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Edition 1 Archives - FFI Magazine

As a fly-fishing traveler, guide and freelance writer, the Covid situation hit me on all fronts. In February the situation in China was coming to light and Italy was starting to fight the pandemic, too. In my country, Czech Republic, there was little indication of what would happen in the next couple weeks. So I stuck with my plans to visit Golden Lodge in Argentina for golden dorado, followed by a trip to Jurassic Lake Lodge, which has been on my bucket list for several years.

I started to worry when I couldn’t even buy antibacterial gel, and securing masks seemed like mission impossible. Still, I made the trip and enjoyed many great days, wading and casting to frenzied dorado feeding along the shallow sand banks of the Paraná River. But on the last day at Golden Dorado things got complicated. I called my family and they told me that the Czech borders were closed. Nobody could travel out of the country and only those with Czech passports could enter. My problem was this: most airlines ceased day-to-day flights to Prague, and my tickets had been cancelled. Available flights were just insanely expensive. My last day of fishing was ruined—I spent hours calling people, including those at the Czech embassy in Buenos Aires, trying to find a flight leaving the following morning. The idea of being stuck in Argentina for many months did not look so good to me, as appealing as it might sound to most anglers. Ultimately, I chose the high-priced ticket option and tried my luck getting home via Amsterdam.

On the way home, I knew things had changed. Everyone seemed nervous and worried. I discovered that my flight would be the last from Argentina to Europe before the borders closed. I’d made a lucky decision in the nick of time.

Back home, my life continued with the ups and downs that, surely, all of us have experienced. All of my international trips, including forays to Mexico, Norway, Brazil, Belize, Alaska, and Russia—plus my first participation in the Fly Fishing World Championships—were canceled. It was unclear whether my planned summer of guiding in Iceland would occur. Suddenly, I had to reorganize my life and regain the joy I’d found in days past, while fishing local waters. So I started to fish local streams and lakes, which provided some really good fishing. I explored new waters and found some really great spots for pike, all over the country.

Covid was a bummer, but I felt privileged to jump into my waders every morning and enjoy endless days on the river, throwing big streamers for pike, or just playing around with local brown trout rising for midges. Even at the beginning of June there wasn’t a single flight heading to Iceland from Czech Republic, or any of its neighboring countries. I knew I’d need to find a new job to pay the bills.

However, as time went on, the situation in Europe stabilized. Czech Republic opened its borders, canceled all restrictions, and our lives slowly went back to semi-normal. The same thing happened almost everywhere in Europe except the UK and Norway. My hopes for an Icelandic summer were revived.

In fact, by early July, I was sitting in the guide’s room at the Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, waiting for clients to arrive the following day. They would be excited to fish the gin-clear rivers packed with fresh Atlantic salmon, which had just started entering Icelandic rivers. As the world opened up, Iceland became a number one destination for Atlantic salmon. This place, usually described as the land of fire and ice, was now being recognized for its variety of waters and its amazing salmon, brown trout and Arctic char.

As lodges around the world cancelled their seasons, and as the guides who work for them lost their incomes, I felt really privileged to be back at my “office” doing what I love most—helping people fulfill their dreams. All along I’ve prayed for the world and all my fishing friends. I can’t wait until our lives get back to normal. Until then, stay safe and try to get out on your local waters. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Katka Svagrova
Growing up in a fly fishing family, Katka has been casting a fly rod since the age of four. In addition to being one of the top guides in Europe, she is a world-class competitor, winning the Czech women’s championship 5 times in 6 years. She has also competed internationally, helping the Czech team place 4th in the European fly fishing championship. After a trip to Australia in 2014, Katka started travelling the world, fly rod in hand. Within 3 years she had fished more than 10 countries including Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, Belize, The Maldives, and Guatemala. Katka currently works as a fly fishing guide for Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, one of Iceland’s most prestigious Atlantic Salmon rivers.

I was born in East Yorkshire, England. I have fished competitively, domestically and abroad while representing my country. I’ve also held many roles in the fly-fishing industry, including lodge manager, fisheries manager, river-keeper, fly and light-tackle guide, and fly shop consultant. Recently, I bought a fly shop and outfitter service based in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico, where I also guide. The following article is a brief outline of my journey to date, and offers some insight on how I transitioned from the trout rivers of home to a life in the salt.

Growing up in the United Kingdom is a unique experience for a fly angler. We have a range of different fishing here, from rivers to lakes and reservoirs to the sea. The majority of our fishing consists of day-ticket style lakes and reservoirs, due to most of our rivers being privately owned. In addition, landowner permissions and club memberships are challenging to come by.

As a result, we have a large proportion of anglers who tend to fish lakes and nothing else. This led to a healthy competition angling scene, especially on the large reservoirs and lakes towards the center of the country—English “loch style” fishing. The competitive side is an essential part of maintaining a high level of angling ability, while also driving innovation in our sport, similar to Formula 1 improving the domestic car market. Anglers and teams are continually innovating with different types of lines, fly designs and changes in presentation. This grabbed my attention and is a big part of why I chose to compete.

I am a big believer in constant innovation, and anyone who has ever stepped foot on my skiff, or waded a flat with me, can attest to that. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

My competitive angling career started in a national competition called, Troutmasters, an annual event that hosts a grand finale at the end of the season. I had some success, but set my sights on a higher prize—representing my country at the international level, something that demands a high level of skill, and an equal level of commitment. International “loch style” or lake fishing teams consist of 10 anglers per country. There is a big difference between a day spent pleasure fishing and a competition day. Our team spent months preparing for international competitions by pre-fishing, working on techniques, tweaking our rigging, and tying specific flies. We wanted to be as effective and consistent as possible, whether throwing a full sink line in only two false casts, all day long, or maybe retrieving a team of flies at the most effective pace, with every cast.

This type of fishing isn’t for everyone. It’s mentally and physically challenging. I enjoyed the competitive side, but what intrigued me was the ability to perform at a high level consistently. There aren’t many things more difficult than competition fishing. But then I turned to the salt.

During my years working in the fishing industry, I travelled to many different saltwater locations. I always wanted to swap from teaching clients to Euro-nymph, to poling clients towards a school of tailing bonefish. I was very fortunate that an off-the-cuff conversation with a Belizean lodge owner turned into a job offer. That was all the motivation I needed. Soon, I was running a lodge and managing a team of guides.

Not long after that experience, I started guiding for several lodges. That allowed me to get my first taste of true saltwater guiding and to explore the intricacies of the flats fisheries. Eventually I bought a flats skiff and shipped it to Belize. I spent many hours poling the flats on my off time, learning the nuances of current, wind direction, tides and a fish’s body language. Unfortunately, the more dedicated I became to guiding, the less time I got to spend with a rod in hand, a natural progression for guides.

After spending a few years in Belize, I made a short move across the border to Chetumal, Mexico, and set up my own guiding business. This fishery is located just north of the Belize Cayes. Up here, we have a vast fishery that stretches hundreds of square miles north from Xcalak. It is a unique and untouched place with an abundance of life, on and off the flats. There is no angling pressure here, and the fishing is some of the best I have experienced. We also have a great fishery just north of Xcalak, around the town of Mahahual, on the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There are many differences between fresh and saltwater angling, the most notable being gear choices for larger and more powerful species. For instance, I might fish a 10-foot 7-weight as my heavy sunk line rod for trout. But, out here I am rarely picking up anything less than an 8-weight, and in tarpon season I’m reaching for a 10 or 11-weight. When fishing a new flat or beach, I consider current speed, depth, and bottom color/makeup, and then choose which fly to cast for the desired presentation. It’s similar to trout fishing, where drift speed, fish depth and water temperature determine your choices.

There are many reasons for a freshwater angler to fish the salt. Aside from an opportunity to visit a new country and broaden your mind, you get a rare opportunity to interact with nature in what I consider to be its wildest form. You get to be part of a unique ecosystem while forming new friendships and lasting bonds with the people and places you visit. The second you feel your first run from a bonefish, or see your first tarpon sailing through the air, you’ll understand why the flats are so coveted.

Will Robins
Will Robins started his adventure into the world of fly fishing on the chalk streams and freestone spate rivers of his home county of Yorkshire in England. He quickly progressed to the large reservoirs and lakes, competing regularly in the competition circuit. Will hit his peak in the competitive world, being promoted to team captain for England fly fishing. Here, Will led the team to a gold medal at the international level. Following his competition success, Will started guiding on his home rivers for trout and grayling. As well as working at the world-renowned Farlows of Pall Mall fly store in London. Will eventually made the switch to the salt and has not looked back. He started his first saltwater operation, Precision Fly Charters, out of Ambergris Caye, Belize in 2018. Currently, Will owns and operates Fly Fishing Costa Maya, a fly shop and guiding service based in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Daniel Favato, aka Cameraman Dan, is Fly Fishing International’s in-house videographer and social media manager—he doubles as a steelhead fanatic/spey junkie.

The Stillwater Ninja was on fire. Every time I looked up from my fishfinder’s empty screen he was into one. Kamloops rainbows, all chunky and silver-sided, were grabbing his flies on every cast, and burning up his backing like steelhead.

Fifteen minutes watching a buddy catching is just fine. Even 20 can be entertaining. But after 30 minutes of double headers without so much as a wiggle of my rod tip, I was wishing I’d sprung for the torpedo option on my fancy new boat. I pulled anchors and rowed over.

“Ok, what am I doing wrong?” I said, casting my fly into his boat. He pinched it between a thumb and index finger and peered at it briefly over the edge of a camo Buff, then dropped it back over the side.

“Nothin’,” he said, grabbing for a suddenly bent rod. “You’re just in the wrong spot.” He netted the fish—a small one this time—and I watched it race for the bottom when he released it. I dipped my oars and shamelessly rowed a lazy circle around his boat, hoping to observe something, or maybe get some advice that might turn my day around.

“Try here,” he said. “You’ll see.” He quickly reeled up, pulled in his anchors and rowed off. The Stillwater Ninja, you see, is the very best kind of fishing buddy—the kind who finds all the fish and then lets you catch them.

A Corbett Lake rainbow.

            Minutes later I was making my first cast. While I was readying the second rod, the reel on the first chirped, then purred, and a five-pound rainbow came out of the water 50 feet away.

            The rest of the day—and the week that followed—was a bit of a blur, speeding past at a pace to match my frequently spinning fly reels. These are the days fly-fishers dream about, and the reason why the southern interior of British Columbia is Mecca for serious lake anglers. Sure you can find bragging-sized fish elsewhere, but there’s nowhere that matches the density of available lakes within a relatively easy drive from the Pacific Northwest’s major cities.

Merritt

Kamloops area lakes offer great fish and plenty of solitude.

If the interior city of Kamloops is often seen as the center of British Columbia lake country, the small town of Merritt is the gateway. A few hours drive from Vancouver via the Coqhihalla Highway, Merritt is situated between the Nicola and Coldwater rivers. Take any road out of town and in 30 minutes you can be unloading your boat at a quality lake. Folks in Merritt are friendly and helpful, used to the traveling anglers who often stop there for fuel. The service station snack racks are always jammed with yummies, and the coffee is always fresh enough. Don’t be surprised if the clerk tells you about his coyote problem . . . or the great fishing he had the other day at such-and-such lake. Pay special attention to the “such-and-such” part.

Seasons

Hatch chart for the Southern Interior’s array of productive aquatic and terrestrial insect hatches.

Stillwater fly fishers talk about “the season” as if it were never ending, but for most it means May 1 through the end of June. These are the days of the big, predictable hatches, when skilled anglers can have consecutive 50 fish days without trying all that hard. Year-to-year it can be tough to predict exactly when things will be best, but as long as you understand that not only the calendar, but also elevation contributes to the timing of a season you can usually find good fishing somewhere. Local current knowledge and having a bit more than a passing acquaintance with a few lakes at different elevations will give you options when the lake you’re on is off.

            Once summer arrives many anglers call it a year, and the lakes quiet down. A few have renowned summer hatches, and they are worth checking out if you have the time and patience to fish in a crowd. But come September, with kids back in school and most people’s vacation time gutted, the cooling lakes can provide some hot angling on less crowded waters.

            Fall has become my favorite time on BC lakes. In the fall, lakes nearly overrun in May tend to be lightly fished and can provide tremendous fishing, though it’s usually for only a few hours each day. These days I fish as far into October as I can, pushing the season until Snow Miser finally chases me off the water.

The Lakes

Writer and biologist Brian Chan ready to release a good one.

One of the best lines ever written about British Columbia’s Kamloops lake country appears in Richard Anderson’s under appreciated book Trout the Size of Footballs:

“This area has so many lakes I’m surprised it doesn’t sink.” To say there are a zillion lakes worth exploring is an exaggeration. In the areas surrounding Kamloops and Merritt, there are probably only half a zillion.

            So, where to start?

Roche Lake

You can find Roche Lake in Roche Lake Provincial Park a short drive from Kamloops. There is a lodge on the lake (rochelake.com), and campsites too, although the camping experience is a lot like camping in one of those big commercial campgrounds you find all over North America. Which isn’t a big deal really—after all, you’re there to fish, right? With a surface area of 162 hectares Roche is a good size lake that can handle a lot of pressure, which is a good thing because it is one of British Columbia’s most popular lakes. Roche produces good catches of 15-to 18-inch rainbows, with the odd five-pounder thrown in to keep you focussed. I’ve caught bigger fish on Roche, but I wouldn’t go there expecting to load up on whoppers. I usually hit Roche in May or early June if I can, and I manage a day or two there most every season. To figure out where to fish look for clusters of boats.

Peter Hope Lake

Also near Kamloops, Peter Hope is one of my favorite lakes. Small enough that you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes with a 9.9 hp outboard, but big enough that you can usually get a little bit of water to yourself, Peter Hope has Pennask and Blackwater rainbows that can grow big, but average out in the 15-to 18-inch range. When the chironomids hatch in May, skilled anglers can have 50 fish days. An overstocking program has now been addressed, but we will have to wait to see if this improves the quality of its fish.

            The current fishing at Peter Hope answers an age-old assumption: If something is good then more of it is better, right?

            Well, when it comes to stocking British Columbia lakes, this isn’t the case. Way back in The Western Angler Haig-Brown warned of the dangers of overzealous stocking programs. He told of “Lake X”, home to a small population of whoppers that rose to dry flies during the annual sedge hatch. “Fish of six, eight and ten pounds were commonly taken on the dry fly,” he wrote. “In 1939 a fish of 17-1/4 pounds. came up to a dry sedge.” Under the mistaken assumption that dumping in more fish would lead to even more monsters, someone dumped 75,000 fry into the lake. Within a few years those fish, combined with the naturally reproducing ones already present, gobbled up many of the bugs that made the lake famous for its sedge hatches, and the marvelous fishing disappeared.

            In 2014 I spent a week in May at Peter Hope, one of BC’s best known fly fishing lakes. Peter Hope has a reputation as a challenging lake, and like Lake X, it occasionally produced trophy fish on dry flies. When I arrived the word on the marl flats was that fishing was good for 14-to16-inch fish, though bigger ones could be seen cruising the shallows. I had a good day fishing the marl shoals for smaller fish, but a friend rowed out beyond the drop off and seemed to be doing as well as me, though I couldn’t see the size of the fish.

            The next day I decided to join him in the deeper water and routinely hooked fish between three and four pounds, with several touching five. My best was in the seven-to eight-pound range, a fish that made me forget that most mistakes are made when fish are a few feet from the boat. The Stillwater Ninja joined us for a few days and netted one that measured 28 inches long, a fish of over nine pounds.

            On the drive out we wondered what the next year would bring, anticipating a return of the glory days of giants on dry flies. But unknown to us, the lake had been stocked with far too many fish—as many as 30,000 in a year–and eventually this caught up with us. For the next several years we noticed the size and condition of the fish starting to deteriorate. We would still find bigger fish if length was the determining factor, but they were skinny. Anything over 18 inches had a big head and snaky body, the sure sign of overstocking. We returned for five more years, hoping to see a change, but things kept getting worse. Sadly, someone hadn’t read their Haig-Brown, and we were forced to re-learn past lessons. On the drive out last year we decided that 2019 would be our last season on Peter Hope.

High Jumper on Corbett.

Corbett Lake

Just up the hill on Highway 97C from the town of Merritt, Corbett is a pay for play lake that boasts a beautiful lodge (corbettlake.ca) as well as comfy cabins. There are some big trout in Corbett, and it’s always worth spending some time there if you are after a trophy. I often stay there and use a cabin as basecamp while I explore the local area on days I’m not fishing Corbett.

Tunkwa Lake

Tunkwa is located not far from the small community of Logan Lake, a short drive off the Coquihalla about halfway between Merritt and Kamloops. There’s a good campground and a lodge (tunkwalakeresort.com). Tunkwa fishes well in the spring, but it is famed for its summer hatch of larger “bomber” chironomids. Late July through mid-August these bugs come off from mid morning through afternoon and provide fast fishing for your Roche and Peter Hope sized fish, but there are some brutes in here too.

If you do things right on any of these lakes I can promise you chirping and purring reels. And if you can find the Stillwater Ninja, pay close attention to where he’s fishing. That’s where the five-pounders live.

One Fly

If you could fish one fly, what would it be? In Kamloops country, this would be the chironomid. Trout feed on these bugs, in various life stages, throughout the season. In fact, chironomids can be fished any day of the season with reasonable expectations of success. Now there are as many different chironomid patterns as there are anglers who fish them, but for my money the very best of the bunch is the basic Chromie in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Wrapped with gunmetal or silver tinsel, ribbed with red or black extra-small wire, and topped with a white tungsten bead, this little fly faithfully represents the shimmer and sparkle of the chironomid pupa as it ascends through the water column. Fished just off the bottom under a strike indicator on a floating line, the Chromie works everywhere most of the time.

Rods and Reels

A 10-foot 5-weight is really the only rod to have on stillwaters. A good one will have enough backbone to lift a heavier fish that’s sulking deep, yet a limber tip that will allow you to set up quickly without snapping your leader. A local company here in BC makes the Dragonfly Kamloops rods, and their 10-foot 5-weight gets my vote as one of the top lake rods around. I always carry three or four of them fully rigged.

            As for reels, you don’t really need anything fancy because lake fish won’t burn you up in the same way that, say, a steelhead might. But a crap reel will eventually crap itself, so get the best you can afford. Like the rods you will need more than one, which can get pricey. Dragonfly makes a budget reel which is fine for most lakes. I prefer old Hardys. The St George 3-3/4 is probably the best lake reel ever made. It’s durable and takes a beating if you ever need it to wack a trout on the noggin for dinner.

            A hundred yards of backing is more than enough on BC lakes. For floating lines these days I’m liking the Scientific Anglers Titan Long. For my sinkers I go with RIO Fathom and AquaLux Sinking Lines. I tend to use only the fastest full sinkers or the slowest intermediates

            Because much of your fishing will be subsurface, lake anglers prefer fluorocarbon leaders. I buy spools of it and tie my own, but I also carry several factory tapered 12-foot leaders in case I need to switch to surface presentations. Four-pound to six-pound tippet usually connects my leader to my fly.

Boats

In almost any other aspect of fly fishing, a discussion of gear would end with rods, reels, lines and flies. But in BC’s Kamloops country, careful attention to your selection of watercraft and electronics are at least as important, and maybe more.

            On any given day on the more popular lakes you’ll see a variety of floaty things, from your classic v-hulled tippy 12-foot aluminum car toppers to bouncy orange inflatables. I’ve even seen 20-foot steel-hulled Fraser River sturgeon boats. In some places fiberglass bass boats are becoming popular. But for those in the know, there’s one style of boat that beats them all: the flat-bottomed 8-to 12-foot long rowboat, commonly called a “pram”. These boats, constructed of aluminum, fiberglass, or wood, fit easily in the bed of a pickup and can usually be cartopped by a single person. Some can get heavy—100 pounds or more, especially the welded aluminum ones—but it’s tough to beat a 10-foot wide, bottom-riveted aluminum boat. Weighing under 100 pounds, it’s pretty easy to cartop and launch without a lot of help. It’s wide enough to be quite stable, making it easy to stand up and cast (as long as you’re sober), which I often need to do if my fish finder reveals trout working at a distance from my boat.

Cabins at the edge of Corbett Lake offer comfortable and quick access to some big rainbows. Corbett Lake lodge also offers boat rental if you don’t have your own rig. Corbett’s rainbows often cruise close to shore around mid-morning, snacking a massive Callibeatis mayfly emergence.

“Fish Finders”

You can’t really fish a lake without one of these. I still know people who say the only thing they’re good for is learning about the bottom, which makes absolutely no sense to me. These days I never fish anywhere that hasn’t lit up my finder with “marks.” It’s a no-brainer. It helps that I’ve been tutored in the fine art of fish finding by the Stillwater Ninja, who rows around a lot before he drops anchor. Ask him why he stopped? “Because I’m marking lots of fish here,” he’ll say.

            All of the major manufacturers make reliable finders you can use on a small lake pram. Currently I use the Helix 5 by Humminbird. If you can afford to, spring for the units that have built in maps and GPS. Fish tend to do similar things in similar places at similar times of the year, and the mapping function helps you return to productive spots. I complement my boat mounted sonar with the Deeper Chirp+ Smart Sonar.

 

Logistics

Merritt is a good place to initially call home when you begin to explore Kamloops lake country. Tourism Merritt (tourismmerritt.ca) is where to start looking for places to stay if you aren’t camping.

            All of the lakes mentioned in this story are within a day’s easy drive from Vancouver and offer both camping and/or lodging. If you’re camping, weekends of course are going to be busy, so if you are planning to travel from a distance make your plans so that you can arrive midweek, which will give you the best opportunity to find a campsite.

            For the most up-to-date information on fish stocking programs on the lakes you want to fish, check out the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC’s website gofishbc.com. Here you’ll find accurate info about the many lakes open to fishing across the province, as well as articles and links that can make you a better angler.

            And don’t be afraid to ask for local knowledge. British Columbia was, of course, home to Haig-Brown, and as a result we tend to take ourselves pretty seriously. But here’s the good news: I’ve found that lake fly fishers aren’t exactly purists. Among the various fly fishing subcultures, lake fishers rival billfish anglers for their pragmatism, which is refreshing. I recall early on when someone I deeply respected showed me how to tie a swivel onto my leader to help sink my chironomid pattern. A swivel? Yessir. And that little orange thing the river nymphers call a strike indicator? On lakes it’s a bobber. BC lake fishing is a lot more about beer cans and ball caps than Balvenie and Barbour. Walk your shiny Hardy reel out to the garage and take the grinding wheel to it along with your pretensions. Over time you’ll get used to being real.

Relaxing at Corbett Lake Lodge where anglers can kick back and trade notes while dinner is being prepared.

Gear

Deeper Chirp + Smart Sonar, i.e., “The Death Star”

The Deeper Chirp+ castable sonar—aka “The Death Star”—is a handy little device that has revolutionized my stillwater game. In the past, I would row around a likely looking spot, and anchor up when I marked fish on my boat mounted sonar. That’s great as a starting strategy; however, over an hour of fishing the fish tend to move around, and unless they’re passing within the field of your sonar you’ll never know if a blank screen means they’ve completely left the dining room or have just moved to a different part of the table. The Deeper unit extends your usable sonar coverage to the distance of your longest cast. Simply attach it to an old spinning rod, link it to your smart phone, and cast it out there. Check the area around your boat to the length of your longest fishable cast and in a few minutes you’ll know whether you need to move. It’s a highly recommended addition to your lake kit. Check them out at deepersonar.com

Spring is a much-heralded time for western U.S. trout anglers. This is when winter loses its grip on the land, the days grow longer, weather patterns generally stabilize, and fishing becomes a lot more comfortable and productive.

            Accompanying that warming air and water temperature is the appearance of multiple aquatic invertebrates. Steady midge hatches join heavy numbers of blue-winged olive mayflies. The first thick emergence of caddis, and on some streams, March brown mayflies, appear. All that activity gets the blood flowing. But for many western fly-fishers, nothing beats the first large bugs of the year—skwala stoneflies.

            In fact, skwalas give fly-fishers their first opportunity of the new season to break out boxes of stoneflies and large attractors, and cast easy-to-see surface patterns to rising trout. The skwala hatch doesn’t match the popularity of salmonfly, golden stonefly, or green drake hatches, which arrive later in the year. But for some dedicated anglers, skwalas are a focal point, and I know a couple people who chase skwala emergences from stream to stream over a six-week period from mid-March through early May. To help you imitate these early-season monsters, and make the most of your pre-runoff time on the water, here are a few considerations and tactics that have worked for me, year after year, on waters sprinkled around the West.

