Insects and other foods the trout may be eating:
1. Blue-winged Olives
3. Little Yellow Stoneflies
4. Slate Drakes
5. Cream Cahills - hatching in Isolated locations
6. Little Yellow Quills
7. Needle Stoneflies
11. Crane Flies
13. Streamers - matching sculpin, baitfish and small crawfish
The Learning Process - Part 76
Happy Birthday Angie! I hope you like your new Cannon Digital EOS 50D SLR
Camera. No honey, I didn't get it for you to only use working, you can take a few pictures for your
Note: If you haven't read the articles since 10/08/09, this article want make a lot of
sense to you, so please do.
The trip in May of our third year gave me a clear direction to proceed. We had been
catching, video taping and examining some insects at most every stream we fished,
but the trip I wrote about yesterday, convinced me I must take what trout eat a lot
more seriously. The food was key to every other species of fish I had pursued over
the years. Just because trout eat a much larger variety of food wasn't an excuse to
short cut the learning process. I had learned to make good presentations, to stay
hidden and to do all of the basic things, but I had also learned that I either had to
settle for being a mediocre angler, or learn how to imitate the aquatic insects the
I had purchased a kick net, some skim nets and a large net for catching flying
insects but that was it. When we got back home I ordered several other items
including light traps, another kick net, drift insect nets and other equipment form Bio
Tech. From then on, when we went to a trout stream I would catch samples of the
flying insects that had hatched, acquire samples of larvae and pupae from the
stream bed in various types of water, and shoot images of everything applicable for
that particular stream. I had purchase macro lens for some of our video and still
cameras. I purchased a good, fairly easy to operate microscope, that was
sometimes necessary to make positive identification of the scientific keys of the
insects that were difficult to identify with the naked eye. I also ordered every book
with anything about aquatic insects to add to my collection. In short, I purchased
them all, including some professional entomology books and papers that provided
the keys to identifying the insects. It was all kind of frightening at first.
The next trip we made was to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho about the middle of
June of that third year. We spent six weeks on that trip and fished several different
streams including some in Yellowstone National Park. We would get all the images
of insects we could get on every stream we fished. At night, I would try to identify
them for the video we had taken. That was tough at first but got much easier as the
trip continued and I began to get used to the insects. There are actually less
mayflies and caddisflies in the Western streams than there are in the East and
Midwest. The stoneflies were easy. I had the least information on caddisflies. If it
had not been for Gary Lafontaine's "Caddisflies", I would have been in big trouble.
Most everything else written around caddisflies was very limited. We acquired
hundreds of images of many insects, including most all of the important Western
species in various stages.
It was September we visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park the next time
and most all of the aquatic insects had already hatched. At that time of the year,
some of the late hatching insects existed only as eggs which are worthless for
identification purposes. Most all of the newly born nymphs were just partially grown
or in the early stages of their nympthal development. That makes them even more
difficult to identify, so for the most part, we decided to wait until they were at their
final instar stage of development. We were able to get some images of stonefly
nymphs (that live more than one year) and some late hatching mayflies and
caddisflies but it was very limited.
We made two more trips to the Smokies and nearby streams that year in October
and November, but we didn't focus much on the insects. We decided to wait until
early February to continue with the bugs.
The next year's first trip was made early in the middle of February. We stayed in the
Smokies for about ten days and caught a huge number of mostly nymphs and
larvae from several of the streams in the park. I had constructed my own kick net. It
was an aluminum frame covered in fine screen mesh about 12 inches square and 3
feet long. We would scape the bottom two or three feet upstream from it with our
wading boots and it would catch most everything that headed downstream. We
would pick up any large rocks and allow the nymphs under them to escape into the
net. I guess you would call this a big kick net.
The first time we used it was in Little River, just above the point where it departs the
main road and heads upstream along the road to Elkmont. We were shocked at the
results. The net was loaded with nymphs and larvae of many different types. I didn't
count them, of course, and we probably lost a third of them getting them out of the
net, but my guess would be that we had several hundred nymphs and larvae that
came from an area of bottom about four square feet.
There were several stonelfly nymphs including a few of the big Black Giant
Stoneflies, lot of LIttle Yellow Stonflies, some Golden stoneflies, and different sizes
and types of Little Brown Stoneflies. There were lots of chimney case caddis and
plenty of free-living Green Caddis larvae (Rock Worms). There were a lot of little
saddle case caddis. There were even a few large stick case caddis. There were a
huge number of Blue Quill nymphs, which are easy to identify by their forked gills,
plenty of March Brown mayflies, some other clinger nymphs that we couldn't identify
at the time. I know now they were Light Cahills and Cream Cahills. There were even
a few crawler nymphs (later identified as Hendricksons and Sulfers). There were a
huge number of midge larvae in the bottom of our white collection pans. It took over
an hour to pick out the larger insects. It took about twice that long to get macro
images of just the larger ones. We completely gave out doing it.
