Monday, March 4, 2013


Skwala Stonefly Nymph tied by Steven Bird 

March. There are patches of bare ground beginning to show & the smell of it holds the faint promise of fun ahead. The red willows along the river road are, in fact, loosing their pearly catkins. Winter is losing its grip on the pinto horsehide world. Warming days are raising stream temperatures & skwala stonefly nymphs are getting busy, presenting the first reliable hatch of the year.

Skwala, also known as brown willow fly & early brown stonefly, only occur in Western rivers & streams, from the Rockies to the coastal drainages of northern California & the Pacific Northwest. They are widespread, inhabiting freestone streams & most abundant in lowland rivers with rubble bottoms. Nymphs are active predators & strong crawlers. Skwala begin to emerge as early as February in warmer regions, & continue through April, the last two weeks in March through the first three weeks in April being about the peak period of emergence in places I’ve encountered them. Like most stonefly species, skwala crawl from the stream to complete the final instar on bankside stones, grass & brush, where mating also occurs. Male skwala are flightless, with only half formed wings; what they lack in ability to fly they make up for with speed & it is not uncommon to find them zipping over snow well back from the streambank. As they accumulate along the bank, many of them scramble onto the water, presenting an opportune circumstance for waiting trout needing to put on some fat after the sparse rations of a long winter.

Though female skwala can fly, they seem to reserve the ability for egg laying flights. You seldom see them stranded on the water, but there are enough of them around that trout know of their presence & will take dry imitations through the hatch period. Though there are some rivers like the Yakima, Deschuttes & my homewater the American Reach of the Columbia, hosting skwala in numbers that produce discernable ‘hatches’, on most streams they are simply a reliable seasonal presence, trout are used to seeing them & the imitations work through the period.

Though dry versions may raise a trout, in my own experience the nymph is more worthwhile to imitate & fish if it’s numbers of tugs you’re after. I’m always searching for a better pattern, & that search is ongoing. For years I did pretty good on a basic brown nymph I call the Brown Nondescript, but then I read some convincing testimony from other tiers doing well with peacock herl versions, which puzzled me because I didn’t think peacock herl was a close match for the naturals, which are brown & yellow (an olive shading on some streams) with black glyphs on the back of the carapace. In spite of initial misgivings, I tried some peacock versions & found, lo, they really do work well. The magic of peacock herl. Here’s the one I like best so far:
Steven Bird - Skwala

UC Skwala

Hook: #8-#12 TMC 200R

Thread: Camel or brown

Tails: Two dark brown goose biots – Apply a couple turns of sulfur yellow dubbing (yellow with a faint hint of olive) before tying in, to spread the tails. (Both nymph & adult naturals exhibit yellowish coloration at the tip of the abdomen.)

Rib: Brown midge tubing wound over the abdomen.

Abdomen: Peacock herl – to center of the hook shank. Not too fat.

Thorax: Sulfur-yellow & dark chocolate fur dubbing – Don’t blend, place alternating pinches of each color into a dubbing loop formed with the tying thread, twist, & dub over thorax. If the naturals in your homewater have an olive cast, substitute medium olive for the yellow.

Hackle: One turn of hackle from a Wellsummer hen (similar to brown partridge, with yellow-gold tips), or grizzly hen dyed gold, or one turn of grizzly dyed yellow, stripped on one side, combined with one turn of brown partridge or speckled game hen or grouse, stripped on one side.

Head: A bit of sulfur-yellow or olive dubbing ahead of the hackle ~ & finish

I weight these to keep them fishing near the bottom. This time of year, I often fish the skwala nymph as a depthcharge, & trail a midge larva, baetis nymph, scud, or something tiny, at the end of about a 30 inch section of light string knotted to the hook bend of the weighted skwala. Ladies & gentlemen. Swing Season is about to begin in earnest.

Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird:   
Steven Bird Skwala


  1. Resuscitating this very relevant post as these early spring bugs are on the menu. I tied a couple as you prescribed and a few more with those beautiful church window feathers from a cock ring necked pheasant. You know -- the ones further down the skin with iron blue tips. So pretty.

  2. Coincidentally, I embraced your "tip first" suggestion from the recent hackling method post because these feathers have the thick stem. I learn something everyday from The SHJ.

    1. oow. I really like the idea of using church window for these. Yup. I can see it. Brilliant. Now I have to try some tied that way. Thanks for the tip. Good to know you are having fun at the vise & getting satisfaction from the results. I'm lucky. I get to try a lot of things on the river. And you might be surprised at who reads SHJ. I have some great mentors feeding me info.