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Fly Talk's Bug Guy: Black Stoneflies Are Winter Staples

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November 16, 2011

Fly Talk's Bug Guy: Black Stoneflies Are Winter Staples

By Robert Younghanz

Here's the latest advice from Robert Younghanz, Fly Talk's resident "Bug Guy."

Bundling up, grabbing your fly rod and trudging through drifts of snow in frigid temperatures may be considered nutty. But if you are fortunate enough to live in a state that allows fishing year round, with a bit of preparation and specialized knowledge the intrepid winter fly fisher will often be rewarded with solitude. The trick is trying to figure out what trout are eating when it's 20 degrees on the river. It’s important to keep in mind that the very nature of fly fishing in the winter simplifies the bug selection process. The insect biomass is minimal.

I want to dispel the myth that the only insects that hatch in the winter months are midges. While Chrionomids can and do emerge year round, like all aquatic insects, in order to have a “successful” nuptial flight, ambient air temperatures need to be slightly over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. So on warmer days in the winter, it’s not at all uncommon to witness a variety of mayflies as well as midges hatching from the water. In tailwaters, I have witnessed insects attempting to emerge in temperatures far below 40 degrees, however their survival rate is negligible.

What very few people realize is that, even in the coldest of conditions, stoneflies have substantial winter fauna. The tiny winter black known to an aquatic entomologist as the Capniidae is a diminutive, flightless stonefly that crawls out of the water on to the snow and gets down to business even in sub zero temperatures. With close to 160 species of Capniids in North America, it’s common to see snow banks along virtually frozen rivers, riddled with these inconspicuous little insects. The nymph of this stone is slender, with a light brown elongated body and dark brown wing pads. A sparsely tied pheasant tail on a long dry fly hook in a #24-#26 is an excellent imitation of the nymphal stage to this winter river dweller.

The adults that make their way out of the river onto the bank and shed their exoskeleton are jet black. This occurs for one reason--to optimize heat absorption from the sun. Any small adult, black stonefly imitation in a size #20 should prove to be productive when the Tiny Winter Black is emerging. Having said this, it is doubtful that you will simply be able to walk into a fly shop and pick up a half a dozen size #20 black stonefly patterns, so you may be forced to tie up your own prototype. Fishing this pattern drowned can be especially effective.

So if you're going to fish in winter, keep it simple. Don't forget the small stoneflies! Choose small flies and light tippet. Dress warmly. Use hand warmers. Then take in all the peace and quiet that winter fly fishing has to offer.

Robert Younghanz is an aquatic entomologist, professional guide, and manager at the Angler’s Covey Fly Shop in Colorado Springs.

Comments (11)

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from buckhunter wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

I have a picture I took last year of a snow bank covered with black stones in Ohio. These however were slightly larger than the #20's you speak of. Amazing how these little bugs thrive in the dead of winter.

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from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

I do not consider the Winter stones to be staples...at least not a fly match that I can catch trout on. Trout move out of MOVING, FAST water when the water turns cold...say 40 degrees, and below. Trout congregate in the slower, deeper water. A fly shop can tell you the Winter stones are out, and here's the fly match that you need, but I want them to tell me that fish are actively feeding on them as well! Many times they are not. I have much more, really all my success in the Winter time fishing rivers using streamers, and action flies with hackles that move like soft hackles where I can slow strip them through the slow water. Those Winter stones reside in, and crawl out of fast water hatching out on the banks. The only dry fly I have had any success with are midges...and they are found in the soft water, slow water areas, and trout can be feeding on them.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from imago456 wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Hi Sayfu,

You make some great points. As you know within different fisheries there is an amazing amount of diversity as it relates to insect biomass and fly selection. Here in Colorado I have experienced days where I have had amazing success on both dry, wet and nymphal imitations of Tiny Winter Blacks, on the other side of the coin I’ve shown up to the river when trout are not keying in on them at all. While midge hatches tend to be the most reliable fair during the winter season, I have had outstanding success on BWO’s as well as stonefly imitations. In the winter I catch trout at the top of riffles, in the middle of riffles as well as at the top, bottom and in the middle of pools. As the Capniids emerge they make there way from the faster towards the shore moving through the entire water column and then after mating they often end back into the river giving trout numerous opportunities to key in on them as a winter food source. Like any emergence, we can not predict when this is going happen. Sometimes catching a hatch is just good luck. I think what’s important is to think outside the box somewhat and be aware that (depending on where you fly fish) there are potentially alternatives to simply fishing chironomids imitations in the winter. Since, like myself, you like fishing wet flies, try a small black wet fly nymph imitation if you live in close to a tail water river and happen to see some Tiny Winter Black activity.

