HEBGEN LAKE, Mont. — The first time I heard the swelling crescendo by the lakeshore I thought it was an airplane nearing overhead. It took a moment to realize the buzz was emanating from thousands upon thousands of midges — tiny insects that hatch in huge numbers on Hebgen Lake.
And then a breeze came through the timber and the air was silent again.
“You hear that sound early in the season, and it is already waning,” Josh Duchateau, head fishing guide at the lakeside Firehole Ranch, said recently. “The conditions were just perfect for (a big midge hatch) this year — temperatures in the 70s and calm days.”
Hebgen Lake, just outside West Yellowstone, Mont., on the border of Yellowstone National Park, is quite a bug factory. And all those insects provide a food base for a robust trout fishery. As soon as the ice comes off the lake in the spring, brown and rainbow trout cruise the surface looking for a meal.
Duchateau said the term “gulper fishing” comes from the sound the fish make as they feed — the steady gulp, gulp, gulp of a consistently rising fish.
When the magic happens the gulper fishing on Hebgen Lake can be fantastic. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife &Parks, brown and rainbow trout average 17-18 inches on the lake, with some fish growing much larger.
But conditions on Hebgen Lake don’t always make things easy for anglers. The slightest breeze can create a chop on the water that may put the fish off.
Anglers hoping to catch gulpers on Hebgen Lake should keep a close eye on the weather forecast. Focusing efforts early in the day, when bugs are hatching, and late in the day, when the wind settles down, will lead to success.
Early in the season, chironomids (midges) are a prevalent food source. Though trout regularly rise to midges, Duchateau said they don’t feed on them the same way they do another important bug on the lake — callibaetis mayflies.
Peter Scorzetti, of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, said callibaetis hatch in huge numbers on the Madison Arm in August.
While stalking fish from the banks can be effective, many anglers pursuing gulpers prefer to fish from a boat. Duchateau said some boats are better than others for fishing gulpers.
“I used to fish in float tubes a lot, especially up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation,” Duchateau said. “The second I got up off the water the casting was easier. A pontoon boat gets you up a little higher and you can see farther. A flats boat with a trolling motor is nice because you can stand and move into position . When the water is clear and there is no wind, I have seen fish move 15-20 feet for a little fly.”