April 10, 2023
Editor's note: Flyfisherman.com will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, Robert Traver, Gary Borger, Joan & Lee Wulff, Dave Whitlock, Vince Marinaro, Rene Harrop, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.
This article originally appeared in the February 1975 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of "The Stillborn Duns."
Three separate incidents led us to realize the vast importance of a whole range of new patterns which imitate a stage of many aquatic insects which has been hitherto relatively unnoticed and unexplored. It is an important discovery because trout seem to prefer this stage in the evolution of many species of natural flies, and, as we explore this phenomenon, we will see there is a very good and rational reason why fish often treat our offerings in such a diffident manner.
The first of these incidents occurred on one of the many small spring creeks of the Gallatin Valley in Montana. We arrived very early in the morning, hoping to discover any rise that might occur before the usual Pale Morning Duns at 11:00 a.m. It was a warm, blustery day, and the fish started working at 7:20. There were absolutely nothing but small, dark #26 midges on the water and they were definitely emerging, not laying eggs. We tried all types of usually effective midge patterns: no-hackle midges, standard hackle patterns, and the pupal-type fished deep, rising, and drifting in the film. None of our artificials worked. Oh, sure, we caught fish occasionally, but not nearly as many as we felt the good rise warranted.
About half-way through the morning, we put the rods up and began to observe the rise forms and the insects more closely. We eventually noticed that many adults were getting stuck in the pupal shucks and some never did get off the water, either drowning, or being taken by the trout. Also, the fish clearly seemed to prefer the "stillborn flies."
The next day we returned to the river at the same time of morning, but armed with plenty of newly tied patterns which had their wings partly out, but with the tips stuck in the pupal shuck which trailed past the bend of the hook. These strange-looking new flies not only worked-they were deadly.
Well, we looked on this as merely experience and an interesting interlude which we thought might have some future value for midge hatches. We stored it in the back of our minds, and soon winter arrived and we turned our thoughts to Great Lakes steelhead runs.
Then, next spring, we were out early in March collecting nymphs for our basement aquariums. We keep the water an ideal 62° to 65° for fast nymph growth, and we get nymph hatches much sooner than on the rivers. One afternoon in April, the tank erupted with as fine a hatch of Hendricksons as you could ever want .in your basement.
Now, this particular room where the aquariums are located has only one window, and the flies all seem to collect there. We examined the window sill and collected a few individuals for picture-taking. Then we noticed on the surface of. the water in the tanks that there were fully as many duns with their wings stuck in their cases, drowning or dead, than had escaped the film and flown to the window. We wondered if this happened on the swift rivers as frequently as it seemed to occur in the relatively calm environment of a tropical fish tank. It probably does, we decided. But nature takes care of the loss by producing many more individuals than required for the survival of the species, so the hatches continue year after year despite the great loss of the "still born duns." Death is regrettable, but it happens, and life goes on.
A month later, the little black chimara caddis was heavy on Michigan's Au Sable. The weather was warm and the fishing was great; for a while, that is. After an hour the insects became thick, and all our patterns would do was entice an occasional small fish while being ignored by most of the good risers. We tried No-Hackle Caddis imitations, Spent Caddis, Palmer-Hackle Caddis, and Adams and Henryville patterns, but none worked really well. The pupal imitations were mostly refused. All patterns were taken occasionally, but none seemed to be what the fish really wanted. Then we noticed the same phenomenon occurring here which had occurred with the midges in Montana and with the mayfly duns in our basement aquariums. Many individual caddis were failing to get their wings completely uncased and were drowning in the surface film. And, here again, the fish were taking these "stillborn" caddis almost exclusively.
The next day we arrived well prepared with newly tied stillborn imitations and they worked extremely well. The large fish took them confidently. These three widely separated incidents couldn't be dismissed casually. What if, we thought, this phenomenon isn't as rare as we assumed, but instead quite common? In many later observations we discovered that it is not only common, but usual.
Why, though, do trout prefer these stillborn flies, often to the complete refusal of the normally hatching insects? After some discussion the answer came! It is simply easier for the fish to take the trapped flies which experience has taught them can't get away. When you consider the whole matter, it must be frustrating as hell for a wise old brownie to rise up through the flow to engulf a floating insect, only to have it fly away just as he thinks he is closing his jaws on it. This does happen and we've all seen it. When flies escape quickly from the film, it makes the trout hurry to capture the fly before it can get away, often causing a splashy rise form.
