by Miles Nolte
Just find the salmonflies, they say. You’ll be transported to piscatorial Valhalla where giant trout eat surface flies that even an octogenarian with severe cataracts can see. The thing is, they’re either lying or don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Salmonflies are fantastic, but not for the reasons you might think.
I spent 20 seasons fishing christened salmonfly corridors—the Madison, Yellowstone, and Big Hole, among others—and over those years, I tasted glory. I’ve been there when the fish are actively hunting giant bugs and even poorly presented casts are met with battleship sinking explosions. Those miraculous moments happen, but the Venn diagram when bugs, fish, and water conditions overlap is no bigger than a keyhole.
The vast majority of salmonfly days go something like this: You hear the big bugs are hatching on X river, so you head over there with sweaty palms and visions of Walters dancing in your head. You arrive at a boat ramp or access point that looks more like Coachella than A River Runs Through It. But that’s cool, you figure, because the bugs are there, willows crawling with orange-throated adults, females lugging bulbous egg sacs on their abdomens. You tie on a fluffy dry with full confidence that this will be the best day of your life. You grow progressively more disappointed with each fishless hour.
Why? How could this possibly be? You nailed the hatch, where are the fish?
Trout can only eat so many salmonflies before gorging themselves like Pizza the Hutt, and they get at least halfway stuffed eating nymphs before the adults ever make an appearance. Additionally, when 80 boats put in at Lyon’s Bridge with 160 anglers throwing flutterbugs at every bank, boulder, and bucket, trout wise up pretty fast.
This is the real magic of salmonflies: they suck up traffic. I studiously avoid any piece of water rumored to have salmonflies on it. You should too.
If word on the street says the big bugs are on the Big Hole, you should fish the Beaverhead, Ruby, Madison—anywhere else. You’ll have significantly smaller crowds and a good chance at incredible dry fly fishing. Salmonflies hatch in early summer, which coincides with LOTS of other hatches: Caddis, pmds, yellow sallies, and golden stones are all likely coming off around the same time. Water temps are usually cool, and flows are generally good. You should absolutely fish your ass off during the salmonfly hatch…just avoid the places everyone says the salmonflies are hatching and you’ll probably get some of your best days all season.
If you happen to be on the water when the big bugs appear and the fish key into them, you will enjoy some of the best dry fly fishing in the Lower 48 states, but those days are rare and difficult to predict. I can count the number of really good salmonfly days I’ve had on both hands and still have a finger or two left over. That’s what makes salmonflies special; they’re enigmatic, finicky, and mythical. If you want things to be easy, take up something other than fly fishing. I hear pickleball is big these days.