Category Archives: Know your Bug

Etymology you can use. Not all of us are born buggy, and this is real information that will help you identify the food fish eat, and become better at how you fish that hatch.

What is an October Caddis? Know Your Flyfishing Bug

Fall fly fishing is often characterized as a time for precise casts, small mayfly patterns, and great drifts. And then the October Caddis comes along. The October caddis is a lumbering, awkward, skittering mess on the water and a big bite for trout that seldom goes unnoticed. But what exactly is an October Caddis, and how should you fish them? Lets sort it out.

Big, bulky and bad at floating. What else is to love for a trout? October Caddis photo via Flycraftangling.com

What is an October Caddis?
The October Caddis is a surprisingly large, clumsy caddis that hatch on rivers in September and October. Fly Anglers refer to these bugs most often as “October Caddis”, or “Fall Caddis”, though this has little to do with their scientific name, Dicosmoecus. Technically, there are four known Western species under this family name, but their minute differences are of little importance to our angling. Bugs of the Dicosmoecus family undergo a complete lifecycle. Eggs hatch into larvae, the larvae build cases on the river bottom, then mature through a series of installs (stages of maturation) before sealing off their case and pupating. During pupation, the relatively featureless larva grow wing buds, gills and become strong swimmers. The pupa then cuts itself from its case and swims to the surface and to the shoreline to climd rocks and shed it’s pupal membrane to emerge as an adult. The adult October Caddis then flies to nearby bushes and trees, where it will live for several days mating and with others. The females then return to the water to oviposit, or drop their eggs. Unlike mayflies, that only perform this ovipositing once before dying, caddis can live for a few days performing this mating ritual again and again. In a typical fall day in a stream where October Caddis are present, fish will be interested in just the last stages of this process, keying in on and eating the pupa as it swims to the surface and emerges, and the adults that return to the water to deposit their future offspring.

Why Are October Caddis Important for Fly Fishing?
What makes the October Caddis an important hatch for anglers is their size and behavior. Typical pupas range in size from 20-25mm, or 3/4 to 1 inch long. The pupas are also bulky, and present a large bite of protein in a time when most other hatches are much smaller mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives and Mahoganies. The adults also offer up a large chunk of protein, but come with the added bonus of awkwardness on the water. An adult October Caddis flitters about on the water, and often return to the water over and over again, giving fish plenty of opportunity to take them. For anglers fishing tiny flies with long leaders, the opportunity to skate and skitter a large dry fly over the heads of fish can be a welcome change in the fall, and can elicit voracious strikes from larger fish.

How Can I Tell that Fish are Eating October Caddis?
Seeing fish eating October Caddis is not a regular event. Because they hatch in smaller numbers than other available food in the fall, fish rarely are eating October Caddis exclusively. Rather, it is much more important to be looking for the presence and signs of the October Caddis being in the drift and part of the available food for trout. Adults emerge in the early afternoon until dark, but because they can live for sometimes close to a week, it is worth shaking some bushes early in the morning to see if any adults are present. Likewise, looking for the telltale bright orange shucks on rocks along the shoreline is a great way to find out if the October Caddis is about in the river you’re fishing. Flipping rocks in slow, inside bends will reveal the large larval cases, and more empty ones than full ones will also let you know it is a great time to tie on an imitation.

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What Flies Do I Need For The October Caddis Hatch?
Lucky for anglers, many flies will cover this big bug and often they are bugs we are already carrying in our box. It isn’t entirely necessary to carry an exact replica to catch fish. An orange chubby chernobyl in sizes 10-12, a larger orange stimulator in the same sizes, or a big bright goddard or elk hair caddis will do nicely as an imitation of the adults. The pupal stage can be covered by flies like an orange rubberlegs, a larger copper john, or a more precise caddis pupa imitation. More important than the fly used in both situations is how it is fished, and the water in which it is tried. In both cases of the pupa and the adult, or the nymph and the dry fly, this is far more important and takes some almost opposite thinking than most of our fall fishing.

