The Skwala hatch is a big deal these days and for good reason. It is the first main hatch of the season and at times it produces exceptional fishing. But, like any hatch during the Montana fishing season it has it’s pros and cons.
The most common question we get from anglers is, “When is the best time to fish the Skwala hatch?” If I could predict that with any accuracy I would book those dates and take the rest of the hatch off and go tarpon fishing. I really wish it was like fishing the Skwala hatch with Oprah. “You get dry fly fish, and you get dry fly fish, everybody gets a bunch of dry fly fish!”
The reality is a little different. There are ups and downs during Skwalas just like all of our other hatch cycles. Over the years I have had fantastic dry fly fishing as early as the first week of March and as late as early May. I have also seen tough fishing conditions throughout that time frame as well.
The best way to think about it is, that the quality of your actual fishing relies almost entirely on the specific conditions of your trip dates for any hatch. For Skwalas your best bet is to pick dates within the historic window of mid-March through late April. After that it is up to the fishing gods.
If you show up and it’s bright and sunny everyday with rising water levels then you are definitely going to have to work for your opportunities. On the other hand, if the river has been dropping for 3 days and it’s 55 degrees, cloudy and calm then buckle up. The fishing is likely going to be lights out awesome.
The angler’s skill and the guide’s experience definitely play a part. A good combination of those two will make each days fishing better, but they are still subject to the daily conditions. Some days the conditions favor the anglers and some days they don’t.
This season, the last 5 days have been like fishing with Oprah. Just about everyone has been having banner days. In 2017 we were completely blown out in Missoula for these same dates. It is always good to do a little research on locations and best times, but ultimately pick your dates, pull the trigger, and then hope for the best.
Hoot Owl fishing restrictions have ended in Missoula, but Smokey Bear is still on the prowl with a number of forest fires in the area. Our weather has cooled off some and dropped water temperatures into acceptable, and even optimal ranges for fly fishing. 5 and 6 am meet times are no longer necessary as we start to relax into fall fishing mode.
The forest fires are a whole different issue. Currently there are fires burning at all points of the compass from Missoula. Air quality varies day to day based on the wind and weather. It is almost always thickest in the morning and then starts to lift and thin out as the day warms. Most days are tolerable if you don’t have any health issues, but there have been a few days where the smoke was awful the entire day. It is impossible to predict what the future will hold.
The one silver lining with the forest fires is that the smoke creates good fishing conditions. It serves as artificial cloud cover allowing the trout to feel more confident, and forces the mayflies to linger just a little longer on the water. The smoke also takes the edge off the heat. Instead of 90 degree days we have seen days in the mid 80’s which keeps our trout active longer throughout the day.
If you don’t mind dealing with the smoke, this is a very good time to fish the Missoula area. There is less traffic on the water right now than at any time since the peak of run-off in May. It will only get busier through the fall. Hopper fishing is in full swing with the real possibility to fish a big single dry fly all day. Tricos and Hecubas are also starting which produces a mix of very technical small dry fly fishing and searching with a giant drake pattern. Late August is a sleeper in Missoula.
Smokey Bear will likely be on patrol through the fall. Most of the experts expect this fire season to last until the snow flies in October. The air quality will improve however. Our days get noticeably shorter in September and the nights much colder. That tends to stunt the growth of our fires. They might linger until the snow but they should not be very active. In the meantime we will string up rods on vacant waters and enjoy fly fishing in Missoula.
Big dry fly rainbow ready for release
Fall fly fishing in Missoula is beyond compare. There are many reasons why fall is a favorite for both anglers and guides; there are the prolific mayfly hatches combined with the last of the terresterials, the brilliant colors of changing cottonwoods, willows, and larch in the riverbottoms, and the streams vacant of tourists, hunters, pleasure boaters, and kids tubing just to name a few. Autumn truly is the anglers’ time, and it is the one time of year when a skilled angler will rise above all others.
Weather drives our fishing year round, however it seems to have the greatest impact in the fall. If you find solid overcast skies and calm conditions every angler on the water is going to crush them, and there will be plenty of smiles at the bar that night. The average and even beginning angler are going to have great days in those conditions while the skilled angler could very well have that day of a lifetime. Clouds bring the mayflies on and make the fish feel more confident. The whole system feeds on cloudy days and everyone catches them, but the skilled angler gets the chance to pick on those wise old trout that rarely make themselves vulnerable. Sure, they eat it on the foam line and who doesn’t like that, but there is also the big brown sipping in an out of the way spot. He’s no pushover so it still takes a long cast and perfect drift, but the cloudy day makes him an option and the skilled angler has the chance to feed him. Those are the days that fishing guides live for too.
The flip side is sunshine in the fall. The fishing can still be good, even great although the margin for error is much slimmer. They still eat the hopper all fall in Missoula and even some big ones make mistakes in the sun. The bugs will come too, there is just going to be fewer of them and the window of opportunity smaller. Dropper fishing gets guides through a lot of sunny days, but a good forward angle cast and drag free drift will catch plenty of good fish on dry flies every day of the fall.
The bottom line is this….if you plan on fall fly fishing in Missoula then work on your skill set, pray for clouds, and no matter what happens it is still a hell of alot better than being at work.
The Bitterroot River in full fall glory
Summertime in Missoula
As we move into June the Missoula fishing forecast is starting to get a little clearer for the 2014 season. Keep in mind that I’m a fishing guide so there will be no shortage of excuses should my predictions prove false. It’s a mix of weather, water, and trout and we get calls everyday, “Will we be able to fish salmonflies on the Blackfoot?” “Will there be enough water in August?” and my personal favorite, “What’s the best time of year to fish Missoula?” The truth is, if I knew the absolute answers to those questions I’d be the highest paid fishing guide in the country. Of course, no one really knows those answers but after 16 years on the water I’ve become a pretty good guesser. Based on what I have seen in the past, current conditions, and the long-term weather forecast I have a fairly good idea of how the season will lay out, but Mother Nature loves to throw curve balls at us.
Lots of these predicted this year
The best prediction for the 2014 fishing season is this; we had a big snowpack this winter and a cold spring so that snow has just started coming out of the mountains in the last 3 weeks. That should give us good streamflows all summer long. Currently our temps are around average but we have had a very dry May. That’s great short-term news as we could be fishing around Missoula within the next 10 days or so and the salmonfly hatches might be very fishable. All bets are off if it starts raining in earnest and I’ve seen it rain 25 out of 30 days in June before so we can’t be certain about the big bugs yet. Even with some rain the golden stone and green drake hatches should be stellar this year. A nice easy drop in flows is what these bugs love and that looks to be the scenario. The Blackfoot river and upper Bitterroot should really shine in late June through July. The real question is what the summer will offer. Some folks say it is to be dry and hot while others claim the temps will remain mild. We should have enough water to combat all but the worst heat waves and I have already seen a number of grasshoppers already along the banks of the river. This dry spring bodes well for our terresterials and it is shaping up to be a banner hopper season with good streamflows and plenty of bugs haplessly falling in the water. This very well could be the season when the Clark Fork river shows its true colors again with awesome summer hopper fishing. Fall is the season that no one really ever worries about. Fall fishing around Missoula is always great right? Usually yes, but last year we had to deal with closures on the Blackfoot and extremely low water on the Bitterroot. That shouldn’t even be an issue this season and I foresee a return to the consistent dry fly fishing that has made September and October two of my favorite months of fly fishing. So there you have it. The 2014 Missoula fishing forecast predicts a great year on the water. I am sure there will be some road bumps along the way, but a pile of snow and mild temps has us sitting pretty and there should be no shortage of dry fly eats and bent rods this season.