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It’s important to know your flies

June 6, 2009
By Jon Magee

Fly-fishing is a relaxing and relatively easy way to fish. It may seem complicated at times with the various insects that trout feed on but a little understanding of these bugs and paying attention to the size, color, and shape then choosing flies that match these three characteristics will usually bring fish to your flies.

This week I will discuss the other dry flies you may encounter if you choose to pursue trout with the long rod this summer.

Stoneflies are considered the third most important aquatic insect available to trout. Although not as abundant as mayflies or caddis flies in most area streams they can often attract fish when other imitations fail. Only a few species are available during the summer but their distinctive appearances can attract trout to them even when the trout are feeding on other insects. Stoneflies vary greatly in size, shape and color but they all spend their nymph stage in riffles and runs with well-oxygenated water where they feed and hide from the swift current, crawling around the rocks on the bottom. They also have the same general silhouette, two short tails, long body, and wings that lay flat over their backs when at rest. Some species live for two weeks or more before mating and depositing their eggs in the riffles so the trout get a good chance to see many of these flies, they will hatch throughout the day but you rarely see an abundance hatching all at once like mayflies and caddis.

Golden stones are one of the most important stoneflies for the angler, the nymphs live for two years before crawling above water onto rocks or logs to hatch into winged adults, the nymphs can be an important food source all year. These are big, meaty flies (6-8 hook size) and the trout will often take the bugs even when feeding on a hatch of other flies. Once you start seeing their nymph shucks on rocks, a yellow stimulator dry fly is hard to beat; these are good attractor flies, often triggering strikes from trout that are not actively feeding and can draw strikes from large fish that are usually reluctant to take a fly from the surface;

Yellow and lime sallies are smaller stoneflies with a thinner body than the more robust bodies of their larger cousins and can be seen throughout the summer. Most are in the 14-16 size range and are often on the water together. As with most stoneflies, they are most available to the trout when they flutter over the water mating or depositing their eggs. The females often have red or orange egg sacs attached to their abdomen just forward of the tails and carrying a few flies that have this attribute is a good idea.

Midges are another aquatic insect that can be important to the fly angler (just ask anyone who fishes the Elk River), they are tiny flies (18-28 hook size) and can be a nightmare to see on the water. They come in many colors but the most common are black, olive, cream, and sometimes red. These insects are very plentiful on most streams but the trout will normally favor larger insects when available. When the trout are feeding on midges it can be extremely frustrating fishing, the flies are almost impossible to see on the water and the tiny hooks and light tippet make it difficult to get a good hook set. Trout will feed on the larvae and adults at the same time; once they hatch, they begin mating soon after where they will form a cluster, which is well represented by a griffiths gnat fly. A good tactic is to fish a size 18 griffiths gnat, which is visible on the water with its palmered hackle and peacock body, trailed by a single midge fly or larvae dropper in the appropriate color and size of the natural.

Terrestrial insects also play a big role in the summer, ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets are available to the trout when they fall from overhanging vegetation or the wind blows them onto the water. These insects come in a variety of sizes and colors and can bring fish to the surface when there is no hatch in progress. I have had some of my best dry fly fishing in the summer with ants in low water in shade under overhanging limbs; trout seem to love ants for some reason. Size 16-18 ants in black or brown have saved the day for me many times when I find trout rising with no obvious hatch in progress. Late in the summer when most aquatic insects have waned, a grasshopper or cricket floated along a grassy undercut bank can draw savage strikes from some very large trout; just remember to match the size and color of what hoppers you see along the stream.

If you have ever wondered why fly anglers carry so many flies, it is because of the sheer number of insects that trout feed on. There are fly patterns that represent everything from the nymph to the adult and all stages in between; it all depends on what the trout are feeding on and for reasons known only to the fish. On some days, they will feed only on the emerging mayfly as it struggles to free itself from the surface while the same fish will feed on the nymphs of the same insect the following day but not touch the emergers, go figure.

The last couple weeks I have just given a short overview of most insects that trout feed on, there are others, such as dragonflies, damselflies, crane flies, the list goes on and then there are minnows, crawfish, hellgrammites, and other morsels that entice trout and are important on any given day. I remember one day I spotted a huge rainbow that was rising sporadically during a heavy hatch of mayflies, I tried everything I had but the fish just remained in his feeding lane ignoring my best flies until I saw a dragonfly hit the water nearby, the trout shot over about five feet and annihilated the bug. I looked in one of the many fly boxes I carry and found an old dragonfly, I tied it on, cast it hitting the water hard as I had just witnessed the real one do, and the trout hammered it. I ended up with a beautiful 25-inch rainbow on a fly I have not caught another fish on before or since but on that day, it was just what I needed, that's why I carry so many flies in my vest.



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