Fly Fishing Entomology 101 – Stoneflies

entomology 101 - stoneflies

The late Bud Lilly said he often fished a hole with a streamer and caught nothing. Then, he tied on a Rubber Legs nymph, went back through the same water, and caught a nice fish.There’s a reason for this: trout love Stoneflies! So you should too.

Here’s a brief profile of this species:

Names and Varieties

  • Stoneflies belong to the order “Plecoptera.” If you’re an entomologist who is into etymology (that is, a student of insects who is into the study of word origins), this Latin term comes from two Greek words: “braided” and “wing.” Yes, it looks like Stoneflies have braided wings!
  • The four most important Stonefly species for fly fishers (with apologies to the smaller Little Brown Stones and Olive Sallies) are Salmonflies, Golden Stones, Yellow Sallies, and Skwala.

The Basics

  • Stoneflies spend most of their lives in the nymphal stage that varies in length from seven months to four years. Yes, four years! That’s why Stonefly nymph patterns can work any time of the year. For example, Dave, my podcast partner, and I have had great success with them in late October on the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park.
  • Stoneflies have an incomplete metamorphosis, existing in only two stages: nymph and adult. Mature nymphs migrate to the shoreline and then crawl out of the water. They emerge into the adult stage anywhere from a few inches to fifty feet from the river’s edge. Their emergence usually takes place at night—out of the sight of birds that would prey on them. The adult Stonefly emerges when its nymph skin splits. Then it slowly crawls out and walks away from the shuck.
  • Stonefly nymphs have long, segmented bodies with two antennae sticking out of their heads, two tails, and three pairs of legs. Each leg has a couple claws which enable Stoneflies to grip the rocks in the swift water they inhabit.
  • Adult Stoneflies mate in streamside vegetation rather than in the air. However, the egg-laden females then fly over the water—with their abdomens hanging down—to deposit their eggs (which then sink to the bottom of the river). Trout can go crazy when Salmonflies or Golden Stones are depositing their eggs. The other reason you might entice a trout to take a Stonefly pattern on the surface is the tendency for Stoneflies to fall into the water from vegetation. I’ve seen Salmonflies get blown by the wind into the Yellowstone River in June.
  • Smaller Stoneflies (Little Brown Stone, Olive Sally) range from ¼ to ½ inch in length. Yellow Sallies and Skawala can approach an inch. Golden Stones can reach 1 ½ inches, while Salmonflies can extend to 2 inches.

Effective Patterns for Stoneflies

  • You can’t go wrong with Stonefly nymphs year round! My favorites are the Rubber Legs patterns with either a black or brown body in a size 4 to 8. Aside from the obvious patterns (Golden Stone Nymph, Yellow Sally Nymph, etc.), try a Kaufman’s Golden Stone or a Kaufman’s Black Stone. A Copper John in a size 12-16 usually works as well as a Yellow Sally Nymph. Similarly, a Hare’s Ear will fill in quite nicely for a Golden Stone Nymph (in sizes 4-8) or for a Skwala Nymph (in sizes 10-12). Did I mention how effectively the Rubber Legs patterns work? Yes I did, but it’s worth repeating. When all else fails, put on a big nymph with rubber legs!
  • For Stonefly adults, I like a Yellow Stimulator or a Madam X (size 6-8) for imitating Golden Stones. An Elk Hair Caddis with a green abdomen (size 10-12) will work well for Olive Sallies. If you get a chance to fish the Yellowstone River in June (assuming the runoff hasn’t turned it brown), an Improved Sofa Pillow or Warren’s Salmonfly (size 4-8) will do the job.
  • The size and color of a particular Stonefly species will vary from one river to another. After all, Golden Stones come in four subspecies. Also, some rivers (like the Missouri in Montana) do not have many (if any) Stoneflies. So check with your local fly shop before you hit a particular river.

Other Entomology 101 Articles & Sources

    Fly Fishing Entomology 101: Blue-Winged Olives

    Fly Fishing Entomology 101: Caddisflies

    Fly Fishing Entomology 101: Pale Morning Dun

    Sources: Dave Hughes, Jim Schollmeyer, Bob Granger

The Ten Commandments of Fly Fishing from a Drift Boat

fly fishing from a drift boat

Fly fishing from a drift boat was a bit unnerving.

