By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10470719
By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10470719

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

I am primarily a nymph fisherman. I fish all the well known nymph patterns that many fishermen have used, because aquatic insects in their development stages under water make up the highest percentage of trout food sources. Among my favorites are the stoneflies. Stoneflies require highly oxygenated water and their presence in any stream or river is a bio-indicator that the water is uncontaminated and oxygenated. The oxygenation is a result of swift water absorbing oxygen through its rapid runoff motion. Most stoneflies nymphs breathe through their skin, or through wispy filaments on the side of their segmented body. Therefore, stoneflies cannot survive in motionless water . They cannot absorb oxygen in a motionless environment.

Entomologists estimate there are approximately 600 species of stoneflies in the world, but I am only concerned in this article with several species. I live and fish in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. I tie all my stoneflies similar to Randal Kaufmann’s well known pattern, but with some minor modifications which I will explain. Under the water there are several generations of stoneflies developing. Therefore, you should have imitations in different sizes to represent the different stages of molt the insects are going through during the three or four years it takes them to become an adult four-winged Dobson fly..

Most of my stoneflies are tied on 3x and 4x long hooks in sizes 8 to 12, but I also tie some on 6x long hooks in size 6 or 8 to represent the largest stonefly, Pteronarcys californica, the fabled “Salmon” fly. When this Dobson fly hatches, the trout seem to lose any reason they may have had, (Questionable, isn’t it?). Trout feverishly attack almost any form of dry fly representation that might appear to be the P. californica.  And, there are a lot of patterns for this dry fly. Create your own; you almost cannot go wrong if that hatch is in progress.

Using my slightly modified version of Randall Kaufmann’s stonefly design I carry the pattern in colors of black, golden, brown and olive, and in sizes in 3x, 4x and 6x long on hook sizes from 6 to 12. That is satisfactory for both Eastern and Western rivers and streams. However, I have never cast a 6x long stonefly in the waters of Pennsylvania or the Adirondacks. Perhaps a reader with experience in either of those areas can comment on that.

I recall a visit with Lee Wulff on the Madison River of Yellowstone years ago when he was fishing with a large size 4, 6x long heavily weighted nymph pattern and catching fairly large fish quite consistently. But, that was Yellowstone’s Madison River. To put things in perspective, one of the largest trout I have ever caught was with a small grub worm I tied when I was 16 years old fishing Spring Creek in Pennsylvania.

The modifications I make to Kaufmann’s stone fly design are: I wrap the dubbed body with a grey colored Ostrich herl to represent hellgrammite Trachael gills. I then overlap the top of fly with a narrow piece of appropriate colored nymph skin, dura skin,  or scud back to cover the herl on the top of the fly before creating the segmentation wraps with vinyl rib.

I blended the compleX dubbing colors in a coffee grinder that Kaufmann recommended for his black and the golden hellgrammite for years before I learned that Wapsi sells the recommended colors for Kaufmann’s stoneflies.


  1. Hello,
    Excellent brief article on stoneflies. It’s the primary pattern I use out west.
    Usually with a Zebra Midge dropper…
    I am headed to Idaho next week to fish the Henry’s Fork and was interested
    to know if you have a video or at least some type of picture/recipe of the
    fly you tie? I would like to try your improved version.

  2. Hi Clay, really enjoyed your post however I was confused by your terminology. I thought stoneflies, salmon flies and Dobson flies were all different bugs. I don’t remember my classifications from biology so maybe they’re related. I do know that all three are different in the nymphal stage and the stone and salmon are in different habitats. I think the hellgrammite (Dobson) inhabits the same water type as the stone, as I have found both in the streams I fish in central NY. When you described the body parts of your stonefly you mentioned all three bugs. In any case it forced me to research, and after closer reading of Hughes Handbook of Hatches, he sort of lumped the stone and salmon together as far as the nymphal stage goes. He then recommends three imitations, a gold ribbed hare’s ear and two Montana Stones, black and a golden. I fish primarily nymphs myself however my fishing and tying isn’t done as much as I did 30 years ago. I think the first stone I tyed was a pattern in Eric Leiser’s the complete book of fly tying. That book was my instructor. The nymph was a variant of Ted Niemeyers pattern. It used a split mallard wing quill and gills of ostrich herl glued to the sides of the body. Well I split the wing quill alright but it broke before I reached the thorax. I recovered ok, but made a mess of the gills. No matter, for a first attempt I was happy because the thing looked like I just pulled it off a rock! I don’t remember fishing it but I went on to tye more and improve my skills in tying and fly fishing. Since then I use mostly attracter nymphs and simple dry flies. I agree with your choice of stonefly nymph, Kaufman’s is practical and semi realistic. Your use of ostrich I like as well and the way you tied the fly. Can you post a photo of it, maybe a step by step? Thanks, I enjoyed this post, it made me think.