Bui trout don't like lo hurry! It takes extra energy for fish to run around a trout stream, and fish don't waste energy if they can help it. It naturally follows that when they find by hard experience a stage where they can rise leisurely and not worry about the natural getting away, they will feed on that stage. The stillborn duns of the mayfly, the caddis, and the midge must be the answer to a trout's prayer.
We have since found this type of feeding to be extremely common, and patterns tied to imitate the stillborn flies are very effective for selective trout. The wiser and larger a fish, the more apt he is to feed on "Stillborns." The manner in which certain species of insects emerge brings on this type of feeding. The pupa of many caddis and midges swim to the surface, and the adult will then pop from the case and immediately take to the wing with no long drift in the cur rent. This does not leave much time for the fish to rise and take the natural, and again, requires hurrying which they ab hor.
Many species of mayflies don't ride the current long, but get off the water rather quickly, especially on warm, sunny days or during windy weather, which dries their wings rather quickly. Here, again, the fish will take the fly he knows will not get away. The "Stillborn" patterns will take many a large selective riser for you, and it is the pattern of choice for fully fifty percent of all emerging situations. Many times when trout are believed to be nymphing, but nymphs don't work, they are really taking "stillborns."
These patterns usually work better than normal emerger imitations, even when the "stillborn effect" is not common during a specific hatch, at which time the great majority of insects do manage to escape the surface film. The reason, again, is very logical. The trout simply realize that a fly, half-way out of its nymph case, can't escape as fast as one which has completely emerged and is drying its wings. The latter might fly away at any moment. The fly, struggling to rid itself of the nymphal shuck or pupal case, must take longer, thus allowing the fish a more leisurely rise. Here, again, trout don't like to hurry and won't if they can help it. It wastes energy that they cannot afford to waste.
We all know emergers, flymphs, or whatever we wish to call them, are a very effective pattern during a rise. But emergers must emerge from something. That something, of course, is a nymphal shuck or pupal case. To imitate the emerger, but not the case from which ii is emerging, is to imitate only half the insect. It is completely illogical to dress these fly types without the cases attached, but the proof of the theory is in its practical application on the only valid critics we have for our patterns–the trout.
The new flies look rather weird to the hide-bound traditionalists, but, by God, they work, often spectacularly! Over the past several seasons, since our initial discovery, we've encountered many situations where the stillborn imitations proved to be the fly of the hour. It has bailed us out of tough hatches time after time, from east to west.
Only recently, on the no-kill stretch of the Beaverkill, a multiple spring hatch of Hendricksons, Baetis and Paraleptophlebia was driving us crazy on a cold, blustery May afternoon. The School House Pool was alive with dozens of steadily rising trout. An emergence was obviously in progress as hundreds of slate-winged duns danced and drifted on the slow-moving current.
Baetis and Paraleptos were on the water in much greater numbers than Hendricksons, so either a # 16 or # 18 Slate-Tan No-Hackle had to be the answer. To save time, one of us tried the larger pattern while the other tried the smaller Slate-Tan, knowing full well that within only a few of our casts we'd know which size was right. To our utter amazement, neither fly worked at all. After a dozen or so drifts over steady risers, we concurred that both of us had under estimated the intensity of the Hendrickson hatch and quickly reached for our fly boxes. The hurried switch to a size # 14 Slate-Tan was greeted with more refusals.
Then we did what we should have done in the first place. We put our rods down, moved into a smooth line of the drift, where visibility was good, and put our noses into the water. By using the light effectively and observing closely, we could see long, dark forms floating on the surface. What ever it was, it appeared even longer than the Hendrickson, possibly a # 10. Netting a few specimens revealed the rea son for the elongated appearance. These long slim creatures were Paraleptophlebia 'stillborns' with their wing tips trapped in the trailing cases. The dark coloration of their slate wings and the mahogany body with dark brown shucks combined to make this rather large fly almost invisible on the water-invisible to the angler, that is. To the trout, who had the advantage of plenty of backlighting from the sun, they were not only visible but represented a juicy morsel that was not about to flutter away.
