Freshwater fly-fishing

South African stonefly nymph imitations

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

May flies, and to a lesser extent caddis flies, have over the years dominated the attention of fly dressers in South Africa – maybe sometimes disproportionately so. Stomach pumping exercises performed on trout caught inhabiting the fast flowing waters of the North Eastern Cape, as well as regular seine netting, have confirmed, at least in the minds of the authors, the importance of stoneflies in the diet of trout in these river systems. Dave Whitlock (see Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods) , for example, argues that the “… stonefly’s life cycle, habitat, and size make it highly compatible to fly-fishing and fly-tying … maybe even more so than the mayfly.” Careful scrutiny of local literature on fly tying has, however, revealed a paucity of South Africa-specific stonefly nymph imitations. This article presents a short overview of the stonefly life cycle, the stonefly nymph anatomy, the most important families of stoneflies found in South Africa, and a description of the materials required and tying procedure for an impressionistic, South Africa-specific, stonefly nymph imitation.

The Latin name for the stonefly is Plecoptera. The latter is broken up into pleco, which means “folded”, and ptera, which means “wings”. The “folded wings”-description refers to a unique physical characteristic present during the adult stage in the stonefly’s life cycle.(i.e. there is no pupal stage), and consists of three distinct phases, namely the egg stage, the nymph stage, and the adult stage. Unlike mayflies, stoneflies hatch all year-round. Hatching, however, occurs mostly during the night, and as such adult stoneflies and their imitations are of little importance to the fly fisherman in South Africa.

Stonefly nymphs live on the sides and undersides of stream-bottom structures, such as boulders, stones and plant detritus, in swift-flowing mountain and coastal streams and rivers. Stoneflies require unpolluted and swift flowing water with high oxygen content, and for this reason they are often used as an indicator of the relative water quality of a stream or river. Their conspicuous absence from a fast flowing stream or river is a strong indicator of compromised water quality. Stoneflies are seldom, if ever, found in stationary water (i.e. dams or other water impoundments) or very slow moving water – the reason for this absence is the limited level of adaptation of the stonefly’s breathing apparatus to changing water conditions.

Due to their limited ability to adapt to varying habitats in comparison to, for example, mayfly nymphs, the nymphs of the different families of stonefly show marginal variation in shape. This almost uniformity in shape across different families makes it easy to distinguish between a mayfly nymph and stonefly nymph. More specifically, the stonefly nymph exhibits the following physical characteristics: The body consists of 1) a head with two long antennae, 2) a clearly segmented thorax with three legs on each side, two well-defined wing pads on top and feathery gills situated on the bottom and between the six legs, 3) and an abdomen consisting of ten clearly defined segments, and two well defined tails on the final segment – gills are also found between the two tails.

Stonefly nymphs are easily confused with mayfly nymphs. The former, however, have large, feathery gills under the thorax and between their legs, whereas the gills of the mayfly are situated on the segments comprising the abdomen.  Stonefly nymphs have two sets of wing pads compared to the mayfly nymph, which has one set only. Moreover, stoneflies have two tails instead of the three found on most mayflies.

The two Stonefly families found in South African waters are the Perlidae family and the Notonemouridae family. The large and robust body of the nymphs of the Perlidae family is approximately 20 to 25mm long, with black and yellow or dark brown on their backs. The upper body is clearly segmented and the two antennae on the head and the two tails on the last segment of the abdomen are highly visible. The photograph below shows a Perlidae stonefly nymph.

The nymphs of the Notonemouridae family, on the other hand, are small with a body length of between 5 and 8 mm. The body colour of these nymphs is generally a dull grey or brown.

The two stonefly nymph imitations shown in the photograph above are fairly similar, the one tied in a realistic manner and the other impressionistic. They require the following materials:

Realistic Pattern:

  • Hook: curved stonefly hook # 14 to 8
  • Weight: 10 to 15 turns of 0.015 mm lead wire
  • Tail and antennae: X2 Cane rat skin fibres
  • Abdomen: Golden rabbit dubbing or similar
  • Back: Clear thin-skin back
  • Ribbing: 4X monofilament
  • Thorax: Golden rabbit dubbing
  • Wing case: Light brown thin-skin mottled with black or dark brown marker pen
  • Legs: Ring neck pheasant tail fibres


Impressionistic Pattern:

  • Hook: curved stonefly hook #14 to 8, or long shank nymph hook
  • Weight: 10 to 15 turns of 0.015 mm lead wire
  • Tail and antennae: X2 Cane rat skin fibres
  • Abdomen: Golden rabbit dubbing or similar
  • Back: N/A
  • Ribbing: Ultra wire copper
  • Thorax: Golden rabbit dubbing
  • Wing case: Golden pheasant tail fibres or mottled turkey fibres
  • Legs: Brush out dubbing with dubbing brush

These imitations should be fished in the cushioned boundary layer just above the stream bottom. Furthermore, both patterns are best fished in a drag free drift. The realistic pattern should work well in medium clear water current and the impressionistic pattern will suffice in fast currents where fish have little time examining the fly.

South African stonefly nymph imitations2022-10-21T11:17:45+00:00

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 1

Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Stillwater Dead-drift Technique

Part 1

By Fred Steynberg

An introduction to the stillwater dead-drift techniques

A friend of mine from KZN visited for a few nights to show his new lady friend the pretty valley in which our “forgotten village” of Rhodes lies.  We had an afternoon to fish together and opted to fish stillwater and enjoy the catch-up time while driving up the pass to 2600m above sea level.  It was one of those windless midsummer days – her and there fish were lazily breaking the surface as we arrived.  We approached the water to see if we could identify what the fish were rising to but no hatch was apparent.  We leisurely kitted-up while chatting about flies and inevitably went through the “let me see your fly box” routine.  I have a serious thing against competing when fly fishing with a friend, but we, as always, had a friendly banter about what was inside our respective fly boxes. His box was something to behold – a colourful Bugger box that must have taken him hours to fill, while mine looked a little drab in comparison.  I opted to fish a floating line and he a sinker of sorts and, after deciding on flies, we strolled off towards a hot spot. We were going to fish the bank and wade to drop-offs and weedbeds, so tubes weren’t even packed.

I watched my friend fish a stone’s throw away; he is an accomplished angler and effortlessly casts a long line.  His fishing method was probably the most commonly used by Stillwater fly fishermen:  a single fly, fished with a sinking or intermediate line, allowing the line to settle as deep as possible, and then retrieving back with a quick hand-twist or down-strip retrieving action.  I often use this technique to prospect for fish, but prefer doing so in pre- and post-spawn seasons and especially during winter when most invertebrates, snails and such, are either dormant or inactive.  If trout are feeding and conditions are favourable, this method can be very effective, especially when using attractor patterns such as Woolly Buggers, Zonkers and some of the old wet fly favourites like Walker’s Killers or Mrs Simpsons.  These are undoubtedly great flies that have provided many anglers with much fun, since trout are predatory fish of the salmonid species and often find these large, stripped flies irresistible.

I did not feel pressured to produce fish and knew the fish in this clear water had so much food they did not have to react to moving prey, so I fished a #16 Flashback Nymph below an indicator using the dead-drift technique.  Summer is a time of plenty for trout inhabiting stillwaters with a healthy natural food supply.  Aquatic food like mayflies, midges, snails and daphnia can make up the largest part of a productive stillwater’s biomass, yet it is these imitations most anglers either choose not to fish or do not understand how to imitate.  The Stillwater dead-drift technique is not new, but maybe more a technique lost in the fast lane in which we are trapped and in an age where fast fishing (to catch the biggest and most fish) instantly gratifies.

