Friend and reader Todd Irwin of Patricia emailed a hard question during his nine weeks of fishing in New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania this winter: “A New Zealand couple, Mick and Julie, are coming to Canada and the U.S. on the May long weekend for seven weeks and want to try some dry fly fishing.”
Simple so far, but he had to add: “I remember you saying there is a famous salmon fly hatch on a river in Montana in late May or early June. I think it was the Madison, but not sure. Could you let me know if that is the one or if there are any Montana rivers with a good salmon fly hatch that are closer to the Canadian border?”
Yes, it was the Madison in Montana where I experienced my first salmon fly hatch, lured there by a magazine article I had been saving, The Month the Madison Goes Wild, by Norman Strung in the June 1966 issue of Field & Stream, about the river’s legendary July salmon fly hatch.
Son John and I enjoyed several good salmon fly hatches on the Madison, until we took two decades off to chase the hatch elsewhere, including at home, here in Alberta. Seven years ago, we made a sentimental July trip back to the Madison and will not return: you all but had to book a reservation to get in the constant line of drift boats, all ruining the fishing for each other.
After considerable research, including 50 years of fishing diaries, I chose Alberta’s own Crowsnest River and the very similar Rock Creek, near Missoula in Montana.
I rejected my home stream, Prairie Creek, because its formerly fabulous salmon fly hatches have really been “off” for the past couple of decades; the last time I nearly caught it perfectly was June 10, 2000.
To be clear, we are seeking the fabulous dry fly fishing phase of the hatch of Pteronarcys californica, our largest stonefly, when the mature, mated females fly from the streamside foliage and down onto the water to lay their eggs.
This “brush hatch” is almost impossible to predict, as opposed to the earlier stage when the thousands of black salmon fly nymphs march en masse from the water, and transform into the winged adults, which fly off into the trees and brush to mate … and wait.
Other hatch chasers tell me I have been very lucky to have caught the brush hatch perfectly maybe 18 times in 40 years of seriously seeking it. I decided to submit my stream selections to two well-known hatch chasers, Vic Bergman of Crowsnest Angler at Bellevue, and angling author and fly fishing teacher Jim McLennan.
“It sounds like you have done well catching the salmon fly hatch over the years,” Vic Bergman says.
“I think I’ve caught it perfectly, maybe three or four times. That is, where you could fish dries for most of it.
“Mid to late May is when the salmon flies start to hatch on the Crow. The hatches have been really good the past couple of years, with lots of bugs. Water conditions were great for the first day or two and then the spring runoff (floods) started. It’s almost as if the salmon flies plan for this to happen. We’ll have to wait and see if they do this again this year. Chances are, they will. Who knows, though? Our snowpack is way below average at the moment, and if we don’t get monsoons in late May and June, as in the past two seasons, this could be the year.
“I’ve always considered salmon fly hatches to be the most overrated of hatches,” Jim McLennan says. “As you know, in most places they coincide with poor water conditions. I think the Crow is their best choice here, but I know of no way to predict the ‘brush hatch.’
“I do like your idea of Rock Creek. I fished it during the hatch one year when I was there working for Orvis. I actually caught fish on dry salmon flies. Can’t remember exactly when it happens (maybe early July?).”
Rock Creek addicts start looking for salmon flies in mid-May, but the one time I caught the brush hatch there was in early July. My best Crowsnest Salmon fly hatch was on a cold, rainy July long weekend just downstream from the east Hillcrest Bridge. I was the only angler on the river and caught huge rainbows on dry salmon fly imitations until my hands were so cold they quit working.
If you know the nymphs have emerged and the adult bugs are in the bush, then the weather starts to ugly up, get out there!
At least half the salmon fly brush hatches I have caught perfectly have been when it was rainy and cold and … oh yes! … for every brush hatch I have caught, the flower buds on the streamside dogwoods were just starting to burst into bloom.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.