Lead Free Angling - Fishing with a Conscious

We are faced with many social and environmental choices in our day to day lives. Do we throw that scrap of rubbish in the garbage bin only to be hauled off to the landfill, or do we place it into a recycling bin to be used again? Should we use chemical or organic fertilizers on our lawn, or should we even have a lawn in the first place? Do we avoid using red dye in our hummingbird feeders? Should we worry about lead in our fishing gear? After-all, I’m just one guy occasionally losing a handful of split shot to the rocks. What’s the harm in that?

So many of our actions may seem benign at first, but when you add up our small actions and then multiply them by the global population, our actions become amplified. If we consider the number of anglers fishing a popular destination river such as the Madison, Yellowstone or even the Roaring Fork Rivers, we might start to see our individual choices have a larger impact on the ecosystem as a whole, when we add everything up.

On a midsummer day in July, I counted 35 drift boats cruise by me on a stretch of the Madison River in an 8- hour period of time. In each boat, there were at least two anglers. Hypothetically, let's suppose each boat was fishing the traditional western nymph and bobber technique popular with rowing guides. I cannot ascertain with what technique they were fishing, but suppose for the sake of this argument that all of the anglers were fishing with split shot attached to their leaders. It is not uncommon for anglers to lose a lot of gear, especially new anglers.

Let’s assume that each boat that drifted by was using nymphs that day and that each angler in each boat all had lost 6 split shot each. A single BB sized split shot weights .02oz. There were 35 boats x .24oz lost in each boat = 8.4oz.

That is over half of a pound of lead in one day alone!

If there are 100 guide days per season and 35 guided trips per day, on average, that equals 840 ounces of lead, or 52.5lbs, in one single river in one single year. FIFTY-TWO POUNDS OF LEAD.

It is highly unlikely that 52lbs of lead was actually lost to the river bottom that year, however, because not every boat was fishing with lead attached to the split shot or lead based weighted fly patterns. Even if only 20% of the anglers used and had lost lead rigs, it's still a lot of weight donated to the benthic zone in that year alone - possibly ten and a half pounds of lead.

I have not even mentioned the use of lead anchors. I watched one guide lose 2 anchors in one day on the Yakima River many years ago. Heck! That’s probably 20lbs of plumbum on the bottom.

As we have seen in our natural world, lead lasts a long time in the environment and can possibly migrate throughout an ecosystem. A case in point might be the California Condors, who have been suffering lead poisoning near the Grand Canyon due to lead shot used in hunting.

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department[1]:

Lead toxicity has been identified as the leading cause of death in condors in Arizona’s California condor reintroduction program, and high mortality rates are the primary obstacle to recovery of this species. Multiple condors have died of lead poisoning since 2000. Condors are trapped annually to have their blood tested for lead. Biologists began testing for lead exposure in 1999. Each year, 45 to 95 percent of the condor population tests positive for lead exposure. Chelation treatment is often required to reverse dangerously high blood lead levels.  Surgery has also been necessary in the worst cases. Without these treatments, more condors likely would have died.

A number of scientific studies collectively provide strong evidence to support the hypothesis that spent lead ammunition is the primary source of lead exposure in condors. The information gained from these studies can be collectively presented as a set of scientific findings or observations, linked together to create a logic chain. Individually, each link in the following logic chain has been demonstrated by a scientific study, and collectively the links form a logic chain that provides strong evidence that lead ammunition is the most likely source of elevated blood lead levels in free-ranging condors.
—   http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/california_condor_lead.shtml

 

I am not entirely certain if, or how, lead migrates through the food web of trout streams. A possible hypothesis can be made concerning lead in our aquatic ecosystems by reviewing some scientific literature by Dr A Cristini [2].

More complex aquatic plants, such as the submerged aquatic vegetation that have roots and a multi-celled structure, appear to take up more lead than plants without roots; this may be related to their absorption of lead from sediments. Uptake of lead in aquatic systems varies with many different factors including the pH of the water, the presence of other minerals in the water, and the availability of organic compounds or other chemicals that may bind up the lead, making it less available for uptake on the one hand, or on the other, actually facilitating its uptake by the organism. In some aquatic plants, rooted in sediments, lead taken up by the roots can be translocated or moved to the shoot, although lead can also be directly absorbed from the water especially if the lead concentration is high there. Lead measured in aquatic plants may also include that adsorbed at the surface or taken up by bacteria that reside on the surface of the plant. In one study, 46% of the lead measured from the plants was actually in the epiphytic (surface-resident) bacteria. Certain bacteria can increase the toxicity of lead to aquatic plants by synthesizing methyl- or other alkyl-lead compounds. These are organic compounds consisting of one or more carbon atoms and associated hydrogen atoms; the organic compounds are more soluble in the fatty membranes of plant and animal cells and more readily taken up. Although these methyl-lead complexes are not nearly as important in food chain contamination as comparable organic mercury compounds, they can be as much as twenty times more toxic than an equivalent weight of inorganic lead.

 

It has been observed that some forms of lead do not migrate up the aquatic food chain, however one can make a simple observation that lead in plant leaves will get eaten by bacteria that then get eaten by benthic macro invertebrates which belong to the shredder/scraper functional feeding group. Fish will then consume the macro-invertebrates and consume quantities of lead.

