Out of Bounds

Sunrise of Spring

Some of the best dry fly fishing of the year is underway right now on the Bitterroot River

By Rob Breeding

There are few things more delightful than watching a dry fly bounce down a fishy run.

One of them is watching that dry fly disappear into the maw of a rising trout.

Historically, March was considered a bit too soon for dry flies. The major hatches didn’t come until things warmed up, after high water, or so we thought. But obsessive anglers have spent the last 40 years or so myth busting the conventions and traditions of fly fishing. 

Dry flies only work in summer is one of those myths.

Some of the best dry fly fishing of the year is underway right now on the Bitterroot River. The Bitterroot is known mostly for two things: wacky militia types, who in the 1990s foreshadowed where American politics was headed in the 21st century, and the skwala hatch.

Skwalas, as most fly fishing folks know by now, are early emerging stoneflies. They are found across the West, but the Bitterroot has a reputation for the best skwala hatch anywhere. You’ll also find plenty of bugs in the Clark Fork River and Rock Creek down around Missoula.

The Yakima River in Washington probably has the best skwala hatch in the Northwest outside of Montana, but a lot of rivers now attract early spring skwala fly fishers.

The skwala hatch was identified by winter whitefish anglers decades ago on the Bitterroot. For years anglers targeted whitefish in winter since the season never closed, as it did for trout. Maggots were the preferred whitefish bait, and cagey anglers kept them between their cheek and gum to keep the fly larvae warm and lively.

Or maybe they just wanted to make winter whitefish angling seem rugged and manly, sort of like eating sardine and onion sandwiches, which I’m told was a shore lunch favorite back in the winter-whitefish heyday.

Halitosis-challenged anglers started noticing that on milder winter days trout would make splashy rises in the choicer runs. And as winter turned to spring, they identified the reason for that commotion: skwalas at their feet. These stoneflies rarely fly, preferring to crawl out of the river onto streamside rocks and brush to mate. 

One of those crusty winter anglers eventually had a “Dawn of Man” moment, realizing Montana fishing regulations didn’t say anything about not being able to use fly fishing gear during the winter whitefish season. Soon everyone and their brother was fishing for whitefish on big skwala dry flies. And gosh dang it, they hardly ever caught anything but annoying trout, which they were required to release. 

Today the Bitterroot can be as crowded with fly fishing rafts on some weekends in March and April as it is at the height of the summer season. Well, maybe not that crowded. The skwala hatch tends to be more of a local’s thing, seeing as the variability of Montana’s March weather means it’s a dicey time to book a vacation trip to the Bitterroot.

I lived in Hamilton for six years and had some pretty good skwala days on the Bitterroot. The earliest I ever got into it on dries was March 7, a decade or so ago. The fishing comes and goes with the weather. Snow or unseasonably early high water can spoil things.

The other thing that can spoil the fishing is spoiled fishing gear. I wasted one potentially epic March float by not replacing my leaders when I bought a new license. I broke off four or five nice trout before I finally picked up on the fanfare of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” playing in my head, checked the condition of my leader material, and became aware it was rotten.

Fortunately, with borrowed tippet I managed to land a couple of bruisers before we reached takeout.

Each netted trout was delightful. It didn’t hurt that no one brought sardines.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.

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