Montana Fly Fishing

Best Flies For Cutthroat Trout

Missoula Fly fishing guides will tell you if you catch a Brown Trout, you know what’s hatching. If you catch a Rainbow Trout, you know what’s hatching. But if you catch a Cutthroat Trout, well, you’ve just caught a Cutthroat! Lets take a look at some of the best flies for Cutthroat and what makes them so effective.

Dry Fly Patterns For Cutthroat

It’s no secret that Cutthroat Trout are free rising fish. Think of them as the 13 year old girls of the stream. They do like their bling when it comes to flies! Show them a bit of sparkle, give a bit of shine, and that usually brings the Cutties right to the top. If you’re prospecting for Cutthroat, any fly with a synthetic, sparkly body will often move them to the surface. We use a lot of Royal coloration style flies like the Royal Wulff, and love the Royal Hippie Stomper for luring the less than wiley Cutthroat to the surface.

That being said, the Cutthroat trout, when intent on a hatch, can be as selective as any trout on the planet. Find a blanket PMD hatch, and they will be just as focused on the Left Wing Crippled Emergent Nymph With Trailing Shuck, in the film, as any other trout. We’ve been there and done that at Kelly Creek in Idaho and other Cutthroat hot spots. Trout are trout, and during a hatch Cutthroat are just as fussy as any fish on the river, especially the big ones.

Something to remember when focusing on Cutthroat Trout. Fish your cast out to the bitter end, and by that we mean swinging the fly in a skitter below you. If we ever found ourselves stranded on a river with no food, fishing for sustenance, this is a very effective method of taking smaller Cutties. Oh, sure, once in a while a big one will surprise you, take the dry on the swing and completely snap you off on the tight line drag. But that swing at the end will bring the little guys up like magic. It’s an odd feeling, watching your dry swing across the surface, but the fish eat it up. The best fly for this is the Elk Hair Caddis. It’s a fly designed to skitter anyway, so the action is always there.

Nymph Patterns For Cutthroat

When it comes to nymphing for Cutthroat, it’s pretty much the same as for any other trout. Get your fly deep, keep it in the zone on a dead drift, and look for movement in your point fly or indicator. Again, we tend to favor a brighter fly, like the Fire Starter or the Tung Flash Prince. Both these flies are very visible sub-surface, and will catch the trout’s attention from a distance.

The swing on the nymph is less effective than the swing on the dry fly, but it’s still effective. But not for the same reason. Back in 1941, James Leisenring wrote a book called The Art Of Tying The Wet Fly, which became a very important work in angling lit for a long time. In the last chapter, he describes, the “Leisenring Lift”, a technique he used when sight fishing to nymphing trout. Spot a trout, dead drift your fly to the fish, and just as the fly is about to go past, gently lift the rod to catch the fish’s attention with a fly coming to the surface. Gary LaFontaine, in his studies underwater with scuba tanks, corroborated this and went one step further. He said it almost appeared instinctive. If a fly is pulled to the surface directly in front of a trout, coming from below the trout’s vision into its sight, it eats. This applies to all trout, not just Cutthroat. A swinging nymph, if by chance or planning, rises in front of a trout, it will eat. We like to think that’s some solace as your indicator goes by making a V-wake on the water! Not much, but some. Leisenring invented this technique for sight fishing to trout deeper in the water column, and it’s tremendously effective. A nymph at the end of a drift will simulate this action, but then it’s all about luck, really, as to whether the fly lifts up in front of a fish. Still an effective technique to be aware of.

Streamer Patterns For Cutthroat

Many anglers don’t use streamers for Cutthroat, in the mistaken belief that they don’t take them. This isn’t true. While Cutthroats certainly aren’t Brown Trout in their search for big meals, they will definitely take a streamer, especially the bigger fish in the river. It has been our experience however, that a smaller fly is much more effective than a big old Mongrel Meat or BeastMaster. Run a smaller Sculpzilla, or a Kreelex (back to bling!) and you’ll find yourself taking Cutties on a streamer. Cutthroat are less bold when it comes to streamer fishing. You’re not often going to find the rod shaking take of a big Rainbow Trout- Cutthroat are going to sidle out and nip at the fly in a less aggressive manner. If you’re craving a gut-punch take and the ripping head shake, you might ply your trade where the Browns, Brookies and Rainbows take up residence. But if you’re on Cutty water, and find a great streamer spot, don’t be afraid to tie one on and go for it. Scale down, keep the fly in the zone as long as possible, and you’ll be rewarded with some pretty sizable fish when you didn’t expect them.

Final Thoughts

The Cutthroat is a dry fisher’s dream. Free rising and relatively careless, they will often keep you active all day on the surface. But you’ll need to find them first, before you can get to that type of action. Head upstream on most tributaries, and you’ll start to see more and more Cutties. Bring your bling, bring that crazy attractor you tied late night in January when you were bored, and use them. You might not know what’s hatching when a Cutthroat sips in your dry, but at that point, does it really matter?!

Additional Cutthroat Fly Patterns

Looking for more Cutthroat Flies? Check out our Attractor Flies by clicking here.

Fish Rising On Clark Fork River

5 Best Hatches on the Clark Fork

The Clark Fork River covers lots of miles in western Montana, with many hatches along its length. The upper stretch is smaller and bit faster, making it prime water for stoneflies and caddis. The middle and lower stretches, especially below the Bitterroot River, are slower and broader, perfect for blanket mayfly hatches, stoneflies and caddis. It’s difficult to nail down the 5 best hatches on this river, but we’ve done it! They’re listed in our preference.