Dr. Cristini continues:

Even at lead concentrations at or below the 50 parts per billion previously considered safe in drinking water for human consumption, chronic lead exposure to fish may bring about increased mortality rates, reduced hatching success and indications of neurotoxicity as indicated by higher incidences of black tails (darkening of the caudal area) and spinal curvatures. In a Colorado stream that received contaminants after a dam holding back tailings from a mining site broke, rainbow trout exhibited neurological damage, including spinal curvatures and blackening of the tail. The stream contained up to 50 ppb of lead per liter of water. Because of the sensitivity of these fish, a Maximum Acceptable Toxicant Concentration (MACT) of 7.2 mg/l (ppb) has been suggested for rainbow trout. Brook trout also showed scoliosis (bilateral spinal curvatures), an abnormality of the spine, and reduced growth after long term exposure to lead. These effects lasted over several generations.
— http://www.rst2.edu/ties/LEAD/university/resources/experts/leadinanimals/animal1.htm

 

Dr. Cristini's paper continues to discuss the effects on waterfowl, humans, amphibians and crustaceans. As sportsmen and women, we may not even consider other impacts we are having which include the impacts on birds, waterfowl and amphibians.

More and more, we are learning that we are having a greater impact on our natural world. Alone, each individual may not pose a substantial risk but en masse, we pose far greater risks to our environment than we realize. Perhaps we start to look for alternatives to using lead in our fishing gear. Fly companies are starting to sell lead free flies, or even better, tungsten beaded flies, which sink fast. There are tungsten weights and sinkers and tungsten putty that can be used as well as tin split shot offering a viable alternative to lead.

[1]           http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/california_condor_lead.shtml

[2]           http://www.rst2.edu/ties/LEAD/university/resources/experts/leadinanimals/animal1.htm

 

Early Summer in the Roaring Fork Valley, scene 1.

What to expect when you are expecting

A seasonal forecast for the Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado.

Early Summer in the Valley means one thing, runoff conditions. As of the writing of this, it has not started yet. A spring snow storm brought new snow to the mountains that crown the Roaring Fork watershed. Unseasonal weather has delayed the onset of runoff allowing another week of fantastic fishing opportunities along the lower reaches of the watershed. If you can get out in the next two days, do so. Call in sick, quit your job...do whatever it takes to cash in on this bonus round of fishing opportunities before the big flush.

Future water for the lower Roaring Fork River is stored on Mt. Sopris. It will not take long for this snow to melt and fill the lower river with a vital flush of water to scour the river bed clean allowing for a healthy benthic macroinvertebrate habitat.

Future water for the lower Roaring Fork River is stored on Mt. Sopris. It will not take long for this snow to melt and fill the lower river with a vital flush of water to scour the river bed clean allowing for a healthy benthic macroinvertebrate habitat.

While my guests were busy honing thier angling skills during a recent wade trip, I took an opportunity to perform a benthic macro invertebrate sample. My kick seine sample from about a one square foot of substrate revealed final instar stages of Drunella grandis grandis, the green drake, Ispoerla mormonoma, the yellow sally with one or more instar stages yet to undergo before reaching maturity, Ephemerella dorothea inermis & Ephemerella excrusians, the PMD's. Two gastric lavage samples yielded green drake and mature stonefly nymphs which so happened to be the two fly patterns that we were using to catch these fish in the first place.

Finding so many mature green drake and pale morning duns caused some silent jubilation on my behalf. These are the dominant hatches that define summer fly fishing in the Roaring Fork watershed. Despite the recent snow, the presence of these insects gave me hope in warmer days ahead.

Contrary to the colorful name given to Drunella grandis, the Green Drake, these insects are not very green. If you collect a natural from a stream bearing these specimens, you will notice that they range from a dark reddish brown on the dorsal surface while the ventral surface can be a pale tan to tannish olive. These large nymphs are an example of the countershading that dominates aquatic habitats helping organisms to blend in with thier environment.

Flashback Drunella

  • Hook: Firehole Sticks 633 #8-14
  • Bead: metallic olive tungsten bead. Paint the top of the bead with a black marker prior to application of UV resin and coat with resin.
  • Collar: (optional) Veevus stomach body, small, chartreuse (M11) or a chartreuse Bug Band.
  • Thread: 50D GSP white thread.
  • Underbody: White thread.
  • Tail: Medium or dark pardo Coq de Leon.
  • Abdomen: Medium brown D-Rib, dorsal side colored with a dark gray marking pen (Copic W8). Dorsal surface coated with UV resin.
  • Thorax: Hareline Dubbin golden brown (HD38).
  • Legs: Micro grizzly flutter root beer.
  • Wingcase: Flash back olive brown. Make 1 coat of resin and color with marking pen, apply a second coat of UV resin.

As runoff starts to wane, the green drakes of the Roaring Fork begin to hatch. This is the best time of the year for Roaring Fork bound anglers to experience truly epic dry fly fishing. The water can still be running high so plan on floating the river in order to best fish the hatch and carefully plan your start of the float to coincide with the late hour that the hatch begins in the lower river. As the season matures, the rivers drop into normal summer flows, the green drake hatches works their way upstream and up into the Frying Pan River. The green drakes can hatch all summer long on the Frying Pan River and as late as October in some years providing dry fly anglers opportunity for *tactical surface action. 

