The Bug Men

Let’s face it. If you are going to become an accomplished fly fisher of trout or salmon, you must accumulate some knowledge about the insects that these remarkable fish feed on. After all, it is the only way that you can complete the seduction: fool the fish into hitting your artificial fly, right? Gray’s Sporting Journal Editor, James Babb, said it well: “The occasionally successful fly fisher wonders what fly to use. The consistently successful angler knows which fly, based on firsthand observations and accumulated knowledge.”

To be candid, I’ve never been one to spend much time studying bugs. Still, I’m fascinated by, and drawn, to the bug men, those armchair entomologists. They seem to know so much about trout-water insects.

Reading books such as Hatch Guide For New England Streams by Thomas Ames, Jr., or Eastern Hatches by Tom Fuller, should have helped my angler confidence when it comes to reading the hatches and making proper fly selections. But, when it comes to bugs, it seems like the more I learn the less I know. It’s intimidating when the angler just across the pool from me dips his little bug net in the stream flow, whips out his magnifying glass and states with unshakable confidence,”Aha, Ephemerella Dorothea and a Trico or two!”

I say to myself,” Yuh, sure guy, you really got’em nailed, huh?”

Then he, with authority and certitude, makes an instant selection from his fly book, ties it on, and after a cast or two, snags a sassy salmon from the foam line along the glide that I have been pounding unsuccessfully for most of the morning. It is at this point that I must decide: do I swallow my pride and ask him what palmered little creation he has attached to his 5X tippet, or do I remain pridefully stoic, ignore him and flail the waters in vain? As much as I love the sport, this is the Angler’s Dilemma that I have yet learned to handle with grace and a shrug.

If you can identify with my dilemma, you’ll be pleased to learn that I have had a fly fisher’s epiphany. It happened a few weeks ago during a two-day fishing trip up on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Fishing companion Fred Hurley, an accomplished angler and knowledgeable but not overbearing bug man, taught me a few things in-spite of my entomological learning deficit. He and I and Diane caught some fish. There was a modest caddis hatch and the elk hair caddis worked out pretty well. There were some stoneflies, too, but the expected mayfly hatches just weren’t coming off.

In fact, Tom Fuller, who was camped nearby on the river and might as well be a certified entomologist after having researched and wrote Eastern Hatches, told me,” I’m amazed, Paul. Pat and I have been camped here all week looking for the traditional mayfly hatch. It just ain’t happening. Weather? A down cycle? Hard to know.”

The next morning, as we polished off some bacon and an eggs. Fred spotted a tiny critter alight on the checkered tablecloth. A mayfly! We studied it like a couple of archaeologists who had just unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“What is it, Fred,” I asked.

“Not sure,” he admitted.

We both opened our bug manuals and began comparing the live, cooperative insect with the assorted color insect photos in our respective books. My eyes glazed over. They all look alike,, sort of like trying to identify non-poisonous wild mushrooms by comparing the photos with the thing in your hand.

We were stumped.

“Let’s capture it in this cup and show Fuller,” I suggested.”He wrote the book. He’ll know.”

Tom was having his second cup of camp coffee. I approached him with his bug book in one hand and the captured mayfly in the other. “What precisely is this mayfly that we have in this cup?” I queried.

He studied it closely. “Hmmm ….Big whitish eyes, a double tail, kind of a brown varigated body…hmmmm,” he pondered. And pondered some more. Fred and I, like plaintiffs in a courtroom, awaited the verdict.

“I really don’t know,” Fuller admitted. I was stunned.”You serious? YOU don’t know?” I exclaimed with some incredulity.

“Well, hard to be sure, Paul,” he counseled.” There are more than 1,200 sub-species of mayflys. It could possibly be a Mahogany dun, but I can’t be sure.”

Now Tom Fuller is by nature a precise and thorough man. He would have to be to write a comprehensive bug book like Eastern Hatches. As you can probably figure out by now, he is not a pretentious man either. He would not try to pull the wool over your eyes, even if he could, and even if it would be to his advantage. According to him, his affinity for fly fishing, and most especially for spending a lifetime studying trout bugs, is precisely because of the inexactitude and mystery of it all. As he explained all of this, it dawned on me: no wonder I haven’t been able to nail these bugs down! Even the true bug men, like Tom Fuller, have trouble, sometimes, matching the hatch.

So I’m through feeling inferior about my insect identification skills. And the next time the know-it-all-guy fishing across the stream from me says, with that all-knowing air, that there is a Hendrickson hatch on the water, I’ll yell back at him, “No sir, looks like Quill Gordons to me.”

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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