The Skwala

Skwalas are members of the Perlodidae family. There are three prominent species in western North America—americana, curvata, and compacta—however, there are only slight physical differences between the trio and it takes a close inspection to detect variations. Moreover, in their nymphal form, anglers could easily misidentify them as a golden stonefly. As adults, the most noticeable traits shared by all are a smoky-colored body (similar to a mahogany dun), a thick, dull orange stripe on top of the head, and black notches on the ventral side of the thorax. While skwalas are the first large stoneflies to appear on many waters, they are noticeably smaller than salmonflies and golden stones. Adults typically measure in at 18-to 22-millimeters long, though larger specimens approach 25 millimeters, and are most often matched with size 8 and 10 hooks.

            Like most spring hatches, skwala emergences occur as water temperatures warm. There are variances from stream to stream, but for the most part hatches begin to hit their stride when water temperatures average between 46 and 49 degrees (F). The skwala emergence and lifecycle is similar to most stoneflies. Nymphs crawl from the streambed to surface rocks and vegetation—on dry land, their exoskeleton splits open and adults crawl out of their shucks. After mating, females return to the surface of the water to release eggs. Some bugs do this while flying, but just as many crawl from the bank to the current. They can be on the water for quite some time. Which is highly risky: As adults on the surface they are most vulnerable to trout.

            The skwala is a prototypical “clean water” bug that favors rivers with moderate-to high gradients and ample cobblestone, which is most prevalent on freestone or freestone-like rivers. The pre-runoff window—that timeframe when water temperatures warm consistently above 40 degrees until snowmelt and runoff begin in earnest—typically lasts between four and six weeks on most freestone streams. This window coincides with a trout’s elevated spring metabolism. At this time, trout feed heavily, trying to reestablish the weight they may have lost over winter, and to prepare for the rigors of spring spawning (for cutthroat and rainbows). Skwalas are the largest food form emerging during later winter and spring (a boon to fly anglers) and while nymph patterns can hammer fish, the surface is really where it’s at.

Skwala Timing

Skwala water abounds in the western U.S., but each stream is different. Montana’s Bitterroot River has one of the earliest emergences in the Rockies. It typically kicks into gear in late March or early April, but has started as early as late February. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hit the hatch on March 14 between the towns of Florence and Lolo. Someone said the hatch typically moves upstream at a consistent four to five miles a day under the right conditions, so had I fished the same section a couple weeks later, I may have missed the hatch altogether.

            Other western Montana streams with very productive skwala hatches are Rock Creek, the Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. On the right day, all of these rivers may produce outstanding dry-fly action on rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout that average about 12 inches long and often stretch past the 20-inch mark. All of these streams, including the Bitterroot, are only minutes away from Missoula, which is western Montana’s fly-fishing hub and a town that’s got a serious addiction to trout and brewpubs.

            On the other hand, the skwala hatch on Oregon’s Owyhee River has the reputation of being sporadic. But when it’s on, it’s really on. The height of hatch activity can be as early as mid-March during some years, though it generally reaches a crescendo in April. Another Northwest river, the Yakima in central Washington, hosts a skwala hatch that generally starts in early March and extends into April—Yakima fly-fishing veterans say the bug’s upstream progression can be molasses-slow. Although officially a tailwater, a number of tributaries feed the Yak and can limit dry-fly possibilities just before runoff. When that happens, anglers still have luck drifting nymphs under the surface.

            Wyoming’s Snake River is my home turf and the waterway where I have the most familiarity with skwalas. Like the rivers mentioned above, local anglers pay close attention to what is happening with runoff and weather, trying to nail the best window for the hatch to take place. Many of my clients time a spring fishing trip to coincide with the bug’s emergence. Rightfully so—the Snake River’s hatch is intense and generally the last to appear in the West. It typically starts in mid-April and continues into mid-May. But the peak tends to occur with the first signs of runoff. It’s not uncommon for Snake River anglers to enjoy a solid week of fishing skwalas before watching the river turn to mud. But there are lucky years when the runoff arrives late, and excellent fishing with large surface patterns continues for three weeks straight.

            That said, skwala emergences don’t end just because runoff starts. Most western freestones go through several 24-hour melt/freeze cycles before runoff hits in full force. Because of that, a stream might be off-color in the morning, but clear slightly around noon, and offer better fishing in the afternoon hours. Even if a river is off-color, fish on. Remember, you’re imitating big bugs that are easy for trout to see, and the fish are already keyed in on them.

Skwala Strategies

Fishing big surface bugs always seems pretty easy—toss it out there, work in a mend, maintain the drift, and set the hook when you get an eat. That’s simple enough.

            Nonetheless, there are certain things you can do to improve your catch ratio when fishing big dry flies, especially those imitating skwalas. Focus part of your effort on presentation, and part on the water you’re targeting, because both are equally important.

            For starters, remember, skwalas are movers and shakers. While some females fly to the stream to deposit eggs, many crawl from the banks and into the current to complete the lifecycle. When doing so, they create a wake on the water as they scurry along, and that attracts hungry trout. So, simply put, forget dead-drifts. Purposely move the fly after the initial mend. After that, retrieve slack and continue to animate the fly from side-to-side by twitching the tip of your rod. Intermittent dead-drifts help from time to time, but by no means should a dead-drift be the only type of presentation you rely on.

            Second, target a wide variety of water types wherever skwalas hatch—just off the banks and near in-river structure. Skwalas emerge around these areas and some unfortunate bugs lose their grasp and end up in the water. Because they crawl from banks and structure and are carried along by the current, often while releasing eggs, many other water types can be productive. Riffles and long, flat pools yield good results. However, seams and current margins (where fast water collides with slower water) are perhaps the most productive water types. I’ve also noticed consistent action along seams created by channel confluences.

            I’ve had some great action on seams separating the main current from slow pools or outright dead pools that have no discernible current at all. These seams are places where trout can rest on the current margin and still have access to drifting forage in the nearby, fast moving water.

            Because skwalas emerge as water temperatures warm into the high 40s, it seems obvious that afternoons should be the prime times for fishing. This is no doubt true, but do not ignore the morning hours, even early morning. I have seen skwalas on the water as early as 8:30 a.m. on the Snake and Bitterroot rivers. These may simply be a significant number of females that emerged from the previous day. No matter, trout key in on these bugs, just as much as they do later in the day.

Skwala Silhouettes

Skwalas provide solid early-season dry-fly fishing with big surface imitations. The most popular patterns are size-8 and 10 variations of the Chernobyl Ant that feature fluttering wings and rubber or Flexi Floss legs. More traditional patterns, however, can be just as effective. Kaufmann’s Stimulator and the original Double Humpy are two of my favorites and most effective when intentionally skittered or moved across the surface. Some fly-fishers contend that the heavy hackle used on these patterns is key to their success. The hackle creates a wake that mimics the natural disturbance created by a skwala as it scurries along the surface. The legs on foam ant patterns can create a more natural silhouette, but the wake isn’t as imitative. I suggest hitting the water with heavily hackled patterns and legged flies so you can match whichever style the fish prefer.

Nymphs also produce, and I turn to them for a change of pace or to prospect for larger trout when fish aren’t eating on top. Like my adult imitations, I tend to go with size-8 or 10, short-shanked hooks when fishing skwala nymphs. A simple Pat’s Rubber Leg or a slightly more complex Flashback Hare’s Ear Nymph with rubber legs are two of my favorites. I target the same types of water I would with dries—banks and structure, confluence lines, current margins, heads of riffles/runs, and seams.

            Fishing a skwala emergence can be fun. It’s hard to beat skittering a size-10 attractor across current to rising trout as the first rays of warm sunshine fill the spring air. Yes, you may need to deal with early runoff issues, and the possibility of a muddy river, but if your timing is right, fishing the skwala hatch can pay off big time.

I visited Guyana in January 2018 and spent six days trying to catch a massive arapaima. Having succeeded in that goal, and having also landed numerous peacock bass, we headed upriver, hoping to find a variety of fish, including payara, which are a saber-toothed fish found throughout Guyana’s Essequibo River system.

They are especially abundant in the upper river near Corona Falls, but our upstream progression was challenging, if not somewhat dangerous—unusual low water conditions gave us very little water to work with.

            Payara are found in rapids and in pools formed by large rock deposits and boulders. They are extremely strong swimmers and rely on their lateral lines to detect vibrations given off by their prey. These perfectly formed predators absolutely crush poppers. However, they aren’t total pushovers—they may become suspicious after a couple errant swipes at a pattern, and anglers may need to change things up.

            To land a payara you need to set the hook hard, and ease up a bit once the fish is on, or you might rip the hook right out of its mouth. Payara are extremely strong and agile fighters that dive deep before taking to the air as they approach the boat. As we worked our way toward Corona Falls we stopped and fished numerous spots.With good luck: I landed around a dozen payara , the largest pushing about 10 pounds.

            The following day we continued toward the falls with our goals being wolfish and pacu. Having already caught arapaima and payara, pacu was at the top of my hit list. In the morning of the ninth day, while we worked upstream toward the falls, our guide, Terry, spotted a large tapir on the riverbank. The other guides sprang into action as the tapir leaped into the water and raced downstream, trying to evade us. Ultimately, that tapir was no match for the guides. After dispatching the animal the boys quickly cleaned the kill and we were on our way, knowing we’d have “bush cow” for dinner.

            I was still dreaming of pacu when our adventure hit a roadblock: the water was too low to ascend a set of rapids that rested just a kilometer below the falls. We headed downriver empty-handed. And as we did so, in the back of my mind, I knew I’d fallen short of my goals. I vowed to return.

            And that’s what I did. Fast forward 11 months and 23 days. It’s now February 2019 and I’m headed up the Essequibo with good friend Darryl Rosalin and cameraman Dan Favato. My clients had completed their trip the day prior and landed three arapaima, and a ton of payara, peacock bass, piranha and arowana. Now it was my turn to catch up on unfinished business with Mr. Pacu.

            Fortunately, higher water levels in 2019 meant we could reach Corona Falls without difficulty. Even so, the trip from camp to the falls took about six hours. We would have reached the falls sooner, but we stopped and fished for payara and peacocks, and beached the canoes to eat a hearty shore lunch.

            When we reached the falls and started setting up camp, fish were rising everywhere. We took the boat across the river and caught a few payara for dinner. That was fun fishing for sure, and it satisfied the protein side of dinner, but those rising fish really caught held my attention—some looked like pacu. I drifted foam seed flies and swung green streamers, to no avail.

            The next morning we headed out bright and early. We crossed the river and portaged the 10-foot long duck boat and the 18-foot long riverboat, along with our gear, about a half kilometer around the waterfall. Dan and I fished the base of the falls while Darryl worked the water around the top of the portage. I’d rigged a weighted seed fly for high-stick nymphing and as we worked our way up the rapids and plunge pools of Corona Falls, we heard a Tarzan-like cry ringing through the jungle. Darryl was on! Dan and I quickly scaled the last rockface just as Darryl landed an absolutely beautiful, dark-red pacu. After taking a few photos of Darryl’s fish, Dan and I worked the upper falls thoroughly, but without success.

            Desperate to join the exclusive “Guyananese Pacu Club”, we travelled farther upriver than I’d been before. Three sets of rapids and a portage later, we arrived at Monkey Falls, a true pacu nirvana. This large waterfall fed into a massive pool where pods of pacu rose continuously, feeding on floating seeds. We spent the rest of the morning trying to get a surface eat, but the pacu were stubborn.

            In the afternoon we worked our way up the falls, nymphing pocket water and ripping streamers across pools.We saw a ton of fish, but we couldn’t get a solid hookup.

            At the top of the falls I tied on the same green streamer that worked for Darryl, and decided to work the mouth of the falls. On the first cast, three pacu bolted out of a crevasse and chased my fly. I slowed my retrieve as the fish followed, just inches behind the green hackle tail, and bam, fish on. The pacu ripped upstream rubbing my line on the edge of a submerged rock ledge. Then it turned and took off towards the falls. I angled my rod, putting as much side pressure on the 16-pound tippet as I thought it could take. The fish again changed its tactics, heading under the rock ledge and into the boulders. Somehow, I managed to get the fish out of the current and into a small back eddy where we were able to land it. Victory.

             After a couple swigs of rum and a round of hi-fives, it was Dan’s turn. Within three casts he was hooked up, ending our session with another solid pacu. I could not imagine a better way to end our trip—three friends landing three solid pacu in the middle of a jungle wilderness. We agreed: Life is good in Guyana.

It doesn’t take long to get from Seattle to Montana. Fortuitously, some of the best early season dry-fly fishing on earth occurs in the far western portion of the state, in and around Missoula, a trout addicted town surrounded by five blue-ribbon rivers and what seems like 500 quality brew pubs.

            Want to fish the best late winter and early spring hatches on rivers producing wild browns, rainbows and cutthroats to 18 inches or more? All you have to invest is an eight-hour drive and a few days to fish.

            I should know; I went to college in Missoula, have fished and lived around the state for 30 years, including stints in the Gallatin Canyon, the Bitterroot Valley, and the Madison Valley; I wrote the book Fly Fisher’s Guide to Montana; and I’ve spent the past 10 years back in Missoula, casting flies as often as possible on all the local waters.

            Western Montana is Big Sky Country’s banana belt. Winter fades quicker here, and spring arrives sooner, than anywhere else in the state. That stimulates aquatic insect activity and those hatches, a mix of small midges and blue-wing olive mayflies, followed by larger skwala stoneflies and March brown drakes, get the fish feeding heavily, And it’s not subsurface stuff—on warm winter days midges bring trout to the surface and offer great dry fly opportunity; by late February the first skwala stoneflies are moving around and size-8 and 10 imitations draw big fish up (the skwala action gets progressively better as spring arrives, and continuers into May); blue-wing olives and March browns come off at midday hours and, at times, seem to bring every fish to the top.

            Wading anglers can easily get in on the action, especially on the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek, but those floating in a raft or driftboat, who can access an entire river even in elevated spring flows, enjoy better success.

The Rivers

The Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers run right through Missoula, offering in-town action for those who don’t want to venture far. But it pays to drive a little ways. The Bitterroot heads south of Missoula, in the gorgeous Bitterroot Valley, and offers great opportunities throughout its 70-some mile course. Whether you wade or float, there’s lots of good turf wherever you look—pocket water, braided channels, deep pools, long riffles, and glassy glides, especially on the lower river where trout can get technical and only the best presentations get eaten.

            The river is loaded with rainbows, cutthroat and browns, and about eight gazillion whitefish. The trout range past 20 inches with the common fish coming in at about 15 inches long. These are all wild trout and the cutthroats are native. After a long winter spent eating midge larvae and the occasional adult, these trout are hungry and ready to put on weight. When the skwalas come off these fish rise for size-6 and 8 dries; as the season progresses they’ll have seen a lot of flies floating over their heads and anglers might need to scale back from 3X and 4X tippet, to 4X or 5X and size-8 and 10 imitations.

            Don’t expect to see tons of skwalas on the water or in the air—it’s not like the salmonfly hatch. No worries—it takes only a few bugs to get trout looking up. Want to know if the skwala is happening? Turn over some rocks in shallow water and inspect woody debris near the edge of the stream. If those bugs are around you’ll find nymphs crawling on the underside of those rocks and logs/limbs. That’s a sure sign that fish are looking for them too.

The Clark Fork also offers great spring fishing. You can throw above or below town with equal success. This is a big river, very intimidating to the fledgling fly fisher. But fear not—plenty of action takes place near the banks, with trout sipping blue-wing olives one after the other, sometimes in pods of rising trout numbering in the dozens. If you float the river you can reach all the available water, which includes massive eddies and pools, typically lined with foam. When fishing the Clark Fork, remember, foam means fish. That’s because adult midges, mayflies, and even skwalas collect in that foam. The trout merely poke their noses through the surface to grab a bite. This can be technical fishing consisting of 6X tippet and size-20 dries; or, when March browns and skwalas are about, anglers might get away with 4X tippet and size 8 dries.

            The fish are a mix of rainbows and cutthroats, with only a few browns thrown in on the side. Bonus: spring offers good opportunities to catch northern pike in the backwaters and side channels. If you want to do just that your guide likely can provide an 8-weight rod, a five-inch long fly, and a wire leader. The rest is between you and the water wolf. That can be a challenge. Pike to 20 pounds are possible.

Prefer pocket water and a more intimate setting? Rock Creek has your name on it. This river runs 60 miles through a nearly pristine corridor with abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bald eagles, moose, and black bear. I even saw a mountain lion while driving out of Rock Creek one evening; it leaped from one side of the dirt road to halfway up the opposite bank. It was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in my life.

            Rock Creek isn’t known for giant trout, although the average size of its fish seems to be on the increase, with 16-to 17-inch trout being pretty common these days. Ten-to 14-inch fish make up the majority of the catch.

            You’ll find an appealing mix of browns, rainbows and native westslope cutthroat here, and they’ll rise eagerly for dry flies beginning on the warmest of February days. That early, they’ll look for midges. By mid-March blue wing olives are squarely in the mix. Around late March extending through April, March browns come off. Seeing scads of trout eating those bugs can be an amazing sight, like somebody flicked a switch and told every trout to head to the surface at one time. You can get technical while matching this hatch, but the trout are eager and throwing nothing more complex than a size-14 or 16 Parachute Adams scores big results. Of course, emergent mayfly imitations and the ubiquitous Purple Haze produce nicely, too. Look for this hatch to pop between 11: 30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

            Don’t overlook the skwala on Rock Creek. When these fish get on the big bug you can catch good numbers. On the right day you might hook 30 fish. Again, afternoon hours are prime, with most of the activity occurring between 1 and 5 p.m.

            Lower Rock Creek is located just 25 miles from Missoula. Anglers can fish their way up the river for 60 miles, finding abundant public access throughout. The creek offers tons of riffles and deep runs, pools and side-channels. You can cast across it in most places but it isn’t a trickle. This is fun fishing, usually with lots of action, but its fish can get freaky after seeing flies floating over their heads all spring. If they do just that, low-profile, technical imitations often crack the code. Your guide will have some “secret weapons” on hand, sneaky patterns that trick educated fish. Don’t be afraid to ask about them.

The lower Blackfoot River meets the Clark Fork about five miles east of Missoula. Good fishing for browns, rainbows and cutthroat extends upriver for 50-some miles. The average fish here measures 14-to 16 inches long, but know that larger fish exist. Any given cast could bring up a 20-some inch brown or bow . . . or a 30-some inch long bull trout. You can’t specifically fish for bull trout, but they prefer the same streamers you’ll throw for rainbows and browns.

            Much of the Blackfoot runs between canyon walls. You can find every sort of trout water known to man. And the hatches bring fish up in all of these places. Blue-wing olives are abundant on the Blackfoot, and the skwala comes off in good numbers, too. You can find March browns and midges also. Maybe the most exciting way to fish the Blackfoot is with streamers when the water turns to beautiful green, not really clear but not blown out either. Fish can find your fly easily enough, and they aren’t too shy because that color in the water gives them mega-confidence. If you want to catch a large trout in the Missoula area, the Blackfoot during spring time, when water conditions allow, is the place to be.

            You can fish the Blackfoot by wading the banks, but in most places its steep and rocky, and wading is a challenge. Best to let a guide pull the oars while you and a buddy or a spouse or kid cast from the bow and stern, working those Sparkle Minnows, Buggers, and Double Gonga’s, along the banks, teasing big browns and massive bull trout out of the boulders and into the net. Can you say, “photo opp.”

            I grew up in Seattle and have visited family often over the past 30 years. One of the best ways to make this a quick trip to God’s Country is to leave early in the day, whether exiting the city from the north or south. If you leave at 5 a.m., you won’t deal with any traffic and could be casting on the lower Clark Fork by about 3 or 4 p.m (MST).

            That’s not an option if you head towards the state’s more famous waters in southwest Montana—to reach many of those rivers requires a 12-hour drive and you can add two more mountain passes to the mix, which could make driving sketchy. I know: I made that drive from Ennis to Seattle and vice versa about a hundred times when I lived in the Madison Valley—it takes 12 long hours (13 if headed from Seattle to Ennis because you lose an hour due to a time change). But fear not: Missoula’s spring fishing is as productive or more so than what you’ll find elsewhere.

            If you book with Joe and Tammi Cummings, who own Missoula River Lodge, you can leave Seattle  early in the a.m. and unpack your gear that afternoon, possibly leaving time for a late day dry-fly session on the lodge’s 100 private acres of riverfront property. Staying at Missoula River Lodge means you are in prime position to fish any of these five rivers, depending on which offers the best options on a particular day. The guides are experienced and super dialed into hatches and water conditions—they give you the best shot at early season dry-fly nirvana.

            When not on the water you can kick back in the lodge and enjoy views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range while watching the water and the wildlife drift by. And you can enjoy some seriously fine dining, all prepared by executive chef Carrie Nowlen, who was named one of America’s top 100 chefs by the Washington Post. So, live large this late winter and spring and hit one or more of these hatches. You won’t find better dry-fly fishing anywhere close to Seattle or beyond. See you out there.

“Maybe there is a beast” – William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

Back in 1985 William Golding did a reading at Simon Fraser University and answered questions about his work. He was touring in support of his To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and seemed relieved when someone would ask him about it. Most of the lit majors (like me) asked him about Lord of the Flies, a subject you could tell was a bit tiresome for the great scribe. The strange little book about a strange little band of messed up schoolboys, alone on a jungle island, made him a literary star. But by then it was something probably best left to discussions in high school English classes.

            Thirty-five years later I’m reading Lords of the Fly, a new book by Monty Burke. If you’ve followed his work in Forbes, The Drake and elsewhere, you know he’s far too crafty a writer to simply have thought Lords of the Fly was just a cool name for a tarpon book. It only takes a few chapters to realize there’s a Beast lurking in the waters off the mouth of Florida’s Homosassa River, and it looks an awful lot like the Beast in Golding’s novel.

            From the outside, everything about tarpon and the tarpon sports fishery seems larger than life. Giant fish on light tackle pursued in small open boats sounds like the stuff of fiction, which is probably why Lords of the Fly initially reads like a novel. It’s a great way to present such a story, and using the novelist’s techniques and structures hints at what’s to come.

            The book chronicles the obsessive pursuit of world-record tarpon, most notably by Tom Evans, perhaps the greatest Homosassa tarpon fisherman on earth. Many others appear in the book—names you’ll recognize, from well-known Florida saltwater guides to the anglers who become legendary tarpon fly fishers. But mostly this is Evans’s story. He’s the spiritual center of the book, the quintessential tarpon angler, the star around which all the planets spin. In any pursuit there are The Great Ones, and then the often obscure ones whom The Greats Ones admire. Obscure is Tom Evans, and Burke takes great care in presenting an honest portrayal of a man and the price he paid in pursuit of a dream.

            Throughout the book, what everyone else is doing looks a lot like Evans’s tarpon fishing, in much the same way a Sergio Leone film looks a lot like a classic Western. But of course there’s something different going on here. Burke reserves judgement on this, and the reader is left to decide if one approach is better. Burke has a foot in both skiffs, but you can tell which way he’s leaning.

            But Lords isn’t all relentless trophy seeking. There’s lots of other fun and interesting stuff in there, too. Between its covers you’ll find gems like Thomas McGuane’s short lesson on how to be a great writer; the origins of the Billy Pate fly reel; and why baseball great Ted Williams ALWAYS SPOKE IN CAPS. Tales are told of angling legends like Billy Pate, Lefty Kreh, Jim Holland Jr and many others who helped shape and define the Homosassa fishery. Sometimes you’re in the boat with them, and sometimes you can see them way out there in the distance, but their presence is always tangible—for better or worse. Obsession changes us—or reveals dark things that we manage to suppress in other aspects of our lives. Inevitably the luster gets rubbed off the legends. But somehow, even the more extreme and objectionable personalities we meet in Homosassa are humanized by the poon.

            Through it all you’ll find clear evidence of Burke’s mastery of his craft. For the first half of the book there are moments of beauty as he takes us from the early days of the great Homosassa tarpon fishery through its Golden Age. Then, as things begin to change, the writing does too, and we begin to see a more journalistic approach—somewhat more distant, the fishery seen through a subtle, but more critical eye.

            Like all the best fishing books, Lords of the Fly isn’t just about the fishing. Fishing is the lens through which we peer into these people’s lives. The drive towards greatness is central to the human experience, and central to the book. Burke knows that greatness is found out there beyond what seems possible for most of us. It’s what draws us to stories of men and women who push the limits. We admire the ones who succeed of course, but we reserve a special admiration for those who fail. Lords of the Fly is about those winners and losers and those qualities of character—good and bad—that set them apart.

            But yes, thank goodness, it’s still a fishing book—and a great one at that. One part Moby Dick, one part Old Man and the Sea, and three parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Lords of the Fly is the perfect cocktail for these strange times, an elixir that is at times challenging, but always transportive and triumphant. It will have you thinking about your post-Covid fishing plans, and how tarpon might fit into them. If, like me, you’ve never pulled on a silver king, it will surely have you adding the tarpon to your bucket list.

Quick Facts

SPECIES NAME

Brown Trout (Salmo Trutta)

SIZE

Average: 10 to 16 inches.
Trophy: 20 inches in North America; 10 pounds in New Zealand and South America; 20 pounds in northern Europe, including Russia.