* Long fine leaders 7-8x diameter, drag free drifts, and flawless imitations.

Don't forget that during the daytime hours, the yellow sally stoneflies stoneflies are active. This hatch can also last all summer with hatches occurring almost everyday. Be sure to fish a soft hackle wet fly for this hatch as the nymphs of the genius Isoperla emerge mid stream much like a caddis with the newly emerged adult swimming towards the surface. I like to use a small size #16 yellow foam Humpy with a trailer hitch for use as an indicator dry while fishing a Simple Sally or Sally Flymph as a shallow dropper. I often do well at the head of riffles with this combo for large predatory browns and bows.

If you are planning on visiting the Roaring Fork, be sure to keep an eye out on the hydrographs and plan your visit when the water level is dropping. I anticipate runoff to commence any possible day when the temperature and direct sunlight starts to melt the snow. Given the recent addition to the snowpack and a good overall snowpack, we could be in for an extended runoff season.


Knot Sense.

My top three knots

One of the many tips and tricks that I share with anyone that joins me on the water is a few of my favorite fishing knots. Over the past 40 years I have tried numerous knots. Some of the knots that I have tried have been a dismal failure and I wish everyone would stop using them such as the surgeons knot and the cinch knot. Sure, they are mindless to execute but would you trust a fish of a lifetime on a knot that saved you 10 seconds to tie? Both of those knots have failed me too many times to document.

My favorite knot to affix tippet to my leader is the figure 8 hemostat knot. In my practical field experience, I have found this knot to be easier to tie and stronger than a blood knot or surgeons knot. 

 
 

An almost identical knot as the previous hempstat knot that I use exclusively to affix my non jig patterns.

 
 

For affixing my jig flies I prefer the non-slip loop knot which allows my jigs suspend properly and bounce freely off the rocks. Have no fear dear friend that is cringing at the idea of putting an overhand knot in your tippet, when you pass the tag end back through the overhand knot, it is no longer an overhand knot.

 
 

Photography Tips

I get a lot of emails requesting that I put up videos on how I photograph my fly's. I am always in a quandary about this because it really is beyond the scope of anything that I have ever done yet. you see, I have been perfecting my art since 1986 when I started photography. I have since spent several thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on pursuing a fine art degree, honing the skills required to produce the images by applying optics and color science.

Professional photographers, including myself, wish that people could understand that photography is not just a matter of taking a picture and having it come out of the camera ready for publication. There is a great deal of digital darkroom involved to sharpen images and correct contrast not to mention composition and lighting. 

As a professional photographer who's life work hangs in galleries, I just simply ask that people respect the labor and toil involved in creating these works of art. As a professional artist, my specific "how to" get images to look the way I do is not something that I am willing to give away for free. Not at least until I have recouped my investment in learning this craft. Most professional photographers cringe everytime someone asks them to give away thier work. Would you  spend your life learning how build a house, labor in its construction for 30 years and then just give it away for free to a complete stranger? 

To be fair and get you going in the right direction, I will say that you should perfect your in camera (DSLR) white balance, use good studio lighting such as soft boxes and quality optics including macro lenses. Learn your lenses optimal aperture for the sharpest image. You should also go to Lynda.com for tutorials on color correction, selective sharpening and other photoshop image editing procedures. The web also has tons of macro photography videos. I still go to YouTube and watch tutorials on a regular basis. After 30 some years, I am still learning something new every time I seek it.

Cutomer pix

It is always nice to see the fish that customers who have bought my flies have caught while using them. 

Kyle Lusk shows off an amazing specimen of Oncorhynchus mykiss. Give him a follow over on Instagram

Don't Get Punched in the Eye

As with all functioning society, a set of moral rules and conduct is in place to maintain common civility. Fly Fishing is no exception to the imposition of a moral code governing its rules and ethics. Various flavors of this code book have been authored from time to time leaving many confused as to the rights and wrongs of the sport. 

I would like to include a long forgotten but most important commandment: Never fish too close or violate the right of way of another fisherman. It is always first come first serve out there. To maintain civility between us all, you should always ask permission before entering another anglers beat, typically delineated by obvious structural changes in the water between riffles and pools. Otherwise you will probably get punched you in the eye or verbally humiliated in front of your wife and kids.

Read about the "Seven Deadly Sins of Fly Fishing" here.

Reading The Water Pt 3. Deciphering Laminar Flows

Not every river you fish will feature endless arrays of perfect pockets, pools, seams and structure in which to easily locate fish. Sometimes, we have to find fish in water that has less distinct characteristics. Rather than waste time blindly casting to empty water, possibly putting down fish with our efforts, stop and take time to observe the surface characteristics of the flow.

Laminar flow can be the most enigmatic water to decipher. It is water that flows at an even speed from top to bottom bank to bank. I normally walk by water that exhibits no obvious structure in which to target my effort. Smooth even currents from bank to bank merely bumping over the rubble is akin to fishing on the moon. I know fish are present, often seeing rises out in the nondescript waterscape, but fishing this water requires more time and effort than casting to fish around obvious structure. 