Pale Morning Duns

Pale Morning Dun Hatch

This is the quintessential western mayfly hatch, and the Clark Fork River is covered with PMD’s from the 3rd week of June through the 3rd week of July and sometimes later. PMD’s hatch between noon and 3:00, depending on weather, and consistently provide about 2 hours of steady, excellent technical dry fly fishing. Be prepared, because when PMD’s come off, they come off in sheets. The fish will definitely focus on very specific stages of the hatch, and can be insanely fussy. Which is part of the fun!

The Clark Fork trout, especially in the lower sections, pod up to take these flies. Characteristic of the Clark Fork, the pods tend to hold fish of relatively the same size. If you come across a pod of fish, and the first nose up is about 2” across, slow down! Most of the fish in that pod are going to be big, and you need to be very stealthy on approach. If the rises are a bit smaller, most of the fish in that pod will be smaller as well. Don’t know why, but know it’s so. You can do some serious head hunting on the Lower Clark Fork River.

The PMD’s love the soft insides of bends in the river. It’s easy to miss these trout as you go by, as the rises in the diamond chop have to be spotted carefully. It’s well worth checking out the inside seam at every bend in the river for rising fish. They also hatch in the long glides below riffles, and along the edges in the rock gardens. The Clark Fork River is fertile and large in the middle and lower sections, and like every river, has its own secrets.

The PMD’s can test the width of your fly box. To effectively meet this hatch on the Clark Fork River, you’ll need cripples, emergers, duns, unweighted nymphs and klinkhamer style flies, like the PMD Sprout. Special mention needs to be made of the Rusty Spinner. All adult PMD’s (as well as adult Pale Evening Duns) return to the river as Rusty Spinners. Our favorite fly for this stage is the Hi Viz Rusty Spinner, so you can see this low riding fly. The spinners can fall at any time, though are most often seen at dawn and dusk. Be ready for this stage, as the fish will move for spinners whenever they’re on the water.  

Golden Stones

Golden Stone Hatching On The Blackfoot River

The Clark Fork River is a sneaky good stonefly river, especially the middle and lower sections. The upper Clark Fork, with its more rapid descent and faster water is an obvious choice for stoneflies, but the slower middle and lower sections don’t look very stonefly-y. The Golden Stones will show you how good the Clark Fork is for stoneflies!

Throughout the middle and lower Clark Fork are rock gardens. That’s the second time we’ve said this, and it’s time for a definition. A rock garden is found next to the shore, in water 1.5 to 4 feet deep. Cinder block size rocks sit next to larger rocks, providing excellent cover for trout and habitat for Goldens. The Clark Fork is so big and fast that the water looks quite still over these sizable rocks. Wade the edges for a while and you’ll see exactly what we’re talking about. A wading angler is tempted to go waist deep and cast to the likely water in the middle. Mistake! 75% of all fish are found within 15 feet of the bank, and the Clark Fork is no exception. Work the edges, over these rock gardens, and watch your fish count rise on Missoula’s largest river.

The Goldens hatch heavily from late June through July, and bring strikes all across the river. Our favorite flies include the Rastaman Golden and PK Golden. If the surface action slows down, drop a Pat’s Rubberlegs in Tan/Brown off a long dropper. On the lower Clark Fork, a 7-foot dropper is often exactly what’s needed during this hatch. Interesting casting, but the catching will make it worth it. If you’re an early bird, the Clark Fork has some excellent dawn fishing with a Golden, and then expect to nymph or streamer till the day heats up and they begin to fly in earnest. Keep in mind the Golden Stone is not a single species, but a variety of species all imitated by the same flies. The Golden hatch can be anywhere from a size 6 to a 12. Be ready for size variations throughout the day.

Mahoganies

Mahogany Dun Hatch

This big brown mayfly is a staple on the Clark Fork from the first Fall rains in September through the last frigid days of October. Mahoganies hatch in the heat of the day, usually from 1-3:00, and once established, hatch in sun or clouds. The Mahoganies can be a blizzard hatch on the Clark Fork, and again the width of your fly box may be stretched when the Mahogany is out in numbers.

Mahoganies are most active below riffles. Look for fish rising in slower water below riffles, and if the glide is short enough, in the tail out as well. As a slow water bug, additional preparations may be needed to effectively fish the Mahogany hatch. Add some fine tippet to your leader, 4.5X or 5X, and make sure to leave enough distance between you and the fish. The late season water is low and clear, and nowhere is the term fine and far off more apt than the Clark Fork River. The fish pod up just as they do for the PMD, and a bad cast can move a lot of fish, negatively! You can have an epic day with Mahoganies on the Clark Fork. 

Salmon Fly

Salmon Fly Hatch In Montana

The Salmon Fly is really a thing to see, this giant insect flopping back on the water as it lays its eggs for the next generation! Coming in at 54mm long, the Salmon Fly is a dry fly you can see on the water, and the fish rarely miss it as well. When fishing the Salmon Fly on the Clark Fork River, don’t expect the numbers found on the Blackfoot River or Rock Creek.

