Hatch Profile – Callibaetis – Three Geeky Bug Facts That Will Help You Catch More Fish

Hatch Profile – Callibaetis – Three Geeky Bug Facts That Will Help You Catch More Fish

In many ways the hopes and dreams of fly fishers rest on the existence of bugs. Sure, you can venture out onto your favorite piece of water on any given day and catch some fish, many times lots of fish, when there is seemingly no bug activity. But, those aren’t the days that get etched into your memory. Those aren’t necessarily the days that inspire you to make life decisions. Like, say, picking a college that is surrounded by the most prolific dry fly fishing on the East Coast, or, perhaps picking a wedding date in late September which, conveniently, doesn’t overlap with any major trout stream hatches…hypothetically speaking, of course.

Streamer fishing has its virtues; “the tug is the drug”. And, nymph fishing most certainly produces more than it’s fair share of memorable days and 3-dimensional challenges. But, nothing in our sport tops the visceral experience that is watching a body of water come to life with an exuberance of bug activity, and the ensuing trout feeding frenzy. In my opinion, nothing illustrates that better than a Callibaetis spinner fall on western stillwaters.

Callibaetis mayflies have a massive distribution across most of North America. It is the western subspecies (Callibaetis ferrugineus hageni), though, that produces inspirational fishing on countless lakes, and several notable rivers, in the Rocky Mountain West.

Callibaetis mayflies live in stillwater environments. They thrive in water that has rich weed growth. And, while the emergences are often inconspicuous, the spinner falls are the stuff of legends.

Callibaetis mayflies, along with their diminutive brethren Tricos and Midges, are responsible for the legendary “Gulper” fishing that happens on Hebgen Lake each summer from late-July to mid-September. The shallow, weedy arms of Hebgen Lake are such ideal habitat for Callibaetis mayflies that they produce an awe inspiring amount of insects. Dense spinner falls occur here, and trout rise to the spent adults with such rhythm and regularity that you can hear the fish rising with an audible gulp that resonates across the glass flat waters.

Warm, calm mornings are ideal conditions for these size #14-16 speckle winged mayflies to form mating flights. It is impossible to miss them when they are around as seemingly billions of adults will dance above the water in a rhythmic undulation. When it is good, and it often is in Big Sky Country, spinners will blanket the water, and everything on the water, including fishermen.

Callibaetis spinners are unmistakable due to the unique speckled blotches present on only the leading edge of their fore wings, and their two long, widely separated tails. Their bodies range in color from brownish-olive to tan to light grey with a majority of spinners displaying a lighter tanish-grey coloration on the bottom of their abdomen and a darker, blotchy charcoal color on the top.

Here are Three Geeky Bug Facts about Callibaetis that will help you catch more fish.

 

1. Callibaetis are Multi-brooded

When we think about the life cycle and seasonality of mayfly hatches, we generally reference a particular bug with its spot in the seasonal lineup of hatches. Certain bugs, like March Browns, hatch in the early season, and they are followed by summertime hatches of PMDs, and autumn hatches of Mahogany Duns, etc. These hatches occur at roughly the same time every year with the progeny of those hatches growing and developing in the river until the following season when it is their turn to complete the cycle.

There are certain bugs, however, that breed multiple times during the course of the fishing season. Like their cousins the Baetis (Blue Winged Olives), Callibaetis will begin hatching early in the season (June in Big Sky Country), and those early bugs produce the ones that we fish later in the season. Also, like their Baetidae cousins, the size of individuals decreases with each brood of the season. Spring hatches of Callibaetis can have duns as large as size #12, whereas September emergences will produce size #16.

Early hatches of Callibaetis are often available in fishable numbers far earlier than when we begin paying attention to them. Unfortunately, the unsettled early season conditions of June in the Rockies don’t often produce dense mating flights of spinners, or the glass flat lake surfaces required for dry fly fishing.

Most years, those early season emergences go largely unnoticed, and it is their offspring that draw our attention later in the summer when weather conditions are more conducive. The warm, calm mornings of mid-summer in Big Sky Country provide both the perfect environment for massive flights of spinners and the glass flat waters needed to bring hordes of trout to the surface.

