One July day in 1976, I did a float from the Shewmaker Ditch put-in, down to the Burnt Tree take-out during the peak of the salmon fly hatch on the Madison River. As we got down through the Cottonwoods and approached The Rail Fence Hole the wind picked up and there was a disturbance. Smacking sounds followed by mini sprays of river water shot up in the air. Large fluttering insects struggled to stay airborne…didn’t make it…flopped on the water…flapped their wings like drowning hummingbirds…and were inhaled with fury from frantically feeding fish.
We beached the boat on a shallow bar and waded up and over toward the East bank. From the top of the riffle down through the glide and out over the smoother tail-out water we could survey the scene. At the upper end the rises were smaller splashes coming up every few seconds…smaller trout and whitefish easily identified by their rise-forms. In the middle of the run the rises were heavier, a little less frequent but solid…medium size trout on the feed. Toward the tailout and a little closer to the bank were the heavyweights…no little stuff…no messing around…deep, forceful swirls followed by loud “splunks” sending up spray. The fish were lined up and down the entire forty yard stretch of river and never stopped rising. The hatch was on.
We stayed in that run from 10AM to noon catching trout on dry salmon fly “sofa pillow” imitations…fighting fish, resting the pool, then catching some more. The water was blanketed with salmon fly naturals, smaller golden stones, caddis of all sizes. They just kept coming. We finally gave up the hole when Glenn Law came floating by with clients. We gave him the spot. The fish were still throwing up spray when we left. It was an amazing morning.
Those days of free rising fish are mostly gone but the salmon fly hatch still offers the fly angler a chance to catch a large trout on a large dry fly (or wet fly). Some things I’ve learned:
1. Fact:The salmon fly hatch needs a night time water temp of 55 degrees to get going.
2. Fact: The salmon (stone) fly nymph mostly crawls out of the river at night. To prove it, one night during the hatch I drove up to the Varney boat ramp around midnight. The concrete slabs and surrounding rocks were covered with crawling nymphs headed for the bushes. The night time emergence thing is fact.
3. Myth: when the trout get gorged with salmon flies they won’t bite. I don’t really buy this because I have caught plenty of trout that had live salmon flies stuffed in their mouth yet they still bit the fly. I have also caught trout that had a large bullhead stuck in their throat but they still were on the feed. If the trout don’t bite your fly it’s because:
A. they don’t like your fly.
B. you are a sh**ty caster! :o)
C. they have been spooked into a foul mood.
Wild roses blooming along the Madison means salmon fly time!
4. We used to walk upstream from a known trout holding area and shake the bushes holding salmon flies and “chum” the hole. The naturals would fall on to the water and set the trout to feeding. This used to work real good but not so much anymore. The trout get so spooked from a zillion people hammering on them they get lockjaw. They refuse the real thing! Find some undisturbed water and you will get a bite.
5. If you are wade fishing dry salmon fly imitations, pick a good bank and fish upstream. If you are right handed caster, pick a bank on your left so your casting hand is out away from the brush/willows, and use your left hand to hang on to the branches!
I have had success with this hard-to-get “Drowned Salmon Fly” pattern in size 4, 6.
6. Myth: the salmon fly hatch puts trout into a wild and crazy feeding frenzy during which they are easy to catch. So not true. They can be impossible at times during the hatch especially when they have been pounded on by a never ending armada of boats, rafts, canoes, kayaks and foot soldiers.
Like my buddy Steve says, “the problem with the world is it has too many humans in it”.
7. Fact: Salmon flies like willow banks. Some of the best banks are the scrub willows between McAtee and Varney. The flies get thick in there.
8. Fact: the hatch moves upstream. This is true but it’s not quite that simple. I believe the nymphal movement is a function of water temp…but the hatch is often sporadic, popping up “everywhere at once” depending on conditions.
My home-tie salmon fly with blonde elk hair and extended body.
9. Fact: cold, rainy conditions impede the hatch. This is basically true but if you can find a stretch where the fish are hungry on an overcast day you can have some fun. Use a lighter wing dry made with blonde elk hair for visibility.
10. Fact: nymphs work better than dries. So true…but aren’t the dries more fun?
Retro salmon fly hatch brown trout Seal-Dri special!
Most of the major freestone rivers in Montana have a salmon fly hatch including the Madison, Yellowstone, Big Hole, Gallatin, Rock Creek and others.
The hatch is not a sure thing by any stretch but oh boy it’s fun when it all comes together!
