Bugged by the late hatch

After the Victoria Day blizzard, suddenly it’s summer and anglers are angry that their season is not immediately back on schedule.

Float-fishing team of Garry Pierce

After the Victoria Day blizzard, suddenly it’s summer and anglers are angry that their season is not immediately back on schedule.

Some readers can barely keep civil tongues in their heads as they complain about the absence of the Skwala stonefly hatch on the Red Deer River tailwater.

Here is a civil email from Adam Keller: “Just wondering if you have heard anything about the absolute lack of Skwalas on the Red Deer. I’ve floated twice since opening day (May 15) and have seen only two adults on the water. There still seem to be many nymphs under the rocks, but I have not seen anything like a true hatch. Is everything that far behind this season? Or has the main hatch already come and gone? The few brown trout we have seen were rising to March brown mayflies. Any info would be interesting to hear.”

Yes, everything is that far behind this season, including those March browns hatching in late May when anglers are expecting the usual bonanza of good fishing to the Skwalas, which have not “happened” yet.

The calendar dates given on hatch tables just do not allow for extreme conditions, such as the low water temperatures and dull ambient light this spring, major factors that govern the change from underwater nymph to airborne adult — the hatch — in all aquatic insect species.

Good hatches produce great fishing, but the bugs don’t care whether anglers are present or not when conditions are right for them to hatch. There is just no substitute for being there.

Which is why Garry Pierce of Tailwater Drifters invited me and Neil Waugh, outdoors columnist of The Edmonton Sun, to float the Red Deer with him on May 22, then cancelled and re-scheduled us for May 29. Garry is the guru of the Red Deer tailwater and studies, almost daily in season, the moods and whims of the river and its creatures. Garry concluded that nothing would be happening on the 22nd because of the ugly, dark, cold weather, but had high hopes for a Skwala hatch, maybe, on the 29th, after some warmer weather.

It was warm with just a little overcast when we started at the Penhold Bridge and just below it we were into bugs, not Skwalas, but the second best hatch of March browns I have ever seen, and two really big brown trout were rising to and eating them. Eventually I hooked one of them, not on the dry dun imitation, but on a soft hackle emerger on a short dropper tethered to the dry fly’s hook bend.

The brown was dogging it, head down. Garry got behind the fish to net it, then all hell broke loose, and so did the nylon between the dry fly and the emerger. Off went my first trout on a fly this season, about 56 cm, Garry and Neil estimated. It was our last brown trout for eight hours, although Neil failed at avoiding hooking and landing a few goldeyes.

The problems were the sudden burning off of the overcast and the rising of a stiff east wind, both March brown hatch-killers. Brown trout also avoid bright sunlight and “when the wind’s in the east, the fishing is least,” especially on the Red Deer tailwater. The water was also exceptionally “skinny” and clear: none of us had ever seen the Red Deer so low at this time of year.

We did see big browns in all the best places, but they would rise maybe three times, then quit.

It had been Neil’s turn since I lost that brown and, about 7:30, we found a steady riser. He took the dropper emerger on Neil’s first good float, got hooked in the nub of his neb, then took off upriver in a blistering run until he ran out of gas. This was another gorgeous, burly male brown, also of about 56 cm, Neil’s personal lifetime best for brown trout.

Ultra slow, but great day as far as I was concerned: the first Red Deer float I’ve done since the horrendous “200-year flood” of mid-June 2005, on which we’ve seen the big old browns of yore once again rising in all the usual and best places.

More importantly, the bugs seem to be coming back and producing the kind of hatches — even if late this year — that get even these huge trout looking up, then rising to and eating such tiny morsels.

The only dark note for Red Deer tailwater regulars is that most of the brown trout seen and caught since 2005 are big and that there seems to be no small trout.

Not to worry, the experts tell me: the smaller age classes perish in a big flood and it usually takes the big breeders eight years to re-establish the hierarchy of different age classes of smaller fish.

The Skwala hatch? Those white clouds on the riverside hills are late-blooming saskatoons.

The chokecherry blossoms are just staring to bud; when they are in full bloom, then the Skwalas will hatch. Be there.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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