Dry Flies and Little Boats

Posted by Al Agnew on September 23rd, 2011
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Yesterday Mary and I took some friends on the Yellowstone in the big raft. We floated the “bird float”, so named because the put-in is called Gray Owl and the take-out is called Mallard’s Rest. This float has the best views of the Absaroka Mountains, which is why we did it, but it’s the most “homogenous” float on the river. By that, I mean that the river in that stretch has very little variation; it’s mostly the same width, and mostly even the same current speed, throughout, with very few “riffle corners”. It’s great dry fly and streamer water, but there just aren’t many places to get out and nymph below the riffles because there just aren’t that many obvious riffles.

I say all this to explain that, as the designated raft rower, I couldn’t fish from the raft, and I was able to stop and fish in only a couple of spots, with very little to show for it. So when the friends left this morning, I decided it was time for some serious fishing, out of my new little Water Master raft. The easiest float to do was the “town stretch” from Carter’s Bridge through Livingston to our house just downstream. I’d already done it once in the little boat, but the nice thing about this stretch is that there are three big islands with runnable channels on both sides, and with at least 1/3rd of the float going along these islands, I could simply float the “other side” of each island, the side I didn’t float before, and have a lot of different water to fish.

When I’d floated it before, the hoppers were thick on the banks and the trout were looking for them. Since then we’ve had a couple mornings where the temperature dropped to the freezing point, and the hoppers, while still present, are not as thick as they were. But I figured it was worth a shot, so I tied on my favorite hopper pattern, a sculpted foam body with some magic marker decorations I’d done myself, with a pheasant tail nymph dropper. I only had the one hopper like that. You guessed it; the first fish took the dropper, a big rainbow, and snapped my line, taking both the hopper and dropper.

I tied on another hopper than I’d been wanting to try, and another dropper. Nothing. Tried nymphs. Whitefish. Sun was high, weather almost hot, just a bit of wind to blow hoppers into the water…dang it, a hopper pattern should work. Well, I had one other hopper pattern I really liked, another sculpted foam bodied, feather winged, rubber band legged one that was smaller and darker than my lost favorite. I tied it on, not bothering to put on a dropper, and immediately started getting action. Lots of small fish that seldom got hooked, a few whitefish that didn’t get hooked either, but once in a while a nice rainbow would take. I missed some, and there were long stretches of good looking bank that didn’t produce, but I was having fun.

The little raft, which I described in the boat forum, is just plain sweet. You sit on a rigid seat attached to the upper part of the oblong, 8 ft. long inflatable, with the space in front of you open–no bottom–so that you can propel yourself with swim fins on your feet as they dangle into the water. There’s a flexible platform behind you to carry your gear, a comfortable seat back, and small oars that attach directly to the raft sides. It’s the best thing I’ve ever used for a solo angler on these big Western rivers–and more and more I’m thinking it might be pretty nice for the faster Ozark streams as well.

The raft really began to show its value when I discovered that a lot of trout were lying well off the banks in the flats toward the lower ends of the pools, and looking for something on the surface to eat. I could just drift down the middle, using the swim fins to slow myself down or move laterally, and drift the hopper a cast length downstream. I wasn’t getting anything really big, but the 12-15 inch rainbows were slashing the hopper viciously.

So the afternoon passed. Mary tried to call me on my cell phone just as I was in the middle of the high class II or low class III rapid just above Mayor’s Landing in town. I was having great fun playing in the long rapid, moving back and forth across the big waves to see how easily the raft maneuvered to dodge the bigger rocks and holes. As soon as I reached the easier lower portion of the rapid, I put down the oars, stuck my swim finned feet in the water, and called Mary back to tell her I was talking to her in the middle of the rapid. I got the rest of the way through it while talking to her, and foot paddled over to the rocky bank just below to stop while I continuing talking. And that’s when I noticed that a major blue winged olive hatch had begun, and fish were rising everywhere. As I talked to my wife, I could see at least three big trout rising within a cast length. I may not have been paying really close attention to what she was saying! Finally I told her about the rising trout, and sweet, understanding wife that she is, she said she’d let me go so I could catch them.

I tied on a size 20 parachute BWO, which was actually about one or two sizes bigger than the actual bugs, and on the first drift down to the first big trout whose rises I had timed, it took. It was a brown, better than 20 inches, but it thought it was a rainbow because it jumped all over the river before finally coming loose. It had put down the other two big trout I had scoped out, but there were still smaller fish rising, and I caught a couple of rainbows. I could look downstream along this long flat and see literally hundreds of fish rising within a couple hundred yard stretch, but I could also tell that most of them were whitefish. I fished down that stretch, catching whitefish after whitefish, even though I was only casting to rises that I thought might be trout. Finally at the lower end, I saw a big head coming up right along the bank. I made a nice cast, good drift, and the big head took the tiny fly. It turned out to be a gorgeous 18 inch Yellowstone cutthroat. Just below was another nice head coming up. One cast, perfect drift, and a rainbow that matched the cutthroat took.

And then, dang it, it was getting dark, I still had more than a mile to go, and the hatch was done. I rowed along, looking for any straggling rises, but the only ones I saw were from obviously very small fish. So I made it to the house just before full dark.

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