Salmonfly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

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The fascinating world of insects is vast and diverse, and the salmonfly is a great example of this variety. Native to the rivers and streams of North America, these large, striking insects play an essential role in their ecosystem, providing valuable sustenance for fish like trout. In the early stages of their life, they are aquatic nymphs that turn into majestic adult insects with a distinct appearance, capturing the attention of both anglers and naturalists.

As an enthusiast, you might be curious to learn everything there is to know about these captivating creatures. The salmonfly is a member of the stonefly family, easily identified by its size and distinctive coloration, with dark brown or black bodies and vibrant orange accents on their wings. Their life cycle is fascinating; it goes from egg, to nymph, to adult, providing unique insights into their habitat and behavior throughout the different stages.

To better appreciate the salmonfly, you should be familiar with their reproductive cycle and ecological role. These insects act as essential indicators of water quality, as they require clean, oxygen-rich environments to thrive. By studying their presence and populations, we gain valuable information about the health of a given aquatic ecosystem. Plus, the salmonfly’s importance as a food source for fish makes them a popular subject among fly fishermen, who mimic their appearance with artificial lures to attract their catch.

Understanding Salmonfly

Species Overview

Salmonflies are a type of large, aquatic insect, closely related to the stonefly family. They are often mistaken for ordinary flies, but are quite distinct in appearance and behavior. These insects are gentle and curious creatures, typically found near bodies of water, such as rivers and streams. Salmonflies play an essential role in the ecosystem and serve as an abundant food source for various animals, including fish like salmon.

Life Cycle

A salmonfly undergoes a fascinating life cycle with four distinct stages:

  1. Eggs: Female salmonflies lay their eggs in water. They will choose locations with plenty of vegetation and a gentle flow to ensure the survival of their offspring.
  2. Nymphs: After hatching, the salmonfly begins its life as an aquatic nymph. Nymphs live underwater and undergo several molts, which can last anywhere from 1 to 3 years, depending on the species. During this time, their primary diet is algae and small invertebrates.
  3. Molting: When the nymph is ready to transition to an adult, it crawls out of the water and finds a safe spot near the riverbank. Here, it molts one final time, shedding its exoskeleton to reveal its adult form.
  4. Adults: Adult salmonflies are strong fliers and can cover long distances. They only live for a few weeks, during which they mate and lay eggs. They do not feed as adults, relying on the energy stored during their nymph stage.

Salmonflies are essential to their ecosystems, providing food for animals, especially salmon, and helping break down organic matter in their habitat. Understanding their life cycle and behavior can help us appreciate these considerable, gentle insects and their contributions to the environment.

Fly Fishing Basics

Equipment Essentials

To get started with fly fishing, you need to gather some essential equipment. Here are a few key items:

  • Fly rod: Choose a fly rod that suits your skill level and the type of fish you’re targeting. For example, a 9-foot, 5-weight rod is versatile and suitable for beginners.
  • Fly reel: A fly reel holds your line and allows you to manage it while casting and reeling in fish. Make sure it’s compatible with your fly rod and line.
  • Line: Your fly line should match the weight of your rod and reel. There are several types available, such as floating, sinking, and sink-tip lines.
  • Leader: The leader connects your fly line to the fly, allowing for precise and delicate presentations. They come in different lengths and strengths, depending on your target fish species.
  • Flies: Select flies that mimic the insects, baitfish, or other prey in the area where you’ll be fishing. These can be dry flies (floating) or wet flies (subsurface).

Casting Techniques

Knowing how to cast is crucial for success in fly fishing. Here’s a brief overview of two popular casting techniques:

  • Overhead cast: This is the most basic and versatile fly-fishing cast. To perform an overhead cast:

    1. Start with your line in front of you.
    2. Raise your arm and the rod tip back until the line is nearly straight behind you.
    3. Swiftly bring the rod forward, stopping at a 10 o’clock position.
  • Roll cast: Use this technique when there’s limited space for a backcast. To perform a roll cast:

    1. Begin with your line on the water and your rod tip pointing down.
    2. Raise the rod tip in a smooth arc until it’s positioned above and slightly behind your shoulder.
    3. Thrust your arm and the rod forward, stopping at a 1 o’clock position.

