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In Praise of Crane Flies

In the angling entomology world, everything outside of mayflies (Ephmeroptera) receives rather little attention. At that, stoneflies (Plecoptera) and caddisflies (Trichoptera) are next in the pecking order. The "EPT" taxa as they are known are the things books are written about. Lots and lots of books. Then we generally rather coarsely lump together all the midges (Diptera, family Chironomidae) and they probably get their own section. True flies, the dipterans, have hind wings that have evolved to halteres, a pair of sensory structures, and are a widely diverse group that include things like house flies, deer flies, and crane flies. Crane flies, also dipterans which is an order that literally means, two (di) wings (-ptera suffix that you also see referenced above in the EPT taxa) might get grouped with the other dipterans if they receive any attention at all.


To illustrate the point, Ann Miller whom has forgotten more about "bugs" than I will ever know, dedicates over 140 pages to mayflies, nearly 70 pages to caddisflies, and nearly 40 pages to stoneflies in her most excellent book, Hatch Guide for Upper Midwest Streams (which really needs to be reprinted). And cranflies get a couple of page entry. We fly anglers love our EPT, particularly the Ephemeroptera (mayflies). Mayflies are the bugs that we anticipate. They are the bugs we will travel across the state or country to chase. We know their names - common and scientific for many anglers. Depending upon where we live and how far down the angling entomology rabbit hole we have traveled, we might know a pretty good bit about the caddis and stoneflies as well.

Caiddis superhatch on the Animas River, Colorado
That's not pixelation - those are caddisflies that are hatching in epic numbers on Colorado's Animas River.

We can look at this in a few ways. First, we got too caught up in the mayflies. Second, we have not paid enough attention to everything that is not a mayfly. Certainly in many places, there are well known and highly anticipated hatches of "bugs" other than mayflies. Here in Wisconsin, the Brachycentrus caddis often called the Grannom, is a spectacular hatch on a ranges of streams across the state. B. occidentalis is the famed "Mother's Day" caddis in the Western United States. Certainly in the west, there are a number of stonefly hatches that are well known and anglers from all over dedicate their time to hitting the salmonflies, Skwala, and a few other stonefly hatches.


So What About Those Crane Flies?


In my experiences in Wisconsin's Driftless Area, the crane flies are one of the most dependable and least understood hatches. And in part, who cares about their taxonomy. We experience hatches of crane flies that are orange and yellow in color and generally are #16's and #18's. They tend to run from about May through June and I'd say they peak around the third week in May until maybe the middle of June. Bring some dry flies, some soft hackles, and some larvae flies like the Brush Hog and you have a pretty good chance of having pretty good fishing during the middle of the day. They tend to get started around 9 or 10 AM and will trickle throughout the day until the late afternoon. They tend to be more like the Hydropsyche (netspinning) caddis or Light Cahills (Stenacron and Maccafferitum) mayflies that hatch sporadically rather than in a more concentrated but shorter lived hatch. And they tend to pretty actively skate around so think about moving your fly. Do you really need to know that much more? To catch fish, probably not.


But I did want to know more, particularly after post about aquatic insect declines and writing about how crane flies are one species that has seen an increase in their abundance. So I looked a little deeper - and more importantly, asked those that would know. My search led me to the Aquatic Biomonitoring Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point where I was able to get a lot of answers as well as opening up a bunch of new questions. Jeffrey Dimick tells me that there are some twenty odd genera of crane flies in Wisconsin streams, at least a dozen are known to the Driftless. Most of the yellow crane flies are in the genus Antocha but I will say I have little knowledge of if all or only some of the crane fly hatches we fish are Antocha.


Part of what led me down this path is that crane flies in the angling literature get grouped together as Tipulidae, the family of the large craneflies. However, like many that know the crane flies - those things that many people mistake for "mosquitoes on steroids" - think of their larval stage as those large (1-2 inch long) larvae "worms" that they encounter in depositional (slow, slack water) habitats. Obviously, those are different from the smaller species we encounter on trout streams. Antocha are riffle-dwellers (erosional habitats) and feed on algae and detritus (much like the larger tipulid larvae you may be familiar with). The craneflies we are fishing are in the family Limoniidae.


Imitating Crane Flies


Here is why you and I probably don't need to know a whole lot about the taxonomy of crane flies - they're pretty easy to imitate with a few really simple patterns. Crane fly larvae are simple creatures - they have no legs and are a simple cylinder shaped insect. The smaller species that comprise the bulk of the crane fly hatches are imitated with slim larvae. Your midge larva patterns will work but my favorite pattern is the Brush Hog. For the larger Tipulidae larvae, a Killer Bug or similar pattern works well. The Killer Bug is a reasonable scud imitation as well.


Brush Hog Nymph

Hook: #18 Heavy nymph hook, jig or not

Bead: Tungsten or brass bead

Thread: Black 8/0

Tail: CDL fibers (optional)

Body: Mix of natural hares ear or squirrel and purple Ice Dub

Collar: Purple Ice Dub


I have never seen anything written about how crave flies pupa are important to trout. Many species pupate on land - like some stoneflies and a few mayflies do - so larval imitations fished near shore and in-stream rocks and wood might work well. The adults that we see around streams are mostly returning to lay eggs and are active and somewhat irregular fliers. I imitate them with an overly-long soft hackle or more commonly with a dry fly that can be skated. It is a pain in the ass to imitate the gangly legs of the adults so I often buy the Coulee Cranefly with its knotted legs and hackle tip wings from Mat and Geri at the Driftless Angler. Recently I have been playing around adult imitations using either a few deer hair fibers or unknotted pheasant tail fibers for legs and hackle tips, Zelon, or CDC feathers for wings. My friend Ben ties a pattern with a fore and aft hackle to help it skate better which is one of the keys to fishing crane flies effectively. Unlike mayflies that are taking their time, getting with wings ready so they can take off, crane flies are rarely still so make those flies move. I think that is part of why a simple Partridge and Orange fished downstream on the swing works so well.

My quick and dirty crane fly
A "quick and dirty" crane fly dry with EP fiber wings, pheasant tail legs, and a lot of clipped hackle to make it skate.

I have not fished this fly yet but it has what I think you need in a crane fly pattern and it's a hell of a lot faster and easier than knotting each leg (to hell with that!). I have tied some with deer hair and a thumbnail puts a nice "kink" into the hair that looks realistic (enough). I have tied a few with the bottom hackle clipped and some with the hackle uncut so see if one is more effective than the other.

Partridge and Orange soft hackle
A simple Partridge and Orange or Yellow is another good option for imitating our smaller crane flies.

I will probably never figure out the taxonomy of the crane flies but I certainly have spent more time in recent years trying to figure out how to fish their imitations more effectively. They provide some really good fishing for a long period of time. I rarely find their egg laying return to the water to be "fast and furious" like some of the more protracted mayfly or caddisfly hatches but they provide quality fishing. And because they hatch for a month, the fish "know what they look like" and are willing to hit your fly even if the naturals are not around at the time. Twenty years ago, craneflies were not something we gave much though to. Today they are getting a lot more attention and we are refining how to imitate and fish their imitations. I will probably never know their taxonomy a whole lot better than I do now.


Resources:


The Crane Flies of Pennsylvania

Macroinvertebrates.org - Genus Antocha

Blue Quill Angler - Crane Flies

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