During the last few years, my devotion to sinking lines and large meaty streamers has produced many of the best trout of my life. But I’ve arguably become a worse fisherman, as I’ve paid less attention to the nuances of hatches and picky fish. I decided to change my approach this year, and I’ve been chasing multiple hatches throughout the west.
After fishing many amazing hatches so far this summer, my friends and I started to debate: what is the best hatch in the west? What follows is my very subjective list of the best hatches of the west. I’ll add a disclaimer that I haven’t had the opportunity to fish every contending hatch out there. Hex come to mind, as there are not many of these hatches near me. Additionally, I don’t fish a ton of stillwater, and I’ve never been present for a truly amazing damselfly hatch. I am also aware that each of my categories involve several to dozens of species of insect, but I’ve lumped them in to their larger categories for simplicity sake. What follows are the top 10 Western hatches as I see them!
Midges are not the reason we have trouble sleeping at night in anticipation of amazing fishing. Even so, we should put some respect on their name. They hatch year round. They provide dry fly opportunities on cold January days. If it wasn’t for midges, our beloved trout would have difficulties surviving at certain times. So here’s to midges! I don’t dream about tying a size 24 fly on the end of my 6x tippet, but a midge hatch is better than no hatch!
I can’t believe caddis are so far down this list. I know a few systems with nighttime caddis hatches that produce some of the finest dry fly fishing around. Different caddis species can be found hatching for much of the year, and they are near the bottom of the trout food pyramid. My problem with caddis, is that if there is another bug hatching, perhaps any type of mayfly, the trout will almost always prefer the other insect. Maybe their pallet grows weary of the near ubiquitous presence of caddisflies. But for whatever reason, a strong caddis hatch does not guarantee amazing fishing.
The first and last mayfly to hatch every season, baetis are a special variety of insect. In my neck of the woods, a cloudy day in April or October can produce hatches of baetis that literally carpet the water. Seeing these little sailboats bobbing down a riffle is my favorite sign of spring.
7) Yellow Sallies
Man, I feel like almost any of these hatches could be my favorite on a given day, and yellow sallies are no exception. When they are thick on the river, fish lose all inhibitions. When I think of a good yellow sally hatch, I think of fishing to large trout in inches of water, who hug the banks while waiting for one of these little stoneflies to make a mistake. During certain years, when the timing and flows are right, yellow sallies produce my best dry fly fishing of the summer.
There are few things that get my heart pumping like the deafening buzz of a cicada hatch as I pull up to a river. Their hatches are extremely variable, and the strength of a cicada hatch varies greatly year to year and seems to be highly dependent on dry weather. There are famous cicada hatches on some of the busiest western streams, and hidden streams with
lesser-known cicada hatches. But when cicadas are going off, you’ll see anglers speaking in low, hushed tones to their buddies, as rumor of the emergence spreads.
PMDs are definitely a trout favorite. It seems that when multiple insects are on the water, trout will often prefer PMDs over any other bug. While they can produce incredible fishing, PMDs also can be incredibly frustrating. A certain fish will often key in on a very particular part of the life cycle, and matching that may be extremely challenging and can vary from rising fish to rising fish. However, PMDs produce incredibly consistent dry fly fishing, which lasts throughout much of summer. Most experienced anglers have a few secret PMD patterns that will fool at least a few during a good hatch.
4) Golden Stoneflies
The second largest stoneflies in the west are also the most underrated. Many anglers hardly know about this important hatch. Golden stones are several species of stonefly that generally hatch at night. If you only fish during the day, you may be completely oblivious to this event! When I fish golden stonefly hatches, I will often see only a few bugs during the daylight hours. But the fish do not forget what happens at night, when these clumsy morsels emerge and start their attempts make flight. Many people don’t realize that fish will start to eat big foam patterns in June, well before the big terrestrials are predominant. The main reason for this is the nightly emergence of golden stones!
These are the preeminent stonefly, and the mythical beast chased by hordes of anglers each year. Salmonflies top the list for many anglers. No hatch requires better timing, but when the timing is right, a salmonfly hatch can produce better fishing than any other. However, timing is key, as the trout will often gorge for several short days before their appetites are satiated. It is often said that if you’re reading a report about a salmonfly hatch on a given system, you’ve probably already missed it. But as the hatch moves upstream, the angler will often get several shots at it. The key is mobility and the flexibility to change plans if it’s not happening on a given section of stream. The salmonfly hatch is truly a phenomenon, but difficulties with timing and the crowds of people it attracts on many streams knock it down to #3 on this list.
In my mind, hoppers are more of an event than a hatch. While people flock from around the world to catch the classic stonefly hatches, two months later, on the same water, hoppers are often nearly ignored! Hopper fishing can provide the same eats on huge foam flies, just like stoneflies, but often with nonexistent crowds. In addition, rather than lasting for mere days like stonefly hatches, fish will eat hoppers for several months of the summer and fall. Prospecting banks and likely riffles with a big foam terrestrial is the dry fly equivalent of streamer fishing. It doesn’t get much better than wading in cool water on a warm Indian summer day, while catching fat cutties on a big dry fly.
The ultimate trout food and the king of mayflies. Green, grey, and brown; they all have their nuances and they are all amazing. A green drake hatch on a sunny day is the most electric experience a trout angler can have. The event is often brief, but explosive. For a few moments, every fish in the river keys in to the duns as they emerge from the surface tension.
Green drake hatches on cloudy or rainy days can linger for hours upon hours, and while not as dramatic as the hatches on sunny days, they are even better events due to their longevity. Grey drake duns emerge like a stonefly, crawling out of the river at the banks. This results in action along the banks all day long.
Brown drakes usually emerge at dusk, creating another period of mayhem before the day is done. Drakes bring out the biggest fish in the river. They are large insects, and the angler need not squint to see a size 10 or 12 bug on the water. Drakes emerge just after runoff, when the rivers are healthy and the riparian areas are green and thriving. For all these reasons and so much more, drakes are the pinnacle of western hatches, and the event around which my fly fishing year revolves.