The Gulpers of Hebgen Lake
I’ll be the first to admit I lead a semi-charmed life. August of 2020 will go down in the books as some of the best fishing of that year, but it was not without hiccups. If you like stories of big trout, combined with some weird, life drama, this story is for you!
As a young woman new to fly fishing in the 1990s, I read every issue of Fly Rod and Reel or Fly Fisherman Magazine that arrived in the mail. The stories of big trout in beautiful, mountainous regions were always a favorite read.
One article from back-in-the-day I have never forgotten was of the “Gulpers of Hebgen Lake”. The article told tales of big trout feeding on small to mid-sized mayflies with abandon all over the lake’s surface. I dreamed to experience that one day.
Speed up to August 2020. Tim and I were about to conclude a visit with friends in Last Chance, Idaho where we fished the Henry’s Fork. A well-timed email fishing report (keep reading to learn about a well-written fishing report that you should sign up for!) arrived that offered a few paragraphs about the Gulpers and how to fish them now.
Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake
The fishing report mentioned the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake as being the most productive top-water fishing spot. Out came the atlas and our destination became the Madison Arm Resort which offered the only launch near the hotspot.
Our friend, Bob Duport of Western Mountains Guide Serice in Maine, joined us for that fateful first day on Hebgen. The road into the Resort was atrocious. Actually, it was like nothing I had ever driven on – and I’ve driven a LOT of dirt roads in my life. It was a washboard, combined with deep ruts, in an ancient volcanic-ash muck.
The folks in the office at Madison Arm Resort were smiling and kind. I paid the $15 launch fee and proceeded to back the driftboat down the narrow, paved ramp.
I’m fairly skilled at backing up a driftboat trailer. Always calm and never fussed, as I know that’s when things can go wrong. I needed to correct the approach a few times while getting the boat down the ramp to the water.
Not a big deal, it was mid-morning so there was no one at the launch. At least not yet.
Tim and Bob guided me to the water, then hollered for me to stop. The bowline was hooked on, the straps removed, the anchor attached; it was time to launch the boat.
But the boat didn’t budge. Another boat was motoring up to the launch. OK – let’s come in at a steeper angle so the boat will slide off.
I drove up a little, then back down again (maybe more than once) to give a steeper gradient. A truck with an empty trailer was positioned to collect the incoming boat.
I reach the new incline and stop, but the boat won’t budge. Both men were tugging and pushing on the boat so violently the Tahoe rocked back and forth.
The driftboat just stayed put.
I put the car in park and got out to help. Was there a strap still attached? What could be holding it so firmly in place? The boat and trailer were at a much steeper angle. The boat should slide off and splash in the water. This was crazy.
The driver of the truck gets out. A small, Asian-American woman peered down the ramp in disgust. The three of us were tugging, pushing, pleading with the boat to no avail. Then we realized it.
The fiberglass gel coat had welded to the rubber bow stop.
Then the yelling began. The small, older woman’s verbal assault was a mix of English and her native tongue. She was hard to understand but her angry looks told the story. She wanted us off that ramp now.
Taken aback and a little afraid, our efforts to get the boat off the trailer reached a fever pitch. Pulling, prying, kicking, and praying, the weld finally broke, leaving gel coat on the bow stop, and the boat slid to the water. We unloaded gear at lightning speed and I steered away from the ramp to park my rig.
As I passed the woman, who must surely be named Karen, the insults spewed from her as she waved angry hand gestures at me.
Parking the car, I grabbed the pups and scurried to the waiting boat. We motored several hundred yards offshore. The lake was like glass. No fish were showing.
Had I made a colossal mistake?
Madison Arm Resort on Hebgen Lake
Rising Trout on the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake
Big Trout Everywhere
Shaken, I let thoughts slip from of my mouth – “Maybe we shouldn’t have come“. No sooner had I uttered the phrase, the dimples on the water began. The dimples turned to a succession of rings seemingly everywhere. I was floating amidst the Gulpers; heaven!
Three past/present fly fishing guides in a boat should equal immediate success, right? Well no, not initially. We all threw variations of callibaetis dry fly patterns with little success. Tim hooked a smaller rainbow so Bob and I tied on the pattern he was using with no luck. Staring at my fly box for answers, I tied on a sized 16 flashback pheasant tail nymph as a dropper. I opted for a bead-less nymph that would be suspended about a foot or less below the callibaetis imitation. Success came immediately after the changeup.
For the next couple of hours, we took turns boating big rainbow and browns. My dream of fishing for the Gulpers was realized at last. We would return to Hebgen daily for the next 7 days. It was just too good to stop.