As usual, putting our rods down and studying the situation for ten minutes had paid big dividends. We excitedly changed to a # 16 Slate-Brown Stillborn pattern and found the fish very receptive to our offerings. The School House Pool had never been particularly kind to us in the past, but thanks to these new patterns this uncomfortable spring day turned out to be q day to remember.
Up to this point we have mentioned only mayflies, caddis flies, and midges. On occasion, these patterns work well when·stoneflies are hatching. Normally, due either to the method or to the intensity of stonefly emergence, the still born imitation is not effective, but there are exceptions. On Michigan's Au Sable River, for example, there's a heavy hatch of small yellow stoneflies which occurs simultaneously with the peak of the Pale Evening Duns, around the first week in June. These #18-#20 downwings are of local importance only when the intensity exceeds that of the Sulphurs. Slightly before and after the peak of the hatch, with only moderate numbers of flies on the water, the fish seemed to relish feeding on the skittering adults. At these times, a yellow-bodied Adams or Henryville type works best. During the peak of the hatch, however, those few evenings when the river is blanketed with naturals, most of the trout prefer to feed on the stillborn variety.
The Little Yellow Stone is usually at its best on warm evenings, well before sunset, and has a tendency to become very active as soon as the nymphal shuck has been freed. In order to take the fluttering adult, a trout must expend more energy than he would receive from devouring the minute natural. Thus, the more accessible stillborn becomes the prime target. For this particular hatch, we prefer an imitation with a yellow body, tannish-grey wings, sparse ginger hackle, and a medium-brown case. The float should be completely drag-free.
A similar stonefly hatch provides some of the best fishing of the early season on another of Michigan's blue-ribbon trout water, the Pere Marquette. This hatch comes slightly earlier in the season, the last week in May, but takes place about the same time of day, six to eight in the evenings. It is known locally as the little Olive Stonefly. It causes great excitement for about a week, bridging the gap between a fading Hendrickson and the initial phases of the Sulphur hatch. Without the competition of other major hatches, this #16-#18 olive-bodied stone achieves great importance in the trout diet.
Heavy emergences of the Little Olive cause considerable frustration and consternation among local anglers, many of which resort to large streamers and bucktails in effort to ignore the hatch. These flies hatch like most mayflies, in the main currents and, like the Yellow Stones, become very active as adults. Hackle flies, especially an olive-bodied Henryville, are effective at times but, during peak emergences, the stillborn is supreme. Our favorite pattern has a medium olive body ribbed with fine yellow thread, gray wings, sparse bronze hackle and two dark-grey hen-hackle tips for the extended case. The hackle should be clipped flat on top and V'd slightly on the bottom. Duck-quill segments or hen hackle tips, tied in at the bend and lashed down at the eye, make excellent wings.
Toward the end of the Little Brown Caddis hatch, late in May, another caddis, known locally on the North Branch of the Au Sable as the "Popcorn hatch," dovetails into the scene. This is a much larger fly than the Chimarra, size #14-#16, with an olive body and wings that look about the size and color of a freshly popped kernel of corn. Actually, the wings are light grey, but in the sunlight they appear almost creamy white. These flies "pop up" all over the stream in great numbers. Feeding activity is rarely heavy, however, as most of the flies are in the air and not on the water. Many of the larger fish leave the water. quickly and only the smaller ones will try for these elusive targets.
To fish the Popcorn hatch effectively, one should be armed with both the Henryville and the stillborn type of flies and must cover as much water as possible. Numerous large fish will be found feeding if two or three miles of river can be waded in an afternoon, and most of these better fish will fall prey to the stillborn Caddis. An effective pattern for the Popcorn Caddis has an olive body, light-grey wings, a blackish-grey case and sparse slate hackle. The wings can best be fashioned from either duck quill segments or strands of light-grey Poly II, and should be kept more to the sides of the body rather than directly over the top. This better imitates the wing position of the naturals. Allow the wings to "bow out" slightly between the front and rear tie-down points. This technique also adds to the realism of the emerging wings, promotes better flotation and provides excellent visibility.
