Fly Fishing Traditions

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chironomids 101 - Part ll - The Life Cycle

Chironomids belong to the insect order Diptera and are characterized by a four-stage life cycle. This is complete life cycle, which consists of the egg, larva, pupa and adult. The cycle starts when a female lays eggs during the early morning or evening hours when the waters surface tends to be calm and the risk of predation from birds and other insects is low. The eggs drift down to the bottom were they soon hatch into the larval stage.

Capable of surviving in a diverse range of habitats and conditions chironomids are found in bogs, lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. You will find them in the tropics and all the way to the Arctic. They are one on mother natures most hardy insects. Their preferred aquatic environments feature soft stable bottoms and weeds, traits of slow moving stretches, spring creeks, tail waters, lakes and ponds. Here in western North America productive mud bottom lakes are home to a staggering number of chironomid species, many capable of attaining large sizes. They can obtain sizes as close to an inch in some instances, which is quite a but larger than most people realize. This is a definite contradiction to their midge moniker.

Depending upon the chironomid species and habitat they are found in a wide range of sizes, from too small to imitate to the big "extra large" chironomids of the west, as mentioned larva can reach to a size that is close to an inch in length. When you find them in rivers and streams they often of smaller sizes due in part to multiple generations. Species capable of more than one hatch cycle per season are often smaller as a result of less growing time between hatches. Multiple emergences are common in southern latitudes and warmer water temperatures.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some species feature one year cycles and are typically large. Because of this pattern choices can range from as small as #24 to as large as #16. Depending upon your region, stillwater fly boxes will often feature larger sizes, #18 to #6 in some cases. Clear water lakes and ponds tend to feature smaller sizes while rich mud bottom algae type lakes are ideal habitat for the larger species.

Chironomid Larva

Most fly fishers overlook the importance of the chironomid larva. Maybe its because of their slim nature, perceived small sizes or the fact that majority of species live out their larval existence burrowing and writhing about in the bottom ooze. Trout don't have the same opinion and are finely tuned to the intrinsic food value of chironomid larva.

Chironomid larvae grow through 3 to 4 instars. Within species there is a downsizing between stages, a trait common to many insects. Larvae are larger than pupae which in turn are larger than adults, a key consideration when choosing patterns during an emergence.
Slender and worm-like, chironomid larva have 9 body segments and short stubby pro-legs fore and aft. When considering patterns to match the larva, successful larval patterns should be thin and streamlined and incorporate wire ribbing to suggest segmentation and also add weight to the dressing. The weight aids your presentation. As a rule, larval patterns should be presented near the bottom where naturals are most often found. Make a note of this as it is a very important tactic.
In the chironomid larval stage, only the free swimming larva (Bloodworm and Glassworm) are normally found in the feeding samples of the rainbow trout. This is also very important vent selecting larva patterns. The typical size range for most stillwater larva or bloodworm patterns ranges from size 8 2xl down through size 16 standard. The use of a throat pump when fishing will help determine the size of the larva that the fish are feeding on. You have to catch one first of course.

Larva Coloration

Chironomid larvae are present in a wide array of colors. The most popular schemes include brown, medium green, olive, maroon and red, the red larvae have been christened by many as "bloodworms." The distinct red coloration is a result of hemoglobin that many species use to survive in oxygen poor waters. A certain times of the year such as the middle of summer oxygen levels in lakes drop as a result of increasing water temperature. Larva use iron molecules in their red blood cells (hemoglobin) to bind and carry oxygen. Later in the season as the oxygen levels return to comfortable levels the larvae return to their natural green and olive colorations. During this transition period it is not uncommon to see unique candy cane colored larvae of red and green. Keep some of these 'candy cane' patterns in your fly box to take advantage of these occasions. Other color considerations include olive, green and a unique candy cane combination of red and green.

Phil Rowley has a fantastic book titled "Stillwater Selections" that has many "Go To" chironomid larva and pupa patterns.

Where the Larva Live, their Habitat.

Most species of chironomid larva, and there are over 2500 chironomid species in western North America alone, construct tubular homes in the mud water interface along the bottom. Within the safety of their homes the larva pulse their worm like bodies to draw detritus and other food sources into their tube. Feeble swimmers, the larvae move through the water with a lashing head to tail motion reminiscent of a severed worm. Despite this handicap larva often leave the sanctuary of their homes to forage and migrate. Spring and fall are two such times for these migrations and larval patterns should be primary considerations. During low light hours chironomid larva often venture out for a feed making a bloodworm pattern a favored lead off hitter. Plying the waters after a good windstorm with larval imitations is another wise strategy as many larvae are swept from their homes by the swells and aggressive wave action.

Free swimming larva like the bloodworm, do just that. They crawl, float or swim around the lake but generally tend to hide under rocks or rotting logs and remain fairly immobile. Most larva build and stay inside a mud tube on the lake bottom and don't move very far from that.

