Anglers anticipate stoneflies’ river appearance

A mature salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) takes a breather on an angler’s hat along the Gunnison River. Photo by Pat Oglesby/Special to the Sentinel

AUSTIN — Too bad Colorado doesn’t have a Big Bug Creek.

Arizona has one, named in 1863 after some prospectors purportedly were set upon by some large flying insects.

That one-time event seems rather tame compared to the really big bugs appearing early each summer on rivers across this state.

The Gunnison River could be a Big Bug Creek, with its annual appearance of 3-inch stoneflies also variously known as salmonflies, willow flies and the Dockers-version Latin name of Pteronarcys californica.

Other Big Bug Creek wannabes include the Rio Grande, South Platte and Colorado rivers and even tiny Quartz Creek, a mountain-fed stream running through a willow-choked canyon a few miles east of Gunnison.

Anglers love those big bugs, probably more than prospectors love them, and news that salmonflies are taking off is enough to distract even the most-devoted husband and employee.

But, as writer Ed Dentry once observed about this much-celebrated but rarely well-struck event, “most times, as in all fishing, you should have been here yesterday.”

The vagaries of runoff and air and water temperature combine to make hitting the salmonfly “hatch” much less than a sure thing.

And besides, what most anglers see really isn’t a hatch at all since that event takes place a week or so earlier.

Instead, the sight of all those awkward insects filling the air and dipping to the water is rather a frantic burst of egg-laying activity by female salmonflies, er, stoneflies.

As water temperatures gradually warm, the mature black nymphs start crawling toward the riverbanks. Trout see these big nymphs year round since some always are getting dislodged, but the bugs become more obvious in the late spring and trout quickly learn to look for them.

Ideally, for a salmonfly, anyway, the nymphs crawl out of the water and attach themselves to rocks, trees, bushes or an angler’s leg. If left alone long enough, the bugs split their cases, and the transformed insect crawls away to dry its wings.

The shucks remain stuck to rocks and bushes.

These french fry-sized insects aren’t much for flying. They crawl around the banks looking for a mate, and, after breeding, the females take to the air to lay their eggs. This is the most-exciting part of the tale. Bomber-like bugs dipping their orange-red abdomens into the water, trout leaping, birds diving, anglers shouting with glee or frustration.

Timing is everything. Hit it right and the experience can be unforgettable. Miss it, and it’s just another regrettable day on the river.

Most anglers plan their salmonfly trips for the middle of June, but that might or might not be the right time.

High flows, cool temperatures and dirty water can all put off or mask the hatch entirely.

Sound familiar?

“It’s a little different each year with the snowpack and river conditions,” said Rick Dudginski of Black Canyon Anglers near Austin. “The hatch can move around a little but usually it’s around the middle of June. I think the high water this year is going to stall the hatch a little.”

So far, there’s not much to report on the Gunnison or elsewhere.

“We’ve had a lot of people asking about it but we don’t have much to report in terms of action,” said Phil Trimm of Western Anglers Fly Shop (244-8658) in Grand Junction.

“We’ve had one angler report seeing two adult stoneflies below the (North Fork) confluence, but nothing’s happening above that.”

Andrew Marino from the Rio Grande Anglers Fly Shop in Creede (877-656-3474) said salmonfly action hasn’t started on the upper Rio Grande, either.

“The weather’s been a bit touchy down here,” Marino said, repeating a mantra heard across the Western Slope. “Our water levels are pretty good (for fishing), it’s just the
weather holding things up.”

The Rio Grande on Monday was flowing at 501 cfs and anglers were using big nymphs and streamers to catch trout, Marino said.

The North Fork still is too high to wade, but access to the Gunnison above the confluence is available in two ways.

You can hire a boat ride upstream from Leroy Jagodinski at Pleasure Park (872-2525) or make the tortuous drive from the Peach Valley Road across Smith Mountain on Road H.80.

Don’t bother taking your waders, the river is too high to wade.

Trimm suggests dredging big nymphs along the banks.

Or you can hire a boat to take you through Gunnison Gorge. At 3,000 cfs, it’s going to be a quick trip, but a boat can get you where your feet can’t.

“The high flows make it a little tougher to hold the boats in position,” said Dudginski (835-5050). “The higher flows and currents also limit where the fish can be.”

One thing is for sure, though. They’ll be where the big bugs are.


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