Fly Fishing in West Yellowstone Throughout the Seasons with Cam Coffin

Fly Fishing in West Yellowstone Throughout the Seasons with Cam Coffin

The pandemic has led many of us to discover and venture into new hobbies that we otherwise wouldn’t have given a chance. Taking a detour in this episode, Charles P. Boinske talks about his favorite subject, fly fishing, with the owner and operator of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana, Cam Coffin. Here, Cam talks about fishing in Yellowstone country throughout the seasons. He takes us across the trips they offer while also offering some helpful tips and tricks to prepare us with this activity, no matter the conditions. If you’re looking for some fun on the side while stuck in quarantine, then take a listen to Cam and Charles’ conversation.

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Today we get to take a detour and talk about one of my favorite subjects, which is fly fishing. I am absolutely thrilled to have as my guest, Cam Coffin, the owner and operator of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana. Cam is a lifelong resident of West Yellowstone, has a tremendous reservoir of knowledge about fishing in the area, and he is here to talk to me about fishing in Yellowstone Country throughout the seasons—whether that’s in the spring, summer or fall—or if you’re particularly hardy, in the winter. I hope you enjoy the conversation with Cam, and most of all I hope it gets you thinking about fishing in Yellowstone Country.

Cam, thank you much for joining me on The Wealth Cast today. I’m excited to talk to you about fishing in Yellowstone Country.

Thanks for having me.

Why don’t we start with the big picture and go down into some details if you don’t mind? At this point in time with COVID and people worried about their health and not traveling as much as they would internationally, I know domestic destinations are becoming more popular. I’m sure that that’s impacted your business at Blue Ribbon Flies. What have you seen so far with the whole COVID epidemic?

It’s been a wild and crazy year—like it has been for everybody. We started out with not having a season at all in our good months of April and May. They were nonexistent in 2020. We didn’t know what to think about that. We got opened up June 1, 2020 and started to have a few guide trips. Overall, it’s been surprisingly busy for us around here. The fishing has been good which doesn’t hurt either.

So that’s been a nice surprise despite what’s been going on throughout the world. People have been getting outdoors more now than I’ve seen in a long time. There are a lot of new people coming. That’s been one of the biggest surprises to us, is how many new people have been entering into this sport in 2020.

That makes sense to me based on what I’ve heard and seen locally here in Pennsylvania. The streams have been relatively full and folks seem to be getting into the sport for the first time or picking it up again after a pause for whatever reason and that’s good to see. I think that the more people that fish generally speaking, the better it is for the environment. People care about the environment when they fish. That’s a nice benefit to having more people fish and interested in taking care of what we have.

I thought maybe it would be helpful—for those folks that are thinking about venturing into fishing or fishing certainly in Montana or the West Yellowstone area for the first time—maybe we could break the year into parts: You can talk about what fishing is like generally speaking in the spring, summer, and fall in Yellowstone Country in case folks are thinking about making plans for heading out there in 2021. Why don’t we start with the spring? You mentioned that this spring was slow because of the whole pandemic. I imagine and hope that by next spring in 2021, things will be better. What kind of conditions should people anticipate in the springtime?

Any kind of conditions, actually. We can be 70 degrees here and we mainly start in April, to back up to there a little bit. Some in March—but in April, you want to be prepared here for anything from 70 degrees down to 15 degrees. You’ve got to be prepared for all sorts of weather and different water conditions, but it’s a great time. The fish are hungry. We still have some good catches starting in the springtime. In April, we’re starting to get baetis and even some caddis running around. It’s relatively calm. By calm, I mean there are not a lot of people out fishing at that point in time.

Although there has been getting more and more—people are starting to figure that out. We’ve been doing what we call spring trips for the last over 20 years where instead of a one day, we bring the people on a four-day exclusive deal. We’ll hit typically 3, 4, maybe 5 different bodies of water within four days. That’s been a lot of fun for us over the years—and for our guides. You could one day be on the spring trip and fishing caddis on the still water, and then you might be fishing baetis later on in the spring trip at 30 degrees. You’ve got to be prepared for a little bit of anything.

It doesn’t sound a lot different than most fly fishing trips. You’ve got to be prepared for all eventualities. In those spring trips, are you picking folks up at the airport and then creating an itinerary to go from stream to stream and taking care of all the arrangements? How does that work?

