Mahogany Nymph

Matching The Hatch And Identifying Insects

It’s a complicated world out there, the first time you dive in. Pteranarcys Californicus, Ephemerella Guttulata. It’s enough to send you back to the Royal Wulff and a Prince nymph. Which makes sense, because the only good description we’ve ever heard about why the Prince works, is it’s the nymphal form of the Royal Wulff! That’s a fly joke. You’ll get it before the end of this article, promise!

Insect identification is much easier than you think. Look at it this way. A guy walks down the street with a Chihuahua on a leash, and you think, nice dog. Right after comes a woman walking a Great Dane, and you think, nice dog. Now what on earth made you think those two animals were related to each other? Well, it starts with familiarity. 4 legs. Elongated snout, fur, canine teeth. Despite the size and color disparity, you know they’re both dogs. Because you’ve grown up around dogs, seen them all your life. it’s familiar.

As you spend time on the water, the sight of the insects will also become familiar. They’re smaller than a Great Dane, and no one will have them on a string, so you need to pay attention and look for them! The different ways aquatic insects fly, the way they emerge. As you start looking for insects, this all becomes nature, second nature, just as recognizing a dog did. And here’s another very positive thought about insect ID. You don’t need to know the latin name, or common name, of every bug that flies by. If a pale olive bug 11mm long flies by on July 5, find a fly in your box that’s pale olive and 11mm long, and tie it on. Simple as that. If the Missoulian Angler Fly Shop has done its job, you have that 11mm pale olive fly, and what they are is less important,

But there comes a time when you do want to know, and we get it. The MAngler has created a large online resource page called Hatches, which if we do say so ourselves, is pretty spiffy! Look at it, and the images will give you a good idea of what a caddis fly, mayfly and stonefly will look like. When you’re on the water, if you carry a net, looking at the real thing is a very simple task. Get a stocking  and stretch it over your landing net. Instant bug net, suitable for subsurface or in-flight grabbing. It’s easy to carry and store, and you don’t have an extra piece of tackle with you. There are also commercially available bug seines for this purpose as well. Start by kicking a few rocks directly upstream of the net, which is touching the bottom directly downstream of where you’re moving rocks. Look at what precipitates into the stocking. It will take a minute to get the hang of keeping the seined materials of the face of the stocking, but you will. You’re going to find more in the seine than just bugs! You’re going to have to move some stuff around to find the insects. Look and see what you’ve found. Are they big? Small? What color are they? How many of each are you finding? And once you’ve done that a couple of times. You’ll have identified the prevalent insect. If its brown, and 11mm long, tie on a nymph that’s brown and 11 mm long

Think about this. You’re a predator. An average hunter knows his quarry. A good hunter knows what his quarry is after for sustenance. We’re not on the plains of Africa, where predators congregate around water holes. Our prey lives in the water, so that doesn’t work! We have to learn about what our prey needs in other ways. When walking to the river, you’re paying attention.  See a spiders web? Look at it carefully. What’s in it. Shake a few branches next to the river as you walk AWAY from the put in. Let’s emphasize that. Most fishermen get no further from their car than it takes to drink a beer and get a new one. We tend to walk to where the path gets to be only a suggestion, and then start fishing. It makes a big difference. But we digress…..

You’re paying attention to your surroundings. You’re looking, and making the proper moves, to ascertain what the most abundant food form is. Shaking branches, looking for shucks along the shore, these are all things good anglers do to figure out what the trout are most likely to be feeding upon.

Aquatic insects are cyclical. If you see that pale olive insect in July this year, you’re going to see it again next year at the same time. The MAngler has a Hatch Chart in our Resource pages as well, detailing every insect important to the trout. The chart will say what species the insect is, and when it’s like to be found on the Blackfoot River, Clark Fork River, Rock Creek and the Bitterroot River. When you’re out on July 5, look at the hatch chart. It will give you a starting point to insect ID, because you can eliminate a lot of insects that won’t be on the water at that time of year. And you start looking at the bugs on the water.

On July 5, you see fish rising, and there’s a bug on the water that’s pale olive and 11mm long. You catch one, and it has an elongated body that curves upwards, 6 legs, large eyes and the wings stick straight up and back over the body. You’ve done some research, (or used your phone to access the Hatches Resource Page) and you ID the shape as a mayfly. Boom! It’s on like Donkey Kong! It’s like figuring out your first dog. The hard step is over. Now, any time you see that shape, regardless of size or color, you KNOW it’s a mayfly. The rest will follow, names, emergence times, etc.