Surprisingly, this is a distinct advantage when fishing the Salmon Fly. If you see one, tie one on and start prospecting. The fish aren’t gorged on this fly, and take them opportunistically. The lack of crazy numbers means the fish are looking for them all the time, a real advantage to the angler. If you’re looking for a photo op of Salmon Flies crawling everywhere, the Clark Fork isn’t your first bet. But if steady fishing with giant dry flies sounds appealing, the Clark Fork is a good answer!

Big Salmon flies, like the Super Gee or El Camino Grillo are good flies on the Clark Fork. They also do double duty if you need to drop a dark Pat’s RubberLegs off the back. Those big foamies do a great job as an indicator as well. The Salmon Flies start hatching mid to late June, and post run-off the Clark Fork can be a very big river at this time of year. Eyes on the river whether rowing or wading.

Hoppers

Hopper Hatch

The Clark Fork can offer up some spectacular hopper fishing from mid-August right through mid-October. While we don’t like to mention it out loud, it’s due to the wind. There, we whispered it! Everyone who rows in Missoula has a horror story of the wind blowing up the Clark Fork River so hard in the summer that the boat can’t be controlled. It’s not normal, but it can happen. And when it does, it’s hopper time!

Hoppers are ungainly flyers at best, and the middle and lower sections of the Clark Fork River are WIDE! When hoppers fly over the middle of the river, with a little breeze activity, you’ve got a recipe for hoppers on the water. You don’t often hear us say this, but don’t be afraid to shorten up your leader, and go with 2-3X tippet. Big flies in the breeze can create interesting situations for the rower and others close to the action, so a short, stout leader can be very useful on the Clark Fork.

Don’t be afraid to let the hopper land with a splat to alert the fish. Also, if you’re getting hits just as you start your back cast, that’s a sign the fish are looking for a hopper with a little movement. Not a 3-foot strip, but enough jiggle to let the trout know it’s struggling. Switch to Pav’s Yellowstone Hopper or any rubber-legged hopper to accentuate the struggle on the surface. Other strong Clark Fork hoppers include the Henneberry Hopper and Morrish Hopper. Later in the season, the less traditional colors really start to work on the Clark Fork.

Honorable Mention

Clark Fork River honorable mentions include the Tan Caddis. There are nights the Tan Caddis are so thick you can barely breathe, but the fish don’t seem to care. The occasional rise is more often to a PED than a Tan Caddis. WHERE DO YOU THINK THE ADULTS COME FROM? The Tan Deep Sparkle Pupa is one of the most effective flies on the Clark Fork from dawn to dusk. We say it all the time- we don’t sell enough of these flies! Go deep with a Tan Deep Sparkle Pupa on the Clark Fork River and your fish count will quickly rise.


Additional Hatch Resources

5 Best Hatches on the Bitterroot

The Bitterroot River runs south to north through the Bitterroot valley, and is a very wader friendly river. Fishes big, wades small, and the Bitterroot River hatches are the most diverse in the Missoula area. Here is a list of some of our favorite hatches on the Bitterroot.

Trico

Trico Spinner Fly Fishing

From a hatch matcher’s standpoint, the Trico hatch is the most frustrating, tricky, amazing and challenging hatch on the Bitterroot River. Coming in at an 18 or 20, the small size starts the trico challenge. Add that the trico is the only local mayfly with distinctive male and female coloration, and toss on the spinner fall that occurs during the hatch, and you have a serious puzzle for the angler to solve.

The Tricos are a blanket hatch, coming off in huge numbers starting mornings in mid-August and continuing through mid-October, depending on weather. The spinner clouds that form above the river prior to the hatch are identifiable by the figure 8 pattern they fly in. The cloud will form about 15 feet above the water, and slowly drop to the surface. The spinners are also identifiable as male and female, so once they fall and the hatch starts, you have male and female spinners on the water, as well as male and female adults, cripples and emergers. The Trico hatch can really stretch the width of an anglers fly box!

Contrary to most mayfly hatches, the tricos hatch best in full sun, which makes the trout a bit skittish when up feeding on this hatch. Which the trout kind of have to do, as the Trico is the only reliable source of food at this time. The fish will line up in the slow glides and pools and take these insects for as long as they are present on the water. While the Tricos will appear above Bell Crossing, the best Missoula Trico fishing is found in the wider, slower sections of the lower Bitterroot River.

Make sure you’re ready for this hatch when you hit the water. Ron’s Trico Spinner has been our top producer for this hatch for years, but you’ll need more flies than that! A Female Comparadun or Trico Sprout will also turn heads when the hatch is on. The Sunken Spinner is a great fly when the fish are focused just under the surface, dropped off a Parachute Trico or even a smaller Royal Wulff- also a sneaky good fly when the tricos are on.

Make sure you’re ready with a well-balanced leader tapered down to 5 or 5.5X. Your casting needs to be somewhat long and quite accurate. The tricos are so small, and there are so many on the water. The trout don’t move very far to the left or right to take your fly. It needs to be in the feeding lane, floating correctly, and matching the phase of insect that particular fish is feeding on. Spinner, adult, cripple or emerger in both male and female. It can be the most frustrating hatch to work when you’re not on, but when you find the fly and start getting the drift, the satisfaction of having solved the riddle is one of the best feelings you can have when heading out to match wits with the wily trout!

