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Figuring Out the Local Hatch

by Philip Monahan

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Question: My job involves lots of road travel, and I always keep my fishing gear with me so I can pull over and fish streams that look trouty. But my territory covers almost a quarter of the country, so I’m not always familiar with local hatches. Is there a quick way to get a sense of what bugs I should be imitating on an unfamiliar stream?

Kyle H., North Braddock, PA

Local Fly HatchesTina Li photo

Answer: I assume that we’re talking about dry flies here. Obviously, if you see any bugs on the water, all you have to do is collect a few and then tie on a matching pattern. But, as we all know, you can’t count on duns floating by at all times. In these situations, you have to look elsewhere. Where, You ask?

Start with streamside vegetation. Most species of aquatic insects stick close to home in the time between hatching and when they return as spinners or ovipositors. Shake some bushes and see what flies out. Sometimes, the insects will be quite evident, clustered on blades of grass and bushes.

Next, inspect the surface of any eddies, sloughs, or floating foam to see what has collected there. Stillborn duns or last night’s spinners might still be visible.

Other great places to find evidence include streamside spider webs, the screens of nearby buildings, and even the front grilles of the cars in the parking lot at the fishing access. Even a smashed mayfly can offer clues to what size and color you should use. If stoneflies are hatching, you’ll find their shucks on the rocks in the stream itself. If you root around enough in these places, or anywhere else you’d expect bugs to congregate, you can get a good idea what hatched yesterday. And if it hatched yesterday, it’ll more than likely hatch again today.

There’s also a more high-tech approach, if you happen to have an iPhone. An app called “The Hatch 2” offers hatch-matching information on more than 300 rivers across the U.S.

Finally, you could swallow your pride and just ask another angler, if any are around. In our culture, this is often frowned upon, but it can be very effective. And most fly fishermen are perfectly willing to help a stranger.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • Chuck Stranahan

    Here’s another piece that might help: Don’t ignore terrestrials. They’re flying and blowing and falling in the water all the time. You don’t need an ongoing hatch to fish them. Trout eat them all day.

    Start with ants. They’re everywhere. Two basic colors: kind of a rusty red-brown, and black. A few are one color up front, and the other color at the rear. I tie and carry a sparse deer hair hair ant in these configurations: #18 black, #14 black, #14 rust, and #14 with rust to the rear, black up front. (If the bi-color ants I find streamside have the rust up front and black to the rear, as some do, I fish my rust-to-the rear model anyway. The trout don’t seem to care, but do want a bi-color pattern at times.)

    I’ll also carry a big #10 black with sparse hackle tip wings early in the season when the big flying ants in my part of the country are out.

    The rest of the time, I can get by with the minimalist assortment I’ve suggested. If the naturals are a #12 or a #16, or a slightly lighter or darker red, I’m close enough.

    These ants are admittedly hard to see. Overdressing, too much hackle (I use none at all) a parachute or gaudy indicator on top spoils their effectiveness. So I’ll fish them behind just about anything else – maybe a #14 beetle, a hopper, color and size as appropriate for the season, or a general searching pattern such as a Parachute Adams or even a big, buggy-looking attractor pattern. I’ve seen a number of fish rise to the attractor, then switch off to take the ant.

    The main thing, as Phil suggests, is to take a few minutes just being observant when you start. He’s told you where to look – and that five minute investment will come back many times in the form of productive fishing for the remainder of your time on the stream.