Flight of the Salmonfly
Fishing has been the rudder of my life ever since my father, similarly afflicted, first taught me to cast on an alpine stream in Colorado when I was four. Soon, the rivers of my dreams were filled with cutthroat and rainbow trout. In middle school, I subscribed to American Angler and dove deep into online fishing chat forums. I burned my allowance on breathable waders and cassette reels. I learned to tie caddis flies and nymphs and woolly buggers. And when it came time to choose a college, I only applied to one school—the University of Montana, in Missoula, the setting of the great fishing novella A River Runs Through It and the spiritual home of American fly-fishing.
So when my phone rang one May afternoon, after a long winter devoid of fishing, the man on the other end may as well have been my dealer. “The salmonflies are at the mouth of Rock Creek,” he said. “We have about a week.” It was Patrick Little, a fishing guide at a lodge outside Missoula who’d been tracking the seasonal emergence of these leggy flying insects on rivers around Montana. As the water warms, the hatch moves upstream about five miles a day. Patrick and I made a plan to intercept the salmonflies when they reached the middle stretch of Rock Creek, a Blue Ribbon trout fishery southeast of Missoula.
Fly fishermen chase bugs the way powder skiers chase snowstorms. Each insect is an important installment in the seasonally shifting diet of a hungry fish. But for trout in Western Montana—and for the anglers trying to catch them—the salmonfly hatch is a frenzy. Most of the bugs trout eat are mosquito-sized. Adult salmonflies are almost three inches of clumsy protein, and they bring out hordes of big, eager fish.
But fly-fishing is a fickle endeavor—dazzling one moment and agonizing the next. The salmonfly hatch is no exception. It usually coincides with peak runoff, when rivers swell with snowmelt and sediment. Blown-out rivers are almost impossible to fish, and when the water turns to chocolate milk, the trout can’t even see your fly. What’s more, early summer weather is volatile in Western Montana—snow isn’t uncommon—and a cold spell will put the bugs down.
So I allowed myself some daydreams, while simultaneously bracing for disappointment, as I packed my gear and drove the hour and a half southeast from my home in Polson, cutting along a corner of Lolo National Forest, to Rock Creek.
Patrick little is a barrel of a man with a raccoon sunglasses tan, chapped lips, and a goofy smile. I meet him shortly after checking in to the Ranch at Rock Creek, a resort near the revitalized mining town of Philipsburg. He had just spent his day off doing homework on the hatch by floating the river with his fly rod.
“We fished salmonflies all day long,” he tells me. “Everything we threw got a bite or a chase.” Heartened, I point to a fly hooked on his baseball cap. It looks like a mangled piece of carpet. “This one’s called a Cat Puke,” he says. “I don’t come up with the names, but man, they work. I find the uglier the bug, the more fish get into it.”
Salmonflies are a special hatch, Patrick explains. “It’s like a Butterball turkey sitting on the water,” he says. “It gets to be kind of an addiction. I’ve caught fish where the salmonflies are literally crawling out of their gills.”
Last year was particularly memorable. One evening, at dusk, Patrick says he looked up to see thousands of salmonflies hovering over the river. I pause to picture it. These are the scenes anglers live for—mythical moments that inspire the kitschy paintings in sportsman’s motels. But it’s not kitschy when you’re there.
The stories are making me antsy, so we pull on our waders and drive down to the Ranch’s four miles of private access. As I start to cast, Patrick lumbers into the river and starts flipping large rocks like a hungry bear. He’s looking for salmonfly larva. He finds mayfly nymphs, and the cylindrical homes that caddis build with bark, leaves, and mica. But no salmonflies.
I manage to catch a 10-inch brown trout—a beautiful specimen with a buttery belly and red spots—before lightning sends us back to the lodge for an IPA and a planning session over a map. The real fishing begins tomorrow, when we’ll take a raft 13 miles downriver, through an adventurous stretch with two portages. If all goes well, Patrick says, we’ll run directly into the salmonflies.
That night, I lie on the feather-top bed in my plush canvas tent, 20 miles from the nearest town, the rushing river lulling me to sleep. Downstream, ancient impulses stir in the salmonfly nymphs clinging to rocks at the bottom of the river. Their hour has come.
Salmonflies are wondrous creatures, even beyond their contributions to angling. Pteronarcys californica is a distant cousin of the cockroach that has changed little since prehistoric times. In Western Montana, they hatch between late May and early June, when the days are lengthening and yellow balsamroot lights up the hillsides.
Once the water temperature hits a consistent 55 degrees, the salmonfly larvae emerge from the river bottom and crawl toward shore. They’ve already spent three years in the river, feeding and growing. Now, if they can make it to the bank without being eaten, the bugs climb onto a dry rock or willow branch and metamorphose into adults. They shed their exoskeletons and unfurl their veined cellophane wings, which fold neatly along their pinkish abdomens. The bugs don’t eat as adults. They mate and they fly. The females deposit their eggs on the surface of the water. Then, a week or so after leaving the river, they die.
