Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake in Montana

August 6 & 7, 2012

One of Granny’s and my favorite trips of the summer is on up to Hebgen and Quake Lake in Montana.  These lakes offer some of the best dry fly fishing you can imagine on a lake along with great scenery, history and big browns and rainbows.  Granny and I usually make this trip in late August but due to a crazy upcoming schedule, it was now or not this year.  “Not this year” was not an option.

After a hard day of fishing on the Henry’s Fork Monday, I returned all the way back to Victor, Idaho to pick up Granny and the drift boat.  Then after a slight repack I drove us all the way up to Hebgen Lake, arriving at about 11 PM.  We had a short sleep in the Explorer with our boat literally backed up to the lake.  At 5:30 AM Granny was brewing the coffee and I was launching.

When we pushed off, coffee cups full, it was overcast and the coolest we’ve seen temperatures since early June.  All I had was shorts and even with the tattered blue sweater I always keep in the boat, I was shivering.  We started motoring to one of my most reliable areas only to find the water pump on the outboard wasn’t working.  I advise never continue motoring with this issue so I turned her off and despite packing enough gas to cruise anywhere we wanted for two days, all our boat travel immediately became by rowing only.

In years past first light on Hebgen Lake provided so many gulpers (cruising trout continuously rising) you got confused as to which one to cast too.  However, for some unknown reason fishing hasn’t been that way the last three years.  There are still plenty of callibaetis mayflies hatching.  There’s damsels and yesterday even some caddis zipping around.  But the activity of steady rising fish is nothing like in the past.

Once I rowed us to my spot, we drifted along in a light wind.  With the clouds, dawn light and a minuscule breeze on Hebgens surface, spotting a gulper was tricky.  Soon my eyes adjusted and there was the first gulper of the day.  Then I noticed several.  The fish were here, but rather than gulping long enough to chase down and cast at, these trout made two or three rises then disappeared.  Fishing was extremely tough.

To say Granny and I are persistent is an understatement.  Every time we saw a rise we charged after it.  Occasionally a trout would continue long enough that we’d get a fair shot with the cinnamon ant pattern but after the fly landed the trout would change direction.  Then finally we got one.  This first fish was a well-built rainbow of about 18” that not only smoked me to the end of my fly line but made several fantastic jumps. 

Opportunities remained few and far between.  The clouds burnt off and the breeze stopped completely.  At noon Granny and I had landed a mere two rainbows.  The blue sweater was long retired back in a heap in the bottom of the boat and we were sweltering in windless heat.  The few fish we’d seen were gone deep.  We packed it up and drove the short six miles to our true favorite, Quake Lake.

You can trace back on this blog to at least two other trips to Quake and Hebgen.  The most memorable was last August when Granny and I caught one of the biggest browns we’ve ever seen in Montana.  With that monster painted in our memory forever, we had high hopes for yesterday afternoons session.  However, it was so darn hot that from 2 PM all the way until 8 PM, we saw only one fish rise.  We got him.  He was a tiny rainbow about 8”.  Rather than waste time fishing hard during the six quiet hours, Granny and I tied up to a tree and cooked up a feast on the grill, sipped a couple beers and relaxed.

Don’t ever leave a slow day of fishing too soon.  Quake was quiet all afternoon.  My point being, almost every fishery turns on at some point.  The longer the slow period the more active the feeding period will be.  From 8 PM till we couldn’t see anymore the fishing erupted!  Granny and I caught about 25 incredible rainbows and browns.  Not one of these fish was smaller than 14” and several were easily 18” if not larger.  Every single one of these were gulpers that fell for an old beat up Pale Morning Dun that’s likely been in my fly box for ten years. 

We got off the lake so late that rather than drive anywhere we figured we’d sleep right on the lake.  We put away a minimal amount of things and then crawled in the back of the Explorer.  Morning came quick.  I tell you, we’ve played hard this summer.  A lot of early mornings and late nights filled with hardcore angling in between.  Though we weren’t bright eyed, at 6 AM I was rowing to where last year we caught that enormous brown trout.

Once again this morning was a chilly one.  I haven’t carried a pair of long pants with me since June.  So I wisely threw on some long johns as pants with my shorts over the top – New Zealand style.  It was so nippy that there were few to no fish moving, only a huge flock of geese.

Once the sun came up, fish activity exploded.  A few bugs started flying around, mostly midges followed by some PMD’s.  Then came the callibaetis and the fish started rising.  We were in the area where there’s just enough current from the entrance of the Madison River that the fish face upstream and don’t cruise around too much.  Rather than fish my usual lake dry fly rod of a 5-weight, I strung up my 4-weight Ross RX.  Granny was still cold and wanted to row.  I went to work and before she was warm enough to fish I landed about ten beautiful rainbows and one awesome looking brown trout.

We spanked the fish hard today.  Its worth mentioning that I’m almost positive we ran across the same monster brown trout that we caught last year.  When you catch a fish that big you remember every detail – where, when, what he was eating and in that giant’s case, I remembered his awkward rise.  His head and nose were so big that it did not look normal when he ate a small fly from the surface.  Well, we were in the same spot and there was a large brown rising.  I could see his creamy brown colored nose break the surface and sometimes his incredibly wide tail followed through.  He was huge and his rise was awkward.  We threw everything at him – just like last year but he’d rise inches from our offerings but never take it.  As a last attempt, I presented him a cool looking damsel dry fly.  On my first cast to him he tried to eat it.  Problem is, he was facing me directly and before his massive jaws completely shut on my fly I yanked it away.  Say it wasn’t so!  A common and tragic mistake often made when setting the hook with a dry on a huge fish.

Our annual weekend to Hebgen and Quake did not disappoint.  Although the midday fishing was slow due to this hard to believe heat wave, the mornings and evenings more than made up for it.  We caught a ton and all but one were on dry flies.  Some family rolls in tomorrow then I’ll take the weekend to get caught up on things.  Our next fishing will be with the family at a camp we settle on where there should be plenty of easy fish.  You may remember me taking my nieces fishing in May in New Hampshire with their new pink Ross Outfits.  Uncle Jeff will be doing it again.  Should be a kick!


  1. Quake Lake looks like an awesome place to fish... I love the stumps that are sticking way out of the water, looks ominous

  2. Nice job working through the OB trouble.. Beautiful brow