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Outside: Three for the Doldrums

Essential flies for every Montana fly box

Written by Greg Thomas  
August 2016


I have a friend who called one day in a panic and said, “There’s a new fly people are fishing on the Big Hole and the trout can’t refuse it. If you see a fish rising, all you have to do is cast this thing within 3 feet of the rings and they take it. It’s purple and it controls a trout’s brain,” he said. “Apparently the fishing is so easy that it’s not even a challenge anymore. If this is true, I’m going to quit fishing.”

That was back in early 2000. The next time I saw this friend, a few years later, we were casting to several bank-sippers on the Big Hole just downstream from Wise River. It was August, low water and small mayfly time. We were trying to match mayfly spinners with this new fly, which everybody now knows as the Purple Haze. The fact that the Haze only worked moderately well on those Big Hole fish came as a great relief to my friend who, as we slinked away from the river, said, “I’m glad we didn’t really get them. The fish have to win sometimes.”

That may be true, but there are days when all of us could use a few more fish. This can be particularly true in late summer and fall when most of Montana’s trout have already seen a few thousand artificial flies floating over their heads. At that time, even the most technical patterns, such as mayfly cripples, caddis emergers, and tiny, quill-bodied Trico spinners, may draw nothing better than a wayward glance. Yet, there are three go-to patterns — which aren’t exactly “lookers” — that almost every guide in the state carries in his or her boxes, flies that continue to fool fish throughout the season and often save the day when nothing else works. If you follow their lead, these are the flies you’ll want to pack in your boxes this summer and tie on when all else seems to fail.


The Purple Haze

Despite my aforementioned experience on the Big Hole, I still consider the Purple Haze to be a go-to fly and, depending on which size hook it’s tied on, it matches pale morning duns, green, brown and gray drakes, mahogany duns, Tricos, and Baetis.

Andy Carlson, who lives and guides in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, created the Purple Haze, likely to fool browns and rainbows on the Bitterroot River’s wide and often flat-surfaced flows. This fly closely resembles the classic parachute Adams, which probably has accounted for more trout than any other fly on earth. The Haze uses the same white, synthetic or calf-tail post, the same mix of grizzly and brown hackle, the same tapered body, and even the same tail as the parachute Adams. However, the traditional parachute Adams is tied with a gray, dubbed body. The Haze is tied with purple floss.

So is that color difference the key? You could sit around a table with other fly fishers and you wouldn’t come up with an answer by the time you’d finished a thousand beers. Is the Haze so effective because the fish have only seen it on the water for the past 15 years, versus nearly a century for the parachute Adams?

The answer is, who knows? I’d like to think it’s a combination of factors that include the color of the sky and light conditions and how well the fly’s silhouette shows up on a particular day. No matter the true reasons, again, this is a fly to tie on and fish this summer and fall during the height of Montana’s mayfly season.


Pat’s Rubberleg Stone

This may be the least attractive fly on the planet. Its variety of nicknames — the pickle, the turd, Jimmy legs — indicate that visual disgust. But when you dump this fly underneath the surface, trout think it’s beautiful. Or, if not beautiful, for sure they think it’s edible.

The body of this fly — medium chenille in various colors — is rather bland, but the rubber legs undulate in the current and bring this pattern to life. Nine times out of 10, trout probably take this fly believing it’s a stonefly nymph. Tied in a variety of sizes and colors, it matches the early season skwala stonefly, the midseason Pteronarcys, the golden stone, and, in August and September, the nocturnal stone that is present on many Yellowstone-area streams.

Guides love this fly for a variety of reasons. First, it catches fish. Second, it’s easy to tie. And that is a godsend for guides fishing novice anglers who are likely to lose a pile of these in a day. In addition, this fly can be fished under a strike indicator, either weighted down with split shot and bounced along the bottom or fished without lead, under a large dry fly, so it floats near the surface or midway down the water column.

I typically fish this fly early in the year to match skwala stoneflies. But I also fish it during summer and fall, usually as a lead fly in a two-fly setup. Trout probably take it as a stonefly nymph, but they may also see it as a large mayfly nymph. Either way, when fished deep with a flashback pheasant tail nymph below it, it’s a fly that can turn a slow afternoon — when nothing is happening on the surface — into a productive few hours.


Chubby Chernobyl

The Chernobyl ant came on the scene back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and this fly, the Chubby Chernobyl, builds off that original pattern. The key improvement is a white, synthetic wing that would keep this thing afloat in the Bering Sea and is so easily seen it’s like tracking a large marshmallow floating on the water.

Trout love this fly because it looks terrestrial, meaning they think it is a large ant, a cicada, or a grasshopper. They’ll also take it when stoneflies are present. In all cases, they often smash this thing, trying to kill it or stun it so it doesn’t get away. You do not use this fly when trout are gently sipping in small mayflies or caddis. You crash the Chubby on the surface and hope to get a serious reaction. And the fish that are most likely to react to this type of offering are large trout, making this a great pattern for those of us who target big fish.

The Chubby is a great fly to throw when pounding grassy banks along the Clark Fork River near Missoula, and it’s a good choice in the same habitat along the Yellowstone River below Livingston. It even works well on the smaller streams, such as Big Spring Creek near Lewistown and the Ruby near Twin Bridges. Really, this pattern shines wherever you find cut banks and grasshoppers. Even so, I rarely fish it alone. Remember, this is a big, high-riding dry fly that supports a dropper. So especially during late summer, I’ll run the Chubby with a pheasant-tail nymph or a small emerger or cripple behind it, giving the fish two options — a subtle nymph or a dainty emerger, or a Boeing 767 with its landing gear down. 

When the first frosts of the year arrive, and grasshoppers are feeling sluggish, don’t stash this fly away. The often-overlooked late summer stoneflies and fall caddis hatch beg for the Chubby. And because fall caddis and Baetis mayfly hatches often overlap, you can run a small Baetis dry fly behind the Chubby and tackle both hatches at the same time.

It’s not like these three patterns are the only flies that work when nothing else appeals to trout. You could throw big, nasty streamers and bang the banks for hours on end and probably take a good fish or two. But that can wear down a shoulder. And in the wind, chucking those Herculean flies can be downright dangerous, even with barbless hooks.

During the slow periods you could just stick with flies that perfectly match whatever hatches you might expect to see on a given day. But hatches don’t last all day. And during those “between hours” specific imitations rarely shine. That’s why the Purple Haze, Pat’s rubberleg stone, and Chubby Chernobyl are great options — they match nothing specifically and many things in general. You may not pick up a fish on every cast, and you may not even catch a fish per hour on these flies, but over the course of a day, during those downtimes, keeping these flies on or under the current is going to pay dividends.