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“Going Small and Going Crazy”

by Chester Allen
photos by Chester Allen

Fly Fishing with Small FliesIt’s easy to find the true wingnuts in the world of dry fly fishing.  They’re the anglers with worn, chafed spots on their wader knees, boxes of tiny flies and magnifying glasses hanging on lanyards around their necks. I know this because I’m one of them.

Yeah, we spend a lot of fishing time on our knees — or peering through lenses to pick out a size 20, 22 or even 24 dry fly and tie it on that 6X tippet.

This, of course, is crazy.

It’s not hard to find trout rising to larger flies in fast, bumpy water that doesn’t demand hitting your knees to keep from spooking fish before the very first cast. It’s far easier to hook and land a big trout — one that stops your heart for one, delightful second — on a nymph or streamer.

Yet, I can’t keep myself from the torturous joys of fishing small flies on glassy spring-creek water. I travel to Yellowstone National Park for several weeks each fall to chase the big brown and rainbow trout that run up the Madison River. Swinging a fly or streamer in the deeper, bouncy water is a good way to hook trout that average 18 inches and get much bigger. I love this fishing.

Still, at least once a day, I put down my 6-weight rod and creep off to the glassy, weedy sections of the Madison, where, if I’m lucky, I’ll find big browns and rainbows tipping and sipping to blue wing olive mayflies or White Miller caddis. I get out my 4-weight rod, wade on my knees, and cast 16-foot leaders for these trout. I lose most of them within seconds of setting the hook.

This is really all about seeing a big head poke out of the glassy water and suck down my tiny fly. Landing one of these fish with light tackle and runs full of weeds is fantastic, but it’s really about seeing that hard-to-see fly vanish into the rise that makes my heart jackhammer. It’s really about being a little bit crazy.

Wait, it gets worse.

Sometimes, I leave the Madison altogether and seek out risers in the nearby Firehole River. These fish probably average 10 inches or so, which is puny compared to the Madison’s runners, but they are beautiful — and delightfully picky and troublesome.

Many anglers claim the Firehole River is worth fishing because it’s so gorgeous and weird. Hot springs and geysers spray and shoot boiling water into many parts of the river. You can hook rising trout within a few feet of a spring pouring near-boiling water into the Firehole. The meadows are full of bison, wolf tracks and elk. Green stands of Lodgepole pine stand out against the autumn gold of the meadows. No other place on the planet is like this.

That said, once I’m fishing, I lose sight of all that alpine beauty and geologic marvels for hours on end. I stare at the water, at the flowing, swaying underwater meadows of aquatic weeds — and the dimples of trout rising within inches of the grassy banks.

So, on this rainy October afternoon, when huge browns and rainbows are almost certainly whacking swung streamers and soft-hackle flies on the nearby Madison River, I feel pea gravel grinding into my wader knees as I inch toward a weedbed island on the Firehole River. Right on the other side of that weedbed is another weedbed. A channel of river about six feet wide separates the two weedbeds. About 15 trout, none of them over 12 inches, are in that slow stretch of water. The trout, mostly browns, are rising to a flotilla of size 20 blue wing olive mayflies.

If I stand up, all these fish will stop rising and dart under the weedbeds.

I have to stay on my knees, tie a size 20 Sparkle Dun to a five-foot-long 6X tippet that is already knotted to a 12-foot 5X leader. Then I have to make a downstream reach cast that will drop the tippet and fly into the channel and let the fly drift down to the rises. Most of my leader and a tiny bit of fly line will be on the near-side weedbed.

I make a cast, and the fly lands near the edge of the far weedbed, as the best trout always rise within an inch or so of the edge. The tiny hook catches on a tendril of weed, and my tippet suddenly cuts a wake in the current.

Three trout stop rising and sink down into the depths. I can see all this because I’m about 10 feet away. I can see the trout react to my fly, and I can see their white mouths winking as they take a bug or a mouthful of water.

“This time of year, in the fall, these fish have seen everything so many times. So many good anglers have been educating them since Memorial Day,” my friend Cam Coffin said in the Blue Ribbon Flies shop in West Yellowstone, Montana. “In a way, every one of those Firehole fish is asking, ‘Just how good are you?’”

On this day, I’m not that good. My fly is right, but a tricky upstream breeze keeps pushing my wispy tippet and tiny fly off target. I could go to a shorter tippet, but then I’ll get drag earlier when the fly drops to the water.

I spook fish twice — and have to gently knee wade downstream along the edge of that first weedbed twice — to reach feeding fish.  I decide to wait for a calm.

Five minutes later, 10 inches of wild rainbow trout sucks down my fly, darts around the channel, spooks every other fish and flips into the air. I skid the fish across the first weedbed and it’s in my hand.  This is the best fish of the day. Mind you, I caught a 20-inch brown trout on a soft hackle at dawn on the Madison.

Yeah, I’m a wingnut.

Now I have to find another weedbed before this hatch dwindles away. Gravel crunches under my knees.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Chester Allen, a lifelong fly angler, journalist and author, was the outdoor columnist for The Olympian newspaper in Olympia, WA, for many years. His latest book is "Yellowstone Runners." Allen also is the author of "Fly-Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat." Allen splits his time between Portland, Oregon and Hood River, Oregon, with plenty of trips to Puget Sound and Yellowstone National Park.
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  • 3weight

    “can’t keep myself from the torturous joys of fishing small flies on glassy spring-creek water”

    Same here, Chester – and the fact that they’re delightfully picky and troublesome makes each one of these modest sized fish every bit as much of a trophy as any 22-inch leviathan.

  • BH206L3

    Yep, three of my very best Rainbow Trout, double digit fish in pounds all taken with a Scott 8’6″ G2 4 wt 14 foot hand tied leader down to 6x and a # 22 Griffith’s Gnat. On top of it all I got to where I was going to be for the week of guided fishing and the shop were I bought my license said the midges were on and the fish are on top! I met my guide the next day and he was telling me about some guy that caught three big ones in a row on a # 22. I just smiled and said you mean this fly? All he said was gee you already had a great week and it didn’t even start yet. He was wrong I had the best week of fly fishing for trout in my whole life, we only counted fish over 18″ my logbook says 98 fish for that 7 days! I am a small fly junkie because my home waters from late May on forces you to be, so you learn. It’s not hard, what is hard is learning how to cast no further than you have to and making leader adjustments so that it turns over and puts the fly right where you need it to be and to accept that on some days the only fish you are going to get is the one you buy from the fish market. I use to think #18 as small, now a #22 is about right, things get interesting when you have to go to #26’s or #28’s, I never messed with # 30 or 32’s some do.

  • Ron

    Chester you definitely are a flyfisher who knows how to do it, sounds like you enjoyed every minute of your journey. I just wished my eyesight was a little better than it is, to tie those small but necessary small flies on to a light and long leader.