Out of Bounds

Throwing Stones

It wasn’t the salmonfly Holy Grail, but it was trout to the net

By Rob Breeding

I set off on a quest last week to find stoneflies, though, quite typically, I found myself a little late for the big show.

The big show is the salmonfly hatch. Salmonflies — the biggest of the stones — get their name from their salmon-colored body. At about two inches, the subadult nymphs are some of the biggest chicken nuggets in the river. In the spring they migrate to the shoreline in preparation for their emergence from the water as winged adults. 

Then the fun begins.

The salmon fly hatch often coincides with high water, so it can be tricky to hit just right. But if you do, it’s bam-bam fun. The winged adults are even bigger than the nymphs, and when that kind of protein is floating in the surface film, even the most cautious bruiser brown trout lose their heads. 

That’s why the salmonfly hatch is a fever, one not even more cowbell can cure.

I went looking for my prescription on a couple of rivers near and dear to me: the Big Hole and the Bitterroot. I fell in love with the Big Hole on my first day in Montana, on my way to a new life in the Bitterroot.

That drive across the Valley of 10,000 Haystacks made clear Montana was a different place than my old stomping grounds in Southern California. The valley is so named because ranchers in the Big Hole pile their hay using beaverslide stackers, a wooden contraption invented in the Big Hole.

The original beaverslides used teams of horses to slide hay to the top of the stack. Tractors provide the horsepower these days and Big Hole ranchers now put up most of their hay in bales, though some stacks remain as a nod to valley history. The stacks are also a cost efficient way to store hay, so long as they are protected from marauding elk out for an easy lunch.

The guy at the fly shop in Divide warned me the fishing might be tough in the upper river where I was headed. He was right. The salmonfly hatch was a fading memory, though I did flush one big orange bug out of the sagebrush as I walked the bank. 

I know it was my imagination, but that salmonfly seemed 5 inches long as it buzzed toward the river. I resisted the impulse to swing on it like a sharptail.

That was it for bugs, though things perked up a bit in the evening, just as I had to leave in order to make my destination in the Bitterroot on time. More troubling was the water itself, low and warm to the point of mortality danger for trout — in mid-June. The Big Hole needs more water, but the hay that builds those iconic landmarks is a thirsty crop. There’s not always enough for both.

Things were better on the West Fork of the Bitterroot, where extra water in Painted Rocks Reservoir boosts flows in the warmest months, providing enough of a cushion to limit summer mortality.

Here I was two hatches behind salmonflies, however. Golden stones usually come hot on the heels of the salmonflies. These bugs are slightly smaller and the trout aren’t quite so reckless, but they keep the surface bite alive. I saw golden stones in the air, but watched trout after trout rise to my fly, only to shun it at the last moment. 

Then the next bug in line, Bitterroot stoneflies, made its appearance. Bitterroot stones, as they are locally known, are just smaller goldens. I first mistook them for caddis, then got a clue and tied on a smaller golden stonefly pattern. Refusals became hookups.

It wasn’t the salmonfly Holy Grail, but it was trout to the net. If that doesn’t make you happy it’s time to find a new summer obsession.

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