American Fly Fishing History Is Rich in the Mayfly, Caddis, and Terrestrial Literature, but Less Time Has Been Devoted to the Stonefly
Even today on many Western freestone rivers where the stonefly is of the greatest importance, many fly anglers do not use stoneflies to their full potential. Early writings that focused on mayflies beginning in the Catskills set the standard for many generations regarding the folklore of fly fishing that still hold today of “matching the hatch” with delicately dressed flies and perfect presentations to rising trout.
Spring creeks of the East were glorified in the writings of Marinaro and the discovery that trout focused on terrestrials outside of and sometimes during major aquatic insect hatches. Lafontaine introduced the world to the wonders and beauty of the caddisfly.
Midges have even made their way into the average angler’s regular fly rotation thanks to the books of Ed Koch and Don Hollbrook mixed with the increased availability of tailwater fishing over the last 50 to 70 years.
The only major publication on the subject of Plecoptera that I have found is “Stoneflies” by Swisher/Richards, published in 1980, but I only found that researching for this article and it is highly overshadowed by their seminal work “Selective Trout.”
Outside of the Salmonfly hatch on a few Northwest rivers like the Madison and Henry’s Fork, a large void has been left for the stonefly and its importance on western freestone rivers. Surprisingly, the stonefly is even overlooked by many anglers that call a freestone river their home water.
Stoneflies on the Kern and Freestone Rivers
The Kern River is one of the largest freestone rivers in the Western U.S. and runs for 80 miles, from the base of Mt Whitney (the highest mountain in the lower 48, at over 14,000 feet), down the center of the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and empties into Lake Isabella near the town of Kernville (2810 ft. elevation).
Plunging freestones like the Kern are constantly scraping and scouring sandy debris, clearing the silt from the rocky substrate. The cold, clear water coupled with a rock-filled riverbed laced with detritus from streamside foliage, creates ideal habitat for not only trout but stoneflies as well.
Being such a large and healthy river the Kern has 5 main species of stoneflies. We have the Skwala, Black (Salmonfly), Yellow Sally, and two species of Golden Stones, with the Golden Stoneflies being the most prolific and of the greatest importance to the angler throughout the year.
The Kern is a truly classic freestone, so you can use the following guidelines and apply them on your next destination trip to a western freestone or for fishing your local freestone river.
Types Of Stoneflies
Dry Fly Stoneflies
Skwala Stoneflies are the first to hatch from January to March on the Kern but do not provide any steady or consistent topwater action and are not available as nymphs in significant numbers.
The largest of the stoneflies, the Black or Giant Salmonlflies, begin hatching in March or April on the Kern and can often be followed upriver as the hatch progresses on good hatch years. The Salmonfly hatch will move upriver 3-4 miles a day, so we get about a week or so of our best early season topwater fishing on the “20 Mile” roadside access section of the river. Float a #4-8 Black Stimulator or Red Fuzzy Wuzzy trying to mimic the action of any naturals that you observe. Fishing a large soft hackle like a Carey’s Special just below the dry can produce fantastic results if they are not aggressively eating the dry. These tactics work several weeks after the hatch as the fish have a fresh memory of the naturals.
The Sally usually hatches in May and can provide excellent topwater action if the runoff has not begun yet using a #14-16 Yellow Stimulator, Elk Hair Caddis or EC Caddis in yellow to mimic the adults. Since the Yellow Sally is the only of the stoneflies to emerge directly from the water, fish are used to seeing the adults in large concentrations. Again, mimic any action of the adult witnessed. A fly that is skittered and skated a foot or two in front of a rising trout can often produce vicious strikes!
Golden Stones provide some thick evening hatches from June through August, but are rarely available in heavy numbers to trout until egg laying occurs the following afternoon. The Golden adults rarely blanket the water but fish are willing to rise for a well presented #6-10 Golden Half Cocked or Yellow Stimi during the hatch period and up to two months after. A dry/dropper or dry/double dropper is recommended with #10-12 Kauffie Cup and #14-16 Frenchie droppers to provide steady action.
Stoneflies are very unique in that they have anywhere from a seven month to four year life cycle dependent mostly on their size. The nymphal form of the Black Stonefly or Giant Salmonfly, lives for 4-5 years depending on water quality and food availability. This makes the nymphs available in multiple sizes to the trout for 12 months out of the year! It’s a good idea to fish the large Black Kaufmann Stones or Black Kauffie Cup Stone nymphs in size #2-6 during the hatch period and switch to fishing the smaller size of the next generation (#8-14) after the hatch is over.