If you do chance upon a feeding fish in a section of river that is laminar in structure, spend some time observing where that fish is located. Even without the telltale signs of current seams, the location of drifting insects and fish are not left to chance. There is a structure at work that the fish use to thier advantage.

Fish will use whatever structure is available to them within the limited confines of a river. Sometimes we must look at less than obvious structures in the laminar sections of water. When looking at laminar flow, observe the structure of the river bottom and speed of the current. If the substrate consists of only sand, silt or very small cobble, with a flow that is walking speed or faster, you are better served moving along in search of something else. However, if you find laminar walking speed flow with a substrate that consists of bowling ball sized cobble you are in luck. You have found water that may contain fish. Small boulders create micro vortices that can hold a fish in the current, so the fish spends very little effort in maintaining its position. Deschutes River steelheaders know this when they fish those classic named mile long runs.

Figure 1. Laminar Flow

Figure 1. Laminar Flow

Before you wade into the river and start casting with the usual routine of starting in close working your way out in a clockwork shotgun fashion, take time to look at the surface of the water and try and find the “lanes” that do exist. Lanes are the micro seams that slip past each other funneling everything that drifts downstream into narrow bands. The best way to find the lanes is to find the bubbles. Are the bubbles accumulating in a concentrated area? If so you have found your lane. It may take some time to train your eye to look for a higher concentration of bubbles gathering in an inch wide seam amidst an even dispersion of bubbles, but when you do, you have found your area of concentrated effort. Fish will be located within close proximity of these micro seams in order to easily slip away from thier vortex and inspect a likely morsel. 

Figure 2. Lanes are revealed as white lines caused by the accumulation of bubbles in concentrated micro seams.

Figure 2. Lanes are revealed as white lines caused by the accumulation of bubbles in concentrated micro seams.

Figure 3. Orange lines indicate the location of the lanes within a Laminar flow profile.

Figure 3. Orange lines indicate the location of the lanes within a Laminar flow profile.

In the images above, I have used the tools of photography to illustrate where micro seams actually occur. In figure 1, we see a general random dispersion of bubbles on the surface in a section of laminar flow over bowling ball sized substrate. In figure 2, I exposed the image longer to blur the lines and now you can see the micro lanes as faint white stripes, so that you will know better where to concentrate your efforts.

Figure 4. Can you see it now?

Figure 4. Can you see it now?

Foundation Flys.

 

With a body and collar of hares ear dubbing, this tan colored jig fly is tied in the round and highly suggestive of many trout menu items. 

No greater endeavor connects to our sport as that of wrapping fur and feather upon a hook in an artistic fashion to imitate an insect or other food forms. From the short hair on a the ear of a domesticated hare to the synthetic yarn that carpets are made of, a plethora of materials can be manipulated in such a way as to look and behave like an artificial insect that fools fish. Fish foolery is my ceaseless preoccupation and conjuring more ways to do so provides me with endless hours of fascination, yet sometimes, I cannot escape the basics in which all fly boxes are built upon. Here I hope to share some of my favorite fly patterns with you and compare some modern patterns that have a very solid foundation in the classics.

I have adopted the common philosophy over the years that fly patterns that look like something edible to a fish but not little like anything in particular hold a greater appeal to me than fly's tied to imitate a specific insect. I know that I certainly am not alone in this philosophy. With that being said, I also have fly boxes loaded with specific patterns to imitate specific insects within specific spatial temporal instances so that I can accurately imitate when a mayfly is struggling in the surface film or the ovipositing female caddis dive towards the bottom to deposit an egg sac. There are times that either/or will be of importance, specifically, during times when fish are keyed into a specific insect or stages of emergence. This list will be focused on my favorite fly patterns that do not specifically imitate a specific hatch, but rather, if I were limited to only a handful of patterns in which to rely upon to carry me through the season and every situation I may encounter. This list is the foundation for discovery, you can alter each of these patterns in size color and materials to change them up and improve upon their efficacy.

I have chosen this list of patterns based on their ability to be modified in such a way as to cover more bases than the original. You can alter the size color and add various flourishes to each of these patterns so that you may end up with an entire array of fly patterns based on just a handful or recipes. Learning to tie each of these flys will put you in the upper echelons of fly tying masters.

Hare Ear Nymph

    The Hares Ear Nymph in its basic form is one of the oldest patterns in this series of short articles. Today, it is hard to keep up with the variations that exists. Stripped to its basic form with a just a simple hare's mask fur body blended with some antron at the factory, we have what is now called a Walts Worm. The Walt's Worm does a fine job of imitating a host of aquatic invertebrates and I believe it’s original intent by Pennsylvania angler Mr Walt Young was to imitate the aquatic cranefly larva. In its simplicity, the Walt's Worm earns the top prize in imitating almost anything and everything that a fish could ever wish to come tumbling into his feeding lane. Rib it with pearl mylar tinsel and add a hot spot of orange and you have a sexy Walt's Worm.

Classic western American Gold Ribbed Hares Ear

Sexy Betty, Light - a variation of a Walt's Worms which in turn is a variation of a Hares Ear Nymph.