Skwala

Bitterroot Skwala Hatch
Bitterroot Skwala

The Bitterroot River is known across Montana and the west as having the best skwala stonefly hatch in the area. This early spring stonefly begins hatching in the 2nd or 3rd  week of March and will continue through run-off. The females are olive and run from size 8 early in the hatch to a size 12 near the end. The males are dark and smaller, and rarely find their way to the water. As with all stoneflies, the Skwalas emerge by crawling out along the sides of the river, so the trout will follow the nymphs to the shore. Use a Double Bead Peacock Stone or an Pats RubberLegs to match the nymphs early in the hatch.

The Skwalas will come off along the entire length of the Bitterroot River, as well as the East Fork and West Fork of the Bitterroot. As the first hatch of the year, there’s a lot of pent up fly fishing in Missoula, and the Bitterroot can see its fair share of anglers at this time. Pick your days to fish the Skwalas! They will hatch in the worst conditions- snow, rain, clouds and cold weather. Conditions like that tend to turn away the faint of heart. Dress warmly and go knock ‘em silly!

If you’re running a dropper like a Tungsten Hare’s Ear Jig for the Western March Brown nymph, use an Morning Wood Skwala or Olive Water Walker. These big foamies will float your nymph and work well early in the season. As the hatch progresses, and the fish get wise, switch up to the Little Olive Stone or Rogue Stone Skwala. They float lower in the water, and look more realistic to the fish.

Skwalas will hatch on gray days, and with their dark coloration can be very difficult to see on the water. You must look carefully for them as they go floating by. The random rise will also alert you to their presence on the river. Work the good looking water, and be ready for some slow times, especially in the colder morning. The crafty Skwala angler will often wait for the afternoon to start fishing, allowing the temperatures to warm and get the adults flying. It’s a great way to start the season- big bugs and lots of action!

Western March Browns

March Brown Hatch Montana

The Western March Browns will start hatching in the last week of March, and will go through run-off. The WMB is well imitated by the Purple Haze, Parachute Adams or the Parachute Hare’s Ear. While the WMB’s come off consistently during the Spring, they are rarely a blanket hatch. Unlike the Trico, it doesn’t take a lot of flies to effectively fish the WMB’s. Sure, a cripple or emerger is useful, but certainly not required.

The WMB’s really like clouds, and that can be a bit problematic early in the hatch. It takes a bit of warmer weather to get the flies moving at the beginning, and clouds aren’t always the best at allowing warmth. But once the WMB’s get established by the first week in April, they consistently come off in the afternoons along the length of the Bitterroot River. They’re found in size 12-14, but concentrate mostly on the size 14. When you go subsurface with a WMB nymph, have a few Umpqua Ptail Jig or PT Hot Spots to get deep quickly and stay in the zone. Anglers love this relatively simple hatch on the Bitterroot River.

Golden Stones

Golden Stone Hatching On The Blackfoot River

The Golden Stones could just have easily been the third hatch on this list. They are a very prolific hatch on the Bitterroot River, including the East Fork and West Fork. Unlike the Skwala, which is a single species, the Golden Stone hatch is comprised of multiple species that range in size from 6- 12, with the most falling in the 8-10 zone. Expand that slightly, and you can include the Yellow Sallies, which are smaller Golden Stones in size 14-16. In the last week of June through July, the Goldens offer a smorgasbord of insects for the trout to gorge on.

The upper stretches of the Bitterroot are faster and choppier, so a high floating Golden like a Plan B Golden or an El Camino Golden are strong producers. In the lower sections, where the water may be a little calmer, the PK Golden or Rastaman Golden will perform very well. Make sure to have some Tan/Brown Pats RubberLegs with you when the surface action isn’t where you want it to be. Be ready for bigger water during the Golden hatch, especially at the start of the hatch, and work the edges of the river. As the water drops during July, the fish will move from shore to their familiar summer feeding stations.

Mahoganies

Mahogany Dun Hatch

The majestic Mahogany is found on the Bitterroot River from the first September rains through the first real snowfall. They hatch in the heat of the day, which on some October afternoons can be 45 degrees! They’re a sizable insect, about a 12-14, and are easily seen on the water. The Mahoganies aren’t a blanket hatch, and if you get a reasonable imitation over a fish, they will usually take.

We like the Tilt Wing Mahogany at this time of year, as well as the Pheasant Tail Dry. If you want to get fancy, a Hi Viz Rusty Spinner in a 14 can be money, as can a Mahogany Sprout. When you go subsurface, an Solitude Pheasant Tail Jig or Quill Perdigon Jig will be very effective during this hatch. While it hatches along the length of the river, the best hatches are found below Bell Crossing.

Honorable Mention

Honorable mention on the Bitterroot River goes to the Hecuba hatch. While not a prolific hatch by any stretch of the imagination, the Bitterroot trout love this late summer/fall hatch and will take them whenever they’re on the water. If you find yourself on the water in Fall with little happening, tie on a Brindle Chute in a size 12 and start prospecting. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results!


Additional Hatch Information

Blackfoot Salmonfly Hatching

5 Best Hatches on the Blackfoot River

The Big Blackfoot River is where A River Runs Through It takes place. Home of the Big Fish, and it was taken on a big fly! The Blackfoot River is a perfect habitat for stoneflies and Caddis, and we’re going to start big!

