Trico Time in Montana

My Lab Flicka sitting on a rock in the middle of the river keeping an eye on the action

It’s mid-morning and the pool of water below the riffle looks calm. It looks calm but looks can be deceiving. The surface of the water is calm but the mayhem is about to start.

While I don’t see any fish rising I tie on a small dry fly and cast it out on the water. There’s a dimple on the water’s surface and I tighten the line; a nice fish is on the other end and it’s not at all happy about that little hook in the corner of its jaw. After a short but splashy fight I draw the fish up close so I can unhook it and send it back to the water.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending time on the Big Hole River following the trico hatch, that late summer blizzard of tiny mayflies that get the trout in a brief feeding frenzy just about every morning.

The trico, short for Ttrichorythodes, is tiny but prolific. As is the case with most aquatic insects, that last stage of life as an adult flying insect is brief. The bug emerges from the water in the early morning hours and in the next few hours will change from a dun to a spinner, breed in mid-air in a swarm of many thousands of bugs and then return to the water to lay eggs and die. At that point its mission in life is complete. It became an adult flying insect and procreated.

The insects feed the fish in all its life forms but it’s that final stage, the spinner fall, which triggers the feeding frenzy, though there was a time when fly anglers occasionally looked at the trico hatch as the “white curse” because they really hadn’t come to an understanding of this tiny bug and how to fish for trout during the trico season.

The sheer numbers of flying insects in the air is more than most of us can imagine. Swarms of tricos fly over the river in a visible cloud. Gusts of wind will scatter the swarms and it’s almost like a snowstorm.

On this particular morning at 10:30 the mating swarms hadn’t shown up yet but the fish were waiting and eager to nibble on anything small and dry. While I unhooked that first fish I could see some tricos in the air and at the same time I could see the rings on the water’s surface where fish were sipping in the little bits of protein. As they got into it there were rises all over the pool, with splashy rises becoming common as the trout got caught up in the moment.

On that last weekend in August I fished the same pool on two successive mornings and on the first morning I caught mostly rainbow trout. The second morning I caught mostly brown trout. Of course it’s hard to fish the trico spinner fall without catching whitefish. Whitefish really seem to love sipping in those tricos and sometimes it’ll seem as if there are nothing but whitefish in the river. On an earlier weekend I fished another stretch of the Big Hole and whitefish, along with a few yearling grayling, furnished almost all of the action.

On some waters trout are notoriously selective about taking flies that are a close match to the real thing. That means flies that seem almost microscopic, especially for those of us well advanced into the bifocal generation. Personally, I find tying flies on #24 hooks more trouble than it’s worth, and trying to thread the end of my tippet into the eye of the hook almost impossible.

On the Big Hole, at least, I can usually get away with using larger flies, if you call a fly on a #18 hook large. On this particular morning I started with a standard #18 Adams. After several fish the fly looked pretty tattered but as long as it floated it caught fish.

Elk and upland birds are taking over the spotlight right now, but don’t forget the trout. There’s a lot of fun going on.

An Outdoors Agenda for August

The summer season keeps racing along. It seems like it was just last week when we were covering the garden against late spring frosts, and now it’s August and it won’t be long before we’re covering our gardens against early fall frosts. Flathead cherries are now available, and it’s an addiction, I must confess. As a matter of fact, if you were to do a soil analysis in my backyard, you’d likely find that, within spitting distance of the back door, cherry pits are the primary component in the soil.

Going a little farther afield, or further up the mountain, to be specific, huckleberries, those wonderful berries that define the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, are ripe and ready for picking.

Closer to home, in buggy riparian areas along many of our rivers and streams, gooseberries and currants are ripe. If you can stand the mosquitoes and the thorns, you have the makings for good jams and jellies.

Chokecherries, our most abundant wild fruit in Montana, won’t be ripe in this area until the end of August or early September, so just be patient.

Something I eagerly anticipate in August fishing is the trico (for Trichorythodes) hatch. Tricos are tiny, little mayflies (they’re so small, they need two adjectives) that make their appearance on our rivers about this time of year. They’re so small it’s easy to ignore them, but the important thing is, the fish don’t. In fact, fish dote on tricos and feed actively on them.

When tricos are at their peak during mid to late August, you can often see clouds of these little bugs flying over the river as they get ready for their egg-laying flights to the water. When the bugs do hit the water trout and whitefish pull up to the table and start eating.

I often fish some slow-moving pools on the Big Hole during the trico hatch and it often seems whitefish are going crazy over tricos. And they are, but sometimes it’s browns and rainbows that are sipping in the tiny treats.

The trico hatch keeps happening well into September, so there will be lots of opportunities to get in on some of that great dry fly fishing. Just remember to think tiny and delicate. I usually use #18 or #20 hooks for tying imitations, and some go as small as a #24 hook. You may also want to put on a size 7X tippet at the end of your leader. Like I say, think tiny and delicate.

The trico hatch, or spinner fall, if you want to be technical, seems to happen around mid to late morning hours. It’s definitely not something you can set your watch by; all you can do is get out on the stream in the morning and hope to be there when it happens and the fish start feeding. If you don’t get out on the stream until afternoon, chances are you’ll miss the whole thing and you’ll be wondering why the fish aren’t’ biting.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico now seems, finally, to be capped though it’s going to take a long time to clean up the environmental damage created by the catastrophe.

For better or worse, the oil spill mess has brought renewed attention to the endangered wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

In a partial response, the Department of Interior, in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and sporting goods retailer Bass Pro Shops, is releasing a special Duck Stamp envelope, or cachet, to be sold to waterfowl hunters, birders, collectors and others to raise money to purchase Gulf Coast wetlands to be included in federal wildlife refuges.

The envelope, or cachet, as it’s called by stamp collectors, bears a silk rendering of a photograph of Florida’s St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge and the 2010 Duck Stamp, a painting of an American widgeon by Robert Beadle of Maryland.

The cachet and stamp sells for $25, or just $10 more than the Duck Stamp alone. It can be purchased at post offices, at Bass Pro Shops stores, on-line at, or by phone at 1-800-852-4897.