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Have you ever opened a fly box and was overwhelmed by the different shapes and patterns of flies? Some of the most common questions I have received are, “Will this fly be fished subsurface or on the surface?”, “What does this fly mimic?”, “How do I know what fly to use?”.

To adequately answer these questions, I need to start by explaining the life cycle of an aquatic insect and the behaviors of the insect during each cycle. Here, I will explain the life cycle of a mayfly as a proxy of the general aquatic insect life cycle and discuss tips on how to match flies to the certain life cycle stages. Of course there are more aquatic insects that are used in fly fishing, like caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges that have slightly different life cycles, but we will focus on mayflies first, as they are the most primitive of aquatic insects…

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This article is part of a series by Old Town Pro Staff member Megan Hess. Megan is the founder of BeadHead Fishing Company, a guide service and fly tying company based out of Hudson, Maine. She has her bachelors degree in aquatic biology and a masters degree in ecology and environmental sciences. She researched mercury contamination in waterbodies using aquatic insects for 8+ years. She is a Registered Maine Fishing Guide, a commercial fly tyer, and a guide for Chandler Lake Camps and Lodge.

….As I taught fly fishing classes to different fishing groups during graduate school, I learned that most anglers had so many questions about the entomology portion and most had been very interested in it but didn’t have the right materials to learn more about it. This is when I decided I would offer aquatic entomology classes with high quality science material that the general public can understand. Here, I want to give you a brief introduction to the major orders of aquatic insects that are discussed in fly fishing and how to identify them…..

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A Classic Streamer For A New Generation

Registered Maine Guide, commercial fly tyer, and Fishe enthusiast Megan Hess talks with Fishe about fishing and tying Carrie Stevens’ Gray Ghost pattern (fly recipe and instructions with pics included!).

For fly tying addicts, Carrie Stevens (1882 – 1970) is a household name. Fishing and tying in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine, she is well known for creating masterful featherwing streamer patterns for salmon and brook trout that were widely sought after in her time and are coveted by fly collectors today. For an average fly tyer such as myself, sitting down to attempt one of her fabled flies is daunting at best. I thought that famous Carrie Stevens patterns such as the Gray Ghost had been relegated to the status of “art” – something that you put behind a glass frame and hang on your wall but never actually use. Fortunately I had the chance to chat about this pattern with my long-time fishing buddy Megan Hess, and I found that I was dead wrong.

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Mayflies: Is that a Hex or a Green Drake?

Dry fly season is upon us in Maine! The words “Hex Hatch” and “Green Drakes” have been buzzing around recently because the water temperatures and photoperiod (length of sunlight during the day) are just right to initiate these hatches.

It has been my experience that you will find both Hexs and Eastern Green Drakes emerging on the same ponds in Maine – usually within the same time during the day! Some anglers don’t give a rip on how to tell the difference between the two, and that’s fine! Pick a mayfly dry fly pattern (Adams or Wulff style) that is similar in size to the mayflies that are coming off the water, tie it on, and you’re set. If you’re an entomology geek, like myself, you may be curious on how to tell the two apart. Let me give you the scientific answer…

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Kidneys of the River

Freshwater mussels (Unionidae) are of extreme importance to an aquatic ecosystem’s function and health. Probably the most well-known ecosystem service that mussels provide is ‘cleaning up the water.’ They are filter feeders; meaning they get their nutrients from straining small organisms and particles out of the water. Some species are even being reintroduced to areas of poor water quality, in hopes of decreasing the sediment and pollution load. One adult mussel can filter approximately 20 gallons of water a day! Now, think of the impact a large, healthy population of mussels could have on a river ecosystem!

Unfortunately, it is estimated that 70% of mussel species in North America are listed as: of special concern, threatened, endangered or extinct. Freshwater mussels are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment because of their limited mobility and complex life cycles involving fish hosts. Anthropogenic (man-made) changes to our land and rivers such as pollution, dams and water extraction, decline the diversity, abundance and range of these organisms. Increased sedimentation and pollution from agriculture and industry degrades water quality so much that mussels cannot thrive…

(May 1, 2018)

Lampsilis bracteata (Texas fatmucket) from the San Saba River, Texas. Photo by Megan Hess

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Mercury & Dragonflies: Understanding how mercury gets into our fish.

It’s always interesting for me, being an aquatic biologist and angler, to look down into the water and see the diversity of life on the bottom of a beautiful stream.  It wasn’t until recently during my time researching invertebrates, that I now go out to a stream while fishing and wonder how much mercury, a neurotoxin, is in the body of the small critter my fly is trying to resemble.

Billowing smoke stacks of coal burning industries fill the Midwest.  These rolling fumes contain mercury (Hg) that gets combusted into the atmosphere and deposited over the landscape and into our sensitive wetlands.  Widespread deposition and the extensive nature of mercury sensitive landscape across the Midwest have produced methylmercury problems in some of our most remote aquatic ecosystems including Voyageurs National Park.

Once in aquatic ecosystems, Hg sinks down to the sediments of the wetland where it is methylated by sulfate reducing bacteria.  In a new form, Methylmercury (MeHg), is now an organic molecule that organisms can take up into their tissues that get transferred up the food chain to the fish we love to catch.  MeHg is a neurotoxin that has led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish fish consumption advisories for most of the states in the Great Lakes region….

(Dec 14, 2015)