But wait…there’s more. Check out this 1980s piece from fishing guide and boat building sonofagun Sandy Pittendrigh. It’s a beauty:
Springtime in the Mountains
The salmon fly hatch in Montana is an annual epidemic of spring fever born of the first warm jubilant rays of sunshine after a long cold mountain winter and a dark windy clammy and cold Montana spring.
The Salmon flies usually start hatching here in Montana, or in Idaho I should say, in the box canyon of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake at the end of the first week in June. By the time they fizzle out on the Henry’s Fork a week or so later the big flies are already hatching on the Big Hole at Twin Bridges or above. Times and conditions vary as much as a
week or two from year to year. But by the 20th of June the Big Hole hatch has usually reached the old power house at Divide. And the really bad craziness in the Maiden Rock Canyon will have reached its peak.
The Big Hole river is one the most beautiful drainages in north America. It holds some of the biggest trout in the state and it is only about forty miles from Butte Montana–the hard working hard partying home of Evel Kneivel and forty thousand other elk hunting trout fishing hard rock miners and salt-of-the-earth urban cowboys. When the sun is shining and the flies are are hatching on a weekend in June nearly half the populations of Butte, Dillon Ennis, Bozeman and Helena plus a small army of adventurers from California, Texas, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and a Massachusetts are hooting and hollering and drifting down through the Maiden Rock Canyon in or on any thing that stays afloat.
The best strategy, regardless where you plan to fish, is to get on the river early. Camping and sleeping on the bank of the river somewhere near your point of departure might seem like a good plan. But getting any sleep anywhere within two miles of the Divide campground is totally out of the question. Big fat tired four wheel drive pickups with roll bars whip antennae and booming country-western tape decks rumble into the campground all night pulling driftboats and racks of river rafts. They circle through the campground with their bright lights on searching endlessly for one last place to park while kids scream hamburgers sizzle firecrackers bang and morocycles, trail bikes and all terrain vehicles spin donuts and fly in and out of the parking lot doing fourth of July wheel stands. When the first cowboy jitterbuggers turn up their wilderness blasters and start dancing on the picnic tables you might think a blimp full of laughing gas had exploded over a rodeo:
“Cuz I’m a honky tonk maaaayan. EEEEEEEHHHHHHAAAAAaaaaaa! Hey there easy money, git me some beeeer! We are gonna catch us some fish tomarrrow!”
This is springtime in the mountains. The revelry seldom lets up until after two when they shut down the Blue Moon Saloon a mile or so down the road. And even then, for another hour or two thereafter the still chill mountain air will be violated by barking dogs and the rhythmic squeak-swing-slam of the spring loaded outhouse doors. The campgrounds down the road at Brown’s Bridge and Glenn are little different. So you’re better off to take the old cutoff road to Twin Bridges and pull out on the prairie somewhere to throw out a sleeping bag, somewhere in between the prickly pears.
The next best strategy to getting up earlier than everyone else is to try and figure out where that elusive one or two mile slowly moving section of the river is where the flies are just beginning to hatch, where the fish aren’t yet stuffed to the bursting point, and where the frenzied pace of the fishing is supposed to climax in a reckless orgy of slashing, snapping, swirling trout: the head of the hatch. Then, once you’ve figured out the where the head of the hatch is, you have to decide whether to fish upstream or downstream from the commotion, because the head of the hatch is where eighty to ninety percent of the masses will be. One theory has it that the next three to ten miles upstream of the head of the hatch is the place to be, because the nymphs will on the move there, instinctively moving into the shallows in anticipation of the hatch. And the too will be the anxious trout, lying hungrily in wait. Or so goes the theory. If the upstream fishing doesn’t work, another strategy is to fish downstream from the hatch at least ten miles and a day or two from the peak of the action. The trick is to get downstream far enough because the fish will be bloated with flies and absolutely impossible to catch for twenty-forty hours after the hatch has passed on up the river. Perlidae, or golden stoneflies, often hatch simultaneously with big Pteronarcys salmon flies and the fish often seem to prefer the smaller golden stoneflies to the bigger ones. This mysterious preference for the smaller stoneflies is especially noticeable downstream from the head of the hatch.
