Big Dry Flies in March?
The Skwala hatch started early this year with the mild weather at the beginning of the month and it has been one of the best March’s I have ever seen when it comes to dry fly fishing. The Bitterroot has Skwala stoneflies coming off river wide, from above Darby all the way down to Missoula. It is still the top option in the area, but some other fisheries are starting to come on-line and if you want to get away from all the traffic on the Root those other choices may surprise you with the quality of the fishing.
Skwala Hatch Options with Solitude
Rock Creek has been solid all spring with consistent nymph and streamer fishing, and the dry fly bite is on too with a few Skwalas and blue-wing olives on cloudy days. The March Browns are only days away, and that is one of the very finest hatches on Rock Creek each year. Normally March is a little early for the Clark Fork to have a reliable Skwala hatch but this year has been different. There are some big bugs crawling around the water near town and the blue-wings have produced daily pods of rising fish. The upper Clark Fork from Rock Creek to Missoula has been great as well. You won’t find the rising trout up there, but dry/dropper combos have been consistently producing. The very upper and lower portions of the Clark Fork haven’t seen much pressure yet.
Is it too early for those spots? There’s only way to know for sure, and I can guarantee you won’t have to wait in line at the put-in to launch your boat. The Blackfoot has been hit or miss so far this spring. Some days the nymphing and streamer fishing has been fantastic while other days it has been really slow. It’s pretty up there though, and you will have that all to yourself as well.
This year has been a good one so far for the Skwala hatch. The bugs are here and there are enough different options to keep everyone happy. Our weather forecast looks good for the rivers too. We should have fairly stable streamflows through this week at least. It looks like another good one to be in Missoula!
Bitterroot Skwala Hatch
What was once a local secret, the Bitterroot Skwala hatch has become the most anticipated event of the Missoula fishing season. It is easy to see why. After a long, dreary winter the Skwala provides the first big meal for local trout and the first big dry fly fishing for anglers from all over the country. This rise in popularity has lead to a busy river in the spring and requires a different approach from years ago.
These 5 Tips can be the difference between a bent rod and high fives, or grumbling the whole way home about that ‘overrated’ Skwala hatch. Spring is here and it’s time to go fishing!
1-Avoid Traffic: Whether you are wade fishing or floating do your best to avoid accesses that look busy. Bumping just a few miles up or downstream can give you the space and solitude to fish more effectively. If you are wading plan to work upstream of the access in the mornings and downstream in the afternoons. This will eliminate most any competition with boats.
When I am floating I will take the ramp with only one boat ahead of me over the stretch with the ‘hot’ report and 10 rigs any day. You need space during the Skwala hatch, and launching behind a line of other boats is a sure fire way to find tough fishing.
2-Sleep In: This is not the time of year to be on the water at the crack of dawn. In fact, the crack of noon is about right to take advantage of when the trout are most active. Water temps are still cold this time of year and it takes some daylight and heat to build to get our trout actively on the feed.
Yes, you can catch trout earlier in the day and some days even on dries, but there is no need to rush in the morning. Taking a relaxed approach will also likely create some space between you and other anglers.
3-Go Fast or Go Slow: If you show up to your first Bitterroot Skwala hatch hoping to see coulds of bugs flying around and pods of rising fish you will be sorely disappointed. It’s a great hatch, but does not produce prolific numbers of bugs like a Salmonfly or caddis hatch. That means you need to adopt one of two approaches.
You can choose to work the water fast, looking for the most aggressive trout and pockets of bugs, or you can slow way down and fish the water very methodically. Both styles have their pros and cons and I will often switch between the two during the day working fast when there’s not much action and then putting on the brakes when the fish start to look up.
4-Watch Streamflows: Spring is a tricky time of year when it comes to streamflows. Too warm of weather or rain can have the river on the rise while hard freezes can make flows drop. The best case scenario is stable water levels while the worst is a steeply rising river. Tough fishing is the norm during rising water, but it only takes a day or so for the trout to adjust once the river levels off.
Once flows start to drop again that can be a trigger for heavy feeding. The biggest factor effecting our flows in the spring is nightime low temps. As long as the temps drop below freezing at night conditions will remain fairly predictable. A couple nights of above freezing temps at night and all bets are off.
5-Believe in the Dry Fly!: You have come to fish one of the best dry fly hatches of the season so it only makes sense to throw a dry fly. Yes, nymphing will produce fish, some days a lot of them, and a dry/dropper rig is very effective too but it’s not dry fly fishing. Don’t get me wrong, I am no dry fly snob as I’m happy to fish whatever tactic will produce, but the Skwala hatch is one situation where you seriously hurt your chances of a dry fly eat by fishing a dropper.
Slow, woody debris is ideal during Skwalas and a lot of those spots are damn near impossible to throw a dropper into. Nearly all of the best guides I know choose to push a single dry fly for the better part of their days during the Skwala hatch. Sure, the 15″ rainbow is easy pickings on a dropper in the main seam, but your best chance at that 22″ brown is tight to the snag infested log jam.
Smith River Camp 2015
Camp life on the Smith River is one of the highlights on this 5 day overnight trip. You’re never quite sure what is going to happen in camp, and by day 5 the activites skew toward the creative. Last year on the Smith, gear guys Sam and Max decided to blow off a little steam once the final desserts of the trip had been served. We always wonder what the gear guys do all day before we make it to camp. Now we have a little better idea.