That’s the beauty of it too, because we figure out dates that work for you. We don’t necessarily have set dates that we’re doing. You just say, “We want to go.” We meet you at the Bozeman airport, we pick you up there—you don’t have to have a rental car—and we take it from there. We use that first day as a travel day and get to where we want to go, then we cherry-pick what we think is going to be the best fishing throughout those next four days and that could be floating, wading, a combination of things. It depends on the year. We started these trips out years ago because we were fishing and we were traveling and doing these things and we thought, “This is really good! We might want to let people in on this.” It exploded since then.

What’s the general timeframe for those trips that you suggest people consider?

The last week in March through the first week in May is typically when we do those. Most of it is pre-runoff. But late in April, depending on weather conditions, snowpack and all that stuff, we could be experiencing runoff when you’re out here. That doesn’t mean the fishing is going to be bad—or better. It just means that you’re going to have to switch tactics.

You have to be prepared for dry fly fishing, nymphing, maybe streamer fishing in the spring if the water is high. Be prepared to go a little bit on the fly to wherever it seems to make the most sense at the moment, is that a fair statement?

When fly fishing, always come with a bee at the end of July through September.  Click To Tweet

You bet. It’s one of those things where you put yourself in the hands of one of our guides and you just go. You let them figure out all the options, let them deal with that headache. All you’ve got to do is get on the plane.

That sounds perfect!

Moving on to later in the spring and early summer, how do things change? Talk a little bit about the runoff and for the folks that don’t understand what the implications of that are, maybe it would be helpful to explain that, moving on to the next season.

Once we get in that first week of May, we’re going to start to experience runoff and the main rivers being the Gallatin, the Madison, the Yellowstone—are most likely going to be in a runoff situation. We cruise into the opener of Montana, which is the third Saturday in May every year. That opens up the upper portions of the Beaverhead and a few other different streams around the area. By that time, we’re starting to see a few more bugs, a few more hatches starting to accumulate, but we still have some dirty water in areas. You’d still have clean water in areas. We fish below dams, things like that on the Ruby River or the Madison River.

We’re running through a few options—there are always options. Springtime can be one of those times where it may not be great dry fly fishing in the first week or two of May, and then we see that transition from no bugs to runoff to where things start to clean up. We start to see a lot more hatches and those first hatches usually typically will start sometime in June. We start in our area with the Firehole River—it lends itself well to great PMD, baetis and caddis hatches at that time. That’s one of the main rivers that we’re fishing, starting out on Memorial Day weekend and then things escalate from there. We start building on all these different rivers and then it comes to where there are many options you’re not sure where to go!

That’s the thing about fishing out in that area: When you wake up in the morning, you can go in any direction you want and have incredible fishing. It becomes a chore just to whittle down your choices. In the late spring there, what time do you typically see the peak of the runoff—of the snowmelt?

It will peak usually by the end of the first week in June. Historically, the Gallatin River has always peaked by June 10th. That and the Madison, typically clear up from the 20th to the 25th of June.

So normally by the 1st of July, the runoff has more or less run its course. Once that big watershed moment happens when the runoff is over, how does the fishing transition at that point into the balance of the summer?

Once those waters start to calm down and clear, they start to warm up. They warm up to a point where now we’re seeing caddis and green drakes and PMDs. All sorts of bugs start to emerge. This is a dry fly fisherman’s dream at this point in time. We have clients try to hit this every year, when they first start taking dry flies which can be a magical time, which is around that end of June time—we start to get busy at that time. 2020 was no exception. Those first few days, when they started coming up on the Madison, we had some incredible fishing with caddis and PMDs.

You start to see those transitions at the last two weeks of June. It’s a magical time. It’s one of my favorite times a year. It’s hard to sort out because now you’ve still got perhaps the Firehole or the Madison in the park into play. You’ve also got the Gallatin starting to come on. You’ve got the Henry’s Fork. There are so many things starting to happen that it’s hard to sort through the best option for the day. It’s hard to do it in one day. It’s hard to do it in one week! And it’s a hard thing for folks that only have a week to pick and choose through those options to maximize their time.

That’s understandable—I’ve been in that position myself and I know how frustrating that can be trying to whittle that list down. At what point in time do you start seeing the transition from the heavy mayfly period to the more of the terrestrial hoppers and ants and those sorts of things? Is that towards the end of July more?

Yeah, toward the end of July is when we typically see that. It will taper off where they still do have some mayflies and it all depends on what river you’re talking about. We do start to see that transition—I would say, about the 25th of July is when it starts to happen and things start to turn over where the bugs are waning and we start to see hoppers, beetles, ants—and bees, I want to mention that we’ve done really well with this year, that’s one that people tend to forget about.

What type of bees are they? What does the pattern look like?