Any serious angler should also be prepared to fish with streamers during the salmon fly hatch. I remember taking my boat out at Melrose late one summer evening–sun burned and dog tired after three says of guiding on the river–when I encountered my friend Wayne, who was taking creel census number for the Montana Fish and Game Department. Wayne has a strong sense of mischief in his heart, and he was adding to the general mayhem that evening by showing everybody a photograph of a 19lb female brown trout. The fish shocking crews had rolled this fish out a deep hole in the maiden rock canyon only a week before the hatch. And Wayne was telling everybody, as he took their creel counts, that a California fly fisherman had taken that fish on a sofa pillow the day before yesterday.
I knew better however and threatened to turn him into the authorities for inciting to riot if he didn’t give me the real scoop. So on a more serious note, Wayne said “Well I’ll tell you. The really good fishing has all been down below Brown’s bridge. The guides from the Complete Angler have been fishing Bou’s down there, and they took and eight pound 27″ brown down the just last night. But watch out for that bridge! There isn’t enough clearance to get a boat under it, and there’s been a dozen boats sunk down there in the past three days!”
Bou’s , which are e little more than red and yellow marabou girdle bugs with long, multi colored tails are a long established big Hole tradition.
Last but certainly not least, if you want to joint the great masses of fisherman at the head of the hatch you can fish either with big black nymphs or adult dry fly salmon fly immitations–or both. The action will be the thickest where ever there are willow bushes lining the banks of the river, where small triangular shaped eddies of still water–under the willow branches–are immediately adjacent to deep, medium fast current.
The nymph fishing during the last two weeks leading up the salmon fly hatch has consistently produced the best fly fishing for me over the years. If I had to choose (if I could choose) I’d take the first warm, cloudy but not windy day after a cold snap–on the Big Hole–2 to 3 days before the (salmon) flies begin to hatch. Well, if I could choose, that would be my second choice, I guess, after a winning powerball ticket. During that period, the nymphs start migrating toward the shallows. They must know how to recognize willow roots somehow, because they congregate there in great masses, clinging to underwater willow roots in huge bunches like handfulls of insectivorous grapes.
I like to fish two nymphs simultaneously. Why not? If you do fish two or more flies, you will always catch the most fish on the end fly. But at the end of the day, if you have caught a half a dozen fish on the second fly, well, those are bonus fish. I don’t like droppers, so–to fish more than one nymph at a time–I attach the tippet attached to the end fly to the bend of the hook in front. Use split shot and fish a tight straight line, so you can feel the strikes. Fish the slack water at the tip ends of the islands, where two currents come together. Fish the drift lines at the edge of any fast, deep run, where the still water along the edge meets the swifter, often un-fishable current of main river. And never pass up an opportunity to fish a riffle corner, where a shallow, pebbly, boat bumping riffle drains down into a deeper water.
Traditional nymphs include Bitch Creeks, Montana Nymphs, Woolly Worms and anything else that looks like a 1-1/2″ long black tube with six thick, crooked black legs at the front end. I like Marshmallow Nymphs the best.
Fishing Dry Flies
When fishing dry flies, don’t be afraid to twitch your fly a little. Adult salmon flies are out of short lived element in the water, and they do flail around with a great commotion when the fall into the river. In fact I think twitching the fly is an important part of ate adult salmon fly presentation. I like to make my salmon flies with foam bodies and rubber legs. Ruibber legs exaggerate teh animated struggling impresson of a drowing fly while the foam body keeps the whole thing afloat, regarless how water logged it becomes. Traditional flies include Sofa Pillows, Bird’s Stonefly, Stimulators. No one fishes Bunyan Bugs anymore, except perhaps for me. Bunyan Bugs date back to the turn of the century here in Montana…perhaps even earlier. Bunyan bugs are small wooden plugs, outfitted with horse hair wings and hand painted bodies. It was on a Bunyan Bug that Brad Pit caught his huge (hatchery) fish in “A River Runs Through It.” I had the Bunyan Bug in mind when I devised the foam bodies Bunyan Bug.
The most deadly technique of all, during the peak of the hatch, especially in the Big Hole, is to float the river in a boat, sharing duty on the oars with someone who knows the river and knows how to row, while fishing dry flies and nymphs simultaneously,…where the dry fly adult serves as a strike indicator (that catches fish) for one or more large pteronarcys nymph. The only way to make this approach practicle is make the dry fly adult imitation out of closed cell foam, so it has enough bouyancy to stay afloat, even in fast water, even when attached to one or two large, moderately weighted, succulent stonefly nymphs.
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Good read Randy!
Great insights from you and Sandy.