Jim Strogen patiently attached the hand-tied imitation caddisfly nymph to my nearly invisible fly line, while my gaze wandered to the spillover into the Tonto Creek pool.
He’d already attached a mayfly nymph imitator further up the line, determined to convert me to his two-fly, underwater stealth system.
When he came upon me, I was a devoted and ineffectual dry fly fisherman. But he pointed out that caddisflies spend a couple of years in an underwater form and maybe a month in their winged, dry-fly form.
Play the odds, he advised sagely.
I nodded, knowing two flies doubled my odds of hooking a willow tree. I wondered if I should have left my camera in the car.
A former elementary school science teacher and principal, Jim has the patience needed to both tie his own flies and mentor an easily distracted writer.
So he rigged my line and we plied the pool.
I practiced my roll cast designed for these tight quarters.
With willows to the left of me, snags to the right of me, brush behind me, the stream volleyed and thundered — the charge of my own little, very light fly brigade (apologies to Lord Tennyson).
In truth, we’d come to collect bugs. But Jim allowed as how we ought to do a little fishing first.
He teaches a fly fishing class at the middle school and wanted to bring the kids a bucket full of all manner of nymphs so they could see what their flies were meant to imitate — which constitute the daily buffet for the stocked rainbow trout.
When I’m on my own, I can happily spend an hour casting my flies upon the water without catching anything. But Jim’s been fishing for 50 years. He almost always catches something. He’s so zen I can catch fish just standing next to him. The fish love him. Maybe it’s because he always puts them gently back.
And indeed, we caught a slew of fish.
Well, I caught three. He caught a slew, working the seams of the water, the overhangs of the bank, the swirls of the current with perfect aplomb.
I slowed him down some. Every time we made to leave a pool, I had to scramble back to the car, grab my camera and bag some photons. He shook his head.
“You know this is a fishing trip, right?” he said finally.
“Says you,” I rejoined.
So finally in the fullness of time, we turned our attention to bugs.
He waded out into the ice-cold creek in his waders. He set a long-handled net on the bottom then knocked loose rocks and debris on the bottom just upstream of the net. He brought the net back and washed the contents into a big pan. Soon, the bucket swarmed with underwater critters — mostly caddisfly and mayfly nymphs.
Good news for Tonto Creek: caddisflies and mayflies need pure, clean, oxygenated water.
“I can pretty much judge the health of the stream by the bugs,” he said.
Caddisflies — which have an astonishing 14,500 described species — have four life stages — just like butterflies. They go from egg to larva to pupa and then to the adult, winged form. They’ve been recognizably themselves for at least 230 million years. Many species use sticky silk to create a little fortress of stones or plant material, which protects them from predators and the fierce current. Scientists are studying the adhesive on the silk, since it remains sticky underwater. Most eat matter, but some have evolved into predators, which swim freely preying on things like the much smaller mayfly larvae.
On the third net, we hit the jackpot — a huge dragonfly nymph.
Dragonfly nymphs are the velociraptors of the underwater world. They have a lethal mouth part that shoots out like the jaws of the Alien — snapping up their prey. They’re the only jet-propelled insect — squirting the water that comes in over their gills out a tube in their behinds. They have an elaborate three-part valve that directs the water flow, so they can jet off in any direction. Researchers from Caltech are working on new and improved artificial heart valves based on the design of that dragonfly nymph valve.
Native Americans venerated the dragonfly, since they could lead you to clean water.
The dragonfly nymphs eat most anything that moves beneath the surface — but they’re especially fond of mosquito larvae. Once the dragonfly nymphs change form and emerge into the surface world, they continue making the world safe from mosquitos — snatching them out of the air with astonishing dexterity. I could venerate them just for that.
So we filled jars with bug assemblages at three different locations. Jim did his master’s degree in fishery biology by counting the various bug species in the stomachs of 500 trout. So the odds I was going to impress him with my nymph knowledge was vanishingly small.
So at some point, I wandered off downstream with my camera.
Jim shook his head.
I turned back to him.
“Does my photography bug you?” I asked.
He visibly rolled his eyes.
I felt entirely satisfied.