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).

Stillwater Presentation Q&A – Ascending/Emerging Nymphs

Stillwater Presentation Q&A – Ascending/Emerging Nymphs

I recently received this question via email from one of our readers and thought it would make a nice followup blog post.


Hi Matt,

 I just read this article on Callibaetis nymphs, and I have a question.  Don’t nymphs in stillwaters usually rise fairly straight up from the bottom?  How can I simulate that with nymph flies?  No worries on moving water, but I’m confused with this one.

Thanks so much.

 Maryellen


Maryellen,

Thanks for reading and reaching out!  Great question. I’d say that when they are emerging, Callibaetis nymphs will rise up at a semi-steep angle, but not completely vertically.  That said, the rising motion can definitely be a trigger to get the fish to eat.  Let me offer you 3 or 4 ways that you might accomplish this…

 1:  Floating fly line, long leader, and a weighted nymph.  Cast out and let the nymph sink down as deep as you think it needs to.  Maybe the top of the weeds if the area is shallow enough.  When you start your retrieve, the fly will naturally rise up at an angle following the leader up to the surface where the line floats.  When you’ve retrieved an amount of line about the equivalent to your leader length, stop, and let the fly sink back down again.  Repeat.  To detect takes, you need to watch the end of the floating fly line.  If it twitches, dives etc, set the hook.  You may not feel the take because the line isn’t drawing a straight line from you to the fly.  Pay attention while the fly is sinking back down too.  Sometimes that is the trigger!  It’s important that your leader not have coils in it so it is as straight a connection tot he fly as possible.  I’ve also incorporated a tiny strike indicator into this method at times, especially if there is a chop on the water that obscures my view of the tip of the flyline.  Foam pinch-ons work great for this.  Last tip, flourocarbon leaders sink faster than nylon mono leaders.

 2:  Intermediate sinking tip line (or intermediate sinking poly leader) and weighted or unweighted fly.  Basically this is the same approach as above, but with a sink tip to get the fly deeper initially.  If you are in say 10 to 15+ feet of water, the leader and weighted fly alone will be annoying or impossible to get that deep, especially if there is any wind.  Let it sink and then retrieve it up as before.  Then repeat.  Watch the color change of the line or where it enters the water for the take.  Also feel fro the grab.

 3:  Full sinking intermediate line and unweighted nymph. This line system draws the fly through the water horizontally for the most part and is my #1 way of searching for fish before, during, and after a Callibaetis hatch if I don’t see them rising in a way that allows me to effectively target them on the surface.  But, at the very end of the retrieve, when the fly is deep, and you begin stripping the last few yards of line up toward the surface, the fly does rise at an angle.  A lot of folks just pick up and cast again.  This is a mistake.  UK stillwater experts preach about “fishing the hang” at the end of a retrieve.  Focus on the last part of that rising retrieve.  Pause it, sink it, and raise it again.  Don’t strip the fly right to the rod tip, but leave a bit of line out and slowly raise the rod tip itself to make the fly ascend.  If you start getting fish only when the fly is rising, maybe you need to switch to one of the first 2 methods!

Take Care and Fish On,

Matt

In Anticipation of Ice Out – Thoughts and Theories from the Lake

In Anticipation of Ice Out – Thoughts and Theories from the Lake

It was 3 degrees and snowing here in Montana as I wrote this a couple weeks back.  Skiing season.  Maybe ice fishing season.  But a few days before writing it was nearly 50 degrees, and now it seems like the first lower elevation melt is really on.  A couple of my lake fishing buddies have already texted me, excited for the upcoming Stillwater fishing season.  I’ll admit that I am a bit excited too.  I wrapped up a few (dozen) flies for my lake boxes.  And now, through writing this, I’ve organized my thoughts in anticipation of ice out, which is coming a bit later than normal this year.

Throughout the mountain west ice out is a much anticipated event for many stillwater anglers.  For those who do not live in cold climates or have never visited a frozen lake, ice out is the short period of time on a lake where conditions change from the ice capped, frozen surface of winter to the open water of spring, summer, and fall.  From the time that the ice begins to peel away from the shore, until two weeks or so after the lake becomes completely ice free, there is often a fantastic window of opportunity for anglers to get out on the lake shore, beat the cabin fever of late winter, and find some great fishing.  Anglers who don’t have the luxury of owning a boat really enjoy the ice out fishing, because the fish tend to concentrate near shore.  Even when things don’t completely work out when fishing ice out, it’s fun to get out of the house, see some country, and maybe connect with the first open water fish of the new year.

Why is Ice Out a “Thing”?

I believe that ice out is a “thing”, because of the trout’s desire to find ideal conditions when it comes to water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, and food or insect activity.

It’s well known that, when a lake is covered with ice and snow, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is not continuously replenished by the action of wind and waves.  Lack of light under the ice also reduces aquatic plants ability to produce oxygen.  By winter’s end, when the ice begins to recede from the lake’s margins, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water under the ice may be at it’s lowest point for the entire year.  As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the air and wind can hit the water again and reoxyegenate it.