We are getting to that time of year when Smith River applications are due. The deadline is Feb. 18th and you can find all the information you need HERE
Winter Fly Tying always begins with the unenviable task of cleaning. The fly tying desk has laid dormant since the end of the guide season in the fall. No time to tie during the hectic hunting season and certainly no thoughts of cleaning occur during the overdone mess that has become our American holiday season. Only now, in the depths of winter, I face the reality of sorting through the wreckage from last year. Typically the tying desk stays relatively well organized through the middle of the guide season. Flies get tied at night when stocks run low and materials are returned to their rightful places. All is right in the fly tying world until fatigue starts to creep in. After two weeks straight on the river in the heat of late July the last thing I want to do is sit at the vise in the evening. But my desire to catch trout outweighs my need for a full nights sleep. The fly shops either don’t have what I need, or they are out of stock so at the desk I sit. To conserve time and energy I start to cut corners. Materials begin to accumulate on the table. It starts out small scale as I tell myself that I’ll need to tie more of the same in the coming nights. Then conditions change on the rivers. The trusty PMD pattern that had been getting it done all week starts to get snubbed in favor of a rusty spinner. That’s the tipping point and the downward spiral ensues. Instead of putting away all the PMD stuff it simply gets pushed to the side and out comes the rusty spinner materials. This scenario plays out for a few months and the pile takes on a life of it’s own. I think about cleaning, but only have enough time to crank out three bugs over a cup of coffee before picking up clients. It usually gets to the point where the desk itself is barely visible and instead of putting stuff away it just goes to the floor. By the time the last guide day rolls around I’m lucky if I can even find my tools and there is a big sigh of relief when I push my chair back for the last time of the season. Of course, now all the clutter comes calling. Cleaning the tying desk is never that enjoyable although it does allow me to relive the highlights from the previous year. I can always recall the best hatches by what is laid out, and each layer that is put back in the bins takes me back through the season. It took a couple of days this time, but the desk is finally ready for some winter fly tying. I don’t even try to pretend anymore that this year I’ll do better. The chaos will come again.
Most of the hunting seasons have all but wrapped up, and we have had a little time to reflect back on the top 5 fishing moments of 2015. Overall it was a mixed season, as most tend to be, with some stretches of incredible angling and other times when we found ourselves scratching our head. Here are the best moments:
- Skwala Hatch This spring hatch is the most highly anticipated of the year. It is the first big dry fly of the season, and its arrival in March coincides with the peak of cabin fever for most fly fishing enthusiasts. How good or bad the hatch is in any given year is almost irrelevant because anglers are simply happy to get out on the water. This year was a solid hatch though with Skwalas coming off early in March and good water levels through most of April. Some of our biggest trout of the season hit the net during Skwalas and 2015 was no exception.
- Missouri River in May Late April through early June is runoff around Missoula when our freestone rivers are usually unfishable. Fortunately the Missouri is an incredible tailwater fishery that is only 2 hours away. Consistent nymphing and technical dry fly fishing to large rainbows and browns brings anglers back year after year. We were blown away by the great dry fly fishing this season. Blue-wing olives early in May and then caddis from late May into early June. Big brown trout sipping dry flies will always make the list.
- Smith River Floating the fabled Smith River is
something every fly angler should do at least once in their life. We are fortunate to be able to get on the Smith about every other year. The trick with the Smith is timing. The best fishing and floating revolves around runoff and since launches are permitted, anglers are committed to their dates months in advance. This year our dates were absolutely perfect and the fishing was off the charts! We had good dry fly fishing from day one on, and boated lots of big brown trout throughout the float. An added bonus was gorgeous weather for the entire trip. It was a storybook trip from start to finish and the finest overnight trip I’ve ever been on. Unfortunately the Smith River is still under threat from a large scale copper mine. Visit Save our Smith to see what you can do to help.
- Salmonfly Hatch This is the biggest bug of the
entire season and it creates hysteria through the fly fishing community. Much of the hype can be overrated as Salmonflies come off during runoff and the hatch is historically very hit or miss, especially for the visiting angler. One good day of Salmonflies is worth the risk though. “Hit” the hatch right and some of the biggest trout of the year come up to gobble comically huge dry flies. Low water years are usually best, and last season’s low water conditions created some of the best Salmonfly fishing in recent memory. We chased Salmonflies for a solid month from Rock Creek, to the Bitterroot Forks, the Blackfoot, and even the lower Clark Fork. Some years those big orange bugs make us pull our hair out, last season we giggled for weeks with heavy nets and dry fly eats.
- Spruce Moth Hatch This is a notoriously
unreliable hatch. Some years it hardly happens at all and rainy, cool weather can stop this mid-summer hatch in its tracks. It comes off best on Rock Creek, the West Fork of the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, and parts of the lower Clark Fork. I’m not sure what it is about spruce moths, but it is more than simply food for trout because they go absolutely crazy for this terresterial bug. Big trout throw caution to the wind in crystal clear water to feast on this hatch. This season we had dry fly pandemonium for a couple of weeks when the moths showed up in July. Lots of healthy cutthroats on the Blackfoot and West Fork, and the best wade fishing of the season on Rock Creek.
We had more than our share of great angling in 2015 and these top 5 moments only highlight a few. We always enjoying looking back, but we are also already anxiously waiting for what next season will bring. Change is the only constant in the fly fishing world and I am excited for the new year!