Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.
We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.
Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.
It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.
While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.
When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.
The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.
Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.
In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.