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The big bugs are the hatch to catch
William Hjortsberg
April 29, 1974
They come out of the water in June and Western fishermen call them salmon flies, which is not their real name. The trout do not care about names, they're just hungry. And the fishermen are hungry for trout
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April 29, 1974

The Big Bugs Are The Hatch To Catch

They come out of the water in June and Western fishermen call them salmon flies, which is not their real name. The trout do not care about names, they're just hungry. And the fishermen are hungry for trout

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Patience is well-known as a virtue, but for a fisherman, plagued by backlashes, leader snarls and the vagaries of weather, it becomes a way of life. Anglers learn early how to wait; every child with a can of worms and a sinker knows there are times when the fish are not biting. In dealing with creatures of such particular and selective habits as trout, trying to second-guess the variables raises expectation to a fine art.

Here in Montana, along rivers like the Yellowstone, half a mile down the road, or the Madison, two valleys over, the big annual wait is for the salmon-fly hatch in June, a month that can be surprisingly harsh in the northern Rockies. For a few weeks each year the emergence of these oversized insects stimulates the speculations of even the most marginal fishermen.

Fully two inches long, with a wing expanse of almost four inches, a salmon fly seems a grotesque oddity next to such northern streamside neighbors as the dainty midge and the ephemeral mayfly. Surely this monster would be more at home lurking in the tropics, where one is accustomed to every bizarre exaggeration of insect life from cigar-sized flying cockroaches and hideous palmetto bugs to the lumbering rhinoceros beetle.

Unlike mayflies and caddis flies, which hatch into winged form on or in the water, the enormous salmon-fly nymphs crawl out of the river seeking bleached stones along the shore or clumps of bankside willow bushes for their final metamorphosis. Dry and brittle, the discarded nymphal shucks of the salmon fly are a familiar sight on Western rivers such as the Yellowstone, or Oregon's Rogue or Deschutes, clinging to the rocks and willow stems like tiny suits of translucent armor, ghostly replicas of their former selves. Actually the insects are not salmon flies at all, but one of the nearly 400 species of stone flies, members of the primitive order Plecoptera, found in the United States and Canada. (Aliases are common in the West where brown trout are known as Loch Leven and the beautiful Dolly Varden is called a bull trout.)

The hatch is over in two or three weeks. If you're out of town when it happens, you have to wait until next year. You'll probably have to wait until next year anyway since June is normally the high-water month for Western mountain rivers and the salmon flies arrive at a time when fishing conditions are close to impossible. The spring runoff floods the willow banks and rages through the deep channels. A cupful might pass for your morning coffee, it's that discolored.

But when there has been a mild winter with little snowfall and the river looks just about as low as it did last May, the speculation at the fly shop grows. The conversation keeps returning to the truly remarkable salmon-fly hatches of the past, of 60 and 80 and 100 fish days, of trout averaging two pounds apiece, of large, weighty, hook-jawed browns rising from their sculpin feasts on the river bottom to strike at floating flies with the eagerness of unwary fingerlings. Everyone agrees that the Yellowstone hasn't looked this good in years.

The ache of anticipation continues on into June; the weather holds and the river remains low and clear. Reports filter in: advance word from Big Timber, 35 miles downstream; then one sunny morning salmon flies are seen hatching along the stretch of water by the golf course. A float trip is speedily arranged. Dramatic weather changes are common in the Rockies and a few days of cold rain could easily undercut the momentum of the hatch.

We put in at Pine Creek bridge, three of us in a double-ended aluminum johnboat, one fisherman in the bow, another in the stern, one man at the oars in between, and drift with the current, keeping the boat about 20 feet from shore and casting our floating lines in close to the bank. The trout are holding under the overhanging willows, waiting for the wind to blow the clinging salmon flies onto the water.

The artificials are ungainly feather dusters; a popular pattern bluntly named the sofa-pillow carries enough red fox squirrel hair to tie a dozen smaller flies. But, like John Hancock's signature, they are very easy to see. Anyone who has ever squinted unsuccessfully into the glare for a size 18 pale evening dun bouncing along in the current will appreciate this convenience. Certainly the trout should have no trouble spotting them.

Yet fishing is slow. A few trout are taken, nice fish over two pounds, but nothing like the bonanzas of yesteryear. We remind ourselves that it is still early, the main hatch yet to start. In another couple of days the trout will be eating nothing but salmon flies. A friend over on the Madison is having good luck using nymphs, but the chance for rising fish is too tempting and we stick with dry flies until we reach town.

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