FAVOURITE DESTINATION

Patagonia, Rocky Mountains, New Zealand.

DIFFICULTY RATING

5/10 in most locales.

KNOWN FOR

– Most challenging of the trout.
– Wide distribution and availability.
– Vibrant coloration.

OVERVIEW

Brown trout are an absolutely gorgeous fish. Coloration varies depending on location. These fish generally display a vibrant gold and silver scale pattern with brown and gold spotting on the sides, and a dark back serving as camouflage. The belly is cream or yellow colored, leading to the “Yellow Belly” nickname. During the fall spawn, these colors are amplified with bright yellows and oranges. Fish fresh out of the ocean may appear very silver in color, resembling a salmon.

Native to Europe, brown trout were introduced throughout the British empire in the 19th century. Their ability to live comfortably in small streams, as well as large, nutrient-rich rivers and lakes, has allowed them to establish self-sustaining populations on nearly every major landmass. Few fish demand anglers to learn such a diversity of skills to land them.

WHY TARGET BROWN TROUT

Watching a wheat field colored trout, with sunrise/sunset speckles and golden-hues, slowly rise and delicately sip in a size-16 dry fly is—and has been—the pinnacle of fly fishing. To catch these fish on a regular basis requires a deep understanding of its habits and habitats. Often only the most subtle and delicate patterns draw responses from these fish, especially when they are keyed in to a specific stage of a particular hatch, more pronounced if fishing over a glassy surface. But, as predators, they also have a mean streak—offer disruptive streamers during fall and other times of the year and the biggest browns may tear out from under a cutbank and hammer a fly.

The experienced, well-rounded angler takes a variety of flies and techniques to the water for brown trout, and modifies them on the go. On any given day they might match big Hexegenia mayflies, or dead-drift Mysis shrimp, or skitter a mouse pattern on the surface. Whatever it takes should be every angler’s motto when trying to bring a trophy brown trout to the net.

Fly fishing is not all about catching a fish—brown trout live in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Whether you are fishing the crystal-clear rivers in Patagonia or New Zealand, the freestone steams in the Rocky Mountains, or the magnificent untouched lakes of Iceland, you’ll be treated to great landscapes whether you get that once-in-a-lifetime brown or not.

RANGE AND LOCATIONS

Brown trout are found across the globe occupying a large variety of freshwater ecosystems and a few saltwater environments. They thrive in cold water, but have a higher heat tolerance than other trout, making it possible for them to live in warmer waters often associated with other species, such as smallmouth bass. Brown trout are distributed throughout the United States with populations in the Driftless area of the upper Midwest, the Catskills and eastern cold-water rivers, the Great Lakes, and large populations throughout much of the western United States, extending north in the Canadian Rockies. Native to Europe, brown trout are also found in Ireland, Scotland, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Tasmania, Spain, France, England and Wales. They are also prominent in Iceland with sea-run and inland populations. A population exists on Russia’s Kola Peninsula as well.

New Zealand brown trout grow to large sizes in lakes and rivers, as do populations in Australia and Tasmania. Patagonia offers brown trout in rivers and lakes with strong sea-run populations entering the southernmost rivers in Tierra del Fuego. South Africa and parts of Asia also have brown trout.

BIOLOGY AND LIFE CYCLE

Brown trout are salmonids and consist of three significantly different morphs. While morphs may appear identical, they are in fact very different, both behaviorally and genetically. The most common, Salmo trutta morpha fario occupies freshwater river systems, while Salmo trutta morpha lacustrine inhabits freshwater lakes, venturing into rivers only to spawn. Salmo, trutta morpha trutta, is the sea-run, or anadromous morph of brown trout which, similar to steelhead, spend their lives in the ocean and migrate into freshwater rivers to spawn.

Brown trout are opportunistic feeders with a diverse diet, ranging from aquatic and terrestrial insects to small mammals, birds and other fish. The trout is shaped to face into currents, filtering water through its gills while absorbing dissolved oxygen. Fin size varies based on environment, but a mature specimen has a large tail fin, and distinct adipose, pectoral and ventral fins for balance and power. Large males develop a pronounced kype. Brown trout spawn during fall, when they pair off and dig large nests (redds) in the streambed. Females use this area to deposit eggs, which are fertilized by males. Males become especially aggressive and combative during this period as they compete for reproductive rights.

GEAR

Similar to rainbow trout, brown trout can be caught using four main techniques; floating dry flies, swinging wet flies, drifting nymphs, and stripping streamers. While many anglers have dedicated setups for each of these techniques, a 9-foot, 5-weight, medium-action fly rod, with an appropriately sized reel and floating line suffices in most situations. A 9-foot leader is standard in most locations. When nymphing, a 4X fluorocarbon tippet is a solid starting point. When swinging streamers, feel free to move up to 3X. When fishing dry flies, use mono tippet in the 5X range—mono floats better than fluorocarbon.

As a fly-fishing traveler, guide and freelance writer, the Covid situation hit me on all fronts. In February the situation in China was coming to light and Italy was starting to fight the pandemic, too. In my country, Czech Republic, there was little indication of what would happen in the next couple weeks. So I stuck with my plans to visit Golden Lodge in Argentina for golden dorado, followed by a trip to Jurassic Lake Lodge, which has been on my bucket list for several years.

I started to worry when I couldn’t even buy antibacterial gel, and securing masks seemed like mission impossible. Still, I made the trip and enjoyed many great days, wading and casting to frenzied dorado feeding along the shallow sand banks of the Paraná River. But on the last day at Golden Dorado things got complicated. I called my family and they told me that the Czech borders were closed. Nobody could travel out of the country and only those with Czech passports could enter. My problem was this: most airlines ceased day-to-day flights to Prague, and my tickets had been cancelled. Available flights were just insanely expensive. My last day of fishing was ruined—I spent hours calling people, including those at the Czech embassy in Buenos Aires, trying to find a flight leaving the following morning. The idea of being stuck in Argentina for many months did not look so good to me, as appealing as it might sound to most anglers. Ultimately, I chose the high-priced ticket option and tried my luck getting home via Amsterdam.

On the way home, I knew things had changed. Everyone seemed nervous and worried. I discovered that my flight would be the last from Argentina to Europe before the borders closed. I’d made a lucky decision in the nick of time.

Back home, my life continued with the ups and downs that, surely, all of us have experienced. All of my international trips, including forays to Mexico, Norway, Brazil, Belize, Alaska, and Russia—plus my first participation in the Fly Fishing World Championships—were canceled. It was unclear whether my planned summer of guiding in Iceland would occur. Suddenly, I had to reorganize my life and regain the joy I’d found in days past, while fishing local waters. So I started to fish local streams and lakes, which provided some really good fishing. I explored new waters and found some really great spots for pike, all over the country.

Covid was a bummer, but I felt privileged to jump into my waders every morning and enjoy endless days on the river, throwing big streamers for pike, or just playing around with local brown trout rising for midges. Even at the beginning of June there wasn’t a single flight heading to Iceland from Czech Republic, or any of its neighboring countries. I knew I’d need to find a new job to pay the bills.

However, as time went on, the situation in Europe stabilized. Czech Republic opened its borders, canceled all restrictions, and our lives slowly went back to semi-normal. The same thing happened almost everywhere in Europe except the UK and Norway. My hopes for an Icelandic summer were revived.

In fact, by early July, I was sitting in the guide’s room at the Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, waiting for clients to arrive the following day. They would be excited to fish the gin-clear rivers packed with fresh Atlantic salmon, which had just started entering Icelandic rivers. As the world opened up, Iceland became a number one destination for Atlantic salmon. This place, usually described as the land of fire and ice, was now being recognized for its variety of waters and its amazing salmon, brown trout and Arctic char.

As lodges around the world cancelled their seasons, and as the guides who work for them lost their incomes, I felt really privileged to be back at my “office” doing what I love most—helping people fulfill their dreams. All along I’ve prayed for the world and all my fishing friends. I can’t wait until our lives get back to normal. Until then, stay safe and try to get out on your local waters. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Katka Svagrova
Growing up in a fly fishing family, Katka has been casting a fly rod since the age of four. In addition to being one of the top guides in Europe, she is a world-class competitor, winning the Czech women’s championship 5 times in 6 years. She has also competed internationally, helping the Czech team place 4th in the European fly fishing championship. After a trip to Australia in 2014, Katka started travelling the world, fly rod in hand. Within 3 years she had fished more than 10 countries including Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, Belize, The Maldives, and Guatemala. Katka currently works as a fly fishing guide for Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, one of Iceland’s most prestigious Atlantic Salmon rivers.

I was born in East Yorkshire, England. I have fished competitively, domestically and abroad while representing my country. I’ve also held many roles in the fly-fishing industry, including lodge manager, fisheries manager, river-keeper, fly and light-tackle guide, and fly shop consultant. Recently, I bought a fly shop and outfitter service based in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico, where I also guide. The following article is a brief outline of my journey to date, and offers some insight on how I transitioned from the trout rivers of home to a life in the salt.

Growing up in the United Kingdom is a unique experience for a fly angler. We have a range of different fishing here, from rivers to lakes and reservoirs to the sea. The majority of our fishing consists of day-ticket style lakes and reservoirs, due to most of our rivers being privately owned. In addition, landowner permissions and club memberships are challenging to come by.

As a result, we have a large proportion of anglers who tend to fish lakes and nothing else. This led to a healthy competition angling scene, especially on the large reservoirs and lakes towards the center of the country—English “loch style” fishing. The competitive side is an essential part of maintaining a high level of angling ability, while also driving innovation in our sport, similar to Formula 1 improving the domestic car market. Anglers and teams are continually innovating with different types of lines, fly designs and changes in presentation. This grabbed my attention and is a big part of why I chose to compete.

I am a big believer in constant innovation, and anyone who has ever stepped foot on my skiff, or waded a flat with me, can attest to that. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

My competitive angling career started in a national competition called, Troutmasters, an annual event that hosts a grand finale at the end of the season. I had some success, but set my sights on a higher prize—representing my country at the international level, something that demands a high level of skill, and an equal level of commitment. International “loch style” or lake fishing teams consist of 10 anglers per country. There is a big difference between a day spent pleasure fishing and a competition day. Our team spent months preparing for international competitions by pre-fishing, working on techniques, tweaking our rigging, and tying specific flies. We wanted to be as effective and consistent as possible, whether throwing a full sink line in only two false casts, all day long, or maybe retrieving a team of flies at the most effective pace, with every cast.

This type of fishing isn’t for everyone. It’s mentally and physically challenging. I enjoyed the competitive side, but what intrigued me was the ability to perform at a high level consistently. There aren’t many things more difficult than competition fishing. But then I turned to the salt.

During my years working in the fishing industry, I travelled to many different saltwater locations. I always wanted to swap from teaching clients to Euro-nymph, to poling clients towards a school of tailing bonefish. I was very fortunate that an off-the-cuff conversation with a Belizean lodge owner turned into a job offer. That was all the motivation I needed. Soon, I was running a lodge and managing a team of guides.

Not long after that experience, I started guiding for several lodges. That allowed me to get my first taste of true saltwater guiding and to explore the intricacies of the flats fisheries. Eventually I bought a flats skiff and shipped it to Belize. I spent many hours poling the flats on my off time, learning the nuances of current, wind direction, tides and a fish’s body language. Unfortunately, the more dedicated I became to guiding, the less time I got to spend with a rod in hand, a natural progression for guides.

After spending a few years in Belize, I made a short move across the border to Chetumal, Mexico, and set up my own guiding business. This fishery is located just north of the Belize Cayes. Up here, we have a vast fishery that stretches hundreds of square miles north from Xcalak. It is a unique and untouched place with an abundance of life, on and off the flats. There is no angling pressure here, and the fishing is some of the best I have experienced. We also have a great fishery just north of Xcalak, around the town of Mahahual, on the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There are many differences between fresh and saltwater angling, the most notable being gear choices for larger and more powerful species. For instance, I might fish a 10-foot 7-weight as my heavy sunk line rod for trout. But, out here I am rarely picking up anything less than an 8-weight, and in tarpon season I’m reaching for a 10 or 11-weight. When fishing a new flat or beach, I consider current speed, depth, and bottom color/makeup, and then choose which fly to cast for the desired presentation. It’s similar to trout fishing, where drift speed, fish depth and water temperature determine your choices.

There are many reasons for a freshwater angler to fish the salt. Aside from an opportunity to visit a new country and broaden your mind, you get a rare opportunity to interact with nature in what I consider to be its wildest form. You get to be part of a unique ecosystem while forming new friendships and lasting bonds with the people and places you visit. The second you feel your first run from a bonefish, or see your first tarpon sailing through the air, you’ll understand why the flats are so coveted.

Will Robins
Will Robins started his adventure into the world of fly fishing on the chalk streams and freestone spate rivers of his home county of Yorkshire in England. He quickly progressed to the large reservoirs and lakes, competing regularly in the competition circuit. Will hit his peak in the competitive world, being promoted to team captain for England fly fishing. Here, Will led the team to a gold medal at the international level. Following his competition success, Will started guiding on his home rivers for trout and grayling. As well as working at the world-renowned Farlows of Pall Mall fly store in London. Will eventually made the switch to the salt and has not looked back. He started his first saltwater operation, Precision Fly Charters, out of Ambergris Caye, Belize in 2018. Currently, Will owns and operates Fly Fishing Costa Maya, a fly shop and guiding service based in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Daniel Favato, aka Cameraman Dan, is Fly Fishing International’s in-house videographer and social media manager—he doubles as a steelhead fanatic/spey junkie.

The Stillwater Ninja was on fire. Every time I looked up from my fishfinder’s empty screen he was into one. Kamloops rainbows, all chunky and silver-sided, were grabbing his flies on every cast, and burning up his backing like steelhead.

Fifteen minutes watching a buddy catching is just fine. Even 20 can be entertaining. But after 30 minutes of double headers without so much as a wiggle of my rod tip, I was wishing I’d sprung for the torpedo option on my fancy new boat. I pulled anchors and rowed over.

“Ok, what am I doing wrong?” I said, casting my fly into his boat. He pinched it between a thumb and index finger and peered at it briefly over the edge of a camo Buff, then dropped it back over the side.

“Nothin’,” he said, grabbing for a suddenly bent rod. “You’re just in the wrong spot.” He netted the fish—a small one this time—and I watched it race for the bottom when he released it. I dipped my oars and shamelessly rowed a lazy circle around his boat, hoping to observe something, or maybe get some advice that might turn my day around.

“Try here,” he said. “You’ll see.” He quickly reeled up, pulled in his anchors and rowed off. The Stillwater Ninja, you see, is the very best kind of fishing buddy—the kind who finds all the fish and then lets you catch them.

A Corbett Lake rainbow.

            Minutes later I was making my first cast. While I was readying the second rod, the reel on the first chirped, then purred, and a five-pound rainbow came out of the water 50 feet away.

            The rest of the day—and the week that followed—was a bit of a blur, speeding past at a pace to match my frequently spinning fly reels. These are the days fly-fishers dream about, and the reason why the southern interior of British Columbia is Mecca for serious lake anglers. Sure you can find bragging-sized fish elsewhere, but there’s nowhere that matches the density of available lakes within a relatively easy drive from the Pacific Northwest’s major cities.

Merritt

Kamloops area lakes offer great fish and plenty of solitude.

If the interior city of Kamloops is often seen as the center of British Columbia lake country, the small town of Merritt is the gateway. A few hours drive from Vancouver via the Coqhihalla Highway, Merritt is situated between the Nicola and Coldwater rivers. Take any road out of town and in 30 minutes you can be unloading your boat at a quality lake. Folks in Merritt are friendly and helpful, used to the traveling anglers who often stop there for fuel. The service station snack racks are always jammed with yummies, and the coffee is always fresh enough. Don’t be surprised if the clerk tells you about his coyote problem . . . or the great fishing he had the other day at such-and-such lake. Pay special attention to the “such-and-such” part.

Seasons

Hatch chart for the Southern Interior’s array of productive aquatic and terrestrial insect hatches.

Stillwater fly fishers talk about “the season” as if it were never ending, but for most it means May 1 through the end of June. These are the days of the big, predictable hatches, when skilled anglers can have consecutive 50 fish days without trying all that hard. Year-to-year it can be tough to predict exactly when things will be best, but as long as you understand that not only the calendar, but also elevation contributes to the timing of a season you can usually find good fishing somewhere. Local current knowledge and having a bit more than a passing acquaintance with a few lakes at different elevations will give you options when the lake you’re on is off.

            Once summer arrives many anglers call it a year, and the lakes quiet down. A few have renowned summer hatches, and they are worth checking out if you have the time and patience to fish in a crowd. But come September, with kids back in school and most people’s vacation time gutted, the cooling lakes can provide some hot angling on less crowded waters.

            Fall has become my favorite time on BC lakes. In the fall, lakes nearly overrun in May tend to be lightly fished and can provide tremendous fishing, though it’s usually for only a few hours each day. These days I fish as far into October as I can, pushing the season until Snow Miser finally chases me off the water.

The Lakes

Writer and biologist Brian Chan ready to release a good one.

One of the best lines ever written about British Columbia’s Kamloops lake country appears in Richard Anderson’s under appreciated book Trout the Size of Footballs:

“This area has so many lakes I’m surprised it doesn’t sink.” To say there are a zillion lakes worth exploring is an exaggeration. In the areas surrounding Kamloops and Merritt, there are probably only half a zillion.

            So, where to start?

Roche Lake

You can find Roche Lake in Roche Lake Provincial Park a short drive from Kamloops. There is a lodge on the lake (rochelake.com), and campsites too, although the camping experience is a lot like camping in one of those big commercial campgrounds you find all over North America. Which isn’t a big deal really—after all, you’re there to fish, right? With a surface area of 162 hectares Roche is a good size lake that can handle a lot of pressure, which is a good thing because it is one of British Columbia’s most popular lakes. Roche produces good catches of 15-to 18-inch rainbows, with the odd five-pounder thrown in to keep you focussed. I’ve caught bigger fish on Roche, but I wouldn’t go there expecting to load up on whoppers. I usually hit Roche in May or early June if I can, and I manage a day or two there most every season. To figure out where to fish look for clusters of boats.

Peter Hope Lake

Also near Kamloops, Peter Hope is one of my favorite lakes. Small enough that you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes with a 9.9 hp outboard, but big enough that you can usually get a little bit of water to yourself, Peter Hope has Pennask and Blackwater rainbows that can grow big, but average out in the 15-to 18-inch range. When the chironomids hatch in May, skilled anglers can have 50 fish days. An overstocking program has now been addressed, but we will have to wait to see if this improves the quality of its fish.

            The current fishing at Peter Hope answers an age-old assumption: If something is good then more of it is better, right?

            Well, when it comes to stocking British Columbia lakes, this isn’t the case. Way back in The Western Angler Haig-Brown warned of the dangers of overzealous stocking programs. He told of “Lake X”, home to a small population of whoppers that rose to dry flies during the annual sedge hatch. “Fish of six, eight and ten pounds were commonly taken on the dry fly,” he wrote. “In 1939 a fish of 17-1/4 pounds. came up to a dry sedge.” Under the mistaken assumption that dumping in more fish would lead to even more monsters, someone dumped 75,000 fry into the lake. Within a few years those fish, combined with the naturally reproducing ones already present, gobbled up many of the bugs that made the lake famous for its sedge hatches, and the marvelous fishing disappeared.

            In 2014 I spent a week in May at Peter Hope, one of BC’s best known fly fishing lakes. Peter Hope has a reputation as a challenging lake, and like Lake X, it occasionally produced trophy fish on dry flies. When I arrived the word on the marl flats was that fishing was good for 14-to16-inch fish, though bigger ones could be seen cruising the shallows. I had a good day fishing the marl shoals for smaller fish, but a friend rowed out beyond the drop off and seemed to be doing as well as me, though I couldn’t see the size of the fish.

            The next day I decided to join him in the deeper water and routinely hooked fish between three and four pounds, with several touching five. My best was in the seven-to eight-pound range, a fish that made me forget that most mistakes are made when fish are a few feet from the boat. The Stillwater Ninja joined us for a few days and netted one that measured 28 inches long, a fish of over nine pounds.

            On the drive out we wondered what the next year would bring, anticipating a return of the glory days of giants on dry flies. But unknown to us, the lake had been stocked with far too many fish—as many as 30,000 in a year–and eventually this caught up with us. For the next several years we noticed the size and condition of the fish starting to deteriorate. We would still find bigger fish if length was the determining factor, but they were skinny. Anything over 18 inches had a big head and snaky body, the sure sign of overstocking. We returned for five more years, hoping to see a change, but things kept getting worse. Sadly, someone hadn’t read their Haig-Brown, and we were forced to re-learn past lessons. On the drive out last year we decided that 2019 would be our last season on Peter Hope.

High Jumper on Corbett.

Corbett Lake

Just up the hill on Highway 97C from the town of Merritt, Corbett is a pay for play lake that boasts a beautiful lodge (corbettlake.ca) as well as comfy cabins. There are some big trout in Corbett, and it’s always worth spending some time there if you are after a trophy. I often stay there and use a cabin as basecamp while I explore the local area on days I’m not fishing Corbett.

Tunkwa Lake

Tunkwa is located not far from the small community of Logan Lake, a short drive off the Coquihalla about halfway between Merritt and Kamloops. There’s a good campground and a lodge (tunkwalakeresort.com). Tunkwa fishes well in the spring, but it is famed for its summer hatch of larger “bomber” chironomids. Late July through mid-August these bugs come off from mid morning through afternoon and provide fast fishing for your Roche and Peter Hope sized fish, but there are some brutes in here too.

If you do things right on any of these lakes I can promise you chirping and purring reels. And if you can find the Stillwater Ninja, pay close attention to where he’s fishing. That’s where the five-pounders live.

One Fly

If you could fish one fly, what would it be? In Kamloops country, this would be the chironomid. Trout feed on these bugs, in various life stages, throughout the season. In fact, chironomids can be fished any day of the season with reasonable expectations of success. Now there are as many different chironomid patterns as there are anglers who fish them, but for my money the very best of the bunch is the basic Chromie in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Wrapped with gunmetal or silver tinsel, ribbed with red or black extra-small wire, and topped with a white tungsten bead, this little fly faithfully represents the shimmer and sparkle of the chironomid pupa as it ascends through the water column. Fished just off the bottom under a strike indicator on a floating line, the Chromie works everywhere most of the time.

Rods and Reels

A 10-foot 5-weight is really the only rod to have on stillwaters. A good one will have enough backbone to lift a heavier fish that’s sulking deep, yet a limber tip that will allow you to set up quickly without snapping your leader. A local company here in BC makes the Dragonfly Kamloops rods, and their 10-foot 5-weight gets my vote as one of the top lake rods around. I always carry three or four of them fully rigged.

            As for reels, you don’t really need anything fancy because lake fish won’t burn you up in the same way that, say, a steelhead might. But a crap reel will eventually crap itself, so get the best you can afford. Like the rods you will need more than one, which can get pricey. Dragonfly makes a budget reel which is fine for most lakes. I prefer old Hardys. The St George 3-3/4 is probably the best lake reel ever made. It’s durable and takes a beating if you ever need it to wack a trout on the noggin for dinner.

            A hundred yards of backing is more than enough on BC lakes. For floating lines these days I’m liking the Scientific Anglers Titan Long. For my sinkers I go with RIO Fathom and AquaLux Sinking Lines. I tend to use only the fastest full sinkers or the slowest intermediates

            Because much of your fishing will be subsurface, lake anglers prefer fluorocarbon leaders. I buy spools of it and tie my own, but I also carry several factory tapered 12-foot leaders in case I need to switch to surface presentations. Four-pound to six-pound tippet usually connects my leader to my fly.

Boats

In almost any other aspect of fly fishing, a discussion of gear would end with rods, reels, lines and flies. But in BC’s Kamloops country, careful attention to your selection of watercraft and electronics are at least as important, and maybe more.

            On any given day on the more popular lakes you’ll see a variety of floaty things, from your classic v-hulled tippy 12-foot aluminum car toppers to bouncy orange inflatables. I’ve even seen 20-foot steel-hulled Fraser River sturgeon boats. In some places fiberglass bass boats are becoming popular. But for those in the know, there’s one style of boat that beats them all: the flat-bottomed 8-to 12-foot long rowboat, commonly called a “pram”. These boats, constructed of aluminum, fiberglass, or wood, fit easily in the bed of a pickup and can usually be cartopped by a single person. Some can get heavy—100 pounds or more, especially the welded aluminum ones—but it’s tough to beat a 10-foot wide, bottom-riveted aluminum boat. Weighing under 100 pounds, it’s pretty easy to cartop and launch without a lot of help. It’s wide enough to be quite stable, making it easy to stand up and cast (as long as you’re sober), which I often need to do if my fish finder reveals trout working at a distance from my boat.