The same will happen for stoneflies and caddis. You’ll ID your first one, and all of a sudden those worlds open up as well. And then, the river will start to look like a bug hatchery. When you’re not sure what exactly you’re looking for, it’s really difficult to find it! But as you spend more time on the water, and start to see the insects as stoneflies, or caddis, all of a sudden they seem to pop out for you.  You’ll be surprised you could have missed them all the other times you came to the river. You’ll start to understand what the birds are doing, wheeling across the surface of the water, and use their actions to locate insect activity. Patterns will start to emerge on the river, patterns that will provide you more successful angling in Missoula, and anywhere else you take the long rod out for trout. 

It’s a big step, learning to ID the different insects on the river. We know anglers who aren’t comfortable without knowing latin names, the range where they’re found, life cycles and the factors that trigger their emergence. Some just want to know the name so they buy the right flies! Other could care less, and just go a-fishing. Find your own comfort level, and don’t be influenced by others. At our Missoula fly shop, we have customers who really care, and we have people who used to care. It’s all good! Fly fishing is supposed to be fun, and it’s up to you to decide the level of fun you plan to attain. No matter what level of entomologist you plan to be, the MAngler plans to be there helping you get to the level you’re striving for, online and in the shop.

One last thought. You can look a little silly, running down the river in waders, waving a landing net in the air and cursing as your swipe completely misses the mark. Get over it! We’ve all been there, we just don’t talk about it anymore!!

Hopper Fly Fishing Pattern Montana

The Cycle Of Flies

The Missoulian Angler Fly Shop is the oldest fly shop in Missoula, with over 100 years industry experience on staff. We’ve seen a few things in 35 years. This year we’re seeing Schroeder’s Parachute Hopper is hot, like microwave lasagna hot.

We’ve stocked the Parachute Hopper for at least 25 years. We first got it in because it was working so well, and had to have it. Since then, we’ve watched the ebb and flow in sales. It always works to some degree. We’ve watched that fly sell less than 6 dozen a year to being the hottest fly on the river. That’s a big swing, and we’re ready for it!

The swing comes from the trout. Our customers and Missoula’s best fly fishing guides are in daily contact, listening to what they say. This year they say Schroeder’s Hopper. Last year they said the G Kes. If you’re on the water, paying attention, the trout will tell you things about your fly choice as well. The Missoulian Angler will help translate if you’re not hearing what you think you should be!

Hot flies are like the weather. If you want to know about the weather in August, or the hot fly, ask us on September 1! We’ll have a great idea then. But before that, it’s a crap shoot. Of course, we’ve all seen James Bond shoot craps- there is some methodology to placing your bets- but no guarantees. You do the best you can with what you have, and try not to roll too many 7’s!

OMG! The one hit wonders. Can’t keep ‘em in stock for a season, and then two years later 40 dz. are decorating the Dollar Bin. There are some shops that buy flies for their Dollar Bin. Not us! We can fill ours with flies we thought would be hot, or were previously hot, or never got hot. Customers ask all the time, “How did this fly get in here?”, and we’re always forced to answer, “On merit.”

It’s starting again for next season. We buy flies from 9 different venders and keep our local tiers busy tying our custom patterns, and keep looking for more to maintain the best fly selection in Montana. It’s like sending a fat guy to the doughnut shop! Sales reps appear with overflowing boxes of new fly patterns, and we start salivating like Pavlov’s dog. What’s going to be so good we have to have it? Who’s come up with the latest and greatest, that perfect combo of the Purple Haze, Sex Dungeon and Pheasant Tail that’s going to be so hot fish jump in the boat to take it. Take our word for it, they all look good enough to eat! And the cycle continues, but not without consequence.

We only have so many bins in the shop, and get new flies all the time. Like the art collector with no more wall space, where does our new purchase go? What leaves to make space. Sometimes the choice is easy, like the pink and orange wooly bugger. What were we thinking! Sometimes it’s more difficult, like removing the Copper Bob in various colors. Hottest fly in the early 2000’s- it’s lost its mojo. Some customers will be annoyed, finding the old tried and true gone. That’s when we ask you to take some things on a little faith.

