really unimportant. What is important to the beginner is that this fly works, and it is an indispensable pattern to have in your fly box. Although it is an attractor pattern, it may imitate a large caddis or stonefly in larger sizes. The fly is ideal for fast-flowing waters because of its inherent buoyancy. The Royal Humpy is especially easy to track in fast water. When sparsely tied, the Humpy works amazingly well on slow waters and can be used to imitate a Little Yellow Stonefly. The great advantage of this fly for the beginner is that it is almost unsinkable, and it offers great visibility in fast water for both the fisherman and the trout. It is, however, a most challenging pattern to tie. The best directions for tying this pattern may be found in The Second Fly-Tyers Almanac by Robert H. Boyle and Dave Whitlock.

Presentation: Classic, upstream dead drift. However, since this pattern closely resembles a caddis fly and floats so well, try drifting the fly downstream under willows or overhanging branches. As the fly drifts to the targeted area, lift the rod tip up to create an erratic skipping motion on top of the water, and then lower the rod tip quickly to allow the fly to drift once again on top of the water. Await the strike!


It would appear that the Renegade attractor pattern has faded in popularity over the last 20 years, but it is a great fly for late evening fishing, as the white hackle in the front helps to see the fly on darkened waters. The second advantage is that the dual hackle design keeps the fly afloat when it is difficult to see after sundown. If you are new to the sport of fly fishing, be sure you have a good supply and a range of sizes for the Royal Wulff, the Humpy, the Renegade, the Adams and the Elk Hair Caddis.

Adams/Parachute Adams: Sizes 12-22

The ubiquitous Adams is probably the most widely used dry fly pattern on the North American continent. It imitates any number of gray mayflies. I highly recommend acquiring as many Adams in various sizes as possible. Because of the difficult visibility with this pattern, I have switched over exclusively to Parachute Adams for sizes 16-22. Although this is a generic type pattern, a size 20 Parachute Adams performs quite well during a Trico or Baetis hatch on slow moving water with a nine-foot leader and 6X tippet.

The Trico spinner imitation has a small black body with divided white poly wings in the spinner position. During the heat of summer, get out on a Rocky Mountain river between 7 and 9 am (varies) for the Tricorithodes or Trico hatch followed by the spinner fall.
Although one of the smallest of mayfly species, nonetheless, this is a staple for feeding trout primarily because of the preponderant numbers during the spinner fall. Generally found in slower waters, the trout settle into a sipping, rhythmic rise form. Do not be deceived by the small rings and the dark noses - big fish! Fish in the morning during those dog days of August. I'm sure you will be delighted with the experience regardless of how many fish break off and get away. Because I have trouble seeing a small Trico, I often add on a small Trico as a trailer behind a small Parachute Adams.

Presentation: Classic, upstream dead drift.

Gray Drakes (Heptagenia and Siphlonurus) typically hatch throughout the summer starting in early June. Sizes 10-18.

Tricorythodes typically hatch late in the summer, usu-ally at the beginning of August. Sizes 20-26.

Light Cahill or Light Variant: Sizes 12-18

A light cream color Heptagenia mayfly imitation is another must have pattern. The Light Cahill pattern may also be used on slower waters and lakes to imitate Callibaetis. The Callibaetis dun body is olive-brown, however, so you may want to darken a few of your Light Cahills with a magic marker.

The Light Cahill can be used to imitate Ephemerella or Heptagenia mayflies, but be sure to closely inspect the size and color of the insect, and then match it with your color coded fly selection.

PMD - Pale Morning Dun

Pale Morning Duns are probably the most prolific and reli-able hatch from Glacier to Yellowstone. These Ephemerella drake patterns should be part of your must-have patterns in sizes 16-22. PMDs hatch from June through October. Lighter in color from their cousins the Green Drakes, their bodies range from olive green to pale yellow and tan. The wings are generally slate gray to yellow. PMD cripples should be part of your collection. Nymph patterns such as the Zug Bug, Gray Nymph and the Hare's Ear generally work well. The darker green patterns will work well during a Baetis hatch as well.

The famous Green Drake hatches (Ephemerella grandis) are typically from mid-June through mid-July. If you are in an area with a Green Drake hatch, be sure to stock up on a number of these drake patterns at the nearest fly shop. The hatch is generally not heavy, but if they are out, the trout are looking for them. Reports from guides returning to the shop will determine if you should buy traditional drake patterns or Compara Duns or Green Para-drakes. All of the above patterns range in color from pale yellow to green to olive brown. Stock up.

Elk Hair Caddis: Sizes 10-18


Unlike the graceful rise and gliding fall of the mayfly, a cad-dis hatch looks like a burst of kindergartners swarming over a playground. An accompanying soundtrack for a mayfly would be a Viennese waltz. Conversely, the caddis dance would be a rap soundtrack by Snoop Dogg. Generally, the caddis will hatch in the evening. The most popular body colors are brown, olive, green, gray and tan.