Each time we did a repeat of the operation at a different location in the same
stream or another stream, we would always find a huge number of nymphs and
larvae. We had collected samples from about a dozen western streams in the exact
same manner and the results were far less insects in our nets with the exception of
about three of the streams. Although we didn't collect detailed, or what you would
call scientific data, it was very clear that Little River actually had more nymphs and
larvae per square food of bottom than many of the western streams.
Keep in mind that when you are fishing a stream, the insects you see flying in the
air and what few you may see in the grass and bushes, doesn't indicate the amount
of aquatic insects that stream has. Most mayflies live for only a few hours up to two
or three days at the most and the caddisflies and stoneflies for only a few days.
What may be hatching at any one particular time doesn't indicate the quantity of
insects the stream may have. The only way to determine that is to collect
comparative samples of the larvae (midge and caddisflies) and nymphs (mayflies
The three western streams that had more than Little River were all three spring
creeks with high pH levels. There was another factor that distorted the results
some. It was late June and July when we collected the western samples and some of
the insects had already hatched. That would mostly be a few species of Skwala
Stoneflies, some BWOs, the Grannom caddisflies, and a few others of little
significance. It was still early in the season for the western streams. The headwaters
of most all of the western streams have less aquatic insects than the streams in the
We found that one reason anglers tend to think the streams of the Smokies have
few insects is that most all of the mayfly nymphs are clinger nymphs. They stay
hidden down between and under the rocks on the bottom. All of the stonefly
nymphs are clingers. When you look at the bottom of a stream you do not see any
of these insects and they represent the majority of the aquatic insects in the
stream - not counting midge larvae. Samples from Abrams Creek had even more
insects. It is comparable with most any western spring creek. Also keep in mind that
we were capturing only a very few of the swimming nymphs. Blue-winged Olives,
Slate Drakes and a few other swimmers don't get caught in a kick net very easily.
They can get out of the net fast.
During the next several years, we collected insects from over 200 trout streams in
the nation, including most all of the major ones. We obtained a permit from the
National Park and continued to document insects in all of the streams for the next
few years. It soon became very easy to identify aquatic insects anywhere. In fact,
after the second or third year of doing it, I could almost tell you what a stream would
have in it before we took the first sample. The location and type of water provides
about all the clues you need to do that once you understand the different insects.
We eventually got all the important mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies. Our DVD on
Stoneflies has species from all 12 families in both the adult and nymph stage of life.
Our Mayflies DVD has 36 different mayflies, including all the important species, in
the nymph, dun and spinner stages.
The most important basic things we learned was that imitating these insects in fast
pocket water, irrespective of where it is - meaning in the Smokies, Cascades,
Rockies or Mid West, is one thing and imitating them in moderate to slow water or
water that flows smoothly is another thing.
Water with a low pH isn't necessarily void of insects. The insects are just different
types of insects. The water in the little headwater stream of Walkers Camp Prong in
the Smokies, has a large number of aquatic insects per square foot. There is
actually plenty of food for the trout to eat. Compare that stream to most similar size
headwater streams in the Rockies and you will find about the same amount of
insects. You will also find the average size of the cutthroats to be small, averaging
about 7 or 8 inches.
I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt anyone has collected and acquired images
and video of more aquatic insects from trout streams than Angie and I. I have had
help from a few entomologist (that are also trout anglers) that have helped me
identify insects and with other related problems. We are amateurs. I have also
carefully researched everything available that has been done in the Smokies on
aquatic insects. I have found a very few collections done on a few streams by
Universities, one on Oconaluftee River, for example, but not for fishing purposes. I
have studied the information from Discover Life. Although it is great information, it
wasn't done for fishing purposes. I have found a few insects not shown on their list
or maybe they are ones that have been reclassified.
The bottom line to all of this, as relates to fly fishing for trout in the streams of Great
Smoky Mountains National Park, is that the very limited amount of written
information in books and other fishing publications about the aquatic
insects is not only mostly false, it is highly misleading. It isn't true that the
trout in the Smokies have very little to eat and that they will eat just about anything
they can find that looks like food - certainly not any more true than it is of trout
located in any other small freestone streams in the nation. The fact they will often
take attractor flies and non-specific imitations of the insects, is due to the type of
water. Anywhere there is fast pocket water, trout will often take attractor flies. It has
little, if anything, to do with the quantities of the insects available for the trout to eat.
The thing about it that is misleading is that often when anglers declare the fishing
isn't very good, or that it is off or even poor, it isn't that the trout aren't eating
anything. Its that they are fishing in the wrong places in the streams using less than
effective imitations of what the trout are eating. Basically, any time the trout are
located and/or feeding in the moderate to slow water sections of the stream, and
anytime they are highly focused on a particular insect, anglers fail to catch trout
consistently. It is during those times you will hear anglers come up with all types of
reasons for their lack of success. The water is too high or too low. They were
fishing behind someone. The drought hurt the population of trout. The moon is full.
The barometer is high. The sun is shinning brightly on the water. The water is still
too cold. The water is too warm. Tourist and tubers spooked the trout. The trout are
not looking up (even though they always are). There are too many leaves in the
water. The trout are spawning. The trout are just not taking the fly.
I will give some specific examples of this. Continued.............
Copyright 2009 James Marsh