My day begins a little less bleakly. I awake in my pillowy bed to cheerful birdsong outside the tent. After a substantial breakfast, I amble down to the Rod and Gun Club—a small cabin filled with flies, rods, and gear—to meet Patrick, who arrives in an SUV towing a 13-foot raft.
“Salmonfly hysteria has hit the Ranch,” he tells me. “I’ve got another float trip scheduled tomorrow and two more on Saturday.” Two of his guides have been out until midnight every evening this week, driving down the river scouting for salmonflies. Everyone’s looking a little red-eyed and restless.
On the drive to our put-in point, beneath a small bridge, we ruminate about the conditions. The river is high but mostly clear. The weather is more troubling. It’s raining by the time we launch, and from the jagged piece of sky we can see between the valley walls, it looks like it will linger.
Seated at the bow, I hunker into my rain jacket as Patrick pulls at the oars, quickly bringing us aloft in the tea-colored torrent. My first casts are sloppy. The river is pitching us downstream, and I can barely get my fly into the prime water before we’ve blown by it. Patrick pinballs the boat from one bank to the other, where the water is slower. “Right side,” he barks from behind. “Mend up. Mend up! That’s it. Now leave it. Leave it!”
I catch a small brown trout and a cutthroat with crimson flanks, but the morning is filled with missed opportunities. In one dark piece of water, under some willows, the yawning mouth of a heavy trout suddenly breaks the surface behind my drifting fly. It’s a deliberate movement, almost lazy. The mouth is just about to engulf my lure when excitement betrays me. I pull the fly away too soon, and the fish disappears. “Augh,” Patrick groans. “That one’s going to be in your nightmares. It’s going to be in my nightmares.”
Despite the occasional ribbing, Patrick is the sort of guy you want at the oars. He can change your fly while rowing around a snag, never losing his cool. He’s an EMT, a ski patrolman, and a sweeper for a Missoula soccer club. He uses superglue to fill the cracks in his hands, and he fishes whenever, wherever, and for as long as he can.
As we float past rockslides, old burns, and hillsides gilded with wildflowers, I get the impression that Patrick isn’t rowing me down a river so much as he’s leading me somewhere. Which is why I take notice when he takes notice of a yellow bird with a red head in a ponderosa. “Western Tanager,” he says. “They come out of the mountains to eat the salmonflies. That’s a good sign.”
The sky is still gray, and the rain comes in squalls, but the fishing isn’t bad. When I can land my fly right along the bank and keep it there for a long drift, I usually see it disappear in a splash. We float down the river this way, contentedly picking trout from the pockets of Rock Creek. Patrick seems to be fishing vicariously through me, and he’s thrilled. “The salmonfly bite is on!” he says.
Late in the afternoon, we’re rounding a bend when the sun pierces the clouds, turning the light from gray to gold. Patrick drops anchor near the bank to tie on a new fly. I’ve been casting big dries all day—PMXs, Stimulators, Rogue Salmonflies, even the Cat Puke. Now, as Patrick pulls out his fly box, a two-and-a-half-inch salmonfly lands on his hat. Several more appear in the willows beside us. Soon they’re crawling over the boat. “They’re everywhere,” Patrick says. One takes flight and, transfixed, we watch it flutter across the river, sunlight glinting off its wings. “It looks like a dinosaur,” Patrick says.
It does. A miniature pterodactyl, years in the making. A prehistoric insect whose annual odyssey reminds us that life is a transformation, and then you die. I am overcome, bewildered, but I know enough to recognize the moment for what it is—the rare benediction a river sometimes grants its pilgrims.
In the reverie of our drive back to the Ranch, it’s difficult to remember how many we caught. Twenty? Thirty? “We lost count,” Patrick declares. “We lost count of fish. That alone says we were in it. That was a great day.”
Such was our success that I was still feeling a little gluttonous when I woke up the next morning and stepped through beaver-hewn cottonwoods to the river. I didn’t plan to fish long. I’d caught my fill the day before, and I had to drive home to Polson. But it was sunny, and I felt compelled to take a few casts. An old book in my tent called The Lure and Lore of Trout Fishing captured my condition in its opening line: “The great appeal of angling lies in the fact that fishermen never learn all there is to know about it.”
I thought about that maxim as I started casting. Then I felt something on my neck. I reached around and pulled off an adult salmonfly. I held it between my fingers and watched its antennae sway. This was promising.
I tied on a big salmonfly imitation and launched it upstream toward a bank of willows. The fly drifted into a deep, shadowy pocket, and I held my breath, anticipating the strike of a large trout. It never came. Still, for untold minutes I stood midstream, comforted by the familiar swish of the line, tethered to the river curling around my boots.