Cabins at the edge of Corbett Lake offer comfortable and quick access to some big rainbows. Corbett Lake lodge also offers boat rental if you don’t have your own rig. Corbett’s rainbows often cruise close to shore around mid-morning, snacking a massive Callibeatis mayfly emergence.

“Fish Finders”

You can’t really fish a lake without one of these. I still know people who say the only thing they’re good for is learning about the bottom, which makes absolutely no sense to me. These days I never fish anywhere that hasn’t lit up my finder with “marks.” It’s a no-brainer. It helps that I’ve been tutored in the fine art of fish finding by the Stillwater Ninja, who rows around a lot before he drops anchor. Ask him why he stopped? “Because I’m marking lots of fish here,” he’ll say.

            All of the major manufacturers make reliable finders you can use on a small lake pram. Currently I use the Helix 5 by Humminbird. If you can afford to, spring for the units that have built in maps and GPS. Fish tend to do similar things in similar places at similar times of the year, and the mapping function helps you return to productive spots. I complement my boat mounted sonar with the Deeper Chirp+ Smart Sonar.

 

Logistics

Merritt is a good place to initially call home when you begin to explore Kamloops lake country. Tourism Merritt (tourismmerritt.ca) is where to start looking for places to stay if you aren’t camping.

            All of the lakes mentioned in this story are within a day’s easy drive from Vancouver and offer both camping and/or lodging. If you’re camping, weekends of course are going to be busy, so if you are planning to travel from a distance make your plans so that you can arrive midweek, which will give you the best opportunity to find a campsite.

            For the most up-to-date information on fish stocking programs on the lakes you want to fish, check out the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC’s website gofishbc.com. Here you’ll find accurate info about the many lakes open to fishing across the province, as well as articles and links that can make you a better angler.

            And don’t be afraid to ask for local knowledge. British Columbia was, of course, home to Haig-Brown, and as a result we tend to take ourselves pretty seriously. But here’s the good news: I’ve found that lake fly fishers aren’t exactly purists. Among the various fly fishing subcultures, lake fishers rival billfish anglers for their pragmatism, which is refreshing. I recall early on when someone I deeply respected showed me how to tie a swivel onto my leader to help sink my chironomid pattern. A swivel? Yessir. And that little orange thing the river nymphers call a strike indicator? On lakes it’s a bobber. BC lake fishing is a lot more about beer cans and ball caps than Balvenie and Barbour. Walk your shiny Hardy reel out to the garage and take the grinding wheel to it along with your pretensions. Over time you’ll get used to being real.

Relaxing at Corbett Lake Lodge where anglers can kick back and trade notes while dinner is being prepared.

Gear

Deeper Chirp + Smart Sonar, i.e., “The Death Star”

The Deeper Chirp+ castable sonar—aka “The Death Star”—is a handy little device that has revolutionized my stillwater game. In the past, I would row around a likely looking spot, and anchor up when I marked fish on my boat mounted sonar. That’s great as a starting strategy; however, over an hour of fishing the fish tend to move around, and unless they’re passing within the field of your sonar you’ll never know if a blank screen means they’ve completely left the dining room or have just moved to a different part of the table. The Deeper unit extends your usable sonar coverage to the distance of your longest cast. Simply attach it to an old spinning rod, link it to your smart phone, and cast it out there. Check the area around your boat to the length of your longest fishable cast and in a few minutes you’ll know whether you need to move. It’s a highly recommended addition to your lake kit. Check them out at deepersonar.com

Spring is a much-heralded time for western U.S. trout anglers. This is when winter loses its grip on the land, the days grow longer, weather patterns generally stabilize, and fishing becomes a lot more comfortable and productive.

            Accompanying that warming air and water temperature is the appearance of multiple aquatic invertebrates. Steady midge hatches join heavy numbers of blue-winged olive mayflies. The first thick emergence of caddis, and on some streams, March brown mayflies, appear. All that activity gets the blood flowing. But for many western fly-fishers, nothing beats the first large bugs of the year—skwala stoneflies.

            In fact, skwalas give fly-fishers their first opportunity of the new season to break out boxes of stoneflies and large attractors, and cast easy-to-see surface patterns to rising trout. The skwala hatch doesn’t match the popularity of salmonfly, golden stonefly, or green drake hatches, which arrive later in the year. But for some dedicated anglers, skwalas are a focal point, and I know a couple people who chase skwala emergences from stream to stream over a six-week period from mid-March through early May. To help you imitate these early-season monsters, and make the most of your pre-runoff time on the water, here are a few considerations and tactics that have worked for me, year after year, on waters sprinkled around the West.

The Skwala

Skwalas are members of the Perlodidae family. There are three prominent species in western North America—americana, curvata, and compacta—however, there are only slight physical differences between the trio and it takes a close inspection to detect variations. Moreover, in their nymphal form, anglers could easily misidentify them as a golden stonefly. As adults, the most noticeable traits shared by all are a smoky-colored body (similar to a mahogany dun), a thick, dull orange stripe on top of the head, and black notches on the ventral side of the thorax. While skwalas are the first large stoneflies to appear on many waters, they are noticeably smaller than salmonflies and golden stones. Adults typically measure in at 18-to 22-millimeters long, though larger specimens approach 25 millimeters, and are most often matched with size 8 and 10 hooks.

            Like most spring hatches, skwala emergences occur as water temperatures warm. There are variances from stream to stream, but for the most part hatches begin to hit their stride when water temperatures average between 46 and 49 degrees (F). The skwala emergence and lifecycle is similar to most stoneflies. Nymphs crawl from the streambed to surface rocks and vegetation—on dry land, their exoskeleton splits open and adults crawl out of their shucks. After mating, females return to the surface of the water to release eggs. Some bugs do this while flying, but just as many crawl from the bank to the current. They can be on the water for quite some time. Which is highly risky: As adults on the surface they are most vulnerable to trout.

            The skwala is a prototypical “clean water” bug that favors rivers with moderate-to high gradients and ample cobblestone, which is most prevalent on freestone or freestone-like rivers. The pre-runoff window—that timeframe when water temperatures warm consistently above 40 degrees until snowmelt and runoff begin in earnest—typically lasts between four and six weeks on most freestone streams. This window coincides with a trout’s elevated spring metabolism. At this time, trout feed heavily, trying to reestablish the weight they may have lost over winter, and to prepare for the rigors of spring spawning (for cutthroat and rainbows). Skwalas are the largest food form emerging during later winter and spring (a boon to fly anglers) and while nymph patterns can hammer fish, the surface is really where it’s at.

Skwala Timing

Skwala water abounds in the western U.S., but each stream is different. Montana’s Bitterroot River has one of the earliest emergences in the Rockies. It typically kicks into gear in late March or early April, but has started as early as late February. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hit the hatch on March 14 between the towns of Florence and Lolo. Someone said the hatch typically moves upstream at a consistent four to five miles a day under the right conditions, so had I fished the same section a couple weeks later, I may have missed the hatch altogether.

            Other western Montana streams with very productive skwala hatches are Rock Creek, the Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. On the right day, all of these rivers may produce outstanding dry-fly action on rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout that average about 12 inches long and often stretch past the 20-inch mark. All of these streams, including the Bitterroot, are only minutes away from Missoula, which is western Montana’s fly-fishing hub and a town that’s got a serious addiction to trout and brewpubs.

            On the other hand, the skwala hatch on Oregon’s Owyhee River has the reputation of being sporadic. But when it’s on, it’s really on. The height of hatch activity can be as early as mid-March during some years, though it generally reaches a crescendo in April. Another Northwest river, the Yakima in central Washington, hosts a skwala hatch that generally starts in early March and extends into April—Yakima fly-fishing veterans say the bug’s upstream progression can be molasses-slow. Although officially a tailwater, a number of tributaries feed the Yak and can limit dry-fly possibilities just before runoff. When that happens, anglers still have luck drifting nymphs under the surface.

            Wyoming’s Snake River is my home turf and the waterway where I have the most familiarity with skwalas. Like the rivers mentioned above, local anglers pay close attention to what is happening with runoff and weather, trying to nail the best window for the hatch to take place. Many of my clients time a spring fishing trip to coincide with the bug’s emergence. Rightfully so—the Snake River’s hatch is intense and generally the last to appear in the West. It typically starts in mid-April and continues into mid-May. But the peak tends to occur with the first signs of runoff. It’s not uncommon for Snake River anglers to enjoy a solid week of fishing skwalas before watching the river turn to mud. But there are lucky years when the runoff arrives late, and excellent fishing with large surface patterns continues for three weeks straight.

            That said, skwala emergences don’t end just because runoff starts. Most western freestones go through several 24-hour melt/freeze cycles before runoff hits in full force. Because of that, a stream might be off-color in the morning, but clear slightly around noon, and offer better fishing in the afternoon hours. Even if a river is off-color, fish on. Remember, you’re imitating big bugs that are easy for trout to see, and the fish are already keyed in on them.

Skwala Strategies

Fishing big surface bugs always seems pretty easy—toss it out there, work in a mend, maintain the drift, and set the hook when you get an eat. That’s simple enough.

            Nonetheless, there are certain things you can do to improve your catch ratio when fishing big dry flies, especially those imitating skwalas. Focus part of your effort on presentation, and part on the water you’re targeting, because both are equally important.

            For starters, remember, skwalas are movers and shakers. While some females fly to the stream to deposit eggs, many crawl from the banks and into the current to complete the lifecycle. When doing so, they create a wake on the water as they scurry along, and that attracts hungry trout. So, simply put, forget dead-drifts. Purposely move the fly after the initial mend. After that, retrieve slack and continue to animate the fly from side-to-side by twitching the tip of your rod. Intermittent dead-drifts help from time to time, but by no means should a dead-drift be the only type of presentation you rely on.

            Second, target a wide variety of water types wherever skwalas hatch—just off the banks and near in-river structure. Skwalas emerge around these areas and some unfortunate bugs lose their grasp and end up in the water. Because they crawl from banks and structure and are carried along by the current, often while releasing eggs, many other water types can be productive. Riffles and long, flat pools yield good results. However, seams and current margins (where fast water collides with slower water) are perhaps the most productive water types. I’ve also noticed consistent action along seams created by channel confluences.

            I’ve had some great action on seams separating the main current from slow pools or outright dead pools that have no discernible current at all. These seams are places where trout can rest on the current margin and still have access to drifting forage in the nearby, fast moving water.

            Because skwalas emerge as water temperatures warm into the high 40s, it seems obvious that afternoons should be the prime times for fishing. This is no doubt true, but do not ignore the morning hours, even early morning. I have seen skwalas on the water as early as 8:30 a.m. on the Snake and Bitterroot rivers. These may simply be a significant number of females that emerged from the previous day. No matter, trout key in on these bugs, just as much as they do later in the day.

Skwala Silhouettes

Skwalas provide solid early-season dry-fly fishing with big surface imitations. The most popular patterns are size-8 and 10 variations of the Chernobyl Ant that feature fluttering wings and rubber or Flexi Floss legs. More traditional patterns, however, can be just as effective. Kaufmann’s Stimulator and the original Double Humpy are two of my favorites and most effective when intentionally skittered or moved across the surface. Some fly-fishers contend that the heavy hackle used on these patterns is key to their success. The hackle creates a wake that mimics the natural disturbance created by a skwala as it scurries along the surface. The legs on foam ant patterns can create a more natural silhouette, but the wake isn’t as imitative. I suggest hitting the water with heavily hackled patterns and legged flies so you can match whichever style the fish prefer.

Nymphs also produce, and I turn to them for a change of pace or to prospect for larger trout when fish aren’t eating on top. Like my adult imitations, I tend to go with size-8 or 10, short-shanked hooks when fishing skwala nymphs. A simple Pat’s Rubber Leg or a slightly more complex Flashback Hare’s Ear Nymph with rubber legs are two of my favorites. I target the same types of water I would with dries—banks and structure, confluence lines, current margins, heads of riffles/runs, and seams.

            Fishing a skwala emergence can be fun. It’s hard to beat skittering a size-10 attractor across current to rising trout as the first rays of warm sunshine fill the spring air. Yes, you may need to deal with early runoff issues, and the possibility of a muddy river, but if your timing is right, fishing the skwala hatch can pay off big time.

I visited Guyana in January 2018 and spent six days trying to catch a massive arapaima. Having succeeded in that goal, and having also landed numerous peacock bass, we headed upriver, hoping to find a variety of fish, including payara, which are a saber-toothed fish found throughout Guyana’s Essequibo River system.

They are especially abundant in the upper river near Corona Falls, but our upstream progression was challenging, if not somewhat dangerous—unusual low water conditions gave us very little water to work with.

            Payara are found in rapids and in pools formed by large rock deposits and boulders. They are extremely strong swimmers and rely on their lateral lines to detect vibrations given off by their prey. These perfectly formed predators absolutely crush poppers. However, they aren’t total pushovers—they may become suspicious after a couple errant swipes at a pattern, and anglers may need to change things up.

            To land a payara you need to set the hook hard, and ease up a bit once the fish is on, or you might rip the hook right out of its mouth. Payara are extremely strong and agile fighters that dive deep before taking to the air as they approach the boat. As we worked our way toward Corona Falls we stopped and fished numerous spots.With good luck: I landed around a dozen payara , the largest pushing about 10 pounds.

            The following day we continued toward the falls with our goals being wolfish and pacu. Having already caught arapaima and payara, pacu was at the top of my hit list. In the morning of the ninth day, while we worked upstream toward the falls, our guide, Terry, spotted a large tapir on the riverbank. The other guides sprang into action as the tapir leaped into the water and raced downstream, trying to evade us. Ultimately, that tapir was no match for the guides. After dispatching the animal the boys quickly cleaned the kill and we were on our way, knowing we’d have “bush cow” for dinner.

            I was still dreaming of pacu when our adventure hit a roadblock: the water was too low to ascend a set of rapids that rested just a kilometer below the falls. We headed downriver empty-handed. And as we did so, in the back of my mind, I knew I’d fallen short of my goals. I vowed to return.

            And that’s what I did. Fast forward 11 months and 23 days. It’s now February 2019 and I’m headed up the Essequibo with good friend Darryl Rosalin and cameraman Dan Favato. My clients had completed their trip the day prior and landed three arapaima, and a ton of payara, peacock bass, piranha and arowana. Now it was my turn to catch up on unfinished business with Mr. Pacu.

            Fortunately, higher water levels in 2019 meant we could reach Corona Falls without difficulty. Even so, the trip from camp to the falls took about six hours. We would have reached the falls sooner, but we stopped and fished for payara and peacocks, and beached the canoes to eat a hearty shore lunch.

            When we reached the falls and started setting up camp, fish were rising everywhere. We took the boat across the river and caught a few payara for dinner. That was fun fishing for sure, and it satisfied the protein side of dinner, but those rising fish really caught held my attention—some looked like pacu. I drifted foam seed flies and swung green streamers, to no avail.

            The next morning we headed out bright and early. We crossed the river and portaged the 10-foot long duck boat and the 18-foot long riverboat, along with our gear, about a half kilometer around the waterfall. Dan and I fished the base of the falls while Darryl worked the water around the top of the portage. I’d rigged a weighted seed fly for high-stick nymphing and as we worked our way up the rapids and plunge pools of Corona Falls, we heard a Tarzan-like cry ringing through the jungle. Darryl was on! Dan and I quickly scaled the last rockface just as Darryl landed an absolutely beautiful, dark-red pacu. After taking a few photos of Darryl’s fish, Dan and I worked the upper falls thoroughly, but without success.

            Desperate to join the exclusive “Guyananese Pacu Club”, we travelled farther upriver than I’d been before. Three sets of rapids and a portage later, we arrived at Monkey Falls, a true pacu nirvana. This large waterfall fed into a massive pool where pods of pacu rose continuously, feeding on floating seeds. We spent the rest of the morning trying to get a surface eat, but the pacu were stubborn.

            In the afternoon we worked our way up the falls, nymphing pocket water and ripping streamers across pools.We saw a ton of fish, but we couldn’t get a solid hookup.

            At the top of the falls I tied on the same green streamer that worked for Darryl, and decided to work the mouth of the falls. On the first cast, three pacu bolted out of a crevasse and chased my fly. I slowed my retrieve as the fish followed, just inches behind the green hackle tail, and bam, fish on. The pacu ripped upstream rubbing my line on the edge of a submerged rock ledge. Then it turned and took off towards the falls. I angled my rod, putting as much side pressure on the 16-pound tippet as I thought it could take. The fish again changed its tactics, heading under the rock ledge and into the boulders. Somehow, I managed to get the fish out of the current and into a small back eddy where we were able to land it. Victory.

             After a couple swigs of rum and a round of hi-fives, it was Dan’s turn. Within three casts he was hooked up, ending our session with another solid pacu. I could not imagine a better way to end our trip—three friends landing three solid pacu in the middle of a jungle wilderness. We agreed: Life is good in Guyana.

It doesn’t take long to get from Seattle to Montana. Fortuitously, some of the best early season dry-fly fishing on earth occurs in the far western portion of the state, in and around Missoula, a trout addicted town surrounded by five blue-ribbon rivers and what seems like 500 quality brew pubs.

            Want to fish the best late winter and early spring hatches on rivers producing wild browns, rainbows and cutthroats to 18 inches or more? All you have to invest is an eight-hour drive and a few days to fish.

            I should know; I went to college in Missoula, have fished and lived around the state for 30 years, including stints in the Gallatin Canyon, the Bitterroot Valley, and the Madison Valley; I wrote the book Fly Fisher’s Guide to Montana; and I’ve spent the past 10 years back in Missoula, casting flies as often as possible on all the local waters.

            Western Montana is Big Sky Country’s banana belt. Winter fades quicker here, and spring arrives sooner, than anywhere else in the state. That stimulates aquatic insect activity and those hatches, a mix of small midges and blue-wing olive mayflies, followed by larger skwala stoneflies and March brown drakes, get the fish feeding heavily, And it’s not subsurface stuff—on warm winter days midges bring trout to the surface and offer great dry fly opportunity; by late February the first skwala stoneflies are moving around and size-8 and 10 imitations draw big fish up (the skwala action gets progressively better as spring arrives, and continuers into May); blue-wing olives and March browns come off at midday hours and, at times, seem to bring every fish to the top.

            Wading anglers can easily get in on the action, especially on the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek, but those floating in a raft or driftboat, who can access an entire river even in elevated spring flows, enjoy better success.

The Rivers

The Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers run right through Missoula, offering in-town action for those who don’t want to venture far. But it pays to drive a little ways. The Bitterroot heads south of Missoula, in the gorgeous Bitterroot Valley, and offers great opportunities throughout its 70-some mile course. Whether you wade or float, there’s lots of good turf wherever you look—pocket water, braided channels, deep pools, long riffles, and glassy glides, especially on the lower river where trout can get technical and only the best presentations get eaten.

            The river is loaded with rainbows, cutthroat and browns, and about eight gazillion whitefish. The trout range past 20 inches with the common fish coming in at about 15 inches long. These are all wild trout and the cutthroats are native. After a long winter spent eating midge larvae and the occasional adult, these trout are hungry and ready to put on weight. When the skwalas come off these fish rise for size-6 and 8 dries; as the season progresses they’ll have seen a lot of flies floating over their heads and anglers might need to scale back from 3X and 4X tippet, to 4X or 5X and size-8 and 10 imitations.

            Don’t expect to see tons of skwalas on the water or in the air—it’s not like the salmonfly hatch. No worries—it takes only a few bugs to get trout looking up. Want to know if the skwala is happening? Turn over some rocks in shallow water and inspect woody debris near the edge of the stream. If those bugs are around you’ll find nymphs crawling on the underside of those rocks and logs/limbs. That’s a sure sign that fish are looking for them too.

The Clark Fork also offers great spring fishing. You can throw above or below town with equal success. This is a big river, very intimidating to the fledgling fly fisher. But fear not—plenty of action takes place near the banks, with trout sipping blue-wing olives one after the other, sometimes in pods of rising trout numbering in the dozens. If you float the river you can reach all the available water, which includes massive eddies and pools, typically lined with foam. When fishing the Clark Fork, remember, foam means fish. That’s because adult midges, mayflies, and even skwalas collect in that foam. The trout merely poke their noses through the surface to grab a bite. This can be technical fishing consisting of 6X tippet and size-20 dries; or, when March browns and skwalas are about, anglers might get away with 4X tippet and size 8 dries.

            The fish are a mix of rainbows and cutthroats, with only a few browns thrown in on the side. Bonus: spring offers good opportunities to catch northern pike in the backwaters and side channels. If you want to do just that your guide likely can provide an 8-weight rod, a five-inch long fly, and a wire leader. The rest is between you and the water wolf. That can be a challenge. Pike to 20 pounds are possible.

Prefer pocket water and a more intimate setting? Rock Creek has your name on it. This river runs 60 miles through a nearly pristine corridor with abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bald eagles, moose, and black bear. I even saw a mountain lion while driving out of Rock Creek one evening; it leaped from one side of the dirt road to halfway up the opposite bank. It was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in my life.

            Rock Creek isn’t known for giant trout, although the average size of its fish seems to be on the increase, with 16-to 17-inch trout being pretty common these days. Ten-to 14-inch fish make up the majority of the catch.

            You’ll find an appealing mix of browns, rainbows and native westslope cutthroat here, and they’ll rise eagerly for dry flies beginning on the warmest of February days. That early, they’ll look for midges. By mid-March blue wing olives are squarely in the mix. Around late March extending through April, March browns come off. Seeing scads of trout eating those bugs can be an amazing sight, like somebody flicked a switch and told every trout to head to the surface at one time. You can get technical while matching this hatch, but the trout are eager and throwing nothing more complex than a size-14 or 16 Parachute Adams scores big results. Of course, emergent mayfly imitations and the ubiquitous Purple Haze produce nicely, too. Look for this hatch to pop between 11: 30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

            Don’t overlook the skwala on Rock Creek. When these fish get on the big bug you can catch good numbers. On the right day you might hook 30 fish. Again, afternoon hours are prime, with most of the activity occurring between 1 and 5 p.m.

            Lower Rock Creek is located just 25 miles from Missoula. Anglers can fish their way up the river for 60 miles, finding abundant public access throughout. The creek offers tons of riffles and deep runs, pools and side-channels. You can cast across it in most places but it isn’t a trickle. This is fun fishing, usually with lots of action, but its fish can get freaky after seeing flies floating over their heads all spring. If they do just that, low-profile, technical imitations often crack the code. Your guide will have some “secret weapons” on hand, sneaky patterns that trick educated fish. Don’t be afraid to ask about them.

The lower Blackfoot River meets the Clark Fork about five miles east of Missoula. Good fishing for browns, rainbows and cutthroat extends upriver for 50-some miles. The average fish here measures 14-to 16 inches long, but know that larger fish exist. Any given cast could bring up a 20-some inch brown or bow . . . or a 30-some inch long bull trout. You can’t specifically fish for bull trout, but they prefer the same streamers you’ll throw for rainbows and browns.

            Much of the Blackfoot runs between canyon walls. You can find every sort of trout water known to man. And the hatches bring fish up in all of these places. Blue-wing olives are abundant on the Blackfoot, and the skwala comes off in good numbers, too. You can find March browns and midges also. Maybe the most exciting way to fish the Blackfoot is with streamers when the water turns to beautiful green, not really clear but not blown out either. Fish can find your fly easily enough, and they aren’t too shy because that color in the water gives them mega-confidence. If you want to catch a large trout in the Missoula area, the Blackfoot during spring time, when water conditions allow, is the place to be.

            You can fish the Blackfoot by wading the banks, but in most places its steep and rocky, and wading is a challenge. Best to let a guide pull the oars while you and a buddy or a spouse or kid cast from the bow and stern, working those Sparkle Minnows, Buggers, and Double Gonga’s, along the banks, teasing big browns and massive bull trout out of the boulders and into the net. Can you say, “photo opp.”

            I grew up in Seattle and have visited family often over the past 30 years. One of the best ways to make this a quick trip to God’s Country is to leave early in the day, whether exiting the city from the north or south. If you leave at 5 a.m., you won’t deal with any traffic and could be casting on the lower Clark Fork by about 3 or 4 p.m (MST).

            That’s not an option if you head towards the state’s more famous waters in southwest Montana—to reach many of those rivers requires a 12-hour drive and you can add two more mountain passes to the mix, which could make driving sketchy. I know: I made that drive from Ennis to Seattle and vice versa about a hundred times when I lived in the Madison Valley—it takes 12 long hours (13 if headed from Seattle to Ennis because you lose an hour due to a time change). But fear not: Missoula’s spring fishing is as productive or more so than what you’ll find elsewhere.

            If you book with Joe and Tammi Cummings, who own Missoula River Lodge, you can leave Seattle  early in the a.m. and unpack your gear that afternoon, possibly leaving time for a late day dry-fly session on the lodge’s 100 private acres of riverfront property. Staying at Missoula River Lodge means you are in prime position to fish any of these five rivers, depending on which offers the best options on a particular day. The guides are experienced and super dialed into hatches and water conditions—they give you the best shot at early season dry-fly nirvana.