My friend put out numerous casts, working the weedbeds, channels and drop-off, but did not attract fish.  While watching him accurately and methodically fish the correct areas, I recalled all the times I fished this technique under the same circumstances and with similar results.  It is a frustrating feeling when hours of stillwater fishing produce few or no fish.  All too often the moon or a distant thunderstorm is blamed and some anglers even complain “the fish have lockjaw”.  I know the stillwater we fished pretty well, having fished it often, so had a little home-ground advantage in knowing how deep to fish on this specific occasion.  My fly drifted or suspended without movement and I counted on fish moving within range to identify it as a potential food source )in this case, a mayfly nymph on the way up the water column to hatch), check and move to accept it.  After inhaling the fly, the fish would simply continue with its search for food without realising it had been conned.  The indicator disappeared seven or eight times during that short fishing session and I converted five into landed fish.  Admittedly, fishing was slow and unfortunately we had to leave just before the golden hour – that period is summer just before and after sunset when hatches of midges, mayflies and caddis are most prolific and fish feed in a frenzy.  As we packed away the rods, dense clouds of midges and mayflies started showing and fish moved aggressively to intercept the transforming insects on and just below the water’s surface.

Chatting to clients and other anglers, I have come to the conclusion that over-the-top technical articles on different rigs and methods to fish stillwaters often unnecessarily confuse anglers.  Many end up fishing incorrectly or simply revert back to the old trusted sinking-line-and-attractor method.  A basic understanding of trout habits in a specific environment is incredibly beneficial to ensuring a better result.  Dead-drifting in stillwaters should start as simple, uncomplicated fun fishing.  Once the technique is understood and success achieved, confidence will grow and you might never revert back to the chuck-and-strip method.

In the second part of this series, I will explain how to become a convert.

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 12022-10-21T11:18:03+00:00

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 2

Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Still Water Dead-drift Technique

Part 2

By Fred Steynberg

In the previous introduction I hopefully was able to sketch a slight outline of the basic still water dead drift techniques. To get too technical on the subject is not at all necessary because it is simply not that complicated and if you have fished the dead drift once or twice then it should quickly start to make sense. For those that are relatively new to the sport of fly fishing, however, and who often find themselves caught up in the confusion across the counter ‘technical talk,’ I will start with the tackle suited for this technique.

Still water fishing often requires a slightly heavier rod than what is needed on our smaller rivers and streams. The weight of the rod is not necessarily chosen for the size of the fish targeted but rather to cast a longer line and leader more effectively and with less effort. A heavier rod should also, in trained hands, assist in casting the line into or across the wind, often to be encountered on still waters. In my opinion a 5 or 6 weight (9’ or more in length) outfit should be the correct choice. I have often encountered anglers who fish still waters with their 2 or 3 weight outfits and yes, by all means, this is possible but really not functional. Watching even the most competent of anglers trying to make a light rod perform the same job seems an impossible effort as the rod is forced to perform a function that it was not designed to perform.

A floating line with a weight forward taper should carry a fly a long way when hotspots such as channels, weed beds and distant drop offs have to be reached. Dispense of that old, cracked floating line that was on the real when you bought it in a job lot at an auction or inherited from your grandfather and invest in new ‘high floater’.  A floating line, when fishing the still water dead drift technique, should not submerge at all if the setting of the hook, when the fish takes the fly, is to be effective. Striking or setting the hook when fishing a partly submerged line will result in the energy of the strike being cushioned against the line that lies below the surface. Striking against a dysfunctional floating line will hook the odd fish and prove the contrary, but more fish will be missed.  It is important to remember that the hook, 99% of the time, needs to be set when fishing a floating line and the dead drift technique as the fish does not turn on the fly and hook itself (as when stripping a fly through the water column). The fish ‘vacuums’ the fly into its mouth cavity in a non- aggressive motion because the imitation appears to be an easy, vulnerable food source in a suspended state.

After the fish accepts the fly it simply continues on its food finding path but if the fly in its mouth does not have the correct texture the fish will ‘spit’ the fly out. The fly thus needs to be set and the easiest way to do so, or quickest route to the fly, is to pick the floating line off the water with the rod in an upwards striking motion.

The inability to pick the line up off the water, will the delay the hook-set and invariably cause missed opportunities.

Floating lines are porous and pick up a lot of dirt, not only from lying on the ground when stripped off the reel before a cast, but also from dirt and elements in the water and grime on anglers hands. If your new line starts sinking after a session or two it should be cleaned and then treated with a line floatant. I clean and treat my floating line at least after every other still water outing.

The choice of leaders should be straight forward but I have found that many anglers often over complicate the process.  A 7’ or better a 9’, 3X (+-8lb/3.8kg) tapered monofilament leader will suffice for most of the dead drifting but if fish are as feisty as the ones we often encounter in the highland waters of the Eastern Cape, it might be necessary to up the diameter to 2X.

Attached to the weakest point of the leader, in this case 3X as mentioned above, a length of about 3’ or 90 – 120cm of 4X tippet should be attached. A loop to loop connection is an option but I often use a double surgeons knot to attach the tippet to the leader. It is important to ensure that the tippet is lighter (thinner diameter) than the weakest point in the leader. In other words if you are using a 3X leader then your tippet could be 4X or lighter.

Fly anglers often attach the fly onto the end of the leader without attaching a length of tippet; this shortcut can often cause some problems. The leader will shorten every time a fly is changed and the diameter of the leader will thus increase and the function of the tapered leader will be lost. If a strike indicator is used to detect the strike and needs to be attached at a specific depth on the leader (without a tippet attached) the diameter of the leader may be too thick and inflexible. A strike indicator attached on the thinner part of the leader will be more responsive or sensitive when the fish takes the fly.

The tippet diameter should be chosen with care and often a balance between a too heavy tippet or too light a tippet should be found. If you are going to match a hatch and imitate Trico’s , for example, and you decide to use an imitation that assumes the emerging insect then a fly size of between 18 and 14 should be close enough to the real thing. To have this fly appear as realistic as possible, tippet diameters of no more than 5X or at a push maybe 4X should be considered. This all sounds good but 5X tippet is, in most tippet material brands, very close to the 4 – 5lb breaking strain mark and that is running a little thin when targeting trophy trout that weigh above 6 lbs (2.5kg) in a ‘wild trout’ still water situation.

To handle a 10lb brown trout on a 5W rod using 5X tippet in a pristine New Zealand stream is quite possible as the hooked fish could often be followed along the bank and more care, not to over stress the tippet, can be taken. In still water however, hooked fish could make long runs across the dam or down deep to hide in weed beds and once entangled in weeds it is almost impossible to pull free. To stop a fish from lodging itself in weed beds when using light tippet, especially when a lot of line is dragging through the water, can be a chancy task and good fish will often be lost.

I would often use slightly heavier tippet material and try to avoid using flies smaller than # 16 or 14 in still water. I often fish a snail or large midge larva imitation (#14 – #12) and then I use a thicker or heavier tippet material, 4X or 3X.

I might be sacrificing more takes because the fly may appear less natural on the thicker tippet but if I do hook a fish then my conversion rate is higher.

Best advice is to start off using thinner tippet material and if you find that you cannot control hooked fish then step up an X at a time until the right diameter, under the conditions, is found. If you are worried about the effect of a fly stuck to a fishes lip or jaw then crimp the barb of your flies before fishing and the hook should dislodge within no time.

I prefer fishing a 9’, 3X leader with a section of 3’ or more of 4X tippet making the total length of my leader/tippet configuration then been about 12’. The length of a longer leader/tippet configuration (12’ – 13’) will keep the fly line away from the fly in clear water conditions. This length could be shortened a little if the water is slightly off colour or murky to allow for better handling or casting in windy conditions.

Fly fishing with or without a strike indicator is a matter of choice but in my opinion, if you are not fly fishing every other week then an indicator will improve your chance of detecting a strike by tenfold, when dead drifting in still waters.

The strike indicator, similar to fishing with an indicator in a river or stream, does not only detect the fish eating the fly but will also keep the fly at the desired depth in the water column. This is especially important when fishing into channels or onto shallow weed beds on gravel bars. A fly that hangs stagnant and too deep below the strike indicator will eventually settle on the bottom or on structure and not have the desired effect.

