Fly anglers live for the "hatches" when trout erupt in a feeding frenzy over the mass emergence aquatic insects from the river's surface. In these moments, trout can become so focused on one specific type of prey that they will pursue only a skillful imitation. Anglers who study aquatic insects to meet this challenge find that they're as captivating as the fish themselves. Every species has its own story, its own personality. We cross paths with these characters at the climax of a perennial drama of life and death, and--as with any great drama or sport--every play means so much more when we know the players inside and out. It's not just about catching fish. It's about knowing the stream and loving everything in it.
The blog posts below describe every update ever added to Troutnut.com by myself (Troutnut) and other contributors, along with occasional other thoughts and stories from my adventures in fishing, hunting, research, and travel in Alaska and beyond.
Friend's family starting a Kenai River fishing guide service
My friend and fieldwork crew member Sierra comes from a rural Alaskan family with a strong angling tradition, and they've been spending summers on the Kenai River for a long time. Several times last summer she returned from the long breaks between our research trips describing what fun she had fishing the Kenai for trout and salmon with her family. This year, her dad is starting up a new guiding business: Corsetti's Guide Service on the Kenai River.
I'm hoping to get down there myself summer. If any Troutnut readers are thinking of heading to Alaska anytime soon, give him a call -- I think you'll have a great experience. His rates are better than what I've paid in the past on the Kenai River, and you'll be fishing with the head guide who has lived in the area and built up many years of experience on the river.
Where do you need to put the fly to catch a trout?
Countless books about fly fishing contain whole chapters on this subject, but a couple of the main lessons are (1) get the fly down to the fish's level, if you're fishing subsurface, and (2) cast upstream of the fish, not right over its head.
Thanks to the hard work of my labmates at the University of Georgia building detailed datasets for the Drift Model Project, I was able to construct some 3-D animation videos showing where drift-feeding fish, such as trout, detect their prey. We're using these data to test models that predict how much energy the fish are gaining and how that depends on aspects of their habitat such as water velocity and drifting prey. Those models will eventually help us better predict the effects of habitat modifications and changing streamflow patterns on trout and other drift-feeding fish. We're far from done crunching all the numbers from last summer's data collection, but some of our intermediate results may be interesting to fly anglers.
The videos rotate around an animated fish representing either an Arctic grayling (14-19 inches long), dolly varden (6-8 inches long), or juvenile Chinook salmon (about 3 inches long). The yellow dots show the estimated positions of potential prey items (some real prey, some inedible debris) at the moment when the fish reacted to them. All the positions are shown relative to the position of the fish, which is shown facing straight upstream.
Here's one from a smallish (~14-inch) Arctic grayling during a moderately thick Cinygmula hatch:
Note the separate layer of detection positions on the top, all of which were prey taken from the water's surface (not quite in an even plane because of small measurement errors). Some goes for the following 19-inch grayling feeding during a Drunella doddsii hatch:
And here's a 7-inch dolly varden feeding without any particular hatch:
And a juvenile Chinook salmon:
Obviously this is a limited sample. We're continually expanding it, but even then we're only studying three species at the moment. So don't be surprised if you've seen some things that don't fit these patterns. Nevertheless, they give me reason to speculate a few possible insights into fly fishing:
First, the fish react most often to subsurface prey that drift really close to them. So there's probably a huge payoff for very accurate fly placement, especially when you're sight fishing with a subsurface fly. Getting down to the fish's level is clearly critical, but so is placing the fly laterally so it passes right by the fish.
Second, even though the grayling were surface feeding on hatches, they continued to take a lot more subsurface prey throughout the time we observed them. These fish seemed to be picky about what they took from the surface, judging by what flies they would accept when we caught them later to (harmlessly) pump their stomachs. Yet despite that apparent selectivity on the surface, they were pursuing and capturing a variety of items below the surface. Nymph aficionados, some of whom prefer to fish a nymph straight through a hatch and a good rise of fish, may rejoice at this news. But not so fast, because...
Third, the fish react to prey on the surface from much farther away than they react to subsurface prey, perhaps because it better stands out against the background. This explains why dry flies work so well, and it offers the dry fly angler a defense against the nympher who insists that it's better to fish subsurface because that's where the fish get most of their food. It's true that there's rarely a better way to entice a fish than to present a nymph on a perfect, accurate drift. But it can take most of us several tries to get that perfect subsurface presentation, especially if we don't know exactly where the fish is. When trying to just read the water and guess where fish might be, it makes a lot of sense to use a dry, because every cast effectively covers a lot more ground. Even when we're working a particular rising fish that would be receptive to a nymph or dry, it's easier to consistently cast a dry into the strike zone than a nymph.
