American Fly Fishing

By Don Roberts

Outgunned and overrun, I first executed the angling equivalent of a full-scale military retreat on Oregon’s ballyhooed Deschutes River during the Salmonfly blitzkrieg. A well-executed retreat, incidentally, is purported to be the most difficult of all military maneuvers. My retreat was imperfect but honorable. I simply turned tail, bow pointed downriver, and stroked out of there.
   If this sounds like an inauspicious way to begin a spiel celebrating Pteronarcys californica, aka the Salmonfly, you’re right. But what I haven’t said, until this very moment, qualifies as something of a confession: a mumbling, eyes-downcast disclosure of having been spoiled rotten by year after year of relatively unpeopled but decidedly pyrotechnic Pteronarcys hatches. That, of course, was back in the good old days.
   Yes, it only happens in the West. Nevertheless, the Salmonfly hatch amounts to an annual spring rite that beckons—no, demands—the attention of anglers from every corner of the continent. What is it that compels this kind of enthrallment? For one thing, it’s the Salmonfly’s bigger-than-other-bugs size—not just the individual insects but their collective emergence as well. On rivers like Montana’s Big Hole and Madison, and the Deschutes, to name just some of the most famous few, the word “abundance” doesn’t do the hatch justice. “A plethora of protein on the wing” does.
   There’s a reason some wags in the Rockies claim that the Salmonfly is Montana’s state bird. While guides and anglers claim the typical Salmonfly is 60 to 80 millimeters long, killjoy biologists put the true measure at 30 to 50 millimeters, with a wingspan of 50 to 84 millimeters. Equipped with disproportionate wings, fluttering so resolutely as to seem in slow motion, Salmonflies in flight resemble miniaturized helicopters throbbing through the haze.
   Though most Salmonflies range in hue from an overall gray-ochre to mocha—depending upon the mineral complexion of the stream bottom—with a dusty-amber underbelly, there are also darker variants the color of burnt toast, all adorned with bright orange-peel collars that make them look clerical. Without exception, Salmonflies live in higher-velocity rivers, usually below 7,000 feet in elevation, and prefer medium unconsolidated substrate (freestone and cobble), which functions as a nursery for the eggs and hatchling nymphs. Unlike the nymphs of most other species of stonefly, which, prior to emergence, spend only a year grazing stream bottoms, Salmonfly nymphs develop over a three-year time span. In spring—or, in some regions, in early summer—the mature nymphs trundle more or less en masse toward shore. Migration and emergence—whether strung out all day or, more typically, at dawn and dusk—tend to be a clumsy affair, with many losing their footing in the turbulent currents. Thus the nymph fisher, using basic black or dark brown patterns, will almost always be in the ball game. That said, no matter how productive it may prove to probe the front of the hatch, there’s some question as to the worth of traversing the continent in order to straight-arm nymphs. It’s the air show that unhinges anglers’ jaws.
   After shore-bound legions of nymphs split free of their shucks, clusters of adult Salmonflies end up draped everywhere along the stream bank, clinging to willows and wild rye, grappling for perches on rocks and limbs, crawling up your neck and shirt cuffs. At this stage their one and only mandate is procreation, and they take up to three weeks to lock in a mate. During this lengthy period of courtship, Salmonflies assume the unenviable role of generously dispersed, winged kibble for every bank-cruising bird, mammal, and reptile. Following the mating ritual, female Salmonflies—laden with egg sacs so full their abdomens sag ponderously—shamble over the river, looking for slicks where they may deposit their precious cargo. Now we’re talking airborne trout chow; now we’re talking dry-fly mayhem. 
   However, there’s a catch; because Salmonflies descend both haphazardly and rather unhurriedly, trout soon adopt acute attentiveness: studying the goods and becoming firmly wired into what’s real and what’s not. Patterns imitating adult Salmonflies must be right, or close to right, in every way, including size, silhouette, color, and attitude on the water. Hatch-matching can get intense, dude. Bird’s Stonefly, for instance, even takes into consideration the right sound effects: the more than slightly audible splat of a Salmonfly blundering, or, in the case of a gravid female, controlled crashing, into the river.
   When you hear guides and veteran anglers refer to “chasing the hatch,” they are not being lyrical or romantic. They literally mean chasing the danged hatch as it advances, due to incremental water temperature increases, farther and farther upriver. Consequently, first thing in the morning, you should not be surprised to see a guide combing the willows and looking for fresh shucks. Like other wildlife encountered on the river, guides exhibit a certain raw exuberance that correlates to vectoring with the hatch. A windfall of Salmonflies almost inevitably prompts the classic guide gross-out, wherein your trusty oarsman–team leader squirts a seam of mustard down the length of the bug’s abdomen, then pops it in his mouth like a cocktail weenie or, a variation on the theme, opens his sandwich and smooshes the poor critter between the lettuce and mayo, then proceeds
to chomp.
   There can be no lucid discussion of the Salmonfly phenomenon without broaching the subject of timing. So many variables are involved—weather, water temperature, snowmelt, runoff—that accurately predicting the hatch amounts to delusional thinking. There’s a solution. You know that old saying “Better late than never”? Well, in regard to the Salmonfly hatch, it’s better late, period. Simply tarry until rumor turns to clamor—there’s no muzzling news of the hatch—and then abide another few days until less of a carnival atmosphere prevails and the trout are no longer glutted like Roman emperors. In short, follow the uproar, but not too closely (trout memory comes stamped with a 10-day expiration date).
   With the most flamboyant aquatic hatch on the continent, there’s something both oddball and electrifying about the convergence of angler, trout, and insect, all drawn into a singular, cross-purposed mass. Nonetheless, if you find it hard to be enchanted while jockeying for position, the Salmonfly frenzy might not be your scene. But you should know there’s a good reason that throngs make annual pilgrimages to the Deschutes, Big Hole, Madison, and Colorado. If you hit it right—archangel insects, risen fish—it’s truly a religious experience. And how many of those do we get in this life?


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