Frank Beals was one of the only park rangers in my recollection who knew fly fishing.
Sadly, I was never fortunate enough to meet angling scribe and “Trout” author Ray Bergman’s Yellowstone National Park legend, ranger Walter “Scotty” Chapman. So my ancient memory of Beals’ kindness at the West Entrance will have to do.
Because he loved chasing wild trout, Beals took summers off from operating his San Diego furniture store to be a seasonal Yellowstone employee. In September 1967, when I quizzed him about fishing, he directed me to veteran West Yellowstone, Mont., outfitter and shop owner Jim Danskin. The diminutive, smiling ranger with the memorable gray mustache suggested I ask Jim to fine tune a couple of wet flies for me to use that afternoon.
Because there was no traffic within miles of the entrance station, he sketched a map of several of his favorite access points along the Madison.
Danskin was helpful, trimming down three jumbo Bitch Creek Nymphs created by the woman who developed the long-ago Bar X Fly Co. in Montana. When lobbed into the Madison’s boiling currents, one of the orange and black giants sank quickly and swung downstream, right into the mouth of an enormous whitefish. It was exciting being pulled around on my Wright & McGill 7-weight rod by easily the biggest fish I’d ever encountered in Yellowstone.
Trout Love the New Flies
It wasn’t long before these newly discovered wet flies, swinging along on a sinking line, were grabbing the attention of substantial migrating browns and rainbows. The love of pure dry flies that had propelled me into chasing trout in the first place didn’t go away. That more delicate technique went on the back burner for a few years during full-time practice with sinking lines, big streamers and nymphs, and eventually hybrid shooting heads.
Because West Yellowstone, Livingston, Ennis, Dillon and the Missouri River from Toston to Great Falls were known as prime brown trout grounds in the fall, that’s where our fishing focus was concentrated.
When the Big Horn River on the Crow Reservation out of Hardin reopened, it joined the mix. Big streamer flies hurled mightily into the howling gales during freezing October conditions became the pinnacle of my fishing season. Keeping chest-high waders dry after unplanned swims or from the perspiration generated from forced hikes up and down the Madison, Yellowstone, Jefferson and Missouri rivers was a top priority. Collecting powerful 8-, 9- and even 10-weight rods to launch sinking lines and a colorful array of abnormally fuzzy, flashy and furry flies was imperative. Trying to stay warm on frigid, exhausting river days was a priority.
Ironically, back on the Madison outside of West Yellowstone, a new breed of kinder, gentler fall fly-angler was emerging. Led by the likes of Paul Brown and Tom Young and others who didn’t enjoy the all-day cranking of heavy 9-weight streamer rods with line frozen in the guides, the soft-hackle wet-fly revolution began. Captained by Sylvester Nemes, a former Chicago ad agency worker who was a total throwback to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Jazz Age, the wet fliers were catching lots of quality run fish. And they were doing it on 4-, 5- and 6-weight rods without the intense physical demands of the Joe Brooks mantra that preached, “Wade out as far as you can and then throw as far as you can!”
When Nemes migrated to Bozeman and was able to exhort his disciples in person, the fall wet-fly-fishing on light tackle gained a popular foothold, especially along the Madison. Frank Beals became a convert, and the fly that bears his monicker, the Shakey Bealy, earned its name because he used to get so excited about going fishing every morning that he began shaking with anticipation.
Craig Matthews and his loyal lieutenants at Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone remain the major advocates of fall wet-fly-fishing. They are constantly creating new wet-fly and soft-hackle patterns that embrace the latest nifty materials and colors. A vast array of blues, purples, shiny sparkles and fuzzy twists adorn their endless collection of finery. Among them, the Shakey Bealy still ranks as a top producer.
In all honesty, my heart still enjoys the wading-deep-and-throwing- long concept that took me so many years to perfect. Using the new combined sink tip shooting heads from Cortland, Scientific Anglers, Rio and Orvis makes controlling running line while wading a bit easier. But there’s nothing quite like seeing and feeling a 25-pound Amnesia running line tied to a super fast sinking 30-foot shooting head streak across an intimidating Yellowstone or Madison river pool and receive a smashing strike from 80 or 90 feet away. Of course, long casting has been simplified with the popularization of two-handed switch and Spey rods, which effortlessly wing heavy lines extra-long distances.
As continues to be proven on a regular basis, there is no end to the ways that trout and other gamefish can be caught. One definition of fly fishing holds that it is a sport designed to change a simple practice into something much more difficult. But in the case of making something as basic as a size-10 or -12 Shakey Bealy produce results, all it takes is a few casts and patience.
No Insect in Its Right Mind
Old-time wet flies were designed to represent emerging caddis flies as they ascended to the surface. Of course, more colorful patterns could simulate small baitfish, chubs and trout fry. The presentation worked best as the angler slowly worked downstream, taking several steps after each cast and swing of the fly. This is the same methodology used for steelhead and Atlantic salmon fishing with wet flies.
The thinking angler may wonder why a brown, rainbow or cutthroat trout might stoop to chasing an emerging caddis or mayfly look-alike during an October snowstorm when no insect of right mind would be present. This is obviously a good question that must be answered by believing the trout is reacting out of instinct or anger. Sometimes there also is competition among run fish moving upstream to spawn.
Regardless, my experience is that swinging wet flies works best when trout are active. Can a size-10 or -12 wet fly compete favorably for the interest of a massive brown trout in the same manner that a whopper Scott Sanchez Double Bunny streamer or giant Kelly Galloup Zoo Cougar does? Another good question that is better answered with how well either style fly pattern is presented and where. In deeper, brawling water, the big image fly probably has an edge because of better visibility. But a well-mended wet fly swinging nonchalantly past a big boulder holding Mr. Brown offers an instant dinner without great effort.
As a longtime big-fly and big-rod advocate, I find it somewhat surprising to note how enjoyable it is letting Shakey Bealys, Pheasant Tails, Carey Specials, Whitlock Red Squirrel Nymphs and an occasional Black Nose Dace bucktail swing around on a 9 1/2- or 10-foot, 5- or 6-weight rod. The fish don’t have to be as big to produce excitement, and such moderate behavior happily delays orthopedic visits for shoulder work.
Aside from its nostalgic aspect, the Shakey Bealy approach in October makes a lot of sense.
Listen to MidCurrent’s recent conversation with legendary Wyoming guide Paul Bruun. This column was originally published in the October 2, 2012 edition of the Jackson Hole News & Guide.