Practice these techniques regularly to improve your casting accuracy and efficiency. Remember, fly fishing requires patience, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t master casting right away. It takes time and plenty of practice. Happy fishing!

Salmonfly Fishing Techniques

Choosing the Right Gear

Fly line: Choose a heavy-weight fly line, as salmonflies are a larger insect. A heavier line allows you to cast larger flies with ease.

Tippet: Opt for a strong tippet material, like a 2X or 3X size, as salmonflies tend to cause aggressive strikes from fish.

Backing: When attaching your fly line to the reel, use Dacron backing and an Albright knot for a reliable connection.

Rod: Consider a fast action rod, as it provides better casting control and helps handle heavier flies.

Waders: Invest in quality waders to keep you comfortable and dry when fishing in various conditions.

Effective Fishing Methods

Salmonfly fishing can be a thrilling experience, especially when you employ some effective methods. Here are a couple of techniques to increase your success:

  1. Match the hatch: Observe the natural salmonflies in the area, and choose a fly pattern that closely resembles their color, size, and shape.

  2. Dead drift: Cast your fly upstream and let it drift down naturally with the current. This can entice fish to strike, thinking it’s a real insect.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The more you familiarize yourself with these techniques, the more efficient and enjoyable your salmonfly fishing experience will be. Happy fishing!

Choosing the Right Location for Salmonfly Fishing

Identifying Suitable Waters

When looking for the best places to fish for salmonflies, you should focus on rivers and lakes with clean, cool waters. These insects are most commonly found in areas where the water temperature is between 55-65°F. Some well-known locations for salmonfly fishing in the United States include:

  • Alaska
  • Michigan
  • New York
  • Colorado
  • Idaho

Remember that different states might have specific regulations and restrictions, so always be sure to check the local rules before you head out.

Best Times for Fishing

Timing is crucial when it comes to salmonfly fishing. These insects typically hatch between late spring and early summer, depending on the region and water temperature. During this time, the nymphs are most active and become an attractive food source for fish like trout.

To make the most of your salmonfly fishing experience, follow these guidelines:

  • Plan your trip between May and June, as this is when most hatches occur;
  • Monitor the water temperature to determine the ideal time for fishing, remembering the 55-65°F temperature range;
  • Early mornings and evenings are usually the most productive periods for fishing, as fish tend to be more active during these times.

By choosing the right location and timing for your salmonfly fishing trip, you’ll significantly increase your chances of success. So pack your gear, head out to the water, and enjoy this fantastic seasonal angling opportunity!

Understanding the Salmon Species

Characteristics

Salmon are well-known for their unique appearance and features. Their skin is covered in scales, while their eyes are sharp and vigilant. Salmon come in various types, including the renowned Chinook (king) salmon and Coho (silver) salmon. Chinook salmon have spots on their backs and both lobes of their tails, while Coho salmon possess spots on their backs and the upper lobe of their tails1. Kokanee salmon, on the other hand, are known for their vibrant red color during their spawning phase. When it comes to salmon fishing, recreational anglers pay close attention to these characteristics to distinguish different species.

Habitat

Salmon can be found in a range of habitats, from freshwater rivers and streams to the open ocean. They typically start their lives in freshwater, migrating to the ocean to grow and feed before returning to their natal rivers for breeding2. This migration plays a significant role in sustaining both their populations and the ecosystems they inhabit, as they contribute to nutrient cycling in the rivers.

Breeding

Salmon breeding is a remarkable event. As they return to their birthplaces to spawn, both male and female salmon undergo physical changes. Males develop hooked noses, or kypes, while females typically prepare a nest, or redd, in the riverbed3. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, adult salmon often die, and the life cycle begins anew with the hatching of the eggs. It is important to note that out of thousands of eggs laid by a female salmon, only a handful (0 to 10) will survive to adulthood4.

