Summer means stoneflies, and there is something about a stonefly that gets my motor running. They have sex appeal, as much as a prehistoric, ungainly, four-winged, six-legged creature with probing antennae can.
I’ll go to some effort to seek them out. But not just any stonefly. When it comes to this particular predilection, size definitely matters. Of all the stoneflies out there, none are sexier than Pteronarcys, the big, hulking salmon fly.
There is a shameless duplicity to this attraction, however. Ultimately it is not the stoneflies themselves that I am really after, but the fish who feed on them – rather like making friends with the plain-looking person in the hope of getting to know their better-looking friend.
Just like no one told the bumblebee that, according to the laws of physics as we understand them, they should not be able to fly, so too do salmon flies push the boundaries of aerodynamics. Their ungainly flight and heavy, clumsy water landings make them low-hanging fruit to a trout looking for a serious shot of protein.
June is the month they are most active in these parts, and as such their emergence is inexorably associated with summer. After months of nymphing with thread-wrapped hooks along icy banks and braving the elements tying on size 22 blue wings with frozen, cracked fingertips, squinting in vain to see your fly against the steel-gray river, there is a certain exhilaration at tying on a bright orange dry fly the size of a hummingbird and slapping it hard against the water where it meets a cliff face.
I find myself going the extra mile to fish a salmon fly hatch. On some rivers it is the only time of year the really big fish will deign to feed off the surface. I’ve pulled off Indiana Jones-style climbing maneuvers with my 5-weight gripped between my teeth, waded naked and nipple-deep in water so cold I’d blend right in at a eunuch convention, taken shortcuts through groves of poison ivy – all in the name of getting to where the stoneflies, by rights, should be.
And of course, sometimes they’re not. Like all inhabitants of trout streams anywhere, they move to their own rhythms and cycles that we can theorize but ultimately remain ignorant about. In this respect, they are no different than mayflies or caddis, and many is the angler who has divined from the gods, studied the runes, consulted sun and moon and still gets it wrong.
Yet the memory of hitting a salmon fly hatch lingers longer than the misses, and the desire to return to try again the next year is undiminished, if not enhanced, by the experience of coming up empty-handed.
Another plus is the gentleman’s hours the salmon fly keeps. They fit well with an angler who likes to sit late in camp, overimbibing a little, safe in the knowledge that he or she won’t need to be up at the crack of dawn to catch the hatch. Stoneflies like the warmth of the sun on their backs before lift off, having crawled from the depths of the river to emerge into their brave new world the night previous.
In flight, it’s like no one read them the flight manual, or if so, skipped the chapters about gracefulness, avoiding large objects and how to land with subtlety. Airborne, they somehow manage to look like they are tethered to an invisible load, fighting a knife-edged battle with gravity.
And yet, despite their apparent clumsiness, they have been quite happily doing what they do for untold millennia, considerably more than we, as a species, can claim.
I once woke from an afternoon nap beneath the shade of a riverside box elder, a smooth slab of granite my mattress. Upon waking, the trunk and branches of the box elder above me appeared to have fattened, quietly moving and pulsing to a slow, deliberate rhythm. I briefly wondered if I’d woken up in the middle of a Dead concert in ’89, my supposed life a mere extension of an electric Kool-Aid-induced mind game.
Fortunately, my eyes dragged into focus, revealing the entire tree a mass of stoneflies, driven silently from the heat of the day to the same shade that had drawn me, where they quietly and without self-consciousness went about the business of procreation, their single-minded and unobtrusive commitment to the species’ immortality.
There’s lots we could learn from their example. Mind your own business. Hot afternoons riverside are best spent in slumber and/or procreation. And make the most of the hand you are dealt, no matter how goofy you might look playing it.
Hayden Mellsop is a Realtor with Pinon Real Estate Group and a former fishing guide.