Cutthroat on the Skwala!
It is spring in Montana and that means chasing the most elusive of all stoneflies…the mighty skwala. This is a stone fly hatch that happens in between beautiful and horrible early spring days. Skwalas are a hardy little creature that emerge to conditions that are tough to survive. Most years, It takes an equally hardy fisherman to catch a trout with a skwala fly. Planning trips based on the weather is simply not possible. You may see a weather window that looks great, but by the time you get to the water you will be dealing with sleet, snow, wind, rain and sun - all in the same 30 minutes. Its a crazy time to fish, but it can be extremely rewarding, and its a great way to get your dry fly fix after a long winter. Unfortunately, I have been in a skwala slump for many years.
The skwala hatch has always been elusive to me. There has been the occasional year where I see them in droves, but most years I hardly ever see one. I know they are there, I just seem to always miss "The Day”. The last time I can remember catching trout on skwalas was in the 90’s. I have chased them many times since then, but I always revert to using nymphs, and hanging my head in shame.
The last five years I have visited Michael Matthews ( Professional Guide, BMO Fly Fishing Pro Staff - And my Son), trying to catch a trout on a skwala. I have seen a few skwalas on the water over the years, but I never got a trout to rise to my fly. I usually only have one weekend to do this trip, and every year the weather has been terrible. I keep coming back year after year because I hear all the stories from Michael about how epic it can be, and I see all the instagram posts of anglers catching them on the skwala. I keep thinking that one year, it will be my time. It’s kinda like Charlie Brown and the football - I fall for it every year, but I keep believing that this time will be different.
This years trip came this past weekend. The Montana Grizzlies Spring Game was this past weekend so I figured I would watch Michael play and then squeeze in a skwala trip on Saturday. The forecast said it would be sunny and 74 degrees in Hamilton, Montana, where the game was being played. Looked like this time WAS different - everything looked perfect - the rivers were in shape, the weather was perfect and there were many reports of a good skwala bite!
I got to Missoula around 3:00 and the weather was beautiful. I checked into my hotel, grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed down the Bitterroot Valley towards Hamilton. While I was driving I could not believe my luck, the weather was perfect, the river looked great and everything was is place for a magical fishing trip, and then it happened. As I drove through Florence a gust of wind shook my Tundra and I caught a glimpse of dark clouds and rain moving over the top of the mountains. Here we go, Lucy just pulled the football away and I landed on my head.
By the time I got to Hamilton, the temperature had dropped ten degrees, the wind was blowing hard, and there was a light rain in the air - perfect weather for the football game - but not for the skwala.
Michael with my Good Friend John Hall
intermittent spring storms in the background
The game was amazing, Michael did great and I got to see my good friend John Hall who used to work for The Danielson Company. On my way back to Missoula, things turned even worse - more wind, more rain and the temperature continued to drop. typical spring in Montana.
I woke up Saturday morning to a cold blustery Montana spring day. Michael had a guided trip planned for the day, so I had some time to kill before we could go fishing. I had my favorite breakfast at The Laughing Grizzley ( A must for breakfast in Missoula ), got some work done and was visiting some stores when Michael called and said that his trip has cancelled - 36 degrees and high wind is not a fun day, so I don’t blame them for canceling. I drove over to East Missoula to meet him and get a game plan.
We drove down to the Alberton area on the Clark Fork River to a spot that Michael knew well. Michael rigged his Orvis combo with a “Loaded Diaper” skwala pattern on top, and a bead head nymph for a dropper.
"Loaded Diaper" Skwala
We worked a little seam for about 5 minutes getting a lay of the land. I needed some practice casting the dropper rig in the high wind. We moved another 25 yards up the river to a promising looking spot. On my second cast the impossible happened, a trout hit my skwala. It was so unbelievable that I froze for a second before I set the hook and I ended up missing it, but the nymph swung up and caught the trout in the head. I landed it, but I still could not count it as a true skwala catch.
We moved up river a bit and saw some fish actively feeding on mayflies. We did not see any skwalas, but Michael told me that they had been out and that fish were accustomed to grabbing them, so our pattern should work. Michael took the dropper off, and told me it was now or never - we were going straight skwala.
The Slump is Over!!!! A glorious rainbow on the skwala!
We watched a fish rising, and I casted to it several times, but the wind kept pushing my cast too close to the shore. Finally, I got the fly in the right spot and BOOM…fish on the skwala. It wasn’t huge, but it was glorious and I had finally broke my skwala slump! We landed it, took a few pics and got back to fishing. Four cast later I landed another beautiful Montana trout on the skwala!. I handed the rod over to Michael, and he proceeded to catch two more! Finally we found success with the skwala - my decades long slump was over.
Michael caught them on the skwala too!
About this time we got a call from Michael's girlfriend, Emily. She was driving down to meet us, so we headed back towards the truck. Michael gave Emily the rod and tied on a San Juan Worm dropper and she proceeded to catch a beauty on the San Juan Worm! It was a great way to end this spectacular day.
Emily finished the day with the on on the San Juan Worm!
Thanks for reading