Choosing the Right Bait and Lures

Types of Bait

When fishing for salmonfly, the choice of bait can greatly impact your success. Two popular and effective bait options include:

  • Bead head: Often made from brass, tungsten, or other materials, bead heads mimic fish eggs and provide added weight to help your bait sink deeper.
  • Egg-sucking leech: A combination of a leech pattern and a fish egg imitation, this bait attracts salmonfly by appealing to their predatory instincts.

Selecting the best bait material and color can make a big difference in catching salmonfly. For example, bead head materials affect the sinking rate, while color choice can make your bait more attractive to fish.

Picking the Best Lures

Another essential aspect of salmonfly fishing is choosing the right lures. Some of the most successful lures for salmonfly include:

  • Bunny leeches: Made from rabbit fur, these lures imitate the movement of leeches in the water. They come in various colors, making them suitable for different water conditions.
  • Streamers and nymphs: These lures imitate the look and movement of small fish and insects, which salmonfly often feed on.

Below is a comparison table of the two popular lures for salmonfly:

Lure Pros Cons
Bunny leeches Realistic movement, versatile colors Can get heavy when wet
Streamers and nymphs Effective for various fish species, can be used in different water conditions May require a more skilled technique

Remember, when selecting bait and lures, consider the specific conditions you’ll be fishing in, the salmonfly behavior, and the size and type of fish you hope to catch. By being attentive to these factors and making informed choices, you’ll increase your chances of a successful salmonfly fishing experience.

Conservation and Regulations

Rules and Regulations

When you are fishing for salmonflies, it’s important to be aware of the regulations that govern this activity. The rules put in place help protect the species and ensure a sustainable future for salmonflies. Some common regulations to keep in mind include:

  • Permits and licenses: Always have a valid fishing license and any applicable permits when you go out for a day of salmonfly fishing. Check with your local authority for specific requirements.
  • Bag limits: There may be limits on the number of salmonflies you can catch per day. Familiarize yourself with these limits and respect them.
  • Size limits: Some areas regulate the size of the salmonflies you can harvest. Be sure to measure your catch and release those that don’t meet the size requirements.

Role of Conservation

Conservation plays a vital role in protecting salmonfly populations and ensuring their long-term survival in various ecosystems. By being conscientious anglers, you can contribute to the conservation of these unique insects. Some actions you can take include:

  • Practice catch and release: If you’re fishing primarily for sport or if regulations require, gently unhook and release salmonflies back into the water.
  • Use proper gear: Using appropriate fishing gear, including barbless hooks or circle hooks, can help reduce harm to the salmonflies and increase their chances of survival upon release.
  • Respect habitats: Try to minimize any potentially harmful impacts to their habitats by avoiding trampling on vegetation along waterways and keeping the environment clean.

By following rules and regulations while also being aware of conservation efforts, you can enjoy a day of salmonfly fishing and support the long-term health of these interesting creatures.

Fly Fishing for Beginners

Getting Started

As a beginner, it’s essential to understand the basic equipment needed for fly fishing. First, you’ll need a rod and reel specifically designed for this type of fishing. There are various sizes and weights of rods available, so choose one that suits your needs. Here’s a quick comparison table:

Rod Length Ideal Use
7-8 feet Small streams, tight spots
8.5-9 feet General use, versatile
9-10 feet Large rivers, increased casting distance

When choosing a reel, make sure it can hold sufficient line and backing. A good quality fly line is also crucial, as it directly affects your casting ability.

Remember to select appropriate flies that imitate the natural prey of your target fish. Research your fishing location and find out which insects are likely to appear during your trip. This will give you some ideas on which flies to use.

Beginner’s Guide

Before heading out, it’s essential to learn and practice some basic fly casting techniques. Start with a simple overhead cast:

  1. Hold the rod comfortably in your dominant hand.
  2. Begin with the rod tip low and the line straight.
  3. Raise the rod tip swiftly, stopping abruptly at the 1 o’clock position.
  4. Pause briefly to let the line extend fully behind you.
  5. Bring the rod tip forward, stopping at the 10 o’clock position.
  6. Allow the line to unroll and settle on the water in front of you.

Practice this technique to improve your accuracy and control over the distance of your casts.

