BWO's on the North Platte

by Shilo Mathill

Spring generally means Blue Winged Olives - a tiny little mayfly that makes its appearance when the water temperature reaches the high forties. BWO’s are usually the first hatch we fish in the spring and the last hatch of the fall. As a fisherman, I believe there is no better time for a fly to hatch. In the spring, the fish are hungry after being under the ice all winter. In the fall, the fish are anticipating winter and trying to consume as much food to sustain themselves through the winter. This isn’t to say it is entirely easy to catch fish during a BWO hatch. In fact, it is often some of the most technical fishing of the year. Unlike most fisherman, BWO’s love nasty weather. They hatch best during those spring squalls. Those chilling days that have a lot to do with ice and rain. The kind of days that retire the masses to spring cleaning “inside” the house. On a weekend that the weather forecast said scattered snow showers, we were on the river!

We floated a section of the Upper North Platte that is generally, on a normal water year, high and dirty from runoff. With the light snow pack the past few years we have been blessed with intense BWO hatches that are usually only reserved for tailwaters (dam released fisheries). The day was a bit cold but not uncomfortable. We weren’t breaking ice from our guides and fingerless fleece gloves kept your hands toasty enough to function. But functioning in the early spring after a long winter is often more difficult than it seems – especially to selective fish sipping size 20 mayflies in low, clear water.

North Platte Rainbow Jason with a nice Rainbow

The fish were tucked along a bank (more under the bank) taking BWO duns falling from the overhanging bushes. It was nothing flashy, the fish were in the shadows sipping. The takes were so subtle that most of the time their activity would go on unnoticed by anglers or eagles. There were a few obstacles that made this situation tough. It required a down and across cast to present the fly to the fish. A wiggle cast (to put slack in the line) would have been best but to tuck the fly under the bushes required a much tighter loop. The next best option was to throw a tight loop and then shake out slack as the fly floated down stream. Under the willows, the bank cut in a few feet deeper and the biggest fish naturally favored this indentation. Even a cast made directly against the bank upstream of the fish was a few inches short when it drifted down to the fish. The fish would occasionally move out but was often taking flies less than an inch from the bank. The fact that many of the naturals were floating by without a rise was a bit deterring as well. Wow, this is the moment dry fly fishing addicts live for.

My fishing partners that day, Jason and Darby, were more impressed that I had stopped, five minutes upstream, and rigged a rod with dries than the actual feeding trout. Their good manners were quickly overcome by the fact that we had rising trout, a few of the larger variety, directly in front of us. Much of fishing is managing expectations. I was sure to communicate to them that this was not going to be entirely easy; this would be tough cast for most experts – they were both experienced anglers and required little persuading. Jason went first and then Darby; the results were the same. Hold the boat, cast, cast, cast again. They both made some excellent casts and were able to get some great drifts but the timing (with the fish that is) was never quite right. Those of you that have fished to trout sipping BWO’s or Tricos know how important timing is; sometimes it is the only way to put a fly in the fish’s mouth. But this is fishing – and luck is often better than timing or skill. Luck is exactly why the twenty inch brown took my fly when it was my turn to fish. My cast really didn’t seem any better or different than Jason’s or Darby’s. The fish did move a bit away from the bank which favored me. I landed the fish and tried to stay calm amidst the heckling from my mates. I wondered why this fish chose my fly. It could have been a perfect drift or perhaps just mere luck. Or, if you care to entertain other thoughts; it may have known my reputation was on the line (literally), or maybe it recognized my boat and figured I’d have mercy on him throughout the guide season. For whatever reason the Fish Gods favored me that day.

North Platte Brown Trout Shilo holds a Brown that likes BWO's

Those tough situations, those moments of chance, the development of our fishing skills, the fish, the water, the eagles and owls, the smell of spring, those magical days, the memories made with best friends and forever etched in our minds are just a few things that keep us coming back. We are floating again this weekend, perhaps the same section. I would like to float by that bank, you know - the one with the overhanging bushes, and just smile and remember. But for some reason I don’t think Jason or Darby will allow that. If by chance they do decide to throw a line towards that bank, I’ve tied a few BWO Sparkleduns for them to try.

Author Info:

Shilo Mathill is owner/guide of Stoney Creek Outfitters offering trips on the North Platte and Encampment Rivers.

All text and photos copyright Shilo Mathill 2002

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