The Elusive Skwala Hatch


In the Missoula area, every year when the middle of February rolls around, you suddenly start to hear the quiet but anxious whispers of dry fly fishing.  You hear them everywhere if you take the time to listen.  When you do, you quickly realize that everybody that even remotely looks like they might own a fly rod is secretly discussing one specific thing.  That one thing is a stonefly that hatches every spring in March or April that basically consumes all of our free time until the snow melts and the rivers blow out.

So that’s roughly about 3 months of time when the only thing every fly fisherman or woman in Missoula should be doing is fishing.  I’m sure that most of you know which hatch I’m talking about, but for those of you who don’t, it’s ok because you will soon.  The bug is called a skwalla, or skwala depending on where you’re from.  Worrying about how you spell the bug’s name is almost as pointless as discussing its behavior.  It is and always will be the most difficult hatch to predict.  This obviously also makes it the most difficult hatch to actually experience.

Skwalas. Photo by Bryce McLean.

Skwalas. Photo by Bryce McLean.

I have been fishing the skwala hatch since I was about 10 years old, so this will be about my 16th year trying to figure it out.  After all of that time there is one thing, and only one thing, I can confidently say about this hatch without feeling like I’m totally full of shit.  That one thing can be very painful to admit but also very simple. No matter how sure you are this year of when the hatch is “definitely” going to happen, you are most certainly going to be wrong.  My trick is to find a day I think the conditions are going to be perfect, and watch college basketball that day instead.

Nice Brownie. Photo by Bryce McLean.

Nice Brownie.

My experience has been that when you find that perfect day, you need to be on the water either the day before that or the day after.  It’s a hatch that is more of a myth than reality to most who have attempted to fish it.  I know a handful of people from the Bitterroot that have actually never even hit the hatch on a really good day.  Many have braved the weather of early spring in Western Montana only to find that the river has seemingly been abruptly abandoned by all forms of bug life, and it usually happens for no clear reason at all.

Trust me, it can be a tough pill to swallow, but it happens, and it will happen to you if you spend any significant amount of time fishing this hatch.  I’ve had  days out there when I could not be more sure that the fishing was going to be phenomenal…and then nothing happens.  On certain days it seems like you have a better chance of Kate Upton magically appearing at the takeout in a bikini to personally deliver you a nice warm “feel better” hug, than you do of ever seeing a trout eat your favorite skwala pattern.

Rainbow skwala. Photo by Bryce McLean.

Rainbow Skwala.

At this point many of you are probably wondering, if this hatch is so hard to hit right, why in the world has it gotten so famous?  Sometimes it seems like the hype for this hatch is almost as huge as the hype in the parking lot outside of Washington Grizzly Stadium before the season’s first kickoff.  The truth is, when you do get lucky enough to actually see a day when it’s all really happening, the skwala hatch can literally change your entire perspective on what’s possible while dry fly fishing in Western Montana.  It can truly be unforgettable.

I can say without a doubt that about 90% of my most memorable moments on the Bitterroot happened during skwalas.  It’s a time when you can easily catch a handful of 20″ fish before noon on single dry fly rigs.  Ya that’s right…when it’s really good you don’t even need to mention the word dropper.

You see a huge number of fish eating all over the river because by now they have completely forgotten that people throw fake bugs at them all of the time. They don’t see dry fly patterns from about late October until now, so that gives an animal with a brain the size of a pea about 5 months to forget the difference between real and fake.  Needless to say, this is a formula that produces a large number of very eager trout.

I guess the moral of the story is, go fishing this weekend!  It’s good, but it could be incredible.  All you have to do is take a short drive to the Bitterroot to find out.

Here’s a little video I did that might wet your appetite for a little fishing this weekend.


Fishing for more tales from the river? Check out Matt and Bryce’s other posts: Missouri River Fly Fishing, the Best in AmericaZen and the Art of Not Fishing At All, and An Ode to Brown Trout, or visit the Fish It archive.

Be sure to visit the Make it Missoula fishing page.


Bryce McLean BioBryce McLean was born and raised in Montana, and has been fly fishing here for almost 20 years. He first learned to fish on the Missouri River, but when he was ten, his family moved to the Bitterroot Valley. He’s been fishing the Bitterroot River ever since. This has been his third season guiding the Missoula area rivers, which he consider to be some of the best trout fisheries on planet Earth.