Finally, don’t forget to always follow local fishing regulations and obtain any necessary licenses or permits. Research your location to find out about catch-and-release policies, and be respectful of the environment while enjoying your fly-fishing experience!

More on Salmonfly

Economy and Market

Salmonflies are a popular insect for fly fishing enthusiasts. This market has created a demand for fly fishing equipment, such as rare salmonfly imitations. Some of these simulations can be quite pricey due to their rarity and craftsmanship. The economy surrounding this sport has grown over the years, including guided fishing trips and gear rental services.

For example, if you’re planning a fishing trip, you might consider:

  • Purchasing artificial salmonflies
  • Booking a guided tour
  • Renting equipment

Myths and Legends

Salmonflies are not only an essential part of the fly fishing economy, but they also have a rich history filled with myths and legends. Some cultures have spiritual beliefs tied to these insects, viewing them as symbols of transformation.

One such legend is the transformation of Niña, a native woman who turned into a salmonfly to help her people. It is said that Niña and her sisters carried the first salmon to the rivers, teaching the people valuable lessons on life cycles and nurturing ecosystems.

Remember, while you enjoy your day on the water casting flies, you are participating in an age-old tradition with mythical roots.

Footnotes

  1. (https://www.fws.gov/sites/default/files/documents/07_Salmon%20Identification%20Chart.pdf)

  2. (https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/fish/complicated-tale-salmon-and-trout)

  3. (https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=curricula.salmon)

  4. (https://www.usgs.gov/centers/western-fisheries-research-center/questions-and-answers-about-salmon)

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Salmonfly from Canada

 

Subject: Insect
Location: Maple Ridge, British Columbia
March 26, 2016 5:23 pm
I was working outside at a mill and we are situated along side the Fraser River. I always see strange bugs like the one pictured.
I’m trying to figure out what this insect is called.
I found it March 26th 2016( today)
The bug barely moved.I picked the bug up with a stick because the underside of his body was yellow. and I wanted to get a picture of it. The bug had a good grip.
I assumed it was just getting out of hibernation, as spring is upon us now.
I tried google image search, the result was dobsonfly, alderfly or fishfly.
Is this bug any of those three?
Signature: Corinne

Ebony Salmonfly, we believe
Ebony Salmonfly, we believe

Dear Corinne,
Though it resembles a Dobsonfly, Alderfly or a Fishfly in the Order Megaloptera, your insect is actually a Giant Stonefly in the genus
Pteronarcys, commonly called a Salmonfly.  A comment posted to this BugGuide image indicates it is possibly the Ebony Salmonfly, Pteronarcys princeps, and the coloring matches your individual, but as the commentor indicates “two species here in CA and you need to see the naughty bits to tell them apart”, we cannot be certain of the species.  BugGuide lists British Columbia as a sighting location for the Ebony Salmonfly.

Probably Ebony Salmonfly
Probably Ebony Salmonfly
Ebony Salmonfly, we presume
Ebony Salmonfly, we presume

Letter 2 – Salmonfly

 

Subject: Unknown bug type
Location: Danvile, pA
May 5, 2014 10:54 am
I’m very interested on what type of bug this is. I have never run across one like this… Photo was taken 5/5/14 around 9 am. I’m not sure if it native to the area or possibly an invasive species.
Signature: Douglas E Fessler

Salmonfly
Salmonfly

Hi Douglas,
This is a Giant Stonefly or Salmonfly in the genus
Pteronarcys, and it is a native species.

Letter 3 – Salmonfly

 

Subject:  Antlion maybe
Geographic location of the bug:  west Delores River, fir tree trunk near flooded river
Date: 07/09/2019
Time: 12:34 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I would like an identification on what is probably a mature ant lion of south western Colorado at a picnic area 10 feet from the stream.
How you want your letter signed:  Joanne

