Salmon Flies! The Big Start To Missoula’s Summer!
Pteranarcys californica. Salmon Fly. Willow Bug. Birds. Whatever you call it, when Salmon Flies emerge around Missoula, MT, these stoneflies can’t be missed when they’re on the water. A full 55mm long (that’s 2.1 inches!), they’re a three-course meal for every trout in the river. You’ve got to figure, when a steak dinner floats by, trout take notice!
Like all stoneflies, the salmon fly nymphs move to the edge of the river in preparation to crawl out and emerge on shore Water temps rise, and nymphs move into the shallows. Perfect for the higher water. The nymphs bring the fish close to the shore, where a wading angler should be so they don’t get swept away! With higher water, fish hang in the shallows, under willows, in side channels and soft water tighter to the banks. A size 6 Double Bead Stone or Pat’s Rubberlegs are just two of the numerous nymphs that will work at this time. Get them deep, because fast water pushes fish closer to the bottom. Go deep or go home!
The salmon fly hatch isn’t very predictable, and can even be a bit fussy even when you’re in the middle of it. It’s kicked off by water temps. The nymphs start emerging when the water approaches 52 degrees. Some years the 52 degree mark comes early, some years it arrives later. Multiple factors come into play with water temps, including how much water is running off the mountain, ambient air temps, volume of water in the river and more. These factors create a hatch starting jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put together every year.
Once the salmon flies have started to fly, it’s tough to ignore the dry fly fishing! It’s conventional wisdom, at least on Rock Creek and The Blackfoot River, that the hatch starts low on the river and progressively move upstream, approximately a mile a day. The floating angler may go through areas where the hatch isn’t as strong into areas where the hatch is wildly active, and then out again. If you’re on foot, and the action isn’t what you anticipate, you may want to move upstream or downstream, depending. But remember this- once the fish have started to key on these giant insects, they stay focused on them, so even if you’re not in the sweet spot, the fish still want the food.
When it comes to flies, you definitely need to prepare. This isn’t like other hatches, where you may have something close in your box for another purpose. Seriously, how many 2 inch flies do you normally carry?! It also takes a different leader. With the salmon fly, 1X or 2X may be your tippet. Preparation pays for this hatch.
Again, like all stoneflies, it’s not really a hatch, per se. The “hatch” consists of the females returning to the river to lay her eggs. They skitter across the top of the water depositing eggs, then fly off to do it again later. Of course, the trout are looking for these moving targets. Good flies to imitate this stage are Orange Stimulators and Sofa Pillows, and the strikes can be violent to these moving targets. But most of our flies imitate the unfortunate insects that have become trapped in the surface film, either by wind or a higher wave. These insects are an easier target, and tend to be preferred, especially by larger trout. The PK Stonefly, Rastaman Salmon Fly and Rogue River Salmon Fly are excellent imitations in the surface film. Don’t be afraid to provide a little twitch once in a while to activate strikes. We also carry patterns that imitate insects that have been swamped, riding below the surface film. These insects offer a completely immobile target to the trout, and are well imitated by Gould’s Half Down Salmon Fly, Cat Puke and Damien’s SUV Salmon Fly. Be ready for more subtle strikes with these flies, as trout know the insect can’t escape, and often rise less vigorously. They also ride lower, and may be less visible in rougher water.
It’s no secret Rock Creek is the premier river in Missoula for the Salmon Fly hatch. People travel from all over the world, united at Rock Creek to fish this legendary hatch. What’s less recognized is the Blackfoot River, upper Bitterroot River and Clark Fork River all have Salmon Fly events as well. Many Missoula fishing guides can vouch for this. When a hatch on a river is as famous as the Salmon Flies on Rock Creek, you find out there’s a lot of pressure. An easy way to find less pressure is forego the biggest hatch event, and go find places with fewer bugs . . . and fewer anglers. Wherever these insects emerge, Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Clark Fork or Rock Creek, the fish know and key in on them. Fewer salmon flies on the water can actually extend your fishing day. On Rock Creek, the Salmon Flies are so prolific that fish become gorged and stop feeding until their digestion catches up with their appetite! On rivers where the bugs are less numerous, the fish will rise for an extended period. It’s easy to get blinders- Salmon Flies, Rock Creek, Salmon Flies, Rock Creek, but all our local river and many tribs support this amazing hatch. Definitely hit Rock Creek, it’s a wonderful sight to behold, but don’t be afraid to do a little exploration, you may find yourself richly rewarded, and a little less crowded on the water.