Salmonflies, the myths, the facts and the fish of a lifetime
Are the legends true?
Special to the Dailt
Pteronarcys Californica, the giants of the riverside insects are coming.
“I saw one flying through the air fighting with a crow. It was so big,” said one guide.
“Cracked my windshield, landed on my hood and flew away. True story.” said another angler.
Whatever the myths are surrounding this emergence, fly anglers wait for the first word that the adult bugs have shown themselves. But they won’t be here long.
Salmonflies as they are commonly known emerge in the late spring and provide the most exciting hatch anglers have ever seen. Large stoneflies, as long as your pinky finger, trigger a gorging by trout that leaves brown trout with distended bellies and rainbow trout with gullets choked full. Giant trout in the river lose their sense of timidness and feed voraciously.
The salmonfly hatch on the Gunnison River here in Colorado is on a historic scale. The storied waters hold some of Colorado’s strongest trout but you have to work to get to them. Other rivers like the Colorado boast healthy populations of Salmonflies and provide some of the most stellar dry fly fishing of the year during this hatch.
Meet Pteronarcys Californica
Salmonflies live in the detritus along the river bottom for three years before emerging into adults. The nymphs crawl onto rocks and riverside vegetation to molt into winged adults. Dry-husk exoskeletons cling to leaves and linger in spiderwebs, a sign of an active emergence.
The adults pair up and mate, even clinging in the willows in clusters through the night only to fly with clumsy agility back to the river to lay eggs.
As the end of May approaches Salmonfly nymphs have already made a migration to the edges of the river. Flipping over a few large stones will reveal hundreds of the large nymphs waiting for a combination of signs such as time of year, moon phase and water temperature. When the magic begins to align it gives a jump start to the hatch.
Prior to the adults flying around the nymphs are active and become targets for hungry trout. Knocked off rocks in swift currents or crawling over debris toward the riverside nymphs fill glutinous trout to distorted proportions. Large Pat’s Rubber Legs nymphs in black, brown or mottled colors all produce heavy catches during this time.
When the adults occupy the sky then it is time for large, dry fly action. The heavy, egg-laden females splash inadvertently on the surface while attempting to remain airborne. Smashing strikes result in some of the largest trout of the year caught on a dry fly. Large foam bodied dry flies ride high in swift currents and around boulder eddies where brown and rainbow trout feed on the adults with less refrain.
Bulk up on your tippet to at least 2X when fishing the Salmonfly dries. Aggressive strikes can result in your entire dry fly being severed in one swift motion. But the rewards for fishing a dry fly during the salmonfly hatch can be the fish of a lifetime.
Giants to the surface
Float anglers and wade fishers all reap the rewards of a healthy salmonfly hatch. Wading anglers can focus their efforts on the heart of the hatch picking away at riverside pockets full of trout. And floater fishers can benefit from the upriver progression salmonfly hatches follow. By fishing nymphs on the start of a float where the hatch is just emerging and dry flies for the tail end where adults have been active for days floating anglers can hit both stages.
Salmonfly specialists collect dry fly patterns with a weakness for anything new. Fish low-floating patterns for slower water and to finicky trout and large bushy dries for boulder pockets in fast currents to stay afloat and visible. It always seems like there is one “hot pattern” each salmonfly season. Holding a variety of dry flies helps to cover all the bases when finding out which one will be the “hot” fly this year.
The myths are real. Giants come to the surface to eat during the salmonfly emergence. Finding that one special pattern that will be “hot” this year is a challenge.
Spending time on the river sifting through your flies is the toll, the fish of a lifetime could be your reward. The salmonfly hatch in Colorado is one that you don’t want to miss.