Salmonfly

Dear Joanne,
This is not an Antlion.  It is a Giant Stonefly in the genus
Pteronarcys, commonly called a Salmonfly.  Since the larvae are aquatic, Stoneflies are usually found quite close to water.  According FinsAndFeathersOnline:  “25%, maybe more of our ramblings as anglers is about the mythical, 3-inch enchanting salmon fly. Especially around this time of year! It’s hard to avoid the fly fishing chatter of anglers exploiting the famed long aquatic insect. Fishing this hatch gets our blood bumping and longing for the story to our arsenal of impressive fishing stories.  Salmonflies are very large stone flies! Montana has three salmonfly species: the most common being the giant salmonfly (Pteronarcys californic. The other two are the American salmonfly (Pteronarcys dorsat), and the least salmonfly (Pteronarcella badia). The least salmonfly is a little bit smaller than the giant and the American. They usually get up to 2 inches, and are in their nymph stage for about 2 years. The American and giant have the bright orange or red band behind their head and the underside of their abdomen.”

Thank you very much.  And so quick too. I see a almost perfect match in my Kaufman Book but didn’t know where to look.  Joanne

Letter 4 – Salmonfly from Canada

 

Subject: What is this bug?!
Location: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
May 10, 2016 7:51 pm
Hi Bugman,
I live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and I found a very interesting bug today and I need help identifying it!
Any help you can give me would be wonderful! Thank you!
Signature: Taylor

Salmonfly
Salmonfly

Dear Taylor,
This is a Giant Stonefly or Salmonfly in the genus
Pteronarcys, an insect generally found close to water as the nymphs are aquatic.

Letter 5 – Salmonfly from Canada

 

Subject: huge winged insect
Location: Keg River, Alberta
July 4, 2016 10:05 pm
Hi, Just saw this on one of our leafcutter bee huts today. We’re in Keg River, Alberta and have never seen anything like it. Should we be running for the hills? He was about 3 inches long not counting his antennae. Didn’t get a good look at his flying skills – when we disturbed him he just sort of fluttered down in behind some stuff so he didn’t really take off. Big wings though! Any idea what he is? Thanks.
Signature: Shelley

Salmonfly
Salmonfly

Dear Shelley,
This is a Giant Stonefly or Salmonfly in the genus
Pteronarcys.  It is harmless and there is no need to head for the hills.

Thank you!  That was fast.  Good to know we can rest easy.  Love your site.

Letter 6 – Salmonfly from Canada

 

Subject:  ID for large net-veined winged insect
Geographic location of the bug:  Gardenton, MB (southeastern MB)
Date: 02/16/2018
Time: 04:57 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  This insect showed up on my deck on June 12, 2012, in the tall grass-aspen parkland eco-region. I wish I had more info. None of my searches have come up with anything close.
I sure hope you can help solve this mystery!
How you want your letter signed:  Laura

Salmonfly

Dear Laura,
Giant Stoneflies in the genus 
Pteronarcys are frequently called Salmonflies.  Despite there being no reports from Manitoba listed on BugGuide, since the surrounding provinces have reports, we would deduce that the range of the Giant Stoneflies also includes Manitoba.

Thank-you so much, Daniel! I’ll be looking up more info on the salmonfly now
Laura
Very cool. The Roseau River is only a 1/2 mile away and it has a rocky bottom, so that’s where it came from. I’ll be looking for larvae when the water’s low enough.

Thanks so much for opening another window to the local ecology!
Laura

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Salmonflies

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • I got one too, today, March 29 2016. Mine was at work as well but he’d come in the open door and was sitting on a table frame. I work in a school furniture factory in Coquitlam. I’ve got him home with me now but I’ll return him tomorrow. There’s a good sized stream just a few steps up the road and I assume he’ll be quite happy there!

    Reply
  • I recently saw one of those salmon flies. I had never seen one before. So I decided to look it up and found that it is from Alberta Canada, where they have been having those awful fires. So it must have traveled from there to here . Interesting

    Reply
  • By the way , I live at lake Quinault
    Anita

    Reply
  • By the way , I live at lake Quinault
    Anita

    Reply
  • Darcy Hughes
    May 29, 2017 4:13 pm

    I had this bug fly onto my deck this afternoon and after research discovered it is a Giant Stonefly. He is now hiding in the shade. Are they common to Edmonton, AB? And harmless?

    Reply

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