How Do I Fish The October Caddis Hatch?
Lets start with the nymph, or pupa. The pupa of the Dicosmoecus family are strong swimmers, though they prefer to swim through the slower water to find rocks to emerge on. For this reason alone, the old standard swing through a run and into the slow inside bends, then a slow hand to hand retrieve back to the angler can sometimes entice the fish into striking. This is a great imitation of the nymph’s behavior. A nymph run through the deep holes after a riffle, then swung out into the shallows  is often considered a less active form of fishing, and an older technique more accustomed to wet flies and soft hackles, but it is ideal for the october caddis emergence.
As for the adults, their awkward flying is in direct contrast to the pupa’s excellent swimming. For this reason, beginners often have better luck with a single October Caddis dry fly than a technical mayfly rig. The dry fly can be skated, skittered, twitched, dunked, splatted, and generally moved all around the water to elicit strikes as this ugly drift actually more accurately imitates the adult October Caddis when it is ovipositing. Like the nymph, the water the dry fly is run through is also almost counterintuitive. When fishing a small mayfly or other fall pattern over slow, deep holes where larger fish are hugging the bottom often the fly will be completely ignored. But the large meal and easy target that a clumsy October Caddis presents will sometimes draw a large cutthroat up from its otherwise cozy home at the bottom of the stream. When fishing the dry, give attention to the riffles and runs, but never ignore the slow water that might hold a whopper.

Leader Setup
Long leaders in the fall always give you a big advantage, and in the case of the October Caddis, a 9 ft. leader with a short section of fluorocarbon tippet will often suffice for turning the fly over, and adding the distance and invisibility that is necessary for the fall. A 9 ft. 4x leader with 4x tippet is just fine for this situation. When fishing the nymph, a 4x leader will also suffice. Fished tandem with a slim mayfly nymph, the october caddis pupa is a great attractor even if it doesn’t take as many fish as the mayfly swung along with it.

Last Words
Fall is a great time to be on the river, but often can be a very frustrating time as well for the amateur angler. Small flies, technical drifts and clear water make fish quite wary. The prospect of fishing a larger fly that doesn’t require this kind of technical prowess make the October Caddis hatch an event worth looking forward to, and often even if the adult isn’t present I will fish these imitations in the afternoons. Give it a shot next time you’re at the river, and focus your efforts on the water you might have missed with the mayfly. You could be rewarded with a beautiful fall cutthroat to match your big orange fly!

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What is a Skwala? Know your Flyfishing Bugs

What is a Skwala? 
Reports have been coming in from guides, social media, and across shop counters and by many estimates the peak of the skwala hatch is upon us. Sounds like a perfect time to get in-depth about what the old-timers call the “olive stonefly” and entomologists call “Skwala Americana”, “Skwala Curvata” or “Skwala Compacta”.

Cling on, you crazy diamond.
Skwala nymphs are diamonds in the rough come spring on the Bitterroot.

These olive-shaded harbingers of spring are a welcome sight for western Montana fly fisherman, as they herald the real beginning of dry fly season. In the all-too-short window between winter and spring runoff in western Montana, the skwala stonefly reigns supreme, and with good reason – though the skwala is present on a select few other river systems, (such as the Yakima river in Washington) the sheer numbers and bulk of the hatch on the Bitterroot and lower Clark Fork rivers is unrivaled. The number of bugs might be large, but the knowledge base among fly anglers lags behind like a three-legged greyhound. Let’s take a shot at alleviating that problem.

This adult stonefly probably feels pretty lonely. Maybe he’d like a trout to keep him company.
Photo via troutnut.com

Like the rest of the stonefly family, or plecoptera, the skwala has a two-stage life cycle. For most of their lives, skwalas live as bottom-clinging nymphs and closely resemble the more common golden stonefly nymphs. Big and bulky nymphs 18 to 24mm long with amber-yellow coloration, they hatch from eggs underwater and mature for a year before crawling to shore to split their nymphal shucks and emerge as adults along the shoreline.

Upside down is no way to live life. This is the trout’s eye view of a skwala.
Photo via troutnut.com

What truly makes the skwala unique among the stoneflies are their desire for privacy- unlike their more prominent family members, the skwala adults seek out crevices in the rocks, the undersides of cobblestones and other areas of cover for their hatching. This behavior marks the skwala hatch, and it’s elusiveness more storied. Because of this, the skwala adults can sometimes seem to appear from out of nowhere- though observant anglers will find huge numbers of the nymphs if they seek them out.