    1. Joe,

      Clay is correct in that Salmon Flies are indeed large stoneflies. The name derives from the salmon coloring on parts of the adult insects. You are correct in suspecting that Dobson flies are not stoneflies. The Dobson is in a completely separate insect order–Megaloptera while stoneflies are in the insect order Plecoptera. The confusion comes from the general similarity (size, shape and color) of the large salmon fly nymph and the large Dobson Fly nymphs known as hellgrammites. The big difference however is that the hellgrammites is a nasty insectivore and can deliver a painful bite while the salmon fly nymph is herbivorous and is harmless to handle. I am not sure how much overlap there is in their normal ranges, but I suspect that the Dobson is found more often in warmer water than the Salmon fly. I also suspect that the term hellgrammite is probably misused as a common name by many anglers for stone fly nymphs. But I do know from some experience on Eastern smallmouth waters that a large stone fly nymph imitation could just as easily be a large hellgrammite imitation. Whatever you call them, Clay is on target–stones are fun fish.

      1. Thanks for the clarification Mike. I reread Hughes chapter on stoneflies, salmonflies and stoneflies are the same order. I should have said they live in the same habitat but not eat he same food. I’ve had experience with hellgrammites before and stoneflies in the local streams I fish. They both require the same habitat. I have no idea if I’ve ever encountered a salmonfly nymph except for some large 4 winged adults that cluster around the porch lights on June nights. On closer inspection they look like salmonfly adults as some have an orange band behind the head, a neck if you will. Some have long antennae others are feathered antennae. They probably are some form of Dobson fly. No noticeable mandibles on either. Some day I’ll take a sample to the local Cornell cooperative extension to see if the entomologist knows what they are, I’ve called her on alot different insects I encounter, she’s pretty cool. As far as hellgrammites go they are nasty voracious sons of the devil! Also an historical small mouth bait as well as panfish and trout love them too! I caught a couple of nice browns in my favorite creek and they had gorged themselves on them, they were crawling out the gills! I kept the liveliest and put them in a glass cigar tube in a alcohol water solution. We went on vacation after that to fish the Ausable in Wilmington NY. Those things were still alive and lived for a long while after. The last chapter in Hughes book mentions alder flies and hellgrammites. I n order of importance to the fisherman it’s the mid west, east, then western US. He goes on to say that many Easterners when fishing out west often pull big salmonfly nymphs from the water and say they found a hellgrammite! He suggests any pattern used for salmon/stone fly nymphs (Charles Brooks Montana stone) can be fished for hellgrammites, using the same presentation for both. His pick for a more specific hellgy is a black wooly worm palmered with grizzly hackle. Both the Montana stone and wooly worm are similar in that both are tyed in the round, one having hackle and ostrich palmered in the front third, the other palmered the full body. My biggest brown came on a olive wooly bugger with black hackle #6 3xl. The second on a #12 Partridge and orange, that one broke off at the net after some reel screaming runs. Both from my “home creek”. Yes Mike, any way you slice it, fly fishing and tying is fun! Clay’s variant on the Kaufmann stone sounds like it would fish well for all three bugs. I’ll let you in on a little secret, the bug that Khan put in Scotty’s and Chekhov’s ear, was definitely a hellgrammite! 😉 Thanks again Mike!

          1. Thanks Mike, you’re too kind. The adults I see at my house are very similar but the video adult has way more orange in it. The wings have same heavy veins, the overall color is similar also. However according to Wikipedia NYS in way out of range. If I ever hit the lottery I’ll book a trip out your way to fish those juicy bugs. Maybe you , me, and Clay can hook up, or at least get a peak into Clay’s fly box. I’ll see if I can whip up some of his Kaufmann stone variants, he left enough instruction. In the meantime, hunting season is upon us, time to harvest more materials! Thanks again Mike! (I also will continue my search for what bug I see here)…

          2. > time to harvest more materials

            Hilarious comment! I guess it’s all in one’s point of view. When I was in the Coast Guard they used to say that while the Navy considered the CG just another peripheral arm of its massive self in wartime, the CG instead called themselves “that hard nucleus about which the Navy forms in time of war.” They turned the idea inside out.

            While England claimed they were shipping their “undesirables” off to Australia, the Aussies chose to define “aristocracy” as “those who can absolutely prove they descend directly from a prisoner off the penal colony ships.” They turned the idea upside down.

            And now, Joe, as a priceless new bit of fuel for the centiries-old fishing vs. hunting debate, you’ve identified hunting as “an exercise in gathering materials to tie flies.” You’ve turned the debate on its ear.

            I laughed out loud when I read that. 🙂

            – Mike

          3. Well it’s the truth Mike, road kills were slim pickings this year, and I won’t eat them. I tried to get a chuckle with my Wrath of Kahn hellgrammite joke but not a nibble! By the way, the name of Khan’s ship was the SS Botany Bay. I guess truth is funnier than science fiction. Anyway I’m glad you enjoyed it, this blog is great, take care my friend…

          4. You mean not a nibble YET, Joe. I’m sure everybody’s waiting till you strip that joke upstream in short quick pulls and then they’ll strike.

            Yes, love the J.Stockard blog! We’ve got a good band of water floggers here I think. The blog is the first thing I check every morning…right before things like whether I’m broke or late for work or still have a pulse or the world has ended or not. Those things come second, not first.

            Keep it coming Joe; I always enjoy your posts. : )

            – Mike

  3. I echo the requests for photos of the stonie nymphs you tie Clay; I’d be pleased to tie and try some. Basic Kaufmann patterns are easy to find but a quick visual of your variants would be nice as well.

    – Mike

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