The earliest known attempt to match the hatch was described around 200 A.D. by the Roman author Claudius Aelianus (alias Aelian). In his book The Nature of Animals Aelian describes how a Macedonian fisherman imitates a red flying insect to catch speckled fish. Indeed, anglers have been matching the hatch to catch fish for a long time.
In the modern era, books such as Ernest Schwiebert's Matching The Hatch – A Practical Guide, published in 1955, have set the standard for much of how fly-fishing is practiced today. Nowadays it is assumed that anglers follow a systematic and logical thought process when approaching a stream. Most anglers will spend some time trying to determine what insects are hatching. In turn they will then match the hatch to fool unsuspecting trout. Hatch charts are very useful in this process. They may not guarantee success all of the time, but they do provide an excellent reference to ensure you have the necessary flies, especially when visiting a river for the first time.
Originally matching the hatch implied imitating only the insect that is hatching. Today a more liberal interpretation includes the imitation of any food item available to fish, and has been applied to imitating baitfish and even salmon eggs.
Developing a hatch chart
To develop a hatch chart, dedicate time at regular intervals during a day of fishing, as well as throughout the season. This is important as a hatch chart to some extent reflects angler effort, and observation throughout the fishing season will generate the most unbiased view of what is happening on the river. A lack of documented hatches can be more related to angler effort, rather than low insect activity.
Observe and record what is clinging to rocks in the river and hiding among the bushes along the shoreline. To find out what is clinging to rocks, focus on the shallow riffles and runs where you can safely investigate. Place a large aquarium net with an opening approximately four-inches by eight-inches into the river. Directly upstream from this net, gently rub the rocks with your bare hands. Inspect and record type of insect, colour and approximate size of insect that is captured in the net. A careful review of the shoreline vegetation will reveal what is flying or crawling about. Do not ignore large rocks and bridges as that is where you will often find evidence of insects that have hatched. Repeat this process several times during the season and over a few years. The big trends and major hatches will become apparent once you combine all the information into a chart.
Knowing the general trends on a river will provide the most success, but be aware of the smaller hatches that can take place. Sometimes fish will feed on a smaller hatch and ignore the larger, more consistent hatches. Always be observant, and avoid rigid thinking – what worked last time does not guarantee success the next time.
If you are going to match the hatch, it is more important to know colour and size versus the exact species that is hatching. Species may vary in colour just enough between streams to be misleading. Some hatch charts only show genus and species names, or use common names which make it hard to identify the insects by colour and size. This is overwhelming and confusing to many anglers. The most useful type of hatch chart for anglers should focus on identifying the type of insect, and also communicate the size and colour. For example, information such as a size six golden stonefly is more useful to the average angler than indicating that Calineuria californica is hatching. Of course, adding the specific genus or even species name will take your interest to a whole new level.
The Blackwater, Crooked and Stellako rivers' are found in the heart of North Central BC and hatch charts were developed for them through detailed angler observation over the last seven fishing seasons. These rivers are like most in that a matching the hatch approach will result in the greatest success. If you are going to take one rod to fish the Blackwater, Crooked and Stellako, a nine-foot for a four-weight rod paired with a good reel and floating line is what you will need.
Blackwater River (West Road River)
Approximately 70 kilometres south of Prince George, the tea coloured Blackwater River flows east into the mighty Fraser River. The infamy of the Blackwater stems mostly from the reports of anglers fishing the upper reaches around Kluscoil Lake. Those who travel to the river by road can access the river at three bridge crossings on the lower part. Known as a premier dry fly river, the Blackwater produces mostly rainbow trout around 11-inches. A 16-inch fish is generally considered a large specimen for this river. You will also catch many mountain whitefish and northern pike minnows.
In the early part of the season, from June to the middle of July, matching the stonefly and caddisfly hatches on Blackwater is key. A close investigation of the shoreline will reveal shucks of giant salmonfly and golden stonefly nymphs on the rocks and vegetation. If you access the river at the bridge crossings, pay close attention to any rocks under the bridge deck as you will find many stonefly shucks. Some of the salmonfly shucks are absolutely huge, if not even scary! These nymphs can be imitated using heavily weighted size six to size eight golden or black stonefly imitations.
Some of the slower moving sections of the Blackwater will reveal cased caddis larvae houses build from small pebbles and sand grains. These are usually about one-inch long! The larvae are usually light to dark tan or grey in colour or brown-olive. These will hatch into large caddisflies that are easily imitated using a size eight to size ten Mikulak Sedge. Make sure that your Mikulak Sedge has a dark olive body and dark tan deer hair wing. Sometimes a dead drift is required and other times a skated fly will drive the trout absolutely crazy.
After a few weeks of warm weather and sunny days, the second half of the season commences with the sound of chirping grasshoppers flying around. During the warm summer days of July, August and early September many terrestrials end up in the river. Fish key in on these easy prey struggling on the surface. Hopper imitations tan in colour with a hint of yellow skated across the river, or dead drifted with an occasional twitch will get your blood pumping fast through your veins.
On warm overcast and humid days in August and September, smaller mayflies will hatch. Signs of these hatches are easily missed, as trout gently sip the mayfly duns off the surface. The few duns flying away are often dismissed as not important. Mayfly hatches on the Blackwater are not big, and if you see the odd dun flying around you will realize quickly that imitating mayflies on especially warm humid days can be the key to your success.
