The infamous Red Deer River cliff. Inset: With a 65-cm Red Deer River brown trout taken during the Skwala hatch.

The infamous Red Deer River cliff. Inset: With a 65-cm Red Deer River brown trout taken during the Skwala hatch.

Finding the big brown trout

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.

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Alberta says it won’t give out more first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for the time being.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Alberta to stop giving first doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot as supply dwindles

OTTAWA — Alberta says it won’t give out more first doses of… Continue reading

A Suncor logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Suncor Energy and Atco working together on potential hydrogen project

Atco would construct and operate pipeline and hydrogen storage facilities

Colonial Pipeline joue un rôle de premier plan dans le transport de l’essence, du kérosène, du diésel et d’autres produits pétroliers du Texas vers la côte Est.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Pipeline officials hope most service will be back by weekend

Colonial Pipeline delivers about 45 per cent of the fuel consumed on East Coast

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Heidi Illingworth, federal ombudsman for victims of crime, takes part in an interview at her office in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Watchdog worries federal benefit for parents of missing, murdered kids going unused

OTTAWA — The federal ombudsman for victims of crime says she remains… Continue reading

Labour Minister Harry Bains arrives at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, June 26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
British Columbia to give workers three days of paid sick leave for COVID-19

VICTORIA — British Columbia will give all workers up to three days… Continue reading

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Coalition says users were shut out of drug decriminalization proposal, demands redo

Advocates are calling on the federal government and the City of Vancouver… Continue reading

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe waits in line at a COVID-19 vaccination drive-thru clinic at Evraz Place in Regina on Thursday, April 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor
Other provinces looking at Saskatchewan’s plan to tie COVID-19 vaccines to reopening

CALGARY — Neighbouring provinces are eyeing Saskatchewan’s plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions… Continue reading

This undated photo provided by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department shows a group of bighorn sheep in North Dakota. Alberta’s environment department has known for years that toxins from old coal mines are contaminating populations of the province’s official animal, the bighorn sheep. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Craig Bihrle/North Dakota Game and Fish Department via AP, File
Alberta government knew bighorn sheep contaminated with coal mine selenium: scientist

EDMONTON — Alberta’s environment department has known for years that toxins from… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at Rideau cottage in Ottawa, on Friday, March 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Trudeau rejects Alberta cabinet minister accusation he wants COVID health disaster

EDMONTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is rejecting an accusation from Alberta’s… Continue reading

In this June 8, 2017, file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the pipeline near St. Ignace, Mich., as Enbridge prepares to test the east and west sides of the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in Mackinaw City, Mich. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Dale G Young/Detroit News via AP, File
On eve of deadline, Canada makes case in court to keep Line 5 pipeline running

WASHINGTON — The federal government is stepping up its fight with Michigan… Continue reading

Denis Shapovalov, of Canada, tosses the ball for a serve to Ilya Ivashka, of Belarus, during the Miami Open tennis tournament Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
Canadian Denis Shapovalov books spot in second round of Italian Open

Shapovalov to face world Stefano Travaglia, of Italy

Most Read