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High Flows and the Magic of the Stonefly

04/18/19 at 04:55 AM by Vince Puzick

 

Flows are up and will be rising more in the next few weeks.  With the high snowpack this past year thanks to the snow gods, we are anticipating high flows and, depending on the warming trend over the next several weeks, perhaps a longer run-off season.  What’s an angler to do?  Go bigger with the bugs, heavier with the rigs, and really be careful out there as you work the banks of your favorite fishery. 

golden stonefly nymph

Greg Blessing, long-term Guide at the Covey, points out 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.  Keep reading for tips on getting the fly down deeper and faster later in this blog. 

 

Robert Younghanz, our resident entomologist known as “The Bug Guy” around these parts, adds 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, hugging the banks in the slower water, 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 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. 

 

Juan has his own favorite, though, when it comes to stonelfy selection: 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 pretty much not an option, 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 but forfeits some of your control and line management.  Bottom line:  show great judgment and be careful on the banks.

 

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

 

Add more weight.  You want to get the fly down faster and deeper, 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. Think out of the box because fish are hungry coming out of the winter doldrums and there's a lot of food on the menu!  

 

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.  Justin Brenner points out that, in high water, 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, the 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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