We have what we call an “improved killer bee.” It’s a pattern that we call “improved” because it was improved by one of our old-time guys here, Aaron Freed. It has a razor foam raft with a little hackle. It’s very durable. Fish love bees. It’s something a little bit different. This a little hint to folks who are listening—always come with a bee at that time of year, the end of July through September.

Heading into what I think of as the third part of the season, which is that end of August, September, early October season. What should anglers expect at that point in time?

That’s the timeframe where hoppers will work, but it’s a day-to-day thing—ants, beetles and hoppers. For example, we had 18 degrees this morning. It’s going to warm up to close to 70. Things are not going to fish well in the morning with dry flies and then later on in the afternoon, you’re going to have the opportunity to dry fly fish with hoppers, beetles, ants. You start seeing that transition. We’re also starting to see fish run up from Hebgen Lake up into the Madison River our fall run browns which can be spectacular from year to year. We start to see that now—you’re going to start transitioning more from dry flies into more nymphing, or swinging, or flat out streamer fishing. Not to say that the dry fly fishing can’t be good, but you’re going to need some certain conditions to make that happen at that point in time.

As you know, most of the time I’ve spent out there has been in September or late August. It’s interesting to me how from day-to-day, the conditions can change. You get a little bit of an overcast day with a little rain. You see a huge explosion of olives or baetis, and then you get a nice warm day following and you might still have hoppers around. It creates a lot of variety which I like a lot. This part of the year is for me personally, one of my favourite, best times of the year and part of that is because the crowd seems to thin out after the beginning of the school year.

TWC 13 | Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing: Changes in weather conditions doesn’t mean the fishing is going to be worse or better. It means that you’re going to have to switch tactics. 

 

They do, especially if you’re fishing in the park—the traffic slows down in there and what you’re seeing now is more fishermen in there.

I’m sure in 2020, given all the new fishermen and the people taking it back up again compared to 2019 must be quite different.

Remind me again when the park closes in the fall. When does the season really come to an end?

The season comes to an end that first Sunday in November. There’s typically good fishing right up to that point. We had one of the coldest Octobers in 2019—I’ve lived here all my life, for 49 years, and that’s one of the coldest Octobers I saw. It’s tough to go out fishing in negative degrees. It doesn’t happen every year. It’s a rare thing and I hope it doesn’t happen this year!

I had one experience that you may remember where I was out for a conference in Big Sky and I came down to fish with Patrick for a day. We went out onto the Madison and I had to sit down in the river because it was a way to warm up, it was so cold! But the fishing was fantastic. We shouldn’t probably leave winter fishing out of the possibilities. It’s just that you have to be prepared to go through some deep snow and put up with some cold temperatures if you’re going to do it.

Yeah, and we do—we fish every month of the year here. A lot of where we fish because it’s close for us, we’re fishing the Madison. Our head guide, Drew Mentzer, and I try and go out at least a dozen times every winter. We’ll go out in January and February a lot, but we also pick and choose our days very carefully. We want it to be at least 20 to 25 degrees out. It’s very good midge fishing. You can see a lot of fish up on the surface and that’s typically what we’re looking for. It’s not an all-day event for us, anyhow—we’d like to go down and leave here about 10:00, then we’re usually back to the house by 2:00 or 3:00. It’s about a 4 or 5-hour deal. That’s enough for wintertime!

For those folks that are thinking about heading out to your neck of the woods for their first trip ever or their first trip in a while, let’s talk a little bit about basic fly rods and gear that are universally applicable and if you wouldn’t mind commenting what you think the most sensible starting rig might look like for fishing out there in Yellowstone Country.

For around here, a 9-foot, 5 or 6 weight is going to be perfect. There are bigger drives that you can throw at any given time of year which is nice to have a 6 weight, or a 5 but 9-foot, 4 or 5 weight with a floating line is perfect, especially if you’re beginning out. Don’t mess around with anything—sinking lines or any of that because 90% of the fishing that we do, maybe even 95, is going to be with a floating line. Whether that be lakes or rivers, it can all be done with that. So if you’re just starting out, the 9-foot 5 or 6 weight will get you started well. As far as action is concerned on those types of rods, that doesn’t really matter—that’s a personal choice. Keep that in mind.

If you’re buying something, go into a shop and always try and cast something and see if it suits you. That’s really important because there are many people that don’t know what to buy—the best way to do that is to try it out and get some feel for it.