The trailing pupal shuck is well imitated by double hen hackle tips, blackish-grey in color, mounted flat and parallel to the hook shank. Dark grey hackle, mounted well back be hind the eye, clipped flat on top and slightly V'd on the bottom, is not only realistic in appearance but cocks the fly on the water at just the right angle. This style of pattern is effective for all stillborn caddis. Just match the color of your favorite caddis hatch to these materials and you're in business.
These new fat-bodied flies are now playing such an important role in our western fishing we wonder how we ever survived without them in the past. Use of the stillborns has added immeasurably to our enjoyment on rivers such as the Henry's Fork, the Firehole and the spring creeks. We've been using these patterns only a few years, but already they've helped us solve many hatch problems that previously left us frustrated and empty-handed.
One of the most perplexing problems of all over the years has been trying to break the combination to the various midge hatches on the gin-clear spring creeks of the West. In such waters, rising trout can be extremely difficult to take. Sometimes the pupa works, sometimes the hackled adult works, but quite often, nothing works-at least with any degree of consistency.
The problem with the midges, of course, is that the flies are so minute, usually # 24 or smaller, that it's very difficult to see what's really happening in and on the surface film. Large mayflies, especially dark-colored ones, are hard enough to see, but midges are almost impossible. Empty cases can be quite easy to spot on the water; they are light colored or whitish after the adult frees himself. However, they don't tell us much except that something has just emerged. It is much more meaningful to see what has happened during the actual emergence process. We want to know exactly what stage the flies are in when they are being taken by the trout. This more difficult because the flies are darker and more opaque while the adult still occupies, or partially occupies, the pupal case, and, of course, darker objects are harder to spot on the water.
This is the problem we faced several years ago when we discovered the spring creek stillborns. On that unforgettable morning, the trout started feeding between 7 and 7:30. They were rising in large but well-defined pods located just downstream horn high concentrations of aquatic vegetation. These bright-green weeds, which are so characteristic of the west ern spring creeks; grow almost to the water's surface where they create myriad tiny currents and eddies. It is in this vegetation that literally millions of midges are born and bred each season. The trout are aware of this so, at hatch time, they congregate slightly downstream where they can "tip and sip" with ease. On most western spring creeks, such occurrences happen every day, not only once, but usually several times. During this particular day, the first major hatch period took place between 7 and 10:30 a.m.
Most western spring creek anglers arrive at streamside just in time for the Pale Morning Dun emergence which begins around 11 a.m. Arriving early, we had things to ourselves and it was great to see so many rising fish. We were really going to mop up, or so we thought. All of the patterns we tried-pupas, hackle and no-hackle adults-were consistent at not taking fish consistently.
At first, we were positive that a pupal-type imitation had to be the answer. In reality, it was the least effective of all, producing an occasional false rise. The best patterns, ones that actually caught a few fish, were sparsely hackled adults and partridge no-hackles. The surprising thing was that the most effective size was a # 18. This was very confusing until we figured out what was happening, because the naturals we could see on the water and flying in the air appeared to be #26 in size.
Landing only a few fish in several hours of fishing was very frustrating, especially when there were dozens of large trout feeding right under our noses. After what seemed like an eternity of refusal, we got smart, put the rods aside and began observing closely.
We waded into an area, not only where numerous fish were rising heavily, but where the current was smooth and slow and provided good visibility. It took a while for our eyes to focus in properly on the small flies but we finally saw what was happening. At first, it appeared that #24-#26 dark midges were on the water. They were rather normal looking, except that the wings seemed awfully short and out of position. Closer examination revealed why the wings looked different. The tips were stuck in the pupal case, which was still clinging to the adult's body. In effect, the fly was trapped in its own shuck, and the wings, instead of being free, were being held down tightly over the back of the body. The position of the flies on the water was also unique. They were angled up at about 20° to 30° from the water's surface. It seemed that the weight or drag, of the trailing case pulled the rear portion down, causing the front, or thorax portion of the fly, to be higher off the water than normal.
Coupled with the different shape and unnatural position on the water was the fact that the total length of the still born was double that of the adult midge alone. This explains why the size # 18 was at least partly effective during the hatch.
