Cut to the scene: large flakes of snow drift to the water’s surface, disappearing the moment they land. A moose devours a mouthful of willows across the river. And, my cold fingers fumble in my fly box for a size 22 Buzzball.
It’s one of those story-book winter fly fishing days of no wind, no one else on the river, and no need for a strike indicator. I feel like I’m the first person ever to fish this well-known run on the Gallatin…then in the distance I see an angler walking downstream. It’s obvious he’s coming to talk to me. When he arrives he offers-up his struggles, saying he hasn’t gotten any fish to eat his flies all day.
I ask him what flies he was using and he responds, “Oh, just this little beadhead,” as he holds his rod up so I can more easily see the fly.
“That might work,” I say, “but the fish seem to be rising sporadically to adult midges today.” I hand a few Buzzball dry flies and suggest he lengthen his leader and tie on a Buzzball.
“Never seen those before,” he admits.
Fly selection is an essential component to angling success—without the correct fly you are not imitating the available food source. In no particular order, here are my favorite six patterns for the next month on our local waters.
LaFontaine’s Buzzball. Gary LaFontaine, a pioneer in fly tying and fishing, developed this simple pattern. While fishing the Missouri River in winter, he struggled to imitate clustering midges. The Buzzball mimics midge clusters on any river. This pattern is extremely effective on the Gallatin, the Yellowstone, and the Missouri, but it should work on any body of water where midge clusters get thick and gooey. LaFontaine’s original pattern was tied without a high-vis wing, but, recent tiers added the wing for better visibility. When fishing the Buzzball I like to also put fly floatant on my leader so the fly floats higher on the surface.
Pat’s Rubberlegs/Girdle Bug/Crazy Legs. Is there any time of year this fly doesn’t catch fish? A stonefly imitation at its core, this simple fly just catches fish. This fly is best fished dead-drifted under an indicator as a nymph on its own or used a lead fly in a two-fly set-up. The floss or rubber legs flex and pulse in the current adding life to the fly, and the chenille color can be varied to match any shade of stonefly. Black, brown and variegated black-and-brown are the most popular colors. For the next six weeks it will be rare a Pat’s Rubberlegs is not the first fly I tied on when fishing weighted nymphs. Size 8, 10, and 12 will be the most successful sizes.
Any firebead nymph. In choosing which firebead was the best—between Czech nymphs, Ray Charles, Scuds, Mayfly nymphs, and worms—I took the easy way out. As our rivers transition from winter to spring, trout will be on the lookout for easy meals with lots of calories, and a firebead appears to be just that. Firebeads burst onto the angling scene around ten years ago. There are those that argue the firebead imitates an egg, we’ll never know what a trout is thinking when eating a fly, but, there’s no argument of this fly effectiveness.
Beadhead Zebra midge. No fly list of mine is complete without the zebra midge. If I had been exposed to this fly earlier in my angling, I would have caught many more trout. At its heart it’s a fly tied to imitate a midge pupa or emerging midge. Midges are prominent in every trout river and hatch year round. However, the Zebra Midge is not just for imitating midges. I’ll fish this as a mayfly on the Paradise Valley spring creeks, as caddis on the Madison, and as freshwater shrimp on the Bighorn. Fish it as a dropper under your favorite dry fly and few rising trout can resist.
Tie: Zuddler and Sculpzilla. Myself and a well-respected local Big Sky angler debated at length which pattern would be more effective these next few weeks. After our best-of-seven thumb wrestling series resulted in my seventh-round loss, I agreed to include the Zuddler. Both patterns are intended to imitate baitfish and larger food sources, such as crayfish, found in our local waters. They can both be fished with action or dead-drifted under an indicator.
Parachute Purple Haze. We are now in the season when Blue Winged Olives could hatch on any given day. A regular Parachute Adams will work fine, but, in seeing thousands of fish eat dry flies on various Parachute dries, the purple body makes a difference. LaFontaine was a believer in the way light refracts off a fly. I am too, and there’s something about purple. With two kids at home I don’t have time to care why, I just know it works. Long-time Yellowstone River guide, Stephen Leibinger, says this of the Parachute Purple Haze: “it’s the only dry fly I carry in in all sizes from 8 to 22 because it works in so many situations.” Whether you’re happy or in misery, the Purple Haze will put a spell on you.
Choosing which fly to use is personal, but, should be grounded in your knowledge of the water you’re on and faith—faith in what you’re using catches fish. Armed with the proper fly and the right amount of faith, your early spring fishing should be rewarding. Even if it isn’t, your ski legs should still be strong and the slopes are plenty white.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and along with a partner owns a guide service on the Missouri River.