Here is a list of our favorite Blackfoot River Hatches

Golden Stone

Golden Stone Hatching On The Blackfoot River

The Golden Stones, comprised of many stonefly species all imitated by the same flies, are the premiere hatch on the Blackfoot River. Not by size, but consistency. The Blackfoot River is the highest altitude and northernmost river in the Missoula area. It’s often the last river to heat up after run-off and usually the first to shut down in the fall. While the Salmon Flies can be epic on the Blackfoot, the Golden Stones are a guarantee year in and year out.

The Goldens begin to hatch in the last week of June, and as soon as they establish themselves, Missoula’s most experienced fly fishing guides tie on a Golden. They’re smaller, running from size 6-12, which makes them more accurate in the high water found at the beginning of the hatch. The high gradient Blackfoot River will push fish up to the banks in high water, and often the difference between success and rejection is 6 inches. The smaller fly goes where it’s aimed, and moves fish in the water they’re comfortable in.

It’s easy to talk all day about the dry fly fishing provided by the Blackfoot River Goldens, but anglers do themselves a serious disservice by ignoring the subsurface Golden activity. Take one look at the Blackfoot River, crashing through boulders and cascading against bluffs and rock walls, and the water just screams nymph. You know big trout are hanging behind boulders and rocks, and those trout haven’t been to the surface in 4 years. Drop a Brown/Black Pats RubberLegs paired with a Peacock Double Bead Stone. Don’t be afraid to run the point fly 6 feet deep and the dropper 8 feet deep! It’s a big, roiling river, and the fish get deep and stay there. You’re going to get a lot more done if you get to the fish on their level, not make them come to yours!

Which isn’t saying the dry fly fishing is no good! The Golden Stones on the Blackfoot River can provide the best dry fly fishing in Missoula for the season. It’s that good. Early in the hatch, go with big and foamie, like Clook’s Floater In The Pool or an El Camino Golden. These will also hold up a dropper if that’s needed. As the season progresses, and the fish start to move away from the banks into summer water, think a bit smaller and lower floating. A Demoe’s Mill Creek Golden or Morningwood Golden are top producers when the fish start to slip away from the banks. If the dry fly action slows for some reason, throw on the Chubby Chernobyl Golden and run a dropper. The Chubby may be the best indicator fly in your arsenal, with its high floating, easy to see wing and foam body.

Word to the wise for the Goldens. The Blackfoot is a tricky river to row in early to mid-July. All the teeth are sticking up, and there’s a lot of push from the high flow. Be vigilant on the sticks- no one wants a yardsale!

Salmon Fly

Salmon Fly Hatch In Montana

We know there’s a lot of blowback here. Why isn’t the Salmon Fly the number one hatch? Because while its big, and when it’s on every fish in the river is up and eating, it can be inconsistent in a cold spring/Early Summer. But when it finally comes on, it is ON! The Salmon Fly will start on the lower sections first, but it moves much more rapidly along the length of the river. The Salmon Fly can establish from Weigh Station to Ovando in about a week. We like to start the season with the biggest, highest floating Salmon Flies we can find. Super Gee, Damien’s SUV Salmon Fly and other gi-normous foamies! Don’t worry about them floating too high, the big roiling river will keep them in the film. If you can do it, these flies will take a dropper as well, doubling your chances of a hook up on the bank.

Don’t be afraid to run a 6 or 7 weight rod during the salmon fly hatch on the Blackfoot River. Running 1-2X tippet, you have the ability to apply the wood to the fish once they’re hooked. And you’re going to need it! Get a slab-side brownie sideways in that current, and you’ll know why Brad Pitt decided it was easier to float with the fish than fight the current. Be ready with a big stick for the Salmon Flies.

The big stick is also useful at the end of the Salmon Fly hatch, as the Goldens are starting to make their presence known. How often do you get to run a size 6 dry fly on point with a size 10 dropper? The Blackfoot River offers the perfect venue for the big double dry rig. Can’t decide what to throw? Let the trout decide. The Blackfoot River is also a great river for a “tweener” fly. That’s a fly like a size 6 Rogue Golden or Morningwood Special that COULD be a darker Salmon Fly, or it could be a Golden. Let those flies do double duty. You don’t care why they took it, just that they did!

Go back and refer to the nymphing paragraph in the Goldens. Same thing for Salmon Flies, just substitute a Black Pat’s Rubberlegs or a Black Double Bead Stone. ‘Nuff said about subsurface.

Spruce Moth

Spruce Moth Hatch

While not a true hatch, when the Spruce Moths are on, the Blackfoot River can look like it’s raining on a clear August day! The Blackfoot runs through a corridor that is surrounded by pine trees, especially along the recreational corridor. While the bird watchers and forestry people are watching the tops of the trees whither and go brown, the angler is firmly focused on the adult Spruce Moths returning to the water. Why they return to the water is up in the air, but they come down like a bee to honey, and the trout take advantage of this unexpected August food bonus.

Our best Spruce Moth pattern is Ron Beck’s MAngler Moth. It’s spun deer hair body perfectly mimics the moth’s variegated body coloration, and it floats like a cork. If you’re looking to run a different bug from the back of the boat, try a Spruce Almighty or size 10 Tan Caddis. Both these flies will move fish when the Spruce Moths are out. Don’t worry about a Spruce Moth larva dropper. While we’re sure a few find their way to the river, the immature Spruce Moth is not really a thing, making the Spruce Moth a Dry Or Die favorite!