I worried I would snag my friend who was rowing. It turns out that my fear was well-founded. But I didn’t discriminate that day. I snagged myself as well. I also snagged a tree branch on the side of the river. I felt like the drift boat was zooming along at 50 mph even though we were simply drifting the speed of the current.

However, fly fishing from a drift boat can be a terrific experience once you get used to it. It’s easy on your feet, and you can cover a lot of water. Here are a few basics to remember when fly fishing from a drift boat.

1. Thou shalt not rent and row a drift boat with no experience.

Rowing is not something you can learn “on the fly” (no pun intended). I’ve tried rowing a couple of times in friends’ drift boats, and there’s definitely a big learning curve. Usually, you’ll end up in a drift boat for the first time because you’ve hired a guide or because a friend invites you.

By the way, there’s no need to feel bad if you don’t know how to row a drift boat. You’re not missing out on something. The truth is that the rowers are the ones who miss out. They don’t get to fish!

Of course, learn the skill of maneuvering a drift boat if you can. Your fly fishing friends will thank you.

2. Relax and enjoy the ride

I’ll stop with the “Thou Shalt Nots …” for now, but drift boats are set up for your comfort and ease. As long as you’re in the boat, you don’t have to hike or wade or walk on boulders!

Typically, there’s a cushioned swivel seat with a standing platform (into which you can fit your knees) at both the front and the rear of a drift boat. Standing with your knees in the platform is best, although you can sit if you like. In fact, that’s how some vessels work — including rafts and Au Sable River boats (flat-bottomed boats originally used by loggers). They simply have benches.

3. Do not worry about making long casts

A good rower will get you close to the run you want to fish. Usually, that run is up against a bank. I rarely cast more than twenty feet when I’m fishing from a drift boat.

That’s not always true all the time, of course. Last fall, Dave (my podcast partner) and I fished Quake Lake with a guide, and our whole strategy was to stalk rising fish. Often we cast 40 feet or more.

But generally, as you drift down the river, your casts are much shorter.

4. Do get used to casting in a tighter space

To say it bluntly, you need to avoid hooking the rower! This is not a problem if you are right-handed and casting to the left while standing in the front of the boat — or casting to the right when standing in the back of the boat. Otherwise, you need to keep line high and straight over your head when your casting hand/arm is on the side of the rower. It seems a little daunting at first. But you will get used to it.

Guides are (should be) patient people and will help you if it’s your first time.

5. Do keep your line in your zone

The “zone” or space your fishing is in front of you or behind you. If you’re casting from the front of the boat, you can cast directly to your left or right, or even slightly ahead of the boat if you are casting into slower current. If you’re in the back, you need to cast slightly behind the boat.

This minimizes the risk of getting your line tangled in the oars or in the other fly fisher’s line.

6. Do share the front of the boat with the other fly fisher

Most guides will tell you when to switch.

But it’s a good idea to share since the person at the front has a slight advantage. If you’re at the front, the fish in any given run see your fly first.

Second, the guide is focusing on you and is maneuvering the front of the boat to get you into the best position to fish a particular run. However, there are days or moments when the person in the back does as well or better. So you can catch fish from either spot.

7. Do keep your fly in the water

This sounds like another tip from Captain Obvious.

But you only get one shot at a good run unless you’ve got a great rower who is willing to “back up” and let you try it again. In most cases, you can get a good long drift since your fly will travel about the same speed as the drift boat. The more false casting you do, the more fish you will miss — and the greater the chance of snagging the rower.

8. Do not panic if you get snagged

You will get snagged if you’re trying to throw your fly tight up against the bank (which you ordinarily want to do) or if you’re getting your nymphs or streamers deep enough.

Often, your rower will be able to circle back so you can retrieve your fly. Loosen your drag if necessary. If there’s no chance of retrieving your fly, then point your rod directly at the snag so that what breaks is your line — not your rod tip!

9. Do not let the fish go under the boat

My podcast partner, Dave, may or may not have broken a guide’s expensive Orvis rod because he let a monster brown trout run under the boat. However, Dave declined to be interviewed for this article.

When you hook a fish, fight it like you would if you were standing in the river or on the bank. Pull it from side to side. As it gets closer, your guide or fishing buddy will (should) have a long-handled net to net it before it’s too close to the boat.

But beware of that last-second dart for cover.

