Summertime, and the fishing is easy! Well, maybe not easy, but certainly way fun, and the prime season for throwing dry flies for trout is coming right up. Getting your surface fishing game on is probably a good thing right about now.
With stream flows dropping from peak volumes in early June, the whole traumatic runoff experience for the bugs in the bottom of the river tends to kick-start a lot of etymological change, and the fish are going to be right on top of it. In graphing the physical sizes of the emergent insects in a stream, there is a bell curve in regards to water volume and length of daylight, where the biggest bugs you’ll find on the surface are in evidence immediately after the high water mark, with species size dropping on a slow incline through the Fall until winter midges are the only thing left on the menu for surface feeding trout.
But in early summer, it’s glorious. The Pteronarcys stoneflies of the West are the meat and potatoes insects during this period, and there exists a plethora of patterns to imitate them that get sold to wide eyed pilgrims chasing hatches across the region. Stimulators, Sofa Pillows, Madam X’s, Chubby Chernobyls — there’s a ton of great patterns out there, and to be sure, catching fish on them is a blast when you hit everything right. Then…. something changes, things slow down abruptly and you’re left wondering what the hell just happened.
It’s time for the next actors to step onto the stage. While Stoneflies hold the distinction of being the largest bugs in the seasonal hatch cycle of rivers, Mayflies are a close second (especially the giant Hexegenia of the Midwest), and almost unquestionably comprise the largest total biomass by species in most freestone streams, with an argument to be made for Caddis on a river by river basis. Following the Pteronarcys massacre, Green and Grey Drakes, along with insects like Pale Morning Duns become individuals of interest for trout who have been gorging on Stones for three weeks, and then start keying on new, more prevalent food items. Mayflies have a very different hatch dynamic from both Stoneflies and Caddis, and there is a very specific fly design which addresses this almost perfectly that can make your season.
Stoneflies end up on the surface of the river after crawling out of the bottom strata to the banks, molting in the willows stream side, and then flying over the water to mate in midair. Caddis flies erupt from the gravel of the stream, jetting through the surface film like a Polaris missile, where they make a hasty getaway and take flight immediately. But Mayflies undergo an arduous emergence process, slowly floating to the surface from the bottom after attaching themselves to air bubbles. Once at the surface, they shed their skins and claw through the meniscus of the surface film, which is a significant barrier for any insect at this scale. If they successfully make it through, they stand supported on the surface tension with legs spanned, dry their wings, and then take to the air to mate. They have a big problem with this, however — trout start to target them as food as soon as this process starts. Good thing there are generally millions of mayflies taking part in these hatch events.
Here’s the other deal. Trout really don’t like coming to the surface — at all. Most of the danger for an adult trout is presented from above in the form of predatory birds, mammals and, I suppose, humans. They have to be very sure that the gamble of taking a bug off the top is going to be worth it, both in risk and effort. And a fully emerged mayfly standing on tip-toes ready to fly at a moments notice is potentially a miss. But many, many mayflies don’t successfully make the transition to a flight ready form — they get caught struggling in the surface film, and become easy targets for a trout wanting a sure thing.
Standard hackles on dry flies are small feathers wound around the shank of the hook in what is called Palmering. This creates a brush-like effect that looks like insect legs, and allows for spreading of the weight of the fly over the surface tension of the water on dozens of tiny support points, allowing it to ride high and providing a very effective imitation of a fully emerged insect. These patterns have great application in rough water, where flies like the Humpy and Stimulator allow anglers to pitch dries in big early seasons flows and steep mountain creeks. Being naturally buoyant, they also make great indicator flies for Dry / Dropper rigs in tandem with small beadheads.
But when trout start getting fussy, or the hatches are so heavy that fish can afford to be picky about their targets, then using flies that imitate crippled or otherwise immobilized insects is very much to your advantage.
Enter the Parachute dry fly design.
Somewhat late in my education as a fly fisherman, I learned the value of these flies. Over the course of fishing several years of Blue Winged Olive hatches, I watched trout repeatedly take natural insects immediately beside what I thought were perfectly matched-to-the-hatch standard hackled patterns, refusing my presentations over and over again. Maddening. Then one evening, I watched a guy who was just killing it during one of these events, and I finally asked what he was using. His secret weapon? A small, grey Parachute Adams.
While it was news to me at the time, it wasn’t very much of a secret. The Parachute — now available in dozens of iterations to imitate various mayfly species — is currently one of the most ubiquitous dry flies on the market, and for good reason. The real secret is in the deliberately alternative design of the hackle application. Instead of winding the hackles around the shaft of the hook, parachutes are tied with a small wing of calf tail tied perpendicular to the shank using a cross-lashing technique. The feather being used for the hackle is then wound horizontally around the vertical hair, ending up on the top of the shank. This allows the fly to be supported on the water as with standard hacking, but more importantly, positions the body of the pattern to ride underneath, looking like the abdomen of an insect that is caught in the surface film.
Parachutes made all the difference for me. Fish that previously selected almost invisible naturals beside my flies now were aggressively taking my presentations, and I was consistently becoming productive during hatches that previously had stumped me. The code had been cracked.
I’ve since found that fishing Parachutes in tandem with standard hackled flies — a Double Dry rig — is a particularly deadly approach. In twelve years of guiding fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, I would have to say that my #1 combination during the summer season would be a smallish #14 orange Stimulator trailed by a #16 Parachute Adams, with the second fly attached to the bend of the hook of the first via a foot of 6x tippet. Brand new, never ever clients would just mop up with this combination from July until mid-September when cold nights and low water changed the overall prevalence of insects to significantly smaller patterns. With the low, clear and cold water of Fall, the advantages of parachute patterns became even more obvious, but in sizes down to #20 and #22.
Fat times on the water are here. Pack your Parachutes and make the leap to fooling the fish that have been ignoring you!
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