Hoppers

Grasshopper Hatch

Again, this isn’t truly a hatch, but the hoppers come right on the heels of the salmon Flies and Golden Stones. The trout are looking up for big flies- why would they stop when the hoppers come out to play! The Big Blackfoot is a wide river as it heads into Missoula, and hoppers aren’t very good flyers. Many find their way to the surface, where the trout are looking for the unlikely meal. The natural forestation that surrounds so much of the Blackfoot is great hopper habitat, and the hoppers are in play up here from late July until the end of the season.

We like to start with a natural colored hopper early in the hatch, like a Morrish Tan Hopper or Parachute Hopper. Though many of Missoula’s most experienced guides will use a Gold Morrish Hopper or a Peach Fat Frank. They do this to jar the memory of the trout back to Golden Stones and Salmon Flies, giving the trout one more reason to come to the surface for food. As the season progresses, get some big hoppers and make use of those as well. Size 6-8 can really produce along the recreational corridor. A great dropper off the hopper is a Solitude Pheasant Tail Jig or FireStarter. Both have proven themselves in the hot summer days on the Blackfoot River.

October Caddis

October Caddis Hatch

The October Caddis can start as early as mid-September on the Blackfoot River, so be ready. They’re tough to miss when they’re on the water, and the trout will look for them from the moment they first hatch. Not sure if the October caddis are out yet? Drop an October Bird Of Prey off the back of a big hopper, and let the trout tell you if the October Caddis are out and about.

Our favorite October Caddis dry on the Blackfoot is the simple Orange Elk Hair Caddis or Orange Stimulator. Both are high floating flies- very useful in the fast, roily water found along the Blackfoot River. Both will float a dropper, to a point, and are very effective when the October caddis are flying. If you want to throw a change-up to the trout, run a Brindle Chute. The orange body is a perfect copy of the October Caddis coloration,  and the parachute post is easily seen.

Honorable Mention

We’re stretching the honorable mention “hatch” on the Blackfoot River, and going with streamers. The nature of the Blackfoot River, with deep pockets and steep banks, make it the perfect river to throw streamers at any time. The old adage of big fish eat little fish is never wrong on the Blackfoot, where the turbulent water will muffle the biggest streamers entrance even in the lowest water conditions. If you’ve decided that for today’s angling, size matters, then take a fistful of streamers to the Blackfoot River. Go deep or go home!


Additional Hatch Resources

5 Best Hatches on Rock Creek

Rock Creek is the quintessential western river, and Missoula’s only Blue Ribbon trout stream. Many locals consider Rock Creek to be their home waters, and live for the stonefly hatches. If you could design a river for stoneflies, Rock Creek would be the model. Rock Creek’s high gradient creates fast, highly oxygenated water and a large cobbled bottom that is absolutely perfect stonefly habitat. Here is a list of our favorite Rock Creek Hatches.

Salmon Fly

Salmon Fly Hatch In Montana

Rock Creek is known the world over for its Salmon Fly hatch. Work in the shop mid-June through early July and you’ll hear 4-5 different languages spoken, all with one common denominator- Salmon Fly. That doesn’t need translation. Whether on foot or by boat, the Salmon Fly hatch on Rock Creek is a clarion call to anglers- big bugs here.

The start of the Salmon Fly hatch can be hampered by high water. Run-off traditionally ends just as the Salmon Flies are heating up. Rock Creek’s gradient means little to no silt, which allows Rock Creek to clear long before other local rivers will. Clear or not, the Salmon Flies will hatch and the trout will find them. Also, clear or not, Rock Creek is a tricky river to wade and row during the Salmon Fly hatch. Anglers can cover 25-30 miles in a day by boat- the river is moving that fast. Care needs to be taken in boat or on foot. While on safety, if you’re wading and see a Moose, go find somewhere else to fish. Get between a female moose and her calf and you have real problems.

Traditionally, the Salmon Flies begin hatching at the mouth of Rock Creek, and move 1-2 miles upstream each day on average. Many fishing reports reference “where” the hatch is on Rock Creek- it’s saying where the hatch is densest as it moves upriver. The density of the Salmon Fly hatch is truly magnificent. Find yourself in the thick of the hatch, and you can have Salmon Flies crawling all over you, the boat and every tree on shore. With every fish in the river up and looking for them.

Early in the season, we favor the large, foam Salmon Flies like Damien’s SUV or El Camino Grillo for their ability to float in high water. As the river drops, we go a bit smaller to a Goulds Half Down or a Morningwood Special. A Double Bead Black or Peacock Stonefly Nymph will work well subsurface.

Female Salmon Flies will live for 2-3 weeks in the trees, returning daily to lay new eggs. Over this time, they shrink in size and darken in color. As the hatch moves upstream, crafty anglers will take a smaller, darker pattern like a Bullethead Salmon Fly or Rogue Salmon Fly and go down low. While the crazy hatch (and crazy hatch chasers) might be at Mile 30, the adults are still there laying their eggs at Mile 6, and the trout are still eating them.

Fair warning. Rock Creek is Missoula’s most easily accessed river, with Rock Creek Road paralleling the river for 52 miles. It’s not a secret that the best Salmon Fly hatch in the world is here. If you’re looking to fish in solitude, not another angler within miles, Rock Creek during Salmon Flies may not be for you. Rock Creek is justifiably famous for this amazing hatch, but it draws a crowd. Be ready for that experience.

