To borrow a phrase from Tom Petty, The Waiting is the hardest Part…..I find myself in the middle of January 2021 with a general state of turbulence ongoing in the country….which only makes the waiting for fishing even more difficult. As March approaches the sense of anticipation continues to grow and even the most menial task is enjoyable as long as it provides freedom of action when the fishing season draws near, allowing us to pursue the sense of well being that standing in moving water brings. You can certainly fish now and utilizing nymphing techniques you can have some great days, but for me the season is defined as when the Skwala are close, icebergs are gone, and I can row my raft and drift boat on our rivers.
The waiting is a time when many tasks must be done like, organizing fly boxes, replacing leaders and worn out tips and cleaning lines as well as maintenance on reels, waders, boots, rafts, and drift boats, and of course the yearly work on suspensions -as the last thing I need is a breakdown enroute to fishing!!
March 15 is the unofficial opener with generally predictable flows and water temps beginning to approach 40 degrees. For the first couple weeks of the season Skwala nymphs and dark Streamers and Soft Hackles fished deep will take fish. I like to fish a Sage HD in the 11 foot 3 weight, matched with a Rio InTouch Skagit Trout Spey in 275 grain weight. I prefer the integrated line over just the head for early season angling as it allows better handling in cold weather (gloves) and enhances fishing the fly all the way to the bank and closer to the tip. Patterns I use are Thin Mints, black or dark Buggars, dark Carey Specials and a bug that I tie which is just a peacock hurl body with a collar of pheasant and long partridge for the hackle. Depth is far more important than pattern and I prefer to use un weighted flies, so common tips are 5x5 IMOW in T8 and 7 1/2 feet of extra fast sink poly leader with a fairly short leader (3 feet of 3 X or even 2). Presentation is always important and for early Skwala I am attempting to get the fly deep and let it drift just above the bottom with and occasional tic tic of contact as I am trying to emulate the Skwala nymph that has been dislodged and trying to regain contact with the rocky bottom it prefers. I often throw a upstream mend to get the bug down and get a drift, and then as the line comes tight and begins to swing to the bank I give soft twitches to entice a strike, (like strumming a guitar ). Once the line reaches the dangle I will slowly strip in the running line to the head. Once the grab interrupts your peaceful reverie, resist the urge to set! Rather swing your tip to the bank and do a long strip to maintain contact with the fish. If you get the grab on the dangle you must let the fish pull line of before you react. setting, lifting or pulling on a grab on the dangle will usually lose the fish. Very often I will put my primary fly 18 inches trailing behind a weighted fly to get the right depth. I find that it is rare but occasionally I get a grab on the first bug but usually it’s on the trailing bug. For the weight fly a wire worm or Pats Stone is a great option (I usually use the Pats Stone).
On those days when water temps are sub 40 degrees and the Skwala is not producing well it is often that fish will take the streamer fished in a more classic way, Thin Mints, Kreelex, Buggars Skiddish Smolt, Montana Intruders, sculpin and crayfish patterns will take fish by covering more area in the high potential water and diversifying your swings with various strips and retrieves. Slow stripping, short erratic strips, jigging by bouncing your rod tip are all proven techniques, just keep trying till you find what is working for that run. I usually fish a single fly pattern when I am utilizing streamers in this way, the grabs are often more aggressive but don’t overlook the subtle takes because it really just depends on that fish and that day.
For most Spey Casters who started on anadromous fish the technique is to start at the head of a run and step through it in order to cover the most water, but with trout especially in the early Skwala and March Brown season it is important to pick out where you think they are holding and thoroughly fish it prior to moving on. When swinging for steelhead a good swing through productive water will entice a grab if you have a willing fish, with trout while the fish may be willing they require it to be just right and if you are 12 inches too high in the water column the fish will likely wait so don’t be too hasty to move from a likely run until you have changed depths and swing speeds. Later in March and April the fish are more aggressive and move further to a well presented bug.
When water temps get to mid 40s and we begin to see surface activity don’t put away the two hander for the 9 foot 5 weight, rather consider switching lines to a floater or a scandi. For these situations (Late March thru April to High Water) I always rig two rods one with the Skagit style and the other with Rio Intouch Trout Spey either with the integrated running line or just the head with either slick shooter or a good fast running line for bigger water like the Lower Bitterroot and the Clark Fork (also warmer weather make this more practical for handling the line). My Scandi set up is different than my early season Skagit setup. I will still use 2 fly’s but love how the Missouri Guides have rigged it with a tippet ring. My typical scandi set up is 7-9 feet of tapered leader (3X) to a 3 mm tippet ring, then 8 inches off the ring is my attracter fly and 18 inches off the tippet ring is my terminal fly, and choice for the most likely grab. A Pheasant Tail soft hackle as my terminal bug and a Carey Special as my attracter is a favorite setup. For presentation I look for actively feeding fish or the foam lines where we have already located them and then at an angle of about 45 degrees above the run or bucket I will cast 90 degrees, trying to achieve a broadside swing at the edge of the target. I then with micro strips work through the bucket trying to get the swing above and just in front of the suspended fish. When the grab comes it is often just a pause in the swing, again discipline to not set is critical, rather again sweep the tip with a strip to the bank and hang on!
One of the things among many that I am constantly looking for is the increase of aggressive behavior associated with water temps as they continue to climb towards the 50 degree mark, not only do we see more aggressive strikes and fish moving farther to grab bug, we see multiple fish in a pod working. When we find them it is time to slow down and work the pod thoroughly with as little disruption as possible. When you swing let it completely swing through the target to well outside the strike zone to the dangle and bring in slowly so as not to disturb the quarry. If you don’t like the cast or swing, try to fix with a mend but allow your bug to swing through, the worst error is to rip the line up and out of the water while near the fish. Slow down fish well and thoroughly with a relaxed pace in high potential runs, buckets, and shelves, and you will likely get the good one!
We fish the Bitterroot, Clark Fork and Missouri in the spring; I spend most of my time in middle March to early April on the Bitterroot and then get to the Clark Fork in April. The Clark Fork fish are big strong fish and worth the chase though usually it is a quality over quantity fishery. As high water approaches in late April I get to the Missouri for as many days as I can manage, where the tail water nature of the runs and the easy wading for awesome early rainbows and snaky browns is the culmination of a great fishing spring.
After a great spring on our tremendous rivers that are usually accompanied with multiple weather conditions in a single day, but also the serenity of an un-crowded river. I am then prepared for a guide season on the tremendous hatches we have on the Bitterroot starting with the Salmon Fly in June. If you are a seasoned spey caster or are just beginning your journey of spey consider swinging for trout, it’s not only really great it is natural counterpart to chasing steelhead and Chinook that is readily available. At Total Outfitters we will start swinging in March and unlike some other streams we can swing all summer as the river is freestone and generally free of suspended biological material. If Spey is your thing or you would like to learn this technique then come fish with us. Stay Safe and Tight Lines
Coming in May we will focus on our summer swing season starting with Salmon Flies in June, moving through our awesome Summer Mayfly and Stonefly hatches all the way through the fall with Hecuba, Mahogany, Baetis and October Caddis.