American Fly Fishing

The Hype Hatch
By Don Roberts

Early-season stonefly hatches are more about what they’re not than about what they are.
   This is not the time to go online and madly scroll through vaunted, seasonally prescribed fly patterns. Nor is it the time to sit down at the tying bench and dreamily concoct batch after batch of Little Black Stonefly imitations. Nor is it the time to dig out maps and pinpoint a stream lauded for its curative mired-in-winter-blues bug hatches. No. What it is, really, is the time to seriously and intensively shop for the finest, most techy thermal underwear on the market. Because it’s a sure bet that you and every other antsy angler out there is going to ignore the first three sentences of this paragraph anyway, so best be prepared.
   There’s a reason the words “squall” and Skwala sound so much alike, and indeed are separated by only a single vowel from being true homophones. The genus Skwala, of the Perlodidae family, is represented by three regional species: S. americana, S. curvata, and S. compacta, all universally and commonly referred to, not without a smirk, as “springflies,” even though hatching in their western river habitats may take place as early as January. Typically, though, the main hatches start in late winter, overlapping into spring. That is, if they start at all.
   In the East and Midwest, Little Brown and Little Black Stoneflies, members of the family Capniidae and kissing cousins to western Skwalas, are fondly (always a questionable sentiment) referred to as Snowflies, no doubt because they are often sighted slowly fidgeting on glistening sheets of snow, looking not unlike a smattering of whole cloves spilled on a white tablecloth. 
   Colorado fishing guide and accredited aquatic entomologist Robert Younghanz notes, “Stoneflies in the Capniidae family only hatch in winter, even on the coldest days.… It’s the only significant insect fauna in winter, and you can find them coast to coast.”
   Younghanz describes physical and behavioral traits that highlight their presence, making them evident to both fish and fishers: “They’re jet black [or in some regions dark brown] to help them absorb heat from the sun, and they don’t fly. They mate right on the snow.”
   While the little stoneflies’ hatch regime remains stubbornly indeterminable—predictably unpredictable—even the occasion of a conspicuous, appreciably large hatch will not necessarily trigger a trout feeding rumpus or, for that matter, even a moderated banquet. The obstacle, of course, is physiological. Trout, like other cold-water species, maintain their fat and energy reserves by becoming, at least partially, dormant: slower metabolism, slower heart rate, slower movement. In such a subdued state, trout are rarely showy. Nevertheless, they are sufficiently operational to respond to the right stimuli at the right juncture.
   Both the Skwala out West and the Little Black Stoneflies in the rest of the country serve as a main winter food source that trout universally recognize. Whether at any given moment trout will come out of their frigid lairs to eat them remains the crux of the situation. Owing to biological subterfuge, there may be instances when the bugs are there and the trout are feeding on them, however delicately, but the whole affair goes unnoticed. Following emergence, Skwala have a marked preference for privacy, staying hidden in crevices of cobblestone. Their placid temperament—staying idle and hardly flapping about—adds to their natural camouflage. Thus undetected, they wait for calm conditions and periods of sun to mobilize mating flights and, for the females, airborne trips back to the stream surface for ovipositing. At times the only clear indication of their presence is the random swirl of a trout having just fed on one.
   Little Black Stoneflies, sharing many of the same characteristics as Skwala, would also emerge under all but the most astute angler’s radar were it not for the fact that fecund hatches, if and when they do occur, usually materialize in bright sun. Additionally, they often coincide with streamsides blanketed in snow. Though diminutive, the distinctive little bugs contrast sharply with the icy white sheen.
   One thing that becomes noticeable when scanning the literature regarding the early stonefly hatch is that in the East there’s decidedly less noise, less wild-eyed chatter. Why does the cabin fever in Montana seem to out-intensify the cabin fever in Maine, and the attendant fixation on early stoneflies? What’s going on? Are Eastern anglers smarter? More circumspect? Less anxious? More judicious? Nah. It’s just that in the East there are probably fewer freestone streams where the little stoneflies prefer to live, leading to a commensurate muffling of the siren song, a crimping of crazy impulses. Then again, who knows? But geography and hydrology are a theory.
   As with almost every other aquatic insect, a degree of confusion attends the early stoneflies. West of the Mississippi the most common befuddlement revolves around confounding Golden Stoneflies (Perlidae) with emerging Skwala. Nowhere is that more true than on the Yakima, a Washington state river applauded for its year-round fishery. Steve Worley, proprietor of the Worley Bugger Fly Co. in Ellensburg, Washington, located a Frisbee toss from the river, has done an admirable job of unkinking this misconception. “When I first started fishing the Yakima in the mid-1980s, the chatter with area fly fishermen always revolved around a Golden Stone hatch that appeared on the waters of the Yakima sometime during the month of February.… It seemed a bit early to see a Golden Stone species … [but] entirely possible since the central Washington climate and conditions were much warmer than I was used to seeing [in Montana, where Worley grew up].” 
   Worley collected a live specimen and took it to a “close family friend” who also happened to be an entomologist. The resulting micro-examination revealed the presumed Golden Stonefly was, in fact, a Skwala.
   While on the Atlantic side of the country, Little Black Stoneflies rarely amp up enough to galvanize any hope of dry-fly fishing in winter, Skwala hatches on such famed waters as the Big Hole, Bitterroot, and Clark Fork in Montana have made enough wide-screen, 3-D appearances to rose-tint one’s outlook. Though normally stoic—“On certain days it seems like you have a better chance of Kate Upton appearing in a bikini”—Montana guide Bryce McClean went on to make clear “when you do get lucky enough to actually see a day when it’s all really happening, the Skwala hatch can literally change your perspective on what’s possible while dry-fly fishing
in western Montana.”
   So, even though many guides confess that hitting a prolific early stonefly hatch is akin to stumbling upon the lost Inca treasure of Atahualpa, the babble continues unabated. Why? Well, hype for one. And aside from antics in the NFL and which airline is stranded in which airport, there’s not much else to talk about at this time of year. Desperation is another factor: long, l-o-n-g winters, and not enough scratch for a trip to the Bahamas.
   From the perspective of overcoming inertia alone, the phenomenon of early stoneflies seems like an inscribed invitation to hoist one’s butt off the Barcalounger and answer reveille on the nearest riverbank. But don’t be fooled, at least not any more than you want to be. Because, dear angler, more often than not, it’s an invitation written in disappearing ink.


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