Yellow Sally nymphs are abundant but much smaller in size than their cousins. For this reason fish do not move as far or aggressively to eat them outside of their hatch period in May when they are most available to the fish. But, the smallest #12-14 Kauffie Cup and Stalcup Tungsten Stones fish good, as does the classic Birds Nest in #12-16 pretty much all year round, possibly due to these flies being multi representational.
Golden Stones have a 2-3 year life cycle, so the Kern has size #10-14 nymphs available year round to the fish, with larger flies like Kauffie Cup Stones and Stalcups Tungsten Stones in #6 and 8 fishing well prior to and during the hatch. There are two species of Goldens on the Kern, Acroneuria californica and Acroneuria pacifica, both occurring in extremely significant numbers, which means the trout are always used to seeing them. These stoneflies exclusively prey on other insects, so they are active throughout the day and are easily swept into the current where their large size makes them a tempting and tasty treat for hungry trout.
The Yellow Sally in the only one of the group to emerge directly from the water. All other species crawl along the streambed towards the river’s edge where they emerge from dry rocks or streamside foliage. For this reason it is important to fish the shallow edges before to moving to deeper runs prior to and during hatch periods. Females will return to water the next evening after mating to deposit their eggs.
Noting areas with heavy amounts of shucks and fishing them more aggressively or thoroughly can be beneficial to any angler. If the shucks are fresh, you may get lucky and stumble into a hatch or egg laying females that evening. If the hatch is over and you fish your local freestone regularly, you can make a mental note, knowing that next season this will be a good hatch area and that the surrounding runs are currently packed with stonefly nymphs.
Importance of Stoneflies for Fly Anglers on Freestone Rivers
Now I’m just like anyone else that loves to see a beautiful trout rise for a large bushy dry, but the bulk of the stoneflies life is spent in the nymphal stage and I have had the most success personally and with clients fishing a stonefly nymph. For 9-10 months out of the year the stonefly is of extreme importance on freestones that have a high population.
During the coldest months of winter the stones seem to semi hibernate along with the trout and are far less active and available to the trout than the rest of the year. Once that high altitude, cold, snow-fed water begins to warm in late winter to early spring the trout put on the feedbag and will gladly move to eat a large stonefly pattern. Depending on the year and amount of snowpack, the runoff or blowout period can last from several weeks to over two months in the heaviest snow years.
Once the river becomes safe to fish in late spring or early summer, stoneflies are the top producers for quantity and quality on two or three fly nymph setups and dry/dropper rigs. Fishing two stones of different sizes or species together is a great tactic at this time.
As summer approaches more mayfly and caddis come into prominence and this is when most anglers discard the stonefly. I have found that on most days throughout the summer trout will eat the most abundant species of stoneflies on the river as readily or even more than a mayfly, caddis or midge imitation. I will usually pair a #14-18 Frenchie or Albino Midge with a #8-12 Kauffie Cup Stone that will be similar in size to the next generation unless I see an abundance of larger nymphs while surveying under rocks.
There is a massive population of golden stones on the Kern, so naturally most of the stonefly patterns I fish are in the golden theme. If the fish are not eating the Golden, before I go away from the stones I will try black or yellow sally stonefly nymphs, which both have significant populations, and am regularly rewarded.
Many seasoned freestone anglers are aware of the fantastic stonefly fishing in the spring and early summer but most neglect the epic fishing that occurs in the fall! As the mountain nights shorten, cooling the water, the trout seem to know that winter is approaching and they need to take advantage of every single opportunity before it gets too cold. For the same reasons that the streamer fishing is productive for aggressive trout in fall, stonefly fishing is too. After the first storms of fall when the weather picks back up it seems that all the fish want is a larger meal to pack on the calories prior to the winter lockdown.
Fishing can be excellent through late November and sometimes even December if the weather and water temps stay relatively warm and I generally go back to concentrating mostly on size #4-8 imitations.
Stonefly Fishing Techniques and Rigging
With so many styles and techniques available to the fly flicker these days it can be a bit overwhelming picking which might be the best style for any given time of year or situation. I will try and simplify things a bit by breaking down some of the reasons why I pick a specific style at any given time.
Late Winter Through Early Spring Stonefly Fishing
During the Salmonfly hatch a dry/dropper or dry/double dropper can be deadly with a #6 stonefly and a #6-8 Pats Rubber Legs or Carey Special dropper!