While average June conditions are generally not optimal for Callibaetis spinner falls, it’s important to remember that the bugs are still active. Duns will continue to emerge, sometimes trickling off one at a time, randomly throughout the day. On the rare day in June, when conditions are cloudy and calm, emergences can be concentrated, and provide outstanding dry fly fishing with duns. The occasional warm, calm morning in June can also generate a fantastic dry fly session with Callibaetis spinners. More often than not, these early season spinner falls are sparse, providing just enough food on the surface to get fish hunting on top, but not so much that your fly is competing with hundreds of naturals for the attention of gulping trout.

2. Callibaetis Nymphs are Strong Swimmers and Fast Emergers

Callibaetis nymphs are a perfectly evolved product of their weedy, stillwater environment. Their bodies are slim in profile with feathery gills, and pronounced variegation on their tails. Coloration ranges from light olive to tan, or gray.

Callibaetis nymphs are agile swimmers, dashing from one weed tendril to the next with short, powerful bursts of speed. Frequently, nymphs will pause for a brief second between sprints, hanging motionless in the water column with their abdomen hanging down. This choreography is important to imitate when fishing Callibaetis nymph imitations. Short, swift strips of 4-6” with a definite pause between movements is the best retrieve as fish will commonly pounce on the fly at the pause.

Just as they move through the water with speed and momentum, Callibaetis nymphs emerge into duns quickly at the water’s surface. It’s common for the nymphs to make several trips back and forth to the surface in preparation to emerge, but once they commit to the meniscus and break through the surface tension, they make quick work of the act. During these “practice runs” the nymphs are prepared to make their quick escape at the surface with fully formed wings bulging beneath their dark brown thoracic carapace (wing pad).

For more great info about Callibaetis nymphs check out this great Callibaetis Nymph Article from our Blog archive written by our very own fanatic of all things stillwater, Matt Klara.  

3. Callibaetis aren’t just found in Lakes

Callibaetis mayflies may be the most infamous stillwater hatch, and Big Sky Country is home to some of the most legendary spinner falls of these speckle winged mayflies.

Hebgen Lake, outside of West Yellowstone, MT, is ground zero for the notorious activity known as Gulper Fishing. Named for the nail biting sound that echoes across the glass flat waters of Hebgen’s weed-laden arms and bays as large trout gulp Callibaetis spinners from the surface, Gulper Fishing is an annual pursuit that rivals the most celebrated spectacles in Fly Fishing.

As epic and addictive as Gulper Fishing is, it’s not the only Callibaetis game in Big Sky Country. The same slow water environments that harbor fantastic populations of Callibaetis on lakes also exists on several of our most legendary rivers. The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, the Yellowstone River in YNP, and the Missouri River all boast substantial populations of these speckle winged mayflies.

When Callibaetis are found in riverine environments, they aren’t present in the same abundance as stillwaters. Emergences and subsequent spinner falls are generally sparse in comparison to the activity seen on legendary waters like Hebgen or Yellowstone Lakes. What Callibaetis lack in numbers on rivers they more than make up for in the influence they have on feeding fish. When Callibaetis are present on rivers like the Henry’s Fork and Missouri, they are usually the largest bug around at that time, and trout go way out of their way to feed on them.

Now Get Out There and Find Some Callibaetis Mayflies

If you haven’t experienced the thrill and suspense of fishing to cruising gulpers on a warm calm morning in Big Sky Country, do yourself a favor and explore one of the many still waters in our region during Callibaetis time. Remember, Callibaetis will be active as early as June when conditions permit. The bugs will be larger (size #14) in the early season, and later broods will be smaller (size #16). If you fish the nymph imitation, do so with short, brisk strips of 4-6”, and be sure to pause between strips. And, don’t forget to have some Callibaetis dun and spinner imitations when fishing the Henry’s Fork, Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers (in YNP).

Summer Favorites – Hebgen Lake Gulpers

Summer Favorites – Hebgen Lake Gulpers

It turns out that winter can get a little long here in West Yellowstone.  That leaves plenty of time to look back on photos and bring back memories of the warmer days of the past summer, and to look ahead to the upcoming season.