We want you coming back. We ‘re don’t sell flies that happen to be in stock, flies that don’t represent your best bet on the water. That’s not how we roll. Missoulian Angler is the oldest fly shop in town for a reason – repeat customers. We’re intense about flies, and when a pattern disappears, it means we’ve found better. This is where trust comes in. We know you’ve been using a pattern for 20 years. It works for you. You trust that pattern. And trust is key! We know the moment you lose faith in a fly, it’s done. It takes a little time to find the trust for a new fly.

A while a go, a customer told us a story. His son in law had given him a new fly- said it worked great. He tied it on and fished it for 10 minutes. Nothing. He lost faith in the new fly, and tied on the trusty Pheasant Tail. 3 ½ hours later he caught a trout. See! It works! It wasn’t till later he saw the humor in that, but it was the old tried and true.

Watch the best guides in Missoula go to work. If nothing is happening, they make something happen. Tried and true, or something new, if one fly isn’t working, they move on! Find the size, find the color. One of the first lessons every angler learns is what good water looks like. Fish are there, and if you haven’t spooked them, they’re eating. If they’re rising, even more so! You need to be able to reach into your box and have something a bit different, a new look if you will. Buy your flies shallow and wide- that means don’t buy 12 Parachute Mahoganies, buy 4 of those, then some cripples, some Comparaduns. You know, the same, but different. Give the trout a bigger selection, and you’ll find their selectivity isn’t as big as issue as it once was.

The Missoulian Angler has the largest fly selection in the city of Missoula and likely Montana. We’re willing to say the biggest fly selection within 200 miles of Missoula! And it’s not just wide, it’s deep. For those who visit the shop, you’ve seen the storage beneath the fly bins. That storage is filled with flies. When the Mahoganies are on, and we sell 4 dz. Size 14 Brindle Chutes in one morning, we just reach under the bins and pull out 4 dz. more. We care about flies, and do everything we can to make sure we have the flies you need when you need them.

You can’t be a fly shop without Parachute Adams, Pheasant Tail nymphs and Woolly Buggers. Wherever the cycle is on those flies, they’re always in the loop. Believe us when we tell you it would be so easy to just keep a few flies in the shop, the ones that always work, and be done like most shops. But that’s not our job. Our job is to keep our ear to the water, pick up the rumblings of what’s hot on the Bighorn, what’s hot on the Madison. If Trout are eating it on the Snake River or the Henry’s Fork, there’s a good chance it makes a fine meal on Rock Creek, the Bitterroot River, the Clark Fork River and the Bitterroot River.

We all dream of Shupton’s Fancy, Paul Schullery’s fictional fly that “taketh a fish on  every cast.” It’s fictional for a reason! But we never stop our quest of finding or building a better mouse trap. The G Kes didn’t just appear- we tested that fly until we found what worked. That’s what every tyer does before he puts his creation out there, test, test, test. To make sure it does what it’s supposed to, and that’s catch trout. Whether the fly is designed for a specific situation, or is a general use fly, every fly designer secretly dreams of being on the cover of Fly Fisherman as THAT guy who created the fly that sweeps the world. Lefty’s Deciever, the Clouser Minnow, Copper John, Purple Haze- the list goes on and on. And when that fly appears, the Missoulian Angler will have it stock- before it gets on the cover!

We’ll order a lot of Parachute Hoppers for next year. Along with a few we haven’t even seen yet, and the Morrish Hopper, the Pink Lady Hopper and many of the tried and true. A couple might fall to the wayside, and that’s a natural occurrence. We won’t know the hot hopper for next August until next September! But you can be sure the Missoulian Angler will be ready with something old, something new, and full bins of flies, so when you need what’s hot, you’ll find it at Missoula’s oldest fly shop. Experience is one thing you don’t get quickly!

Looking At Flies

A fly box is a lot like your underwear drawer. It holds what’s important, it keeps our secret treasures, and we use it as often as possible! There’s nothing so personal in fly fishing as your flies. Say what you want about your rod, reel, waders etc, there are others with the same stuff. We all dip into the same well for our big tackle, we all have access to the same sources. But our flies, that’s a completely different picture. As we move through the fly fishing world, the only thing that truly separates us as anglers is the flies we take with us to the river.

