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Harts Skwalla Stonefly
Fly and Photos by Benjamin A. Hart (benjo)
Missoula, MT.

Spring's breath of life into Montana rivers is a much anticipated event amongst fly-fishermen, and most everyone else in Montana save for the powder-hounds and snow bunnies. Until spring, those brave enough to weather icy guides and frozen wader-boot laces have enjoyed limited success, sometimes on midges, mostly on sub-surface flies. Balmy days bring forth one of the best hatches of the year: the skwalla stonefly.

The hatch is the first of the "larger" foods available to trout on the surface and anglers take notice. Fishing a size 6 or 8 fly on the tail of winter is a hard to suppress secret here in Montana. There are plenty of great rivers to fish the skwalla hatch on but there is no better place to fish it than on Montana's Bitterroot River, characterized by it's slightly warmer temperatures, incredible trout cover and abundance of insect life.

The Skwalla stonefly is an average stone, living life as nymph for only one year feeding on debris in on the river-bottom and emerging sometime between the middle of March and the middle of April. The Skwalla doesn't win many popularity contests amongst the other stones, most of them hatching at a better time of year for Montana travel. It's not as terrifying as the salmonfly or as predictable as the goldenstone, but to many fishermen remains the most rewarding to be on the water for. Many factors determine angler success during the hatch. Unpredictable colder weather in the spring can make the bugs disappear for a while only to reemerge a few days later. A few warm days can melt high elevation snow bringing cloudy water that will turn the fish off. Anglers seeking out the hatch should observe closely, asking these questions: Are there exoskeletons on rocks near shore? If the answer is yes, chances are that trout are still looking up for a meaty skwalla. Are there skwallas in the air? Seeing a skwalla in the air or on the water is the main indicator that the hatch is on. Unlike salmonflies and to a lesser extent golden-stones, skwallas rarely hatch in droves, and seeing one on the water or in the air is reason enough to tie on one. If you see some around, the trout have taken notice too and will be looking for them. Taking the time to look closely can make all the difference in the world.

Unlike other stonefly emergence, the skwalla doesn't follow any particular pattern and fishing on the Bitterroot could be the just as good on any stretch of river on any given day. Anglers don't have to chase skwallas upriver so pressure from fishermen isn't as much of a factor as on other rivers during more noted hatches, and shoulder season traffic means it's reasonable to expect to have a beat to yourself especially with a little walking. The Bitterroot has miles of braided channels that are not to be overlooked during this hatch. One can work braid after braid, never seeing a boat or another angler, always with the chance of hooking truly large fish. Fish will be holding in likely water and distributed throughout the river, from a riffle two feet deep to a rip-rap bank or a root filled undercut, if a spot looks suspect it's worth a cast. Really any water deep enough to hold trout can, and probably does at this time of year, so you're better off staying away from the bigger, slower pools, which incidentally, is about the only place you'll have any competition.

Western Montana fly tiers have probably concocted more skwalla patterns than any other. Many have looked forward to little more than the skwalla hatch all winter long while huddled over piles of tying materials. Most successful patterns have the same key elements. When caught in the current a natural skwalla rides very low in the water, and good patterns imitate that. Many patterns are tied in a drop down style, sometimes on a bent shank hook that forces the abdomen of the pattern to ride well below the surface. This style not only coaxes more fish to eat it, it also guarantees more hookups. Patterns made of foam designed to ride flat often produce strikes, and are a necessary addition to any box. For more turbulent water the fly of choice is a parachute pattern with a large poly-parachute, easily seen and able to float all day. Often a looker might say hello to a pattern and decide something is wrong, having other patterns on hand is critical. If a fish denies your fly, quickly tie on a different style and cast for the same fish, you'll often get that fish.

Planning a trip to the Bitterroot can be a little dicey. With runoff imminent it becomes hard to plan a trip far in advance. High elevation snow will melt and blow the river out a little bit here and there, but the clarity and fishability will bounce back in a few days. Keep in mind that the upper river is relatively small and a change of a few hundred cubic feet per-second (CFS) of water represents a drastic increase in the volume of water in the river. On the lower river such a change is not as much of a factor. The best advice for planning a skwalla trip is to watch the weather, check the stream flows at and check the weather forecast even though it's rarely right for the region. The worst that could happen is a change of plans for a day on Rock Creek, The Clark Fork or Blackfoot Rivers, all in the area and all wonderful fisheries. Finally, give yourself time. With dynamic conditions your best ally is a few extra days to try another fishery while you wait for the Bitterroot to come into its own.

Materials Harts Skwalla

    Hook: Daiichi 1270, Size 4.

    Underbody: Craft foam, a tapered rectangle and hanging out the back to make the egg sack.

    Body: 7 or 8 strands of peacock herl, counterwrapped with fine gold tinsel.

    Wing: Montana Fly Company Etha-Wing Material "Mottled Web".

    Head: Deer Hair, a little smaller diameter than a pencil.

    Legs: Montana Fly Company Green Barred rubber legs.

    Post: Foam.

Notes: The hook size is critical to the success of the pattern, I know it appears to be the wrong size. The Tapered foam underbody gives a good profile and it's best to not wrap it too tight. See attached photos.

Tying Instructions: Harts Skwalla

    1. Start thread on hook leaving the hook bare near the eye, this will make it easier to spin the hair on later.

    2. Take thread back so it hangs down right in the middle of the barb.

    3. Cut out a long tapered rectangular piece of craft foam and bind it to the hook leaving a little bit poking out to be the egg sack. Don't bind it too tight to trap air pockets and help the body taper.

    4. On your way back to the rear, bind down a small or extra small piece of mylar tinsel.

    5. Tie in 7 or 8 strands of peacock herl at their tips. Wind them forward and counterwrap with the tinsel.

    6. Cut out a stonefly shaped wing from Montana Fly Company etha-wing material and bind it down on top of the abdomen.

    7. Stack, clean and spin a clump of deer hair about the size of a pencil at the eye of the hook.

    8. Pull back deer hair to make bullet head.

    9. Clip the deer hair on the bottom.

    10. Add Montana Fly Company centipede legs, or similar and add post, I prefer packing foam that you sometimes find on DVD players and other electronics.

    Top View:

    Fish-Eye's View:


I developed this pattern a few years ago in my search for the perfect blend of visibility, general lifelikeness, and readily available materials. I gave a few to my good friend Nick and he called me that night to tell me that he caught 40 fish on one fly. The Hart Skwalla was born and has since taken many picky fish on the Bitterroot and other rivers. I chose the hook style because I wanted the body to ride low in the water because fish will often short strike a skwalla pattern. I also opted for a hook one size bigger than the pattern to drop that point down even more. Don't forget to grease the deer hair and the top of the wing, and tight lines. ~ Benjamin A. Hart (benjo)

For more great flies, check out: Beginning Fly Tying, Intermediate Fly Tying and Advanced Fly Tying.

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