Osprey Outfitters Guide Service and Fly Shop

Osprey Outfitters Guide Service and Fly Shop
Osprey Outfitters Guide Service and Fly Shop

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Skwala Hatch on the Bitterroot River

Now, before you get too excited and start making travel arrangements, the Skwala's aren't out yet.  As a matter of fact we have a fresh two inches of snow on the ground.  However, the time is nearing and I wanted to talk about what to look for and expect during the hatch.  Skwala nymphs, like most stonefly nymphs, live in the middle of the river for almost an entire year.  The nymph is classified as a "clinger", meaning they attach themselves to the rocks. They aren’t good swimmers.  Stonefly nymphs, as a whole, are very susceptible to variations in water conditions, their diet is mostly comprised of algae and diatoms and they require clean, cold and highly oxygenated water.  They can be the proverbial canary in a coal mine for a river.
Skwala nymph photo taken on February 10, 2011

In late winter/early spring Skwala nymphs start their behavioral drift, which is exhibited by most hatching aquatic insects.  Typically, there is an environmental trigger that cues an nymph to start emerging; either light cycles, or water temperatures.  In the case of the Skwala, it’s when day and night start approaching a 12/12 cycle.  When this occurs, the nymphs start their migration to shore in mass.  The behavioral drift ensures the survival of the species.  If only a few nymphs migrated at a time, they would be easy prey for fish.  However, when millions of nymphs are migrating at once throughout the river, i.e. behavioral drift, the fish can't get them all.  This is happening right now on the Bitterroot River.  I usually start seeing Skwala nymphs in the rocks around the first week of February and this year is no different.  The nymphs will congregate close to shore and stack into the rocks until the next environmental trigger.

That next trigger will be water temperature, not light.  The magic number is 42º.  Skwala adults will start to emerge when the water temperature reaches 40º, but they really get going at 42º.  If you don't carry a thermometer, you may want to seriously reconsider.  I carry one on the boat and ALWAYS have it in the water.  Water temps can tell you a lot about fish and insect behavior.  Once I start seeing water temps creeping into the 40's, I will start throwing Skwala dries, even if I don't see adults.  
Adult female Skwala taken March 2010

An important side note of the Skwala hatch is you will not see the adults in mass.  The female stonefly is the only one to develop wings, however most female Skwala don't fly.  If you look closely you’ll see that some have underdeveloped, almost mutated looking wings.  Most people I have talked to claim it’s because the Skwala has evolved to emerge when the air temps are quite cool.  Instead of flying over the river and dropping their eggs, Skwala females deposit their eggs by crawling back from the bank.  Note that even the most observant angler will have a hard time seeing adult Skwala's.  On a good day, when the hatch is in full swing, I usually see a  dozen at most.  However, if you have a thermometer, you will be way ahead of the game.
Nice rainbow taken on a Skwala dry March 2010

The Skwala hatch is no longer a secret on the Bitterroot River.  In just the short 11 years that I have been fishing here, the pressure has measurably increased.  As a matter of fact, it was the Skwala hatch that originally brought me to the Bitterroot.  And why not?  During this time of year anglers in other parts of the country have to fish with size 20-24 midges (if they aren’t forced to nymph), while we throw size 8-10 dries!  Because of this, don't think you’re going to have the river to yourself.  I’m not talking Madison, Big Hole or Bighorn  crowds but 6 or more boats in one section is common.  Be patient.  There is plenty of water out there and everyone is entitled to fish, good etiquette goes a long way.  Common courtesy give’s wade fishermen a wide berth and when close to  another boat, pull over to put some distance between you.  No one likes the feeling of being crowded.  That said, the Skwala hatch on the Bitterroot River can offer some of the best fishing of the year.  Forty fish days are not rare and some of the biggest fish of the year can be caught on dry flies.  The fish are just coming out of winter, are very hungry and are greeted by a steak sized bug floating down the river.  This year is shaping up to be another great one. Have fun and come by the shop and show me pictures of the one that didn't get away! 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Change in Montana Stream Access?

Well "they" are at it again!  HB 309 attempts to further define a ditch.  The bill has made its way out of committee and has passed the second reading on the Montana House of Representatives floor.  The Montana Stream Access Law is very specific in banning any use of a ditch for public access.  This bill could prohibit access to waters that are now classified as public.  There is no need for this bill and it would only send us down that proverbial slippery slope.  I encourage everyone to write your Montana State Representatives.   Even if you are not a resident, I encourage you to write to the Speaker of the House.  This bill will affect residents and non-residents alike.  The following is a link to the Montana House of Representatives http://www.leg.mt.gov/css/house/.  It is time to let your voices be heard on this issue! The following two links are an article regarding this issue http://www.krtv.com/news/bill-defining-ditches-called-assault-on-montana-s-stream-access-/ and the bill itself http://data.opi.mt.gov/bills/2011/billhtml/HB0309.htm.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Wading Safe

