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High Flows and the Magic of the Stonefly

05/21/15 at 06:13 AM by Vince Puzick


Flows are up and will be rising more in the next few weeks.  What’s an angler to do?  Saturday, at the Covey’s Learn to Fly Fish Day, I was able to talk with a couple of guides about what fly patterns are their go-to flies and what they do with them in the higher, faster flows.  One word:  Stoneflies.  

golden stonefly nymph

Greg Blessing was quick to remind me that the flow is slower at the bottom of the river.  The friction of the water against the bed slows the water down, of course, to a slower speed than the surface. 


Why does that matter?  First, the fish are still hanging out down there in the rocks and riffles that are just less apparent to us viewing from the surface.  The riffles that are productive in lower flows will still be productive – maybe more so – in the higher water.  So you have to get your fly down deep to the fish.  And add more weight to get the fly down faster, too. 


Robert Younghanz, our resident entomologist known as “The Bug Guy” around these parts, added that the food supply during run-off can actually increase with the higher flows.  “It’s like a good spring cleaning in the rivers.  And stuff at the bottom gets pushed up and into the feeding lanes.  Big bugs – stoneflies, bigger worms, cranefly larva – all become more vulnerable as they get washed down stream.”  Stoneflies, unlike mayflies, move to the bank when they reach adulthood.  So when they get dislodged from the rocks of the riverbed, they are making their way to the banks.  And hungry fish are taking bigger flies.


stonefly life cycle


The magic of the Stonefly


All of our guides  agree to “go big” when it comes to fly selection.  And what pattern kept rising to the top (so to speak)?  The many variations of the stonefly.


Pat’s Rubberlegs came up on every guide’s list. Greg Blessing was the first to mention it -- and he recommends using the Rubberlegs as an anchor fly, your top fly in a 2-fly rig, and maybe try a caddis pupa dropped off of it for your second fly.  


Robert was once asked in an interview for Field and Stream magazine if he has a love-hate relationship with any pattern.  His response? “Pat’s Rubberlegs doesn’t really imitate any bug in the wild – but I fish it all the time!”  His choice:  mottled brown or yellow or pure black.   (You can read Kirk Deeter’s write-up in Field and Stream about Pat’s Rubberleg here.)


Jon Easdon, the Covey’s Director of Services and guide, added that one of the biggest fish he has ever caught on the Taylor was on a Pat’s Rubberleg.  He added, “It’s a go-to fly on the South Platte for sure.” 


pats rubber legs

Pat’s Rubberlegs Fly Tying Recipe:

Hook: #04-12 Tiemco 5262

Weight: .020 Lead Wire

Thread: Tan UTC 140

Tail: Ginger Life Flex

Body: Black/Coffee Variegated Chenille

Legs: Ginger Life Flex

Antenna: Ginger Life Flex


See a video on tying Pat’s Rubberleg here.  

Charlie Craven’s variation of Pat’s Rubberleg, aka “The Pickle,” can be found here. 


Golden Stone: Easdon gave “Hopper Juan” a shout out – “Juan has a couple of stonefly patterns that are awesome.”  One of Juan Ramirez’s patterns is the  Golden iStone. 


One of Juan’s choices is Carl Pennington’s  D-Rib Golden Stone .  You can see step-by-step instructions for tying the D-Rib here. Carl says , "This nymph was designed for the South Platte River in Colorado. Mainly the Cheeseman Canyon section. The fly works great anywhere you find golden stone nymphs. I typically fish this nymph as a upper fly on a 2 fly nymph rig, or I will fish it as the middle fly on a 3 fly nymph rig. It can also be fished by dead drifting, bouncing along the bottom" (from Field and Stream).


d-rib golden

D-Rib Golden Stone Fly Tying Recipe:

Hook: #08-14 Tiemco 5262

Thread: Hopper Yellow UTC 70

Underbody: .020-.025 Lead Wire

Tail: Tan or Gold Goose Biots

Body: Medium Light or Dark Golden Stone D-Rib

Casing: Tan Scud Back

Thorax: Golden Stonefly Nymph SLF Whitlock Dubbing

Legs: Natural Partridge

Carl talks you through the pattern in this video.