If you are not sure about the depth that your strike indicator should be set at, then start off by setting it a little deeper than what you think the water is deep, with a little observation on how the fly ‘floats’ and at what depth it snags you should allow for a quick adjustment. It is not at all necessary to ‘hang’ your fly right to the bottom because unlike in a river where currents will sweep away morsels that come up or swim within the water column, in still water food often suspends in certain stages of transformation and fish do feed at different depths.  Because unlike in a stream or river, fish need not hug the bottom to economically avoid the currents.

In the next chapter fly choices for this style of fishing and the execution of the technique will be explained and conclude the subject.

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 22022-10-21T11:18:27+00:00

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 3

Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Still Water Dead-drift Technique

Part 3

By Fred Steynberg

Fly Selection When Using the Dead –Drift Technique

Southern Africa’s still waters support a vast number of aquatic food sources, many of which will, at some stage during their life cycle, suspend within the water column and become effective food sources which can be imitated using the dead-drift technique.  Although some of these sources differ slightly in size and colour, they are pretty similar to those found in still waters across the world, making this technique applicable abroad with only minor fly alterations.  Several of these food sources are great to mimic with a fly using this technique, but, for the sake of brevity, I will cover just three of them – midges, cainflies and fresh water snails.

Midge Larvae

Midges, often referred to as chironomids or buzzers, belong to the family Diptera (meaning two wings) and are similar to a mosquito in life cycle development and appearance.  They are so prolific in some still waters that some experts say it is possible to count an astonishing 10,000 larvae per square metre.  Yet, despite their abundance and importance as a food source, fly anglers may not always have the knowledge or sill to effectively imitate the stages of the hatch, and the fish ignore all other offerings during a feeding frenzy.

The midge’s life cycle can be divided into four complete stages:  egg, larva, pupa and adult, of which the first three are aquatic and the fourth air-breathing.  Only the larval, pupal and adult stages are really important to imitate.  However, I will concentrate on just the larval stage, as this is the stage that is mostly predated upon by fish species such as trout and can be commonly found in the stomach contents of still water fish.

The wormlike larva sometimes attaches itself to structure on the bottom but is often free-swimming and suspended off the bottom.  If not attached to some top structure, the larva hugs the lower part of the water column, which is why, when prospecting for fish, the depth that the imitation is fished at should allow it to hang as deep as possible (without snagging the bottom or weed beds).  Many different midge species make for a great number of fly imitations, but in my opinion the most simple and effective are the San Juan or Atomic Worm.

In the late evening or early morning, fish can frequently be seen moving and feeding just below the surface.  This is often a good indication that midge pupae are plentiful, having transformed en masse to the pupal stage and are moving up the water column on their way to transform into adult midges.  Because this pupal stage happens within a specific time (with greater numbers in the early morning or late afternoon), it should not necessarily be a stage used to imitate when prospecting for trout, but rather when fishing the hatch.  These pupae often suspend just below the surface in a vulnerable stage, so fish the fly shallow, just below the surface (this is for another article).  Many anglers fish the San Juan and Atomic Worm in still waters because they have heard these are fish takers, but hopefully they will now understand why the pattern is so effective.

Caenis Nymphs

 The second important food source to consider is cainflies, particularly the nymph stage.  The Caenis mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, family Caenidae) is a small invertebrate that spends most of its life as an aquatic insect.  The nymphs crawl around at the bottom of still waters and prefer silt or soft, muddy areas.  They feed on rotting plant material and often flee from predators such as fish.  Not unlike other mayfly species, they have five major life cycle stages:  egg, nymph, emerger, subadult (subimago) and adult (spinner or imago).  If is very difficult to imitate the air-breathing stages (subadult and adult), mainly because the flies are so tiny and are found in such masses that your little imitation gets lost in the mix (unless you cast directly in front of a rising fish).

To successfully imitate these tiny flying mayflies, you need to use a very small imitation such as #18 – #22.  And to successfully fish such a small pattern, you would have to use 6X and even 7X tippet, which I feel is just fooling around.  Not that fishing such small patterns and thin tippet is wrong on a small stream, but there are better ways to target fish.  These insects need to hang or cling onto structure to shed their subadult (submago) shuck and transform into the adult (spinner or imago), and streamside plants, trees, rocks and the odd angler on bankside will suffice.  Once they have become adults, they can be seen flying in clouds and spirals above the water’s surface, usually in greater numbers during summer.

The caenis nymph is approximately a #18 imitation but you can get away with using a slightly larger fly such as a #16 or even #14.  The more technically  minded among you can always first study the nymphal development and stages leading towards the hatch before imitating them, but I find the most effective patterns to prospect with are the PTN, PTN Flashback, brown Flashback Nymph, Hare and Copper Flashback or similar.  Prospecting with such small nymphs can be done suing only a single fly, but fishing it below a slightly weighted or larger nymph in tandem works really well.  Fish these small nymphs using 4X or 5XX tippet and a long tapered leader.

Fresh Water Snails

 A third important food source to imitate when considering the dead-drift technique, and one that is seldom imitated, is the fresh water snail (phylum Mollusca, class Gastropoda) that is found in most established still waters.  These aquatic snails feed on algae, weeds and other aquatic plant material.  They often dislodge from the weeds when water birds such a scoots dive down and bring up weeds from the bottom, or when strong winds create water movement.  Once they’ve lost their grip, they drift helpless within the water column and become easy prey for fish that constantly move around still water systems looking for food.  Snails die en masse after depositing their eggs, and I have seen fish gorge themselves to a point where their stomachs bulge.  Again I am not referring to hatch fishing or fishing in stages where snails are found in abundance, but rather when prospecting with these imitations.

Snail imitations can be fished in tandem at different depths in the water column below a strike indicator.  Remember that the strike indicator does not only show when the fish takes the fly but, most importantly, keeps the flies from sinking to the bottom and/or snagging.  The small, spiral-shell mollusks do not swim freely, and need to sink to the bottom or cling to structure so they can move to where they can feed.  It is difficult to tie or buy an imitation that, to the human eye, resembles the snail, but, if fished using the dead-drift, impressionistic flies such as the Peacock Snail and Coch-y-Bondhu work well enough.

All three of the food sources discussed in this article are most commonly found in conditions where trout survive, without being fed, in still water systems.  The first two (midge larva and Caenis nymph) can be fished using the dead-drift and occasionally lifted off the bottom when executing the wiggle lift or, for that matter, the Leisenring Lift.  The snail cannot flee by swimming away, so when these lifts are performed while fishing a snail pattern, fish might react to the movement and not because they see it as a snail.

Before I started exploring the dead-drift technique in still waters many years ago, I would often hook the odd fish on an attractor pattern while fish were going crazy feeding just below the surface.  This frustrated me immensely, as I knew that, if I could figure out what they were feeding on, then I should be able to match the hatch and hook many more.  Later, and after pumping the stomachs of many still water fish, I started realizing that still water fish do not only feed on a hatch or when aggravated, but also constantly move around in search of food suspended in the water column or that hugs the bottom.

With this little bit of knowledge to help with the still water dead-drift technique, food sources such as the angler’s curse could eventually become the angler’s friend.

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 32022-10-21T11:18:44+00:00

Spiders for Survival

By Fred Steynberg

Trout, whether alien in our waters or not, have over the past hundred years become an integrated part of our fresh water systems and millions of rand is poured into our country each year because their attraction to fly fishers. Fly fishing for trout is the cradle of fly fishing and it is surrounded by mysticism and history. It is said that fly fishing is one of the most written about sports or past-times ever and it surely has become the most popular ‘el fresco’ style recreation for a wide range of age groups. Trout is also on the top of the serious fly fishers list of fish to target on fly and rightly so. The reason for this is that one can never fully predict in what way a wild trout will react from one minute to the next, leaving us constantly challenged by them. We will interminably keep improving our skills and equipment to close the gap between us and these amazing creatures.