I haven’t spent an extensive amount of time in Montana or fished every “Gotta fish” river, but the places that I have been in this naturally wild state have been a great introduction to what fly fishing this vast state has to offer. My first real introduction to fly fishing in Montana was in the summer of 2012, while working in the small town of Twin Bridges – the home of Winston Fly Rods. The main waters there include the Jefferson, Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers. Each of these waters has its own specific personality and time of excellence. Fast forward to 2017, and I found myself standing in a soon-to-open fly shop in West Yellowstone, Montana called Big Sky Anglers. My first day consisted of picking up and organizing wet flies (soaking wet flies, not flies intended to fish subsurface) off the basement floor because there was a leak in the foundation.  Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “Great, what have I gotten myself into.”

Within two weeks I realized that I was working with some of the most respected, experienced, helpful, and genuine people in fly fishing, and everyone one of them was truly passionate about what they are doing here in West Yellowstone.

The owners and experienced crew at Big Sky Anglers introduced me to some of the local water, and also encouraged me to pull out a map, find a blue line or blob that looked interesting, and go exploring.  Which brings me to talk the about fishing around here. Basically if you placed a drafter’s compass on a map centered in West Yellowstone and drew a circle with a radius of about 50 miles, you would be circling enough moving and still water to fish for rest of your life. Working for Big Sky Anglers and living in town for the 2017 season gave me the opportunity to merely scratch the surface of these special places.

I grew up bass fishing in Southern California.  In that setting, I fell in love with that feeling of tranquility of being on a motionless, glassy piece of water. But my ignorance and lack of exposure never properly mixed the joy of a calm lake with fly fishing for trout. Last summer, fishing on Hebgen Lake changed all that.

There are many interesting fishing opportunities that present themselves throughout the season on Hebgen, but the Callibaetis hatches and spinner falls during mid-summer set things up for one of my favorite fishing games. It is truly exciting  to witness big, healthy lake rainbows and browns choke down Callibaetis spinners like a hungry bear that just ended its hibernation.

Imagine sitting almost motionless on a glassy lake with beautiful tall pines kissing the water’s edge. There you sit, waiting for the signal. You look down into the air and on the water for any cues of life.  Actually, you are looking for signs of the end of life, since we’re talking about mayfly spinners here, but that’s getting a bit picky.  In time, you see a brilliantly speckled Callibaetis as the boat slowly drifts over the water.  Then, more start to appear and you finally hear it – the gulping sound of a twenty inch rainbow trout arching its nose out of the water to inhale a Callibaetis spinner.  It makes me smile just thinking about it. Mixing the emotions of hearing it with actually seeing it and it’s like tasting Nutella for the first time. You just can’t stop eating it.

The challenge of successfully gulper fishing adds another interesting element to the pursuit.  You can’t be messy at this game, at all. Only bring your A-game and be prepared to mess up a few times along the way. This angling is best done with a partner, or better yet a seasoned guide. One angler positions the boat and spots for rising fish while communicating with the other angler who holds a rod at the ready while also looking for trout noses.  As you scan the surface, you are mentally preparing to make deadly accurate cast of anywhere from fifteen feet, if you are lucky, to sixty feet or more.  Easy right? Some days these fish have a more rhythmic feed style and other times they’re what I’d describe as being “all over the place”. Hebgen’s gulpers can change feeding directions on a dime and will make you waist a lot of casts. If you shout out enough clock positions to your partner and have your line untangled and organized before you make your cast, you can catch a couple of these fish. They jump, run and dart for cover like you want them to and are truly a gratifying fish.

I remember the first time I went out on Hebgen for gulpers with friend and Big Sky Anglers guide Donovan Best. My casting motions were too open which made the boat rock ever so slightly sending little waves out to the feeding fish.  That slight and subtle error spooked several fish before I modified my casting stroke.  Learning from my mistakes, and adjusting what I was doing resulted in a couple of fish that day, and the feeling of discovery was just fantastic!

I’m so excited for summer, gulpers, and the many other amazing fisheries around our area.  I hope you get a chance to head out there yourself during the 2018 season. If you’ve never experienced stillwater fly fishing of this type, I encourage you to give it a try.  Please pop by the shop, say hi, and introduce yourself. We’ll be sure to give you the details on this fun, local game we call gulper fishing. Until then have a great winter and remember, when you free the heel, you free the mind. ?

Belen