Caddis flies are not easily missed, and in the pupa and winged stages they are an important part of the trout's diet. Look for them in the quiet pocket water under willow branches or overhangs, especially in the evening. You may also want to select a few patterns for the emergent phase such as a sparkle pupa. For larger caddis imitations use a Humpy or an X-Caddis. Use a Goddard Caddis for fast, heavy water.

One of the guides I worked with collected the caddis cases and tied them on a Mustad hook with a peacock thorax. He fished them on a dead drift, and I was impressed! Beginning with the Grannom Caddis hatch in May, caddis emerge throughout the summer and fall. The most consistently popular pattern is the Elk Hair Caddis.

Presentation: Classic, upstream dead drift or erratic ac-tion produced by rod tip action.

Blue-Wing Olive: Sizes 16-22

The Baetis (Blue-Wing Olive) is an important pattern in Montana, as Baetis hatch from May through October. They are generally smaller than a PMD. The body color for a Baetis pattern is olive brown with gray wings and light gray hackle. It is not uncommon for trout to be sipping the smaller Baetis during a hatch of PMDs.

Salmon Fly

Montana's favorite hatch calls for big bugs that hold up under heavy water conditions. They need to stay high and dry. The Salmon Fly pattern is constantly being reinvented and im-proved. During a Salmon Fly hatch, local shops have these flies displayed in tubs and buckets. The Salmon Fly hatch generally emerges late May and is essentially over by mid July. Water temperatures need to be in the low 50s.


The Stimulator represents a pattern for stone-flies in orange and yellow. When the trout quit hitting the big Salmon Fly patterns, they tend to strike at smaller stimulators long after the Salmon Fly hatch is over. The Stimulator is best used during a Golden Stonefly hatch.

Streamers and Wet Flies
Muddler Minnow:
Sizes 4-8


Popularized by Dan Bailey of Livingston, Montana, the Muddler Minnow should always be in your fly box. I have met fly fishers who fish al-most exclusively with Muddler Minnow patterns. Along with its offshoot, the Marabou Muddler, this pattern has probably taken more large fish than any other fly. The Muddler may also be greased up and used as an effective hopper pattern, and I have used it both dry and wet on the same cast with interesting results.

Presentation: Fish the Muddler slightly upstream or down-stream in a quartering action. Retrieve the Muddler by simultaneously pumping the rod tip and stripping in the line in quick, little jerks which imitates the darting action of a sculpin minnow. Allow for pauses, and add weight if necessary.

Woolly Bugger: Sizes 4-8


This pattern is a must for late spring and early summer when the water is high and off-color and the hatches are sporadic. If you are fishing from shore, make short casts around all the rocks and boulders. Be sure the fly is actually sinking to the bottom. Add lead to your leader if necessary. Use a short 2X or 3X leader. Make short casts and keep the rod tip high so that you keep the Bugger bouncing along the bottom. Lift the rod tip when you feel a bump. Do not assume it is just a rock. If it is, lower the rod tip and let the bugger sink again.

Yuk Bug and Girdle Bug: Sizes 6-12


I love this bug! I have caught so many beautiful fish during early summer when the water is still high but clear. I float along until I find a logjam or flooded backwater eddy. I usually select a size 10 Yuk Bug. The Yuk Bug has a dark body wrapped with grizzly hackle. Protruding from the body are white rubber legs. I find I generally have to cut back on the length of the rubber legs. I want them to pulse, and I want them to flare at the sides rather than collapsing backwards. I do not use weight. I fish it like a dry fly, allowing it to gradually sink. Most important, I cast from a kneeling position. I am always amazed at how adept large trout are at hiding. As the Yuk Bug sinks into quiet water, the trout will slowly emerge from its hiding spot. I have had large trout appear from under a small tree trunk in shallow water. They never rush to the Yuk. They take their time. It also works well in creeks and small streams. I love this bug!

Hare's Ear Nymph:
Sizes 12-16

In my opinion, this is the best of the small nymph patterns for spring creeks, beaver ponds and slow, flat stretches of river. When I fish high-elevation lakes, I always bring along the Hare's Ear Nymph and a Zug Bug in smaller sizes. They work wonders. If you have someone along who is not an accomplished fly caster, use a plastic water-filled bubble with as long of a leader as possible. Attach a Hare's Ear or Zug Bug and cast out as far as possible and retrieve with a spinning reel. If the fish are rising to the surface, be sure to cast way over them, as the splashdown from the water-filled bubble will spook the fish in the near vicinity.