10. Do stop and wade-fish the most promising runs

One of the benefits of floating a river is the opportunity to stop and fish runs that might otherwise be inaccessible. The hike might be too long, or there may be private property you have to cross before getting to the river.

Let your guide or friend know that you would be happy to stop to fish runs that deserve more than a 30-second, all-or-nothing attempt.

If you want to listen to our episode on fly fishing from a drift boat, listen to this episode

Dry Fly Fishing During a Hatch – 5 Tips

dry fly fishing during a hatch

Dry fly fishing during a hatch can be thrilling. It can also be frustrating.

I’ve had moments where a river or creek comes alive. The water seems to thrash with rising trout. Yet my fly will drift through the frenzy untouched. I’ve learned a few things, though, over the years, when dry fly fishing during a hatch. Here are five tips that have increased my success during Caddis, Pale Morning Dun (PMD) and Blue Winged Olive (BWO) hatches.

Be ready for the waves

Hatches typically arrive in waves.

Sometimes they are sustained, but often they subside after a few minutes. If you’re not ready for the next wave, you might miss out while you’re tying on a fly. I had this happen recently. I was leisurely switching from a size #18 Parachute Adams to a size #20. As it turns out, I was too leisurely. By the time I was ready to cast, the BWO hatch suddenly started, slowed and then stopped. I had to wait fifteen minutes until the action began again. It always amazes me how trout will ignore the right pattern for ten minutes and then suddenly begin attacking it.

Dry fly fishing dishing a hatch is all about timing.

Land and release fish quickly

I realize that this sounds like a tip from Captain Obvious. But I’ve squandered some five minute feeding craze because I took three minutes to land a trout that should have taken one minute.

Use a net and have your hemostat (forceps) handy to remove the hook and release the trout gently and quickly. The goal is to get back to fishing to catch one more before the hatch subsides.

Make your dry fly visible

A blizzard of bugs on the surface means you will have a hard time identifying your fly. You may laugh the first time this happens. But after a while, it will drive you crazy. I have found a little hack that works, though.

If you’re fishing during a BWO or PMD hatch, use a pattern with a red or lime green post. If you’re fishing during a Caddis hatch, use a pattern with red or green fibers on the top of your Elk Hair Caddis. I’ve purchased flies like this, and I’ve even put red synthetic fibers on the top of the Elk Hair Caddis flies that I’ve tied.

If you can’t find a red or lime green post on the BWOs you purchase, use a Sharpie marker to turn the white post red or lime green.

Use an emerger or a nymph as a dropper

Recently, while fishing a little creek in the Minnesota Driftless, I felt helpless (and a bit angry) that I couldn’t get a trout to rise to my size #20 Parachute Adams. I knew it was the right size given all of the bugs I saw fluttering in the air.

But then, during a particularly intense hatch, I realized that the trout were feeding on emergers. I saw several dart through the water without breaking the surface. Those that did simply broke the surface with their fins. So I tied on a foot of tippet to the bend in the hook of my dry fly. At the end of the tippet, I tied on a small beadhead Copper John. I had action immediately and ended up catching about ten trout in the next half hour.

Switch to nymphs or streamers if nothing works

Sometimes, though, nothing works.

Before giving up, try a streamer. Or try nymphing. Yes, you can use a nymph as a dropper as I described above. But traditional nymphing will get your flies deeper. That might just be the ticket to success. Trout, at times, prefer to feed on emerging nymphs well before they approach the surface of the river. Streamers can work, too. A trout that won’t budge for an emerger may well show interest in a super-sized meal.

There’s nothing quite like fishing during a hatch. But there’s nothing to like about it if you’re not getting some strikes and hooking a few fish.

Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park – The Waters

Yellowstone Nationa Park - The Waters

America’s first national park provides endless venues for fly fishing. This is the second installment of our series: Yellowstone National Park – the Waters. Richard Parks, fly shop owner just outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park (YNP), has identified over 100 streams, rivers, and lakes to fish.

Here are ten waters to consider if you make a trip to fly fish in Yellowstone:

Yellowstone River

This is the major river in YNP.

Perhaps the most popular section is the 13-mile stretch between Yellowstone Lake and the Upper Falls — especially in Hayden Valley. After the mighty ‘Stone emerges from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, access is difficult until Tower Fall.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I like to hike down to the river from the Tower Fall parking area and then fish upriver. You can also access the river from the bridge near Tower Junction.

