There are not many big brown trout in the Red Deer River tailwater below Dickson Dam, and locating where they hang out is both an art and a pre-requisite to fishing for and maybe catching (and releasing) a few.
“Structure” is a key for many anglers: log jams, sweepers, bouldery side channels, etc.
My favorite places are the bouldery water at the base of the steep cliffs people get marooned on or tumble down and have to be rescued by boat or cherry picker, as is happening too often lately around here. I was enjoying the Red Deer Advocate at Happy Hour recently, and was startled by a picture of one of my best top secret fishing holes illustrating a story titled “Man crosses river to save woman.”
This cliff is across the river from the boat launch and landing site just downstream of the Red Deer Golf and Country Club.
On May 26th, 2005, some big brown trout were rising over there. I waded out to the gunnels of my waders, but still couldn’t reach the risers with my best double-haul with my #7 salt water rod.
So I drove around to the other side, and spent too much time finding the top of the cliff.
In mid afternoon three days later I was back over there, parked, geared up, and descended to the river on a switch-back trail in the woods to the left (right from the other side) of the bare cliff.
Chokecherries were in full bloom, my phenological sign for the Skwala stonefly hatch to be on, and it was, sparsely, when I got down to the river. The big risers were finicky, like they were full, and I got several half-hearted takes on, or outright refusals of one or another of the imitations I had tied for this relatively “new,” or at least recently identified and named insect.
Eventually a big riser out in a boulder pool took a foam wing imitation so savagely that we parted company on the strike.
I cast another of the same fly to a quiet riser in ankle deep water not a foot from the bank straight upstream.
This time a subtle take, my strike, and this fish tore off the whole fly line to the middle of the river.
Eventually I admired, and then released a 56 cm. male brown trout. Suddenly the Skwalas and the rises quit.
Near the end of the gut-busting climb back up the cliff trail I discovered my stonefly box had fallen out of an unzipped pocket of my fishing vest: back down, found the fly box near the bottom, and then laboured my way back up again.
The next day friend and guide Garry Pierce, and I floated the river through great Skwala flights from the Penhold Bridge to Fort Normandeau. I landed browns of 56, 59 and 64 cm. all on the foam wing Skwala, and lost several to the then mandatory barbless hooks.
In the air or on the water, the Skwala appears grayish. Up close the body is glossy, dark olive, almost black, with pink, sometimes yellowish markings, similar to the two color phases of the spots on bull trout. Perfect hook size would be a non-existent 11, half way between our standard 12 and 10.
The male Skwala nymphs emerge first from the water, then hatch into adults with such short wings that they cannot fly.
They lurk in the grass and gravel and drum the ground with their bodies to attract the females, and then mate with them. On sunny days, around 1-2 p.m. the mated females fly to the water and “run” on it, depositing the eggs, driving hungry trout and cabin-fevered fly fishermen into transports of gluttony and joy.
The current (April-May) Fly Fisherman magazine features an article titled “A Tale of 2 Skwalas: Important one year, and irrelevant the next, the Skwala hatch is either the first good hatch of the season or a total bust.” Strangely, the article makes no further mention of what causes the alleged “bust,” given the fact that the Skwalas hatch every year.
In my experience, our first good stonefly hatch, around the time the male aspens are in full bloom, the Early Brown Stonefly, is truly erratic for reasons I don’t understand, and the Skwalas are a “bust” in those years when their waters are so high and muddy that the fish can’t see them and fishing is an invitation to your own funeral.
The season opened yesterday, May 15th, on the Red Deer from Dickson Dam down to Tolman Bridge, and I have been haunting the Golf Club cliff and glassing the water at its base: water at a good level and clear, but no rises over there, no bugs flying, and the chokecherry blooms seem late, tiny, barely budding.
These are all good signs and portents for a great Skwala hatch for the May long weekend, but beware: suddenly the forecast is for the dreaded, but badly-needed May monsoon.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.