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Entomology

Snails

Aquatic escargot for the non-discriminating trout.
 

Beetles rule.
This August Lisa and I made a whirlwind tour of the Western spring creeks. From the mighty Henry’s Fork to secret seeps trickling through private pastures, we visited them all. Before assaulting each water we cruised the appropriate web sites, talked with resident guides and perused the local flyshops. The responses were typical and expected. Beetles rule.

Every condition board said something to the effect that beetles were the fly of flies. One could expect tricos, a few PMDs, some caddis, and hoppers for sure, but for a day-long predictably good time, beetles were the ticket.

In Livingston: "You will NEED beetles about noon when the fish start getting fussy". In West Yellowstone: "The beetle hatch is in full swing - be prepared." In Dillon: "Beetles are outfishing everything including hoppers right now." In Burney: "Here, take a few of these foam beetles, the fish are keyed in on them." A young and earnest guide on the banks of Silver Creek: "The trout are feasting on beetles. You can run your hand along their bellies and feel that that they are gorged with them. They’ll hardly eat anything else".

During our expedition, we dutifully rolled rocks, seined the drift, shook bugs out of bushes and got on our hands and knees to tally the local bug demographics. We averaged maybe half a dozen beetles per creek per day. At Silver Creek where the trout were feasting on beetles we found two. If the trout were holding out for their beetle fix, they should have been pretty damn scrawny and in full blown detox.

I dove underwater to observe, first hand, the effect of beetle withdrawals. In creek after creek I slipped into the wet and sipped off the snorkel or regulator and waited and watched. Despite the obvious lack of beetles, the trout seemed quite fat and docile. The occasional fish would rise to grasshoppers but most were content to wait until a drowned hopper drifted into them at eye level. All in all it was a pretty lazy scene.

While I shivered below, Lisa was having a damn fine time splatting Burk’s Spent Hoppers tight to the banks. She could have caught more fish hanging them under a split shot, but opted for the less frequent but supremely satisfying bassy surface takes. One of her fish ducked into an undercut and and escaped, but in the process was able to hang the fly among the roots. As Lisa waded across the creek to untangle her hopper the shoals of indolent trout suddenly exploded.

At first I thought the fish were terrified then I realized they were in a feeding frenzy. Like crazed sharks they shot back and forth across the current to take stuff dislodged by Lisa’s wading. I pulled myself closer and saw they were hammering fingernail-sized black snails. Even after Lisa’s chum trail dissipated, the fish continued slamming down snails. They pryed them off the river bed cobbles and stripped them off the dense aquatic grasses. I had been watching trout pluck snails from the drift but only after I started actually watching for them did I realize just how many snails were either drifting with the flow or hanging under the surface film.

Out of curiosity Lisa tossed out a beetle pattern and just like the guides said would happen, it got slammed. From below, the "beetle" imitation passed as a real enough looking floating snail to get bit.

This snail pattern floats with the hackle flush on the surface. The translucent chenille glows and fish don't hesitate to eat it. Consider it a floating San Juan worm.

Snails are a huge packet of food. Combine their nutritional value with the incredible numbers in which they inhabit trout waters, and its no wonder fish actively seek them out. Snails are most susceptible to trout as they drift. The gastropods will generate a bubble of air inside their shells which buoys them to the surface where they are dispersed by the movement of current and wind. Drifting snails can create dense mats on the downwind edges of lakes. It’s adhesive foot allows the snail to actually crawl about on the underside of the rubbery surface film so that it can eat the algae and plankton that concentrate there.

From my underwater observation, a trout’s perspective, snails appear in two distinctly different forms. Backlit by the sun, drifting snails with gas filled shells will appear soft and glow amber. Right beside it might be a snail crawling on the film that appears quite opaque with a very hard silhouette. The most outstanding feature of film-feeding snails is their foot. The foot (which is usually a brown, putty or red color) pulls down the surface film creating a light condensing lens which results in a bright glow around the dark snail.

I don’t know if trout prefer one snail over another but I have developed a single pattern that seems to cover both bases. This pattern is in the running for the world’s easiest (and possibly ugliest) fly. Wrap several layers of translucent brown "ice" chenille to form a ball on the forward half of a 2X long hook (Tiemco 5262 is my choice). At the eye of the hook wrap a grizzly and furnace hackle several times to make a dense "foot". Done.

From underwater the translucent chenille glows just right and the hackle pulls down the film and creates that shimmery halo. The "Cutter’s snail" is a scientifically concocted imitation that has taken years to perfect. Any old beetle pattern probably works just as well.

Note: The native snails in this article are not to be confused with the alien and almost inedible New Zealand Mud Snail which is invading so many of our trout waters.