Skwala Time

By Rob Breeding for the Flathead Beacon

We’re just barely breaking the shackles of winter but things are about to turn on for fly fishers. March heralds the arrival of one of Montana’s great hatches: skwala stoneflies on the Bitterroot River.

The Bitterroot may be a bit of a drive for folks in the Flathead, but skwalas are worth it. After a winter drifting nymphs, or not fishing at all, this hatch is all about dry flies. Skwalas are good-sized stones, and big trout are notoriously reckless during this hatch. It’s almost as if the fish, like us, are celebrating the end of winter. When the skwalas are on the water the fish rise with an aggression that seems to announce, “I’ve spent the last three months dodging anchor ice and this salmonid is going to party like a rock star!”

The earliest, best day I’ve had fishing skwalas was March 7. I was fishing just upstream from Victor. I figured it was too early for the bite to be much good, but it was a nice day and I was aching to watch a dry fly tumble along a foam line. Shortly after wading into the river I came to a cottonwood that had fallen into the water. It was on the far bank and I’d have to flirt with topping my waders to get close enough for a decent cast, but the seam coming off the furthest reaches of the wood looked too damn good to pass up.

Despite wading deeper than seemed prudent I still had to make a serious cast, and mend like a madman, to hit the spot. My first drift was ignored, as were the next half dozen or so. I might have moved on, but it took some time to get into casting range. When the fish finally rose it porpoised out of the water revealing the hyper-saturated colors of a prespawn rainbow. It was a nice fish, perhaps 20 inches.

I stumbled backward, furiously stripping line, which mending had left a loopy mess. I felt the fish for a moment, but I never did get the line tight.

I approached the rest of that day with purpose, landing a cutthroat that may have been 18 inches. Smaller cutties, rainbows and browns all came to the dry that day. But a word or warning. I planned to fish the next day but was snowed out. Fickle late-winter weather makes a skwala trip tough to plan. You’ve got to watch stream flows and the weather report, and decide to drive down to the Bitterroot before sunrise, mindful that a surprise snowstorm can mean a wasted trip.

While some skwala specialists will tell you nymphs are more productive, for me it’s a matter of principle to only fish dries during this hatch. I’ve been dodging enough ice myself this time of year and, at my advanced station in life, watching big trout hammer oversized dry flies before the calendar has recorded the first day of spring is what passes for living on the edge.

Skwalas can be found throughout the Clark Fork drainage, including our own Flathead River system. But the Bitterroot skwala hatch is unmatched, maybe on the planet. Hit it just right and winter will begin to recede to the place in your mind where you store the inconsequential. By the time you’ve released your third or fourth broad-shouldered trout winter will seem only a minor irritant, at least until it returns tomorrow to chase you off the water.

Read more about fishing on the Bitterroot River, Rock Creek, and Clark Fork River and check out the Fish It blog by Matt Devlin and Bryce McLean.


Rob Breeding writes, teaches and watches his kids play soccer when he’s not fishing or hunting. He lives in Kalispell.