March Browns? Not quite yet.
Friday morning is here again and it is time to talk about your fishing plans for the weekend. It looks like today is going to be the best day of the weekend, but the weather is still pretty darn good for early March. Today the high is supposed to be 62 degrees with a 50 percent chance of rain and winds less than 10 mph. What that forecast means to me is that MAYFLIES will be happy and hatching - cloudy warm days trigger the very best mayfly hatches. So, you're thinking, it's March - shouldn't we start seeing March Browns? Well, it would be lovely if Rhithogena morrisoni had little tiny calendars which would help them to live up to their monikers, but they more typically hatch on the Deschutes in April because they prefer water temperatures around 48-49 degrees and they absolutely explode in emergence when water temps hit 50 degrees.
The hatches are not as robust as they once were, but we still expect to see a smattering of mayflies on any of our overcast warmer days. So, I will write extensively about March Browns toward the end of this month when you are more likely to start seeing them. If you want to prepare for this first big hatch event of the year by tying up some bugs, try tying soft hackles with a reddish to brownish body color and using Hungarian partridge for the hackle - the speckles are very important in the hackling material you use.
So, in lieu of the March Browns, let's celebrate the tiny cousin of the March Brown, the Blue Winged Olive, scientifically known as a member of the genus Baetis. Within this genus there are many species and positively identifying the specific species can be taxinomically speaking, well, taxing. BWOs, as we lovingly refer to them, are the tough-as-nails little mayflies that hatch off all winter long. Snow on the ground? Not a problem for a BWO. Freezing cold and raining? "Bring it on!" quips the BWO. These tiny little fellows and gals are just waiting for a cloudy day like today to burst into the world and go for a float.
Mayfly emergence is heaviest during the mid-day. We say it happens around 1:00 PM on the Deschutes this time of year, but daylight savings is lurking around the corner, so just be ready for them around the time your stomach starts growling for lunch. The trout tummies will be growling too and they will be on the lookout for their favorite lunch. Yesterday, the conditions were perfect for a big BWO hatch. It was cloudy, a bit muggy even, and I was hurrying up in the store and shooing anglers out the door because I knew that, while they were jabberjawing in the store, they might be missing one of the heaviest hatches of the year.
I was out fishing last Sunday and saw quite a few BWOs on the water. I wasn't, however, situated to hit the dry fly action. It is a long story, but we tried to use the jet boat and had a dead battery, which made us switch to a drift boat and the hatch was nearly over by the time we got to the prime water. What is prime water for fishing mayfly dries? It is very specific, so read on.
Mayflies emerge from the bottom of the river, rising up to the surface where they encounter the challenge of breaking through that surface tension to get to the topside of the water. The easiest place to break through is in a rapid or riffle which churns the water and thrusts everything into a froth or foam. The mayflies are able to ride these churning waves to break out into the air where they unfold their wings and sail down river with their fellow BWOs in a tiny regatta. If you want to get serious with your BWO fishing, you need to be ready with a size 18-20 BWO dry at 12:30 or so PM on a cloudy day without much wind. Fishing a dry fly that small will require 6X or smaller (if you dare) tippet and a rod that can cushion such fine diameter material (I use a 3 weight). Where you stand at the ready for the hatch is also critical - you want to be in a slow glassy slick or a backeddy located below a large rapid or a heavy riffle. The BWOs will pop off in the whitewater, and sail downstream for several minutes in hopes that their wings will dry quickly so they can take flight. Before they have the chance to take flight, the trout will be sipping them from the surface and you want your BWO in the mix with the naturals.
Size 18, 20, 22, bugs are not easy to see - so here's a tip to help you out in your quest to hook trout on a BWO dry: Fish two dries. One dry can be something larger that you can see - I would choose another Baetis pattern in size 12-14 with a white or neon colored parachute. That larger fly can be tied into your leader using a tag about 4 feet up from your tiny BWO pattern. When you cast these two flies out onto the water, your eyes will quickly be able to detect the larger Baetis pattern. Keeping your eyes on the larger pattern, pull your focus back a bit to scan in a 4 foot radius for the tiny BWO pattern. Wait for a rise.
The tricky thing on the Deschutes is that you rarely see trout rising to the surface. This is not to say that trout do not rise to the surface on the Deschutes, they certainly do. However, the river is huge and you will not see an obvious rise unless you are laser-focused on the two foot area where the trout breaks the surface. Deschutes trout are not happy, slappy, hatchery dingbats. They are native, wild trout that have to be wary at all times and have never gotten a free sprinkling of pellets for dinner. They rarely need to be competitive with one another because the river is one long conveyer belt of aquatic insects from which they simply choose their meals and gorge to their belly's content alongside their brothers and sisters.
