My Firehole Fly Box
My Firehole Fly Box

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

When I started this little piece, the Yellowstone National Park fishing season for 2013 had just concluded. My visit to the Firehole on the last day of season was preempted by an un-expected foot of snow in the park that closed all the roads for the most of the day. Even though I didn’t fish the last day, every season I manage about a dozen days on the Firehole in June, September and October (July and August are poor times to fish the Firehole for a variety of reasons.) For the most part I find the fishing easy, with lots of fish caught, in an utterly beautiful setting. Yet when I talk to other anglers here in Bozeman, and the occasional visiting angler on an airplane as they arrive or leave Montana, they invariably tell stories how they were skunked or otherwise disappointed by the Firehole experience. Even decades of literature and writings about the Firehole tout the difficulty of this river.

“Fishing the smooth stretches of the Firehole, dry or wet, still requires such subtlety. Biscuit Basin, Muleshoe Bend, Goose Lake Meadows, Ojo Caliente Bend, the Broads-all these pieces of difficult water require every skill one can muster because these are wild fish that have been fished over for ninety years, and they have learned much in that time”-Charles Brooks-Fishing Yellowstone Waters (1984)

Yet, every time I fish the Firehole, I have no difficulty connecting with dozens of fish, many of which reach 16-18” in length. When I’m on the river and encounter other anglers who aren’t being successful, its generally easy to spot what’s going wrong—wrong flies, wrong part of the river, wrong or poor technique, etc. But more importantly, looking inwardly, I started to ask myself, what am I doing right (or at least successfully) for this river? To answer that question, I came up with the idea of the Firehole Fly Box—an annotated fly box matching flies, technique, seasons and water in a visual way. Take a look at any SW Montana Fly Shop’s fly recommendations for YNP streams and you’ll find literally dozens of different patterns you must have in your fly box. They are in the business of selling flies, while I just want to catch plenty of Firehole trout. To do that, I rarely rely on more than 5 basic flies (with only size and color variation) during the entirety of the season. Those five flies make up my Firehole Fly Box.

The Firehole River from Biscuit Basin to Firehole Canyon is an insect rich stream with regular, healthy hatches of caddis, blue wing olives and pale morning duns and a river that has an abundant rainbow and brown trout population in the 10” – 14” class. An occasional trout at 16-18” isn’t uncommon. There’s probably no major section of the river that wouldn’t fish well with the Firehole Fly Box in June, September and October. The months are relevant because from July through August, the daytime water temperatures on the Firehole can drive fish into the cooler tributaries or severely stress those fish that can’t escape the heat. All the flies in the Firehole Fly Box are easily obtainable from most fly shops or if you tie your own as I do, they are quick, simple and easy patterns to tie. Part I covers the flies in my Firehole Fly Box while Part II to be posted later will cover fishing these flies in this excellent river.

The Dry Flies:

Elk Hair Caddis – In June, the most prolific hatches on the Firehole are caddis which can start popping as early as 8AM on some days. Although the Elk Hair Caddis can be fished anywhere, anytime there’s rising fish, I find it to be most productive at the beginning of the hatch and in parts of the river where a large riffle spills into a deep pool. Fish begin to move out of the pool into the riffle and by the time the hatch is in full swing, the riffle, especially at its deeper edges, is alive with rising trout. Positioning yourself where you can cover most of the riffle, the high floating, easily visible Elk Hair Caddis is an easy dry fly to fish with.

Sparkle Dun – Anytime BWOs or PMDs are around—June (BWOs and PMD), September and October (BWO), the Sparkle Dun is an effective dry fly or emerger pattern. It floats well and has good visibility. Unlike the caddis which seem to concentrate in and around large riffles, the mayflies seem to move fish into the eddys in the long pools and runs and along the deeper undercut banks.

Terrestrials – Any Firehole Fly Box ought to have a few small hoppers, ants and such. In early September the water in the Firehole begins to cool making the fish more active, but night time air temperatures rarely go below freezing. That means the terrestrials are still a logical choice to target fish along deep under cuts, especially those that are in the meadow areas. Foam hoppers and stimulators in various sizes are all you’ll need to tempt a brown from its bankside lie.

The Wet Flies:

Alone or in tandem, there are really only two wet flies necessary for success on the Firehole—the traditional soft hackle and the Woolly Bugger.

Traditional Soft Hackle – the Partridge and Orange or as I like to tie, the Partridge and anything. This simple pattern in sizes 12-16 will catch fish in just about any place you put it in front of fish on the Firehole. In riffles, deep pools, grassy runs, bankside eddys and undercuts, the soft hackle does a good job of replicating a helpless emerging aquatic insect. It can be fished upstream as an emerger or nymph or swung like a traditional wet fly.

Woolly Bugger – Although there are no baitfish (other than trout fry) or large stonefly nymphs in the Firehole above the falls, a #10 black or olive Woolly Bugger is extraordinarily effective at luring trout out of undercut banks and deep pools. In early June high water, #8-#4 Buggers produce well in deep runs. There are about 5 or 6 really deep (over my head) pools on the Firehole where larger buggers (#4s) fished on sink tips do especially well.

In my blog post, Part II, I talk about how I fish the Firehole with this selection of flies.

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