Golden Stones

Golden Stone Hatching On The Blackfoot River

The Golden Stones follow directly on the heels of the Salmon Fly on Rock Creek, and for many anglers provide more consistent fishing along the length of the river. The Salmon Fly can provide you with frenzied feeding, while the Golden will be consistent throughout the day. Unlike the single species Salmon Fly (Pteranarcys Californica) the Golden Stones are made up of many different but related species of stoneflies, which is why the Golden can vary in size from a 6 to a 12, with most in the 8-10 range. Be ready with multiple sizes and shapes to meet the changing hatch along Rock Creek. The size difference is why the Golden hatch is more consistent- more difficult for the fish to gorge on smaller flies and stop feeding.

The Goldens are coming off when the water is up, so a high floating fly is most effective at the start of the hatch. The Demoes Golden and the Morningwood Golden are both good foam flies that will absorb the pounding of Rock Creek. Because the Goldens will go almost through July, low floaters will work better near the end of the hatch. A Plan B Golden or Halfdown Golden are strong producers near the end of the hatch.

Western March Browns

March Brown Hatch Montana

To be honest, we flipped a coin between the WMB’s and the Skwala Stone. Both appear in the Spring, starting in late March and moving through run-off. Rock Creek tends to be a bit behind in the Spring hatches because it’s in such a steep, narrow valley. Takes a few more warmer days to get the water temps to where the WMB’s will hatch. When they do, they come alive along the length of the river.

Don’t ask an angler where his favorite Western March Brown water is, because they’re not going to tell you! Rock Creek moves quickly, and there aren’t many places for a trout to set up for a mayfly hatch. It’s not the quick dart to the surface for big food like a stonefly. Look for the WMB’s along the edges of the river, and be ready with some strong mending to get the drift. The good news is the trout up and eating don’t tend to be fussy, and a well presented fly in the correct size and color is effective most of the time.

We favor the Hare’s Ear Dry or Parachute Adams when the Western March Browns are on the water. If you feel you need a bit more, the Last Chance Cripple will do the trick for the fussiest fish. If you see a few WMB’s flying but don’t see any active risers, work the fly over the good water. For some reason, prospecting with a WMB is effective, so take advantage of that.

Skwala Stonefly

Bitterroot Skwala Hatch

Rock Creek is a stonefly factory, and the Skwala is no exception. Depending on the weather, the Skwalas may start as early as mid March, but will be in full swing by the end of the month. Rock Creek is typically low and clear when the Skwalas hatch, so no 1X tippet on a short leader here. You’ll need to get out a bit, and work with the lightest tippet you can when using a Skwala.

The Skwalas are found along the length of the river, and in the Spring are not fished as heavily as other local waters, specifically the Bitterroot River. Just as Rock Creek is famous for the Salmon Fly, the Bitterroot River is famous for the Skwalas. A bit of contrarian fishing can reap big benefits with Skwalas on Rock Creek. The hatch isn’t as dense as the Bitterroot, but neither are the fishermen, so that can be a good trade off. It’s not that Rock Creek doesn’t get a strong hatch, it’s just not the strongest. Use that to your advantage.

We love the Morningwood Skwala on Rock Creek, as well as the Rogue Stone Skwala. These two flies are strong floaters, and will easily support a WMB nymph, like a Tungsten Jig Hare’s Ear, so you can double your chances at this time. If the day calls for a low floater, go with the Rastaman Skwala or the Half Down Skwala. Both are very effective in slower water as well as days when the fish are a bit sluggish.

October Caddis

October Caddis Hatch

Rock Creek is home to many caddis species, and late in the season the big boy comes out to play. The October Caddis is Missoula’s largest caddis species, and when they’re on the water, the trout are eating them. It’s rare to find enough October Caddis on the water to where the fish will set up and consistently rise to them, but that doesn’t matter!

If you see an October Caddis on the water, tie one on the end of your line and start prospecting. If there’s one, there’s more, and the trout know it. Work the likely water, and don’t be afraid to put 3-4 casts over a likely spot. Sometimes a few extra casts alert the trout to the hatch, and you’ll take a trout that thinks it’s missing something.

Our two favorite flies for this hatch are the Orange Elk Hair Caddis and the Orange Stimulator. Both are strong surface performers, while the Stimulator has the added bonus of floating high enough to use a dropper. The Bird Of Prey is a great October Caddis pupa, and you can also run an Umpqua Pheasant Tail Tungsten Jig to imitate the Mahogany nymphs that are also present in the Fall. Be ready for a explosive rises and hard subsurface takes to the October Caddis.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mention on Rock Creek goes to the Spruce Moth. While not technically a hatch, and not always consistent, if Missoula has a big Spruce Moth year, Rock Creek will go crazy. The Spruce Moths appear in early August, when little food is available in-stream. When they come to the water, every trout in the river is looking for that bonus food. The Spruce Moth isn’t something to set your watch to, which is why it only gets honorable mention.


Additional Hatch Resources

Mahogany Nymph

Matching The Hatch And Identifying Insects

It’s a complicated world out there, the first time you dive in. Pteranarcys Californicus, Ephemerella Guttulata. It’s enough to send you back to the Royal Wulff and a Prince nymph. Which makes sense, because the only good description we’ve ever heard about why the Prince works, is it’s the nymphal form of the Royal Wulff! That’s a fly joke. You’ll get it before the end of this article, promise!