When your dry fly floats towards a Deschutes trout, it will not rush forward in a mad dash to attack it, quite the opposite. The trout, let's call him Howard (since we name our favorite bruisers on the river) will see the fly, will rise up so that his nose is almost touching the fly, and will use his buggy frog-like eyes to inspect the offering as he drifts perpendicular to the fly at the speed of the current. If there is no drag, and the tippet is small enough, and the fly pattern is the correct one to match the hatch in which this particular trout, named Howard, has taken an interest, the trout will break the surface film with just his nose to suck down the fly and confidently swim two-three feet back upstream to his original holding water to look for the next morsel. The dimple created by a Deschutes trout eating a mayfly or a caddis is no bigger than the dimple created by a raindrop hitting the water. It is not easy to see.
On many days, when I have guided angler all day using only dry flies and hooking trout after trout after trout, I return to the shop to hear other anglers proclaim this: "Well, I didn't see any fish rising, so I stuck with nymphs all day." It is very common for anglers on the Deschutes to stick with nymphs all day - I know that I have many times. However, don't give up on a chance to better yourself as an angler by learning about the hatches and the habitats in which to fish these hatches. To me, dry fly fishing is the ultimate - so I am excited to get deeper into March and early April when the hatches really start to get good. I will keep you posted on strategy and technique.
As for this weekend, today is going to be lovely. The fishing will be far more productive than it was last weekend because we are now farther away from the full moon that always has a weird impact on the trout fishing. Do the trout stay up all night to feed? That is a theory. Whatever it is, every month with a couple of days on either side of the full moon the trout fishing is quite a bit more challenging than it is during other moon phases.
Saturday and Sunday, sorry weekend warriors, are going to be down to the low 50s during the day and a bit blustery with a cold front moving through. The winds are not forecast to be too horrible, but there will be some winds on both weekend days. What to do about wind? First off, try never to utter the "W" word. It is just plain bad luck. Secondly, move around on the river. The canyon funnels the wind and there are spots that are typically far more windy that other spots. If you find yourself in a really windy section of river, simply drive a few miles up or downstream and check out a new area. You will be surprised how well this can work for you, especially if you are fishing the Maupin area with your vehicle and you can quickly and easily move a few miles between spots. With nearly 40 miles of access road up and down the river from Maupin, you always have the ability to change your locale.
Stonefly nymphs are getting quite active - the largest stones in the river have a three year lifespan as nymphs and the nearly three year-olds are getting restless. During mid to late March and all of April, the stoneflies begin to drift-migrate on the river. They release themselves from rocks and tumble downstream to broaden their horizons as well as the gene pool. All sizes and all colors of stones will work out there. Large black stones are certainly the biggest, but golden stones and yellow sally stones are also significant nymphs to have in your arsenal.
Speaking of stoneflies - most of you refer to the "Salmonfly Hatch" as if the Giant Stonefly, Pteronarcys californica, was the only resident of its kind on the Deschutes. Far from it, fellow fly anglers! The Deschutes has an entire stable of stones that hatch throughout the year - though none are as dense and glorious as the three species that emerge in late April through early June: Salmonflies, Pteronarcys californica, Golden Stones (Hesperoperla pacifica), and Little Yellow Sallies (Genus Isoperla). Unfortunately, we still have 6 or more weeks before the big show.
Right now, the Skwala stones, Skwala americana, are getting ready to make a showing. This stone is not as prolific on the Deschutes as its cousins, but trout will opportunistically grab an olive bodied foam stone when fished in mid to late March on the Deschutes. If you love to fish dry droppers, a good option would be a Skwala dry with a small BWO nymph imitation about 3-4 feet below it as a dropper. We have plentiful options for this particular dry-dropper combo, so stop by to get a handful of ammo.
If chasing all these latin-named creepy crawly critters is just too much to handle at your particular stage of fly fishing, tie on a couple of nymphs, an indicator, and some split shot and get out there to explore the subsurface of the river for the trout living the easy life down deep. A good gauge as to what water types the trout are holding in this month is to find a riffle that leads into a slower tanky tailout - be sure that there is depth to the tanky water. Start in the fast riffle and slowly work your way downstream into the slower and slower water. At some point, as long as the bottom of the river where you are fishing is rocky and not sandy and has 3-4 feet of depth, you will start hooking trout. A little further downstream, when the water slows a bit more, you may start to encounter whitefish or course-scaled yellow belly suckers. Then you know that you have fished all speeds of the water and you have found the current sweet spot for the trout. Make note of what that water type looked like and move on to another section of the Deschutes to fish the same water type.
