We heard rumors of our namesake bugs hatching in February and decided to investigate
February can be a real bastard. The galavants of slant-light fall—campfire colors painting tree canopies and brown trout flanks—fade into nostalgic blur. The riotous promises of spring—dirt-snake shenanigans and baetis blankets—feel as distant and ethereal as enlightenment. Of course, that all depends on your perspective, geographically speaking.
In Montana, where we keep the humble headquarters of Skwala Fly Fishing, we’re mostly holed up like pikas in the high-country. On a warm day, (one that creeps toward freezing) we might enjoy a few hours of exceptional nymphing. If we’re really lucky, we could stumble into a midge hatch and watch trout risk frost-bitten snouts to sip size 22s from the surface of slicks.
Our friends at Loon Outdoors, on the other hand, lay their heads in north central California, where February resembles an altogether different animal. On certain rivers out there, the first big bugs of the year—size 12, (maybe larger, depending on the river) quad-winged, egg-laden, awkward fluttering stoneflies—hatch in February. We’re talking dead-of-winter, might-be-negative 40-in-the-Rockies, skwalas.
For obvious reasons, we’re intrigued…and also skeptical. Not skeptical about the existence of these mythical winter stones, but about the quality and viability of fishing the hatch. As we have explained before, we think stonefly hatches (like Montana’s salmonflies) are often overhyped, overcrowded, and overrated—attributes that never improve a fishing trip.
To satisfy, or perhaps deepen, our curiosity, Loon connected us with Ben Thompson, a veteran NorCal guide who spends a great deal of his days this time of year looking for bugs and noses. When Ben began the interview with the disclaimer, “Anything I say is just my opinion, and I’m just some dummy that takes people fishing,” we knew we’d like him. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
For us, skwalas are a springtime thing. When do they come out on your river?
“The month of February overall is my favorite time to chase the skwala hatch. With warm good weather it can start in late January, and some years it extends well into March. I prefer it on low water droughty years with warm weather…it seems to be significantly better than in stormy weather and big water.”
What’s the local attitude toward this hatch?
“The skwala hatch is not often easy, but the [river I usually guide] does have better dry fly fishing than most in California. Although the hatch can be difficult, people are willing to put in some work. Where else are they going to have the chance to throw big dry flies in the middle of winter? Some people expect it to be easy, and occasionally it can be, but I think enough people have had their asses handed to them out there that they either give up or embrace the hunt and keep after it year after year.”
What are the crowds like?
“Once the word gets out, a lot of people come [here] to throw skwalas. Some of the most stressful guide trips I have ever done were skwala trips in 2020, when everyone had just gotten a stimmy check and the fly shops told them go hit the skwala hatch. It was almost as if there was a bankie every 30 yards all the way down the river, and very few spots I could get my drift boat into that weren’t already taken. One of my go-to moves was to chum it up with a bankie and give them a beer, then ask if we can fish the run from the far side of the river. Long story short, it’s an extremely popular hatch on a small river, so it can get crowded.”
That’s a classy move, giving beers to bankies. How’s this year looking?
“2024 will be significantly different. The gravel road that travels along the river that most people would use to access different spots has been closed by the landowners due to the degenerates that cause a ruckus during summer (not fly fishing related). There is now no public drift boat float (we are members of a private club with accesses), and there are only two walk-in points.”
How does the skwala hatch compare to the rest of your season?
“I can run caddis nymphs all summer, almost guaranteed, while the skwala hatch can vary greatly day-to-day based on conditions. When it’s good, it can be really good, but that requires stable, warm conditions. Being that it happens in February, we often have storms mixed in that shake things up.”
Describe the skwala hatch in one word.
How does an average day play out?
“The skwala hatch is unique because it starts later. I will usually meet clients at 8 or 9 am, nymph till about 11, then have an early lunch, holding down one of my favorite spots. A lot of times, right as we are about to get back to it, we will see the first few risers and start throwing at them. From then on, we are either anchored up throwing at feeding fish, or running long boat drifts. Some days we only get a handful of eats, others quite a few. Often there are multiple hatches going at once, and they will be keyed in more on PMDs or BWOs, so we will switch out flies accordingly. I have been in a flat with skwalas, PMDs, BWOs and caddis all hatching at the same time.”
Sitting in a Montana winter, that sounds pretty magical. Would it be worth a trip your way?
“You don’t know if you don’t go. Skwalas can be tough, but if you have a decent weather window, send it and see what happens. If nothing else…you can always pull out the bobber.”
Have we discovered a secret cheat code for guaranteed big dry fly fishing to happy rising trout in the middle of winter?
Of course not. Cheat codes and guarantees are for video games, not fly fishing. We do, however, very much appreciate Ben’s perspective on this fickle feeding window, and it sounds like something we might just have to head west and test out one of these winters. If nothing else, at least we can get away frigid temps for a few days. Even if wide heads don’t levitate above the surface tension, at least we can fish dry droppers.
If you want to experience the California skwala hatch for yourself, book a few days with Ben Thompson. https://www.benthompsonoutdoors.com/