Insect identification is much easier than you think. Look at it this way. A guy walks down the street with a Chihuahua on a leash, and you think, nice dog. Right after comes a woman walking a Great Dane, and you think, nice dog. Now what on earth made you think those two animals were related to each other? Well, it starts with familiarity. 4 legs. Elongated snout, fur, canine teeth. Despite the size and color disparity, you know they’re both dogs. Because you’ve grown up around dogs, seen them all your life. it’s familiar.

As you spend time on the water, the sight of the insects will also become familiar. They’re smaller than a Great Dane, and no one will have them on a string, so you need to pay attention and look for them! The different ways aquatic insects fly, the way they emerge. As you start looking for insects, this all becomes nature, second nature, just as recognizing a dog did. And here’s another very positive thought about insect ID. You don’t need to know the latin name, or common name, of every bug that flies by. If a pale olive bug 11mm long flies by on July 5, find a fly in your box that’s pale olive and 11mm long, and tie it on. Simple as that. If the Missoulian Angler Fly Shop has done its job, you have that 11mm pale olive fly, and what they are is less important,

But there comes a time when you do want to know, and we get it. The MAngler has created a large online resource page called Hatches, which if we do say so ourselves, is pretty spiffy! Look at it, and the images will give you a good idea of what a caddis fly, mayfly and stonefly will look like. When you’re on the water, if you carry a net, looking at the real thing is a very simple task. Get a stocking  and stretch it over your landing net. Instant bug net, suitable for subsurface or in-flight grabbing. It’s easy to carry and store, and you don’t have an extra piece of tackle with you. There are also commercially available bug seines for this purpose as well. Start by kicking a few rocks directly upstream of the net, which is touching the bottom directly downstream of where you’re moving rocks. Look at what precipitates into the stocking. It will take a minute to get the hang of keeping the seined materials of the face of the stocking, but you will. You’re going to find more in the seine than just bugs! You’re going to have to move some stuff around to find the insects. Look and see what you’ve found. Are they big? Small? What color are they? How many of each are you finding? And once you’ve done that a couple of times. You’ll have identified the prevalent insect. If its brown, and 11mm long, tie on a nymph that’s brown and 11 mm long

Think about this. You’re a predator. An average hunter knows his quarry. A good hunter knows what his quarry is after for sustenance. We’re not on the plains of Africa, where predators congregate around water holes. Our prey lives in the water, so that doesn’t work! We have to learn about what our prey needs in other ways. When walking to the river, you’re paying attention.  See a spiders web? Look at it carefully. What’s in it. Shake a few branches next to the river as you walk AWAY from the put in. Let’s emphasize that. Most fishermen get no further from their car than it takes to drink a beer and get a new one. We tend to walk to where the path gets to be only a suggestion, and then start fishing. It makes a big difference. But we digress…..

You’re paying attention to your surroundings. You’re looking, and making the proper moves, to ascertain what the most abundant food form is. Shaking branches, looking for shucks along the shore, these are all things good anglers do to figure out what the trout are most likely to be feeding upon.

Aquatic insects are cyclical. If you see that pale olive insect in July this year, you’re going to see it again next year at the same time. The MAngler has a Hatch Chart in our Resource pages as well, detailing every insect important to the trout. The chart will say what species the insect is, and when it’s like to be found on the Blackfoot River, Clark Fork River, Rock Creek and the Bitterroot River. When you’re out on July 5, look at the hatch chart. It will give you a starting point to insect ID, because you can eliminate a lot of insects that won’t be on the water at that time of year. And you start looking at the bugs on the water.

On July 5, you see fish rising, and there’s a bug on the water that’s pale olive and 11mm long. You catch one, and it has an elongated body that curves upwards, 6 legs, large eyes and the wings stick straight up and back over the body. You’ve done some research, (or used your phone to access the Hatches Resource Page) and you ID the shape as a mayfly. Boom! It’s on like Donkey Kong! It’s like figuring out your first dog. The hard step is over. Now, any time you see that shape, regardless of size or color, you KNOW it’s a mayfly. The rest will follow, names, emergence times, etc.

The same will happen for stoneflies and caddis. You’ll ID your first one, and all of a sudden those worlds open up as well. And then, the river will start to look like a bug hatchery. When you’re not sure what exactly you’re looking for, it’s really difficult to find it! But as you spend more time on the water, and start to see the insects as stoneflies, or caddis, all of a sudden they seem to pop out for you.  You’ll be surprised you could have missed them all the other times you came to the river. You’ll start to understand what the birds are doing, wheeling across the surface of the water, and use their actions to locate insect activity. Patterns will start to emerge on the river, patterns that will provide you more successful angling in Missoula, and anywhere else you take the long rod out for trout. 

It’s a big step, learning to ID the different insects on the river. We know anglers who aren’t comfortable without knowing latin names, the range where they’re found, life cycles and the factors that trigger their emergence. Some just want to know the name so they buy the right flies! Other could care less, and just go a-fishing. Find your own comfort level, and don’t be influenced by others. At our Missoula fly shop, we have customers who really care, and we have people who used to care. It’s all good! Fly fishing is supposed to be fun, and it’s up to you to decide the level of fun you plan to attain. No matter what level of entomologist you plan to be, the MAngler plans to be there helping you get to the level you’re striving for, online and in the shop.

One last thought. You can look a little silly, running down the river in waders, waving a landing net in the air and cursing as your swipe completely misses the mark. Get over it! We’ve all been there, we just don’t talk about it anymore!!