After our eyes became accustomed to following these new creatures on the water-the trick was to find the exposed wing segments glistening in the sun-we could immediately see that this was the stage the fish were feeding on. Time after time, individual trout would ignore the fluttering, skittering adults in preference for the stillborns. To us, at least, a whole new world of fly fishing had been discovered.
That evening in our motel, we burned the midnight oil as we worked on strange-looking new patterns. To imitate the trailing pupal case, we used two dark-grey, almost black, hen-hackle tips tied in flat, one on top of the other. They were mounted in the regular tail position parallel to the shank. A variety of materials were tried for the wings-duck quill segments, shoulder feathers, hen-hackle tips and strands of Poly II Hackle was a mixture of grizzly and dark blue dun and, after winding, it was trimmed on top to facilitate mounting of the wings. It was left full on the bottom so that the fly would tilt upwards in the front. When completed, these little creatures looked somewhat similar to the Goofus Bug or Humpy. In fact, the stillborn phenomenon may explain the effectiveness of these popular Western pat terns, at least in the smaller sizes.
The next morning we arrived at streamside bright and early, prepared, with our odd-looking materials, to attack with a vengeance. Of course, Mother Nature can be very fickle, so we knew full well that she might switch hatches on us, or at least switch the stage of the hatch that the fish would feed on. What we were really concerned about was that the previous day's experience would end up being a "once in a lifetime" or at best, "once a year" happening, rather than a common occurrence. After all, with over 50 years of fly fishing experience between us, why had we never recognized the stillborn phenomenon before?
Mother Nature was kind to us that morning. The midges started moving right after 7 and by 7:30 several dozen fish were feeding in a large pod, 25 to 30 feet long, just below the green weeds. We purposely left our rods on the bank and waded into the line of drift. Before a single cast was de livered we wanted to be absolutely sure what the fish were working on; several minutes of observation in a quiet slick were all we needed. This day we knew what we were looking for–long dark bodies, short wing segments glistening in the sun, and that unique, upswept position on the water. Al most immediately, we spotted the stillborns and watched a half-dozen disappear in large, fanning rings.
This was the signal for action. We stumbled over to our rods on the bank, moved into casting position and waited for the risers to come back to their feeding station. It didn't take long. They were rising steadily within a few minutes. It didn't take long to find out whether our new patterns would work either. For almost two hours we thought we were in fly fisherman's heaven. Compared to the previous morning, it was a whole new ballgame. Practically every big fish that had laughed at our offerings the day before was "suckered" into a firm, confident take. Refusals, false rises, and missed strikes were almost non-existent. It was "our" day and we enjoyed it to the hilt.
#24 Dun/Grey No-Hackle Stillborn Midge
- Tail: Dark grey hen-hackle lip.
- Body: Fly-Rite* # 7 grey poly.
- Wing: Light grey feathers or Poly II strands, tied in at bend and pulled forward over top of body to eye.
#16 Slate/Olive No-Hackle Stillborn Dun
- Tail: Clump of dark grey Poly II shaped to form clinging nymphal case.
- Body: Fly-Rite* # 15 olive poly.
- Wings: Pair of wide duck or goose shoulder feathers, tied short and radiating from the sides of the body.
- (This pattern, tied in sizes # 14-18, is good for imitating the Ephemerella flavilinea, lata and attenuata species.)
TIPS ON FISHING STILLBORNS
- Look for nymph or pupa-bearing vegetation; high concentrations; risers will congregate below weeds.
Reason still-born is so good in these areas:
- The heavier the hatch, the higher the chances of fish feeding on stillborns.
- Quiet, deliberate feeding during heavy hatches indicates a high probability that the fish are taking stillborns.
- Splashy, erratic, frenzied rises during a heavy hatch indicates a very low probability that the fish are taking stillborns.
- Pin-point casting is necessary because the hatch is normally heavy when the fish are taking stillborns (resulting in narrow feeding lanes) and trout will not move very far lo take flies that are relatively motionless.
- Absolute drag-free floats are essential for most stillborn situations.
- Stillborn artificials should float high as possible-just as important as normal dry flies-use a good floatant even as no-hackle types are much more effective when they float high (although bodies are level with the water) this is accomplished by first spraying the fly well with silicone dry fly spray and then working in a silicone line-dressing paste with the thumb and the forefinger.