The worm-like larva are a year round food source or staple as important as the more famous staples that includes scuds, dragon nymphs, damselfly nymphs and leeches. In the absence of a hatch imitating a stillwater staple of some sort is the way to go. In the early morning hours many food sources are active, foraging under the relative security of the low light conditions.

Chironomid larvae venture out of the protective tubes many species construct in the mud water interface. Feeble swimmers chironomid larva writhe and wriggle about at the mercy of the elements, foraging upon detritus and decaying vegetation. Opportunistic trout cruise above tipping head down to vacuum chironomid larva from their mud tubes and those left wandering too far from home. During intense windstorms many larvae are swept from their homes and dashed amongst the weeds. Using the ambient wind to sweep or wind-drift a larval imitation on a floating line and long leader (15 feet plus) can be lethal. Any time an angler sees chironomid larva adrift in the water column try sweeping a larval imitation using this wind-drifting tactic. Wind drifting is an excellent tactic to cover water with a near static presentation.

As with many insect larva and nymphs in stillwaters bloodworms migrate on a seasonal basis. In the spring larva migrate into the shallower reaches and reestablish their tubular homes. During the late fall those larvae not mature for their transition to the pupal stage travel to deeper climes to escape the harsh temperatures and ice of winter. Matching presentation techniques to simulate the natural travel of aquatic invertebrates is a sound plan.

The stillwater fly fisher should use the same presentation techniques that have been refined for the pupal phase of the chironomid life cycle. The key is keeping the offering near the bottom, within one to two feet. Strike indicators are of great assistance to novice fly fishers struggling with the confidence to fish a pattern that reassembles a tiny red stick in the vast expanse of a lake.

Chironomid Pupa Life Cycle

Chironomid pupa are a year round food source and a regular feature on the trout's menu making them the number one food source for trout in stillwaters.

When chironomids enter their pupal stage they are at their most important point of development from the perspective of the fly fisher. When leaving the bottom of the lake and traveling to the surface to hatch, they are most vulnerable to predation by the trout. Even the largest trout will actively feed on these pupa and they are successfully fished throughout the year.

Depending upon the species chironomids can spend up to 1 year in the larval stage. The larva seals itself within its tube or constructs a temporary home to transform into the pupa. During this transformation the larva develops wing pads and a distinct thorax. When the time is right the now transformed pupa cuts its way free and prepares for its journey to the surface to emerge. Once the larva develop into pupa, they leave their mud tubes or hiding places, fill air sacks within their skin for buoyancy, and slowly wiggle their way to the surface to hatch. Often during this process they stop their upward progression and are stationary, suspended between lake bottom and surface. Many anglers are mistaken and believe that the pupa rocket to the surface without stopping. The real story is that the move to the surface in stages and often hover near the bottom. These hovering pupa can take up to 4 days to ascend so trout have ample time to feed on them. This explains why fishing pupal patterns can be deadly while there appears to be little evidence of an impending hatch at the surface. The trout are busy feeding on the bottom. Figuring out what depth the trout are feeding at is the key to chironomid fishing. Remember this!

During this staging process the chironomid pupa absorbs air and gases under its pupal skin. Starting off as a dull almost gun metal sheen these air and gases turn the pupa to almost silver as the emergence process nears the end. These trapped air and gases often obscure the pupa’s natural coloration and during the pupal ascent its color can change and vary in intensity. Common pupa colors include black, maroon, olive, brown and various shades of green.

Chironomid Adults

Adults closely resemble pesky mosquitos. Fortunately chironomid females possess no piercing proboscis. You won't be troubled by bothersome bites. Adult chironomids have slender tapered bodies similar to the pupa no tails and a pair of wings that trail back over the body when at rest. The thorax area is humped and they often feature prominent eyes. Males are easily be identified by their plumose antenna is used to aid their search for a mate. Females on the other hand display fine difficult to see antenna.

.Adult coloration varies little from the pupa, upon emergence however adult coloration tends to be brighter until their bodies harden. Trout preying on adults in selective situations can become color sensitive and brighter, recently emerged adults still unable to take flight until their bodies and wings harden are easy fare.