            When not on the water you can kick back in the lodge and enjoy views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range while watching the water and the wildlife drift by. And you can enjoy some seriously fine dining, all prepared by executive chef Carrie Nowlen, who was named one of America’s top 100 chefs by the Washington Post. So, live large this late winter and spring and hit one or more of these hatches. You won’t find better dry-fly fishing anywhere close to Seattle or beyond. See you out there.

“Maybe there is a beast” – William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

Back in 1985 William Golding did a reading at Simon Fraser University and answered questions about his work. He was touring in support of his To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and seemed relieved when someone would ask him about it. Most of the lit majors (like me) asked him about Lord of the Flies, a subject you could tell was a bit tiresome for the great scribe. The strange little book about a strange little band of messed up schoolboys, alone on a jungle island, made him a literary star. But by then it was something probably best left to discussions in high school English classes.

            Thirty-five years later I’m reading Lords of the Fly, a new book by Monty Burke. If you’ve followed his work in Forbes, The Drake and elsewhere, you know he’s far too crafty a writer to simply have thought Lords of the Fly was just a cool name for a tarpon book. It only takes a few chapters to realize there’s a Beast lurking in the waters off the mouth of Florida’s Homosassa River, and it looks an awful lot like the Beast in Golding’s novel.

            From the outside, everything about tarpon and the tarpon sports fishery seems larger than life. Giant fish on light tackle pursued in small open boats sounds like the stuff of fiction, which is probably why Lords of the Fly initially reads like a novel. It’s a great way to present such a story, and using the novelist’s techniques and structures hints at what’s to come.

            The book chronicles the obsessive pursuit of world-record tarpon, most notably by Tom Evans, perhaps the greatest Homosassa tarpon fisherman on earth. Many others appear in the book—names you’ll recognize, from well-known Florida saltwater guides to the anglers who become legendary tarpon fly fishers. But mostly this is Evans’s story. He’s the spiritual center of the book, the quintessential tarpon angler, the star around which all the planets spin. In any pursuit there are The Great Ones, and then the often obscure ones whom The Greats Ones admire. Obscure is Tom Evans, and Burke takes great care in presenting an honest portrayal of a man and the price he paid in pursuit of a dream.

            Throughout the book, what everyone else is doing looks a lot like Evans’s tarpon fishing, in much the same way a Sergio Leone film looks a lot like a classic Western. But of course there’s something different going on here. Burke reserves judgement on this, and the reader is left to decide if one approach is better. Burke has a foot in both skiffs, but you can tell which way he’s leaning.

            But Lords isn’t all relentless trophy seeking. There’s lots of other fun and interesting stuff in there, too. Between its covers you’ll find gems like Thomas McGuane’s short lesson on how to be a great writer; the origins of the Billy Pate fly reel; and why baseball great Ted Williams ALWAYS SPOKE IN CAPS. Tales are told of angling legends like Billy Pate, Lefty Kreh, Jim Holland Jr and many others who helped shape and define the Homosassa fishery. Sometimes you’re in the boat with them, and sometimes you can see them way out there in the distance, but their presence is always tangible—for better or worse. Obsession changes us—or reveals dark things that we manage to suppress in other aspects of our lives. Inevitably the luster gets rubbed off the legends. But somehow, even the more extreme and objectionable personalities we meet in Homosassa are humanized by the poon.

            Through it all you’ll find clear evidence of Burke’s mastery of his craft. For the first half of the book there are moments of beauty as he takes us from the early days of the great Homosassa tarpon fishery through its Golden Age. Then, as things begin to change, the writing does too, and we begin to see a more journalistic approach—somewhat more distant, the fishery seen through a subtle, but more critical eye.

            Like all the best fishing books, Lords of the Fly isn’t just about the fishing. Fishing is the lens through which we peer into these people’s lives. The drive towards greatness is central to the human experience, and central to the book. Burke knows that greatness is found out there beyond what seems possible for most of us. It’s what draws us to stories of men and women who push the limits. We admire the ones who succeed of course, but we reserve a special admiration for those who fail. Lords of the Fly is about those winners and losers and those qualities of character—good and bad—that set them apart.

            But yes, thank goodness, it’s still a fishing book—and a great one at that. One part Moby Dick, one part Old Man and the Sea, and three parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Lords of the Fly is the perfect cocktail for these strange times, an elixir that is at times challenging, but always transportive and triumphant. It will have you thinking about your post-Covid fishing plans, and how tarpon might fit into them. If, like me, you’ve never pulled on a silver king, it will surely have you adding the tarpon to your bucket list.

Quick Facts

SPECIES NAME

Brown Trout (Salmo Trutta)

SIZE

Average: 10 to 16 inches.
Trophy: 20 inches in North America; 10 pounds in New Zealand and South America; 20 pounds in northern Europe, including Russia.

FAVOURITE DESTINATION

Patagonia, Rocky Mountains, New Zealand.

DIFFICULTY RATING

5/10 in most locales.

KNOWN FOR

– Most challenging of the trout.
– Wide distribution and availability.
– Vibrant coloration.

OVERVIEW

Brown trout are an absolutely gorgeous fish. Coloration varies depending on location. These fish generally display a vibrant gold and silver scale pattern with brown and gold spotting on the sides, and a dark back serving as camouflage. The belly is cream or yellow colored, leading to the “Yellow Belly” nickname. During the fall spawn, these colors are amplified with bright yellows and oranges. Fish fresh out of the ocean may appear very silver in color, resembling a salmon.

Native to Europe, brown trout were introduced throughout the British empire in the 19th century. Their ability to live comfortably in small streams, as well as large, nutrient-rich rivers and lakes, has allowed them to establish self-sustaining populations on nearly every major landmass. Few fish demand anglers to learn such a diversity of skills to land them.

WHY TARGET BROWN TROUT

Watching a wheat field colored trout, with sunrise/sunset speckles and golden-hues, slowly rise and delicately sip in a size-16 dry fly is—and has been—the pinnacle of fly fishing. To catch these fish on a regular basis requires a deep understanding of its habits and habitats. Often only the most subtle and delicate patterns draw responses from these fish, especially when they are keyed in to a specific stage of a particular hatch, more pronounced if fishing over a glassy surface. But, as predators, they also have a mean streak—offer disruptive streamers during fall and other times of the year and the biggest browns may tear out from under a cutbank and hammer a fly.

The experienced, well-rounded angler takes a variety of flies and techniques to the water for brown trout, and modifies them on the go. On any given day they might match big Hexegenia mayflies, or dead-drift Mysis shrimp, or skitter a mouse pattern on the surface. Whatever it takes should be every angler’s motto when trying to bring a trophy brown trout to the net.

Fly fishing is not all about catching a fish—brown trout live in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Whether you are fishing the crystal-clear rivers in Patagonia or New Zealand, the freestone steams in the Rocky Mountains, or the magnificent untouched lakes of Iceland, you’ll be treated to great landscapes whether you get that once-in-a-lifetime brown or not.

RANGE AND LOCATIONS

Brown trout are found across the globe occupying a large variety of freshwater ecosystems and a few saltwater environments. They thrive in cold water, but have a higher heat tolerance than other trout, making it possible for them to live in warmer waters often associated with other species, such as smallmouth bass. Brown trout are distributed throughout the United States with populations in the Driftless area of the upper Midwest, the Catskills and eastern cold-water rivers, the Great Lakes, and large populations throughout much of the western United States, extending north in the Canadian Rockies. Native to Europe, brown trout are also found in Ireland, Scotland, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Tasmania, Spain, France, England and Wales. They are also prominent in Iceland with sea-run and inland populations. A population exists on Russia’s Kola Peninsula as well.

New Zealand brown trout grow to large sizes in lakes and rivers, as do populations in Australia and Tasmania. Patagonia offers brown trout in rivers and lakes with strong sea-run populations entering the southernmost rivers in Tierra del Fuego. South Africa and parts of Asia also have brown trout.

BIOLOGY AND LIFE CYCLE

Brown trout are salmonids and consist of three significantly different morphs. While morphs may appear identical, they are in fact very different, both behaviorally and genetically. The most common, Salmo trutta morpha fario occupies freshwater river systems, while Salmo trutta morpha lacustrine inhabits freshwater lakes, venturing into rivers only to spawn. Salmo, trutta morpha trutta, is the sea-run, or anadromous morph of brown trout which, similar to steelhead, spend their lives in the ocean and migrate into freshwater rivers to spawn.

Brown trout are opportunistic feeders with a diverse diet, ranging from aquatic and terrestrial insects to small mammals, birds and other fish. The trout is shaped to face into currents, filtering water through its gills while absorbing dissolved oxygen. Fin size varies based on environment, but a mature specimen has a large tail fin, and distinct adipose, pectoral and ventral fins for balance and power. Large males develop a pronounced kype. Brown trout spawn during fall, when they pair off and dig large nests (redds) in the streambed. Females use this area to deposit eggs, which are fertilized by males. Males become especially aggressive and combative during this period as they compete for reproductive rights.

GEAR

Similar to rainbow trout, brown trout can be caught using four main techniques; floating dry flies, swinging wet flies, drifting nymphs, and stripping streamers. While many anglers have dedicated setups for each of these techniques, a 9-foot, 5-weight, medium-action fly rod, with an appropriately sized reel and floating line suffices in most situations. A 9-foot leader is standard in most locations. When nymphing, a 4X fluorocarbon tippet is a solid starting point. When swinging streamers, feel free to move up to 3X. When fishing dry flies, use mono tippet in the 5X range—mono floats better than fluorocarbon.

As a fly-fishing traveler, guide and freelance writer, the Covid situation hit me on all fronts. In February the situation in China was coming to light and Italy was starting to fight the pandemic, too. In my country, Czech Republic, there was little indication of what would happen in the next couple weeks. So I stuck with my plans to visit Golden Lodge in Argentina for golden dorado, followed by a trip to Jurassic Lake Lodge, which has been on my bucket list for several years.

I started to worry when I couldn’t even buy antibacterial gel, and securing masks seemed like mission impossible. Still, I made the trip and enjoyed many great days, wading and casting to frenzied dorado feeding along the shallow sand banks of the Paraná River. But on the last day at Golden Dorado things got complicated. I called my family and they told me that the Czech borders were closed. Nobody could travel out of the country and only those with Czech passports could enter. My problem was this: most airlines ceased day-to-day flights to Prague, and my tickets had been cancelled. Available flights were just insanely expensive. My last day of fishing was ruined—I spent hours calling people, including those at the Czech embassy in Buenos Aires, trying to find a flight leaving the following morning. The idea of being stuck in Argentina for many months did not look so good to me, as appealing as it might sound to most anglers. Ultimately, I chose the high-priced ticket option and tried my luck getting home via Amsterdam.

On the way home, I knew things had changed. Everyone seemed nervous and worried. I discovered that my flight would be the last from Argentina to Europe before the borders closed. I’d made a lucky decision in the nick of time.

Back home, my life continued with the ups and downs that, surely, all of us have experienced. All of my international trips, including forays to Mexico, Norway, Brazil, Belize, Alaska, and Russia—plus my first participation in the Fly Fishing World Championships—were canceled. It was unclear whether my planned summer of guiding in Iceland would occur. Suddenly, I had to reorganize my life and regain the joy I’d found in days past, while fishing local waters. So I started to fish local streams and lakes, which provided some really good fishing. I explored new waters and found some really great spots for pike, all over the country.

Covid was a bummer, but I felt privileged to jump into my waders every morning and enjoy endless days on the river, throwing big streamers for pike, or just playing around with local brown trout rising for midges. Even at the beginning of June there wasn’t a single flight heading to Iceland from Czech Republic, or any of its neighboring countries. I knew I’d need to find a new job to pay the bills.

However, as time went on, the situation in Europe stabilized. Czech Republic opened its borders, canceled all restrictions, and our lives slowly went back to semi-normal. The same thing happened almost everywhere in Europe except the UK and Norway. My hopes for an Icelandic summer were revived.

In fact, by early July, I was sitting in the guide’s room at the Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, waiting for clients to arrive the following day. They would be excited to fish the gin-clear rivers packed with fresh Atlantic salmon, which had just started entering Icelandic rivers. As the world opened up, Iceland became a number one destination for Atlantic salmon. This place, usually described as the land of fire and ice, was now being recognized for its variety of waters and its amazing salmon, brown trout and Arctic char.

As lodges around the world cancelled their seasons, and as the guides who work for them lost their incomes, I felt really privileged to be back at my “office” doing what I love most—helping people fulfill their dreams. All along I’ve prayed for the world and all my fishing friends. I can’t wait until our lives get back to normal. Until then, stay safe and try to get out on your local waters. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Katka Svagrova
Growing up in a fly fishing family, Katka has been casting a fly rod since the age of four. In addition to being one of the top guides in Europe, she is a world-class competitor, winning the Czech women’s championship 5 times in 6 years. She has also competed internationally, helping the Czech team place 4th in the European fly fishing championship. After a trip to Australia in 2014, Katka started travelling the world, fly rod in hand. Within 3 years she had fished more than 10 countries including Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, Belize, The Maldives, and Guatemala. Katka currently works as a fly fishing guide for Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, one of Iceland’s most prestigious Atlantic Salmon rivers.

I was born in East Yorkshire, England. I have fished competitively, domestically and abroad while representing my country. I’ve also held many roles in the fly-fishing industry, including lodge manager, fisheries manager, river-keeper, fly and light-tackle guide, and fly shop consultant. Recently, I bought a fly shop and outfitter service based in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico, where I also guide. The following article is a brief outline of my journey to date, and offers some insight on how I transitioned from the trout rivers of home to a life in the salt.

Growing up in the United Kingdom is a unique experience for a fly angler. We have a range of different fishing here, from rivers to lakes and reservoirs to the sea. The majority of our fishing consists of day-ticket style lakes and reservoirs, due to most of our rivers being privately owned. In addition, landowner permissions and club memberships are challenging to come by.

As a result, we have a large proportion of anglers who tend to fish lakes and nothing else. This led to a healthy competition angling scene, especially on the large reservoirs and lakes towards the center of the country—English “loch style” fishing. The competitive side is an essential part of maintaining a high level of angling ability, while also driving innovation in our sport, similar to Formula 1 improving the domestic car market. Anglers and teams are continually innovating with different types of lines, fly designs and changes in presentation. This grabbed my attention and is a big part of why I chose to compete.

I am a big believer in constant innovation, and anyone who has ever stepped foot on my skiff, or waded a flat with me, can attest to that. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

My competitive angling career started in a national competition called, Troutmasters, an annual event that hosts a grand finale at the end of the season. I had some success, but set my sights on a higher prize—representing my country at the international level, something that demands a high level of skill, and an equal level of commitment. International “loch style” or lake fishing teams consist of 10 anglers per country. There is a big difference between a day spent pleasure fishing and a competition day. Our team spent months preparing for international competitions by pre-fishing, working on techniques, tweaking our rigging, and tying specific flies. We wanted to be as effective and consistent as possible, whether throwing a full sink line in only two false casts, all day long, or maybe retrieving a team of flies at the most effective pace, with every cast.

This type of fishing isn’t for everyone. It’s mentally and physically challenging. I enjoyed the competitive side, but what intrigued me was the ability to perform at a high level consistently. There aren’t many things more difficult than competition fishing. But then I turned to the salt.

During my years working in the fishing industry, I travelled to many different saltwater locations. I always wanted to swap from teaching clients to Euro-nymph, to poling clients towards a school of tailing bonefish. I was very fortunate that an off-the-cuff conversation with a Belizean lodge owner turned into a job offer. That was all the motivation I needed. Soon, I was running a lodge and managing a team of guides.

Not long after that experience, I started guiding for several lodges. That allowed me to get my first taste of true saltwater guiding and to explore the intricacies of the flats fisheries. Eventually I bought a flats skiff and shipped it to Belize. I spent many hours poling the flats on my off time, learning the nuances of current, wind direction, tides and a fish’s body language. Unfortunately, the more dedicated I became to guiding, the less time I got to spend with a rod in hand, a natural progression for guides.

After spending a few years in Belize, I made a short move across the border to Chetumal, Mexico, and set up my own guiding business. This fishery is located just north of the Belize Cayes. Up here, we have a vast fishery that stretches hundreds of square miles north from Xcalak. It is a unique and untouched place with an abundance of life, on and off the flats. There is no angling pressure here, and the fishing is some of the best I have experienced. We also have a great fishery just north of Xcalak, around the town of Mahahual, on the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There are many differences between fresh and saltwater angling, the most notable being gear choices for larger and more powerful species. For instance, I might fish a 10-foot 7-weight as my heavy sunk line rod for trout. But, out here I am rarely picking up anything less than an 8-weight, and in tarpon season I’m reaching for a 10 or 11-weight. When fishing a new flat or beach, I consider current speed, depth, and bottom color/makeup, and then choose which fly to cast for the desired presentation. It’s similar to trout fishing, where drift speed, fish depth and water temperature determine your choices.

There are many reasons for a freshwater angler to fish the salt. Aside from an opportunity to visit a new country and broaden your mind, you get a rare opportunity to interact with nature in what I consider to be its wildest form. You get to be part of a unique ecosystem while forming new friendships and lasting bonds with the people and places you visit. The second you feel your first run from a bonefish, or see your first tarpon sailing through the air, you’ll understand why the flats are so coveted.

Will Robins
Will Robins started his adventure into the world of fly fishing on the chalk streams and freestone spate rivers of his home county of Yorkshire in England. He quickly progressed to the large reservoirs and lakes, competing regularly in the competition circuit. Will hit his peak in the competitive world, being promoted to team captain for England fly fishing. Here, Will led the team to a gold medal at the international level. Following his competition success, Will started guiding on his home rivers for trout and grayling. As well as working at the world-renowned Farlows of Pall Mall fly store in London. Will eventually made the switch to the salt and has not looked back. He started his first saltwater operation, Precision Fly Charters, out of Ambergris Caye, Belize in 2018. Currently, Will owns and operates Fly Fishing Costa Maya, a fly shop and guiding service based in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Daniel Favato, aka Cameraman Dan, is Fly Fishing International’s in-house videographer and social media manager—he doubles as a steelhead fanatic/spey junkie.

The Stillwater Ninja was on fire. Every time I looked up from my fishfinder’s empty screen he was into one. Kamloops rainbows, all chunky and silver-sided, were grabbing his flies on every cast, and burning up his backing like steelhead.

Fifteen minutes watching a buddy catching is just fine. Even 20 can be entertaining. But after 30 minutes of double headers without so much as a wiggle of my rod tip, I was wishing I’d sprung for the torpedo option on my fancy new boat. I pulled anchors and rowed over.

“Ok, what am I doing wrong?” I said, casting my fly into his boat. He pinched it between a thumb and index finger and peered at it briefly over the edge of a camo Buff, then dropped it back over the side.

“Nothin’,” he said, grabbing for a suddenly bent rod. “You’re just in the wrong spot.” He netted the fish—a small one this time—and I watched it race for the bottom when he released it. I dipped my oars and shamelessly rowed a lazy circle around his boat, hoping to observe something, or maybe get some advice that might turn my day around.

“Try here,” he said. “You’ll see.” He quickly reeled up, pulled in his anchors and rowed off. The Stillwater Ninja, you see, is the very best kind of fishing buddy—the kind who finds all the fish and then lets you catch them.

A Corbett Lake rainbow.

            Minutes later I was making my first cast. While I was readying the second rod, the reel on the first chirped, then purred, and a five-pound rainbow came out of the water 50 feet away.

            The rest of the day—and the week that followed—was a bit of a blur, speeding past at a pace to match my frequently spinning fly reels. These are the days fly-fishers dream about, and the reason why the southern interior of British Columbia is Mecca for serious lake anglers. Sure you can find bragging-sized fish elsewhere, but there’s nowhere that matches the density of available lakes within a relatively easy drive from the Pacific Northwest’s major cities.

Merritt

Kamloops area lakes offer great fish and plenty of solitude.

If the interior city of Kamloops is often seen as the center of British Columbia lake country, the small town of Merritt is the gateway. A few hours drive from Vancouver via the Coqhihalla Highway, Merritt is situated between the Nicola and Coldwater rivers. Take any road out of town and in 30 minutes you can be unloading your boat at a quality lake. Folks in Merritt are friendly and helpful, used to the traveling anglers who often stop there for fuel. The service station snack racks are always jammed with yummies, and the coffee is always fresh enough. Don’t be surprised if the clerk tells you about his coyote problem . . . or the great fishing he had the other day at such-and-such lake. Pay special attention to the “such-and-such” part.

Seasons

Hatch chart for the Southern Interior’s array of productive aquatic and terrestrial insect hatches.

Stillwater fly fishers talk about “the season” as if it were never ending, but for most it means May 1 through the end of June. These are the days of the big, predictable hatches, when skilled anglers can have consecutive 50 fish days without trying all that hard. Year-to-year it can be tough to predict exactly when things will be best, but as long as you understand that not only the calendar, but also elevation contributes to the timing of a season you can usually find good fishing somewhere. Local current knowledge and having a bit more than a passing acquaintance with a few lakes at different elevations will give you options when the lake you’re on is off.

            Once summer arrives many anglers call it a year, and the lakes quiet down. A few have renowned summer hatches, and they are worth checking out if you have the time and patience to fish in a crowd. But come September, with kids back in school and most people’s vacation time gutted, the cooling lakes can provide some hot angling on less crowded waters.

            Fall has become my favorite time on BC lakes. In the fall, lakes nearly overrun in May tend to be lightly fished and can provide tremendous fishing, though it’s usually for only a few hours each day. These days I fish as far into October as I can, pushing the season until Snow Miser finally chases me off the water.

The Lakes

Writer and biologist Brian Chan ready to release a good one.

One of the best lines ever written about British Columbia’s Kamloops lake country appears in Richard Anderson’s under appreciated book Trout the Size of Footballs:

“This area has so many lakes I’m surprised it doesn’t sink.” To say there are a zillion lakes worth exploring is an exaggeration. In the areas surrounding Kamloops and Merritt, there are probably only half a zillion.

            So, where to start?

Roche Lake

You can find Roche Lake in Roche Lake Provincial Park a short drive from Kamloops. There is a lodge on the lake (rochelake.com), and campsites too, although the camping experience is a lot like camping in one of those big commercial campgrounds you find all over North America. Which isn’t a big deal really—after all, you’re there to fish, right? With a surface area of 162 hectares Roche is a good size lake that can handle a lot of pressure, which is a good thing because it is one of British Columbia’s most popular lakes. Roche produces good catches of 15-to 18-inch rainbows, with the odd five-pounder thrown in to keep you focussed. I’ve caught bigger fish on Roche, but I wouldn’t go there expecting to load up on whoppers. I usually hit Roche in May or early June if I can, and I manage a day or two there most every season. To figure out where to fish look for clusters of boats.

Peter Hope Lake

Also near Kamloops, Peter Hope is one of my favorite lakes. Small enough that you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes with a 9.9 hp outboard, but big enough that you can usually get a little bit of water to yourself, Peter Hope has Pennask and Blackwater rainbows that can grow big, but average out in the 15-to 18-inch range. When the chironomids hatch in May, skilled anglers can have 50 fish days. An overstocking program has now been addressed, but we will have to wait to see if this improves the quality of its fish.

            The current fishing at Peter Hope answers an age-old assumption: If something is good then more of it is better, right?

            Well, when it comes to stocking British Columbia lakes, this isn’t the case. Way back in The Western Angler Haig-Brown warned of the dangers of overzealous stocking programs. He told of “Lake X”, home to a small population of whoppers that rose to dry flies during the annual sedge hatch. “Fish of six, eight and ten pounds were commonly taken on the dry fly,” he wrote. “In 1939 a fish of 17-1/4 pounds. came up to a dry sedge.” Under the mistaken assumption that dumping in more fish would lead to even more monsters, someone dumped 75,000 fry into the lake. Within a few years those fish, combined with the naturally reproducing ones already present, gobbled up many of the bugs that made the lake famous for its sedge hatches, and the marvelous fishing disappeared.

            In 2014 I spent a week in May at Peter Hope, one of BC’s best known fly fishing lakes. Peter Hope has a reputation as a challenging lake, and like Lake X, it occasionally produced trophy fish on dry flies. When I arrived the word on the marl flats was that fishing was good for 14-to16-inch fish, though bigger ones could be seen cruising the shallows. I had a good day fishing the marl shoals for smaller fish, but a friend rowed out beyond the drop off and seemed to be doing as well as me, though I couldn’t see the size of the fish.

            The next day I decided to join him in the deeper water and routinely hooked fish between three and four pounds, with several touching five. My best was in the seven-to eight-pound range, a fish that made me forget that most mistakes are made when fish are a few feet from the boat. The Stillwater Ninja joined us for a few days and netted one that measured 28 inches long, a fish of over nine pounds.