What triggers the emergence for skwalas is temperature and sunlight, which is why the skwala hatch can begin as early as February, and run into late April. Though the exact temperature that gets the nymphs moving is debatable, without a doubt, when water temperatures reach the mid 40s the bugs begin appearing. When water temperatures hit 50 degrees, the hatch is surely on.

After hatching and finding a mate, females return to the water to deposit their eggs, though this stage is often practically invisible. Fly fishermen would do better to seek out bugs on the shoreline rather than looking for their presence in the air or on the water.

Adult skwalas have smoky brown bodies, highlighted by the olive markings that they have become famous for. A dark grayish-brown pair of wings lay flat along their bodies when not in flight, though the wing is often splayed out as the bug struggles in the water. The adults are wiggly, slow swimmers and patterns that imitate this low-riding dog paddle will turn trout heads.

Though the skwala hatch generates loads of excitement and anticipation among anglers, those who know it well tend to temper these dreams with the knowledge that the hatch is less a spectacle than a subtle thrum. Look for single adults swimming if you must, but don’t be surprised to find bigger numbers along the shoreline during the peak of a hatch.

What is a Stonefly? Know Your Fly Fishing Bug.

What is a Stonefly? 
Stonefly hatches are the big talk on western rivers, and the blanket hatches of rivers like the Blackfoot are legendary. Big, awkward adults make for big meals for trout. Their appearance on the river lets us start tossing the big foam and feathers around getting top eats on clumsy casts, size 6 hooks and rubber legs.  The big hatches are all anticipation and excitement, though there are plenty of minor hatches that are still crucial to fish diets. With more than 3,000 species of this worldwide mesozoic-era holdover, knowing the typical life cycle of the entire order will broaden your knowledge, and get you into more fish.

Plecoptera means, “braided wing”.
Which aptly describes their intricate wing patterns,
and piss-poor flying design.
3,000 species sounds like a lot to swallow, and it is. As fly anglers, we focus on the few larger species dependent on the region that we fish. In western Montana, this typically means hatches like the golden stonefly, the salmon fly, the yellow sally, and skwala. These big bugs are easy to find on the river, and trout key in on the hatches almost exclusively making for great fishing. The salmon fly hatches of western Montana rivers are prime examples of what makes plecoptera unique. The bugs are extremely geographically isolated, which makes identifying the specimens you find on the streamed and banks easy. The bright colors and segmentation of an adult golden stone are hard to miss, and easy to replicate at the tying bench. And their presence is a strong indicator of clean, lovely water quality. Perfect for growing big trout.
Worst hide and seek player ever. Bright colors and a distinctive body shape
make the stonefly family unmistakable trout snacks.

Lucky for us fly fishermen, stonefly hatch cycles are similar. Though they are aquatic insects and spend a good deal of their life cycle underwater, their hatch is considered to be terrestrial in nature. Stonefly nymphs develop on the bottom of the stream bed, then crawl out of the water onto rocks, sticks, and trees to shed their exoskeletons and emerge as adults. These discarded shells on shorelines are the telltale sign of the stonefly, and their imitations can be tied on and fished anywhere that you see them. Once hatched, stoneflies can live up to a month as eating, mating and providing great fishing at all stages of a hatch. Adults flutter and dip on awkward wings, often falling into the drink where trout lurk.  Spent adults fall wings spread into the water, females dip and dive to leave their eggs in the current.

Mating, and the females returning to the water to lay their eggs are of the utmost importance to us as anglers, but lets not get ahead of ourselves. The nymphal stage of a stoneflies life is a long one, and at no time in a river where stoneflies are present are there not stonefly nymphs developing and crawling around. Stoneflies can take from one to four years to develop, and the nymphs resemble wingless adults. Some have external gills that they lose during their hatch to adulthood.They crawl along the bottom, and can be rooted by feeding trout or knocked into the drift. They are excellent crawlers, and turbid moving water, rocky stream beds and runoff strengths mean a hard life for these nymphs. Crawling to shore and joining in the mating sounds like a good idea, and their annual migration is as integral a part of a fish’s diet as any other hatch. Prior to the hatch, these migrations have the trout eating.

