By Jake Schilling
The handful of days I spend in the fly shop each April and early May are usually peppered with phone calls from area anglers asking, "Ice off of Hebgen yet, bud?". Although not necessarily a marker of spring as we have snow through early June, the start of the melt is a clear sign of things to come.
In the early stages of ice-off, you'll find small 10-20' pockets of open water along the bank. The north shore of Hebgen Lake is your best bet for access as it is along the highway, other access roads are generally still closed or impassable due to snow. When your window is this small, I love throwing streamers out to the ice ledge, slowly stripping until the fly drops into the water, and then let it sink. From there mix up your retrieve until you get some feedback. In the early season, I do better with slow strips, but if it ain’t working mix it up. You can certainly throw your 7" pike flies if you wish, but I find more consistent results with #6-8 Simi Seal buggers and similarly sized sculpin patterns. When I first moved to West I was having a tough day and found success stripping San Juan's, that's one of many things I haven't done since age 21.
Once the ice is almost completely off, your dry fly and nymph opportunities pick up. It's worth fishing Hebgen Lake in the early season just to see the size and quantity of the Chironomids. A lot of these patterns (both nymph and dry) are bigger than most first-timers may think, sizes #12-14 are very common.
For dries, you can get as a niche with your fly as you want, but a #14 Purple Parachute does the trick. The fish are still Hebgen gulpers, but this may be the easiest time to fool them on the surface if you're out there at the right time, they eat like mad! There's a handful of easy wade accesses along the highway, but always more fun chasing them from the boat in my opinion.
For nymphs, you can find some success wading, but I really recommend going in a float tube or drift boat. Not only is it easier to cover water, but standing in that lake a week after the ice came off can wear on you. Everyone has their own opinion of what depth to fish, I try to keep it simple. If there's no surface activity from the fish, I try to fish pretty close to the bottom, assuming it's not deeper than about 10'. You can always tie your forceps to tippet to gauge depth if you're unsure.
If fish are rising (throw dries!) I keep the nymph about 18''-24'' below the surface. One good tip I picked up on is to use a very large (1''-1.25'') indicator, if I have to use a bubble I like Airlocks. It's easy to zone-out on the beauty of Hebgen and miss strikes, having a large bubble can almost induce the fish to hook itself as it takes a lot to pull that bubble underwater. Once you set your beer down and actually set the hook, hold on! These early-season Bows and Browns have some juice.
For streamers, once the ice is off, pick yourself up an intermediate to S3 Stillwater line. A floating line with a sinking poly leader will do the trick too. Once again you can get fish from the bank, but a boat is a better option. It's a good living to get 30'-50' off the bank, hit the bank, and start striping back. We'll usually go to this once the wind picks up and the dry/nymph bite slows down. Don't be shy about leaders, the fish are hot and your tippet will get busted up dragging across rocks if you're really getting deep.
Wind, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph it's going to come up. Maybe 2-3 days a month it'll stay down all day, but that's the exception. Generally, it's ripping by 1:00 pm. A great option is AM on the lake, then roll down to the valley for an afternoon float.
At age 21 Jake moved to West Yellowstone from Missoula in May 2012. That first summer he spent two months living in a tent, before moving into a 1971 Lark camper until October. After three years of part-time guiding, Jake moved into a full-time guide job with MRO. During the winter he spends his time spey casting, midge fishing, steelhead fishing, and cross-country skiing while off work. Jake’s laid-back attitude and patience is unmatched, he loves taking the day slow; walking the boat and always having one more fly to try before moving on.
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