Changing the size and color of a basic Gold Ribbed Hares Ear Nymph will cover all the rest of your bases. Large dark olive can imitate anything from dragonfly or damselfly nymphs, even green drakes nymphs and many caddis larva and pupa. Adding a brass or tungsten bead or adding weight to the fly can send the fly into the deep dark abyss. I now tie a size #10 tungsten bead head jig version in light tan and dark olive that I use as my anchor fly on a multi fly rig. Tied in a tan color, the heavy beadhead jig version does well at imitating the spring stonefly nymphs, while the dark olive just as likely imitates anything from cranefly larva to green drakes.

    Adding a flash back over the thorax and a collar of partridge hackle adds two more “strike triggers” to the fly. With these modifications, we now have a Guide's Choice Hare's Ear.

Is the Guides Choice more effective than a simple Walt's Worm? I have yet to decide in my daily angling, but, if professional fly fishing guides like it, why not throw it into your box? I tie this version in large tan, olive, golden olive and natural fro size #6 to #14

My version of the Copper and Hare is a hybrid hares Ear Soft Hackle with a furry collar. A variety of sizes and colors seem to cover an entire range of all possible food sources from large black stoneflies, golden stoneflies, caddis larva, caddis pupa to the full range of mayfly nymphs.

Pictured from left to right:

  • #8 Black
  • #10 Natural Tan
  • #12 Golden Tan
  • #14 Olive Green
  • #14 Pale Olive
  • #16 Yellow
  • #18 Caddis Green

 

Next time we look at the Pheasant Tail Nymph

 

The EPT Factor

 

Beneath the rippled current of a trout stream, a complex food web plays out far greater than many anglers realize. The basic biology of a trout stream is often hidden well out of our view unless we are willing to explore the depths, which often requires getting wet and cold. At the very bottom of a fluvial food chain is a bio-film - powered by sunlight and dissolved nutrients - that covers the rocks, plants and woody debris upon which benthic macro invertebrates feed. Slightly higher up the taxonomic ladder are the benthic macro invertebrates, underwater organisms which lack backbones. Macro invertebrates such as insects, worms, crustaceans and isopods feed on the bio-film, then become food for other insects, birds, small fish, and ultimately, the trout we love to pursue as a favorite game fish.

The Gold Ribbed Hares Ear meets a Kaufmann's Stone.

The Gold Ribbed Hares Ear meets a Kaufmann's Stone.

Taxonomists have divided the entire known biological world into eight categories from domain, kingdom, all the way down to genus and species. For a fly angler wanting to choose the right fly, it is important to know at least the family orders of the three primary aquatic insects. A familiarity with the three dominant taxonomic families is a must when choosing the right fly, as each family has its own distinct shape and life cycle.

The three families of aquatic insect that we must pay close attention to are: Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera, otherwise known as the Mayflies, Caddisflies and Stoneflies (EPT). Each of these families of insect has its own unique life history and key role within an aquatic food system. Each EPT family category is not hard to recognize throughout the individual life stage. Mayfly adults have a distinct pair of upright wings with a variety of three tailed larva known as nymphs. Caddis adults have tent shaped wings, with the larva stage having tubular, worm shaped bodies, and often, external shelters they build and carry around with them. Stonefly adults have two pair of wings that fold flat over the back, and the larval form are often large and robust crawling about the rocks.

Keeping a simple collection of fly patterns to imitate these three categories is the very foundation of a quality working fly box. It is easy to get drawn into an endless array of fly patterns filling the bins of a well stocked fly shop, each fly pattern calling out its own special fish-catching allure. However, expert fly anglers know that simply a small collection of fly patterns always gets the job done. The reason only a few patterns are all that is really needed is that they imitate the three families of aquatic insects very well. 

Free living Caddis Larva

Free living Caddis Larva

I have selected a small handful of fly patterns that serve as a foundation to imitate the EPT families. The fly patterns are based on a general size and shape of each family with enough impressionistic qualities to possibly imitate more than one family by altering its size and color. Each season, I narrow down my collection of patterns based on general effectiveness. New patterns emerge from the vice that simply outperform old patterns from previous seasons. I noticed that if I focus more on impressionistic imitations with a focus on the EPT factor, the better my angling day.

Stonefly Nymph

Stonefly Nymph

Good science has no need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel is already perfect in its intended purpose: to roll. The same holds true for many fly patterns invented long ago. There is no need to reinvent something that is already perfect for its intended purpose. However, like the wheel, we can alter it to suit our intended use without altering its core functionality. When choosing a small collection of fly patterns that function to imitate the EPT group, I look at the so-called "wheels" of fly design to select the tried and true patterns to serve as the foundation of a fly box. Having selected a core group of fly patterns I can then alter their size and color to imitate even more possibilities. In most cases I have stripped the original fly down to its most common element, to impressionistically imitate the basic shape, size and color.

Common Mayfly Nymph

Common Mayfly Nymph

The following are my favorite patterns for each family, with a focus on patterns that can fall within multiple families. If a fly pattern can fall within multiple categories, it earns top spots in this collection. I am focusing on nymphs alone because the imitation of adults typically requires more exacting imitations rather than impressionistic fly patterns. I also spend 99% of my time searching the water with nymph patterns.