            On the drive out we wondered what the next year would bring, anticipating a return of the glory days of giants on dry flies. But unknown to us, the lake had been stocked with far too many fish—as many as 30,000 in a year–and eventually this caught up with us. For the next several years we noticed the size and condition of the fish starting to deteriorate. We would still find bigger fish if length was the determining factor, but they were skinny. Anything over 18 inches had a big head and snaky body, the sure sign of overstocking. We returned for five more years, hoping to see a change, but things kept getting worse. Sadly, someone hadn’t read their Haig-Brown, and we were forced to re-learn past lessons. On the drive out last year we decided that 2019 would be our last season on Peter Hope.

High Jumper on Corbett.

Corbett Lake

Just up the hill on Highway 97C from the town of Merritt, Corbett is a pay for play lake that boasts a beautiful lodge (corbettlake.ca) as well as comfy cabins. There are some big trout in Corbett, and it’s always worth spending some time there if you are after a trophy. I often stay there and use a cabin as basecamp while I explore the local area on days I’m not fishing Corbett.

Tunkwa Lake

Tunkwa is located not far from the small community of Logan Lake, a short drive off the Coquihalla about halfway between Merritt and Kamloops. There’s a good campground and a lodge (tunkwalakeresort.com). Tunkwa fishes well in the spring, but it is famed for its summer hatch of larger “bomber” chironomids. Late July through mid-August these bugs come off from mid morning through afternoon and provide fast fishing for your Roche and Peter Hope sized fish, but there are some brutes in here too.

If you do things right on any of these lakes I can promise you chirping and purring reels. And if you can find the Stillwater Ninja, pay close attention to where he’s fishing. That’s where the five-pounders live.

One Fly

If you could fish one fly, what would it be? In Kamloops country, this would be the chironomid. Trout feed on these bugs, in various life stages, throughout the season. In fact, chironomids can be fished any day of the season with reasonable expectations of success. Now there are as many different chironomid patterns as there are anglers who fish them, but for my money the very best of the bunch is the basic Chromie in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Wrapped with gunmetal or silver tinsel, ribbed with red or black extra-small wire, and topped with a white tungsten bead, this little fly faithfully represents the shimmer and sparkle of the chironomid pupa as it ascends through the water column. Fished just off the bottom under a strike indicator on a floating line, the Chromie works everywhere most of the time.

Rods and Reels

A 10-foot 5-weight is really the only rod to have on stillwaters. A good one will have enough backbone to lift a heavier fish that’s sulking deep, yet a limber tip that will allow you to set up quickly without snapping your leader. A local company here in BC makes the Dragonfly Kamloops rods, and their 10-foot 5-weight gets my vote as one of the top lake rods around. I always carry three or four of them fully rigged.

            As for reels, you don’t really need anything fancy because lake fish won’t burn you up in the same way that, say, a steelhead might. But a crap reel will eventually crap itself, so get the best you can afford. Like the rods you will need more than one, which can get pricey. Dragonfly makes a budget reel which is fine for most lakes. I prefer old Hardys. The St George 3-3/4 is probably the best lake reel ever made. It’s durable and takes a beating if you ever need it to wack a trout on the noggin for dinner.

            A hundred yards of backing is more than enough on BC lakes. For floating lines these days I’m liking the Scientific Anglers Titan Long. For my sinkers I go with RIO Fathom and AquaLux Sinking Lines. I tend to use only the fastest full sinkers or the slowest intermediates

            Because much of your fishing will be subsurface, lake anglers prefer fluorocarbon leaders. I buy spools of it and tie my own, but I also carry several factory tapered 12-foot leaders in case I need to switch to surface presentations. Four-pound to six-pound tippet usually connects my leader to my fly.

Boats

In almost any other aspect of fly fishing, a discussion of gear would end with rods, reels, lines and flies. But in BC’s Kamloops country, careful attention to your selection of watercraft and electronics are at least as important, and maybe more.

            On any given day on the more popular lakes you’ll see a variety of floaty things, from your classic v-hulled tippy 12-foot aluminum car toppers to bouncy orange inflatables. I’ve even seen 20-foot steel-hulled Fraser River sturgeon boats. In some places fiberglass bass boats are becoming popular. But for those in the know, there’s one style of boat that beats them all: the flat-bottomed 8-to 12-foot long rowboat, commonly called a “pram”. These boats, constructed of aluminum, fiberglass, or wood, fit easily in the bed of a pickup and can usually be cartopped by a single person. Some can get heavy—100 pounds or more, especially the welded aluminum ones—but it’s tough to beat a 10-foot wide, bottom-riveted aluminum boat. Weighing under 100 pounds, it’s pretty easy to cartop and launch without a lot of help. It’s wide enough to be quite stable, making it easy to stand up and cast (as long as you’re sober), which I often need to do if my fish finder reveals trout working at a distance from my boat.

Cabins at the edge of Corbett Lake offer comfortable and quick access to some big rainbows. Corbett Lake lodge also offers boat rental if you don’t have your own rig. Corbett’s rainbows often cruise close to shore around mid-morning, snacking a massive Callibeatis mayfly emergence.

“Fish Finders”

You can’t really fish a lake without one of these. I still know people who say the only thing they’re good for is learning about the bottom, which makes absolutely no sense to me. These days I never fish anywhere that hasn’t lit up my finder with “marks.” It’s a no-brainer. It helps that I’ve been tutored in the fine art of fish finding by the Stillwater Ninja, who rows around a lot before he drops anchor. Ask him why he stopped? “Because I’m marking lots of fish here,” he’ll say.

            All of the major manufacturers make reliable finders you can use on a small lake pram. Currently I use the Helix 5 by Humminbird. If you can afford to, spring for the units that have built in maps and GPS. Fish tend to do similar things in similar places at similar times of the year, and the mapping function helps you return to productive spots. I complement my boat mounted sonar with the Deeper Chirp+ Smart Sonar.

 

Logistics

Merritt is a good place to initially call home when you begin to explore Kamloops lake country. Tourism Merritt (tourismmerritt.ca) is where to start looking for places to stay if you aren’t camping.

            All of the lakes mentioned in this story are within a day’s easy drive from Vancouver and offer both camping and/or lodging. If you’re camping, weekends of course are going to be busy, so if you are planning to travel from a distance make your plans so that you can arrive midweek, which will give you the best opportunity to find a campsite.

            For the most up-to-date information on fish stocking programs on the lakes you want to fish, check out the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC’s website gofishbc.com. Here you’ll find accurate info about the many lakes open to fishing across the province, as well as articles and links that can make you a better angler.

            And don’t be afraid to ask for local knowledge. British Columbia was, of course, home to Haig-Brown, and as a result we tend to take ourselves pretty seriously. But here’s the good news: I’ve found that lake fly fishers aren’t exactly purists. Among the various fly fishing subcultures, lake fishers rival billfish anglers for their pragmatism, which is refreshing. I recall early on when someone I deeply respected showed me how to tie a swivel onto my leader to help sink my chironomid pattern. A swivel? Yessir. And that little orange thing the river nymphers call a strike indicator? On lakes it’s a bobber. BC lake fishing is a lot more about beer cans and ball caps than Balvenie and Barbour. Walk your shiny Hardy reel out to the garage and take the grinding wheel to it along with your pretensions. Over time you’ll get used to being real.

Relaxing at Corbett Lake Lodge where anglers can kick back and trade notes while dinner is being prepared.

Gear

Deeper Chirp + Smart Sonar, i.e., “The Death Star”

The Deeper Chirp+ castable sonar—aka “The Death Star”—is a handy little device that has revolutionized my stillwater game. In the past, I would row around a likely looking spot, and anchor up when I marked fish on my boat mounted sonar. That’s great as a starting strategy; however, over an hour of fishing the fish tend to move around, and unless they’re passing within the field of your sonar you’ll never know if a blank screen means they’ve completely left the dining room or have just moved to a different part of the table. The Deeper unit extends your usable sonar coverage to the distance of your longest cast. Simply attach it to an old spinning rod, link it to your smart phone, and cast it out there. Check the area around your boat to the length of your longest fishable cast and in a few minutes you’ll know whether you need to move. It’s a highly recommended addition to your lake kit. Check them out at deepersonar.com

Spring is a much-heralded time for western U.S. trout anglers. This is when winter loses its grip on the land, the days grow longer, weather patterns generally stabilize, and fishing becomes a lot more comfortable and productive.

            Accompanying that warming air and water temperature is the appearance of multiple aquatic invertebrates. Steady midge hatches join heavy numbers of blue-winged olive mayflies. The first thick emergence of caddis, and on some streams, March brown mayflies, appear. All that activity gets the blood flowing. But for many western fly-fishers, nothing beats the first large bugs of the year—skwala stoneflies.

            In fact, skwalas give fly-fishers their first opportunity of the new season to break out boxes of stoneflies and large attractors, and cast easy-to-see surface patterns to rising trout. The skwala hatch doesn’t match the popularity of salmonfly, golden stonefly, or green drake hatches, which arrive later in the year. But for some dedicated anglers, skwalas are a focal point, and I know a couple people who chase skwala emergences from stream to stream over a six-week period from mid-March through early May. To help you imitate these early-season monsters, and make the most of your pre-runoff time on the water, here are a few considerations and tactics that have worked for me, year after year, on waters sprinkled around the West.

The Skwala

Skwalas are members of the Perlodidae family. There are three prominent species in western North America—americana, curvata, and compacta—however, there are only slight physical differences between the trio and it takes a close inspection to detect variations. Moreover, in their nymphal form, anglers could easily misidentify them as a golden stonefly. As adults, the most noticeable traits shared by all are a smoky-colored body (similar to a mahogany dun), a thick, dull orange stripe on top of the head, and black notches on the ventral side of the thorax. While skwalas are the first large stoneflies to appear on many waters, they are noticeably smaller than salmonflies and golden stones. Adults typically measure in at 18-to 22-millimeters long, though larger specimens approach 25 millimeters, and are most often matched with size 8 and 10 hooks.

            Like most spring hatches, skwala emergences occur as water temperatures warm. There are variances from stream to stream, but for the most part hatches begin to hit their stride when water temperatures average between 46 and 49 degrees (F). The skwala emergence and lifecycle is similar to most stoneflies. Nymphs crawl from the streambed to surface rocks and vegetation—on dry land, their exoskeleton splits open and adults crawl out of their shucks. After mating, females return to the surface of the water to release eggs. Some bugs do this while flying, but just as many crawl from the bank to the current. They can be on the water for quite some time. Which is highly risky: As adults on the surface they are most vulnerable to trout.

            The skwala is a prototypical “clean water” bug that favors rivers with moderate-to high gradients and ample cobblestone, which is most prevalent on freestone or freestone-like rivers. The pre-runoff window—that timeframe when water temperatures warm consistently above 40 degrees until snowmelt and runoff begin in earnest—typically lasts between four and six weeks on most freestone streams. This window coincides with a trout’s elevated spring metabolism. At this time, trout feed heavily, trying to reestablish the weight they may have lost over winter, and to prepare for the rigors of spring spawning (for cutthroat and rainbows). Skwalas are the largest food form emerging during later winter and spring (a boon to fly anglers) and while nymph patterns can hammer fish, the surface is really where it’s at.

Skwala Timing

Skwala water abounds in the western U.S., but each stream is different. Montana’s Bitterroot River has one of the earliest emergences in the Rockies. It typically kicks into gear in late March or early April, but has started as early as late February. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hit the hatch on March 14 between the towns of Florence and Lolo. Someone said the hatch typically moves upstream at a consistent four to five miles a day under the right conditions, so had I fished the same section a couple weeks later, I may have missed the hatch altogether.

            Other western Montana streams with very productive skwala hatches are Rock Creek, the Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. On the right day, all of these rivers may produce outstanding dry-fly action on rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout that average about 12 inches long and often stretch past the 20-inch mark. All of these streams, including the Bitterroot, are only minutes away from Missoula, which is western Montana’s fly-fishing hub and a town that’s got a serious addiction to trout and brewpubs.

            On the other hand, the skwala hatch on Oregon’s Owyhee River has the reputation of being sporadic. But when it’s on, it’s really on. The height of hatch activity can be as early as mid-March during some years, though it generally reaches a crescendo in April. Another Northwest river, the Yakima in central Washington, hosts a skwala hatch that generally starts in early March and extends into April—Yakima fly-fishing veterans say the bug’s upstream progression can be molasses-slow. Although officially a tailwater, a number of tributaries feed the Yak and can limit dry-fly possibilities just before runoff. When that happens, anglers still have luck drifting nymphs under the surface.

            Wyoming’s Snake River is my home turf and the waterway where I have the most familiarity with skwalas. Like the rivers mentioned above, local anglers pay close attention to what is happening with runoff and weather, trying to nail the best window for the hatch to take place. Many of my clients time a spring fishing trip to coincide with the bug’s emergence. Rightfully so—the Snake River’s hatch is intense and generally the last to appear in the West. It typically starts in mid-April and continues into mid-May. But the peak tends to occur with the first signs of runoff. It’s not uncommon for Snake River anglers to enjoy a solid week of fishing skwalas before watching the river turn to mud. But there are lucky years when the runoff arrives late, and excellent fishing with large surface patterns continues for three weeks straight.

            That said, skwala emergences don’t end just because runoff starts. Most western freestones go through several 24-hour melt/freeze cycles before runoff hits in full force. Because of that, a stream might be off-color in the morning, but clear slightly around noon, and offer better fishing in the afternoon hours. Even if a river is off-color, fish on. Remember, you’re imitating big bugs that are easy for trout to see, and the fish are already keyed in on them.

Skwala Strategies

Fishing big surface bugs always seems pretty easy—toss it out there, work in a mend, maintain the drift, and set the hook when you get an eat. That’s simple enough.

            Nonetheless, there are certain things you can do to improve your catch ratio when fishing big dry flies, especially those imitating skwalas. Focus part of your effort on presentation, and part on the water you’re targeting, because both are equally important.

            For starters, remember, skwalas are movers and shakers. While some females fly to the stream to deposit eggs, many crawl from the banks and into the current to complete the lifecycle. When doing so, they create a wake on the water as they scurry along, and that attracts hungry trout. So, simply put, forget dead-drifts. Purposely move the fly after the initial mend. After that, retrieve slack and continue to animate the fly from side-to-side by twitching the tip of your rod. Intermittent dead-drifts help from time to time, but by no means should a dead-drift be the only type of presentation you rely on.

            Second, target a wide variety of water types wherever skwalas hatch—just off the banks and near in-river structure. Skwalas emerge around these areas and some unfortunate bugs lose their grasp and end up in the water. Because they crawl from banks and structure and are carried along by the current, often while releasing eggs, many other water types can be productive. Riffles and long, flat pools yield good results. However, seams and current margins (where fast water collides with slower water) are perhaps the most productive water types. I’ve also noticed consistent action along seams created by channel confluences.

            I’ve had some great action on seams separating the main current from slow pools or outright dead pools that have no discernible current at all. These seams are places where trout can rest on the current margin and still have access to drifting forage in the nearby, fast moving water.

            Because skwalas emerge as water temperatures warm into the high 40s, it seems obvious that afternoons should be the prime times for fishing. This is no doubt true, but do not ignore the morning hours, even early morning. I have seen skwalas on the water as early as 8:30 a.m. on the Snake and Bitterroot rivers. These may simply be a significant number of females that emerged from the previous day. No matter, trout key in on these bugs, just as much as they do later in the day.

Skwala Silhouettes

Skwalas provide solid early-season dry-fly fishing with big surface imitations. The most popular patterns are size-8 and 10 variations of the Chernobyl Ant that feature fluttering wings and rubber or Flexi Floss legs. More traditional patterns, however, can be just as effective. Kaufmann’s Stimulator and the original Double Humpy are two of my favorites and most effective when intentionally skittered or moved across the surface. Some fly-fishers contend that the heavy hackle used on these patterns is key to their success. The hackle creates a wake that mimics the natural disturbance created by a skwala as it scurries along the surface. The legs on foam ant patterns can create a more natural silhouette, but the wake isn’t as imitative. I suggest hitting the water with heavily hackled patterns and legged flies so you can match whichever style the fish prefer.

Nymphs also produce, and I turn to them for a change of pace or to prospect for larger trout when fish aren’t eating on top. Like my adult imitations, I tend to go with size-8 or 10, short-shanked hooks when fishing skwala nymphs. A simple Pat’s Rubber Leg or a slightly more complex Flashback Hare’s Ear Nymph with rubber legs are two of my favorites. I target the same types of water I would with dries—banks and structure, confluence lines, current margins, heads of riffles/runs, and seams.

            Fishing a skwala emergence can be fun. It’s hard to beat skittering a size-10 attractor across current to rising trout as the first rays of warm sunshine fill the spring air. Yes, you may need to deal with early runoff issues, and the possibility of a muddy river, but if your timing is right, fishing the skwala hatch can pay off big time.

I visited Guyana in January 2018 and spent six days trying to catch a massive arapaima. Having succeeded in that goal, and having also landed numerous peacock bass, we headed upriver, hoping to find a variety of fish, including payara, which are a saber-toothed fish found throughout Guyana’s Essequibo River system.

They are especially abundant in the upper river near Corona Falls, but our upstream progression was challenging, if not somewhat dangerous—unusual low water conditions gave us very little water to work with.

            Payara are found in rapids and in pools formed by large rock deposits and boulders. They are extremely strong swimmers and rely on their lateral lines to detect vibrations given off by their prey. These perfectly formed predators absolutely crush poppers. However, they aren’t total pushovers—they may become suspicious after a couple errant swipes at a pattern, and anglers may need to change things up.

            To land a payara you need to set the hook hard, and ease up a bit once the fish is on, or you might rip the hook right out of its mouth. Payara are extremely strong and agile fighters that dive deep before taking to the air as they approach the boat. As we worked our way toward Corona Falls we stopped and fished numerous spots.With good luck: I landed around a dozen payara , the largest pushing about 10 pounds.

            The following day we continued toward the falls with our goals being wolfish and pacu. Having already caught arapaima and payara, pacu was at the top of my hit list. In the morning of the ninth day, while we worked upstream toward the falls, our guide, Terry, spotted a large tapir on the riverbank. The other guides sprang into action as the tapir leaped into the water and raced downstream, trying to evade us. Ultimately, that tapir was no match for the guides. After dispatching the animal the boys quickly cleaned the kill and we were on our way, knowing we’d have “bush cow” for dinner.

            I was still dreaming of pacu when our adventure hit a roadblock: the water was too low to ascend a set of rapids that rested just a kilometer below the falls. We headed downriver empty-handed. And as we did so, in the back of my mind, I knew I’d fallen short of my goals. I vowed to return.

            And that’s what I did. Fast forward 11 months and 23 days. It’s now February 2019 and I’m headed up the Essequibo with good friend Darryl Rosalin and cameraman Dan Favato. My clients had completed their trip the day prior and landed three arapaima, and a ton of payara, peacock bass, piranha and arowana. Now it was my turn to catch up on unfinished business with Mr. Pacu.

            Fortunately, higher water levels in 2019 meant we could reach Corona Falls without difficulty. Even so, the trip from camp to the falls took about six hours. We would have reached the falls sooner, but we stopped and fished for payara and peacocks, and beached the canoes to eat a hearty shore lunch.

            When we reached the falls and started setting up camp, fish were rising everywhere. We took the boat across the river and caught a few payara for dinner. That was fun fishing for sure, and it satisfied the protein side of dinner, but those rising fish really caught held my attention—some looked like pacu. I drifted foam seed flies and swung green streamers, to no avail.

            The next morning we headed out bright and early. We crossed the river and portaged the 10-foot long duck boat and the 18-foot long riverboat, along with our gear, about a half kilometer around the waterfall. Dan and I fished the base of the falls while Darryl worked the water around the top of the portage. I’d rigged a weighted seed fly for high-stick nymphing and as we worked our way up the rapids and plunge pools of Corona Falls, we heard a Tarzan-like cry ringing through the jungle. Darryl was on! Dan and I quickly scaled the last rockface just as Darryl landed an absolutely beautiful, dark-red pacu. After taking a few photos of Darryl’s fish, Dan and I worked the upper falls thoroughly, but without success.

            Desperate to join the exclusive “Guyananese Pacu Club”, we travelled farther upriver than I’d been before. Three sets of rapids and a portage later, we arrived at Monkey Falls, a true pacu nirvana. This large waterfall fed into a massive pool where pods of pacu rose continuously, feeding on floating seeds. We spent the rest of the morning trying to get a surface eat, but the pacu were stubborn.

            In the afternoon we worked our way up the falls, nymphing pocket water and ripping streamers across pools.We saw a ton of fish, but we couldn’t get a solid hookup.

            At the top of the falls I tied on the same green streamer that worked for Darryl, and decided to work the mouth of the falls. On the first cast, three pacu bolted out of a crevasse and chased my fly. I slowed my retrieve as the fish followed, just inches behind the green hackle tail, and bam, fish on. The pacu ripped upstream rubbing my line on the edge of a submerged rock ledge. Then it turned and took off towards the falls. I angled my rod, putting as much side pressure on the 16-pound tippet as I thought it could take. The fish again changed its tactics, heading under the rock ledge and into the boulders. Somehow, I managed to get the fish out of the current and into a small back eddy where we were able to land it. Victory.

             After a couple swigs of rum and a round of hi-fives, it was Dan’s turn. Within three casts he was hooked up, ending our session with another solid pacu. I could not imagine a better way to end our trip—three friends landing three solid pacu in the middle of a jungle wilderness. We agreed: Life is good in Guyana.

It doesn’t take long to get from Seattle to Montana. Fortuitously, some of the best early season dry-fly fishing on earth occurs in the far western portion of the state, in and around Missoula, a trout addicted town surrounded by five blue-ribbon rivers and what seems like 500 quality brew pubs.

            Want to fish the best late winter and early spring hatches on rivers producing wild browns, rainbows and cutthroats to 18 inches or more? All you have to invest is an eight-hour drive and a few days to fish.

            I should know; I went to college in Missoula, have fished and lived around the state for 30 years, including stints in the Gallatin Canyon, the Bitterroot Valley, and the Madison Valley; I wrote the book Fly Fisher’s Guide to Montana; and I’ve spent the past 10 years back in Missoula, casting flies as often as possible on all the local waters.

            Western Montana is Big Sky Country’s banana belt. Winter fades quicker here, and spring arrives sooner, than anywhere else in the state. That stimulates aquatic insect activity and those hatches, a mix of small midges and blue-wing olive mayflies, followed by larger skwala stoneflies and March brown drakes, get the fish feeding heavily, And it’s not subsurface stuff—on warm winter days midges bring trout to the surface and offer great dry fly opportunity; by late February the first skwala stoneflies are moving around and size-8 and 10 imitations draw big fish up (the skwala action gets progressively better as spring arrives, and continuers into May); blue-wing olives and March browns come off at midday hours and, at times, seem to bring every fish to the top.

            Wading anglers can easily get in on the action, especially on the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek, but those floating in a raft or driftboat, who can access an entire river even in elevated spring flows, enjoy better success.

The Rivers

The Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers run right through Missoula, offering in-town action for those who don’t want to venture far. But it pays to drive a little ways. The Bitterroot heads south of Missoula, in the gorgeous Bitterroot Valley, and offers great opportunities throughout its 70-some mile course. Whether you wade or float, there’s lots of good turf wherever you look—pocket water, braided channels, deep pools, long riffles, and glassy glides, especially on the lower river where trout can get technical and only the best presentations get eaten.

            The river is loaded with rainbows, cutthroat and browns, and about eight gazillion whitefish. The trout range past 20 inches with the common fish coming in at about 15 inches long. These are all wild trout and the cutthroats are native. After a long winter spent eating midge larvae and the occasional adult, these trout are hungry and ready to put on weight. When the skwalas come off these fish rise for size-6 and 8 dries; as the season progresses they’ll have seen a lot of flies floating over their heads and anglers might need to scale back from 3X and 4X tippet, to 4X or 5X and size-8 and 10 imitations.

            Don’t expect to see tons of skwalas on the water or in the air—it’s not like the salmonfly hatch. No worries—it takes only a few bugs to get trout looking up. Want to know if the skwala is happening? Turn over some rocks in shallow water and inspect woody debris near the edge of the stream. If those bugs are around you’ll find nymphs crawling on the underside of those rocks and logs/limbs. That’s a sure sign that fish are looking for them too.

The Clark Fork also offers great spring fishing. You can throw above or below town with equal success. This is a big river, very intimidating to the fledgling fly fisher. But fear not—plenty of action takes place near the banks, with trout sipping blue-wing olives one after the other, sometimes in pods of rising trout numbering in the dozens. If you float the river you can reach all the available water, which includes massive eddies and pools, typically lined with foam. When fishing the Clark Fork, remember, foam means fish. That’s because adult midges, mayflies, and even skwalas collect in that foam. The trout merely poke their noses through the surface to grab a bite. This can be technical fishing consisting of 6X tippet and size-20 dries; or, when March browns and skwalas are about, anglers might get away with 4X tippet and size 8 dries.