Once emergence is complete adults fly off to shoreline areas. Most adults do not feed and this stage is short lived, just long enough to propagate the species. Males form large swarms resembling dust clouds along the margins. Large concentrations of adults are audible from a distance and create a high pitched buzzing sound. Hence their English nickname, "buzzers". Males release pheromones to attract a mate. Mating takes place in the air or on the ground. During low light conditions when the water is calm on stillwaters and the risk of avian predation is reduced egg laden females return to the water to deposit their eggs. Females skate across the surface speed boat style or dive below to lay their eggs. Skittering females draw trout to the surface providing anglers dry fly opportunities. Adults often form huge mats on the surface and on rivers and streams collecting in calms and back eddies. Trout move into these areas sipping adult clusters with slow deliberate rises. Patterns such as the Griffiths Gnat are good choices in these conditions. Many times it is difficult to tell if a trout has taken the fly. Get into the habit of using the fly line as site and lift the rod smoothly if a rise occurs near the fly. It is surprising how often the rise is to the fly that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. This tactic has paid dividends on numerous occasions.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Stream of Consciousness on the River - September

My goodness, Its another beautiful day on the Lower Yuba. Glad I'm not working. Sunny with a slight breeze, Going to be nice. Great to be on the river with good friends.

OK, time to climb behind the oars, I like this spot, my view of the river world from the rowing seat. Watching the river unfold its daily drama. Is it going to happen today? We'll soon find out.

Time to get at it. Hold that line now. Slow now, slower, quiet, no slapping the oars down. Let's see, should we fish right or left? I like that seam along the willows. Keep a decent distance now, keep it stealthy. Here we go, are you fish ready because here we come.

Casting big dries to the banks, to the dark seams, to the slack water, in the eddies, in front of, beside and in back of boulders, wherever there are boulders underneath us, behind the salmon, dark spots in the river, mid stream boulders. Anybody home? There you are! Stinks off the boat!

Drifting down the river throwing big drys, mesmerizing. One eye on the fly and one on the next likely spot. Concentrate on the next spot, wham there's a fish on the fly. Sometimes you miss and sometimes that slight pause is just enough for the fish to turn on the fly and you've got a good hook set.

Fish on! Better move over to the slack water, this fish is hot. Follow, follow, there we go. Keep that tip up. Let 'er run. Get that line on the reel There we go. Keep your rod tip to the bank. Looks like she's ready. Slide 'er in. Don't want to botch the net job. Gotcha! Way to go. Wow, look at the colors on this one. Beauty. OK, go get bigger. Nice Job.

My turn to fish, OK, if I have to. Concentrating on the fly drifting down the river, a small fish, tries to swallow that big dry and can't get it in it's mouth. Set anyway, but the fly's just too big. Concentrating on the fly, a nose pokes out of the water on the fly, set. Sorry, too quick, I just yanked it out of it's mouth. Concentrating on the fly. A fish pokes it nose out of the water on the fly. I count to 1 and 1/2 and set. Fish on.

There's a deep slot, tie on a dropper with a small nymph. Go a little deeper. Don't want to chuck lead, just drop off the back of the big dry. Where'd that dry go? Set. Bingo, fish on the nymph!

Tangled again, darn that dropper. Think I'll chop that thing off, just not happening enough for the hassle.

That seam about 3 feet deep looks good, throw some slack, use a reach cast. That's it, now we're talking. Wham! Darn, how'd I miss that one. Get it back in. He's back, Fish On! Man was that fun!

Sorry, my fault I should have waited for you to cast. Nice tangle we've got, I'll get yours free in a second. There you go. My fault I'm in the back, I'll pay attention, right.

Nice run, 3 feet deep with nice boulders, There's a nice slot. Get it in there, drifting, drifting, should be there, about now. Wham, Boy did that fish hit that thing or what. Didn't have to do anything, just raised the rod tip. Get him out of the fast water, OK there she goes again, patience, patience. She's ready. Thanks for rowing a bit and great net job.

Wow, nice fish, where's my camera? Got it. I think its time to get behind the oars again. That was fun. Thanks for rowing, bud.

Boy its hot, down another bottle of water. Man that tastes good. My brain's feeling a little cooked.

There's the take out. One last run. Let's fish the inside. Kersplash! Fish of the day. Nice job up there. Way to hook that thing. Nice way to end the day with a nice fish within site of the takeout.

Wow! What a great day. When can we get out again? Soon?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Psycho Prince

A fly that is increasing in popularity in the west is the Psycho Prince as designed by the renowned fly designer Mike Mercer. The Purple Psycho Prince is the new flavor that has been tied on by many guides in Montana and for that matter just about everywhere.

The fly is tied with "Ice Dubb" and can be tied in many colors. This one is the purple version. Tie some up in purple, orange, blue, dirty pink and green and they will be a welcome addition to your fly boxes.

My Simplified Version of the "Psycho Prince"

Hook: Tiemco 3x Streamer Hook, Size 14

Bead: Size 7/64 Tungsten Bead

Tying Thread: Black 6/0

Tail: Pair of Brown Turkey Biot Quills

Ribbing:Copper Wire, size to fit

Carapace : Two Peacock herl fibers

Wings: Pair of White Turkey Biot Quills

Thorax: Peacock Ice Dubbing

Tying Instructions

Step 1:

Slip the 7/64 tungsten bead on the hook. .

Step 2 -

Wrap the hook down to the tie in point at the tail.