Trout have many different food sources at their disposal but these are often small and they need to consume a large amount to be able to grow and survive. In our waters they also do not have the luxury of mega hatches such as those found at specific times in other trout inhabited countries, where they gorge themselves on the abundance. Trout in our country have to become opportunistic and feed on a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic food sources. Spiders, although rare are one of them and as distasteful as it might sound to us as humans, trout only see them as a vulnerable, soft and available morsel. Spiders are not as plentiful as say for example mayflies, midges or caddisflies, but when they are swept away by currents after landing up in the water, will be taken as food.  The stomach contents of trout have revealed signs of sporadic spider catches.

Spider patterns work especially well, if tied and fished correctly to sighted trout in clear mountain streams. These patterns should be fished up steam on floating lines with long, thin leader and tippet configurations. Spiders that fall into the water from streamside vegetation do not swim out of a current, but will usually wait until pushed onto some vegetation before climbing out of the water. Aquatic spiders run across the water in quick, fast concessions. I have found that the best technique to imitate spiders in general is to gently place the imitation a meter or two ahead of the feeding trout. The trout should recognize the imitation as a food source and gently sip it off the surface. I have often been amazed how gently spider patterns are eaten and the reason for this can only be that the trout understand that the spider is in a vulnerable position.

Some species of spiders that live and feed on the surface of the water are quick, extremely buoyant and agile and not as vulnerable as others. Even if incidentally bushed beneath the surface by turbulent water, large rain drops… they always trap an air bubble onto there body that pop’s them back up to the surface. Some even use an underwater swimming action to maneuver themselves into favorable positions.

Spider patterns that float beneath the surface should also produce fish, but the visual aspect of fish a floating spider excites me. This way of presenting a pattern to visual fish will also immediately show whether the fish reacts to the offering or not. If the sighted fish does not move to a well presented spider imitation then the pattern may not have the correct…or the fish is rather tuned into some other food source that is of abundant.

Sighted fish in clear water will however more often be alarmed by bad presentations or long casts that ultimately line the fish.

To build a buoyant spider pattern that will be recognize as a spider by trout I use a soft foam spider body that can be cut from closed sell foam or bought in pre cut shape.

The foam body is tied on a # 16 or 14 thin wire caddis/sedge hook. To ad to the visibility of the fly a white or brightly colored post is tied in. The post can be of any buoyant, high vise material but egg yarn, poly yarn or packaging foam will probably work best. The thorax of the spider is lightly dubbed black or brown CDC dubbing to add to the floatability of the fly and often the CDC traps air bubbles making it look like the real thing. A black or dark dun cock hackle, ‘under hackle’, is firstly tied in around the post. This hackle should be sparse, 2 wraps, and the fibers just longer than the gape of the hook.

The legs are mottled brown partridge hackle sparsely wrapped around the base of post and it is necessary to have the tips of the hackle pointing down. The legs can be short but I prefer legs that stick out 15 – 20mm from the post. It is a good idea to pre-tread the hackle/legs of the spider pattern with Hydro-stop after the fly is tied as this should keep the fibers from soaking in water for a longer period of time.

Much has been written about the diets of trout, the way that they feed on specific food sources and when they feed on them. Wild trout can be extremely selective and often, during May or Caddis fly hatches, refuse any imitation but the one that fully represents the specific food source in shape, color, size and movement. This can frustrate angler’s immensely but never fails to bring back the angler that wants to present the right fly at the correct time. For many it is about catching the fish and the method is of lesser importance but for others, maybe purists, fly fishing is an art that thrives on patience, persistence and dedication.

This foam body spider pattern is a generic pattern that works amazingly well if presented correctly. For all intentional purposes specific spiders and there scientific names have not been mentioned as the generic pattern would rather simulate a range of different spider species. I find it useful to always have a couple of spider patterns in my fly box for a specific occasion when I do find a large fish looking around for something to eat in clear Mountain streams.

Spiders for Survival2022-10-21T11:22:53+00:00


By Fred Steynberg

Striking may appear to be a basic aspect of fly fishing, yet apart from casting, I find it one of the most difficult concepts for fly fishers to grasp.  When fishing upstream, it is, in my opinion, imperative to use a strike indicator.  Many fly fishers use this for the sole purpose of detecting a take, thus neglecting or not understanding its other uses.  The strike indicator should function as a multi-task tool.  It should be used to determine the depth at which the nymph will drift in the water, as a drag detector, and finally to alert the angler to possible takes.

As discussed in many previous articles on upstream nymphing, the strike indicator is, as a general rule of thumb, placed at a point one-and-a-half times the depth of the water away from the fly, but ultimately the distance is determined by factors such as water depth, current speed etc.  In other words, if the water is one foot deep, the ideal positioning of the strike indicator would be 18 inches away from the fly.  This will normally result in an almost instantaneous reaction of the indicator when the fish takes the fly. (Illustration 1)  On the other hand, if the fly and strike indicator are set too far apart, the fish may take the fly and after realizing that the fly is not the real McCoy, spit it out without the indicator even registering the take.

The strike indicator can also be set too close to the fly, resulting in the fly drifting at too shallow a depth.  The indicator may then also spook the fish when the fly approaches it, as it will be in the trout’s window of vision in such circumstances.  (Illustration 2)

One of the more challenging aspects of achieving the correct strike is staying in close contact with the line without allowing drag to set in.  This is where drag-preventing casts and/or mending the line become important, but casting to prevent drag is not always easy.  Although one can, to a certain degree, with the use of the rod mend line to prevent drag, it is important to retrieve excess line after the mend to stay in contact with the fly.  To many fly fishermen mend once or twice during a drift, but fail to retrieve line throughout the drift.  This creates too much slack line on the water, making it difficult for the strike to result in a hook-up.

Striking quickly and correctly is a critical factor when fishing upstream.  In my opinion, it is essential not only to strike with the rod, but with the line hand as well.  I explain this to right-handed fishermen by saying, “left hand down, right hand up.” (Illustration 3)

The rod hand, which is the right hand, is lifted smartly upwards in a controlled manner, while the left hand (line hand) simultaneously pulls the line downwards.  This method creates faster line speed, helps retrieve the excess line off the water, and in the end results in the water, and in the end results in less delay between the instant of detecting the take and the actual hook-up.  At all times during the course of the striking motion one’s hold on the line with the left hand should be such that you are able to release line immediately, in a controlled manner, should the fish decide to take off.  It is also more often than not mandatory to strike quickly when fishing upstream with a nymph using a strike indicator.  When the indicator registers the take, the strike should follow immediately.  Striking late usually gives the fish time to mouth the fly and spit it out before you can hook up.

Remember that fish, especially larger specimens, mostly move only short distances to reach their quarry, whether it be from side-to-side or up and down.  Smaller fish will dart around opportunistically and follow and attack small nymphs, but their older counterparts instinctively know that they will not replace energy lost by chasing every nymph that passes by.  For this reason, it is not only important to determine where big fish lie, but also to realize that when the fly is taken there may not always be dramatic effect on the strike indicator.

For example, a well presented nymph can drift right onto a mature fish which will move say six inches to the left or right, eat the fly and move the six inches back to its original position.  The effect on the strike indicator could be anything from a slow dip to a slight hesitation without it submerging.  Many times while guiding a client I hear, “Are you sure it was a take?” after I’ve shouted, “Yes!” for them to strike.  The golden rule when fishing a strike indicator upstream is:  When in doubt, strike!

Upstream dry fly fishing is a different ball game altogether.  Determining the take is a lot easier because the line, leader and fly can be visually observed, as well as drag setting in.  Small fish may rise to a dry fly and quite often snatch it off the surface, returning to their position in an instant.  A quick, reactive strike will not necessarily be the incorrect thing to do in this scenario.  However, the bigger the fish, the longer you need to wait before you make the strike.  An old fly fishing adage states that one only strikes after saying “God save the queen!”  This works in most cases, but you need to be aware that large fish, at times, lie and feed just below the surface, or sometimes in very shallow water.  Great care should then be taken not to strike at the wrong moment, especially when fish are sipping insects off the surface and not rising from a depth.

