In 1994 I took my first trip to the greater Yellowstone area. I travelled with a close friend who is infamously known in many circles as ‘Cheeseburger Paul.’ I met Paul when I was 15 inside his World Famous Ted’s Steamed Cheeseburger Restaurant. The steamed cheeseburger is a Connecticut icon, and Paul’s quaint restaurant resembled something from the 80’s Saturday Night Live skit in which John Belushi, Dan Akroyd and Bill Murray slung cheeseburger after cheeseburger after cheeseburger. [video here http://www.hulu.com/watch/3533 ] Ted’s is a small diner started by Paul’s dad, and run now by Paul’s nephew. At the time when I first met Paul, Ted’s consisted of four booths and a dining counter, the walls of the restaurant decorated with countless pictures of western rivers and their iconic trout. At lunchtime and again at dinner, the line at Ted’s goes out the door with loyal patrons and first timers alike waiting their turn to taste the best cheeseburgers in the world.
A lifetime of serving cheeseburgers from 10am-2am day in and day out could make Paul seem a little bit surly on some days. And on those days you had better know how to order your cheeseburger when your turn came, or you may very likely find yourself skipped. However, mention fly fishing to Paul and he gets that twinkle in his eyes to which any serious angler can relate. The thought of a beautiful western river far from his daily grind was most certainly his "happy place,” and he surrounded himself with photographic memories of his fly fishing trips to Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park.
Paul must have seen that twinkle in my eye as I perused his photo collection while waiting my turn to order my lunch. When it came time for me to order, instead of "one with cheese, onion and mustard,” I said, "tell me about that fish” as I pointed to a photo of a particularly large brown trout in one of the photos on the wall. Instantly a friendship was born, and the line behind me grew long as Paul stopped and told me all about the fish, and the photo.
For my 16th birthday I asked for and received a Regal fly tying vise (a car was not my top priority) and it wasn’t long before I would walk the few blocks from my parents’ home to Paul’s restaurant and clamp that vise to his counter and tie flies (and eat cheeseburgers) under his tutelage. We soon became fishing buddies and to say that he took me under his wing would be a major understatement. When I graduated from high school a few years later, as a graduation present Paul purchased an airline ticket for me to join him on a western fly fishing excursion. I was ecstatic. I would be fishing the Henry’s Fork, the Madison, Yellowstone Park and other western rivers for the first time.
I dove into my preparation for the trip with reckless abandon. I read books and magazine articles, I watched videos (we’re talking ’94 here, pre-dvd and blu ray), I tied flies, and I readied rods and reels. But nothing could prepare me for what lay in store. I remember landing in Bozeman, MT and travelling along the Madison River through Norris and Ennis and finally arriving at our campsite as daylight was fading to night. I had never seen anything like the landscape of the Madison River valley in my life. After hurriedly unpacking, I grabbed my headlamp and headed down to the water where I was greeted by the first salmonfly I ever laid eyes upon. Whoa!! These things were even bigger than I thought they would be. And as I started to look around more I noticed that they were everywhere. There were huge, mature black salmonfly nymphs crawling on rocks, and freshly hatched adult salmonflies clinging to streamside vegetation and boulders. These things were a far cry from the small dries that I was used to fishing in Connecticut. The 3X tippet I employed may as well have been rope compared to the 6X and 7X I was used to fishing on my home waters of the Salmon and Farmington Rivers.
I was awestruck by the size of the salmonfly, and the idea that something this large could be a dry fly. We experienced incredible surface action that entire week, and my life would quite literally never be the same. The landscape, the rivers, the wildlife, the insects, the fly patterns, and of course, the fish all struck me deeply. I was hooked. I returned year after year until finally moving to Island Park in 2007.
Over the years fishing the area, I learned about the life cycle of the salmonfly. They live in the river as a nymph for approximately 3 years before reaching the age of maturity. The mature nymphs wait for spring runoff to begin to subside before beginning their migration to the riverbanks. Upon crawling to the banks, salmonfly nymphs will crawl out of the river to hatch. They will congregate on boulders, climb blades of grass, and attach themselves to logs and bushes along the bank. There they will hatch out of their nymphal casings much like a caterpillar into a butterfly. Weather depending, the adult salmonfly will then spend the next few days mating, flying out over the water and depositing its eggs, and then scurrying back to the banks to repeat the process. It is during these egg-laying flights and subsequent hustling back to the banks that salmonflies become available to the trout as surface fare.
I also learned that in the early season when salmonflies tend to hatch, weather can be dicey. It can snow, rain, hail, and be sunny and warm….all in the same day. It can snow on the 4th of July. It can be sunny and hot. Or it can rain for a week. On the wetter years the dry fly fishing was not nearly as good. Salmonflies are such a large insect that they require a high bright sun to help them dry their wings and enable egg-laying flights. During the cold and wet years, the hatch will still happen, but fewer fish will be caught on the surface than on the nymph. As an angler, trying to time the hatch just right, and stay at the head of a hatch which could move upriver some 5 miles per day became part of the fun. Fishing the Salmonfly hatch is a roll of the dice, sometimes coming up 7’s and sometimes coming up snake eyes. Regardless of the weather some of the biggest fish of the season are taken during the salmonfly hatch, undoubtedly trying to pack on weight after a long, harsh winter and a grueling spawn.
For the slightly less adventurous angler, looking for more of a sure thing than the gamble of the salmonfly hatch, there are the goldenstones. Often overlapping with the salmonfly hatch, but typically lasting much longer in duration, the goldenstone is the real gem of the stonefly family. As salmonflies begin to crawl towards the shallows of the riverbanks, big trout follow, and while the weather and water conditions will determine in large part whether the fish will rise to the dry, salmonflies definitely get fish feeding. By the time the goldenstone hatch is in full swing, typically the water and weather have stabilized a bit, often bringing about the best dry fly fishing of the year.
Typically the Henry’s Fork is the first area river to see salmonflies. They’ll arrive anywhere between the 10th and 20th of May and make their way upriver to the Box Canyon around Memorial Day weekend. Then, during the month of June, the goldenstone takes over on the Henry’s Fork. By the end of June, salmonflies can be found in Firehole canyon in YNP as well as on the Madison River. They are then followed by the goldenstones. Towards the end of July, salmonflies will show up on the Yellowstone River. It is certainly possible for an angler to chase the thrill of the stonefly hatch all the way through the summer season, and watching fish come up for those giant dry flies may just change your life forever.