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Stoned trout

TRAIL — As a die-hard steelhead angler, Ri Konetski of Grants Pass is well schooled in the ways of underwater flies, but for a few weeks each late spring he tries his best to be a top-water guy.

Konetski ties a fat stonefly imitation onto his line hoping it looks and floats like the real thing that’s serving as a babysitter to his 5-year-old daughter Edissen playing on the Rogue River bank behind him.

“Hey, look, one’s in my hair,” Edissen laughs.

“She likes bugs,” says Konetski, disappointed as his fly loses buoyancy and sinks worthlessly below the surface. “I’m not like a dry-fly expert, but I think I need some floatant.”

Stoneflies that turn Rogue River steelhead disciples into trout bums for four weeks each late spring again are turning the upper Rogue’s “Holy Water” impoundment full of rainbow trout into the go-to place for rare top-water activity on the Rogue.

Stoneflies now in the midst of aerial entomological orgies are creating feeding frenzies for trout that for this short hatch are focused on nothing more than the Rogue’s biggest creepy-crawly.

These 2½-inch prehistoric insects fly just a few short days a year and congregate en masse in eight-tenths of a mile of Rogue immediately downstream of Lost Creek dam, where the river is blocked from Rogue salmon or steelhead and stocked with rainbows for year-round, catch-and-release fly-fishing.

Those that don’t plummet to the water and get slurped by binge-eating rainbows crawl over the backs, arms, caps and polarized sunglasses of anglers like Don Casey too busy concentrating on their artificial bugs to bother with the nuisances.

One ill-timed distraction and a trout fooled by Casey’s fly — a Holy Water staple of elk hair, rubber legs and foam dubbed the Chubby Chernobyl — could join the ever-growing “Fish Stories” chapter dedicated to the ones that got away.

“Well, nothing so...,” Casey says, pausing just as a fat trout engulfs his Chernobyl.

“OK, right now,” he says.

Known scientifically as Pteronarcys californica, they are the largest of the stoneflies in the Pacific Northwest and gained their nickname “salmonflies” because they hatch during the spring chinook salmon run in Pacific coastal streams such as the Rogue River.

Adult stoneflies sport long, scaly bodies, ant-like legs, large wings and a plated, turret-like head. They measure 1 to 2½ inches long, with males about an inch shorter than the females. Males have forked-bar genitalia that protrude off their abdomens and curl onto their backs.

They are most commonly found in fast-moving, shallow rivers with softball-sized stones exposed to the sun, and the upper Rogue provides perfect stonefly habitat.

The stonefly’s life cycle lasts about four years. Virtually their entire lives are spent as submerged nymphs, clinging to cobbles and filtering food until it’s time for the beginning of their end.

Entomologists say their final cycle begins in the spring when the river temperature warms to about 55 degrees, triggering maturing nymphs to crawl from their rocky havens toward the river’s edge.

When they emerge, the nymphs crawl under rocks or brush, where they shed their skeletons and emerge as mature adults.

When their wings dry, they climb onto foliage and mate, with the males dying a few days later.

The females then fly over the water, dropping or laying their eggs on the surface at dusk, triggering feeding frenzies for the fish below.

Since the bugs hatch based on water temperatures, the hatch first begins in the lower portions of the upper Rogue and works its way upstream.

Stoneflies have been working their way upstream the past several weeks, with the trout so enrapt by their presence that they overeat to a point of sluggishness.

Fishing at the end of the hatch, however, often is as good as at the beginning.

Think of it as a pizza-lover eating pie after pie for weeks, then realizing deliveries will end again for the year just as one final meat-lover’s special floats overhead.

And if that pizza turns out to be a Chubby Chernobyl, then so be it.

The typical Rogue angler’s stonefly flybox, which collects dust 49 weeks a year, is stuffed with patterns called the Sofa Pillow, Clarke’s Stone and the river-favorite Chubby Chernobyl — a larger knock-off on an ant imitation that looks like something that mutated after a nuclear meltdown.

Regardless of pattern, they are all fished with dry lines on rods ranging from 3-weights to 6 weights, dry lines and long leaders tapered to just visible.

The main technique is to drift then drag-free along the corners of currents. Occasionally a little wiggle makes them appear like the floundering real ones laying eggs.

That worked for Casey, and the 16-inch trout’s discovery that this piece of pizza had a barbless hook in it sent it streaming downstream.

“It’s a nice one,” Casey says after the trout swims hookless out of his hand. “Last time I was up here I caught fish with everything but a Chernobyl. Go figure.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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