Every fly box is a story.  Open any box and the memories come flooding back. The salmon fly you got from that crazy guy on the river. You said howdy, and next thing he’s giving you flies he tied, and telling you it’s the only fly that works on Rock Creek right now. With his sun faded hat, wispy gray hair and wrap around glasses so dark you can’t see his eyes, he makes you take two, because one isn’t going to be enough to sustain you through the day. If you hadn’t lost one in some overhanging branches, it wouldn’t have been tugged all day, but you’ll never forget the kindness, the joy of his fishing, and the nagging thought about who thought it was a good idea to use a green and red fly during the salmon fly hatch!

You open your nymph box, and see the rows and rows of flies slid into their foam homes. Except the one section that’s bare. You know that means a trip to the fly shop, because of all the flies in that box, those are the ones that work. Why you’ve honed in on the SR Quill Body Bullet, well, you just don’t know. But it works, and all of a sudden, all those other flies feel lost without a fresh supply of the new favorite. It will take its place beside all the old favorites, some so out of favor the rust has stained the foam. But there they stay, because you just never know . . . . . .

Once in a while, we look back and think, what if we just had one fly box, like when we were first starting out fly fishing. We hear rumors of anglers who can do it! Look at those Tenkara people, roaming the river with technology that harkens back to Dame Juliana and maybe a dozen flies. If only we had that intestinal fortitude and certainty in our choices.  But some anglers can’t, and more just won’t! The fly is the one piece of tackle that comes into contact with the fish. Your flies are a beacon of hope, the answers to our fishing prayers, the path that could make us king of the river. What if today is the day a green and red salmon fly is the magic? Can we really leave it at home?  The what ifs start to accumulate. So you rationalize. Do I really need a sandwich in that vest pocket? Just how critical is a pocketful of snacks. And then you go hungry, for flies. And its not the first time, as you think back to the last time you went to the fly shop!!

Ultimately, the fly is the thing you have the most control over on the water. You don’t design rods, you don’t manufacture lines. But if you choose to, you can make your own flies. Or you can haunt the fly shops, looking for the one fly that will turn the ship around. So often, as we work the shop, a customer will enter. Asked if they need help, the answer is no, they just couldn’t pass by a fly shop. Hope springs eternal! We know it’s at least a $20 sale, whether it’s flies or materials. Because they know, they just know, that the secret could be in our fly bins. What the secret is, well they’re not sure as they walk through the door, but they’ll know it when they see it.

We see the best fly fishing guides in Missoula on a daily basis during the season. It’s so much fun watching the different ways they shop for flies. Some will look at every fly they buy, holding it up so they can see it from the bottom, examining each wrap for its placement and balance. Some assiduously count their flies, never buying an even number. Some just reach into a bin and grab what looks like the correct amount, like they’re buying by weight. Some come in groups, discussing the various patterns and what’s hot, what’s not. But always, they’re on the lookout for something new, something fresh, something to guarantee their guests have the best Missoula fly fishing possible. They trust us to have what they need, when they need it.

Because, truth be told, we’re the exact same way. We believe the fly is the answer, the game changer, the key to our happiness. Sure, we mend, we change tippets, we get new line, we look at new rods. But when it comes to flies, we are constant tinkerers. What can we add that makes us better. What fly is so hot it scorches the wooden bins? People marvel at our dollar box. “How can that fly be there?” Every fly in the dollar bin is a hope that wasn’t answered as well as we thought it would be, every fly is there because we thought it was the answer, and then, not so much. But none of those flies that have been relegated to that bin are so silly we wouldn’t try them again at some point, maybe when the scorcher has lost its fire. That’s when we look for the rust spots in our nymph box, hoping that absence has made the trout’s hearts grow fonder.

Because no one cleans out their fly box. The rust? It may work as an attractant. A red and green salmon fly? Funnier things have happened. And what if it turns out you do need a Purple Haze with no hackle? There it is again, what if. That’s what flies are all about. Each one has the potential to change the day. Each one has the ability to be the next big thing. Again, it all boils down to what if. So they stay in the box, in all their glory, some ragged, some rusty and some ridiculous. But all carrying the possibility, all carrying the potential, all with a chance to solve the riddle, charm the snake and make your Montana fly fishing day!