Madison River

The Madison begins at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers at Madison Junction. You can expect to catch 8- to 14-inch trout (the locals) during the spring and summer. Then, the “runners” — the big brutes heading up from Hebgen Lake to spawn — typically show up in late September and October.

Lamar River

This is an outstanding fishery!

However, it gets a lot of pressure. Also, as the joke goes, all it takes to make the Lamar muddy is an elk urinating a few drops into it. Actually, even light rain seems to turn this river chalky or brown.

Gardner River

Like the Madison, the Gardner has local trout in the 8- to 14-inch range. But during October, the browns come up from the Yellowstone to spawn. Dave and I have also caught some big rainbows and cutthroats that trail behind the spawners in search of eggs.

There’s usually less pressure on the Gardner in October than there is on the Madison.

Slough Creek

This is another well-known fishery in YNP, but frankly, it’s a long hike to get to the second meadow where the best fishing begins. I rode in on horseback with my dad and a friend several years ago (the fishing was good), and that’s the only way I’d do it.

Firehole River

This fabled river, well, stream, fishes best in June and October — before the thermal water flowing into it warms it up enough to make the trout lethargic. It’s a superb choice if you like dry fly fishing.

Gibbon River

The Gibbon River is more stream than river.

The good news is that the stretch from Elk Park (near Norris Geyser Basin) to Madison Junction is right along the highway, making for easy access. That’s also the bad news. It gets a lot of pressure from anglers. But it usually fishes well through the summer.

Indian and Panther Creeks

If small creeks are your thing, these are great choices. At least they were a couple decades ago when my family and I used to camp at the Indian Creek Campground. We had a great time fishing these little creeks. The trout are small but abundant. Both creeks join the Gardner (or Upper Gardner, to be precise). I’ve had success in all three waters.

Lewis Lake and River

The inlet and outlet are the most productive places to fly fish Lewis Lake. As far as the Lewis River, the fastest sections below Lewis Falls usually give anglers the best chance for success. Brown trout run up into this stretch from Jackson Lake in the fall.

Yellowstone Lake

This huge lake fishes best early in the season — that is, for the four weeks or so after it opens on June 15. The fish are closer to shore. Try some of the sheltered bays as well as the shore near the inlet streams and the outlet to the Yellowstone River.

A disclaimer

There is terrific fishing in the other 90+ waters I did not have time or space to mention! For more detailed information, consult Richard Park’s fine book, Fishing in Yellowstone National Park

Admittedly, I’ve weighted my suggestions towards moving water and towards the northern part of Yellowstone. That’s where I have spent most of my time over the years.

Also, check out our previous post on the basics of fly fishing in Yellowstone—including the need to carry bear spray! We hope you get a chance to fish in this magnificent area.

Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park – The Basics

fly fishing in Yellowstone

People laughed at John Colter’s description of the area that became Yellowstone National Park. They referred to it as “Colter’s hell” because his description of bubbling mud pots and boiling waters seemed too amazing. The place is amazing, and so is fly fishing in Yellowstone. Your fly fishing bucket list needs to include Yellowstone National Park (YNP).

Here are the basics you need to know about fly fishing in YNP if you’re planning on making a trip.

Seasons

The earliest you can fish in YNP is Memorial Day weekend. So if you plan an April trip to Montana (a great time to fly fish there!), don’t expect to make a side trip to YNP. The season opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and extends through the first Sunday in November.

However, some waters do not open until June 15 or July 15. Most notably, the Yellowstone River upstream of Chittenden Bridge near Canyon does not open until July 15.

Some of the best fly fishing is in the fall when the crowds of tourists are gone and the brown trout are spawning.

Permits

Anglers 16 years of age and older need to purchase a YNP permit. Currently, you can purchase a 3-day permit for $18, a 7-day permit for $25, or a season-long permit for $40. You can purchase these at fly shops outside YNP as well as in the Park at visitor centers, backcountry offices, or the Yellowstone General Stores.

You do not need a state permit (Wyoming or Montana) to fly fish in YNP. However, if you’re fishing near the Park’s boundary, make sure you have a state permit or else know exactly where the boundary line runs. For example, if you fish the Baker’s Hole area on the Madison River, you may want to fish both in Montana and in YNP.

Wading Boots

Felt-soled footgear is prohibited!