I usually don't wade fish much, I prefer fishing from a boat.  However,  winter conditions usually dictate that any fishing done during these months, is for a few hours of wading.  February 4th was one such day.  We had just come out of several days with lows in the single digits, so there was some new ice formed along the banks.  My friend Donn and I decided to hit a stretch of water that has become our winter fishing grounds  It was a beautiful day; cloudy and temps in the fifties.  We had gotten a late start, so we only journeyed about 3/4 of a mile from the truck to a prime spot.  This is a classic riffle/run that stretches at least 200 yards.  It is a perfect winter run, that is loaded with fish from top to bottom.
The fish I almost paid the ultimate price for
I agreed to start fishing the top of the run, here the riffle plunges into a series of nice deep buckets.  Immediately I picked up a nice 17 inch rainbow.  A few casts later I laced into the biggest fish I have seen all winter.  Fortunately, the fish did not exert its muscle. If it had, I would have been running down the river in pursuit.  This fish was so fat that I was struggling to get it in my hand. I don't carry a net when I wade, but I wish I had one then!  After about the fourth attempt, I finally had the 20 inch, 3 1/2 pound fish in my grasp.  I took a few photos with my phone (both Donn & I forgot our cameras so catching big fish was inevitable) and then released the big hen back to the river.  After hearing my whoop and holler, Donn, who was about 100 yards downstream, asked if I had any streamers. Apparently, he had just lost two large browns due to a "dull hook".  I walked down gave him a streamer and showed him the photo of the large rainbow I just landed.  After sharing some laughs and acknowledgment of how fortunate we are to live in such a great place, I was back up fishing the upper inside of the run.

As I stated earlier, the days prior had been relatively cold and ice had formed along the bank.  On this particular run, the ice was several inches thick in the middle of the floe and stretched about 25 feet from the bank.  It was not stable enough to walk on, which I don't like to do anyway.  Ice scares the shit out of me!  The only way we could fish the run was to wade along the outside edge.
I wish I had my real camera for a better photo
 Donn had already been though the run and reassured me it was doable.  As I began skirting the ice, I knew it was gonna be iffy.  I have a rule that I NEVER wade much past my waist when I have on waders.  Once you get much beyond your waist, the margin of error becomes extremely small.  If something goes wrong and your waders fill with water, it is game over!  Donn has come up with an ingenious idea in dealing with this very issue but I am getting ahead of myself.  So there I was, skirting the ice as icy water was licking the tops of my waders.  I was at the point of no return but, in just a few more steps, I could tell the water would begin to shallow up.  It was then that I felt a slow push from behind, the kind you would feel from a surge by a large crowd of people.  I started to feel the 35 degree water entering my waders, which was like thousands of tiny cold needles piercing my skin.  I tried pushing back, but realized that the ENTIRE ice shelf had separated from the bank.  It was moving with slow, deliberate purpose toward the middle of the river; carrying everything in it's path, including me.

This was no small piece of ice that I could simply dodge.  The floe easily measured 150 feet long, 25 feet wide and was about four inches thick in the middle.  I have no idea how much it weighed, but I would guess several tons, at a minimum!  The outside edge, where I was, was very brittle.  As I was being pushed toward deeper water, not only was water was entering my waders but I couldn't gain any purchase on the ice.  Every time I tried to get on top of it, I would just break though.  Things were becoming VERY critical VERY fast.  Donn, seeing my dire straights, started coming out toward me.  I kept trying to push back against the massive floe because if it ran me over, Donn would be pouring whiskey over my grave in true Irish fashion.  Fortunately, when Donn got further out onto the floe, it caused it to crack.  The floe started separating between us and creating an escape route. I was initially hesitant to enter the gap.  I had visions of being between both floes, only to be squeezed out and forced under.  However, water was now pouring in my waders and they were getting extremely heavy.  If I took on much more water it wouldn't have mattered if I was pushed under the floe, I was headed to the bottom anyway!  I shot into the gap and Donn was able to help me scramble onto the thicker section of ice.  Donn grabbed my rod, which I threw on the floe when things started going awry, and we got the hell outta there.

Many things could have gone the other way that day but didn't.   However, I should not have been in the situation in the first place.  I broke my one main rule of wade fishing with waders; I went well above my waistline.  I don't care how strong you are or how good of shape you are in, once you get much beyond your waistline, you are setting yourself up for disaster.  I got lucky the other day, but will credit myself for a few things.  First of all, I didn't panic.  If you panic in heavy situations, it will be your last!  Secondly, when things started going bad, I didn't hesitate to ditch my rod.  I was using a R.L. Winston with a Ross Vexsis Reel; a thousand dollar setup.  So many accounts of people drowning in the river include, "The last time we saw him, he was headed down river with his rod in his hand."  Is your favorite rod and reel really worth your life?!  Things can ALWAYS be replaced, life can't!  Lastly, and most important, if Donn were not there I would not be writing this.  It is always good common sense (it should be called "uncommon sense" because common sense is not so common) to practice the buddy system.  When things go bad, it is good to have someone come to your aid.

I mentioned earlier that Donn has come up with an ingenious idea to help in situations such as these.  It is no secret that waders are extremely dangerous.  Every year, anglers are pulled to their death due to their waders filling with water.  Wading belts only offer a false sense of security as it will not stop the waders from filling.  However, after Donn had his own life threatening situation, (see his story http://wadesafe.blogspot.com), he began to develop WADESAFE Wader Technology.  He has created a patent pending design to completely evacuate the water from the waders.  I have helped with the field tests of these waders and can attest to their effectiveness.  The day will soon come when every pair of waders will incorporate Donn's technology.  The following is the link for WADESAFE's website http://wadesafe.com. When I got back on the bank after my ordeal, I told Donn that I sure wished I had a pair of WADESAFE waders! In the mean time, be careful out there and wade safely.