Ephemerella

Trichoptera

Plecoptera

Simplified Pheasant Tail Nymphs mimic mayfly nymphs very well and may even be taken for other food items.

Simplified Pheasant Tail Nymphs mimic mayfly nymphs very well and may even be taken for other food items.

If we break down the shape of each of the EPT group, the single common denominator for all of them is a round, tubular shaped abdomen usually tapered at one end. In fact, beyond the EPT group, other families also have the same simple tubular shape. While many mayflies have different shaped abdomens, differing from torpedo to suction cup discs, if we blur our eyes for a second like artists do while painting, we would lose detail and a general shape of form emerges. In most cases, a simple tapered tube shape is the dominant form most frequently observed in benthic macro invertebrates.

I have snorkeled many salmonid streams performing fish counts and identifications including benthic macro invertebrate sampling. I frequently see a behavioral pattern with fish holding in feeding positions within the stream channel. Fish will move from side to side and slightly upwards a few inches to take in any small object that has a cylindrical shape. Many times that object is just a broken twig or leaf stem that is then quickly ejected as a non edible object. The importance of this observation tells me that fish are prone to sampling anything that has a common cylindrical or torpedo shape common to most aquatic macro invertebrates.

Most of my angling time is spent fishing in a general searching pattern, probing likely fish-holding locations with these attractor style nymph patterns. This is the time I use any of the general attractors that I have mentioned, patterns that have the general size and color of many of the insects commonly found in my river. It is only when fish key in on a specific insect at a specific moment in that insect's life cycle that I will then fish patterns designed to specifically imitate that instance.

 
 

Reading The Water Pt 2. Seams and Bubble lines

There are a few basic visual clues one can learn to observe about streams in order to narrow the window of where fish are likely holding, especially on big rivers where fish could be anywhere; especially if you don't know how to dissect large parcels of water into smaller subsections. One of the most obvious and often overlooked indicators of likely fish locations are the bubble lines or bubble zones. Bubble lines occur where the current gathers together usually as a result of some instream structure funneling the surface bubbles into predictable locations which also funnels food into a small area making feeding easier for fish, thus expending fewer calories in an effort to feed. Instead of having to swim all over the place looking for food, a fish can hold in a preferred spot where the food is funneled directly to them. Current seams can also define the location of a bubble line or at least prove a location that can also funnel food into a narrow band. Though typically a bubble line is caused by underwater structure. Structure that gives fish a safe location in which to hold and feed. Usually, you will find current seams and bubble lines very near each other, 

In the images below, I illustrate some of the most obvious instances of water that contains bubble lines, current seams and structure. If you stumble upon a small section of water that contains all three, take a moment to analyze what you are looking at. Chances are there may be a feeding fish.

In figure 1. You can see several prime structures you should look for when searching streams for likely trout holding water. There is an obvious current seam defining the slow and fast water, obvious underwater structure fish can use to hide near and a bubble line funneling food into the best possible holding spot. Can you identify where the fish should be in this picture?

Figure 1. Typical Grade A trout structure. It has cover from above, A strong bubble line funneling food near structure with a quick escape route next heavy fast current.

Figure 1. Typical Grade A trout structure. It has cover from above, A strong bubble line funneling food near structure with a quick escape route next heavy fast current.

Figure 2. Current structure defined between current seams and foam lines or bubble zone.

Figure 2. Current structure defined between current seams and foam lines or bubble zone.

Figure 3. A trout revealing its exact location

Figure 3. A trout revealing its exact location

Reading the Water, Part One, Introduction.

No, this blog post is not about a magical river flowing from the headwaters of the Unicorn Mountains, and if you learn it’s secret language, you could read a story about a magical voyage long ago; rather, it is about knowing where fish can be located within a stream based on observable hydrological and structural characteristics.

As a child learning to fly fish, I was always told that being able to “read the water” is an essential skill for an angler's success. At the very least, understanding the fluid dynamics and structural characteristics of a stream can lend the angler the ability to find fish within a given location. 

From the age of ten onward, I dedicated myself to learning about where fish like to dwell within the dynamic world of moving water. I recall sitting in the passenger seat on long drives into the mountains looking at the streams along the road. “Look at that spot; that ought to be a good spot to fish,” I would say, when I identified what looked like a fishy looking fluvial characteristic. Sometimes, I would beg my parents to stop and let me out so that I could at least make a couple of casts in another fishy looking spot just to see what would happen. I always brought my fly rod with me on family road trips into the mountains with an optimistic hope that a lunch spot would afford me at least a few minutes to practice my fly fishing skills.

When I was 42, I left my previous two careers in favor of pursuing my fisheries biology degree. I spent a summer working as a stream surveyor for the United States Forest Service. Because I had so much previous experience being able to locate fish in a stream environment, I was tasked with conducting stream snorkeling surveys, looking for coho and bull trout. I later learned more scientific terms for defining different stream classifications and hydrological features both in school and on the job. I now have a language I can speak for describing fluvial fish habitat.

