It’s officially spring. Winter tried to whup us and once again failed. Pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.
And remember, the best way to reward yourself for navigating another rotten winter is to fish the skwala hatch.
It’s a tricky hatch to hit just right. Skwala stoneflies are the first bugs of the year on western Montana rivers. They show up in early March. By St. Patrick’s Day, the hatch is usually full on, lingering into April.
That doesn’t mean you can count on anything this time of year. Early spring blizzards mean the hatch might sizzle one day, fizzle the next. To maximize your odds of hitting it just right, befriend someone in the Bitterroot who has a spare bedroom, or at least a couch, and plan on being the house guest who overstays their welcome.
You’ll find skwalas on rivers all over western Montana, but nowhere is the hatch as consistent or vigorous as on the Bitterroot. The Bitterroot has probably the best skwala action on planet Earth, though the Yakima River in central Washington has its boosters.
On the Bitterroot, the hatch simmers all March, boiling over into great dry fly fishing whenever conditions are just so. Since skwalas come so early in the year, our minds highlight the hatch against the negative space of the hatch-less winter. It’s that depravity of winter, when we are forced to watch strike indicators rather than dry flies drifting in the current, that contributes to the skwala obsession.
Well, there’s that, and also the tugs at the end of your line.
A variety of skwala patterns work, and every shop in the Bitterroot/Missoula area has favorites they push on customers. I’ve never had a go-to skwala fly as it seems when it’s on, any stonefly pattern in the No. 8-10 range with an olive or tan body draws strikes. I like foam flies because they float high and are easy to fish. I’m also a sucker for patterns that include a dark egg sac at the business end of the abdomen. I’m not sure it’s mandatory, but you’ll find random naturals in streamside willows, and the bigger females usually sport eggs.
Foam dries have that benefit of buoyancy, which is a big advantage if you’re inclined to fish a dropper nymph underneath. It’s an effective combo. Even when you catch the skwala hatch at the peak of the frenzy, you’ll rarely see many bugs in the air or on the water. The naturals do little flying, and the nymphs usually crawl out of the water at the shoreline, rather than emerging from the current. Trout key on the nymphs.
You may catch more fish, but a dry/dropper setup misses the point of the skwala hatch. After a winter of nymphing, nothing feels sweeter than casting a 5-weight unhindered by multiple flies, lead and air-resistant strike indicators. For the first time since fall you can cast a single fly, throw tight loops and catch trout.
Don’t mess up casting bliss by chasing a few extra fish.
While you’re picking up flies, remember this is also time to replace your leaders and tippet material. Years ago, one of the best skwala floats of my life was nearly spoiled by fishing with the previous year’s leaders. After I snapped off a few fish I borrowed some fresh stuff. During skwala season you’ll have some of the biggest sippers of the year slapping wildly at your fly. Bring some stout 3X rope so you can coax them to the net.
Rob Breeding is the editor of the website www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.