Prior to and after the hatch though, fishing a two fly nymph rig under an indicator/bobber or Euro nymphing produces best. A #6-12 Stalcup Tungsten Stone or Kauffie Cup Stone paired with a #14-18 Frenchie, Pheasant Tail, Perdigon or Lightning Caddis is often all that is needed. Try switching back and forth between rigging the stone as point fly or dropper and go with two stones in different sizes if the bulk of the fish are keying in on the stonefly.
Late Spring Through Early Summer Stonefly Fishing
Big water means heavy rigging! Once the water becomes safe to fish, a two nymph bobber rig dominates this season with heavy flies and split shot being needed to get the flies to the fish where they can be seen. The good news is that the fish move to the edges and can be relatively easy to target. The better news is that they are extremely aggressive after the stress of runoff and are willing to move a considerable distance to inhale a fat meal if presented well. A two stone rig with one #4-8 on the dropper and a #10-14 as the point fly can be deadly at this time! A larger bobber (1” Airlock) is often needed to drift these setups with AAA and sometimes larger split shots that are useful to get to the fish depths quickly. Many of the biggest fish of the year are often caught in late spring on large stoneflies!
Summer Through Early Fall Stonefly Fishing
The water is now running clear and flows are down to a safe wading level which means the fish will be willing to occasionally rise from the depths to ambush a well drifted large, bushy dry stonefly! If you are happy catching a few on top then a single dry will get the job done, but if you want to maximize your catch potential, a dry/dropper is a must. I will only fish a straight dry if 3-4 fish in a row smash the dry and ignore the stonefly nymph dropper. At this time the major stonefly hatches have concluded so fishing a #8-14 stonefly nymph as a dropper that is representative of the next generation of nymphs that will hatch in the following year(s) is recommended. Use two droppers if the fish are not rising to the dry on a regular basis, rigging at least one stonefly nymph with your favorite attractor or two stone droppers. Euro nymphing is very productive in summer too, but you would be omitting the opportunity for topwater action.
Late Fall Stonefly Fishing
Euro nymphing with two #4-8 stones or one #8-12 stone paired with one #4-8 stonefly nymph is the most productive with low water. Fishing a larger unweighted imitation as the point fly and adding a split shot 6” above goes against some modern teachings, but will get your fly on the bottom with far less snags since the weight is the anchor point and not the fly. A two fly bobber rig is also effective especially in deep, slow runs. On the warmest days a dry/dropper setup can come back into play.
Favorite Stonefly Flies
The Kauffie-Cup Stone
The Kauffie-Cup Stone had its origins on a small freestone river in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles. The Kauffie-Cup Stone imitates the small golden stonefly nymphs that were present in decent numbers year round.
At its core, the Kauffie-Cup Stone is basically a cross between Randall Kaufmann’s Stonefly and Shane Stalcup’s Tungsten Stonefly, keeping what I felt were the key characteristics of both flies in regards to catching fish, durability, and ease of tying. The original biot tails were omitted in favor of rubber along the way for all three of the previously mentioned reasons.
The key ingredient came with the addition of the anatomically correct Nymph-Head Evolution Stonefly tungsten beadhead, which increased the catching! The golden version is the favorite on the Kern, but at certain times a black and even brown can outfish the golden, so it’s wise to carry all colors in multiple sizes.
Check out the anatomically correct Nymph-Head Evolution Stonefly tungsten beadhead.
More Stonefly Nymphs
- Kaufmann Stone
- Stalcups Tungsten Stone
- Pat’s Rubber Legs
- Kauffie Cup Stone
More Stonefly Dry Flies
- Half-Cocked Stone
- Fuzzy Wuzzy
- Double Dutch Bug
Get Out There!
The next time you're traveling to a famous freestone destination or fishing your home freestone water, don’t forget about the importance of those stoneflies and how happy the fish are to eat them!
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About Rob Buhler:
With a deep passion for all things fly fishing and fly tying, Rob can be found on any given weekend fishing from Southern California inshore waters to Pyramid Lake, Nevada. When not guiding or fishing, he is usually tying up more orders for his and his brother Ryan's small business, Buhler Bros Flies, or spinning up some new ideas for Guy to try out on the water. He is a part of the Flymen Fishing Co. Fly Tyer Program and his flies are used by many guides in the Sierras, including Joe Contaldi and Doug Ouellette as well as being stocked at the Crosby Lodge in Pyramid Lake, Nevada. You can find many of his patterns at Kern River Fly Shop.