As a rule (particularly if a fish is visible), wait for the fish to return to a horizontal position before striking.  A big feeding fish will invariably rise slowly, eat the fly and return to its original position.  With every situation differing in some degree from the next, the angler needs to assess and determine how fast, or slowly, to strike when fishing with a dry fly.

The behavior of trout differs somewhat when feeding off the surface as opposed to subsurface.  I have noticed that, at time, trout hang onto a dry fly much longer than a nymph, allowing the angler more time to effectively hook it.  As an illustration of this, I recall guiding an American client on the Kloppershoekspruit, where a 20-inch rainbow rose more than six feet from a deep pool to take a RAB.  Watching the trout rise from this depth, the client was completely mesmerized, allowing it to return to its lie with the fly.  Realising that the client had no intention of striking, I shouted “Yes!” and feebly he lifted his rod to strike, hooking the trout.  The trout shot up the full six feet and burst through the surface, breaking the spell it had over the angler.  Had the fish taken a nymph, chances are that he would never have hooked it.

The last factor, which can have a dramatic effect on the strike, is the tippet strength versus the size (weight) of the fish.  Much can be said on this topic, but I would like to briefly mention just a few points.

Upstream fishing requires obtaining a dead-drift, with the fly being presented as naturally as possible.  This will usually necessitate using a thin diameter tippet.  The basic problem here arises when an angler hooks a fish facing upstream.  When the angler strikes, the force of the pull on the line moves it downstream, while the fish instinctively bolts upstream.  This can cause the tippet to part at the strike if the angler does not take precautions.  Smaller fish will turn or give at a strike because of their weight.  It is the larger fish that poses the problem. A method which helps prevent the tippet from breaking is to execute a short strike.  For example, if your rod is pointed between eight to ten o’clock, strike by moving your forearm up to 12 o’clock.  The biggest mistake an angler can make is to strike with the whole arm past the 12 o’clock position.  Moving your body when striking is also a bad idea, because then you have little control over the force you are exerting during the strike.  If the strike is performed correctly, the tip of the rod should act as a shock absorber, allowing the hook to set but at the same time protecting the tippet from breaking.
The first year I visited New Zealand, I had difficulty understanding why I lost so many fish at the point of strike, blaming everything except the way I struck.  When I eventually figured it out, I rarely lost a fish on the strike after that.

Striking is the link between the fish taking the fly and the angler landing the fish.  It is an action regarded by some as a natural, instinctive movement, while others battle for years to grasp the concept.  However, once properly understood and executed, you’ll land a lot more fish.


A South African damselfly nymph imitation

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

Due to the fact that damselflies inhabit the slow-moving or still water areas of rivers, most fly fisherman, especially those who practice upstream nymphing in fast flowing water, pay scant regard to their prevalence and their importance in the diet of trout. Inspection of aquatic vegetation and submerged tree detritus, found mainly on the edges of the slow moving sections of rivers and streams, as well as stomach pumping exercises performed on trout, however, confirm the status of damselflies as an important food source for trout in rivers and streams.  This article presents a short overview of the damselfly life cycle, the damselfly nymph anatomy, the most important families of damselflies found in South Africa, and a description of the materials required and tying procedure for an impressionistic, South Africa-specific, damselfly nymph imitation.

Damselflies (Zygoptera) and true dragonflies (Anisoptera) comprise the suborders of the order Odonata. The Latin name for the damselfly is broken up into zygo, which means “yoked”, and ptera, which means “wings”. The “yoked wings”-description refers to a unique physical characteristic – the wings of the damselfly are more yoked than any of the other aquatic invertebrates trout feed on.

The life cycle of the damselfly is incomplete and consists of three phases of development, namely: the egg stage, nymph stage and the adult stage (the newly emerged adult is known as a teneral). The damselfly nymph has a life span of one to two years depending on the specific species, and, as mentioned above, occupies the aquatic vegetation found in the slow or still water areas on the edges of rivers. The nymphs swim amongst the aquatic vegetation by moving their abdomens in a side-to-side or wiggling fashion, or simply walk around amongst the aquatic vegetation. Damselfly nymphs are efficient predators that actively feed on smaller aquatic invertebrates – to this end their lower lips (also referred to as masks) are modified, which allows them to fold open to catch prey. Closer inspection of the damselfly nymph shows that the lower lip lies tucked back under its head.

Prior to emergence the damselfly nymph swims or crawls to aquatic vegetation or other in situ structures, which break the water’s surface, and crawls up to the surface, where it emerges into the adult. Trout readily target the nymph during this period of migration – due to the fact that these nymphs are relatively large when compared to mayfly, caddisfly and stonefly nymphs, large trout will commonly feed when they are emerging. Damselfly nymphs may on occasion loose their grip or footing and as a result get washed downstream, especially during floods – this occurrence is known as “catastrophic drift”.

South African damselfly nymph

The common physical characteristics that define the anatomy of all damselfly nymphs include: two to three tracheary gills (erroneously referred to by some as tails) situated at the end of the abdomen; an abdomen long and slender in appearance; a very short thorax (broader than the abdomen); dorsal wing cases overlapping the upper thorax and abdomen; three sets of long, spider-like legs situated along the thorax; and a short head, wider than the thorax, on which a large pair of compound eyes are located. All the South African families have visible antennae situated on the front part of the head.

Dragonfly nymphs are easily confused with damselfly nymphs. It is, however, fairly easy to distinguish between the dragonfly nymph and the damselfly nymph – dragonfly nymphs are generally stockier in appearance compared to damselfly nymphs (damselfly nymphs have thin, cylindrical bodies), and the dragonfly nymphs do not have tracheal gills situated at the back of their abdomens, whereas the damselfly nymphs do.

There are seven families of damselfly found in South Africa rivers and streams namely, Calopterygidae, Chlorocyphidae, Chlorolestidae, Coenagrionidae, Lestidae, Platycnemidae, and Protonearidae. Of the aforementioned families, the Coenagrionidae family is found most often, during seine netting exercises performed in the rivers and streams of the North Eastern Cape, as well as the stomach contents of trout, subjected to stomach pumping, that inhabit these rivers and streams. This family exhibits a body colour ranging from pale green to pale brown.

Although there are seven different families of damselfly that occupy South African rivers and streams, one only requires a single, generic imitation in either green or brown. The creation of an artificial facsimile of every single family, whilst at the fly tying bench, translates into superfluous time wasting – time better spent fishing than fly tying.

The damselfly nymph imitation shown in the photograph above is neither suggestive nor exact, but is impressionistic, and requires the following materials:

Imitation 1.

  • Hook: # 12-8, 2 X long nymph hook.
  • Eyes: 30-40 lbs mono.
  • Weight: 6-12 turns of 0.015 mm lead wire, depending on flow and depth.
  • Tail/ Gills: Olive, brown or tan marabou
  • Abdomen: Olive, brown or tan rabbit or squirrel dubbing
  • Wing case: thin-skin, scud back or in this case 1mm olive or brown foam, pulled tight.
  • Ribbing: 6-10 lbs mono filament
  • Thorax: Olive, brown or tan squirrel or rabbit dubbing
  • Legs:   Thin, flexible round rubber

Imitation 2.

All the same except for abdomen that consist of green, olive or tan nymph rib.

The imitation should be fished in slow water conditions with a slow hand-twist retrieve or dead drift in faster water conditions.