The Bug Guy

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from imago456 wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Hi Buckhunter,

That's great you've noticed the emergence of the Tiny Witner Black Stonefly. They are a truly special insect. It's quite possible that in Ohio they could be slightly larger then a #20. There can be regional variations in size as well as size variations within a particular community throughout their emergence period. Here in the Rocky Mountain West, they are pretty small.

Good Luck!

The Bug Guy

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Bug guy. One my SF, and I have had the same experience on other rivers during true Winter time, our BWO's are gone once the water gets cold. Mahoganies have concluded as well. All that remains are midges, and the small stones. I can float miles of river catching a few white fish in the riffle, moving water, but I spend my time seeking out deep water, very slow moving pools that might contain big boulders, or windfall. When I find such a spot that like this, and hook a trout, there can be a large school of trout congregated in this type of water. Primarily cutthroats on my water. If it is moving water that drops into deep water rather quickly, trout will lay deep below the current flow, and a woolly bugger fished dead drifted, no strip, as few will chase a fly, works well. But I can sure understand there can be other ways to take fish. I sure don't know them all.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Sayfu, You made me go back into my diary from the 90's, back when I was nerdy about keeping track of bugs and temperature. In February 1994 (3 days before it was -20F below) I caught 22 browns on a #16** black stone.

That puts the black stone near the top of my list for winter flies.

** The hook was a #16 but I typically tie smaller bodies on larger hooks. The actual fly may have been an #18.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Weren't those the days when you drank a lot? How've you done since rehab? :) I've had the most fish hooked per cast by far at times during the Winter when the sun is out, my boat ramps are clear so I can launch, and I target the slow, deep water. It's virtually a fish a cast with trout schooled up out of the current. And it is a narrow time frame for me. I only fish the warmer temps of the day. And it makes sense. Their metabolism is very low, and they don't want to burn energy combating the current. But, I'm not disputing your account. I've read articles suggesting it happens. Just not my experience. And I've done the same with Steelhead. When few are catching steelhead during a cold snap, and the water is clear, very cold, and has dropped, we target the deep, slow water dragging baits out of my jetboat. Called boondoggin. Three guys dragging a bait having casted up river, and floating through the slow, deep water is deadly. It is where the steelhead(trout) are during this time. Return to town, and listen to anglers talking about the need for rain, and a freshet to bring more steelhead in, and they can't believe you caught any.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

buckhunter...and when talking about bait fishing for steelhead boondoggin like I described, that was over 20 yrs. ago now. My last 10 yrs. of steelheading I fly fished for them. Those were bi-gone years, but nostalgic to think about them again...great days of the past.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Sayfu,

Remember I am fishing warm water fisheries. I think my fish are different from your fish.

You will rarely find me on the cold water without a flask of some concoction.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Well, I watched it with my own eyes last nite...guys catching big trout on nymphs in the riffles on the BO River near Calgary. The water was down, and the riffles with far less current speed then in the Summer, but definitely moving water. Some were hooked on the edges of the current naturally like at other times, but not in the deep, slow water that I seek out. The water was in the 30's, and snow on the banks.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Jim Pryal wrote 2 years 13 weeks ago

I agree with Sayfu on quite a few of these points. It's rare to ever hook a trout in the swifter moving water during the winter months. I can only find them in the deep pools or slower riffles. I'm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We get a huge hatch of the tiny black stonefly (capniidae) which are found all over the ice and snow along out local rivers. I do catch them on this pattern size 16 or sometimes even bigger. I honestly do better on dark streamers (olive or black) worked slowly and at the bottom of deep pools or slow runs.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from buckhunter wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

I have a picture I took last year of a snow bank covered with black stones in Ohio. These however were slightly larger than the #20's you speak of. Amazing how these little bugs thrive in the dead of winter.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

I do not consider the Winter stones to be staples...at least not a fly match that I can catch trout on. Trout move out of MOVING, FAST water when the water turns cold...say 40 degrees, and below. Trout congregate in the slower, deeper water. A fly shop can tell you the Winter stones are out, and here's the fly match that you need, but I want them to tell me that fish are actively feeding on them as well! Many times they are not. I have much more, really all my success in the Winter time fishing rivers using streamers, and action flies with hackles that move like soft hackles where I can slow strip them through the slow water. Those Winter stones reside in, and crawl out of fast water hatching out on the banks. The only dry fly I have had any success with are midges...and they are found in the soft water, slow water areas, and trout can be feeding on them.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from imago456 wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Hi Sayfu,

