Rocking the Eastern Stonefly Hatch
Two easily tied and super effective patterns.
By Stephen Sautner

They appear magically, like presents under a Christmas tree when you were seven years old. One morning in late May, you wade into the stream and behold! Stonefly husks cling to every exposed rock and boulder. Suddenly, each run, tailout, and slot beckons like an all-you-can-eat buffet. And you are freaking hungry.

Here in the northeast, stoneflies are not nearly as celebrated as the famous salmonfly hatch on western rivers. Yet fast dry fly fishing awaits those anglers ready to adapt. Forget graceful, 70-foot casts, lovely drag-free floats, and trout rising with a Bach Sonata playing in the background. Time to knot on some eight-pound Maxima and splatter down big, hairy bugs with graceless hauls. This is trout fishing to Motörhead.

Thankfully, stoneflies do not prompt Latinizing the way mayflies do. I lump all my springtime stones together as either golden, black, or brown and leave it at that. Someone who sidles up to you at a bar and mentions they are eagerly awaiting the emergence of Acroneuria lycorias should probably be avoided. On the other hand, if the guy on the next stool over tells you he just saw a crapload of goldens, immediately ply him with alcohol and lots of it.

Except for the tiny early black stoneflies you sometimes see motor-boating across creeks during winter thaws, most fishable eastern stonefly hatches occur later in the spring. On my home waters in the Catskills in southern New York, which includes world-class rivers like the Upper Delaware, Beaverkill, and Neversink, I don’t expect to see them in any numbers until just before Memorial Day, with mid-June being about peak. And bulk numbers are what you are looking for. There’s something about when these bugs seasonally erupt that cause trout to suddenly lock in like crocodiles on the wildebeest migration. Everything from six inch brookies on tiny mountain tributaries to 20-inch brownies in the big Delaware have at it.

But don’t look for traditional blanket hatches either. Though you may see staggering numbers of nymphal husks and newly hatched adults crawling along the shore, eastern stoneflies rarely hit the water all at once. It’s mostly one here, one there. Come evening, you may see scatterings of egg-layers crash-landing in riffles, but that’s about as abundant as they get. The one exception is on a dry, windy day right after a mass emergence. Then, recently hatched adults can pour off streamside vegetation by the hundreds before their wings fully dry, and the river will boil with rising fish. But the combination of those perfect conditions happens about once every other leap year. If you stumble onto it though, feel free to call or text me. Please.

For flies, traditional Stimulators, Sofa Pillows and their elegant ilk in sizes ten to as large as six certainly work, but my two favorites look more like something that splattered on your windshield. One is something I call a Hot Mess. I tie it on a size eight 2XL dry fly hook with a body of either olive or natural snowshoe hair dubbing. Then I lock in a gob of stacked deer hair and pull it back to form a bullet head. But the next step is crucial: I literally crumple the fly in my hand like a scrap of paper you're about to toss in the garbage. This splays, folds, and kinks the hair-wing into… well, if not a hot mess, than a hairy one. The other fly is a Hair-Wing Spider tied using opposing clumps of either deer or cow elk body hair spun on a short-shanked light wire scud hook in size 12. Mash it together with your fingers so the hairs stick upright almost like wound hackle. Trim some – but not all – of the more egregious butt hairs. When you are done, it looks like something you might see on the barber shop floor after a busy Saturday. Tied correctly, both patterns don’t land on the water as much as flop. And when they do, you twitch, water throws, a trout leaps.

Speaking of twitches, my own rule is to cast once or maybe twice and let the fly dead drift. If nothing takes, I cast again but check the rod high. When the fly lands (flops) I give it action so it jumps and daps in the current just like a floundering stonefly. I can’t tell you how many times that final quiver provokes a vicious take. If I can position myself to skip the bug upstream instead of down, so much the better. For some reason, trout prefer their stones moving against the current, not with it.

Don’t wait for risers to show either. Fish the water. I like rocky riffles, or swift, narrow slots against boulders. On smaller streams, tailouts between plunge pools – particularly if they gather a few bubble lines – are big medicine.

And dammit, cast. A lot. Put the fly here. Then over there. Twitch it in front of that boulder. Then next to that one. Use drag to your advantage. Think like a stonefly. Make that Hot Mess or Spider dance. You are looking for a trout that seems to be waiting its whole life to crush that fly. And when it does, set the hook and try not to air guitar The Ace of Spades with your five weight.

Stephen Sautner
Stephen Sautner has written three books including the acclaimed “Fish On, Fish Off,” and was a longtime contributor to The New York Times “Outdoors” column. He lives in suburban New Jersey and also maintains a fishing camp in the Catskill Mountains.  Learn more at; Twitter: @FishOn_FishOff