A South African damselfly nymph imitation2022-10-21T11:29:33+00:00

A South African dragonfly nymph imitation

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

Dragonflies differ from most other aquatic invertebrates in two important respects: first, they usually have a much longer life span, and, second, they are normally much larger in size (during similar phases of development). These characteristics, coupled with the fact that dragonfly nymphs are very vigorous predators, enhance their levels of exposure, as well as appeal, to yellowfish and trout. The abovementioned differences between dragonfly nymphs and other aquatic insects, as well as stomach pumping exercises carried out on trout caught by the authors, verify the status of dragonfly nymphs as a major target for, especially, cruising trout and yellowfish in rivers and streams.  This article presents a short overview of the dragonfly life cycle, the dragonfly nymph anatomy, the most important families of dragonflies found in South Africa, and a description of the materials required and tying procedures for impressionistic, South Africa-specific, dragonfly nymph imitations.

The true dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera) comprise the suborders of the order Odonata. The Latin name for the dragonfly is broken up into aniso, which means “asymmetrical”, and ptera, which means “wings”. The “asymmetrical-wings”-description refers to a distinct anatomical feature – the discrepancy in size between the insect’s fore and -hind wings – the forewings are narrow and the hind wings are wide.

Not unlike the damselfly, the dragonfly has an incomplete life cycle, which consists of three stages, namely the egg stage, nymph stage and the adult stage. The life span of the dragonfly nymph, its water breathing stage, varies in duration, and can be anything from two to four years depending on the specific species. Dragonfly nymphs occupy a habitat which could include aquatic vegetation, stones and rubble, or submerged tree stumps and branches. In comparison to mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and midges, these insects are not found in vast concentrations in the specific areas they inhabit.

A dragonfly nymph moves by means of a very unique mechanism – it takes water into its system via an anal breathing and propulsion valve (situated at the end of the abdomen) and ejects the water out quickly, which propels the insect forward in short bursts. Dragonfly nymph movement is not restricted to sudden darts, but also includes crawling. As was mentioned above, dragonfly nymphs are effective and active predators that feed on any smaller aquatic invertebrates as well as small fish. The lower lips, also called ‘masks’, of the dragonfly nymph are modified to allow them to fold open to catch prey. As with the damselfly nymph, closer inspection of the dragonfly nymph reveals a lower lip that lays tucked back under its head. As adults, dragonflies hunt on wing in a hawk-like fashion or they wait in ambush to attack passing prey that includes a range of insects smaller than themselves.

Adult dragonflies are able to fly up, down, forward and backwards in quick bursts and according to Warick & Michele Tarboton’s handbook “A field guide to the Dragonflies of South Africa” they can reach speeds of up to 70km/h.

The mature dragonfly nymph crawls out and up on aquatic vegetation or other structures next to the stream bank, where it emerges into the adult. During their migration to the shoreline trout do target them, although the number of migrating dragonfly nymphs is small in comparison to that of migrating damselfly nymphs.

The common physical characteristics that define the anatomy of all dragonfly nymphs include: an abdomen thick and triangular in appearance; a very short thorax (narrower than the abdomen); a short head on which a large pair of compound eyes (almost touching each other) and two front facing, short antennae are located; wing pads overlapping the upper thorax and abdomen; and three pairs of legs situated along the thorax.

Although dragonflies and damselflies form part of the same order of insects, they do exhibit fairly different body profiles. Damselfly nymphs have thin, cylindrical bodies whereas the bodies of dragonfly nymphs are generally stockier in appearance. Moreover, dragonfly nymphs do not have any gills situated on the outer surfaces of their bodies, whereas the damselfly nymphs do (the tracheal gills situated at the end of the abdomen).

There are four families of dragonfly found in South African rivers and streams namely, Aeshnidae, Gomphidae, Corduliidae and Libellulidae. Of the aforementioned families, the Aeshnidae and Gomphidae families are found most often, during seine netting exercises performed in the rivers and streams of the North Eastern Cape. The Aeshnidae (‘swimmers’) family exhibits a body colour ranging from green, brown to black. This family of dragonfly has a very distinctive body shape compared to the other families found in rivers and streams: the body is longer with a very definitive taper.

The Gomphidae (‘burrowers’) family of dragonfly is brown coloured and their body profile is shorter and more oval in appearance compared to that of the Aeshnidae family. The Corduliidae and Libellulidae (‘crawlers’) families also exhibit body shapes that are short and oval and their bodies are also mainly brown in colour, and as such, are easily confused with the Gomphidae family. The relative similarity among the body shapes and colouring of the Gomphidae, Corduliidae and Libellulidae families allows the fly tier a measure of leeway: he or she only has to tie one generic pattern which emphasizes the abovementioned similarities or trigger points.

We have, however, included three imitations below, which covers swimmers, burrowers and crawlers.

The dragonfly nymph imitations shown in the photograph above are neither suggestive nor exact, but are impressionistic, and require the following materials:

Aeshnidae (swimmer) imitation:

Fish deep in still waters and use a fast or slow hand twist retieve with intervals. Fish in rivers and streams using a Leisenring lift in slow pools or drag free in currents.

  • Hook:             # 12-6  2-3X long nymph or streamer hook
  • Weight:           Optional
  • Eyes:               80-100 lbs burend mono fillament
  • Abdomen:      Black, brown or olive chinelle or wool under body dubbed over
  • Tail:                Black, brown or olive marabou (optional)
  • Thorax:           Black, brown, olive Squirrel dubbing with seals fur mix
  • Wing case:     Swiss straw or rafia
  • Legs:               Brushed out seals fur or rubber legs or thin round rubber

Gomphidae(burrower) imitation:

Fish deep or as close as possible to the bottom in freestone rivers.

  • Hook:             # 12-10  2X long nymph hook
  • Weight:           Lead wire
  • Eyes:               80-100 lbs burned monofilament
  • Abdomen:      Olive or light brown chenelle
  • Tail:                Marabou (optional)
  • Thorax:           Squirrel dubbing with seals fur
  • Wing case:     Rafia or Swiss straw
  • Legs:               Brushed out seals fur

Corduliidae and Libellulidae imitations (crawler)

Fish very slowly over weed beds in still waters (the deer hair helps keep the fly boyant).

  • Hook:             #12-8 nymph hook
  • Weight:           none
  • Eyes:               80-100lbs monofilament burned
  • Abdomen:      Brown or olive spun deer hair
  • Tail:                Marabou
  • Thorax:           Squirrel dubbing
  • Wing case:     Raffia or Swiss straw
  • Legs:               Mottled rubber

Fishing method

Dragonfly nymphs spend 99 % of their time crawling around on the river or still water bottom or on some form of water plant or structure in the water. The crawling movement is very slow and because it is on a structure, it is hard to imitate as the fly snags especially if a weed-guard is not incorporated. It is only when fleeing from danger or when attacking prey that the nymphs generally move by ‘jet propelling’ themselves. This quick darting action can be imitated in slow deep pools or in still waters by using a quick hand-twist retrieve interspersed with intervals, which allows for the simulation of rest periods, and/or for the fly to achieve depth before resuming the action. This method attracts fish or triggers a reaction, but often a very slow retrieve,which hardly moves the fly, or a dead drift in slow moving water or in water where currents are absent, works just as well and attracts the interest of, especially, larger fish that are looking for a vulnerable, big morsel such as this. A method that is often successful in slow, deep pools in streams when using these imitations is the ‘Lisering lift. The lift would resemble a fleeing nymph and often trigger fish.  A long leader is essential and no strike indicator is used.

One of the most effective methods in stronger currents or in flowing water is still just casting it upstream and drifting it down with the current, drag free. This resembles a nymph that has lost its footing in the current and is now drifting down until it reaches a spot were the current in not too strong to fight.

These patterns are suggested imitations and work well if fished correctly. There are, however, many other effective imitations that could be copied or bought.

