It’s been a long, snowy winter but dry flies are coming any day

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

Fly fishing is a pastime in which one gets better with age. But the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. That’s one reason I’ve always enjoyed fishing with older, more experienced anglers.

Cut to the scene: spring of 1998. I was slimmer, had more hair on my head, and a night putting back a half-dozen beers meant nothing to me in the morning. I was a young fly-fishing guide with a few seasons under my belt and ready to conquer the Montana angling world. Yet somehow I was able to talk Paul Roos into spending a day with me on the Missouri River. Of course his humility will not let him admit it, but Paul is an angling and outfitting legend. Books have been written about him and Orvis designed a shirt after him.

As we were rigging-up, Paul tied on a dry fly: a size 8 skwalla stonefly. I said to Paul, “I haven’t seen any skwallas or heard of anyone seeing any.”

“Me neither,” Paul said from beneath his salt-and-pepper, finger-length beard as he finished his knot.
I proceeded to tie my tandem-nymph rig with a BB split-shot, two weighted flies, and an indicator. I caught some fish, but the fish Paul caught were larger, meaner, and all took his dry fly. Soon, I cut my chuck-and-duck set-up and opted for the single dry fly. With each fish that took the dry flies, we let out hoots and hollers, giddy as schoolboys.

Being schooled by age and wisdom is never a bad thing in my angling world. From that day and many others with Paul, I’ve learned many things, but for this time of year I learned it’s never too early to fish dry flies. As winter slowly departs, anglers should be prepared for hatches of Blue Winged Olive mayflies and early season stoneflies.

Blue Winged Olives (BWOs) are the first mayflies of the year. BWO is a generic term used to describe several species of mayfly. And most are just that – olive-bodied insects with blueish wings. As our water temps rise in the next few weeks, reports of these sailboat-looking insects will increase. They tend to hatch late morning or early afternoon with a duration lasting between two to four hours. Overcast, humid or drizzly days are ideal. Adult – or dun – BWOs hatch from emerging nymphs and because of this transformation they are easy targets for hungry trout.

For the next several weeks be sure to have some size 16 Purple Parachute Adams in your box. Why purple? It just works, that’s why.

Skwalla stoneflies. A little word of caution here: a skwalla stonefly is a specific species of stonefly. However, recently the term skwalla has become the accepted term for any of the various stoneflies hatching in April and early May. Capnia and Nemoura stoneflies are often lumped in with skwallas. Does this mean you should walk into your local fly shop and ask for a dozen size 10 Nemouras? No. In fact, don’t. Any popular stonefly pattern with a darker body in sizes 8 to 12 will imitate an early season stonefly. These insects rarely hatch in abundance – it’s sporadic and difficult to predict. But they are there, and if you’re in the right place at the right time, fish will look up and eat a big dry this time of year.

I wish I could say that I chose fly fishing over a career as a professional athlete because most pros peak in their late 20s, and I wanted my career to last longer than that. But I was never going to thrill thousands of people with my athletic ability. I can, however, look forward to mesmerizing some young fly fishing guide some day.

Because even 15 years after that day with Paul Roos, he did it again recently: We were fishing a local river and he tied on a size 10 black stonefly with a pink parachute. I tied on this ridiculously heavy sinking line, leader, and a six-inch streamer. Within an hour, three large brown trout took his dry fly. My rig got nothing.

Fortunately, I’ve got more time.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and the recently published Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing* *but were afraid to ask. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.