The purpose of this restriction is “to reduce the potential for introduction or spread of aquatic invasive species” (according to YNP regulations).

Flies

There are two restrictions that fly fishers can easily overlook. First, your weights must be lead-free. This applies both to split shot used for nymphs and streamers as well as to the ribbon or wire wrapped into your streamers. I still have a few Woolly Buggers I tied years ago and weighted with lead wire, so I remove those from my fly box when I fish in YNP.

Second, hooks must have barbless points.

YNP regulations say that you can pinch down the barbs with pliers. I sometimes carry a small pair of needle nose pliers for this purpose. You can even use your hemostat (forceps) to do this, but in my experience, it only works well with size 16 flies or smaller.

Grizzly Bears

YNP is grizzly bear country! So take the necessary precautions.

First, it’s best to avoid fishing alone. Second, make noise—especially where visibility is limited. Preventing surprise encounters will go a long way to ensuring safety. So talk loudly or sing. You may feel silly hollering “Whoa bear!” every time you approach timber or thick brush. But it could save your life. Third, do not leave your vehicle without bear spray! Your life may depend on it. You can purchase bear spray in stores outside YNP.

Alright, that covers the basics. You can find out what waters to fly fish in our upcoming article on “Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park — The Waters.”

Also, please note that regulations can change from season to season, and so do water conditions. So make sure to check with area fly shops, and by all means, ead YNP’s fishing regulations for yourself.

Fly Fishing’s Critical Moment

fly fishing's critical moment

Fly fishing has its share of critical moments. But one is especially important when it comes to landing the trout you’ve just hooked. It’s the moment right after the hook-set.

Tricky situation

The good news is that you have a fish on the other end of the line. The bad news is that you may have several yards of fly line at your feet or in the water. This line needs to be retrieved so that the fish is fighting against your reel as well as your rod.

Sure, some fly fishers prefer to fight fish without the aid of their reel. Yet a good fly reel is designed to manage the tension while the fish is fighting on the other end of the line. When its drag is properly set, the reel provides some resistance to the trout that is trying to escape. It also prevents a fish from snapping the line when it suddenly darts or lurches.

The reel lets out line before the weakest part of your line — the tippet or the knot you’ve tied—reaches a breaking point.

Maintaining tension

While you retrieve the excess line with one hand, you need to maintain tension with the other. So, if you’re right-handed, you’ll need to maintain tension on your fly line with your right index finger. Sounds easy, right? If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s easy to clamp down too hard on the line with your index finger. Then, when the trout makes a sudden move, the line can snap because there is no “give” in it.

However, if you don’t clamp down a bit on the line, there’s no tension. The hook can slide out of the fish’s mouth. Or, the trout can more readily “shake off” the hook. This is especially the case with larger fish.

Retrieving excess line

Getting the proper amount of tension with your right index finger is only half the battle. Your left hand must simultaneously pull in the excess line. This is what a reel handle is for, right? Perhaps. But if you pay attention to the way fly reels are designed, you’ll notice that the spool is exposed. This allows you to “palm” spool—that is, to spin it quickly with the palm of your hand.

Don’t worry about making a neat, tidy retrieve of your line. Just get it in as quickly as you can. Later, after you’ve landed, admired, and released your fish, you can strip out the line and rewind it in a more even manner.

Adjusting the drag

As soon as you have retrieved the excess line, remember to adjust the drag. I usually keep my tension light so it’s easy for me to strip out more line as I’m casting. So when I have a fish in the other end, I invariably need to “tighten” the drag a bit. It’s easy enough to do. The size of the fish and the amount of fight it has determines exactly how much adjustment I make.

It’s a relief to get through this critical moment!

Now I’m playing the fish against my reel. I can reel in line as needed and let the fish run a bit (but only a bit!). I’ve lost my share of trout because I was clumsily trying to retrieve excess line. Don’t make the same mistake. If you can retrieve your excess fly line while keeping sufficient pressure on the line, you have a much better chance of keeping the fish on your life.

This is a case where your right hand needs to know what your left hand is doing. Keep them working together!

Landing Larger Trout

landing larger trout

My friends and family members are making me envious. Yesterday, my friend, Greg, showed me photos of a couple steelhead he caught in Wisconsin on streamers. Both were about 20 inches. Last week, on the same day I enjoyed catching an 11-inch brown on a size 20 dry fly in the Wisconsin Driftless, my son, Luke, sent me a photo of a 22-inch rainbow he caught on a tiny Zebra Midge.

