Holla for the Skwala!
I have a love-hate relationship with spring.
Warming temps are the “hate” part. My little slice of the Rocky Mountain West is ski country, and its winters deliver dozens of powder-packed days most years. Few of those happen in April or May. Instead, the spring thaw leaves us to settle for slushy afternoon turns at 10,000 ft. It’s fun, but it plays second fiddle to 12”-plus dumps that at times can go on for a week.
The fishing spring delivers is the “love” part. Gone are the days of dwindled daylight when midges are the only constant on the menu. We now get blue-winged olives more consistently on cloudy days. Caddis rise from the surface and bank edges in blizzarding gales. And on some streams, march browns begin to appear.
All this activity gets the blood flowing. It makes the season more tolerable. And true love develops when spring delivers the first big bug of the year—skwala.
Skwala could be considered the Rodney Dangerfield of order Plecoptera. They get little respect. Because they don’t hatch in summer, a good number of fly fishers have never heard of them. They also don’t match up on the size scale when compared to their larger brethren like salmon flies and golden stones. Nonetheless, when you see skwala – an inch and a half in length is standard – you will know it, especially when other bugs on the water might be a third their size at best.
Despite the relative ignorance of the emergence in fly fishing circles, Skwala has developed a large enough following that some dry fly junkies chase hatches across the West (and not just the Rockies) each spring. Opportunities abound. Popular emergences occur on Montana’s Bitterroot and Yellowstone rivers, Oregon’s Owyhee, Washington’s Yakima, and California’s Yuba.
While Skwala hatches occur on a wide variety of streams, I associate them most with freestone rivers. This trait produces both joy and frustration for fly fishers. Skwala emergences hit their stride when water temperatures approach the 48-to-49-degree mark. It really kicks into gear around 50 degrees. The weather required to generate these temperatures also generates spring runoff, and no river is more impacted by runoff than a freestone.
Wyoming’s Snake River produces the most consistent emergence of all the streams I fish regularly in the greater Yellowstone. It occurs later than most – typically mid-April to mid-May. Runoff can commence at any time during this four-week period. I have seen it start as early as April 23rd and as late as May 11th. You could have a solid month of opportunity one year and only a week the next.
Finding that pre-runoff window – where you can fish the hatch effectively before prospects are squashed by high, muddy water – can be a puzzle. Deciphering is maddening some springs. When you nail it, however, it offers the first time of the year when big bugs can be fished for hours on end with robust top-water action. A couple times a decade, it ranks as the best dry fly fishing of season.
Longtime World Cast Angler guide Kasey Collins is a skwala fanatic based in Teton Valley, Idaho. While he works rivers like the Henry’s Fork and Teton much of the time, he will venture across the Wyoming border with guests every year to hit the Skwala emergence on the Snake. “I know bigger bugs are only a month away,” he said while we fished the emergence together several years ago. “I’ll take a skwala hatch, though. We get those afternoons when they’re poppin’ crazy and the surface eats don’t stop. And yet there is way less than half the boat traffic we get with salmon flies.”
Some of the best fishing on freestone rivers (and while the Snake is “officially a tailwater, its plethora of tributaries gives it much more of a freestone feel) occur not when rivers are crystal clear, but when the melt-freeze cycle at higher elevations begins to reduce visibility for part of the day. The Snake may be off color when we put on at 9:30am. By noon, however, the previous night’s freeze catches up to us, resulting in five straight hours of perfect visibility before the day’s melt phase again dirties the water.
As the weeks progress, that window tightens more and more. Above freezing overnight temps at all elevations eventually reduces visibility to a few inches. Nonetheless, skwala devotees like Collins will squeeze as much out of the hatch as possible, even if it means only a couple hours of dry fly possibilities. And when that window completely shuts, it’s hard to let go. Those big bugs are still out there. Some of us will be out there, too, fishing muddy water and hoping for that one last surface eat.