            The fish are a mix of rainbows and cutthroats, with only a few browns thrown in on the side. Bonus: spring offers good opportunities to catch northern pike in the backwaters and side channels. If you want to do just that your guide likely can provide an 8-weight rod, a five-inch long fly, and a wire leader. The rest is between you and the water wolf. That can be a challenge. Pike to 20 pounds are possible.

Prefer pocket water and a more intimate setting? Rock Creek has your name on it. This river runs 60 miles through a nearly pristine corridor with abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bald eagles, moose, and black bear. I even saw a mountain lion while driving out of Rock Creek one evening; it leaped from one side of the dirt road to halfway up the opposite bank. It was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in my life.

            Rock Creek isn’t known for giant trout, although the average size of its fish seems to be on the increase, with 16-to 17-inch trout being pretty common these days. Ten-to 14-inch fish make up the majority of the catch.

            You’ll find an appealing mix of browns, rainbows and native westslope cutthroat here, and they’ll rise eagerly for dry flies beginning on the warmest of February days. That early, they’ll look for midges. By mid-March blue wing olives are squarely in the mix. Around late March extending through April, March browns come off. Seeing scads of trout eating those bugs can be an amazing sight, like somebody flicked a switch and told every trout to head to the surface at one time. You can get technical while matching this hatch, but the trout are eager and throwing nothing more complex than a size-14 or 16 Parachute Adams scores big results. Of course, emergent mayfly imitations and the ubiquitous Purple Haze produce nicely, too. Look for this hatch to pop between 11: 30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

            Don’t overlook the skwala on Rock Creek. When these fish get on the big bug you can catch good numbers. On the right day you might hook 30 fish. Again, afternoon hours are prime, with most of the activity occurring between 1 and 5 p.m.

            Lower Rock Creek is located just 25 miles from Missoula. Anglers can fish their way up the river for 60 miles, finding abundant public access throughout. The creek offers tons of riffles and deep runs, pools and side-channels. You can cast across it in most places but it isn’t a trickle. This is fun fishing, usually with lots of action, but its fish can get freaky after seeing flies floating over their heads all spring. If they do just that, low-profile, technical imitations often crack the code. Your guide will have some “secret weapons” on hand, sneaky patterns that trick educated fish. Don’t be afraid to ask about them.

The lower Blackfoot River meets the Clark Fork about five miles east of Missoula. Good fishing for browns, rainbows and cutthroat extends upriver for 50-some miles. The average fish here measures 14-to 16 inches long, but know that larger fish exist. Any given cast could bring up a 20-some inch brown or bow . . . or a 30-some inch long bull trout. You can’t specifically fish for bull trout, but they prefer the same streamers you’ll throw for rainbows and browns.

            Much of the Blackfoot runs between canyon walls. You can find every sort of trout water known to man. And the hatches bring fish up in all of these places. Blue-wing olives are abundant on the Blackfoot, and the skwala comes off in good numbers, too. You can find March browns and midges also. Maybe the most exciting way to fish the Blackfoot is with streamers when the water turns to beautiful green, not really clear but not blown out either. Fish can find your fly easily enough, and they aren’t too shy because that color in the water gives them mega-confidence. If you want to catch a large trout in the Missoula area, the Blackfoot during spring time, when water conditions allow, is the place to be.

            You can fish the Blackfoot by wading the banks, but in most places its steep and rocky, and wading is a challenge. Best to let a guide pull the oars while you and a buddy or a spouse or kid cast from the bow and stern, working those Sparkle Minnows, Buggers, and Double Gonga’s, along the banks, teasing big browns and massive bull trout out of the boulders and into the net. Can you say, “photo opp.”

            I grew up in Seattle and have visited family often over the past 30 years. One of the best ways to make this a quick trip to God’s Country is to leave early in the day, whether exiting the city from the north or south. If you leave at 5 a.m., you won’t deal with any traffic and could be casting on the lower Clark Fork by about 3 or 4 p.m (MST).

            That’s not an option if you head towards the state’s more famous waters in southwest Montana—to reach many of those rivers requires a 12-hour drive and you can add two more mountain passes to the mix, which could make driving sketchy. I know: I made that drive from Ennis to Seattle and vice versa about a hundred times when I lived in the Madison Valley—it takes 12 long hours (13 if headed from Seattle to Ennis because you lose an hour due to a time change). But fear not: Missoula’s spring fishing is as productive or more so than what you’ll find elsewhere.

            If you book with Joe and Tammi Cummings, who own Missoula River Lodge, you can leave Seattle  early in the a.m. and unpack your gear that afternoon, possibly leaving time for a late day dry-fly session on the lodge’s 100 private acres of riverfront property. Staying at Missoula River Lodge means you are in prime position to fish any of these five rivers, depending on which offers the best options on a particular day. The guides are experienced and super dialed into hatches and water conditions—they give you the best shot at early season dry-fly nirvana.

            When not on the water you can kick back in the lodge and enjoy views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range while watching the water and the wildlife drift by. And you can enjoy some seriously fine dining, all prepared by executive chef Carrie Nowlen, who was named one of America’s top 100 chefs by the Washington Post. So, live large this late winter and spring and hit one or more of these hatches. You won’t find better dry-fly fishing anywhere close to Seattle or beyond. See you out there.

“Maybe there is a beast” – William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

Back in 1985 William Golding did a reading at Simon Fraser University and answered questions about his work. He was touring in support of his To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and seemed relieved when someone would ask him about it. Most of the lit majors (like me) asked him about Lord of the Flies, a subject you could tell was a bit tiresome for the great scribe. The strange little book about a strange little band of messed up schoolboys, alone on a jungle island, made him a literary star. But by then it was something probably best left to discussions in high school English classes.

            Thirty-five years later I’m reading Lords of the Fly, a new book by Monty Burke. If you’ve followed his work in Forbes, The Drake and elsewhere, you know he’s far too crafty a writer to simply have thought Lords of the Fly was just a cool name for a tarpon book. It only takes a few chapters to realize there’s a Beast lurking in the waters off the mouth of Florida’s Homosassa River, and it looks an awful lot like the Beast in Golding’s novel.

            From the outside, everything about tarpon and the tarpon sports fishery seems larger than life. Giant fish on light tackle pursued in small open boats sounds like the stuff of fiction, which is probably why Lords of the Fly initially reads like a novel. It’s a great way to present such a story, and using the novelist’s techniques and structures hints at what’s to come.

            The book chronicles the obsessive pursuit of world-record tarpon, most notably by Tom Evans, perhaps the greatest Homosassa tarpon fisherman on earth. Many others appear in the book—names you’ll recognize, from well-known Florida saltwater guides to the anglers who become legendary tarpon fly fishers. But mostly this is Evans’s story. He’s the spiritual center of the book, the quintessential tarpon angler, the star around which all the planets spin. In any pursuit there are The Great Ones, and then the often obscure ones whom The Greats Ones admire. Obscure is Tom Evans, and Burke takes great care in presenting an honest portrayal of a man and the price he paid in pursuit of a dream.

            Throughout the book, what everyone else is doing looks a lot like Evans’s tarpon fishing, in much the same way a Sergio Leone film looks a lot like a classic Western. But of course there’s something different going on here. Burke reserves judgement on this, and the reader is left to decide if one approach is better. Burke has a foot in both skiffs, but you can tell which way he’s leaning.

            But Lords isn’t all relentless trophy seeking. There’s lots of other fun and interesting stuff in there, too. Between its covers you’ll find gems like Thomas McGuane’s short lesson on how to be a great writer; the origins of the Billy Pate fly reel; and why baseball great Ted Williams ALWAYS SPOKE IN CAPS. Tales are told of angling legends like Billy Pate, Lefty Kreh, Jim Holland Jr and many others who helped shape and define the Homosassa fishery. Sometimes you’re in the boat with them, and sometimes you can see them way out there in the distance, but their presence is always tangible—for better or worse. Obsession changes us—or reveals dark things that we manage to suppress in other aspects of our lives. Inevitably the luster gets rubbed off the legends. But somehow, even the more extreme and objectionable personalities we meet in Homosassa are humanized by the poon.

            Through it all you’ll find clear evidence of Burke’s mastery of his craft. For the first half of the book there are moments of beauty as he takes us from the early days of the great Homosassa tarpon fishery through its Golden Age. Then, as things begin to change, the writing does too, and we begin to see a more journalistic approach—somewhat more distant, the fishery seen through a subtle, but more critical eye.

            Like all the best fishing books, Lords of the Fly isn’t just about the fishing. Fishing is the lens through which we peer into these people’s lives. The drive towards greatness is central to the human experience, and central to the book. Burke knows that greatness is found out there beyond what seems possible for most of us. It’s what draws us to stories of men and women who push the limits. We admire the ones who succeed of course, but we reserve a special admiration for those who fail. Lords of the Fly is about those winners and losers and those qualities of character—good and bad—that set them apart.

            But yes, thank goodness, it’s still a fishing book—and a great one at that. One part Moby Dick, one part Old Man and the Sea, and three parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Lords of the Fly is the perfect cocktail for these strange times, an elixir that is at times challenging, but always transportive and triumphant. It will have you thinking about your post-Covid fishing plans, and how tarpon might fit into them. If, like me, you’ve never pulled on a silver king, it will surely have you adding the tarpon to your bucket list.

Quick Facts

SPECIES NAME

Brown Trout (Salmo Trutta)

SIZE

Average: 10 to 16 inches.
Trophy: 20 inches in North America; 10 pounds in New Zealand and South America; 20 pounds in northern Europe, including Russia.

FAVOURITE DESTINATION

Patagonia, Rocky Mountains, New Zealand.

DIFFICULTY RATING

5/10 in most locales.

KNOWN FOR

– Most challenging of the trout.
– Wide distribution and availability.
– Vibrant coloration.

OVERVIEW

Brown trout are an absolutely gorgeous fish. Coloration varies depending on location. These fish generally display a vibrant gold and silver scale pattern with brown and gold spotting on the sides, and a dark back serving as camouflage. The belly is cream or yellow colored, leading to the “Yellow Belly” nickname. During the fall spawn, these colors are amplified with bright yellows and oranges. Fish fresh out of the ocean may appear very silver in color, resembling a salmon.

Native to Europe, brown trout were introduced throughout the British empire in the 19th century. Their ability to live comfortably in small streams, as well as large, nutrient-rich rivers and lakes, has allowed them to establish self-sustaining populations on nearly every major landmass. Few fish demand anglers to learn such a diversity of skills to land them.

WHY TARGET BROWN TROUT

Watching a wheat field colored trout, with sunrise/sunset speckles and golden-hues, slowly rise and delicately sip in a size-16 dry fly is—and has been—the pinnacle of fly fishing. To catch these fish on a regular basis requires a deep understanding of its habits and habitats. Often only the most subtle and delicate patterns draw responses from these fish, especially when they are keyed in to a specific stage of a particular hatch, more pronounced if fishing over a glassy surface. But, as predators, they also have a mean streak—offer disruptive streamers during fall and other times of the year and the biggest browns may tear out from under a cutbank and hammer a fly.

The experienced, well-rounded angler takes a variety of flies and techniques to the water for brown trout, and modifies them on the go. On any given day they might match big Hexegenia mayflies, or dead-drift Mysis shrimp, or skitter a mouse pattern on the surface. Whatever it takes should be every angler’s motto when trying to bring a trophy brown trout to the net.

Fly fishing is not all about catching a fish—brown trout live in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Whether you are fishing the crystal-clear rivers in Patagonia or New Zealand, the freestone steams in the Rocky Mountains, or the magnificent untouched lakes of Iceland, you’ll be treated to great landscapes whether you get that once-in-a-lifetime brown or not.

RANGE AND LOCATIONS

Brown trout are found across the globe occupying a large variety of freshwater ecosystems and a few saltwater environments. They thrive in cold water, but have a higher heat tolerance than other trout, making it possible for them to live in warmer waters often associated with other species, such as smallmouth bass. Brown trout are distributed throughout the United States with populations in the Driftless area of the upper Midwest, the Catskills and eastern cold-water rivers, the Great Lakes, and large populations throughout much of the western United States, extending north in the Canadian Rockies. Native to Europe, brown trout are also found in Ireland, Scotland, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Tasmania, Spain, France, England and Wales. They are also prominent in Iceland with sea-run and inland populations. A population exists on Russia’s Kola Peninsula as well.

New Zealand brown trout grow to large sizes in lakes and rivers, as do populations in Australia and Tasmania. Patagonia offers brown trout in rivers and lakes with strong sea-run populations entering the southernmost rivers in Tierra del Fuego. South Africa and parts of Asia also have brown trout.

BIOLOGY AND LIFE CYCLE

Brown trout are salmonids and consist of three significantly different morphs. While morphs may appear identical, they are in fact very different, both behaviorally and genetically. The most common, Salmo trutta morpha fario occupies freshwater river systems, while Salmo trutta morpha lacustrine inhabits freshwater lakes, venturing into rivers only to spawn. Salmo, trutta morpha trutta, is the sea-run, or anadromous morph of brown trout which, similar to steelhead, spend their lives in the ocean and migrate into freshwater rivers to spawn.

Brown trout are opportunistic feeders with a diverse diet, ranging from aquatic and terrestrial insects to small mammals, birds and other fish. The trout is shaped to face into currents, filtering water through its gills while absorbing dissolved oxygen. Fin size varies based on environment, but a mature specimen has a large tail fin, and distinct adipose, pectoral and ventral fins for balance and power. Large males develop a pronounced kype. Brown trout spawn during fall, when they pair off and dig large nests (redds) in the streambed. Females use this area to deposit eggs, which are fertilized by males. Males become especially aggressive and combative during this period as they compete for reproductive rights.

GEAR

Similar to rainbow trout, brown trout can be caught using four main techniques; floating dry flies, swinging wet flies, drifting nymphs, and stripping streamers. While many anglers have dedicated setups for each of these techniques, a 9-foot, 5-weight, medium-action fly rod, with an appropriately sized reel and floating line suffices in most situations. A 9-foot leader is standard in most locations. When nymphing, a 4X fluorocarbon tippet is a solid starting point. When swinging streamers, feel free to move up to 3X. When fishing dry flies, use mono tippet in the 5X range—mono floats better than fluorocarbon.

As a fly-fishing traveler, guide and freelance writer, the Covid situation hit me on all fronts. In February the situation in China was coming to light and Italy was starting to fight the pandemic, too. In my country, Czech Republic, there was little indication of what would happen in the next couple weeks. So I stuck with my plans to visit Golden Lodge in Argentina for golden dorado, followed by a trip to Jurassic Lake Lodge, which has been on my bucket list for several years.

I started to worry when I couldn’t even buy antibacterial gel, and securing masks seemed like mission impossible. Still, I made the trip and enjoyed many great days, wading and casting to frenzied dorado feeding along the shallow sand banks of the Paraná River. But on the last day at Golden Dorado things got complicated. I called my family and they told me that the Czech borders were closed. Nobody could travel out of the country and only those with Czech passports could enter. My problem was this: most airlines ceased day-to-day flights to Prague, and my tickets had been cancelled. Available flights were just insanely expensive. My last day of fishing was ruined—I spent hours calling people, including those at the Czech embassy in Buenos Aires, trying to find a flight leaving the following morning. The idea of being stuck in Argentina for many months did not look so good to me, as appealing as it might sound to most anglers. Ultimately, I chose the high-priced ticket option and tried my luck getting home via Amsterdam.

On the way home, I knew things had changed. Everyone seemed nervous and worried. I discovered that my flight would be the last from Argentina to Europe before the borders closed. I’d made a lucky decision in the nick of time.

Back home, my life continued with the ups and downs that, surely, all of us have experienced. All of my international trips, including forays to Mexico, Norway, Brazil, Belize, Alaska, and Russia—plus my first participation in the Fly Fishing World Championships—were canceled. It was unclear whether my planned summer of guiding in Iceland would occur. Suddenly, I had to reorganize my life and regain the joy I’d found in days past, while fishing local waters. So I started to fish local streams and lakes, which provided some really good fishing. I explored new waters and found some really great spots for pike, all over the country.

Covid was a bummer, but I felt privileged to jump into my waders every morning and enjoy endless days on the river, throwing big streamers for pike, or just playing around with local brown trout rising for midges. Even at the beginning of June there wasn’t a single flight heading to Iceland from Czech Republic, or any of its neighboring countries. I knew I’d need to find a new job to pay the bills.

However, as time went on, the situation in Europe stabilized. Czech Republic opened its borders, canceled all restrictions, and our lives slowly went back to semi-normal. The same thing happened almost everywhere in Europe except the UK and Norway. My hopes for an Icelandic summer were revived.

In fact, by early July, I was sitting in the guide’s room at the Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, waiting for clients to arrive the following day. They would be excited to fish the gin-clear rivers packed with fresh Atlantic salmon, which had just started entering Icelandic rivers. As the world opened up, Iceland became a number one destination for Atlantic salmon. This place, usually described as the land of fire and ice, was now being recognized for its variety of waters and its amazing salmon, brown trout and Arctic char.

As lodges around the world cancelled their seasons, and as the guides who work for them lost their incomes, I felt really privileged to be back at my “office” doing what I love most—helping people fulfill their dreams. All along I’ve prayed for the world and all my fishing friends. I can’t wait until our lives get back to normal. Until then, stay safe and try to get out on your local waters. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Katka Svagrova
Growing up in a fly fishing family, Katka has been casting a fly rod since the age of four. In addition to being one of the top guides in Europe, she is a world-class competitor, winning the Czech women’s championship 5 times in 6 years. She has also competed internationally, helping the Czech team place 4th in the European fly fishing championship. After a trip to Australia in 2014, Katka started travelling the world, fly rod in hand. Within 3 years she had fished more than 10 countries including Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, Belize, The Maldives, and Guatemala. Katka currently works as a fly fishing guide for Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, one of Iceland’s most prestigious Atlantic Salmon rivers.

I was born in East Yorkshire, England. I have fished competitively, domestically and abroad while representing my country. I’ve also held many roles in the fly-fishing industry, including lodge manager, fisheries manager, river-keeper, fly and light-tackle guide, and fly shop consultant. Recently, I bought a fly shop and outfitter service based in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico, where I also guide. The following article is a brief outline of my journey to date, and offers some insight on how I transitioned from the trout rivers of home to a life in the salt.

Growing up in the United Kingdom is a unique experience for a fly angler. We have a range of different fishing here, from rivers to lakes and reservoirs to the sea. The majority of our fishing consists of day-ticket style lakes and reservoirs, due to most of our rivers being privately owned. In addition, landowner permissions and club memberships are challenging to come by.

As a result, we have a large proportion of anglers who tend to fish lakes and nothing else. This led to a healthy competition angling scene, especially on the large reservoirs and lakes towards the center of the country—English “loch style” fishing. The competitive side is an essential part of maintaining a high level of angling ability, while also driving innovation in our sport, similar to Formula 1 improving the domestic car market. Anglers and teams are continually innovating with different types of lines, fly designs and changes in presentation. This grabbed my attention and is a big part of why I chose to compete.

I am a big believer in constant innovation, and anyone who has ever stepped foot on my skiff, or waded a flat with me, can attest to that. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

My competitive angling career started in a national competition called, Troutmasters, an annual event that hosts a grand finale at the end of the season. I had some success, but set my sights on a higher prize—representing my country at the international level, something that demands a high level of skill, and an equal level of commitment. International “loch style” or lake fishing teams consist of 10 anglers per country. There is a big difference between a day spent pleasure fishing and a competition day. Our team spent months preparing for international competitions by pre-fishing, working on techniques, tweaking our rigging, and tying specific flies. We wanted to be as effective and consistent as possible, whether throwing a full sink line in only two false casts, all day long, or maybe retrieving a team of flies at the most effective pace, with every cast.

This type of fishing isn’t for everyone. It’s mentally and physically challenging. I enjoyed the competitive side, but what intrigued me was the ability to perform at a high level consistently. There aren’t many things more difficult than competition fishing. But then I turned to the salt.

During my years working in the fishing industry, I travelled to many different saltwater locations. I always wanted to swap from teaching clients to Euro-nymph, to poling clients towards a school of tailing bonefish. I was very fortunate that an off-the-cuff conversation with a Belizean lodge owner turned into a job offer. That was all the motivation I needed. Soon, I was running a lodge and managing a team of guides.

Not long after that experience, I started guiding for several lodges. That allowed me to get my first taste of true saltwater guiding and to explore the intricacies of the flats fisheries. Eventually I bought a flats skiff and shipped it to Belize. I spent many hours poling the flats on my off time, learning the nuances of current, wind direction, tides and a fish’s body language. Unfortunately, the more dedicated I became to guiding, the less time I got to spend with a rod in hand, a natural progression for guides.

After spending a few years in Belize, I made a short move across the border to Chetumal, Mexico, and set up my own guiding business. This fishery is located just north of the Belize Cayes. Up here, we have a vast fishery that stretches hundreds of square miles north from Xcalak. It is a unique and untouched place with an abundance of life, on and off the flats. There is no angling pressure here, and the fishing is some of the best I have experienced. We also have a great fishery just north of Xcalak, around the town of Mahahual, on the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There are many differences between fresh and saltwater angling, the most notable being gear choices for larger and more powerful species. For instance, I might fish a 10-foot 7-weight as my heavy sunk line rod for trout. But, out here I am rarely picking up anything less than an 8-weight, and in tarpon season I’m reaching for a 10 or 11-weight. When fishing a new flat or beach, I consider current speed, depth, and bottom color/makeup, and then choose which fly to cast for the desired presentation. It’s similar to trout fishing, where drift speed, fish depth and water temperature determine your choices.

There are many reasons for a freshwater angler to fish the salt. Aside from an opportunity to visit a new country and broaden your mind, you get a rare opportunity to interact with nature in what I consider to be its wildest form. You get to be part of a unique ecosystem while forming new friendships and lasting bonds with the people and places you visit. The second you feel your first run from a bonefish, or see your first tarpon sailing through the air, you’ll understand why the flats are so coveted.

Will Robins
Will Robins started his adventure into the world of fly fishing on the chalk streams and freestone spate rivers of his home county of Yorkshire in England. He quickly progressed to the large reservoirs and lakes, competing regularly in the competition circuit. Will hit his peak in the competitive world, being promoted to team captain for England fly fishing. Here, Will led the team to a gold medal at the international level. Following his competition success, Will started guiding on his home rivers for trout and grayling. As well as working at the world-renowned Farlows of Pall Mall fly store in London. Will eventually made the switch to the salt and has not looked back. He started his first saltwater operation, Precision Fly Charters, out of Ambergris Caye, Belize in 2018. Currently, Will owns and operates Fly Fishing Costa Maya, a fly shop and guiding service based in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Daniel Favato, aka Cameraman Dan, is Fly Fishing International’s in-house videographer and social media manager—he doubles as a steelhead fanatic/spey junkie.

The Stillwater Ninja was on fire. Every time I looked up from my fishfinder’s empty screen he was into one. Kamloops rainbows, all chunky and silver-sided, were grabbing his flies on every cast, and burning up his backing like steelhead.

Fifteen minutes watching a buddy catching is just fine. Even 20 can be entertaining. But after 30 minutes of double headers without so much as a wiggle of my rod tip, I was wishing I’d sprung for the torpedo option on my fancy new boat. I pulled anchors and rowed over.

“Ok, what am I doing wrong?” I said, casting my fly into his boat. He pinched it between a thumb and index finger and peered at it briefly over the edge of a camo Buff, then dropped it back over the side.

“Nothin’,” he said, grabbing for a suddenly bent rod. “You’re just in the wrong spot.” He netted the fish—a small one this time—and I watched it race for the bottom when he released it. I dipped my oars and shamelessly rowed a lazy circle around his boat, hoping to observe something, or maybe get some advice that might turn my day around.

“Try here,” he said. “You’ll see.” He quickly reeled up, pulled in his anchors and rowed off. The Stillwater Ninja, you see, is the very best kind of fishing buddy—the kind who finds all the fish and then lets you catch them.

A Corbett Lake rainbow.

            Minutes later I was making my first cast. While I was readying the second rod, the reel on the first chirped, then purred, and a five-pound rainbow came out of the water 50 feet away.

            The rest of the day—and the week that followed—was a bit of a blur, speeding past at a pace to match my frequently spinning fly reels. These are the days fly-fishers dream about, and the reason why the southern interior of British Columbia is Mecca for serious lake anglers. Sure you can find bragging-sized fish elsewhere, but there’s nowhere that matches the density of available lakes within a relatively easy drive from the Pacific Northwest’s major cities.

Merritt

Kamloops area lakes offer great fish and plenty of solitude.