Gazing (with envy) at those photos reminded me how challenging it is to land large trout. I’ve landed my share of trout over 20 inches. But I’ve lost a lot of them too. Here are some practices I’ve learned for landing larger trout. If I had used all of them sooner, who knows how many more big fish I would have caught!

Use a stronger tippet

I’ve landed 20-inch rainbows in Montana’s Madison River on 5x tippet. But a 5x tippet is only 4.75 pound test. Going to a size 4x increases that to 6 pound test, and a 3x tippet increases is to 8.5 pound test.

Using a stronger tippet with streamers is a no-brainer. Admittedly, it’s a bit more challenging with tiny dry flies or nymphs.

When I’m fishing with nymphs, I will typically use a 3x tippet on my lead fly if it’s large – like a size 8 or 10 stonefly. Then, I’ll use the 4x on the smaller dropper—such as a size 18 Copper John. In most cases, the increase in size doesn’t spook the fish. It’s helpful, though, if there’s a bit of color to the water.

Pull the fish from side to side

Gary Borger taught me several years ago that pulling a fish from side to side tires it out more quickly than simply pulling it in straight. Pulling it from side to side works the fish’s muscles. So point your fly rod to the side when you’re trying to land a large trout.

If you’re using a stronger tippet, then you can be a bit more aggressive and land the fish quicker. That’s a win-win situation. The trout will be less stressed than if you prolong the fight. You’ll also have less opportunities for a trout to run on you and snap the line on a rock or submerged branch. I’ve had both happen.

Use a long-handled net

The net I carry when I have a chance to hook into large trout has an 8.5-inch handle. The extra length extends my reach. That can make all the difference when trying to land a monster. I’ve had the frustration of getting a large trout almost within reach but needing an extra 2 or 3 inches.

A long-handled net cuts down on that frustration.

I don’t always catch large trout. But when I do, I have a much better chance of landing them when I’m practicing these three tips.

Dry Flies for Spring Fly Fishing

dry flies for spring fly fishing

Spring is in the air. So are millions of flies. Mayflies. Caddisflies. Craneflies. It’s the time of year when dry fly fishing begins to work.

If you are new to fly fishing and wonder what dry flies to have in your fly box, here are the two basic patterns you need:

Parachute Adams

If the fly fishing authorities limited me to one dry fly pattern for spring, I would not think twice. My hands-down choice is the Parachute Adams. This pattern imitates midges and Mayflies — and especially the sub-species of Mayflies known as Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs). My favorite size is an 18.

However, last week in the Wisconsin Driftless, I saw trout rising to small BWOs. So I put on a size 20 Parachute Adams and promptly caught an 11-inch brown.

In the interest of full disclosure, the size 20 pattern I used was a Parachute Purple Haze. It’s the same fly as a Parachute Adams, only with a purple body. Honestly, I haven’t noticed that one works better than the other. Trout seem to like either one. Perhaps the Purple Haze gives them a slightly different look from the tried-and-true Parachute Adams. But that advantage is disappearing as more fly fishers give in to the “purple haze craze.”

What I like about the Parachute Adams – or its flashy cousin (the Purple Haze) – is the white post or “parachute” that makes it visible. Even a size 20 sticks out as it floats down the run.

The Parachute Adams works well in the West, the Upper Midwest, and (from what my friends tell me) the East as well. Wherever you find midges and BWOs, the pattern will work. Midges appear throughout the winter and into spring, while BWOs show up in March.

Elk Hair Caddis

My other go-to pattern for spring fly fishing is the Elk Hair Caddis. Caddisflies appear in mid-April in both the West and the Upper Midwest. Fly fishers in southwest Montana — on the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers — eagerly await the “Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch.” Of course, by the time Mother’s Day appears on the calendar, the rivers usually look like chocolate milk. However, late-April fishing before the spring runoff can be fantastic as Caddis hatches intensify.

The Elk Hair Caddis is a bushy fly, and the tan elk hair wing makes it quite visible. The only problem is that it doesn’t stand out among dozens of other Caddisflies on the surface of the water. You can solve this problem can be solved by tying (or buying) an Elk Hair Caddis with some red or pink fibers on top of the elk hair wing.