20-Incher and Bead Head Prince: Jon Kleis added a few stonefly patterns to the mix:  The Tungsten 20-Incher. The Bead Head Prince.  And, surprise, Pat’s Rubber Legs. “Some new patterns are always coming around, but I usually land on those three.  They stick fish!”


Psycho Prince and Copper Johns: In addition to the Bead Head Prince, Justin Brenner likes the Psycho Prince and Copper Johns.  “The Copper John isn’t technically a stonefly, but it imitates one pretty well.  I go with chartreuse or red in the higher and off-color water.  Trail that off of a stonefly in a size or two smaller.”


 copper johnCopper John Fly Tying Recipe:

Hook: #12-18 Tiemco 5262

Thread: Black UTC 70

Tail: Brown Turkey Biots

Body: Red Wire

Thorax: Peacock Herl

Casing: Scud Back

Casing2: Flashback Material

Legs: Partridge


Watch a video on tying the Copper John here.


psycho prince

Psycho Prince Nymph Fly Tying Recipe:

Hook: #12-18 Tiemco 3769

Thread: Tan UTC 70

Tail: Brown Turkey Biots

Rib: Copper Small Wire

Casing: Pheasant Tail

Body: Purple STS Trilobal Dubbing

Exploding Wing Case: Chartreuse DNA Holofusion

Collar: Brown Ice Dub Dubbing

Legs: White Turkey Biots

See a video on tying the Psycho Prince here.


Other flies: Some other patterns that the guides mentioned for fishing high water include scud patterns if you’re fishing tailwaters, Hare’s Ear, worm patterns (brown, pink, or sparkle).


Come into the shop for all of your fly tying needs and to check our selection of stoneflies!


Tips for fishing the high flows


Wading: Fishing from and along the banks is your best bet.  Wading is out, so it is more about finding a good position where you can access different holes along the edges.  You can find fish, too, out in the ripples beyond the banks -- which calls for a lengthier cast and less control.  Bottom line:  show great judgment and be careful on the banks.


Heavier leaders and tippets: Just like with your fly selection, you can “go big” with other elements, too.  Longer leaders are necessary.  Thicker tippets – 2x or 3x – to handle the bigger bugs, faster and harder flows, and bigger fish. 


Add more weight.  You want to get the fly down deeper and faster and then manage the drift.  There are different types of weight that you can use: Tungsten Sink Putty and Split Shot are probably the most common.  Put the weight above the fly (above the top fly, if you are using a two-fly rig) so that it is the weight that is bumping the streambed bottom and not your fly.  The distance between the weight and the first fly varies – anywhere from 8” – 18.”  Fish don’t feed on food below them, so you may need to adjust the distance.


Some folks use a heavier fly – a big stonefly, for example -- as the first fly (the anchor fly) and then drift a smaller fly off of that.  And people have different approaches.  At Deckers with high flows, Greg Blessing suggests using two different patterns, like a Pat’s Rubber Legs on top and then a caddis pupa.  Other anglers may use two different sizes of the same pattern.  A good rule of thumb is to not jump too many sizes.  You might have a size 6 and then an 8 or 10, but you probably wouldn’t want to go from size 8 to 14 or 16.  Experiment.  Try different rigs. 


I’ve had great success with Henry’s Sinket as to add weight if, for no other reason, it limits the “stuff” on my line which makes casting easier.  Instead of split shot and two flies, I just have the flies with one of them coated with Sinket.


Indicator or no?  This isn’t just about high water, of course, but “to use or not to use” strike indicators is an interesting topic when talking about nymphing.  Strike indicators give you that first hint of a strike, so they are definitely beneficial.  And in high water, as Justin Brenner points out, fish are less likely to be “indicator shy.”  Another benefit to using a strike indicator in high water is that the bobbing effect from the river’s current can give your fly pattern just a little bit of movement up and down the water column.  Again, experiment with placement of your indicator, to type of indicator (Thingamabob or yarn?), or go without an indicator for tight line nymphing. 


Fly fishing rivers and streams doesn’t have to come to a stop during high flows (although it is a great time to try some stillwater fishing!).  Anglers have to be more cautious with higher water and use bigger, heavier, and some flashier fly patterns. 


Be safe and tight lines!


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