Bead-head Prince Nymph

This is perhaps the most popular nymph in the region! If you don't have any, head to the nearest fly shop. They work great as a dropper off a hopper pattern during the heat of August.

Pheasant Tail

The Pheasant Tail Nymph is an excellent soft hackle nymph for slow water. The key to this fly is a slender silhouette and a sparely-tied hackle.

(Joe's, Dave's, Jay's, Dan's): Sizes 6-12


As you can see from the partial list of Hopper contributors, grasshopper imitations are recorded in the "Who's Who of Terrestrials". Rarely, however, will you find such citations on the bins in a fly shop. For beginners I recommend a clipped deer-hair collar. This feature adds stability and superior floatation. Although the grasshopper is meant to have a low silhouette, without the deer hair the buoyancy is drastically reduced and the caster generally struggles with a sinking pattern.

Presentation: The best source of information on hoppers can be found in the September 1985 issue of Fly Fisherman. In this issue Dave Whitlock, in his article "Hoppertunity", discusses hopper behavior, pattern characteristics and Hoppertunity Techniques. Here are a few of his suggestions: Being a terrestrial insect, the grasshopper is on unfamiliar "ground" when he gets blown on the water. No gentle landings here. Make a splash with your hopper. Strip the hopper in with intermittent twitches from rod-tip action. Use a heavy tippet, and use a twist piece of lead to sink the hopper in those promising pools. Cast close to undercut banks and overhangs where trout hide during low water periods. Fish during the heat of the day. Carefully pick your targeted area. Although a smashing hopper on top of the water will trigger a strike, it also quite often spooks fish in the outlying area. Keep moving and practice stealth.

Beetle Patterns

The deer hair patterns dyed black work wonders. Rick Hafele and Dave Hughes in their outstanding book, The Complete Book of Western Hatches, point out that the Woolly Worm is also a good pattern to imitate a water beetle in still or slow moving water.

Although ant patterns are difficult to see in small sizes, ants are a staple diet for trout during the summer.

Bead-Head San Juan Worm


I have always had a certain amount of disdain for the San Juan Worm, but I have a growing appreciation for this pattern during the spring and again late in the fall. I favor the bead-head version with the bead in the center.

Well, there you have it - the 20 patterns that I would never leave home without!

If you actually got this far, and you are a beginning fly fisher, be sure to check out "Mastering the Basics of Fly Fishing" by following the link from this site to my Montana site,

Lake Shastina

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Northern California / close to Oregon border
Nearest town: Weed, California
Targeted species: largemouth bass
Date: August 5, 2006

Lake Shastina is a small private lake with one public boat launch and a nearby public campground. Nestled in the shadow of Mount Shasta, the mountain's presence dwarfs the lake. I had heard good reports on bass fishing from a number of sources. Having been skunked on this small lake early in the spring during a cold front, I was eager to try again, but I worried about fishing during the heat of summer, particularly after a dismal outing to Dog Lake near Lakeview. My guide, Danny Mays, is the president of the Mazama Bass Club of Klamath Falls. I had just phoned him the previous day asking about the club and how to join. He kindly invited me to join him the next day. As a lifetime fly fisher, the learning curve for catching bass has been more challenging than I care to admit. Had I fished the lake alone, I am sure I would have had poor success and blamed it on the weather. By 1:30 when the heat was oppressive, we called it a day. Danny had caught at least 20 fish, and I had caught four.

Although there is a bit of a disadvantage when fishing from the back of the boat, truth be known, I have not picked up on the subtleties of the bite when fishing soft plastics. As soon as we reached our first fishing target, we tried crankbaits and spinnerbaits without any luck. Danny switched to a smoke colored Senko, while I pitched a tube bait. After Danny had caught four nice bass, I too switched to a Senko, Texas rigged. I never had a bite, and during this time Danny caught three or four more bass, each one averaging a pound and a half. I asked for help.

Danny was fishing his smoke colored Senko wacky style with a #1 hook. I added a #2 hook and tied one of his worms on wacky style. Finally, I caught a couple of fish, but in the meantime, Danny was constantly landing fish. His technique was to cast and watch his line during the worm’s descent; when the line reached bottom, he allowed it to sit for 60 to 90 seconds before he would shake the worm. The key was to shake the worm while keeping it in contact with the bottom. Slowly he would inch the worm to the boat with occasional shaking and pausing. The key was to keep focused on the line for any movement and the slightest tick on the line or rod signaling a bite. Danny didn’t wait for a second bite. He set the hook on the first perceived bite.

I caught two more bass, but I have to confess that I never felt the bite. I set the hook on the shake! Hey, I’ll take them any way I can get them. Although I won’t give away any secret spots, the lake is small enough that a first time angler will find productive waters in no time. We had our best success fishing 12 to 15 feet deep.