The best sizes range from 14-18. It all depends on the watershed you’re fishing as well as the time of year. The best way to figure out the size is … you guessed it … check with a local fly shop. Also, some rivers will fish better with certain body colors. When I’m on the Yellowstone River south of Livingston, Montana, I like a green or a tan body. When I’m in the Wisconsin or Minnesota Driftless, I prefer a black body. I’ve even used some flies with elk hair that has been dyed black.

Other Patterns

I’m tempted to end the article here because these two flies will work in the spring 80% of the time when bugs are in the air and on the water. However, the later you get into spring, you’ll start to see some other flies that require other patterns.

In the Upper Midwest, Hendricksons appear as early as mid-April. Sulfers, March Browns, and Craneflies show up in May. I remember an evening on a little stream in the Wisconsin Driftless when the trout refused everything but a Cranefly pattern.

In the West, March Browns in a size 12 work well surprisingly early on the big rivers like the Yellowstone. There are Stonefly hatches as well that happen in the spring. Even a Stimulator can be effective at times — even though I tend to think of it as a pattern for summer.

Your best bet, though, will be to have plenty of Parachute Adams and Elk Hair Caddis flies in various sizes and — in the case of the Elk Hair Caddis — various colors.

While nymphs and streamers are always a sure bet in the spring, don’t neglect dry flies. You might miss out on the fun!

Fly Fishing Entomology 101 – Caddisflies

caddisflies

If Mayflies resemble small twin-engine airplanes, Caddisflies resemble B-52 bombers. The long wings of Caddis flies flank their abdomen, meeting at the top like the two slopes of a gable roof. This means Caddis patterns are easy to see on the water.

However, during the thick of a hatch, it’s hard to pick out your fly in the midst of dozens of other bugs on the surface. I’ve even had to scoop away Caddis adults that are crawling on my glasses, my nose, my hat, and my sleeves.

It’s no wonder that Gary LaFontaine called the Spotted Sedge Caddis the single most important trout-stream insect. I’ve caught fish on Caddis patterns from Wisconsin to Montana. Here is a brief profile of this important species:

Names

  • “No matter what the subspecies, fly fishers simply refer to them as “Caddis.”
  • “Caddisflies belong to the order ‘Trichoptera.’ Occasionally, books on flies and fly patterns simply refer to ‘Spotted Sedge’ — the most notable subspecies of Caddisflies for fly fishers.”

The Basics

  • Most Caddisflies have a one-year life cycle. Once they emerge, the adults can live for as long as a month—as opposed to a couple of days for most Mayflies.
  • Caddisflies, unlike Mayflies and Stoneflies, have complete metamorphosis, going from egg (1-3 weeks) to larva (9-10 months) to pupa (2-5 weeks) to adult (1-3 weeks).
  • Entomologists divide Caddisflies into five groups based on the way their larvae behave. The five groups are: free living (no case or shelter), saddle-case (dome-shaped case with an opening at each end), net-spinning (a case with a web next to its entrance to catch food), tube case (portable case that enables the larvae to move around when threatened), and purse-case (a case of silk and fine sand).
  • Spotted Sedge Caddisflies are net-spinners.
  • According to Dave Hughes, trout probably eat more Caddis larvae than any of the other stages. Trout are likely to feed more selectively on pupae than on larvae or adult Caddisflies.
  • Caddisflies hatch about any time of the day. To be sure, the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. window is usually a given. But I’ve fished in Caddis hatches between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and as late as dusk—both in the Upper Midwest and in the Intermountain West.

Effective Patterns for Caddisflies

  • Most fly fishers will concentrate on patterns that imitate the larva and the adult stages. But since Caddisflies (like Mayflies) can get “stuck” in their pupal shuck, the right pupa pattern can be effective.
  • It’s best to check your local fly shop for the best larva pattern to use since there is such a wide variety of Caddis larvae. Some of the more popular patterns include the Tan Caddis Larva and the Olive Caddis Larva (both with beadheads). I’ve also used a Beadhead Red Fox Squirrel Nymph successfully in the Yellowstone River in Montana.
  • Popular pupae patterns include the Deep Sparkle Pupa (either brown or yellow), the Krystal Flash Pupa, and the Beadhead Caddis Pupa. Fly shops will typically have a particular pattern that works well in the local waters.
  • The most famous of all the adult patterns is the Elk Hair Caddis. This fly has tan elk hair, although we’ve used patterns with the elk hair dyed black in the Driftless region of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The body of an Elk Hair Caddis will typically be tan or green or (in some instances) black.
  • The X-Caddis pattern, developed by Craig Matthews and John Juracek, is a great option for imitating adults which are caught in their pupal shuck.
  • often tie a bit of red or pink antron body wool on the top of my Elk Hair Caddis pattern (see the above photo) so that they are visible to me when surrounded by a dozen other Caddisflies in the current.
  • Sizes 12-18 are standard for all stages, although I’ve done the best over the years with sizes 14-16.