A South African dragonfly nymph imitation2022-10-21T11:27:23+00:00

Days that ants fly

By Fred Steynberg

This November, while guiding a couple of guys on highland mountain streams in Southern Africa, we came across a flying ant fall, this changed the course of the days fishing dramatically. We had begun fishing around 9 in the morning and because the water was high and the skies were slightly overcast and no fish were feeding off the surface we started prospecting with nymphs.  Nymphing is often the only real successful or productive method to target fish that feed off an abundant living drift, (living drift is the down-stream drift of invertebrates that for some reason, have lost their hold on the river bottom and are swept down the current to ultimately become fish food.)   In fact nymphing can be so productive that even the most well ‘fed’ fish in a natural stream will not refuse an imitation when fished correctly.  This day seemed no different from any other and we caught numerous Rainbow trout and a half a dozen large smallmouth yellow fish on nymphs.

By lunchtime most of the cloud cover had burnt off and a slight downstream wind developed.  Fish started rising on the odd occasion but we could not make out what they were feeding on as no insects were coming off or floating on the water surface (or so it appeared).  I changed my clients’ nymph set-ups to dry fly rigs and we caught and missed a couple of the rising fish on terrestrial patterns such as floating spiders. What we did not realize was that a flying ant fall was happening a couple of hundred meters upstream in the direction that we were fishing.   A few ants (that were hard to see on the water surface) had already started drifting down and this is what the fish were occasionally feeding on.   As we fished up-river the rises became more intense and the fish rising, larger.  We stared seeing mating flying ants in small clouds above us.

The queen ants were large, black and dark brown bodied with enlarged shiny abdomens while the males were less than half their size, blacker in colour and a lot slimmer.  Some of the ants had fallen on the water whilst still attached in mating mode, making the meal for nearby fish even  more irresistible.  I tied on a larger black floating, flying ant imitation on relatively long tapered leaders attached to 4X tippet.  The 4X tippet may sound like a slight over-kill but the fish were big, strong and were too frenzied to be tippet shy.

Left: the slimmer male ant. Right: larger queen ant

The nature of the smaller trout was to lie in one spot waiting for the ants to drift onto them while the Yellow fish and larger trout would swim around in larger pools frantically gulping up the ants.  The yellow fish would often turn short of the ant, creating a splash with their tails as they turn,  so close to the ant that it would ‘drown’.  The yellow would swiftly return to collect the now, sub-surface meal. The moving fish can make life difficult, under these circumstances, for an angler who may struggle to accurately present flies, but patience is rewarded.

We found a healthy wild trout of about 20’’ cruising off the current, feeding wildly.  One of the guys with me presented a flying ant imitation that fell well behind the fish.  The fish continued feeding away from the fly and after a couple of gulps disappeared.  The presented fly was still drifting on the surface when the angler turned to me asking if we had spooked the fish.  At that moment, as Murphy would have it, the trout reappeared on the surface, gently sipping the imitation off the top.  I shouted ‘yes’ as the fish disappeared and the angler instinctively struck, fortunately setting the hook.  Two lessons can be learned from this:  1. Never take your eye off the dry fly or strike indicator that drifts on the water and 2. When there are flying ants on the water surface fish don’t often stick to lies or their usual patterns.

As the fish felt the hook and line tension it dove straight down into the natural water grass of the deep pool and imbedded itself.  The angler had no choice but to swim in after it, not touching ground but eventually managed to free the fish and continue the fight.

Left: a wet angler with the good size wild trout, Right: fly in the vice

A couple of pools further upstream and a number of fish later we found a yellow fish female in a riffle lazily sipping ants off the surface.  She was quite large but had no other apparent competition. It was amazing to witness such a large fish methodically feeding of the surface.  Unfortunately we spooked some Yellows from the pool below the riffle and they shot up-stream alerting the big fish, pity because she would have been special on a dry fly.

Some flying ant info:

Flying ants or ants that fly and land up on the surface of the water are like manna from heaven to both indigenous Yellow fish and trout.  This phenomenon which we anglers call an ‘ant-fall’ is seldom witnessed as it does not happen often.  When however it does happen, fish will greedily react to the fall and will be on high alert, often lying close to the water surface to sip up the protein source that helplessly float down-stream.

Most ant species fly and the bigger the ant the more spectacular the reaction to the fall.  Predatory birds are often attracted to the feast and are a tell tale sign of the event.  The ant colonies do not communicate the flight but simply react specifically to temperature, humidity and wind speed.

Queen ants emerge from their nests and begin their nuptial flight with the smaller males in pursuit.  Some queen ant will fly long distances but others only a couple of meters from the nest.  They mate in the air after which they fall to the ground and lose their wings and attempt to start a new colony.

The flight is called the nuptial flight and many colonies of the same species can turn to flight simultaneously to minimize the effectiveness of predation.  This collective flight between many colonies of the same species will ensure that new colonies are formed and that old colonies have an injection of new blood ensuring its survival.

Many of the ants from both genders land up in the water, especially when losing focus during the mating process.  Flying ants are bad swimmers and once their wings get sucked onto the water surface they are doomed as the insect is too weak to lift them out.  I have often rescued individual ants from the water surface, for inspection, and as soon as they dry and become mobile they fly away.  Flying ant imitations have been around for ages and have saved many a day on the waters. Fish that are rising to floating ants will often not react to any other offering.  This can be frustrating to the ill prepared fisherman.

I always carry a handful of floating ant patterns in different shapes and sizes, with and without wings.  Travelling without flying ant patterns in your fly box is like going on a fishing trip with a medical kit that has no Imodium, you don’t often need them but if you do then you need it bad!

I have witnessed a dozen or more ant-falls in my life that have been close enough to the river to cause the ants to land up helplessly on the water surface.  The larger fish in that specific river often awaken from their steady side-to-side nymphing mode and move into the upper water column to intercept the ants.

Once many years ago, four or five large fish fed so frantically on flying ants off the surface that from a distance they appeared to be otters rolling and playing on the water surface.  Only when I moved closer could I make out the large trout feeding on the flying ants and what an amazing sight!

Left: a colourful Smallmouth Yellow from a riffle, Right: this 16’’ rainbow (cannibal) ate a 8’’ juvenile trout. The tail of the prey is still protruding from the predators mouth as the food source, partly decayed, was to large to swallow. This fish still accepted a # 14 bead-head hare and copper nymph

Nymphing down stream

Days that ants fly2022-10-21T11:26:54+00:00

South African Leptophlebiidae (prongills) nymphs

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

Izaak Walton, in his classic work entitled ‘The Compleat Angler’ published in 1653, wrote the following about the trout’s favourite prey: “… and he especially loves the May-flie,” Many years later, Dave Whitlock (see ‘Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods’) unequivocally reaffirms the status of the mayfly by remarking that “Mayflies are the best known and most popular of all trout foods”. Gary Borger, in his mammoth work entitled “Presentation”, also describes mayflies as “…the insect group upon which modern fly fishing was founded.” Stomach pumping exercises, performed on trout caught inhabiting the rivers and streams of the North Eastern Cape, lend further credence to the astute observations of Walton, Whitlock and Borger. More specifically, the results of stomach content analyses, performed over more than 10 years by the authors, reveal that mayflies constitute, on average, in excess of 75% of the food forms found.

The Latin name for the mayfly order is Ephemeroptera and describes two things synonymous with the mayfly: the adult stage in the mayfly’s life cycle is short-lived (usually between one and two days in duration) and the adult is a winged insect. There are nine families of mayfly found in rivers and streams in South Africa. These include the Baetidae, Caenidae, Heptageniidae, Leptophlebiidae, Oligoneuridae, Teloganodidae, Tricorythidae, Polymitarcyidae, and Prosopistomatidae families. Of the abovementioned families, only the first seven are of importance to trout, and hence, the fly fisherman. The last two families, due to their behaviour and habitat choice, are seldom, if ever, targeted by trout during their nymphal phase of development.

