Usually about the 15th of March we start swinging the Bitterroot, both the Blackfoot and Clark Fork follow as temps warm, but the Bitterroot is the river of choice until April. Swinging deep with Skagit lines and sinking tips as our line combinations is the norm with bugs that replicate sculpins, leaches, minnows, forage fish, and Skwala nymphs.
Spey Season 2022 -- Spring Installment
It is early Spring of 2022, and we remain mired in the challenge of a global pandemic and while we certainly anticipate better days are ahead, we pray that you remain well and optimistic for the year. Central to that approach for me is the anticipation of fishing and specifically standing in moving water and waiting for the tight line grab that is the essence of Spey. Casting well is certainly gratifying but fishing well is the objective. Total Outfitters has committed to becoming a full-service fishing recourse for our area in western Montana. The Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, and the Clark Fork are all amazing rivers, and with multiple forays to the Missouri, we are fully engaged in some of the best fishing experiences available in the western US.
Usually about the 15th of March we start swinging the Bitterroot, both the Blackfoot and Clark Fork follow as temps warm, but the Bitterroot is the river of choice until April. Swinging deep with Skagit lines and sinking tips as our line combinations is the norm with bugs that replicate sculpins, leaches, minnows, forage fish, and Skwala nymphs. I typically use 5/5 IMO tip (T-8) but don’t overlook heavier tips especially with un-weighted bugs. I use a single fly when I am throwing larger streamer patterns, but I often use two flies when I throw Buggers, Carey Specials and Sparrows. One of my favorite rigs is a Thin Mint as the terminal bug and a dark (black or brown) Carey Special placed eighteen inches above the Thin Mint. Swing the flies and vary your presentation. You usually don’t need a lot of movement. Subtle is better until fish start actively chasing as water temps increase. Tail outs, deep slow tanks and deep holding water between riffles are the prime early water. I like to aggressively cover water until I get a good grab then I slow down and become more methodical and cover the water thoroughly at all depths until the grabs start coming. Ethically I encourage all of us to move on when you get a good fish, catching every fish in a run is unnecessary.
As the season progresses and water temps increase you begin to see Skwala adults and the occasional rise on a natural and must adjust your technique and the water you target. I still like Skagit lines and tips and 5/5 T-8 works but so do other tips, 2.5/7.5 IMO in T-8 is a go to for me as well as moderate sink poly tips. I transition to buggy flies (Sparrows, Carey Specials, un-weighted Buggers in dark colors) and almost exclusively just swing, though I often mend, to get a tumbling dead drift effect as well. As the swing begins to tail out, a couple of quick and short strips can encourage a strike as fish often follow the swing. Shelves, inside seams, heads, and tails of runs are the places I target and I remain aggressive and cover lots of water until I get a grab, and then I slow down and fish more methodically. April is a time where I often have two rods rigged, and I like to step through a run quickly with my bugs higher in the water column and then follow it with a tip and a larger streamer if I fail to get the grab on the first pass. Ultimately I like to catch them as high in the water column as I can as the takes are usually more aggressive and always thrilling.
Finally, as we approach high water, I transition to a floating line. For me I use a Scandi with a poly tip or just a longer tapered leader. Sparrows, Carey Specials and buggers remain a constant, but I now love to add some smaller stuff, specifically a March Brown pattern. Soft hackles in brown, olive, and black are good colors (I like Pheasant Tail SH flies in 14 as well), as my upper bug. Again the swing is usually enough to elicit a grab with occasional twitches to get a follower to commit. I also like to skate a muddler style bug and while it is not always a consistent way to get a grab, when you do you usually see the boil and very often you can watch the fish as it pursues it across a run….really fun!
Spey trips are different from conventional river trips in a couple of important and significant ways. First a Spey trip should be Spey specific, if one combines swinging runs and then fishing with a one hander as you progress down the river it becomes extremely hard to do either technique well. When Spey fishing, we typically hit four to seven runs with multiple passes until we get the fish dialed in. This implies substantial time dedicated to a run -- often taking forty-five minutes to an hour or more. Water and air temperatures are usually short of balmy, and often it’s a great idea to warm up betweens runs with a fresh cup of Joe made riverside on the jet boil (French press). We often will row for a mile or more to target the most promising runs and not slowing down to fish helps us spend as much time as possible swinging. The boat ride between runs is the perfect time to snack, bird watch and sightsee.
I encourage Spey enthusiasts to fish for two or three days if you can, because we usually get a great window of fishing and we are less susceptible to difficult weather conditions because as you know you will likely experience three seasons on any given day and it’s not going to be summer. Multiple days also facilitates a couple of different sections of the river or even different rivers, combinations like two days on the Bitterroot and a day on the Blackfoot or Clark Fork provide multiple angling opportunities and lets you really expand the experience.
Total Outfitters is particularly well equipped to tailor a specific Spey trip for you including multiple days and multiple rivers because we fish four rivers and hundreds of total miles of water, so if you have preferences as to what you would like to do, the team will certainly put it together for you.
Equipment. For the Bitterroot #2 and# 3 weight Spey rods lined with Skagit and Scandi lines with tips in T-8 that cover the water column well are more than enough to cover any condition you find. On the Clark Fork, I prefer #3 and #4 weight rods for both the bigger water and casting situations, as well as for when the fish seem particularly hot, especially the rainbows in the 16 inch plus range. Skagit lines are most prevalent but if you find fish working Skwala or March Browns use a Scandi fished three to ten inches deep can be exciting. The Blackfoot can certainly be fished with #2 and #3 weight rods, but when throwing big streamers for aggressive browns I like to go with a #4 weight because immediately following the grab you are going to have to quickly get them on top as these guys dive for cover when the line gets tight.
Casting Instruction. We can certainly assist you with your Spey casting and provide coaching to improve your casting and fishing techniques on guided trips, and we will happily help you as much as you like. For taking your casting to the next level and becoming thoroughly proficient in both water anchored casting and touch and go casting, we have a relationship with one of the elite casting instructors in the Northwest: Charles St. Pierre of Northwest Speycasting. We held a clinic in the fall of 2021 and expect to do a clinic again in 2022. Spending a day with Charles St. Pierre is tremendously beneficial and if you’re serious about improving your cast, or even just learning to cast, I strongly encourage you to book a casting experience with Charles.
While anxiously waiting to get out and throw Spey rods and swing for early season fish, every pleasant day in January only increased my impatience. I had a long list of chores to accomplish prior to swing season (generously provided by my wife) and have been busily engaged in accomplishing those tasks in order to create freedom of action, and opportunity to get out and throw the Spey rod. I hope you have a safe and pleasant spring in Western Montana and if you want to experience Trout Spey on the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, or Missouri River, we would be happy to help you get set up with equipment, advice, guided trips, and casting instruction. Please remain safe and treat our rivers and their fish with respect. Be alert to hazards in the river as they change almost daily and be courteous to other anglers.
The Total Outfitters Team