Other Entomology 101 Articles & Sources

    THE PALE MORNING DUN

    BLUE WINGED OLIVES (BWO)

    Sources: Dave Hughes, Craig Matthews, Jim Schollmeyer, Bob Granger

Best Fly Fishing Gear Developments in the Last Decade

fly fishing gear developments

Fly fishing gear has come a long way since I first started fly fishing in the late 1970s. Fiberglass rods have given way to graphite rods. Lightweight breathable fabric waders have replaced the body-hugging neoprene kind. Everything else from wading boots to reels reflect better technology. Fly fishing gear developments have made the sport a bit easier — if not more expensive.

Here are four noteworthy developments I’ve appreciated in the last decade or so. Some are arguably more significant than others. But each one makes the sport a bit easier for fly fishers — and even the fish we land.

4-piece fly rods

For years, two-piece fly rods were the standard. The first decent fly rod I purchased — an Orvis Silver Label — came in two pieces. The length wasn’t an issue except for backpacking trips to high mountain lakes.

Then, about the time I moved away from Montana, airline flights started charging for extra carry-ons. Thankfully, the four-piece rod became a thing about that time. Rod makers redesigned tapers and ferrules so that a four-piece rod performed as well as its two-piece counterpart.

Sure, some of the best casters can tell a difference between the way a two-piece and a four-piece rod handles. But most of us would be hard-pressed to figure out which is which if we did some casting with each one while blindfolded.

I am a big fan of the four-piece fly rod because its rod tube fits inside my suitcase. It also straps onto the side of my backpack frame without reaching into outer space.

Rubber nets

If you haven’t noticed, newer landing nets come with rubber netting. There are no strings attached.

This is a huge development for fish health for at least two reasons.

The first is obvious: Rubber nets flex, so they are less jarring to the fish than string nets. It resembles the difference between falling back onto your mattress (and the resulting bounce) and falling back onto your box springs (ouch!). Second, I suspect that rubber nets remove less mucus from a fish’s body than string nets do. That mucus is a vital protector of a fish’s skin.

Besides, I’ve noticed that the hook on my flies — especially the one the trout didn’t take on a two-fly rig — doesn’t get tangled in rubber webbing like it did in my stringed nets.

Foot Tractor Soles

Another great development was Patagonia’s Foot Tractor boot soles. There’s nothing like felt soles for traction on slippery rocks. But felt has fallen out of flavor (and is illegal in some watersheds) because of concerns about how it might trap microorganisms and transport them to the next river you fish.

However, before you rush out to buy a new pair of wading boots, you need to be aware of another new development. Patagonia’s Foot Tractors have retailed for the past few years at about $279. That price is hefty enough, but I could justify it for the sake of safety. Now Patagonia has collaborated with Danner Boots to produce a beautiful pair of leather wading boots with the patented Foot Tractor soles. But these boots retail at $549. Gulp!

Unfortunately, the “old” model is being phased out. You might want to buy the “old” model on closeout — if you can find them. I did that recently so I’ll have an affordable pair when my current pair of Foot Tractors wears out.

Zip-front Waders

I like this new development!

Admittedly, I haven’t purchased a pair of zip-front waders yet. But I’m going to consider them when my current waders wear out. Waders with a waterproof zipper make it easier to get in and out of them, as well as to answer the call of nature.

There is one downside. Yes, you guessed it—zip-front waters cost more than the traditional kind. However, I recently saw a pair of Cabela’s zippered waders for $149.

Honestly, fly fishers do not need every new gadget or model that shows up on the floor of a fly shop or the pages of an online store. But there are a few gear developments that make fly fishing a more satisfying experience — for both fly fishers and fish.