If the interior city of Kamloops is often seen as the center of British Columbia lake country, the small town of Merritt is the gateway. A few hours drive from Vancouver via the Coqhihalla Highway, Merritt is situated between the Nicola and Coldwater rivers. Take any road out of town and in 30 minutes you can be unloading your boat at a quality lake. Folks in Merritt are friendly and helpful, used to the traveling anglers who often stop there for fuel. The service station snack racks are always jammed with yummies, and the coffee is always fresh enough. Don’t be surprised if the clerk tells you about his coyote problem . . . or the great fishing he had the other day at such-and-such lake. Pay special attention to the “such-and-such” part.

Seasons

Hatch chart for the Southern Interior’s array of productive aquatic and terrestrial insect hatches.

Stillwater fly fishers talk about “the season” as if it were never ending, but for most it means May 1 through the end of June. These are the days of the big, predictable hatches, when skilled anglers can have consecutive 50 fish days without trying all that hard. Year-to-year it can be tough to predict exactly when things will be best, but as long as you understand that not only the calendar, but also elevation contributes to the timing of a season you can usually find good fishing somewhere. Local current knowledge and having a bit more than a passing acquaintance with a few lakes at different elevations will give you options when the lake you’re on is off.

            Once summer arrives many anglers call it a year, and the lakes quiet down. A few have renowned summer hatches, and they are worth checking out if you have the time and patience to fish in a crowd. But come September, with kids back in school and most people’s vacation time gutted, the cooling lakes can provide some hot angling on less crowded waters.

            Fall has become my favorite time on BC lakes. In the fall, lakes nearly overrun in May tend to be lightly fished and can provide tremendous fishing, though it’s usually for only a few hours each day. These days I fish as far into October as I can, pushing the season until Snow Miser finally chases me off the water.

The Lakes

Writer and biologist Brian Chan ready to release a good one.

One of the best lines ever written about British Columbia’s Kamloops lake country appears in Richard Anderson’s under appreciated book Trout the Size of Footballs:

“This area has so many lakes I’m surprised it doesn’t sink.” To say there are a zillion lakes worth exploring is an exaggeration. In the areas surrounding Kamloops and Merritt, there are probably only half a zillion.

            So, where to start?

Roche Lake

You can find Roche Lake in Roche Lake Provincial Park a short drive from Kamloops. There is a lodge on the lake (rochelake.com), and campsites too, although the camping experience is a lot like camping in one of those big commercial campgrounds you find all over North America. Which isn’t a big deal really—after all, you’re there to fish, right? With a surface area of 162 hectares Roche is a good size lake that can handle a lot of pressure, which is a good thing because it is one of British Columbia’s most popular lakes. Roche produces good catches of 15-to 18-inch rainbows, with the odd five-pounder thrown in to keep you focussed. I’ve caught bigger fish on Roche, but I wouldn’t go there expecting to load up on whoppers. I usually hit Roche in May or early June if I can, and I manage a day or two there most every season. To figure out where to fish look for clusters of boats.

Peter Hope Lake

Also near Kamloops, Peter Hope is one of my favorite lakes. Small enough that you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes with a 9.9 hp outboard, but big enough that you can usually get a little bit of water to yourself, Peter Hope has Pennask and Blackwater rainbows that can grow big, but average out in the 15-to 18-inch range. When the chironomids hatch in May, skilled anglers can have 50 fish days. An overstocking program has now been addressed, but we will have to wait to see if this improves the quality of its fish.

            The current fishing at Peter Hope answers an age-old assumption: If something is good then more of it is better, right?

            Well, when it comes to stocking British Columbia lakes, this isn’t the case. Way back in The Western Angler Haig-Brown warned of the dangers of overzealous stocking programs. He told of “Lake X”, home to a small population of whoppers that rose to dry flies during the annual sedge hatch. “Fish of six, eight and ten pounds were commonly taken on the dry fly,” he wrote. “In 1939 a fish of 17-1/4 pounds. came up to a dry sedge.” Under the mistaken assumption that dumping in more fish would lead to even more monsters, someone dumped 75,000 fry into the lake. Within a few years those fish, combined with the naturally reproducing ones already present, gobbled up many of the bugs that made the lake famous for its sedge hatches, and the marvelous fishing disappeared.

            In 2014 I spent a week in May at Peter Hope, one of BC’s best known fly fishing lakes. Peter Hope has a reputation as a challenging lake, and like Lake X, it occasionally produced trophy fish on dry flies. When I arrived the word on the marl flats was that fishing was good for 14-to16-inch fish, though bigger ones could be seen cruising the shallows. I had a good day fishing the marl shoals for smaller fish, but a friend rowed out beyond the drop off and seemed to be doing as well as me, though I couldn’t see the size of the fish.

            The next day I decided to join him in the deeper water and routinely hooked fish between three and four pounds, with several touching five. My best was in the seven-to eight-pound range, a fish that made me forget that most mistakes are made when fish are a few feet from the boat. The Stillwater Ninja joined us for a few days and netted one that measured 28 inches long, a fish of over nine pounds.

            On the drive out we wondered what the next year would bring, anticipating a return of the glory days of giants on dry flies. But unknown to us, the lake had been stocked with far too many fish—as many as 30,000 in a year–and eventually this caught up with us. For the next several years we noticed the size and condition of the fish starting to deteriorate. We would still find bigger fish if length was the determining factor, but they were skinny. Anything over 18 inches had a big head and snaky body, the sure sign of overstocking. We returned for five more years, hoping to see a change, but things kept getting worse. Sadly, someone hadn’t read their Haig-Brown, and we were forced to re-learn past lessons. On the drive out last year we decided that 2019 would be our last season on Peter Hope.

High Jumper on Corbett.

Corbett Lake

Just up the hill on Highway 97C from the town of Merritt, Corbett is a pay for play lake that boasts a beautiful lodge (corbettlake.ca) as well as comfy cabins. There are some big trout in Corbett, and it’s always worth spending some time there if you are after a trophy. I often stay there and use a cabin as basecamp while I explore the local area on days I’m not fishing Corbett.

Tunkwa Lake

Tunkwa is located not far from the small community of Logan Lake, a short drive off the Coquihalla about halfway between Merritt and Kamloops. There’s a good campground and a lodge (tunkwalakeresort.com). Tunkwa fishes well in the spring, but it is famed for its summer hatch of larger “bomber” chironomids. Late July through mid-August these bugs come off from mid morning through afternoon and provide fast fishing for your Roche and Peter Hope sized fish, but there are some brutes in here too.

If you do things right on any of these lakes I can promise you chirping and purring reels. And if you can find the Stillwater Ninja, pay close attention to where he’s fishing. That’s where the five-pounders live.

One Fly

If you could fish one fly, what would it be? In Kamloops country, this would be the chironomid. Trout feed on these bugs, in various life stages, throughout the season. In fact, chironomids can be fished any day of the season with reasonable expectations of success. Now there are as many different chironomid patterns as there are anglers who fish them, but for my money the very best of the bunch is the basic Chromie in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Wrapped with gunmetal or silver tinsel, ribbed with red or black extra-small wire, and topped with a white tungsten bead, this little fly faithfully represents the shimmer and sparkle of the chironomid pupa as it ascends through the water column. Fished just off the bottom under a strike indicator on a floating line, the Chromie works everywhere most of the time.

Rods and Reels

A 10-foot 5-weight is really the only rod to have on stillwaters. A good one will have enough backbone to lift a heavier fish that’s sulking deep, yet a limber tip that will allow you to set up quickly without snapping your leader. A local company here in BC makes the Dragonfly Kamloops rods, and their 10-foot 5-weight gets my vote as one of the top lake rods around. I always carry three or four of them fully rigged.

            As for reels, you don’t really need anything fancy because lake fish won’t burn you up in the same way that, say, a steelhead might. But a crap reel will eventually crap itself, so get the best you can afford. Like the rods you will need more than one, which can get pricey. Dragonfly makes a budget reel which is fine for most lakes. I prefer old Hardys. The St George 3-3/4 is probably the best lake reel ever made. It’s durable and takes a beating if you ever need it to wack a trout on the noggin for dinner.

            A hundred yards of backing is more than enough on BC lakes. For floating lines these days I’m liking the Scientific Anglers Titan Long. For my sinkers I go with RIO Fathom and AquaLux Sinking Lines. I tend to use only the fastest full sinkers or the slowest intermediates

            Because much of your fishing will be subsurface, lake anglers prefer fluorocarbon leaders. I buy spools of it and tie my own, but I also carry several factory tapered 12-foot leaders in case I need to switch to surface presentations. Four-pound to six-pound tippet usually connects my leader to my fly.

Boats

In almost any other aspect of fly fishing, a discussion of gear would end with rods, reels, lines and flies. But in BC’s Kamloops country, careful attention to your selection of watercraft and electronics are at least as important, and maybe more.

            On any given day on the more popular lakes you’ll see a variety of floaty things, from your classic v-hulled tippy 12-foot aluminum car toppers to bouncy orange inflatables. I’ve even seen 20-foot steel-hulled Fraser River sturgeon boats. In some places fiberglass bass boats are becoming popular. But for those in the know, there’s one style of boat that beats them all: the flat-bottomed 8-to 12-foot long rowboat, commonly called a “pram”. These boats, constructed of aluminum, fiberglass, or wood, fit easily in the bed of a pickup and can usually be cartopped by a single person. Some can get heavy—100 pounds or more, especially the welded aluminum ones—but it’s tough to beat a 10-foot wide, bottom-riveted aluminum boat. Weighing under 100 pounds, it’s pretty easy to cartop and launch without a lot of help. It’s wide enough to be quite stable, making it easy to stand up and cast (as long as you’re sober), which I often need to do if my fish finder reveals trout working at a distance from my boat.

Cabins at the edge of Corbett Lake offer comfortable and quick access to some big rainbows. Corbett Lake lodge also offers boat rental if you don’t have your own rig. Corbett’s rainbows often cruise close to shore around mid-morning, snacking a massive Callibeatis mayfly emergence.

“Fish Finders”

You can’t really fish a lake without one of these. I still know people who say the only thing they’re good for is learning about the bottom, which makes absolutely no sense to me. These days I never fish anywhere that hasn’t lit up my finder with “marks.” It’s a no-brainer. It helps that I’ve been tutored in the fine art of fish finding by the Stillwater Ninja, who rows around a lot before he drops anchor. Ask him why he stopped? “Because I’m marking lots of fish here,” he’ll say.

            All of the major manufacturers make reliable finders you can use on a small lake pram. Currently I use the Helix 5 by Humminbird. If you can afford to, spring for the units that have built in maps and GPS. Fish tend to do similar things in similar places at similar times of the year, and the mapping function helps you return to productive spots. I complement my boat mounted sonar with the Deeper Chirp+ Smart Sonar.

 

Logistics

Merritt is a good place to initially call home when you begin to explore Kamloops lake country. Tourism Merritt (tourismmerritt.ca) is where to start looking for places to stay if you aren’t camping.

            All of the lakes mentioned in this story are within a day’s easy drive from Vancouver and offer both camping and/or lodging. If you’re camping, weekends of course are going to be busy, so if you are planning to travel from a distance make your plans so that you can arrive midweek, which will give you the best opportunity to find a campsite.

            For the most up-to-date information on fish stocking programs on the lakes you want to fish, check out the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC’s website gofishbc.com. Here you’ll find accurate info about the many lakes open to fishing across the province, as well as articles and links that can make you a better angler.

            And don’t be afraid to ask for local knowledge. British Columbia was, of course, home to Haig-Brown, and as a result we tend to take ourselves pretty seriously. But here’s the good news: I’ve found that lake fly fishers aren’t exactly purists. Among the various fly fishing subcultures, lake fishers rival billfish anglers for their pragmatism, which is refreshing. I recall early on when someone I deeply respected showed me how to tie a swivel onto my leader to help sink my chironomid pattern. A swivel? Yessir. And that little orange thing the river nymphers call a strike indicator? On lakes it’s a bobber. BC lake fishing is a lot more about beer cans and ball caps than Balvenie and Barbour. Walk your shiny Hardy reel out to the garage and take the grinding wheel to it along with your pretensions. Over time you’ll get used to being real.

Relaxing at Corbett Lake Lodge where anglers can kick back and trade notes while dinner is being prepared.

Gear

Deeper Chirp + Smart Sonar, i.e., “The Death Star”

The Deeper Chirp+ castable sonar—aka “The Death Star”—is a handy little device that has revolutionized my stillwater game. In the past, I would row around a likely looking spot, and anchor up when I marked fish on my boat mounted sonar. That’s great as a starting strategy; however, over an hour of fishing the fish tend to move around, and unless they’re passing within the field of your sonar you’ll never know if a blank screen means they’ve completely left the dining room or have just moved to a different part of the table. The Deeper unit extends your usable sonar coverage to the distance of your longest cast. Simply attach it to an old spinning rod, link it to your smart phone, and cast it out there. Check the area around your boat to the length of your longest fishable cast and in a few minutes you’ll know whether you need to move. It’s a highly recommended addition to your lake kit. Check them out at deepersonar.com

Spring is a much-heralded time for western U.S. trout anglers. This is when winter loses its grip on the land, the days grow longer, weather patterns generally stabilize, and fishing becomes a lot more comfortable and productive.

            Accompanying that warming air and water temperature is the appearance of multiple aquatic invertebrates. Steady midge hatches join heavy numbers of blue-winged olive mayflies. The first thick emergence of caddis, and on some streams, March brown mayflies, appear. All that activity gets the blood flowing. But for many western fly-fishers, nothing beats the first large bugs of the year—skwala stoneflies.

            In fact, skwalas give fly-fishers their first opportunity of the new season to break out boxes of stoneflies and large attractors, and cast easy-to-see surface patterns to rising trout. The skwala hatch doesn’t match the popularity of salmonfly, golden stonefly, or green drake hatches, which arrive later in the year. But for some dedicated anglers, skwalas are a focal point, and I know a couple people who chase skwala emergences from stream to stream over a six-week period from mid-March through early May. To help you imitate these early-season monsters, and make the most of your pre-runoff time on the water, here are a few considerations and tactics that have worked for me, year after year, on waters sprinkled around the West.

The Skwala

Skwalas are members of the Perlodidae family. There are three prominent species in western North America—americana, curvata, and compacta—however, there are only slight physical differences between the trio and it takes a close inspection to detect variations. Moreover, in their nymphal form, anglers could easily misidentify them as a golden stonefly. As adults, the most noticeable traits shared by all are a smoky-colored body (similar to a mahogany dun), a thick, dull orange stripe on top of the head, and black notches on the ventral side of the thorax. While skwalas are the first large stoneflies to appear on many waters, they are noticeably smaller than salmonflies and golden stones. Adults typically measure in at 18-to 22-millimeters long, though larger specimens approach 25 millimeters, and are most often matched with size 8 and 10 hooks.

            Like most spring hatches, skwala emergences occur as water temperatures warm. There are variances from stream to stream, but for the most part hatches begin to hit their stride when water temperatures average between 46 and 49 degrees (F). The skwala emergence and lifecycle is similar to most stoneflies. Nymphs crawl from the streambed to surface rocks and vegetation—on dry land, their exoskeleton splits open and adults crawl out of their shucks. After mating, females return to the surface of the water to release eggs. Some bugs do this while flying, but just as many crawl from the bank to the current. They can be on the water for quite some time. Which is highly risky: As adults on the surface they are most vulnerable to trout.

            The skwala is a prototypical “clean water” bug that favors rivers with moderate-to high gradients and ample cobblestone, which is most prevalent on freestone or freestone-like rivers. The pre-runoff window—that timeframe when water temperatures warm consistently above 40 degrees until snowmelt and runoff begin in earnest—typically lasts between four and six weeks on most freestone streams. This window coincides with a trout’s elevated spring metabolism. At this time, trout feed heavily, trying to reestablish the weight they may have lost over winter, and to prepare for the rigors of spring spawning (for cutthroat and rainbows). Skwalas are the largest food form emerging during later winter and spring (a boon to fly anglers) and while nymph patterns can hammer fish, the surface is really where it’s at.

Skwala Timing

Skwala water abounds in the western U.S., but each stream is different. Montana’s Bitterroot River has one of the earliest emergences in the Rockies. It typically kicks into gear in late March or early April, but has started as early as late February. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hit the hatch on March 14 between the towns of Florence and Lolo. Someone said the hatch typically moves upstream at a consistent four to five miles a day under the right conditions, so had I fished the same section a couple weeks later, I may have missed the hatch altogether.

            Other western Montana streams with very productive skwala hatches are Rock Creek, the Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. On the right day, all of these rivers may produce outstanding dry-fly action on rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout that average about 12 inches long and often stretch past the 20-inch mark. All of these streams, including the Bitterroot, are only minutes away from Missoula, which is western Montana’s fly-fishing hub and a town that’s got a serious addiction to trout and brewpubs.

            On the other hand, the skwala hatch on Oregon’s Owyhee River has the reputation of being sporadic. But when it’s on, it’s really on. The height of hatch activity can be as early as mid-March during some years, though it generally reaches a crescendo in April. Another Northwest river, the Yakima in central Washington, hosts a skwala hatch that generally starts in early March and extends into April—Yakima fly-fishing veterans say the bug’s upstream progression can be molasses-slow. Although officially a tailwater, a number of tributaries feed the Yak and can limit dry-fly possibilities just before runoff. When that happens, anglers still have luck drifting nymphs under the surface.

            Wyoming’s Snake River is my home turf and the waterway where I have the most familiarity with skwalas. Like the rivers mentioned above, local anglers pay close attention to what is happening with runoff and weather, trying to nail the best window for the hatch to take place. Many of my clients time a spring fishing trip to coincide with the bug’s emergence. Rightfully so—the Snake River’s hatch is intense and generally the last to appear in the West. It typically starts in mid-April and continues into mid-May. But the peak tends to occur with the first signs of runoff. It’s not uncommon for Snake River anglers to enjoy a solid week of fishing skwalas before watching the river turn to mud. But there are lucky years when the runoff arrives late, and excellent fishing with large surface patterns continues for three weeks straight.

            That said, skwala emergences don’t end just because runoff starts. Most western freestones go through several 24-hour melt/freeze cycles before runoff hits in full force. Because of that, a stream might be off-color in the morning, but clear slightly around noon, and offer better fishing in the afternoon hours. Even if a river is off-color, fish on. Remember, you’re imitating big bugs that are easy for trout to see, and the fish are already keyed in on them.

Skwala Strategies

Fishing big surface bugs always seems pretty easy—toss it out there, work in a mend, maintain the drift, and set the hook when you get an eat. That’s simple enough.

            Nonetheless, there are certain things you can do to improve your catch ratio when fishing big dry flies, especially those imitating skwalas. Focus part of your effort on presentation, and part on the water you’re targeting, because both are equally important.

            For starters, remember, skwalas are movers and shakers. While some females fly to the stream to deposit eggs, many crawl from the banks and into the current to complete the lifecycle. When doing so, they create a wake on the water as they scurry along, and that attracts hungry trout. So, simply put, forget dead-drifts. Purposely move the fly after the initial mend. After that, retrieve slack and continue to animate the fly from side-to-side by twitching the tip of your rod. Intermittent dead-drifts help from time to time, but by no means should a dead-drift be the only type of presentation you rely on.

            Second, target a wide variety of water types wherever skwalas hatch—just off the banks and near in-river structure. Skwalas emerge around these areas and some unfortunate bugs lose their grasp and end up in the water. Because they crawl from banks and structure and are carried along by the current, often while releasing eggs, many other water types can be productive. Riffles and long, flat pools yield good results. However, seams and current margins (where fast water collides with slower water) are perhaps the most productive water types. I’ve also noticed consistent action along seams created by channel confluences.

            I’ve had some great action on seams separating the main current from slow pools or outright dead pools that have no discernible current at all. These seams are places where trout can rest on the current margin and still have access to drifting forage in the nearby, fast moving water.

            Because skwalas emerge as water temperatures warm into the high 40s, it seems obvious that afternoons should be the prime times for fishing. This is no doubt true, but do not ignore the morning hours, even early morning. I have seen skwalas on the water as early as 8:30 a.m. on the Snake and Bitterroot rivers. These may simply be a significant number of females that emerged from the previous day. No matter, trout key in on these bugs, just as much as they do later in the day.

Skwala Silhouettes

Skwalas provide solid early-season dry-fly fishing with big surface imitations. The most popular patterns are size-8 and 10 variations of the Chernobyl Ant that feature fluttering wings and rubber or Flexi Floss legs. More traditional patterns, however, can be just as effective. Kaufmann’s Stimulator and the original Double Humpy are two of my favorites and most effective when intentionally skittered or moved across the surface. Some fly-fishers contend that the heavy hackle used on these patterns is key to their success. The hackle creates a wake that mimics the natural disturbance created by a skwala as it scurries along the surface. The legs on foam ant patterns can create a more natural silhouette, but the wake isn’t as imitative. I suggest hitting the water with heavily hackled patterns and legged flies so you can match whichever style the fish prefer.

Nymphs also produce, and I turn to them for a change of pace or to prospect for larger trout when fish aren’t eating on top. Like my adult imitations, I tend to go with size-8 or 10, short-shanked hooks when fishing skwala nymphs. A simple Pat’s Rubber Leg or a slightly more complex Flashback Hare’s Ear Nymph with rubber legs are two of my favorites. I target the same types of water I would with dries—banks and structure, confluence lines, current margins, heads of riffles/runs, and seams.

            Fishing a skwala emergence can be fun. It’s hard to beat skittering a size-10 attractor across current to rising trout as the first rays of warm sunshine fill the spring air. Yes, you may need to deal with early runoff issues, and the possibility of a muddy river, but if your timing is right, fishing the skwala hatch can pay off big time.

I visited Guyana in January 2018 and spent six days trying to catch a massive arapaima. Having succeeded in that goal, and having also landed numerous peacock bass, we headed upriver, hoping to find a variety of fish, including payara, which are a saber-toothed fish found throughout Guyana’s Essequibo River system.

They are especially abundant in the upper river near Corona Falls, but our upstream progression was challenging, if not somewhat dangerous—unusual low water conditions gave us very little water to work with.

            Payara are found in rapids and in pools formed by large rock deposits and boulders. They are extremely strong swimmers and rely on their lateral lines to detect vibrations given off by their prey. These perfectly formed predators absolutely crush poppers. However, they aren’t total pushovers—they may become suspicious after a couple errant swipes at a pattern, and anglers may need to change things up.

            To land a payara you need to set the hook hard, and ease up a bit once the fish is on, or you might rip the hook right out of its mouth. Payara are extremely strong and agile fighters that dive deep before taking to the air as they approach the boat. As we worked our way toward Corona Falls we stopped and fished numerous spots.With good luck: I landed around a dozen payara , the largest pushing about 10 pounds.

            The following day we continued toward the falls with our goals being wolfish and pacu. Having already caught arapaima and payara, pacu was at the top of my hit list. In the morning of the ninth day, while we worked upstream toward the falls, our guide, Terry, spotted a large tapir on the riverbank. The other guides sprang into action as the tapir leaped into the water and raced downstream, trying to evade us. Ultimately, that tapir was no match for the guides. After dispatching the animal the boys quickly cleaned the kill and we were on our way, knowing we’d have “bush cow” for dinner.

            I was still dreaming of pacu when our adventure hit a roadblock: the water was too low to ascend a set of rapids that rested just a kilometer below the falls. We headed downriver empty-handed. And as we did so, in the back of my mind, I knew I’d fallen short of my goals. I vowed to return.

            And that’s what I did. Fast forward 11 months and 23 days. It’s now February 2019 and I’m headed up the Essequibo with good friend Darryl Rosalin and cameraman Dan Favato. My clients had completed their trip the day prior and landed three arapaima, and a ton of payara, peacock bass, piranha and arowana. Now it was my turn to catch up on unfinished business with Mr. Pacu.

            Fortunately, higher water levels in 2019 meant we could reach Corona Falls without difficulty. Even so, the trip from camp to the falls took about six hours. We would have reached the falls sooner, but we stopped and fished for payara and peacocks, and beached the canoes to eat a hearty shore lunch.

            When we reached the falls and started setting up camp, fish were rising everywhere. We took the boat across the river and caught a few payara for dinner. That was fun fishing for sure, and it satisfied the protein side of dinner, but those rising fish really caught held my attention—some looked like pacu. I drifted foam seed flies and swung green streamers, to no avail.

            The next morning we headed out bright and early. We crossed the river and portaged the 10-foot long duck boat and the 18-foot long riverboat, along with our gear, about a half kilometer around the waterfall. Dan and I fished the base of the falls while Darryl worked the water around the top of the portage. I’d rigged a weighted seed fly for high-stick nymphing and as we worked our way up the rapids and plunge pools of Corona Falls, we heard a Tarzan-like cry ringing through the jungle. Darryl was on! Dan and I quickly scaled the last rockface just as Darryl landed an absolutely beautiful, dark-red pacu. After taking a few photos of Darryl’s fish, Dan and I worked the upper falls thoroughly, but without success.