I was scouting new water today while taking a bank side stroll with my wife. As we walked along I mapped out this rather featureless beat I might add to my guiding options. We pressed on hoping to find some water with more definition that would appeal to my fish finding senses. I saw an angler working some completely nondescript water, water that I wouldn’t even string up a rod to fish (see my post about laminar flows). To me, it would be like fishing on the moon. There would likely be fish present in that location, but there is nothing unique about the structure to give one a visual clue as to fish location. I then realized that the angler I observed might not be skilled at reading the water, or his skill set may not be strong enough to confidently fish the water with more defined structure and dynamic currents, like those located just upstream from him.

I often see anglers fishing in water I rarely stop to explore. I used to wonder if these people knew something that I didn't, or if they just were not educated enough about reading the water? I know, after having snorkeled in plenty of water like the nondescript boulder flats I see anglers frequently fishing, that the fish are few and far between in those locations. Perhaps they are happy with the occasional fish that they work so very hard to catch?

It would take me a hundred pages to describe the preferred trout habitat and the techniques to fish each and every one of them. To ease your pain, I will parse this information for you into smaller chunks you can read in small doses. Over the course of the summer we will define specific hydrological features and how fish utilize them. I will try to include as many videos and illustrations as possible, so that I can steer you out of the barren cobble flats with laminar flow into more exciting water full of fish.

I will use a specific language to describe rivers and streams, not only when I am describing fluvial characteristics but also when I discuss benthic macroinvertebrate distributions within a watershed (yawn). Yes, that will be another day.

  • Fluvial: Fluvial is a term used in geography and geology to refer to the processes associated with rivers and streams and the deposits and land forms created by them.
  • Benthic: The benthic zone is the ecological region at the lowest level of a body of water such as an ocean or a lake, including the sediment surface and some sub-surface layers.
  • Thalweg: is a line drawn to join the lowest points along the entire length of a stream bed or valley in its downward slope, defining its deepest channel -- often having the deepest, heaviest current.
  • Laminar Flow: In fluid dynamics, laminar flow (or streamline flow) occurs when a fluid flows in parallel layers, with no disruption between the layers. Observed as smooth even current from bank to bank.
  • Substrate: The composition of the bottom of the stream from sand, silt, clay to stones, cobble and boulders.
  • Embeddedness: The degree to which fine sediments surround coarse substrates on the surface of a stream bed is referred to as embeddedness.
  • Riffle: A riffle is a shallow section of a stream or river with rapid current and a surface broken by gravel, rubble or boulders. Riffles are instrumental in the formation of meanders, with deeper pools forming alternately.
  • Pool: in hydrology, is a stretch of a river or stream in which the water depth is above average and the water velocity is quite below average. A pool must extend from bank to bank. A side pool does not extend from bank to bank but to the side with faster water defining one side if the pool. A side pool will generally have a current seam and back eddy characteristics. 
  • Current Seam: the parallel junction between two distinct current speeds as they slip past each other.
  • Foam Line: Where bubbles gather in specific patterns along the length of current as defined by that current.
  •  Pocket Water or Pocket Pools: Small bank side pools outside of the Thalweg that are defined by and protected by boulders that cannot be technically defined as a pool.
  •  Wetted Width: the width of a body of water as described by the current water level.

Up Next: Current seams and bubble lines. What do they mean?

Spring Primer - Mother's Day Caddis

Meta Data
Scientific Name: Brachycentrus occidentalis
Common Name: Mothersday Caddis, Grannom, Apple Caddis
Hatch Status: super hatch, can cause caddis blizzards
Size: 6-12mm
Color: Pupa apple green, adults black
Location: Western United States, mostly west of the continental divide
Season: Late April early May

Brachycentrus occidentalis pupa

Brachycentrus occidentalis pupa

The Mother's Day caddis can be an amazing sight to behold. Clouds of millions of caddis can create what appears to be a biblical plague about to descend upon the river. I have seen mats of caddis clumped together forming rafts of mating caddis. The survival strategy for this species is to overwhelm predators with sheer numbers so even gluttonous predation cannot have an impact on population.

Emergence can be the most important stage to fish this hatch. While many anglers are more than eager to begin the fishing season with some dry fly action, and having clouds of adult caddis in the air is enough to make any dry fly aficionado salivate, dry fly fishing is NOT the best method. The reason is that emerging pupa can take time to reach the surface and are easily targeted by fish. However, although the surface of the water may seem to be teeming with caddis, fish cannot target them as effectively in such large numbers. Fish would rather not move too far from a comfortable feeding lane in order to feed and especially if food is readily available right in front of their nose.

Pupa can get stuck in the surface film for a considerable period of time, documented up to 30 minutes. If you do see what appears to be surface feeding activity, chances are high that the fish are feeding on pupa rather than adults.

A few years ago I was fishing the Mother's Day caddis hatch on the Yakima River out of Ellensburg, Washington. Around 4:00 in the afternoon the hatch commenced. It wasn't really a hatch, but rather, rafts of caddis that would eventually blanket the pools and back eddies with adults. 

I floated downstream to a pod of fish I found actively feeding. I pulled my boat over and waded into a position, so that I could get a good drift. I cast a dry fly a few times with no interest when I started observing the fish behavior right in front of me. The fish were actually feeding subsurface even though they broke the surface of the water. I did not see mouths open, but instead, porpoising fish were chasing emergers upwards in the water column with so much momentum, they broke through the surface and turned downward. Less experienced anglers would have continued casting a dry fly at these fish. In fact, that's what I observed every boat that floated past me doing, casting dry flys in the midst of a biblical plague of caddis. 

