Meditation on an Early Stonefly

I wait for its initial appearance on the rivertops as if it was the season’s first robin or woodcock. A hatch of the Little Black Stonefly is assured to make me feel younger than I felt the day before. This fly suggests that spring is here or just around the corner; earth will be green once more, and the air will be stirred by wings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Little Black Stonefly is the first of the major aquatic hatches in this area. It ushers in the year’s parade of insect hatches over pool and riffle. Other than the winter midges that  emerged sporadically on the open water of quiet streams, bug life has been dormant for months. The black stoneflies will emerge from the trout streams soon, and I’ll be there to greet them.

On streams like Slate and Cedar Run that tumble into Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Valley, the Little Black Stonefly typically emerges by mid-March. It precedes the first flush of other significant trout foods like the Early Brown Stonefly and the Blue-Winged Olive. Then, by mid-April,  come the Blue Quill and the Quill Gordon, followed shortly after by the various caddis and the great mayfly hatches. The stonefly is the gateway hatch, and to pass through the gate should be a reminder to any angler, dulled by winter’s lethargy, that it’s great to be alive and reawakened.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Little Black Stonefly belongs to an order of ancient bugs called Plecoptera, the name derived from the Greek “plekein,” meaning ” braided wings.” A stonefly has two-pair of wings that rest flatly on its back. The braids, or venation, are obvious on inspection. Of the roughly 550 stonefly species in North America, only a handful should interest the general angler, and the artificial fly patterns can be generic, one pattern covering many similar species.

Stonefly nymphs have a well-developed head, thorax and abdomen, plus an iconic two-part tail. Trout consider them delicacies. Good stonefly populations are an indicator of stream or river health, for these insects do not tolerate pollution.

As I meditate on stonefly ecology and the insect’s absolute dependence on clean, well-oxygenated water, I digress briefly on a local threat. Advocates of hydro-fracking operations for the gas that’s locked below the rivertops give lip-service to the health of watersheds, but the industry’s performance speaks otherwise. Hydro-fracking near the Class A trout streams of rivertop Pennsylvania has begun, and the possibility for similar operations looms above the New York headwaters as well. Sandra Steingraber is a founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, and I’d like to quote one of her recent statements: “Fracking is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent, climate-destroying enterprise that uses our land as its factory floor and turns our communities into industrial zones.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stoneflies are abundant in the rivertops that flow down to the north Atlantic, to the Chesapeake and to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hard to be unbiased about fracking practices when I’ve long resided in a land of headwater streams where stonefly, brook trout, migratory bird, and nature lover dwell in apparent harmony.

Stoneflies vary in size and can be tied on hooks ranging from a big #6 down to a small #18, depending on the species that hatch from your local stream. The artificials can be cast successfully throughout the year because the nymphs are always active. The Little Black Stonefly that I’m currently anticipating can be tied on a #14 nymph hook. I like to fish it dead-drift through a deep riffle, on or near the bottom. You might have luck with a dry fly pattern, too, but often when the hatch occurs, the water temperatures remain cold, the flows may still be high and turbid, the trout reluctant to spend big energy for a small reward.

“Wherever fracking goes, air is polluted, water is contaminated, roads clog with trucks, property values plummet, and people get sick.”

Early stoneflies, indicators of excellent water, tell me that another year has opened on a healthy note, that evolution is progressing as nature intended. Stoneflies tell me that angling is always more than catching fish, that it’s good to be a student of the streams and rivers once again. They tell me that it’s good to belong to a special place,  a natural environment of our choosing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think about some favorite early season moments when fishing the Little Black Stonefly hatch. The following anecdote is from my book River’s Edge, a chapter called “Springwater Snapshots.” I remember fishing Naples Creek when the action was slow because most of the rainbow trout had already spawned and fallen back to Canandaigua Lake. I tied on a small black stonefly (#14) with a bead-head for a weight…

“I made a side-arm cast beneath a dangling rope that swimmers used and let the fly sink through conflicting currents near an undercut bank. The jolt that telegraphed itself along the 3x tippet and the bamboo rod felt as though it came from a swimmer who had yanked my arm and begged for rescue.

“Noting the silvery sides of a fresh-run rainbow, I began to head the fish upstream, away from the undercuts, and hoped it wouldn’t try to shoot down into faster water. As I worked it slowly toward a landing site, there were moments when I thought the head-shaking and surface-thrashing trout would break itself free, but I finally subdued it– an exceptional female measuring 27 inches along the rod and weighing about eight pounds. I posed her for a hastily taken photograph at the water’s edge, then slid her gently back and forth in the creek until, gathering strength and equilibrium, she finned away toward a life downstream.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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4 Responses to Meditation on an Early Stonefly

  1. Brown trout can live through nearly anything. However, hard for them to survive without a major food source. I think the topic is overlooked. People lean in the direction of the fish rather than the food source.

    • I agree that the food source is often overlooked while many anglers focus primarily on the catch. If some kind of pollution starts affecting a stream, the stoneflies are the first of the major food groups to disappear, and that’ll affect wild trout survivability, no matter the species. Thanks for commenting!


  2. argosgirl says:

    You have made me even more eager for spring and all the signs that come with it. Lately I have been dreaming about getting lost along a little brookie creek, among all the cedars with their fragrant aroma. I am tired of winter.

    As for fracking… It’s a process that scares me and I hope that people will wake up to the dangers and be able to fight it.

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