Also, remember that water is less dense when it is frozen than it is when it is at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C).  That’s why ice is on the top of the lake.  It also means that the warmest portion of the water column is likely toward the bottom of the lake in winter.  As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the sun can hit the water and warm it up locally.

The unique physical and chemical properties of liquid and solid H20 make ice out a “thing”.

So, long story short, at ice out, the increased temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water at the lake’s edge stimulate the ecosystem, get some chironomids and perhaps other trout food sources active, and create conditions more favorable to the trout than anywhere else in the lake.

Once the ice fully dissipates, the effects of wind and sun warm the lake, and mixing or turnover evens out water conditions over a much larger portion of the lake, you will find that the ice out bite dies.  The fish spread out throughout a much larger portion of the lake at that point, making them harder to find, especially if fishing from shore.  When that happens, either find another lake that is starting to ice out, or fish the rivers for a while, until other factors on the lake begin concentrating the fish again into summer feeding areas.

Where are the good places to fish at ice out?

Well, IN THE WATER!  It’s a bad joke, but if you are really on top of things, or maybe just a bit over zealous and out at the lake a bit too early in the year, look for any open water you can find.  Remember , though, that open water doesn’t guarantee the presence of fish.  Some areas of a lake are always better than others.

A couple of days too early, but we fished it!

Think back to why ice out is a “thing”.  Water temperature is a hugely important factor. Warmer water is better at ice out.  So, inlets and outlets that alter lake temps are a good thing to look for.  Warmer water may be entering a lake and helping thaw the ice.  Warmer lake water from down deep (remember water is most dense at about 39 degrees F or 4 degrees C) getting pulled up and out the outlet stream if there is one.  Also, ice free shallows with dark bottoms that soak up the heat of the sun, or drop-offs adjacent to said shallows are great places to find warmer water.  These same shallows, if the bottom is soft or muddy, will also be the place where the first chironomids of the year emerge.

Another good spot to look for fish are submerged points that funnel fish into and along travel lanes, creating concentrations of fish and increasing your own odds of intercepting one with your fly.  It’s no secret that similar places are great Stillwater spots the rest of the year as well.

Gareth Jones’ quote “Stillwaters are NOT still” applies at ice out as well.  When only the edges of the lake are ice free, there may be currents in the lake from inlet streams, springs, or other factors.  If you have ever ice fished, and dropped a bit of bait down the hole with no weight, you may have noticed that it doesn’t always sink straight down.  Even under the ice, the water can be moving.  Just after complete ice out, winds begins to really have an effect on the movement of water, and warming of the water begins to slowly initiate the currents that will eventually turn the lake over.  A buddy of mine down in California (who fishes the high Sierra lakes passionately) once mentioned to me that at ice out it seems like either one side of the lake or the other is good, but not often both.  This is a clever observation that I’d not thought of, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the movement of water and its effect on temperature and dissolved oxygen.

In my experience there are also definite ice-out “hot spots” for fishing that must have some secret (to me) combination of several factors that draw fish back year after year.  If you are at a lake at ice out for the first time, and the spots you tried at first aren’t producing, it pays to be mobile, walk, look, cast, and explore.  If you find one of those zones where it all is happening, make a note!

What about Flies and Presentation?

On stillwaters, summer is all about the bugs – Callibaetis, damselflies, caddis, tricos, scuds, chironomids, and more.  At ice out, though, the insect activity hasn’t really gotten rolling yet.  With the exception of some early season chironomids hatching (which you should absolutely be prepared for), ice out fish seem to be very opportunistic, looking to put on some pounds, and are willing to at least consider eating more general and larger attractor patterns.  Buggers, leeches, baitfish patterns, and some of the other gaudy attractor type stuff seems to work best for me and my fishing partners.  Experiment with colors on your home waters for sure, but never fear starting with standby stillwater colors like black, olive, and brown.  If you have your own favorites, by all means give them a shot, too.  We’ve also had luck with bright colors or natural colored patterns with bright trigger points like hot beads.

Olive BH Woolly Bugger… never a bad decision.

In terms of presentation, it seems like slower is usually better in the cold water.  When casting and retrieving your flies on floating or sinking lines as the ice recedes, try hitting the very edge of the ice shelf and let it sink down for a bit before starting any retrieve.  Often the fish will come out from beneath the ice and eat it on the fall.  If they don’t eat it, and it sinks to the depth you want to target, work a slower retrieve with emphasis on the pauses.  Be ready for a grab especially during the pause.

If the ice is still very close to shore, it can be effective to cast parallel to the ice shelf, and retrieve your fly back along the edge of the ice, just like you might do on a weed edge in summer.

Once the ice is well off shore, or gone completely, cover water by fanning casts and moving your feet, and working around visible submerged structure like drop offs and boulders.  It maybe goes without saying, but if you actually see fish, cast to them!  If access conditions permit, this may be the time to launch your boat or float tube for the first time and really cover some water.

