The golden stonefly, that is
By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
The salmon-fly hatch is the most anticipated hatch of the year for good reason—it’s the first hatch immediately after runoff; the natural insects are large, allowing us to fish the biggest dry flies of the season; and some of the largest fish of the season are caught on large dry flies.
However, if the salmon-fly hatch is the main event, the golden stonefly hatch is the after-party. And, despite my hazy memory, some of my best college memories came during the after-party. Fishing the golden stonefly hatch is nature’s way of giving us big dry-fly junkies another shot at greatness. Here’s some advice and top flies for fishing the hatch after the hatch.
Know the difference. Salmon flies, both the nymphs and adults, are larger than golden stoneflies. If you want to sound like a dork, Pteronarcys californica, commonly referred to as salmonflies, range in size from 7.5 to 8.5 centimeters in length; whereas Hesperoperla pacifica, whose common name is the golden stonefly, are rarely longer than 6 centimeters. In other words, golden stones are smaller. But the most defining characteristic is color: salmon flies are orange and black, while golden stoneflies range from yellow to golden to olive.
Adjust your tackle. As our local rivers drop in flow, and water recedes from bank-side structure, the need for heavy tippets wanes. You can hang up the 0X tippet until streamer season, but keep the 7.5-foot-long 1X and 2X leaders handy. A shorter leader will help turn over a big, busy dry fly and allow for more accuracy.
Begin to fish two flies again. The best salmon-fly hatch anglers fish one fly—and they fish it very tight to, even among, bank-side structure. Fishing only one fly means you can drop a cast between willow branches or near logs. Once golden stoneflies hatch, river clarity often improves tremendously and fishing two flies increases your odds substantially.
Go long on your dropper fly. Trout tend to rise to eat a fly off the surface more often during overcast weather. Golden stoneflies hatch in summer, when sunshine dominates. Because of this, I like to bring the fly to the fish. When I know golden stoneflies are hatching—during these next few weeks—I will fish a very long dropper, often four feet or longer, because our trout may be a little less likely to rise in bright sunshine and clearer water.
Learn the reach cast. An essential cast for getting the longest possible drag-free drift, a reach cast is ideal for fishing big, single dry flies or big dry flies with long droppers. This cast is accomplished by mending the fly line in the air before it lands on the water. This cast is best done by having a wider casting loop, stopping your forward cast higher off the water than a normal presentation cast, and after your stop your cast at the end of the forward cast, follow through by pulling the straightened fly line through the air into its mended position.
Bulk up on your fly selection. To over-simplify fishing a golden stonefly hatch, use flies a few sizes smaller and yellow or gold in color than you would fish for salmon flies. However, since fly tiers like to create new patterns—and fly shops like to sell flies—be certain to have some of the following patterns in sizes 8 and 10: Trina’s Stimi Stone, Wade’s Ho Candy, Water Walker, Fat Frank, and the always popular Chubby Chernobyl.
Hatches of golden stoneflies mark the true beginning of our summer angling season. Runoff and its big water are fully in the rear-view, and guessing when we’ll begin fishing dry flies is finally over. Golden stoneflies are a nice runner-up to the glamour of the salmon-fly hatch, but just because they’re the second act doesn’t mean you’ll want an aisle seat.
Pat Straub is a 20-year veteran guide on Montana’s waters and has fished the world-over. The co-founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, he’s the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.