Four pattern types are presented. These imitate the still born stage of midges, mayfly duns, stones, and emerging caddis. They are "types" patterns, and of course, the size and the color of wings and bodies must be matched to specific species present at the particular time.
- HOOK: #20-#28, 3X, FW
- PUPAL SHUCK: cock hackle tip
- BODY: spun Poly II
- WINGS: Poly II fibers
- HACKLE: cock hackle trimmed flat on top
- HOOK: #10-#24, 3X, FW
- PUPAL SHUCK: cock hackle tip, tied reversed
- BODY: Poly II or spun fur
- WINGS: duck quill segments tied down at both ends, or very short and slanted back
- LEGS: cock hackle, tied Defeo-style, or none
- HOOK: #14-#22, 3X, FW
- PUPAL SHUCK: hen hackle tip
- BODY: Poly II or spun fur
- WINGS: hackle tips or duck quill segments tied down at both ends
- LEGS: cock hackle, tied Defeo-style
- HOOK: #10-#20, 3X, FW
- PUPAL SHUCK: cock hackle tips tied reversed
- BODY: Poly II or spun fur
- WINGS: duck quill segments tied down at both ends
- LEGS: cock hackle, clipped top and bottom
LIST OF PROTOTYPICAL PATTERNS
- Green body/light-grey wing/dark-brown shuck/grizzly and brown.
- Yellow body/light-grey wing/dark-brown shuck/grizzly and ginger.
- Black body /light-grey wing/blackish-grey shuck/grizzly and dark-grey.
- Green body/tan-mottled wing/ dark-brown shuck/slate hackle.
- Tan body/tan-mottled wing/ medium-brown shuck/partridge hackle.
- Black body/light-grey mottled wing/ dark-brown shuck/ slate hackle.
- Black body/dark-grey wing/ dark-brown shuck/ dark-brown hackle.
- Tan body/dark-grey wing/ medium-brown shuck/tan hackle.
- Yellow body/light-grey wing/ light-brown shuck/honey hackle.
- Light-olive body/light-grey wing/ dark-brown shuck/light olive hackle.
- Dark-olive body/dark-grey wing/ dark-brown shuck/light olive hackle.
As with the No-Hackle Duns, one color in different sizes can imitate many mayfly species. Following is a list of species the four prototypical colors will match in the correct sizes.
- Hendrickson # 12-# 14, Quill Gordons # 14-# 16, Leptophlebia # 12, Paraleptophlebia # 16-#18, Baetis species (such as vagans) #16-#20, Rithrogenia species # 16, Brown Drakes (Ephemera simulans) #10-#12, Hexagenia limbata # 6-# 8, American March Browns (Stenonema fuscum vicarum and Ithaca) #10-#14, Siphlonurus #10-#14 (Grey Drakes).
- Pale Evening Dun #16-#18 (Ephemerella dorothea), Pale Morning. Duns # 14-# 22, (Ephemerella inermis, ln frequens and Lucustrus) Light Baetis species # 20-# 22, Light Cahills (Stenonema canadense) # 14-#16, Light Heptagenia species # 14-# 16, Pale Epeorus species #16-#18.
- Pseudocloeon, Cloeon, Neocloeon, Centrapolitium # 20-# 26.
- Ephemerella attenuata # 18 (Blue Wing Olive), Ephemerella lata # 18, Ephemerella flavilinea, Coloradensis # 12-#14 Ephemerella grandis.
*NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS
For the best body material we've ever seen-great colors, superfine, excellent flotation and durability; blending is a For the bodies on these dressings, we've listed the new Fly- dream. We're in our new book for many of the patterns. Rite polypropylene material just coming on the market. The numbers (Fly-Rite # 10 olive, for example) refer to their We've been using it for almost a year and it seems to be by particular shades of color, which are excellent. D.S. & C.R.
Doug Swisher and Carl Richards almost overnight became the high priests of angling entomology with their 1971 book, Selective Trout. The above selection, "Stillborn Duns," is excerpted from their forthcoming book, Fly Fishing Strategy, © 1975 by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, which will be published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 419 Park Avenue South, New York, N. Y. 10016.