As a popular destination for many Prince George fly anglers, the Crooked receives little attention from anglers outside the region. A tributary of the Arctic watershed, this bona fide spring creek flows north connecting a number of lakes, and eventually flows into Williston Lake reservoir. The Crooked River also has the sad distinction of being one of the many rivers that will be impacted by the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The proposed pipeline will cross the Crooked River just north of the township of Bear Lake.
Considered by some as a river to fish for mountain whitefish, it also has some good rainbow trout fishing. Although mountain whitefish has a reputation of not taking dry flies, on the Crooked River they do so on a regular basis. They can be quite selective though, and imitating what is hatching makes the difference between a good day and an excellent day. The fish of the Crooked are not big, both rainbow trout and mountain whitefish are typically around
With its low gradient, gentle flow and marshy shoreline, the Crooked River is very warm and nutrient rich. This translates to large and intense mayfly and caddis hatches. Stoneflies are less abundant on the river as its gentle slow moving flow does not provide a lot of habitat conducive to stoneflies. Instead, the early summer months will reveal a diverse menu of mayflies and caddisflies. By early July fish are presented with substantial hatches of four or five different mayflies for the main course and at least three different caddisflies for desert. The big challenge is to determine the food item of choice. This may be large western green drakes tied on size ten hooks or diminutive size 18 blue winged olives, or it might be something else, like a size 14 rusty brown coloured elk hair caddis.
There is nothing subtle about some of the hatches on the Crooked River. Sometimes your waders will be covered in blue winged olive nymphs trying to make their way to the surface. Often you will have so many mayflies and caddisflies crawling over your hands and face it is nearly impossible to concentrate while tying your fly on.
As sudden as the early summer hatches appear on the Crooked, they disappear equally as fast by August. The hatches are less intense and the insects are also much smaller. Small little black mayflies (sizes 22 to 24) called Tricorythodes or Tricos and several varieties of caddisflies are frequently on the menu. The caddisflies are small (sizes 14 to18) and are predominantly a rusty brown colour. The challenge is to set the hook gently otherwise you will pull the fly right out of the fish's mouth.
A two hour drive west along Highway 16 from Prince George, you will find the Francois Lake Road turn-off that will take you to the Stellako River. The river is only about 11-kilometres in length and connects Francois Lake to Fraser Lake. Considered by many as one of British Columbia's premier trout streams, anglers from far and wide come to fish for the rainbow trout that grow to legendary size.
The Stellako's reputation stems from the many stories of anglers catching rainbow trout that are 20-inches and larger. With recreational fishing dating back to the 1930s, the Stellako's reputation as big fish river has been cemented. To be honest, nowadays a 20-inch fish is indeed a rare occurrence with the majority of the fish closer to 12-inches. You can expect to catch one or two fish greater than 16-inches though.
Fishing on the Stellako can be divided into three seasons. The first is the prime dry fly season using big busy flies. During the second season your success is achieved with nymphs and smaller dry flies. In September the arrival of Sockeye salmon announce the start of the third season when rainbow trout shift their diet from invertebrates to primarily salmon eggs.
With opening day on June 1st, the fishing starts off with good dry fly action. One of the earliest hatches is the larger stoneflies that are mostly golden in colour. Larger fish will readily take big dry flies such as size six to eight orange stimulators or a size eight to ten Mikulak Sedge, tied in cinnamon and brown colours. As the season continues and the fish are exposed to more flies from over eager anglers, you will find that the fish get increasing more shy and reluctant to rise to a dry fly. During this time you will also find good hatches of smaller stoneflies such as Yellow and Lime Sallies. Imitating these smaller stoneflies can be very effective. If the dry fly fishing is slow, imitating the larval stages of both the golden and giant black stoneflies can rescue a day of slow fishing.
Do not ignore changes that can be brought on by unsettled weather. Overcast skies, warm air temperatures, and high humidity that precede a thunderstorm set the stage perfectly for mayflies to hatch. During this time, rainbows can be fooled using size 14 grayish-olive coloured mayfly imitations. Sometimes an Adams in sizes 14 to 18 can be good too. Fish rising to these smaller mayflies will sip their prey gently from the surface. Anglers often miss these rises. When you see the odd mayfly adult flying around, take the time to find rising fish. It is well worth the effort.
From the middle of July to the end of August wetflies and nymph imitations out fish dry flies. Focus on imitating the stonefly and caddisfly larval imitations as they are available on a more consistent basis. Flies like large stonefly imitations in either black or gold in size six to eight, smaller pheasant tail nymphs in sizes 10 to 12, or even streamers in the pools will do well. This does not mean that a well presented elk hair caddis will not catch a fish or two.
In September, just before the Sockeye salmon arrive, great success can be had using small flies imitating a hatch of small brown coloured mayflies and rusty-brown coloured caddisflies. The arrival of the Sockeye announces the start of the third season and effectively the end of the season for imitating bug life. Once the Sockeye start to spawn, rainbow trout will key in on salmon eggs instead of feeding on insects.
Using established hatch charts, or even developing your own, is a very rewarding experience. Initially, paying attention to insect life helps you catch more fish, but soon you will also be taken on a path of discovery. Subconsciously you start to look for those hatches to which only the most selective fish are paying attention to. Catching one of these educated fish that refuse all but only the most perfect presentation is more rewarding than catching ten fools on a bright flashy fly.
The insects you are imitating are very sensitive creatures. Like the fish we pursue, these invertebrates are easily affected by disturbances in the environment. Disturbances that are often anthropogenic in nature. Initially you are just an angler enjoying nature for what it is, but you may become a naturalist or even an environmentalist - an advocate for the environment you enjoy as angler.
Hatch Charts of Northern BC
by Danie Erasmus
First published in Summer 2013