This article presents a short overview of the Leptophlebiidae family’s life cycle, the Leptophlebiidae nymph anatomy, the Leptophlebiidae sub-adult (dun) anatomy and descriptions of the materials required and tying procedures for impressionistic, South Africa-specific, Leptophlebiidae nymph and sub-adult imitations. The Leptophlebiidae mayfly family is also sometimes collectively referred to as “prongills” and there are twenty known species in South Africa. The most famous species of this family mentioned in international literature include the claret dun, the black quill and the slate-wing mahogany dun.

from a scientific perspective (i.e. there is no pupal stage between the larva and adult stages). The life cycle consists of four distinct stages, namely the egg stage, the nymph stage, the sub-adult stage, and the adult stage. The two adult stages are unique to the mayfly – during the sub-adult or sub-imago stage the mayfly is sexually immature.

The life cycle of the Leptophlebiidae mayfly starts when the sexually mature adults (i.e. sub-adults or sub-imagoes or spinners) mate during flight, after which the males die and fall to the water’s surface or onto surrounding land. The female of this family lays her eggs by dipping the end of her abdomen into the water’s surface, whilst flying low over the river or stream. The eggs sink, and due to current movement, are scattered along the substrate and between debris and aquatic vegetation. Upon hatching, the Leptophlebiidae nymphs live on the river bottom in slow moving or still water areas, sheltering from predators and currents by hiding under stones and debris – these nymphs are also protected by their camouflage. The nymphs are capable of running across the substrate and swimming for short distances only. In British fly fishing circles these nymphs are referred to as ‘laboured swimmers’.  The nymphs feed on aquatic vegetation by removing algae and detritus from the undersides of stones and rubble.

The body design of the Leptophlebiidae nymph clearly reflects its specific habitat adaptation (i.e. slow moving or still areas in rivers and streams). The body exhibits the following physical characteristics:

  1. A head – the head, which is square in appearance, bears compound eyes on each side, with three simple eyes situated in between the compound ones, and two front-facing, short antennae;
  2. A clearly segmented thorax (three segments) – the thorax bears one pair of legs on each segment and a forewing pad on the second segment and a hind wing pad on the third segment (the wing pads give the thorax a ‘humped’ appearance); and
  3. An abdomen – the abdomen consists of ten clearly defined segments, of which four to seven have gills attached, and three, long, well defined, spreading tails are found on the final segment (the tails are longer than their bodies).

The tails of the Leptophlebiidae nymph are generally much longer compared to most other mayfly families found in South African rivers and streams – only the Heptageniidae family could possibly rival it in terms of tail length. The surface areas of the gills of the Leptophlebiidae family are large, since this nymph occupies the slow-moving or still water areas of rivers and streams, and as such, it must produce current in order to take in enough oxygen.  Each gill is split into two lobes and is either hair-like or leaf-like in appearance or a combination of both, depending on the specific species. The body colour of the nymph ranges from brown to dark brown. A reddish-brown body colouration is also occasionally found.

From a fly fishing perspective, the nymphal phase of the Leptophlebiidae family’s development is the most important stage to imitate. Since the nymphs of this family are generally quite large, trout love to target them, especially when they loose their footing and are washed away by faster currents.  Regular seine netting performed in the rivers and streams in and around the village of Rhodes has revealed a preponderance of these nymphs right throughout the year.

Once the Leptophlebiidae nymph has fully matured, in terms of growth and age, it will either crawl out of the water onto a rock or tree trunk/branch, or it will ascend to the water’s surface in still water areas, where it will force its way out of its nymphal skin and unfold into an air-breathing, winged sub-adult, called a dun. In the North Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, the most prolific hatches of the Leptophlebiidae family occur in the late season (April/May) and early season (September/October). The dun sits almost motionless on the tree trunk/branch, rock or water’s surface until its wings and skin have hardened and dried sufficiently, after which it flies to waterside vegetation. Here it transforms into the final life cycle stage, namely the sexually mature adult (imago or spinner). Although North Eastern Cape trout prefer the nymph imitation, they will prey on the dun. The spinners, on the other hand, are not of any significance – the authors have never witnessed a fall of Leptophlebiidae spinners on the rivers and streams of the North Eastern Cape. In the United States of America the spinner of this family is generally also considered to be of little importance.

The body design of the Leptophlebiidae dun closely mimics that of the nymph. The obvious differences include, the absence of gill filaments (these are replaced by a “tracheal tube diffusion network” – see Whitlock) and the presence of two pairs of upright, sail like wings (the forewings are noticeably larger than the hind wings). The duns are not very colourful and have a very drab look. They generally average between 7 and 12 mm in size and have medium to dark brown bodies (only the spinners have reddish-brown bodies), slate grey wings (sometimes heavily mottled), three brown tails and six, well defined brown legs.

The Leptophlebiidae nymph imitation shown in the photograph above is the one preferred by the authors – it is the very famous and popular Zak nymph originated by Dr Tom Sutcliffe.  What makes this pattern ideal is the dark appearance of the peacock herl used in the body construction and the long water mongoose or squirrel tail fibres used to simulate the tails. Moreover, the profile of the imitation, as required by the original recipe, also lends itself to the production of an impressionistic facsimile of the natural. The nymph imitations illustrated vary slightly in appearance and in tying method from the hardy original pattern tied by Dr. Tom, but works just as well. This imitation requires the following materials:

Hook: # 14 and 12 nymph hook

  • Bead: Optional, 2,3 – 2,6 mm gold bead on # 14 hook and 2,6 – 3mm on # 12 hook.
  • Thread: 8/0 Black
  • Weight: Optional but advisable, depending on the strength of the current.
  • Tail: 3 – 6 Squirrel tail, water mongoose or similar dark brown or black fibres the length of the hook shank or longer.
  • Abdomen: Three partly striped peacock herl
  • Ribbing: Copper wire and optional, 3- 4 turns of blue, copper or gold crystal flash
  • Thorax: Peacock herl
  • Legs (hackle): Sparse dark dun or black hackle

This imitation should be fished in the cushioned boundary layer just above the stream bottom, as deep as possible. It is not that the nymph necessarily drifts this deep but fish that avoid currents and lie within the cushioned boundary layer would rather accept a food source that drifts within range so that they do not exert too much energy reaching it.  The Zak may be tied with a couple of turns of crystal flash and with a gold bead (that acts as a trigger and a weight) as in the photos, for fast flowing streams but in clear low waters it is advisable to use less flash and at times even exclude the bead. When targeting fish in slow or no current areas a Leisenring Lift or even the occasional hump mend would lift the fly off the bottom and imitate a fleeing nymph triggering a reaction. When the Leisenring lift is executed it helps to wiggle the rod tip to create an erratic swimming action. When fishing these imitations in fast currents, drag free, it is necessary to fish up or up and across using a strike indicator for depth control and strike detection. Fish often sample imitations in strong currents and spit the fly after realizing that it is not the real thing, the indicator will warn the angler to strike as soon as possible to set the hook. When fishing in slow or no current areas and using a Leisenring Lift, it is often not necessary to use an indicator as the take will be felt and the drag of the indicator on the water surface may alert fish. For maximum results, use a long tapered leader with 5X tippet (double figure fish are often landed on 5x tippet) and insure that drag does not have an effect on the fly.

The Leptophlebiidae dun imitation shown in the photograph above was developed by Fred Steynberg specifically to imitate the duns of this family found in the North Eastern Cape. The pattern is neither suggestive nor exact, but is impressionistic, and requires the following materials:

Hook: # 14 or 12 thin wire dry fly hook.

  • Tail: Brown or black deer hair or water mongoose fibres.
  • Abdomen: Ring neck pheasant tail fibres or mottled turkey tail fibres
  • Wing: Mottled or partly bared brown deer hair fibres
  • Legs (hackle): Dark Brown or red-brown hackle, cut level so that the fly sits with its body on the water surface.
  • Thread: 8/0 Black or dark brown

This imitation should be fished with a drag free drift in the slow or fast moving current areas with a long leader and 5X tippet.

South African Leptophlebiidae (prongills) nymphs2022-10-21T07:40:08+00:00
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