I personally have the most experience fishing with baetis nymphs on the Lower Sacramento River below Redding here in Northern California. Some of the best baetis nymph patterns that I have come across have been developed and thoroughly tested there. Patterns developed by Mike Mercer, Hogan Brown, Ken Morrish, Brian Silvey, to name a few, have developed “go to” patterns where ever baetis complex bugs are found. There are times on the Lower Sacramento where the small bugs dominate the preference of the trout and it’s becomes “go small or go home”.
As a note, fishing the baetis complex on the Lower Sacramento is almost entirely a deep, dead drifting affair with long fine leaders.
Baetis Complex Nymph Presentation
On most streams and rivers and when targeting the Baetis complex, the pre-hatch restlessness of the swimming nymphs make then available for some time before the duns appear on the surface. Baetis nymph patterns are most effective as (1) searching dressings fished deep along the bottom or (2) fished high in the water column over feeding trout just before the hatch. There are some instances where trout will continue porpoising and tailing to nymphs throughout an entire hatch and ignore the duns completely.
Searching Dressings Fished Deep
During the hours when no BWO hatch is happening, small nymphs can be fished with a free drift on or very near the bottom using the split shot and indicator method. I usually rigg with a 9ft 3x leader to the split shot and then tie two to three nymphs tied hook bend to hook bend. I match the terminal tippet to the small size of the baetis imitations and go down to 5x fluorocarbon. I’ve come to recommend the thing-a-ma-bobber as the indicator of preference.
Unweighted Nymphs Fished Shallow
In the hour or so before the hatch, the same flies can be fished with some success using the traditional wet fly swing, just inches deep. Mend the line to slow them to the speed the restless naturals might move in their attempts to move to the surface and then back down to try again.
When the duns appears, it’s a not a bad idea, to continue fishing a nymph, but high in the water column. Rigg with a long leader and present the fly with upstream casts, just as you would a dry fly to a rising fish. Let the small imitations sink a few inches below the surface film. It may be necessary to treat all but the last few inches of your fly line with floatant. This will keep the fly up in the water column and help you to detect strikes. You may want to add a tiny yarn indicator into the leader five or six feet up from the fly. Set the hook to any movement of the indicator or to any visible rise anywhere near it.
You can also fish the Baetis complex hatch with a dry dropper setup. You can tie an un-weighted nymph dropper about 2 to 3 feet behind the dry. The dropper can be tied to the hook bend of the fly chosen to imitate the dun. You might even want to try a cripple as the fly in the surface film. You are effectively giving the trout two options.
It is stated that when fishing the Baetis complex hatch you should use your finest presentation outfit. Many anglers use a 3 or 4 weight set-up. Here on the Lower Yuba when I’m wading I’ll typically stick with a 5 weight. We typically come across the BWO’s in the runs which is more nervous water, or in back eddies. There are some flats that have more of a spring creek feel to them and I’m sure my presentations could benefit from going with a smaller rod and line. Whichever outfit you use, this hatch requires short and accurate casts with the most delicate presentations.
I’m most often fishing the Northern California rivers from my drift boat and am usually gunned with a Sage XP or Z-Axis 6 weight. We’re usually fishing deep under indicator and the 6 weight handles this rigg really well. It also helps when you hook up a large Lower Sacramento or Lower Yuba rainbow.
Baetis Complex Nymph Imitations
The Baetis Complex nymphs range in size from a size 14 down to size 24. The most common sizes are 16 to 20. Colors of the naturals vary from pale olive to dark olive-gray and dark olive-brown to brown. Their imitations should be tied on 1x short to 1x long hooks and are usually tied un-weighted.
It must be said that there is no better way than to to do stream sampling of your own home waters and match (1) size (2) shape (3) color of the naturals. There are just too many sizes and variations to cover all the baetis complex nymphs. As with most imitations, the size and the shape are of the most importance.
Many experienced fishermen and guides have found that trout routinely feed on these small nymphs even when there is no hatch activity. Many times a small Baetis nymph will out perform a larger imitation in non-selective situations, especially in waters where good numbers of the naturals are found. When the hatch does occur, fish will feed selectively on the tiny nymphs during the early stages of the hatch.
Proven Baetis Patterns with Recipes
For the fly tyers out there, here are some recommended patterns that also have tying recipes. There are many commercially tied patterns available out there at fly shops all over the west, but in many instances the recipes are proprietary and not readily available. This list provides patterns that you can tie and will cover the Baetis complex hatches wherever you find them. Tie them in the right sizes, and colors to match the baetis nymphs you find on your streams and rivers and you’ll be good to go.
