Fishermen `Parachute' Onto Big Cutthroat Trout

by Don Jordan

It was easy enough to see fish rising in the crystal clear mountain stream. Their noses poked above the surface as they gulped insects. Smaller ones splashed when they rose, but the bigger ones made hardly any noise at all.

When the big ones came to eat, a hole would appear on the surface, and looking down from the high bank, you could look straight down into their throats.

A brown shadow would appear beneath a floating bug, the water parted, and the insect simply dropped into the gaping maw. There were some very large fish rising in a mid-day cutthroat trout feeding frenzy. I could see their bodies flashing sideways as they rolled and gulped. At times, several fish struck at the same time, creating a chorus of splashes, gulps and smacks that sounded above the rush of water.

This is the time all fishermen have heard about--one of those so-called magic moments when the fish are feeding with wild abandon. You're supposed to be able to catch them at will during these feeding frenzies, but magic moments aren't what they used to be--at least in Yellowstone National Park where every fly fisherman in North America and beyond now congregates at the last best place.

Fishing pressure here in September is beyond heavy these days. Vans, trucks and rental cars loaded with Germans, Brits, Canadians and Americans from every state have descended upon Yellowstone to whip the water to a froth in search of the easiest of all the large trout to catch, the cutthroat.

Cutthroat are infamous for their willingness to take artificial flies. In fact, the cutthroat's willing nature, combined with pollution and loss of habitat, have reduced the species' range so much that it now occupies only 8 percent of its original range. Much of that remaining range is within Yellowstone's boundaries, because only catch-and-release fishing is allowed.

There was no doubt that most of the large fish I watched, 18 to 22 inchers weighing up to five or more pounds, had been caught many times. A 22-inch cutthroat living at 6,000 feet can be six to ten years old, maybe older. During those six or seven years, such a fish may be caught and released hundreds of times. Most of the big ones carry scars around their mouths to prove it.

To say these big trout are educated is understatement. During a nice day in the park, no less that a dozen or more anglers test every hole. The shadow of a fly rod spooks them, and a cast that lands one's fly line heavily on the surface sends them streaking to hiding spots under banks and rocks.

They have seen every artificial bait extant, every fly tied by every fly fisherman. And, each fish has probably been caught on most of them at one or another time in their lives.

So the rules of thumb here are to not only try and match the insect upon which they're feeding, but to also use the smallest possible hook you can use. Large means a No. 14 hook. Small means a No. 18 or No. 20.

Forget about Royal Wulffs, Rat-Faced McDougals and the other "attractor" flies tied with deer or elk hair. Forget about chartreuse and flashbou. Even the old reliable may fly imitations like the standard Adams and Cahill are rejects to Yellowstone cutthroat on some days. The best flies here, and probably everywhere in North America today are the "parachute" patterns.

"I think it's because they look more natural from below," said Hars Haugen who ties flies at his shop, Summit Provisions, near the park's northeast entrance in the tiny town of Silver Gate.

Parachute patterns depart from the old reliables in that the hackle feathers that keep dry flies afloat are tied horizontally around a clipped wing post instead of vertically around the shaft of the hook. The entire body of the fly contacts the surface instead of being propped up by hackle feathers.

I bought some of Haugen's parachute flies last year and caught big cutthroat from the Lamar River, Slough Creek and every stream I tested. This year, copying his pattern and others, I tied dozens of parachute Adams flies in as many different color combinations as I had feathers and body dubbing.

The big cutthroat were still feeding with apparent abandon when I dropped a No. 14 olive with cream hackle into the bottom of the run. Smaller fish hit them without hesitating, but the larger fish rose more slowly, looked and rolled back to their hiding spots without striking.

So, remembering an old lesson learned, the "show them something different" rule, I started changing colors and dropped down to No. 16 hoIt worked. A 17-incher came up, opened its mouth and gulped an olive version with blue dun hackle. The fish had power and ran through the hole to dive into an undercut bank. With 4-lb. test leader, there was nothing I could do to move the fish, and after about 10 minutes, it managed to shake my barbless hook.

The hole was disturbed now, so I moved downstream to let it rest and switched to yet another color before hitting it again--an olive body with grizzly hackle this time.

Big ones where still rising, and the biggest ones were in the fastest water where whirlpools and eddies made it difficult to keep the fly afloat. This is another advantage of parachute flies, according to Haugen.

"I think they give you better floatation," said Haugen.

But white bubbles in the froth made it impossible to see the tiny fly. If you can't see the fly, you can't tell when to strike a rising fish. This is where the Zen of fly fishing comes into play. After making your cast, you envision where the current might be carrying your fly. You watch the surface for a rising fish and set the hook when one comes close to where you think your fly is.

It worked this time. An even larger trout came from the undercut bank, opened its mouth and gulped.

At the same time, dark clouds opened up overhead. Hail pelted my back and thunderclaps echoed between the mountains, but I had a big fish on and wasn't about to give up on it, despite the fact that I was holding a perfect, graphite lightning rod.

This one ran the other direction, away from the heavy water into the slower current below the rapids. Patience defeated this fish. It took 15 minutes to land it. It measured 20 inches and remains the biggest cutthroat I've caught in any stream.

I removed the tiny hook with a pair of hemostats and gently held this beautiful fish in the current until it revived and darted back to its world. I sat in the rain then, lightning bolts crashing all around, and I wondered if my former sergeant at Fort Benning's Airborne School knew parachutes work for fly fishermen as well as they do for Airborne Rangers.


1997 Copyright Jordan Communication

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