Fly Fishing the U.S. West: Fly Rods and Set-Ups For Western Trout

Hopper season is in full swing in the western United States, as well as prolific hatches of callibaetis and tricos on surrounding streams and lakes. From casting big foam to delicately presenting small trico dries, there are several rods that perform exceptionally well in each category. We recently interviewed three members of the Thomas & Thomas pro staff that have a long history catching trout using numerous techniques and methods all throughout the Rockies. Read below to hear their favorite rods and setups for targeting trout in the U.S. West.

What is your go-to fly rod for western trout?

Mike Lum (MT): For me, it’s tough to beat the 9’ 5wt Avantt for its do-everything versatility. Many times throughout the season we’re starting the day throwing streamers and big nymphs with some weight and indicators. We might then transition to some smaller nymphs, a dry/dropper rig, or even (on the best days) a single dry. The Avantt has the goods to pull all of that off seamlessly. Plenty of power and guts in the butt to launch an articulated bunny fur or lob a bobber rig yet enough give in the tip for easy and accurate loading on even short single dry shots. If you want (or need) to limit yourself to one great rod or even if you’re looking to fill a quiver, the Avantt series is an outstanding choice.

Alec Gerbec (CO): Probably the most versatile rod that I use here in colorado for trout would be my Contact II 10 foot 3 weight.

Ian Davis (MT): I have been fishing the new Paradigm six weight in Montana this past month. Typically, I prefer a longer 9.5-foot rod for our expansive Western Rivers, but this 9-foot rod behaves well when I command it to do specific chores, such as a long roll cast or big downstream mend on a windy day. I also like how it comes back to rest on long, powerful casts. I have no idea how T&T pulled that off, but it is comforting.

 features of the rod make it an important tool for targeting trout?

Mike Lum (MT): Lots of power in the mid and butt sections, slightly softer tip for easy loading, accuracy, and protecting lighter tippet.

Alec Gerbec (CO): Many of our fisheries in the northern part of the state are pretty well pressured, meaning light tippet and little flies are pretty common when fishing for trout. The ten foot three allows for great tippet protection as well as sensitivity for feeling light takes. I enjoy this length as well, as it is still enjoyable if I need to switch over to a dry. It has quick recovery for a long rod.

Ian Davis (MT): This is easy. I’m tired of the wicked fast and ultra-light fly rods nowadays. I want a five weight that is a freaking five weight, and not a four-weight dressed up to be a five, because it is wicked fast, and once you get 50 feet of line out it actually bends. The T&T rods in the past five years have matured. We need smooth actions with a subtle mid to tip softness so that we have the ability to present a fly delicately. Rods that are too stiff have no touch in tight.

In your opinion, what are a few of the rods' strengths for fishing for trout in Montana?

Mike Lum (MT): Versatility, accuracy, loading/casting ease

Alec Gerbec (CO): The ability to make both long and short (but accurate) spey, roll, and technical nymphing casts

Ian Davis (MT): Smooth casting, accuracy, light presentations for dry fly fishing, and the capability to protect light tippet!

What reel/fly line do you pair with your Thomas & Thomas fly rod for trout?

Mike Lum (MT): My absolute favorite combo at the moment is the 9’ 5wt Avantt paired with a Hatch 5 Plus Gen2 and a Sci Anglers Amplitude MPX. That line is built at the upper end of the grain weight range making it slightly heavier than average. That gives the Avantt a bit more to work with especially at shorter distances and with heavier rigs.

Ian Davis (MT): I’m a Hatch reel guy. They look beautiful in photos and handle the pressure of long, hard runs with the new drag system. The new SA lines are expensive but amazing. They shoot incredibly well and compliment the T&T actions as well. I almost feel like I’m cheating with all the new rod, reel, and line technologies nowadays.

What type of cast(s) should an angler work on before visiting the U.S. West to fish for trout?

Mike Lum (MT): Great question. I think basic casting proficiency, in general, would be a good place to start. Virtually any local fly shop will be more than happy (or at least should be) to take you out and show you the basics…usually for free. Of course, guides can do the same but it’s up to you whether you want to spend your time at the boat ramp learning how to cast or actually fishing. To answer the question more specifically, on many Montana fisheries, long, accurate casts just aren’t necessary (despite what social media heroes might say). On the Madison, short lobs and semi-accurate throws will generally get the job done. That said, I always tell folks that the further you can cast with consistency, speed, and accuracy, the more quality presentations you’ll achieve which (hopefully) translates to a few more caught fish. Practice counts!

Alec Gerbec (CO): Well that depends on the fishery and how you like to fish. This time of year I am mainly euro nymphing but as the bugs are starting to hatch it is quite important to be able to make an accurate cast when presenting to these well-seasoned fish. It is pretty important not to line them as well as not land too close to them as you present the fly. I would say one of the most helpful casts one could work on is a reach cast, where making a mend in the air essentially to minimize the amount of movement you have to put on the fly while on the water.

Ian Davis (MT): The roll cast, pick up (once), and shoot. Ain’t no fish in the air.

Bonus question: What is the one skill that would be most beneficial for folks to learn prior to fishing the U.S. West? 

Mike Lum (MT): Without question…reading water. A little understanding of flow dynamics, depth change, obstructions, and potential holding water would go a LONG way towards more consistent success. This is especially true when fishing from a boat where getting a shot or two at a spot is the norm. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to micromanage every single cast an angler makes to the point of hitting the correct spot at the correct angle to get a good drift (in particular with beginners). If the angler can at least recognize likely spots it’ll go a long way towards a great collaborative effort.  

Tell us about a certain situation where you honestly pushed the rod to the absolute max both in casting to and fighting trout.

Mike Lum (MT): To a certain extent I push my rods to their limits on a daily basis. The Madison can be a demanding fishery in terms of fly size, fish size, current speed, and WIND! All of these factors can and do have varying impacts on a daily basis and having the ability and gear to deal with them can be the difference between success and frustration. The Avantt is PLENTY of rod for all of this…now, about that ability…

Alec Gerbec (CO): Some of the fisheries out here have some supersized fish that live amongst the average fish and you never know when they are going to eat your fly. I was fishing on the blue river this spring and found myself fishing small perditions on 6x, averaging fish in the 15-18” range. Low and behold I made it to this run that had a fair amount of wintering water(deep and slow) and half hearty plopped my flies in as I was wading into position. Not two seconds into my drift, I felt the slightest hesitation in my line and I set the hook into what seemed to the bottom at first before it started making its way upstream. Tensions were high as I had light tippet on and the fish was moving into the fastest part of the run with plenty of obstacles. The beauty of the rod is how deep it bends and absorbs any sudden movements while protecting your tippet. I put the heat on this fish to come back downstream into the slow water and landed what I would estimate to be a 7-pound fish.

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