Perhaps the most important part of the hatch, and the stage that most often produces the kind of fishing that we dream about is the return of the ovipositing female. Their awkward wings and prominent egg sacs flitter and flub around rivers and induce massive surface strikes. High riding patterns best imitate this stage, but just as important are low-riding dries as well that imitate the spent female post egg-laying.

Though the behavior, size/colors and timelines are different for all the bugs in the Plecoptera order, their defining characteristics of a clinging, crawling nymph and the award-flying adults, and their presence at all times of the year make stonefly knowledge incredibly useful for the fly fisherman. Two stages, adult and nymph, and behavioral drift that makes them migrate en masse when the right triggers are present. That means good eating for the trout, and better fishing for us.

What is a Midge? Know your Fly fishing Bugs

If a trout were filling a fly box, he’d probably grab a whole lot more midges than most of us are carrying these days. Which is a mistake, because midges are the most prolific and diverse of all the aquatic insects that trout like to snack on. Think of them like a bag of chips- they don’t make a meal on their own, but if you’ve got a bag and a couch to post up on, you’re gonna put a whole lot of ’em away. This might be a little lowbrow as far as analogies go, but for trout midges are the same way. A trout sitting in a comfortable hold will stuff themselves on midges as long as the supply is there.

Midges are like the ladies, they love a man in neoprene and khaki.
Photo by Lees Ferry Anglers.

The fact is, there isn’t much water that midges don’t live in, and their biomass can be in the tens of thousands per square meter if conditions are ideal. Like chips, midges come in endless flavors and they’re everywhere. For tailwaters like the Missouri and the Colorado, midges are the lifeblood of the river, and casting tiny bugs to wary fish is as addictive as fly fishing comes. Fly fishermen that focus on lakes also place a high priority on fishing all stages of the midge life cycle.

Perhaps because of their importance on tailwaters and lakes, many of us forget the role they play in other fishing situations. This is a mistake. Midges are a reliable option throughout the year, and knowing when to tie one on will increase your fish numbers.

But let’s not gloss over the real reason most midge patterns don’t see a lot of play: midges are small. 6x and 7x tippets are no fun to work with, and though catching fish on a size 24 is a blast. If going small is something you avoid in your fly selection, make it a point to give it a shot on the river more often. For many of us, stepping out of the pattern rut takes a marked effort. With packs and boxes full of other tasty options it sometimes can be too easy to have good intentions of trying something new, and somehow that row of Royal Wulffs keeps calling us back. A quick tip that can help you avoid this scenario: go minimal and leave everything but the midge box in the truck next time you’re at the river. You might be uncomfortable doing it, but you’ll force yourself to become comfortable with the micros.

Most flyfishermen use the blanket common name “midge” to cover the thousands of sub-species of midges that abound in trout water, though it’s not uncommon to use “chironomid” as a blanket term as well, which is technically the taxon of the insect family in nerdspeak. You can get all graduate student if you want to, but its much more crucial to know what it is we’re trying to imitate than it is to spout greek names. The life cycle of the midge is much more essential knowledge for anglers, as it dictates fly selection.

What is a Midge?
Midge are small aquatic insects that closely resemble mosquitos without the proboscis. Midges begin their lives as quick-hatching eggs in the water that develop into larva roughly averaging in size from a millimeter to a centimeter. These larva vary in color with most prominent being brown, green and red and are like thin, segmented worms. The term “bloodworm” is often used to describe the midge larval stage.
Midges spend most of their lives as larvae in burrows in the river bottom, eating muck, venturing out for a look see around the neighborhood from time to time. Because midge larvae burrow into the silty river bottoms and eat muck, slow moving sections and debris-filled pools are great midge larval habitat. These waters are often oxygen-deficient, which gives midge larva their most prominent feature: bright red hemoglobin throughout their bodies. The larval stage is a viable fly option, and there are scads of simple patterns that copy the thin red bodies.