I clipped off the dry fly I was using and rifled through my fly box for something that I thought I could use to mimic the pupa emerging. I had a few Kauffman's Hot Wired Caddis, a relic of the 1990's in my box; although some hooks were too rusty I found a couple flys that would still work: metallic green wire with a dark dun CDC collar. 

As soon as my fly was submerged to about a foot in depth, I felt the line tighten up on a fish. I fought the feisty little native redband trout for a minute and released it. At this point, a guide boat pulled into a transition zone across the river from me and anchored up and allowed his clients to cast dry flys at some feeding fish. I landed another eleven fish when they pulled anchor and rowed on. I recall being into a fish on almost every single presentation for an hour, and I was into a fish whenever a guide boat drifted by.

It was getting dark, the hatch was slowing down, and I had finally put the pool down after 24 fish. I waded back to my boat and rowed to the take out boat ramp. As I was gathering my stuff and waiting for my shuttle to arrive, I was interrogated by one of the regional guides about what I was doing. Apparently, I was the only person actually catching fish that day. I asked him what he was using and he replied that they had been casting dry's. I explained to him the issue, that the fish weren't feeding up top. He adamantly refused to fish with any other technique than a dry fly. I exclaimed he would thus be relegated to watching guys like me catch fish while he flogged the water.

To this day, I still take guests out to fish this hatch, and every single one of them gets excited at the first opportunity of the season to fish a dry fly. Sure, you may catch trout on the surface when this hatch is sparse, but if there are millions of insects in the air and on the surface, the fish will get turned off the adults and focus on the easier pupa instead.

I do not offer dry fly patterns for this hatch as they simply are not needed. I do sell a couple of really effective caddis pupa for this hatch.
 


Newbury's Little Caddis Pupa (BB)
2.75

The little caddis pupa is hard to tie but oh so worth it! Tied with a black nickle brass bead so it is not too heavy or too bright so that you can swim it through a favorite trout pool during the evening caddis hatch.

Size:
Color:
Quantity:
Add To Cart

Aquatic Larvae - Water Snipe and Crane Flys

I frequently spend time snorkeling trout streams so that I can observe the aquatic world in action. While snorkeling, I will grab ahold of rocks or boulders, so that I can hold myself in the current and gain a vantage point to observe fish holding in the current. I will watch fish moving around in small holding areas mouthing almost everything in the drift. Most times the object - be it a small twig, leaf stem, seed or any manner of detritus that gets blown into the current-  is investigated and most likely ejected. Sometimes, this morsel is a real food form and is taken deeper into the mouth and crushed with pharyngeal teeth before being ingested. I can imagine that twigs and most artificial flies might be too tough to crush, so are immediately ejected out of the mouth with a quick reversed opercule pump motion. In the case of an artificial fly, often the rejection occurs before we can detect the take.

Tipulidae - Aquatic Cranefly Larvae

Tipulidae - Aquatic Cranefly Larvae

A recent discussion I had on facebook with an angling friend in the Pacific Northwest has me re-examining what I know about habitat conditions, namely water temperatures and metabolic demands placed on the fish throughout the season. He made an observation that fish are not as selective in temperature ranges in the 40º-50ºF range, while above 50ºF the fish become more selective.

The optimal temperature range for trout growth is between 42º-52ºF. Between these temperatures, fish are at their peak and can afford lower degrees of selectivity so they feed more actively and gain weight as rapidly as possible while the temperatures are optimal. Also, it’s important to note the stream order we are observing. Lower stream orders stay cooler while higher stream orders generally run warmer. Higher stream orders also have noticeable changes in food availability. In higher stream orders - lower in the watershed -  the diversity of macroinvertebrates changes to include a higher ratio of aquatic larvae such as the water snipe and crane fly. I have sampled large rivers such as the Madison, Colorado, Roaring Fork and routinely pull out large numbers of Athericidae larvae, the water snipe fly. This aquatic larvae is easily imitated with a common olive green rock worm pattern and is often mistaken for a green rock worm.

Athericidae Larvae - The Water Snipe - often confused with the green rock worm

Athericidae Larvae - The Water Snipe - often confused with the green rock worm

When times are lean and the guides are casting #22 baetis or #24 trico imitations in the late summer, trout will often move further for a big juicy aquatic larvae as it drifts by (stream order 3 and greater). This is opportunistic feeding at its best, more caloric reward per unit of effort. I regularly defy the conventional wisdom of casting small flys in the late summer when I regularly catch very large trout with one inch long larvae pattern used as an anchor fly while the smaller beatis is often ignored.

One other point I would like to make is that as the season progresses, mayflys, stoneflys and caddis that are available tend to diminish in size yet the aquatic larvae and free living caddis larvae keep growing. By late summer I can be fishing an aquatic larvae or even a free living caddis almost an inch long. I also notice that my daily benthic macro samples start revealing more and more water snipe larvae and less of the big three bugs on which we often focus our attention.

 

Fly patterns such as Sawyers Killer Bug, the Utah Killer Bug and my Latex larvae are the perfect imitation.