You make some great points. As you know within different fisheries there is an amazing amount of diversity as it relates to insect biomass and fly selection. Here in Colorado I have experienced days where I have had amazing success on both dry, wet and nymphal imitations of Tiny Winter Blacks, on the other side of the coin I’ve shown up to the river when trout are not keying in on them at all. While midge hatches tend to be the most reliable fair during the winter season, I have had outstanding success on BWO’s as well as stonefly imitations. In the winter I catch trout at the top of riffles, in the middle of riffles as well as at the top, bottom and in the middle of pools. As the Capniids emerge they make there way from the faster towards the shore moving through the entire water column and then after mating they often end back into the river giving trout numerous opportunities to key in on them as a winter food source. Like any emergence, we can not predict when this is going happen. Sometimes catching a hatch is just good luck. I think what’s important is to think outside the box somewhat and be aware that (depending on where you fly fish) there are potentially alternatives to simply fishing chironomids imitations in the winter. Since, like myself, you like fishing wet flies, try a small black wet fly nymph imitation if you live in close to a tail water river and happen to see some Tiny Winter Black activity.

The Bug Guy

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from imago456 wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Hi Buckhunter,

That's great you've noticed the emergence of the Tiny Witner Black Stonefly. They are a truly special insect. It's quite possible that in Ohio they could be slightly larger then a #20. There can be regional variations in size as well as size variations within a particular community throughout their emergence period. Here in the Rocky Mountain West, they are pretty small.

Good Luck!

The Bug Guy

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Bug guy. One my SF, and I have had the same experience on other rivers during true Winter time, our BWO's are gone once the water gets cold. Mahoganies have concluded as well. All that remains are midges, and the small stones. I can float miles of river catching a few white fish in the riffle, moving water, but I spend my time seeking out deep water, very slow moving pools that might contain big boulders, or windfall. When I find such a spot that like this, and hook a trout, there can be a large school of trout congregated in this type of water. Primarily cutthroats on my water. If it is moving water that drops into deep water rather quickly, trout will lay deep below the current flow, and a woolly bugger fished dead drifted, no strip, as few will chase a fly, works well. But I can sure understand there can be other ways to take fish. I sure don't know them all.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Sayfu, You made me go back into my diary from the 90's, back when I was nerdy about keeping track of bugs and temperature. In February 1994 (3 days before it was -20F below) I caught 22 browns on a #16** black stone.

That puts the black stone near the top of my list for winter flies.

** The hook was a #16 but I typically tie smaller bodies on larger hooks. The actual fly may have been an #18.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Weren't those the days when you drank a lot? How've you done since rehab? :) I've had the most fish hooked per cast by far at times during the Winter when the sun is out, my boat ramps are clear so I can launch, and I target the slow, deep water. It's virtually a fish a cast with trout schooled up out of the current. And it is a narrow time frame for me. I only fish the warmer temps of the day. And it makes sense. Their metabolism is very low, and they don't want to burn energy combating the current. But, I'm not disputing your account. I've read articles suggesting it happens. Just not my experience. And I've done the same with Steelhead. When few are catching steelhead during a cold snap, and the water is clear, very cold, and has dropped, we target the deep, slow water dragging baits out of my jetboat. Called boondoggin. Three guys dragging a bait having casted up river, and floating through the slow, deep water is deadly. It is where the steelhead(trout) are during this time. Return to town, and listen to anglers talking about the need for rain, and a freshet to bring more steelhead in, and they can't believe you caught any.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

buckhunter...and when talking about bait fishing for steelhead boondoggin like I described, that was over 20 yrs. ago now. My last 10 yrs. of steelheading I fly fished for them. Those were bi-gone years, but nostalgic to think about them again...great days of the past.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Sayfu,

Remember I am fishing warm water fisheries. I think my fish are different from your fish.

You will rarely find me on the cold water without a flask of some concoction.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sayfu wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Well, I watched it with my own eyes last nite...guys catching big trout on nymphs in the riffles on the BO River near Calgary. The water was down, and the riffles with far less current speed then in the Summer, but definitely moving water. Some were hooked on the edges of the current naturally like at other times, but not in the deep, slow water that I seek out. The water was in the 30's, and snow on the banks.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Jim Pryal wrote 2 years 13 weeks ago

I agree with Sayfu on quite a few of these points. It's rare to ever hook a trout in the swifter moving water during the winter months. I can only find them in the deep pools or slower riffles. I'm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We get a huge hatch of the tiny black stonefly (capniidae) which are found all over the ice and snow along out local rivers. I do catch them on this pattern size 16 or sometimes even bigger. I honestly do better on dark streamers (olive or black) worked slowly and at the bottom of deep pools or slow runs.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment