Stonefies like this one are a preferred food source for many fish.

FLY FISHING is an exercise in managing many variables. Should even one be incorrect or unsuccessful, the whole thing comes unglued and falls apart. Compared to most other styles of fishing, the number of variables is significantly larger and includes more knots, more lines and thousands of flies for thousands of conditions.

Once everything seems to be in place, the whole apparatus is swished through the air among trees, bushes, high wind and rushing water. Back and forth this presentation goes and, with practice and a little luck, lands unaffected on the water to provide an inviting presentation to chosen fish.

As I get older and more experienced as a fly fisherman, these variables become manageable, and successful presentations become more common. With this experience and knowledge unfortunately come more variables. After having caught thousands of fish, a fly fisherman’s mind may wander and begin to consider other things like subtle colors, climate conditions and, for many of us, insect life.

Fly fishing by definition is an effort to mimic the life cycle of insects in such a way, that fish are fooled into thinking a natural feeding event is available. I understand that some flies mimic other fish, some crustaceans and the occasional small mammal — anything a predator fish might eat. The majority of my flies are designed and fished to look like a bug, and my obsession over them has only begun to blossom.

Most fly fishermen recognize three major groups of aquatic insects and strive to understand their life cycles as they relate to catching fish. These groups are caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies.

It becomes important to recognize that these insects exist in several forms. Often born in the water, they emerge to become adults in the air. A fascinating transformation for sure, these bugs can survive and appear as two completely different organisms.

The juveniles (larvae, pupae, etc…) live defensively among the substrate trying their best to hang on and not get eaten. This is where “nymph” fishing is employed and undertaken in many different styles. Flies are tied with heavy materials like copper wire, tungsten beads and heavy hooks in order to sink to the part of the water occupied naturally by these critters.

It may be hard to detect what a heavy nymph is doing as it bounces downstream mimicking a dislodged and helpless insect. Some anglers use a “strike indicator” to make the journey more evident. Jokingly considered a bobber by some, this tool floats on the surface and gives a slight twitch when a fish takes the bait.

At some point, these tiny insects emerge from the nymph stage and travel to the surface of the water in preparation for taking flight. In lakes and ponds, this phase can be very exciting for fishermen as these once-hidden bugs begin to swim, often ungracefully, toward the surface. At this point, fish gobble them up without shame. They will eat every one they see.

Once on the surface, some aquatic insects lay their eggs, some sprout wings and wait for them to dry, and some seem to look around and take in their new habitat. As one might expect, this leaves them vulnerable to predators, and hungry fish jump, splash and chow down.

Insects on the surface of the water present some of my favorite fishing opportunities. There is something about a surface hit that is hard to describe. Perhaps seeing the fish and feeling it bite creates a stronger connection because, even when the fish gets away, there is often a smile on my face.

Understanding insect life is one of the many pursuits of a good fly fisherman. While I’m no expert, my love for the sport keeps me investigating.


Adventures Afield appears in the New Hampshire Sunday News.

Contact Andy Schafermeyer at