The S.S. Midge Larvae by Outsmarting Fish is a great option for deep, slow moving pools.
Pattern available at http://outsmartingfish.com/2010/12/midge-larvae/

But when a brief metamorphosis from larva to pupa occurs underground and propels the midge upward in the water column, it also takes a starring role for fly fishing. Midge pupa fill their skins with gas, and wiggle their way to the surface. This portion of the midge’s life is filled with peril, and trout take advantage of their slow journey with abandon. Patterns that imitate this pupal stage pick up on the shine of the bug underwater, and the gas bubble that forms at the pupa’s head. This journey is marked by the pupa’s attempt to break free from the surface, where the gas bubble becomes a trap they must overcome. These surface film struggles are most often a trout’s smorgasbord. Fish can eat in a leisurely fashion, returning to the surface film like a fat elderly woman on a rascal at the Golden Corral. Oftentimes, this is where we will see fish in a holding pattern, working feeding lanes and filling their guts.

A midge pupa pattern is usually a simple proposition.
This size 20 foam emerger is a favorite.

The winged adult must emerge from it’s shuck in the surface film if the midge is going to survive, and this process is daunting. Often, water temperature will halt the pupas ascent, and the midge will hand in the water column at a certain depth as they wait for conditions to change. Trout like it easy, and these snacks are drive though access. 

The Griffith’s Gnat does the trick for surface-riding midges.
Photo via roundrocks.com

But for those that make it to adulthood, once their wings are dry they are off and running in the dash to find a mate and reproduce. This stage kinda looks like a bar at closing time- bunches of males swarming around females that move from group to group, selecting mates. Once mating has occurred at the male’s streamside bungalow, the female returns to the water to lay her eggs, and the cycle begins anew. Which for fly fishermen, is a good thing. Classic midge patterns like the griffiths gnat do a great job of imitating this “buzz ball” midge surface mess, and if you’re not carrying a few in your box you’re doing it wrong.

Knowing a bit about the lifecycle of the midge can help you make the move to those small sizes in your flybox, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you along the way. Get clicking and get to know midges, or better yet- head to the river and tie one on. It’s that time of year.

Know Your Bugs: Insect Entymology that Matters

We fly fishermen are an odd bunch. We’ll drop big bucks on rods and reel practically guaranteed to catch big fish,  endlessly browse fly shop bins, and pack more tools into a sling pack than is needed to climb Everest. But when it comes to one the most important aspects of our sport, studying what trout actually eat, we treat it like someone asked us to do their calculus homework.
It ain’t that hard, people! They’re just bugs.

What the hell is that, a Cheeto?
Salmonflies on the Blackfoot are a hatch so prolific even Frito Lay gets in on the action.

Knowing your bugs is the best connection to better fishing you can make. The ability to identify hatches, predict what hatches are likely, and make better fly choices is what separates the slough-raiding psudeo-Rapala slinging boys from the hooked-up-come-tricos men. So buck up, billy. We’re getting into it.

Come the fall Trico hatch on the Clark Fork, it might be helpful to at least know what you’re going for. This trico attached itself to the truck while an angler attached a size 20 imitation to a rainbow trout’s lip on the Clark Fork, September 2013.

Over the course of the coming weeks, we’ll hit western Montana’s big hatches, and as many of the smaller ones as we can in brief, easy to digest chunks. Armed with a bit of extra knowledge and a box of flies to match, you’ll be hooking into more fish this season, tying better flies and basically looking pretty badass in lots more of those grip and grin instagram hashtag twitter things the kids are all hopped up on these days.

Not caught on a streamer. Can you say, “dry fly eats”?
You’ll be saying it a lot more with some bug knowledge under your belt.

It can’t be emphasized enough: better bug knowledge means better fishing. Guides know it, the old guy with the crusty Filson hat and the sheepskin patch full of rusty flies knows it, and you know it too. If you’re an old pro, this series might be old hat but review is good for keeping those aging synapses limber. If you’re one of the young guns slapping big chunks of marabou to size 2s and getting after it, bug knowledge will give you more to talk about on twitter. If you’re fish-obsessed like us, you’re ready to get this party started. Look for our first “Know your Bug” pinup Monday morning while the boss is still at the coffee station, and get ready to see bugs in a whole new light.