Another effective ice out presentation method uses a floating fly line and strike indicator system to suspend your flies and allow for an extra slow presentation.  You can do this with the typical chironomids and also balanced style leech patterns.  Remember, this isn’t just basic bobber fishing.  Adding motion in subtle ways to your indicator presentations is often a key to success.

Now, for the catch.  Even in cold water conditions where you’d expect trout to be lethargic and prefer a slow presentation, I have seen instances where the trout may follow, but will not commit to eating anything but a FAST moving fly.  If you have fish following your fly right to the rod tip, but not eating, or if things seem totally dead, change things up and move your fly in a different way.  Especially if you have seen fish cruising the area and they aren’t eating your offerings.  Speed it up, shorten the pause, make longer pulls, or shorter pulls, and experiment until you get some feedback!  When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing…

The rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.

Thoughts Regarding Callibaetis Nymphs

Thoughts Regarding Callibaetis Nymphs

A while back I wrote a post about Callibaetis and Chironomids where the punch line was that my buddy and I wanted the fish to be eating Callibaetis but they were really on chironomids.  Well that was then, and this is now…

Callibaetis and damselflies have been dominating the trout’s menu on my local stillwaters recently, so of course they are also the insects that my mind has been feasting on.  In particular, the morning Callibaetis emergences have provided my friends and me with some really fun fishing opportunities.  The great thing about being into a great hatch over the span of a couple of weeks is that you really get to dial things in and experiment with what works and what doesn’t work as well.  So with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that I’ve been having as it refers to the nymphal stage of Callibaetis in particular.

Lake Habitat

It’s fairly easy to tell where the best Callibaetis action is going to happen on a lake.  These insects LOVE the weedbeds.  What’s really cool is that trout will often move into very shallow water to feed on the nymphs before the main hatch starts.  But when they go shallow, those big trout get really spooky compared to when they are out on deeper weed flats or off the drop-offs. If you can find the travel lanes that fish use through the weedy halls of their world, you have probably hit the jackpot.

Fly Selection

There are A LOT of commercially available Callibaetis nymph imitations out there.  I’m not really interested in going into which specific ones to use here.  What I can say is that there are a couple of important elements to fly selection that I have found to be rather important.

First, and most important, is size.  Match the size of the most prevalent size of nymphs you can see in the water.   That’s usually a 14 or 16 around here.  Sometimes a 12 will do in the early season, but that may be because the fish aren’t quite as dialed in at that point, rather than because the bugs are actually bigger.

Second in my order of importance (and I think the most overlooked element) is fly profile.  Mayflies in general and Callibaetis in particular are thin insects.  In fact, there aren’t many fat insect in the water aside from maybe dragonfly nymphs and giant water beetles.  So, those obese, poorly proportioned PT nymphs that you scored for $0.89 each in the sale bin of your local hardware store probably aren’t the best choice of patterns.  Slim and sparse is what you need.  In fact, some of the most effective Callibaetis nymph patterns that I’ve seen look not only anemic, but also downright absurd in their simplicity and material choice.

Third in my order of importance is color.  The usual grayish-tan standard usually does just fine.  On a couple of occasions, it seemed like color was more important than usual, so if you spend a bunch of time fishing or travelling to fish stillwaters that have Callibaetis hatches, you may want to carry other tones, including grayish-olive, brownish-tanish-gray, and rusty-tanish-grayish-olive.  Got it?

Retrieve

This is a pretty big deal when fish are locked in on the Callibaetis nymphs.  At least as important as fly size and profile.  Maybe more important.  Callibaetis nymphs are good swimmers, but they are also still tiny bugs, so that retrieve you use when fishing Clousers for striped bass needs to be left at the dock.  It seems to me like they wiggle forward in short bursts that can be imitated by a series of 3-4 inch pulls, or some quick hand twists.  But then, the nymphs almost always seem to stop for a bit to take a break before heading back on their way.  So, a nice pause after a series of strips can be the ticket.  I’ll do that most of the time, matching my flyline to the water depth – floating line and long leader in the super shallows, slow intermediate when I need a hair more depth.  Fast intermediate lines seem too sinky for most of my work as I find myself hitting the weeds too soon on every cast.  If you are finding fish down deeper than say 8-10 ft you may want one to cut down on your countdown time.

I’ve also heard that Callibaetis nymphs will swim up to the surface and back down to the weeds a few times before finally committing to hatching from the surface.  So, a rising retrieve followed by a sink seems logical as well.  I need to fool around with this more.  Maybe an indicator and floating line or a short sink tip will do the trick.

Lastly, I’ve had a lot of fish eat a nymph suspended below a Callibaetis dry fly.  Heave it and leave it.  It works well.

Alright!  I’ve got myself fired up to fish now.  So, hopefully when you are reading this, I’ll be out on the lake.  If you’ve got any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear them.  You can reach me at mklara@bigskyanglers.com

Take Care and Fish On,

Matt

PS – Like my last post, this one is running double duty both here and at Sexyloops.com