Step 3 -

Form a bump with the tying thread at the tie in point for the tails.

Step 4 -

Tie in the two brown biots for the tails and make sure they extend about 5/16" past the hook bend.

Also make sure they are even.

Tie down against the thread bump to splay the tails.

Clip off the excess biots and cover with thread.

Step #5 -

Tie in a piece of copper wire for the ribbing.

Step #6 -

Tie in two strands of peacock herl fibers for the back.

Step #7 -

Dub a tight noodle of Ice Dub. Less is better.

Step #8 -

Dub forward forming a slender tapered body.

It's OK to have fibers sticking out

Step #9 -

Pull the Peacock herl fibers forward keeping them on top of the fly.

Bind down the fibers behind the bead.

Leave room for the thorax.

Cut of the remaining peacock herl.

Step #10 -

Wrap the copper wire forward for the ribbing.

Tie off the wire ribbing behind the bead.

Cut off the copper wire.

Step #11 -

Tie in the pair of white biots for the wings. Starting to look like a Prince Nymph now.

Step #12 -

Dub a short noodle of Peacock Ice Dub for the thorax or collar.

Wrap the dubbing noodle behind the bead and cover the tie in point for the white biots.

Whip finish behind the bead. Cut the thread and you're done.

The Finished "Purple Psycho Prince"

Top View

Quartering View

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fishing Report - Lower Yuba 09/13/11

I was able to fish the Lower Yuba today with Frank Rinella, one of my regular fishing buddies. It was sort of a last minute plan that came together last night while Frank was watching Monday night football and I was busy at my vise. I'd tied up some new hopper patterns and was ready to give them a go.

We've been fishing the river for the last 5 or 6 weeks throwing big dries, mainly hoppers and caddis, looking for fish that happen to be looking up. Are there many hoppers or caddis floating down the river. No. Are there really any bugs floating down the river. Not really. It's just that floating a big juicy morsel down the river and hoping that some of the fish feel like its worth coming up for seems like the thing to do. Its an attractor thing. Its a throwing dries instead of lead thing.

By this time of the year I'm usually rigged up with indicator shot, bugs and eggs fishing behind the salmon, but this year there just aren't many salmon. Where the heck are they? I'll get to that in a bit. It's pretty darn refreshing to throw dries. Would going down deep be more effective? I don't know, could be, I haven't tried it in a while. There really aren't many salmon in the river and so the egg bite definitely isn't happening. There isn't any hatches going on so will they go for nymphs and rubberlegs? Not Sure. Our thought has been, why not throw some big dries, especially when the river is so low and crystal clear.

With dries you can keep some distance and fish are less spooky when fishing away from the boat, but probably the biggest factor is that its just darn fun. Just make sure you keep some distance, fish downstream and to the bank and throw a nice reach cast to keep you leader and line upstream as much as possible and see what happens. You can fish the middle of the river the same way. Just look for deeper seams and boulders and such. Like I said its causal and a fun way to fish.

So what about the salmon? We ran into a team of workers doing the salmon and trout surveys for the DFG and they had some interesting comments. One that stuck out was they said that the Feather and the Yuba salmon are a pretty mixed up bunch most years and in some ways they're just about interchangeable. When we have had larger numbers of salmon in the Yuba in past years, a large number of them are Feather Salmon. The salmon will tend to go where the bigger flows are once they head up the main stem of the Feather river. If the Feather flows are down and the Yuba flows are up, the salmon will take a right turn up the Yuba and we'll have a big mixture of Feather and Yuba salmon. The same thing happens with the Feather hatchery steelhead. Some of the Feather Steelhead will head up the Yuba too.

We have sort of known this, but this year the Feather is running high and the Yuba is low, so almost all of the salmon are headed up the Feather towards Oroville and ignoring the Yuba. They also said that there are about three gravel bars in the Yuba above the mouth, that even a pontoon boat has to be walked through. They can't run their jet sled upstream to do sampling from the Daguerre Dam to the mouth of the Yuba. This is what the salmon and steelhead are facing and they tend to just continue up the Feather. Really starting to make sense to me now. Mac from Fish First in Chico had a similar comment the other day.

In general the river is running low at about 800 cfs, its a beautifully greenish blue color, crystal clear and just downright the prettiest I've seen it in a long time. The fish are scattered around and like I said, perfect for throwing big dries. I landed one fish today that both Frank and I thought was a steelhead. It had different coloration and almost a kyped jaw. I also hooked another big fish that as soon as it was hooked, took off downstream and went aerial two times and unfortunately came unbuttoned on the second jump. It was what we thought another steelhead, but we'll never know. Nice to reflect upon it though. Frank landed a really nice true 18" fish. So, all in all, we had a ball.

Is throwing dries the most productive method right now? Don't know and right now don't feel like trying to find out. Maybe next time.