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The Salmonfly Quarantine


On the morning of June 3rd, I received a text from a friend that I look forward to every year: "big bugs are out" - a quick and simple message that lets me know it's time to start banging my head against the wall once again.

Not even a full hour after receiving the good news, I tested positive for COVID after successfully sidestepping the virus for over two years. I was immediately flustered and frustrated knowing that I would have to close my recently-opened archery and fly shop for the next ten days, considering the only two employees (myself and my brother) had tested positive on the same morning. This was really my only option, but I would be lying if I said my frustrations fairly quickly gave way to the exciting notion that I could fish the salmonfly hatch for the next week straight.

I was not happy to close the store down, there would be lost revenue - but, my primary concern was shutting down for over a week after we had just recently opened and customers started becoming aware of us. But, again, this was really the only choice, so rather than dwelling on it, I just went fishing.

It was a little bit disorienting to go from being open 12 hours every day of the week to having ten days out in front of me where all I had to do was avoid all human contact or entering any buildings that weren't my home. Not surprisingly, this new-found freedom became easier and easier to embrace in short order.

The Bugs

The salmonfly hatch is not necessarily my favorite hatch that occurs in the North Platte watershed, but it is easily the most fascinating to me. If I had to choose, I like the consistency, predictability, and wadeable water conditions of our local drake hatches. Every year, however, I become briefly consumed by the salmonfly hatch and the pursuit of hitting that one perfect day where the hatch, water conditions, and fish all align perfectly for one of those unforgettable days of dry fly fishing. Many years this day never comes, or if it does, it's when you're stuck at work refreshing flow charts.

The salmonfly hatch seems to coincide with peak runoff every year, which means water conditions can be highly unpredictable and variable. This hatch occurs in rivers across the west with enough large boulders and high enough flow rates to move said boulders. Salmonfly nymphs live in the river bed for three years before crawling towards the banks to hatch into winged adults. These nymphs can be particularly vulnerable as they make their migration towards the bank, and fish may well gorge themselves on migratory nymphs before the main hatch even begins. Typically, a slight drop in flows around the beginning of the hatch resulting in improved water clarity provides the best opportunity for dry fly fishing - this is the day I was in search of over my weeklong salmonfly adventure.

California pteronarcys as they are scientifically known, are massive bugs - up to 3" in length and substantially larger than every other aquatic insect that qualifies as trout food. Additionally, these giant stoneflies make up a considerable percentage of the overall biomass in the river - including trout.

As you can imagine, trout tend to go a little nuts for this hatch. While the fish will consistently eat to the point of vomiting these bugs up, the variable water conditions that coincide with peak runoff can make the actual act of fishing - whether by foot or from a raft - a little tricky. I would be exclusively wade fishing this week, and I was lucky to find some decently wadeable flows during the first part of the hatch. This was exactly what I always hope for during this hatch - dropping flows, improving water clarity, and good wading conditions.

My plan was to follow the hatch upstream over my week of fishing. I ended up starting somewhat in the middle of the canyon before moving downstream the following day, and then working my way back upstream. Each day brought something a little bit different.

The Hatch

One of my favorite aspects of the Upper North Platte River is that there is miles of public access in a pristine wilderness environment through the rugged Northgate Canyon. Despite all this public water, access is limited to just a few points throughout the canyon, and in most spots, the only way there is straight down.

The first location I fished this hatch was right about 1000' of vertical one way. I went 1000' down and back up in hopes of catching a wild trout on a dry fly the size of a hummingbird.

My efforts started out in the heart of the canyon, I figured right in the middle would be a decent enough place to start. Water conditions were great, and I was able to wade right along the bank without having to hop out of the water too much. A few fish did go after my dry fly, but I was unable to bring one to the net before lightning sent me packing.

The next day, I returned to the same spot in hopes that the hatch might be heating up a bit in that section. I was able to catch quite a few fish on my dropper, but did not have any action on the surface. I like catching fish - even on nymphs - but my goal was to catch fish on huge dry flies, so I decided to move my efforts downstream for day 3.

Day 3 was by far the most productive, although it didn't start out that way. After a very uneventful morning, I finally started seeing fish rising around noon, and started catching fish on the surface shortly after. It didn't take long for me to clip the nymph off and replace it with a second dry fly. For a few magical hours, I was in the middle of that perfect window of water conditions, insect activity, and fish appetites that I desperately pursue every June.

I continued to work the east bank for several miles, before I started running out of wadeable water and the bite began to slow down. I also realized I had wandered about 4 miles from where I had parked as I mindlessly worked my dry flies upriver. I started my hike back with my mind racing to make a plan for the next day.

On Day 4, I decided to move upstream a bit to see if I could get into the thick of the hatch. I certainly found the bugs, but the fish seemed to have found them at least 24 hours before I did. Salmonflies were everywhere on the banks, crawling all over me, and hitting the surface of the river, but I did not observe any rises. There were times when I had to aggressively bushwhack through willows to avoid going too deep in the river, and every time I did, I would inadvertently knock a pile of bugs into the river, effectively chumming the waters. Despite this, I still only observed two or three rises to my fly all day. The fish that I did catch were all on the nymph and looked like they had tennis balls shoved down their gullets. I concluded that the fish in this section of the river were pretty well gorged and I should move upstream the following day in an attempt to get a little ahead of the main hatch.

The following day, my time in the sun was over as flows started to rise considerably and water clarity got worse and worse. I seemed to have achieved my goal of getting ahead of the main hatch, and there were enough bugs flying around that I thought the fish might key in on them, but the rapidly worsening water clarity seemed to put the fish down. I knew that once the flows got up over 1,500 cfs, wading the banks was going to range from tedious to outright dangerous. I managed one more fish on the nymph this day, but it appeared that I was done for the time being.

Five days of focused efforts for a 3-4 hour window of incredible dry fly fishing. That seems about right for this hatch, and that is about all I hope for every year. Approaching the salmonfly hatch every year is kind of like rooting for a shitty football team. Deep down, you know the most likely scenario is utter disappointment, but you lie to yourself: "this is the year".

Such is the salmonfly hatch for me every year. Between water conditions, fish gorging themselves during the nighttime hours, and the general unpredictability of the runoff period - the odds of hitting that perfect day of dry fly nirvana are certainly stacked against you. Every year, however, I go into the month of June thinking that I will stumble on that perfect day this year, that perfect day where everything comes together and I watch the biggest trout of my life inhale the biggest dry fly I own.

While that didn't happen this year, I'm positive that it will next year.

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