It was April and an early spring storm had the river high and out of shape. To make matters worse, the air temperature had dropped overnight leaving an early morning frost on the ground. Cathy and I drove up and down the stream looking for a place that looked fishable and finally decided that one place looked as bad as the other, so we parked the car and debated over a cup of hot coffee if we should even try to fish. I was not surprised when Cathy, being the eternal optimist, started to gear up. We talked over our strategy as we pulled on wool socks and we agreed that this was not a day for dry flies. Our four and five weight rods would stay in their cases and out came a pair of six weight rods along with reels spooled with sink-tip lines.
Cathy soon had her rod ready to go while I fumbled with cold hands over a wind knot that somehow had found its way into my tippet. I teased, accusing her of being the last person to use my reel and she responded by reaching out with a pair of snips and cutting off my tippet which is what I should have done in the first place. In a couple of minutes, with a new 4x tippet attached, we worked our way down a long winding path to the stream. Normally a gentlemen, I always let Cathy go first through the pool, but today she decided that I should start us off so I tied on a big streamer and went to work on the head of the pool. I covered a lot of water in a fairly short time mixing up my retrieves and finally changing patterns but with no response from the fish.
When I got to the end of the pool I decided to get out and warm up thinking as I walked out that this was a better day for tying flies next to the fireplace than it was for fishing. I was amazed to see Cathy still at the head of the pool and I watched as she placed a cast upstream and then high-sticking the rod, she followed the fly through its drift. She’s probably too cold to move, I thought, and then I saw her rod tip move and take a familiar arc. Stuck on the bottom, I thought, and then I could see that it wasn’t the bottom after all and she soon landed a fish. I was too far away to see what kind it was or even how large it was but there was no doubt that she had caught a fish. I sat down on a nearby log and shivered and now wished that I had dressed warmer. The minutes went slowly by as I thought about building a fire when I saw her catch another fish. I forgot about the fire and being cold and walked back upstream . We don’t compete, but the thought of her catching fish when I had the advantage of fishing through the pool first and coming up skunked was more then I wanted to bear.
“You caught two?” I asked. “Actually three,” Cathy replied as she made another cast. I put my pride aside and asked what she was using? She told me she was using a fly and then laughing, and knowing that she had me, she finished out the drift and waded to shore announcing that she too was cold and ready for a break. It started to sleet as we hiked back up the trail to the car. The pellets of ice stung as we climbed in and I quickly started up the engine and turned on the heat. We had placed our rods across the hood, a habit that started long ago after driving off with the rods on top of the roof. I could see a large black stonefly nymph hooked in the hook keeper of her rod. That’s what you were using? I asked. Cathy was busy pouring a hot cup of coffee but she looked up and nodded. She reminded me that with the cold, high water the trout would be sitting it out on the bottom reluctant to move, so putting the large juicy stonefly nymph on the bottom right in front of their noses just made sense to her.
It made perfect sense to me as well. After all, trout are by nature opportunists and they do see a lot of stonefly nymphs throughout the year and do take advantage of the opportunity to eat them when they are available. Cathy’s slow, deep, dead-drift technique was just what was needed to put her fly on the trout’s plate, so to speak. Outside the car the ice was starting to accumulate and we both agreed that the fireplace was starting to look pretty darn good so I volunteered to take down our rods and we headed home. On the way we stopped for gas and while I was pumping a friend stopped at the next pump. He saw our fishing gear in the car and commented that we had to be crazy to be on the stream on a day like this and then asked if we had actually caught something. I smiled replying that we had caught 3. I might have forgotten to mention that Cathy had caught all of them. There are some advantages to having a good fishing partner.
Stoneflies in general require water that is highly oxygenated so we can expect to find more of them in the faster riffles and runs of a river. They are often nocturnal in nature although daytime hatches are common in the west with the eastern hatches generally more prolific after dark. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule and the smaller early black and brown stonefly hatches show up in the spring during daylight hours and often bring trout to the surface to feed as do the smaller yellow adults of early June.
Like most aquatic insects, stoneflies spend the majority of their lives living on the bottom of streams and rivers. They often drift unattached to a new destination in a riffle and they are active underwater throughout year including the colder months of winter and spring. They can play an important role in the trout diet, and should always be in our fly boxes. The nymphs appear to be prehistoric as this order of insects has been around for a long time. There are over 500 identified species in North America but there are probably only a handful that we as trout fishermen need to know. The larger members of the genus Acroneuria prevail both in the east and the west. It’s this larger stonefly that Cathy was imitating. Tied and fished on a size 6, 8, or 10 hook, these big flies offer a quick meal to a trout. Many stonefly nymphs will crawl to the shore line to hatch and can be more than clumsy in their efforts to emerge.
Fishing techniques will vary when it comes to the larger stonefly nymphs, but the most productive method for us has been dead-drift right on the bottom. If we are faced with high cold water conditions, as we were on that April outing, we’ll resort to sink tip lines to quickly get our flies on the bottom, but we prefer a floating line with a weighted fly or split shot added to the leader. If you use more than one split shot for added weight try spacing the shot at three inch intervals on your leader. It will give you a better drift with fewer foul-ups. And, we’ve recently started using a 9 1/2 foot rod for most of our nymph fishing, the extra six inches makes high sticking and line mending all the easier.
There are a lot of flies that work well as search-type patterns for high cold water, but a big ugly looking stonefly nymph fished on the bottom can sometimes be hard to beat.

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