Salmonflies, Golden Stones, and Yellow Sallies coming soon!!
The first salmonflies have been spotted on the river north of Maupin, so it is now time for my annual stonefly hatch kickoff fishing report.
Before you grab your gear and run to your car, RELAX, this hatch lasts well over a month. The very first bugs are morphing into adults now, but there are millions more to follow over the next three to six weeks. Once they have all finished “hatching” there is another window of mating and flying and egg-laying and that phase can last an additional 2 weeks. So, all in all the stonefly hatch should last at least through the full month of May. But wait, there’s more! The smallest of the stoneflies that we see on the Deschutes, the Little Yellow Sallies, will carry on hatching, mating, and egg-laying well through the middle of June.
I call this hatch the STONEFLY HATCH because that encompasses the three species that make this time of year so much fun for the dry fly angler. The salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) is so called because it’s belly is an orange-red color like that found on salmon. This is the largest and darkest stonefly you will see on the Deschutes. The golden stone (Hesperoperla pacifica) is slightly smaller than the salmonfly and has a bright golden-colored underbelly. They will be found intermingling with salmonflies in the grasses and bullrushes and Alder trees along the river’s edge. In later May and through most of June the little yellow sally (isoperla) will arrive and take the place of the bigger stoneflies – keeping the action lively on mini versions of the beloved chubby Chernobyl fly patterns.
So, what makes this hatch the most sought-after time to fish on the Deschutes? The obvious answer is that this hatch provides the angler the opportunity to fish huge fluffy dry flies which are easy for any angler to see and which drive the trout absolutely crazy! However, there are other reasons that make the stonefly hatch a lot of fun. For one, it is the first real kick-off of our season. Spring is rolling into summer with warmer and warmer days and crisp cool evenings that make camping and hanging out on the river very pleasurable. On the hotter days in May, the density of stoneflies on the banks and in the air is incredible – and the trout and the humans flinging lies at those trout are not the only show on the river.
The bird life on the river during the hatch is amazing. Like busloads of tourists arriving at the Grand Canyon just before dawn, the gulls migrate upriver from the Columbia to take full advantage of the feast on wings. It is really fun to lay back in camp with a good pair of binoculars just to watch the gulls swooping and diving to catch big stoneflies in the air. The Lewis’ Woodpecker will fly over from Tygh Valley, leaving the oak forest to dine on stoneflies for a few weeks. This fairly large dark green woodpecker with a grey collar and rose-colored breast behaves like a fly catcher when stoneflies are on the wing. The real fly catchers like the Western Kingbirds, Say’s Phoebes, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and others will be swooping out of the trees to grab stoneflies in the air while the Canada geese will swim slowly along the river’s edge plucking stones from the grasses and teaching the little fluffy babies in tow to do the same.
Birds, trout, and humans aren’t the only ones who love the stoneflies, the snakes come out of the rocks and lay up in the grasses in order to join the feast. Be careful where you put your hands because snakes of all sorts crowd down to the grasses on the edge of the water to get their fair share of the meal.
If you have never camped on the river during this hatch, be aware that you will have large bugs crawling all over you – on your head, on your neck, down your shirt, up your sleeve, etc, They are harmless, non-biting insects, but they are pretty scary looking and can really freak people out. We have, over the years, found ways to enjoy these big bugs:
So, the thing that can be really confusing for new anglers is that this big hyped up hatch is not really even a hatch at all, in a sense. Stoneflies do not have a full life cycle with a pupa stage, they do not rise up in the water column to the surface of the river as other aquatic insects such as caddisflies and mayflies do. Instead, the beefy invertebrates crawl their way to the river's edge in the evening and march right out of the water onto dry land like some kind of "Creature from the Black Lagoon". Once the nymph is on dry land, usually on the side of a rock, or on a stalk of grass, or in a tree, or clinging to the bark of a tree, they bust out of the "shell" or nymphal husk and their papery wings unfold and lay flat over their back. They begin crawling around on the river's edge looking for others of their kind to mingle and mate. When air temperatures are cool (mid-50s and 60s and even into the low-70s) they are pretty slow and lethargic. As air temps warm up each day, the stoneflies get more and more active and the mating frenzy in the trees over the water gets pretty wild.
As things in the trees get a bit crazy, the trout move close to the river's edge in order to position themselves in a prime spot for stoneflies to fall. One mistake in the lusty orgy pile of salmonflies or golden stones will result in a stonefly falling to the water with a splat. An eager trout in waiting won't let that bug drift even inches before sucking it down. So, casting up and under trees is an important skill to have in order to best take advantage of this hatch. You must be fishing JUNGLE WATER. This is the water that is difficult to fish, tricky to wade, and has tons of low-hanging branches and tall grasses providing the optimal habitat for stoneflies.
Every year, without fail, half a dozen guys will come into the shop to tell me that the fish are not eating stoneflies. They know this because they threw a couple of live stoneflies into the shallow riffle in front of the campground and nothing came up to eat those live flies. "Chumming" for trout is not very effective for a few reasons. First off, if you are standing upstream from the trout they can see you and they are already super wary. Secondly, trout are not everywhere in the Deschutes - and during the first half of the stonefly hatch when the bugs are in the trees, the trout are unlikely to see big bugs randomly floating in 6 inches of water. Therefore, the bigger adult trout do not tend to hold in such water in the first three weeks of May. The big fish are under the trees and in the water that has depth and rock structure. We made a video during COVID that talks about the water type to fish during the stonefly hatch:
For now, before the bugs are out in full force, fishing a dry/dropper combo with a mini-chubby as the dry and a 3 mm or 3.5 mm Euro nymph as the dropper is one good way to find the hungry trout, as is a full on nymphing rig with indicator or a Euro nymphing set up.
As things really get rolling, I will be posting reports more frequently. Our fly bins are overflowing with incredible fly patterns, we have tens of thousands of flies in backstock, and we are ready to get you geared for the stonefly extravaganza!!