First Day Catching Gulpers on Hebgen Lake
Bob Duport with a big Rainbow Trout caught on Hebgen Lake
Returning to Madison Arm
After the “Karen” encounter, I had a run-in with a “parking lot wretch” who clocked me at 10 mph when I pulled in to take out the boat. I had noted the posted speed limit was 10 mph and I was careful to obey. Turns out, I had crossed into the 5 mph area and the lecture began. Needless to say, while the place is amazing, it is loaded with angry senior citizens, so we needed to find a new boat launch.
The South Fork of the Madison River dumps into Hebgen Lake at Lonesomehurst Campground. At the campground, there is a gentle concrete launch and loading dock. While perfect for accessing the Madison Arm, it was still 3 long miles to the Gulper hotspot. We launched in the early morning. Fishing was hit or miss until 11 am, so we had time to motor toward our favorite spot.
A typical day of fishing for Gulpers begins with a spinner fall followed by the hatch. If the wind was calm, fishing was amazing from 10:30 am to 2 pm.
Our electric motor hummed as we pointed the bow east. We stopped occasionally to cast to rising trout along the way.
We arrived offshore of the Madison Arm Resort perfectly at 10:30 am. We were met with rings of rising trout eager to consume both the dropper and the callibaetis drys we offered.
While every day that we fished Hebgen was great fishing, this day was by far the best. We caught and released fish after fish, primarily rainbows with only a few brown trout. We noted a thin layer of smoke in the air. Fires were raging in far off Oregon and new fires were taking hold in California and Washington. Still, the day offered views of the surrounding mountains and the wind was calm.
At 1 pm, we started a slow ride back to the boat launch. We paused for a while in a spot that yielded nearly a fish every cast. While there, I noticed a strange occurrence. The view east across the lake was of the rim of the Yellowstone Caldera. The rim is perfectly flat on the horizon except for a split that allows the Madison River to flow east. There, smoke curled and poured over the rim, spilling into the Yellowstone Plateau.
As I said to Tim, “We should go“, in my mind, I knew it was already too late.
Things Go Wrong
We reeled up and pointed the boat west. At first, there was no noticeable wind. Gradually a small chop grew, then whitecaps. We motored along about 100 yards offshore to stay out of harm’s way and be close enough to shore should the motor give out.
The pace slowed as the waves increased in size. The electric motor slowed under the strain.
“I’m going to row a little and help the motor,” I tell Tim.
In the rower’s seat, it’s a forward push. The constant crashing of the waves on all sides of the boat made the dogs afraid, cowering at our feet. I moved to the front seat, turned the seat backward, and begin digging the oars and rowing with all my might.
The turn into the South Fork Arm & Lonesomehurst was ahead. It was only another mile to the take out.
Wind-driven rolling waves, the largest we’d seen yet, were rolling out of the South Fork Arm. In order to make it to safety, we needed to navigate into this.
Just then, a man in a boat pulled up alongside and asked if we need a tow.
See! I told you I lead a semi-charmed life. :)
Almost To Safety – THANK YOU!!
Rainbow Point – Grayling Arm
After recovering with several adult beverages back at camp, we charted a new plan. We would launch at Rainbow Point and fish the Grayling Arm of Hebgen Lake in the morning. According to the fishing report, blue and red damselflies were present near weed beds, and the trout were voraciously feeding on them.
Other than a flat tire on the dirt road to the launch, our fortunes had changed.
Smoke choked out the sun. Cars on the highway drove with their lights on. It was dark. And it was windless.
For the rest of the trip, we fished until we were tired of it. The wind was no longer a factor. The fish fed on the surface all day.
Dorsal Fins and Weed Beds
In the lake just off Rainbow Point, there was much more organic matter in the water. Cougar Creek and Grayling Creek flowed into the lake nearby. Deposits from spring flows made the area shallower than the Madison Arm.
Big trout cruised the edge of the weed beds plucking off spinners and resting damsels.
Tim and I took turns moving the boat while the other sight cast to cruising trout. We caught countless numbers of “Gulpers”. What an amazing week!
Tim with a Rainbow Trout
Fly Fishing For Gulpers Video
Big Sky Anglers is one of the many fly shops in West Yellowstone, Montana. What they have that the others do not, is one amazing fly fishing report. Even if you do not regularly fish the rivers they mention in their reports, the reports are rich with knowledge about fly fishing techniques and fly selections.
Full of details and delivered with a regularity that is scarce with fly shops, their reports are always a pleasure to read no matter where we are or what our plans are.
If You Go
Located near the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the area can be busy. Hotels can be booked solid, campgrounds sold-out. If you plan to fish for the Gulpers, advance planning is recommended.
We never felt crowded when on the water. Hebgen is big and beautiful, with plenty of room for anglers. Most who come to fish in the region have their sites on the famous rivers of Yellowstone Park such as the Firehole, Lamar, and the Gibbon. Others come for the Madison River as it flows north in its journey to become part of the Missouri River. Many overlook the opportunities of Hebgen Lake.
There are many, many places to stay in the area. Choose from box hotels in West Yellowstone to vacation homes to glamping. Restaurants can be found lakeside and in abundance along the strip in “West”.
Netting a Gulper on Hebgen Lake
Tim with a Hebgen Lake Brown Trout
Nearby Fly Fishing Waters
Here the fishing opportunities are endless. One could spend an entire season here. In a 50 mile radius of the lake lie some of the West’s most fabled waters.
- Madison River
- Gallatin River
- Henry’s Fork
- Earthquake Lake
- Henry’s Lake
- Cliff and Wade Lake
- The Firehole
These are our picks for fishing information, food, and places to stay or camp based on our taste or experience.
Recently Hatched Callibaetis Mayfly on Hebgen Lake
The Pups at Rainbow Point
Fishing is fun, but in such a special part of the world, it’s good to take a day or two and look around. Here you’ll find America’s first National Park, a lake created by a terrible earthquake in 1959, steep mountains, clear creeks, cowboys, and miles of hiking trails.
Go with knowledge! We keep guidebooks in the camper and the state atlas in all of our rigs. If you’re serious about fishing, here’s our recommended reading for this water.
*The link takes you to Amazon where you can read more about the titles and purchase the guidebooks if you choose. We do receive a small portion of the sale for providing the link which helps to support this site. We appreciate your support!
Some of the best fun you can have with a fly rod. I fished for the gulpers for 45 straight days one summer from mid July until early September. ONLY using dry flies makes it more challenging than dragging nymph droppers. Great fun I think the most I landed in one day was 9. It looks easier than it actually is. The wind will come up virtually every day first puffs of clouds over Lionhead is the beginning of the daily end.. Be well!
You are so right – only on drys is definitely harder than adding the nymph dropper. Great fun tho! Once the smoke settled in, we had several windless afternoons, a rare occurrence. Nasty to breathe but epic fishing. :)
I enjoyed the fish story and pictures and the video so much fun and challenges you had really miss those times thank you for sharing.
Took me three years to to land a couple. Bigger tippet but great fun
Why don’t you just keep this to yourself…you people are such a pain in the ass. Go home!!!
Hey Kevin, not trying to be a bother, my friend. Just sharing some fishing stories. Certainly, I’m not unique in that. There are magazines, tv shows, books, podcasts, and YouTube channels all on the subject of fly fishing; many discuss Montana. Oh and the fly shops too! They give out the details of all the places I mention. It’s a big world but few secrets left – nothing I cover is a secret.
Ditto. This article is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s not about sharing a fishing spot, but about drumming up $600/day clients. If the future of Hebgen is the present of the Madison, Big Hole, Missouri, Blackfoot, Big Horn. Ban guides from Hebgen for gods sakes.
Thank you so much for this fantastic report on Hebgen Lake. Hopefully dozens if not hundreds of the formerly uninitiated on Gulper fishing will book a $600 per day trip with you or one of your guide buddies. God forbid that these minions should take to the waters alone and suffer the agonizing frustration of figuring out shit by themselves. As a guy who’s been fishing Hebgen and the Madison for 50 years I’ve always felt these that these waters needed thousands of more fishermen, boats and guides. Sadly I don’t fish the Madison anymore, but just enjoy going over once in a while and watching the Armada float by for hours on end. It’s very similar to my passion for watching freight trains. This is an enjoyable experience one can also have on the Missouri, the Big Hole, the Big Horn, or Blackfoot. Back in the 70’s I felt so lonely out on Hebgen in my float tube and mused about what a wonderful world it would be if there could be hundreds more out here with me screaming with delight and “high fiveing” over a 16” Rainbow with their dogs going nuts in the bow and their motor boat wakes rocking me gently to Nirvana. So yes! Let loose the God Mammon on the waters of Hebgen. And may the Devil take the peace and tranquillity and the trout just like every other sad over-fished godforsaken water in Montana.
Kevin Beck is not your friend and I totally agree with him. What prompts you folks to write about every good fishing experience? Money, fame or self indulgence. Regardless, just like the movie A River Runs Through It you all are contributing to the demise of something the rest of us hold dear- a tranquil fishing experience. Writers and guides are destroying every great fishery in Montana. Congratulations on being a part of the mayhem. Just shut up, won’t you?
P.S. Hero fish photos are blasé. No one wants to see you with a fish. Leave the fish in the water when you remove the hook and for gods sake stop squeezing them.