Finally, I want to emphasize again that these are just my preliminary thoughts as an angler after seeing the data we've analyzed so far on this project. They are not conclusive scientific findings. But they are good food for thought.
I've added a new feature article to the site, a pair of fly fishing stories written by my late Great Uncle, Joseph Drasler, along with a brief introduction to this remarkable man.
Growing up chasing farm pond bass in northern Missouri, I never saw a trout until about age twelve, when Uncle Joe took my family on a tour of Rocky Mountain National Park and we stopped briefly to stare into a crystal-clear spring creek as a couple of lively twelve-inchers dashed for cover. Maybe that was the beginning of the grip trout streams have on my imagination.
My wife and I spent (Spent: The wing position of many aquatic insects when they fall on the water after mating. The wings of both sides lay flat on the water. The word may be used to describe insects with their wings in that position, as well as the position itself.) a weekend out at Chena Hot Springs, which included doing a loop on a nearby ski trail that runs up nearby Mammoth Creek, a tributary of the Chena River. I don't know if anyone ever fishes Mammoth Creek itself, but it has been the locale of some studies of local aquatic insects.
I was recently asked about good reading on the topic of aquatic insects in Alaska. I did some recent searches on this topic for work, and here's what I've found (thanks to Luke Jacobus for pointing me to more than a few of these).
The most recent species-specific source on mayflies is:
Randolph RP, McCafferty WP (2005) The mayflies (Ephemeroptera) of Alaska, including a new species of Heptageniidae. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 107, 190–199.
A comprehensive source to family-level distribution and abundance is:
Oswood MW (1989) Community structure of benthic invertebrates in interior Alaskan (USA) streams and rivers. (ed) High Latitude Limnology. Springer, pp 97–110
And here's a mixed bag of other papers including some interesting biology related to Alaska's cold climate:
Rinella DJ, Bogan DL, Shaftel RS, Merrigan D (2012) New aquatic insect (Ephemeroptera, Trichoptera, and Plecoptera) records for Alaska, U.S.A.: range extensions and a comment on under-sampled habitats. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 88, 407–412.
Irons III JG, Miller LK, Oswood MW (1993) Ecological adaptations of aquatic macroinvertebrates to overwintering in interior Alaska (USA) subarctic streams. Canadian Journal of Zoology 71, 98–108.
Irons III JG (1988) Life history (Life history: The detailed life cycle of an organism, including the stages it passes through and characteristic behavior relating to growth and reproduction.) patterns and trophic ecology of Trichoptera in two Alaskan (USA) subarctic streams. Canadian journal of zoology 66, 1258–1265.
Cowan CA, Oswood MW, Buttimore CA, Flanagan PW (1983) Processing and macroinvertebrate colonization of detritus (Detritus: Small, loose pieces of decaying organic matter underwater.) in an Alaskan subarctic stream. Ecography 6, 340–348.
As for fishable hatches, the only hatch anybody's likely to have to match here in interior Alaska is Drunella doddsii. I've also encountered grayling feeding ravenously on a species of Cinygmula that I think might be Cinygmula ramaleyi, but that's yet to be confirmed by entomologists and would represent a new record in this state if it's the case. Ephemerella aurivillii is another of the common mayflies around here, along with various unidentified (at least by me) members of Baetidae, Siphlonuridae, and Epeorus. But I haven't personally seen any of those in fishable numbers.
Detritus: Small, loose pieces of decaying organic matter underwater.
Life history: The detailed life cycle of an organism, including the stages it passes through and characteristic behavior relating to growth and reproduction.
Nymph: The juvenile, underwater stages of mayflies, stoneflies, dragonflies, and damselflies and other aquatic insects whose juvenile stages are covered by hard exoskeletons. The word can also refer to the fishing flies which imitate these creatures, in which case it is used as a blanket term for flies imitating any underwater stage of an invertebrate (except for crayfish and leeches).
Spent: The wing position of many aquatic insects when they fall on the water after mating. The wings of both sides lay flat on the water. The word may be used to describe insects with their wings in that position, as well as the position itself.