Hunting at Hebgen or a Beginner's Guide to Gulpers
Hebgen Lake was formed by damming the Madison River shortly after it leaves
Yellowstone Park. During August and September, the Callibaetis mayflies
begin hatching, bringing with them large surface feeding Rainbows and
Browns. These fish are known as "gulpers", named after their feeding
behavior as they slowly swim along the lake surface, taking in the the
When I visited Jim Greenlee a couple of weeks ago, he arranged for us to
fish Hebgen with Matt Field, a guide from the Blue Ribbon Fly Shop in West
Yellowstone. I had never fished Hebgen before and didn't know quite what to
expect. It wasn't easy fishing. The water is clear, the fish large and
spooky, and the lake is dotted with weed beds. The fish inspect your fly
with the jaundiced eye of a New York jeweler. But with Matt's instructions
I was able to hook 5 fish during the 90 minutes I had in the front seat of
the boat. Matt gave me a crash course in gulper fishing which I'd like to
pass on here.
Gulper fishing is as close to hunting as you'll experience with a fly rod.
The three critical skills of hunting are locating the prey, stalking and
shooting. The same skills are necessary to be successful at fishing
You wouldn't think that locating the prey would be such a big deal in
fishing to rising trout. But frequently the rises are very subtle, and as
often as not, Matt was able to spot "nervous water" rather than the trout
actually rising. Salt water fishers are familiar with the concept of
"nervous water" but it is a term not often used in trout fishing. In
fishing the gulpers on Hebgen, it fits perfectly.
Nervous water is a patch of water that has been disturbed by subsurface
fish. It is the appearance of water where the primary riffles and surface
waves have been disturbed by a second series of cross riffles caused by the
fish. The most obvious is a surface rise - it causes the secondary riffles
to move off in concentric rings. When this is superimposed on the primary
surface riffle pattern of the lake, you get a patch of water that relects
light differently than the rest of the lake. You can see this surface
disturbance from a long ways off and well after the fish has risen. You
don't need to see the rise itself to know a fish is there.
Anything that penetrates the water's surface will cause nervous water. On
saltwater flats this is often the tail of a bottom feeding bonefish. In
freshwater, it is the dorsal fin or the tail of a cruising trout. Even the
bulge of a trout intercepting a emerging nymph causes this appearance. Look
for this subtle "disturbance in the force" as Obi-wan would say.
After you have spotted the fish, you need to stalk it like a hunter. If it
detects you, the last thing you will see will be the splash in the water as
the fish bolts. If you wade slowly and carefully, you can get to within 25
feet of these feeding trout because their feeding window is quiet limited
when they are close to the surface. In a boat, the limit is about 35-40
Once you are in position, you need to track the trout and predict where it
will feed next. Matt was amazingly accurate in predicting where the trout
would go next, even after just one rise. How could he tell the trout's
direction on the first rise? He told me that he looks for the position of
the trout's dorsal fin in relationship to the rise or the direction the
head is pointing. That's the direction the fish is moving and you should
plan your cast accordingly. Another Matt tip is that a trout will usually
not go into a weed bed. So if the last rise and direction is toward a weed
bed, the trout will turn before the next rise and you need guess which way
it will go.
Now comes the hard part, taking the shot. You need to cast accurately and
fast with at most only one false cast, usually shooting line on the lay
down cast. That's a pickup, a backcast, a foward false cast, a backcast and
then the forward laydown cast. If you can reach the fish without the
forward false cast, all the better. If you can make this cast rapidly, you
can aim your fly near previous the rise. If you have lesser skills, then
you need to lead the fish by a greater distance, which makes predicting his
location all the more difficult. It also increases the chances of spooking
the fish, and the chances the fish will change direction before it reaches
your fly. In fishing gulpers, I found that the ability to rapidly get your
fly on target is a critical skill. It can make the difference between
catching or spooking the fish.
Matt advises 15 foot leaders tapered to 5x. Leaders should NOT be any
shorter than 12 feet. The usual 9 foot leaders spook too many fish. Unlike
stream fishing, you have to completely straighten out the leader. If the
trout sees the leader before the fly, he will spook. This means that the
leader must lay out completely and the cast cannot collapse at the end. If
you cannot lay out a 15 foot leader completely, Matt has a neat trick. He
advises that you lift the rod quickly to straighten out the leader before
the trout gets to the fly. Then take up the slack.
Matt likes to make his own 15 foot leaders by taking a commercial 9ft 3x
leader and then adding lengths of 4x and 5x tippet. I would recommend you
use the stiffer tippet materials such as regular Dairiki rather than the
limper Dairiki Velvet. Since I didn't have any 9ft 3x leaders, I just
lengthened a 12ft 4x leader to 15ft 5x.
Several days after floating Hebgen for gulpers, Jim and I went back to wade
fish. We found that a boat or float tube is not necessary to get to the
fish. With Matt's lessons on my mind I was able to coax a 21" rainbow into
Hopefully this beginner's introduction to the gulpers in Hebgen will be of
some help to those of you that want to take that "next step" in flyfishing.
Since I am still off list you can direct any comments to me at the address
Copyright 1997 by Henry Kanemoto.
No reproduction, electronic or otherwise, is allowed without permission of
* Henry H. Kanemoto | internet: firstname.lastname@example.org *
* Thinking what nobody has thought"..........Szent-Gyorgy *