The key to success on the Deschutes is to keep moving. Fish a spot, fish it well, and move on to the next spot. That's it. Keep moving. Don't expect a spot that you knocked them dead in on Saturday to give up very many trout on Sunday. Trout have memories and they need time to rest and forget. Would I step into a run that I just saw another angler leave? Not if I am trout fishing. That angler either hooked a bunch of the fish I was planning to target or spooked them in the process of trying. Personally, I am a lot more confident and successful in water that I know has not been touched by another angler that day. Sometimes, particularly as we enter the months during which the heaviest spawning activity occurs, I will go to a few of my sure-thing spots for trout and get blanked. I used to become flummoxed when this happened in the spring, left in my favorite spot scratching my head and feeling like a fool. Are they just not biting or did the trout in my go-to spot decide to get up and go? Why would they leave and where would they go? Over a few years I figured out the mystery - they went off to the best nearby spawning grounds to make some babies.
As we glide into spring, all anglers need to be aware that trout are actively spawning in the months of February, March, April, May, June and beyond. Trout have actually been observed spawning in nearly every month on the Deschutes - but the heaviest spawning times are on the horizon. What that means to anglers is that you have to be aware of what a spawning area looks like and you have to take personal responsibility to avoid fishing on spawning beds (known as redds) and certainly to avoid walking on them. The reason that the upper river around Warm Springs, Trout Creek, and South Junction are closed until late April is to protect trout and steelhead currently spawning in the main river channel.
If you see a nice big patch of gravel that looks cleaner than all the rest of the gravel around it, that signifies a spawning redd. These will typically be in 1-3 feet of water with a steady flow but not extremely strong currents. Inside bends of the river are prime spawning areas. Often you will see really large trout laying on these gravel beds and it is SO TEMPTING for anglers. Not only is it unsporting and unethical to tromp into the river to target trout or steelhead who are actively spawning, in the case of steelhead you are harassing a species on the threatened species list and this could be interpreted as illegal activity. So DON'T FISH ON REDDS. Just don't. Have some decency and have some foresight for the future of the fishery. When you fish on redds you not only spook fish and interrupt the creation of future generations of trout or steelhead, you also step on eggs that have already been laid and you crush and destroy thousands of fish.
It takes fellow anglers to see something and say something if they observe someone fishing on redds. Sometimes people will not realize that what they are doing is wrong and they are open to learning how to be a better steward of the resource. Sometimes, they know they are doing something wrong, but this is the only way they have figured out how to catch big fish and they'll be damned if they are going to pass up this opportunity. Yeah, some anglers are just assholes. Calling someone out on their bad behavior might not be easy to do - but it has gotten a lot easier during the pandemic. When you come around the corner and see someone standing in the shallow gravel sight casting to dark trout on the redds, say something. You wouldn't let this same person walk into your Grandmother's nursing home without a mask during the height of COVID, would you? Make a stand for our collective Deschutes fish and start by gently educating them about redds. If you meet with an "F you, I'm catching monsters here!" you might consider a little public shaming. A couple of quick pics of the person on the redds or the vehicle and a little exposure for the asshole on social media - well, that can be quite effective.
Several years ago, maybe fifteen or so, a group of anglers got together and made signs alerting anglers to redds. These were called Redd Alerts. Signs were placed on telephone poles along the river road explaining what redds are and why we need to stay off of them, which was great, but they also placed signs on the river's edge wherever the redds were located, this was not great. Unscrupulous anglers looked for the signs and tromped right on into the river, crunching their way across the egg-laden gravel redds in search of dark trout. Those signs were put up with the best of intentions but had to be removed because too many anglers took advantage. Keep an eye out there for spawning gravel, hold your fellow anglers accountable for their actions, and always put the future of the fishery first.
Thank you for enduring my annual redd rant - I do feel a bit like the Lorax sometimes, thanks Devn for the nickname. But if I am called the Lorax or the 2nd mouth of the Deschutes (my personal fav) it is only because I care about the fish and want them to be respected and protected.
It is already starting to get a bit blustery up here on Juniper Flat - which means that the river will see some gusts today despite the mild forecast. The river is in great shape, the White River was clear and high the last time I saw it, and there are a lot of great spots on the Deschutes waiting for you to wet a line. Enjoy the weekend!
Amy Hazel and the crew at Deschutes Angler Fly Shop