This season looks as good as 2011, as far as snowpack in the high country, and cool temperatures keeping it locked up and the river flows stable. Big and stable. Friends are still skiing and will be for some time to come, while our Bitterroot river is alive and fishing well on our first hatches of the season. Skwala stoneflies are hatching routine now, and the first of the March Browns are here and building every day.
The river is gonna be big this year, same with the Big Hole which feeds from the same mountain ranges as our river. Its been double historical flows for the last month, and a long winter with never ending shitty days and cold temps have kept any signs of runoff at bay. The river and the bugs are happy despite the fickle days, and afternoons produce excellent dry fly fishing for a few hours or better on the pleasant days.
We have a couple weeks of predictable fishing, maybe more, until that big snowpack starts to let loose, and then we’ll see how this year’s runoff shapes out. Right now the valley is just waking up, no leaves yet, deep white mountains overhead, brilliant sunshine followed by a snow squall every thirty minutes or so, and great early season fishing: it feels like a perfect Montana spring.
The easy days of pre-runoff are long gone, and with them go the predictable water flows and insect cycles we’ve grown accustomed to. March Browns and Skwalas are still hatching every day, but that sure doesn’t mean anyone with fins is actually looking at them. When the water starts to spike in the spring, things can get a bit dicey out there on the river. Bugs will still hatch for the most part if the weather is conducive, but the added river flows charging down the valley keep the fish busy finding new homes and lies, virtually eliminating any rising activity until things stabilize.
Now is when your fishing guide is worth their weight in gold. Those easy single dry fly days are history, and plugging along with such rig will lead to a long beautiful day making casts, but that’s about it. With our feet in the river daily, a good guide can make a tough river fish spectacular with the right setup and instruction. What may look like a turbulent, flooded river basin to many, is actually an oasis to the fish, filled with food and hiding spots not usually available at lower flows. Big trout move to feed in this kind of water, coming out of their deep winter holes to lie in ambush positions throughout the river. Gravel bars littered with tree stumps become flooded and then attract fish to their refuge, more than doubling the available hideouts throughout the basin.
So some days you have to say screw the dry fly, at least until things really get cooking, and bust out the junk. Being a good fly fishermen means dealing with adversity and finding success whenever and wherever you may find yourself. If the dry and the five weight ain’t gonna do it, bump up to the six and the bobber, or grab the seven and the biggest ugliest thing in your box and start ripping casts. One way or another we’ll figure them out, and we’re having a blast in the process.
Our spring mayflies have finally started showing themselves on the Bitterroot. After almost a month of focusing on the Skwala stonefly, the March Browns are coming on with a vengeance on certain days and sections of the river. These bugs can be picky to their preferred weather, leaning towards humid broken skied days. Unlike Baetis which thrive with torturous weather, March Browns like a little sunshine mixed with some clouds; too much rain will cancel the deal as it did on our Friday float trip.
Fortunately, we took advantage of the hatch all day Thursday, and then Friday from its inception at around two o’clock, and saw epic fishing until a heavy cold rainstorm wiped the bugs out around 3:30. While waiting for the mayflies, we fished Skwala patterns to likely holds and found many good fish looking for our bugs. As I glanced towards a likely chop seam, I saw multiple good trout fully expose their red banded sides as they rose steadily, indicating they were onto a mayfly hatch. Right away we dumped the Skwala, tipped down to 4X, and started throwing small brown quill patterns to this pod of at least a dozen fish. They ate them, well!
So be on the lookout for mayflies for the rest of this month, usually starting around 2:00. No need to get on the river before noon, unless you like your bobbers and droppers…. no thanks. There are some situations where one could run a nymph through a run, but the patient fisherman will find enough action on top in the afternoon to put a smile on anyone’s face. So take advantage of the dry fly while you still can, before runoff restarts the clock on our way to summer.