For the past two years, I have been experimenting with fly patterns to imitate water boatmen and backswimmers. I hadn’t given much thought to tying boatman/backswimmer patterns until John Doughty, the ranch manager at Arrowhead Ranch, told me boatmen had showing up when he pumped (with a stomach pump) fish at the ranch. Having always considered boatmen and backswimmers to be a minor part of the diet of trout in lakes and streams, I began to rethink my ideas and analyzed some interesting facts.
I knew that my crystal beetle patterns worked well on lakes from as early as March to as late as November. I also knew that in the early and late parts of the season, there were few if any beetles around, so the trout must be taking them as something else. The local fly shop I had been tying tan beetles for thought that the beetles looked like fish pellets that hatchery trout are fed. They used the beetles with some success on private water on the North Fork of the South Platte River.
John Doughty ended up saving a few boatmen for me to tie a fly pattern. I knew that they spend most of their life under water, but that they have to travel to the surface because they breathe air and at times they would fly (they do have wings). I had witnessed a water boatman flight on Lytle Pond in Fort Carson a few years back and remembered it well. They were light tan in color, and looked very much like caddis when they flew. The fish went crazy when they flew, and I caught several on a tan X caddis, which looked like the flying boatmen.
I first tried fishing a tan beetle (#12) to imitate water boatmen at Arrowhead Ranch in late September. I would cast the fly into the shallows near shore and give it a few little twitches. There were some amazing hits on that pattern and fishing method and I ended up landing several nice rainbows. Several large trout broke me off with vicious hits in shallow water, and I began using stronger tippet. Next, I started experimenting with fly patterns to imitate water boatmen. I tied some flies with a foam back, first in black and then in brown and tan. A small tail of crystal flash was added on the rear to imitate a bubble trail. Crystal chenille was used as an under body, and goose biots in front to imitate the legs. I fished some of the black and tan boatmen at Arrowhead and had good success with them in October.
After looking at a photograph of a boatman that John gave me, I tried tying one with rainbow foam (rainbow metallic foil on black foam). The result was a really good looking water boatman pattern. I first tied it in the off season and displayed it at the Black Canyon Fly Fishing Show in Montrose. I told people that I hadn’t fished it yet, but was sure it would work. The chance to field test it came later that spring.
Photograph by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster
I fished the rainbow boatman in May. I went to Arrowhead with Ross Custer and we both fished boatmen for most of the day. We found that we could fish this pattern as a single fly or as a dropper behind another fly. I even fished a boatman with a boatman dropper. They all seemed to work, but I liked a rig with a #8 crystal beetle with a #14 rainbow boatman dropper best because it has good visibility on the water. The boatman dropper would hang just in or below the surface film of the water. The takes on the boatman were usually a little splashy, and the trout would take the boatman about 70-80% of the time and the beetle the rest of the time. The early May period was ideal because the normal summer staples of the trout’s diet (callibaetis mayflies and damsels) were not yet available. The water boatman was one of the largest food items available, and the trout knew it.
I tried fishing the rainbow boatman again in October at Arrowhead with John Doughty and landed about 20 trout in the first two hours we fished. I fished the beetle/boatman combination and found that 13 of the 20 trout took the boatman. It was very satisfying to see my pattern working so well.
I tried the beetle/boatman combination in October while fishing Don Brown’s bass/bluegill pond near Berthoud. I fished the beetle/boatman rig again for about an hour and landed 15-20 bluegills and had so many strikes that you literally couldn’t count them. Don was watching from the shore, and he had a great time watching the bluegills frenzied hits at the boatman pattern. As before, about 70 –80 % of the fish were taking the boatman pattern dropper fly.
I have been doing lots of research on water boatmen and have found some interesting facts. Water boatmen and backswimmers can actually be a very important food item to fish in lakes and slow, weedy streams. Boatmen and backswimmers can be very numerous in spring creeks and weedy limestone creeks like those found in Pennsylvania. A great website for information on aquatic entomology is Ralph and Lisa Cutter’s website, California School of Fly fishing. They have the best summary of water boatmen that I have ever seen.
Ralph has spent a lot of time underwater observing fish and their prey and his observations regarding water boatmen are very enlightening. On certain stillwaters, such as Hosmer Lake in California, water boatmen are routinely imitated with fly patterns and this strategy is very successful. If you check Mike Lawson’s website, you will find that one of his top ten patterns for the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is a black beetle. This slow, weedy river is also home to callibaetis mayflies, damsels and dragonflies, and, I suspect, lots of water boatmen.
I had a chance to reread an old classic, “Lake Fishing With a Fly”, by Ron Cordes and Randall Kaufmann a while ago. The portions on water boatmen identified almost the exact same times of the year, May and October, for fishing water boatmen imitations as I had found in my fishing. That book was published over twenty years ago, but the information is still very timely.
If you have a favorite lake or spring creek that you fish regularly, try a water boatman fly pattern in the upcoming year. Experiment with your patterns, look to see what your boatmen look like (there are over 500 species of North American water boatmen and the colors range from tan to black to brown to olive) and try fishing your patterns. When you have some success, take a picture of your catch. Keep experimenting with new fishing methods and patterns, and I guarantee that you will not be bored with stillwater fishing. I constantly find new challenges in my own experiences fishing lakes.
Postscript: I attended the Fly Fishing Retailer show in Denver a few years ago. I met Philip Rowley, the noted Canadian stillwater guru, and we had a long conversation about water boatmen. I showed him the picture that had inspired my rainbow boatman pattern, and he confirmed that it was a backswimmer. So, my boatman pattern is apparently imitating a backswimmer better than it does a water boatman, but the fish don’t mind. I recently fished the rainbow boatman/backswimmer at Don Brown’s pond near Berthoud and had an amazing day. In one hour, 33 bass and bluegills were landed fishing a Madonna’s Panties (a red Chernobyl Ant, more or less) with a rainbow boatman /backswimmer trailer fly. I even scored a rare double on that combination, with a bluegill grabbing the Madonna’s Panties and a bass taking the boatman/backswimmer. It was surprising to see that fish would move five or six feet to grab the boatman/backswimmer when it hit the water. The fish apparently thought they knew it was a food item immediately. I guess that is the ultimate test of whether a fly correctly imitates what it is supposed to.