I’ve had a lot of friends and acquaintances ask me about how the fishing is up on the “Mountain.” To me (and us), the “Mountain” means the South Tongue River around Prune Creek or up by Tie Flume campground, and the North Tongue in the Burgess Junction area.
I spent three days up there last week, and was handed a good reminder about how inconsistent early season stream fishing can be.
I had scheduled to take a few friends up on the North Tongue last Friday, but, with the heavy snowpack from the winter, I was concerned about how high the mountain streams were going to be. I decided to go up on Tuesday to check things out and be sure I had the right flies for Friday.
Tuesday was a cool, cloudy, breezy day. Casting in a mild wind doesn’t bother me, and I thought the cloudy day would keep the fish active and possibly even bring out an afternoon mayfly hatch for some dry fly fishing. Wrong!
The water is still very high for this time of year, but running quite clear (as opposed to the turbid, green color we’re seeing down here in the plains). You could still see the grass matted down in the meadows where the snow had been lying; the water had just recently dropped back within its banks and out from under the actual trunks of the willow trees. Visibility into the water was about 2.5 feet.
With my polarized glasses I was able to spot a few fish in the shallower water who seemed to be actively feeding on nymphs. The last time I fished the Mountain this early, a #12 Red Copper John turned out to be a terrific nymph pattern for fishing subsurface. I set up my rig with the Copper John trailed by a #16 Pheasant Tail nymph as the dropper fly. I also attached a BB shot 18-inch above the Copper John, and then completed the set up with a small half-inch strike indicator about three feet above the split shot. Wrong!
I spent the next few hours prospecting around with only a few strikes, and two fish landed. The frustrating, and quite bizarre, thing about this was that I had four fish actually swim to the surface and try to eat my strike indicator. The fish wouldn’t take my flies, but they’d eat my indicator? Yes, even a fisherman with 25 years of professional guiding experience, and literally thousands of days on the water, can have a frustrating and humbling day.
OK, I thought to myself. I can figure this out. I had noticed a number of fish guarding some spawning beds in the gravel shallows. That means, in the high water, there’s lots of eggs being washed downstream, which the trout are eating, which accounts for them chasing my fluorescent orange strike indicator. Problem solved. Right? Wrong! I didn’t have any egg patterns with me. That’s OK, I’ll tie a bunch up on Wednesday, and go back to the river on Thursday to be sure my plan actually works.
When I returned on Thursday, I couldn’t wait to fish the new egg patterns I’d invented. My plan, of course, worked perfectly as I ended up finding a long stretch of water with the proper depth for the rig I had set up. At one point I landed a dozen trout in about 30 minutes. Perfect! Now I was prepared for Friday, and just needed to get home and tie enough flies for the next day.
You know how this is going to end, don’t you? Friday was a clear, bright day with minimal breeze. Unfortunately, the fish seemed to have gone back to sleep. The action was again slow and inconsistent. My friends, who were rank fly fishing beginners, probably landed less than six fish apiece.
My “scientific” guess is that the fish had fed heavily the day before, and, in the cold water of runoff, they just didn’t need to eat much the next day. The entire week was a humbling reminder to me that experience and science can only take you so far; that Mother Nature has a mind of her own, and we’re just along for the ride.
Of the guys fishing with me Friday, Drew Redinger, and his son Swayne, were two of the best fly fishing students I’d ever worked with. Especially Swayne, who had to be told only once about fixing his cast, or how he was drifting his flies, before he’d correct his technique and fish like he’d been doing it for years.
There was one point where Swayne had just landed a nice 14-inch cutt/rainbow hybrid. As we were taking pictures, his dad came around a bend in the river and tied into a nice fish of his own.
The father/son team seemed to be awfully pleased with themselves. As they should have been. In fact they both kept a big grin on their faces the entire day. They were so happy to have a day off work, be in the cool mountain air, learn about fly fishing and watch an elk herd on the far hillside. The young bulls were jumping around and bugling like it was fall mating season. Even better, Drew and Swayne acquired many skills which can serve them well through their upcoming years of fly fishing together.
In the meantime, I’d advise waiting another few weeks for the water levels and temperatures to stabilize before expecting consistent fishing on the “Mountain.”
GORDON ROSE works as a commercial fly tier and operates Sheridan WYO Healing Waters, part of a national nonprofit organization which teaches disabled military veterans fly fishing, fly tying and fly rod-building as part of their therapy.