The other thing you want when you’re down here is a good pair of waders. That’s where you want to spend money. Rods and reels, there are all different levels of those. But if you’re serious about fly fishing, go ahead and get you a nice pair of waders, a nice pair of boots. Even to start out with, I wouldn’t go and buy a cheap pair that’s going to leak within a year. Go ahead and make that investment and get yourself a nice pair. That’s important to have.

Having comfortable feet in boots that fit well is really valuable—and can make or break the day for you in my experience. I think that’s really good advice.

And on the opposite end of that, when you are starting out, you don’t need to buy a $900 rod. You don’t need a $500 reel. Eco makes a great starter kit, or something that you can piece together. You can be in it for $200 to $300 and you’re fishing, you’re ready to go. That’s where you can scale back a little bit—make sure you like it. You don’t need the high-end stuff right away. If you keep into it, you’re going to want it, but to start out with, keep it simple.

Many folks don’t realize they can rent gear at the shop, or, it’s available. I think getting started and going out the first day and not being sure that you’re going to like it or the first week or whatever the case may be, that’s always an option.

Absolutely. We do that—we have a rental program here at the shop, Blue Ribbon. If you take a guided trip with us, that’s all included within that and it’s nice. A lot of folks that have been fishing for years still rent because they don’t want to carry all that stuff with them on a plane or whatever. So that’s a nice thing—they can use it and it is good equipment and they can leave it here, they don’t have to worry about packing it up. That is a good way to go, especially if you’re starting out and you don’t know whether you’re going to like it or not. Let us take care of you here. Most fly shops around this area are going to do that for you.

The other thing I encourage people to do when they’re getting started is to get some lessons—whether, hire a guide for the day or for the period of time that you’re going to be out there, or get some specific casting lessons because it can make all the difference in the world in regard to your enjoyment that trip and whether or not you want to continue to do it.

Yes. And we have the best resource here for that in John Juracek. He helped start Blue Ribbon Flies and he is one of the best technical casters I have ever seen, but he’s also the best teacher I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t matter what level you are at—I still take lessons from him at least once a year. It’s worth the time and the money to come down and give John a call, give us a call—we’ll get you in touch with him. It’s worth taking some time to do that whether you’re beginning, or you think you’re a great caster. It’s worth the money to spend one hour with John.

I would agree! In my personal experience, I’ll share the thing that I’ve always enjoyed about spending time at Blue Ribbon: It’s the resources and the willingness to help. You and I have talked about this before. I would encourage folks that are listening, that if you’re thinking about going and you’re not sure at all what you’re going to do or what to do, don’t be bashful about calling the shop and saying, “I’m just getting into it.” Fly fishermen in general want to help you. There’s a lot of camaraderie in this sport, and I think you’ll be pleased with the response you get and the helpfulness that you’ll find at a shop like Blue Ribbon.

If you're serious about fly fishing, go ahead and get you a nice pair of waders or boots. Click To Tweet

All of our guides, I think the youngest one’s been here at least 10 or 15 years. Everybody fishes here. We schedule days off around fishing. Everybody is excited about fishing and they want to portray that to the folks who we’re trying to help out. We’re always happy to help over the phone, or whether you come in. We’re excited about fishing—we always have been and I think we always will be.

I agree that those characteristics are in abundance at your shop. I would encourage folks if you haven’t subscribed to the Blue Ribbon Flies newsletter, it’s published regularly. It’s really helpful. There are all sorts of tips about fishing in general, and then fishing in Yellowstone Country in particular.

With that, Cam, I want to say thank you so much for spending some time with me and talking about a subject that both of us enjoy which is fly fishing in Yellowstone Country. I look forward to seeing you again in the near future.

That sounds great. Anytime you want to sit down and get a little more technical about stuff, we can sure do that in the future.

That sounds fantastic. I can foresee a couple of other podcasts dealing with some of the tactical aspects of fishing down the road. Thank you so much, Cam.

Anytime!

Thank you so much for joining Cam Coffin and myself as we discussed fishing in Yellowstone Country throughout the year. We’ve made available on our website, a Guide to Fly Fishing in Yellowstone Country. It’s a free downloadable PDF. It’s chock-full of information about fishing in Yellowstone Country, particularly in the fall which is my personal favorite time to fish there. I suggest strongly that you go visit the Blue Ribbon Flies website at www.BlueRibbonFlies.com and sign up for their newsletter. It’s published every week like clockwork. It is always full of useful information about fishing in Yellowstone Country, patterns, interesting new fly fishing gear—which you can never have enough of—and tips and techniques. Please take the opportunity to visit their website and also take the opportunity to download our guide to fishing in Yellowstone Country.

Thanks again for joining us and have a great day.

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