Get Your Skwala On!

Sandhill Cranes were spotted this week, arriving back from their winter vacation in friendlier climes. Redwing Blackbirds are now chirping from the willows. And, adult aquatic insects like Midges, BWOs, and Skwala Stoneflies are dancing on the riffles of the Madison for those hardy anglers willing to wet a line early enough in the day. Spring is definitely in the air, and apparently the water too...

The Varney USGS gauge currently shows 1,460 CFS (just about a perfect flow if you ask me). You can almost hear the footsteps of runoff slowly marching our way. All the signs are here for a relatively early beginning to runoff season. In fact, for illustration, I’ve compiled the last three years’ initial times of rising flows to compare to this year. So far, we're looking pretty similar to the spring of 2014.

While we typically don’t see the peak of runoff hit until late May or early June, it always starts out slow and almost undetected, but quickly leading to a week or two of surging flows before dropping precipitously back to mid summer levels. Though slightly earlier than last year, I think it’s begun. In fact, we’ve been under a local flood advisory for the past week, with all this tropical weather causing swollen tributaries. These are great times to be fishing. The water seems to just have a nice rhythm and flow to it right now that’s extremely conducive to tight lines while still having easy wading access. So get out there. Especially in the town stretch, because the water’s on it’s way up for a few months, and wading across the river will be getting more challenging by the week. The water is picking up, and so is the fishing!

The key right now isn’t so much about what color of girdle bug they’re eating, it’s where they are. Finding the right water is critical right now. Water that is thigh deep, slightly slower current, and on the edges of the river are characteristics of great holding water right now. I like to cover every inch of these pools by starting at the lowest end, and working my way across then up. Rinse and repeat, until you’ve fooled as many girdle bug-eating trout in the area. They have been keen on eating trailing eggs on the swing at the end of drifts lately too, so don’t be afraid to let your drift hang in the current for a few seconds.

But let’s get down to what really matters…fooling a fish on a big dry in March. Skwala Stoneflies are here, albeit we’re a little early in the hatch and this isn’t the Bitteroot where Skwalas made a name for themselves, they are definitely around on the Madison. We spotted a few squirming around on the ice this week and even more shucks, giving away their presence. Scientifically, the consensus is that Skwalas like to hatch when the water temp is consistently hitting the 42 degree mark or thereabouts. It’s no surprise that this week we finally reached that mark. Skwalas tend to have more yellow on their underbelly than other summer Stoneflies, and their size is typically in the 8-12 range. When sorting through your dusty chubbies and big stonefly dries from last year, keep these characteristics in mind when choosing a fly, or stop in the shop to add more.

And don’t forget to add a dropper to your Stonefly pattern. Two flies are better than one. With the flows on the upswing, I like to use a beadhead (tungsten if you’ve got it) dropper about two feet down from my dry. Something like a Prince nymph, Copper John, or Rainbow Czech nymph. You could also try dropping a Girdle bug or Sucker Spawn too.

It can be a challenge to hit the Skwala dry fly action just right. But don’t fret. Just like the recent uptick in story telling anglers around town, rumors have been swirling amongst the pods of trout underwater about the migratory traffic of Skwala nymphs headed to shore. They’re definitely wolfing down the Girdle bug hard right now as a result. It’s been a long winter for these trout, and the Rainbows especially are packing on the pounds due to the energy expended on spawning. It’s so good right now, I’m not scared to go double Girdle bug.

For all you streamer junkies out there who scoff at the idea of tying anything other than an articulated ribbon of bunny fur to your 7 weight, even in the face of flying stoneflies in March, rest assured the streamer bite is looking up right now. It may not be as sexy as a Zoo Cougar, but a simple Wooly Bugger or, even better, an Egg Sucking Leech is irresistible to the pea-sized brain of a brown trout right now. Slow strips through deep pools and tailouts are where you want to focus. And again, two flies is better than one, so drop a Lightning Bug or something with comparable bling, about a foot behind your streamer.

Also, a quick public service announcement: Valley Garden and Clute’s Landing at Ennis Lake are both open! The lake still has ice and remains significantly low coming out of winter, but the channels of river are open and flowing into the lake freely now. It’s no issue getting from the mouth of the river to Clute’s any longer either.

Photos: Justin Edge (
Blue-eyed, long haired angler with bent rod: Stewart Lewis