I’ve provided a list of commercially available “Go To” flies in a previous blog article https://www.flyfishingtraditions.com/patterns-blue-wing-olives-baetis/
(Originator: Frank Sawyer)
Everyone should carry Pheasant Tail nymphs and Flashback Pheasant Tail nymphs in their boxes. It is one of the best all around nymph pattern you can find.
Hook – Standard nymph, 1x long, size 14-24
Weight – Scant turns of undersized lead wire, or omit
Thread – Brown 8/0
Tails – Pheasant tail fibers
Rib – Fine copper Wire, counter wound over abdomen
Abdomen – Pheasant center tail fibers, as herl
Wingcase – Pheasant tail fibers
Thorax – Pheasant tail fibers as herl
Legs – Tops of thorax fibers
Pheasant Tail Flashback
Though the Pheasant Tail as per the pattern above is more imitative of the natural nymph, many tiers consider the Pheasant Tail Flashback the more effective pattern. To tie this pattern as a Flashback, use Pearl Flashabou in place of the pheasant-tail fibers for the wingcase.
No photo available at this time. Refer to the book “Western Mayfly Hatches” listed at the end of this article. This impressed me as a good one to use as a standard pattern tied to match the baetis nymphs in your stream.
Hook – Standard nymph, 1x long, size 12-24
Weight – Scant turns of undersized lead wire, or omit
Thread – Olive 8/0
Tails – Olive-dyed mallard flank or partridge fibers
Abdomen – Light olive to dark olive-brown fur dubbing
Wingcase – Mottled turkey tail or dark goose primary feather section
Thorax – Slightly darker fur than abdomen
Legs – Olive-dyed mallard flank or partridge fibers or thorax fur picked out
Pattern Notes: This is a good standard nymph pattern for members of the Baetis complex for a more accurate match. This pattern is well suited to collecting of a natural and then matching the color. Remember that colors of the baetis Complex can change from stream to stream and even different portions of the same stream. It is most likely that trout will accept this pattern in the medium range of colors, most of the time. Size and form is most important.
Krystal Flash Baetis Nymph
(Originator Rick Hafele)
Hook – Tiemco 2457, 1x short, size 16-20
Weight – None
Thread – Olive 8/0
Tails – 3 to 6 light gray hackle fibers
Abdomen – 4 to 6 strands of peacock Krystal Flash, or a color to match your own naturals, tied in at the hook bend, twisted into a fine rope, and wrapped up the hook shank
Wingcase – Mottled turkey tail or strands of dark brown to black Krystal Flash
Thorax – Tan to dark brown fur dubbing with guard hairs picked out
Pattern Notes: This small nymph sinks well because of the Krystal Flash body, yet the loosely dubbed thorax retains some life like action. It can be fished deep or just under the surface. It presents a realistic impression of the natural when tied in the appropriate size and color. It is durable and easy to tie.
Hogans S&M Nymph
(Originator Hogan Brown)
Hook – TMC 3769 #16-18
Thread – Dark Brown 8/0
Weight – Copper Bead
Ribbing – Wapsi Olive Ultra Wire, SM
Abdomen – Olive Thread 8/0
Tail – Pheasant Tail Fibers
Wingcase – Dark Brown Goose Biot
Thorax – Dark Olive Antron
Legs – Olive Krystal Flash
Notes: I first started using the S&M Nymph when fishing the Lower Sacramento River and it has been a proven producer. When the Lower Sac goes into the small bug bite mode I usually have an S&M nymph or a Military May nymph rigged up. From what I have researched the S&M nymph is weighted by use of a Copper bead head but has additional sinking capabilities through the use of a thread body, streamline shape, and Ultra wire for the distinct segmentation. Hogan uses a Goose Biot for the wingcase which provides a distinct color contrast to the thorax which is typical with natural Baetis nymphs having a darker hue on the top of the thorax. Krystal Flash is used for the legs which provides attraction and movement to the fly yet does not detract from it’s sinkability. I’ve often used it as a dropper on the Lower Sac and Lower Yuba when I need to get the nymph down quickly.
Other Proven Hogan Brown Nymphs: I don’t have recipes for some of Hogans other nymph patterns such as Hogans Military May – BWO and Hogans Better Baetis. You can get them anywhere that sells Iydlwilde Flies.
Pale Baetis Nymph
(Originator Jeff Morgan) Pattern from Westfly
Hook – Dai Riki 310, size 20-22
Thread – 8/0 rusty dun
Tail – Three short widgeon flank feathers
Abdomen – Tying thread, perhaps counter-ribbed with iron gray 8/0 thread
Thorax – One or two wraps of pale olive dubbing
Wingcase – Mottled oak Thinskin
Legs – Pale olive Antron fibers, sparse
How to Fish – In rivers, the fly can be presented near the surface, but it is usually most productive when fished near the bottom on a dead drift with the indicator or tight line presentations. To achieve the right depth, you may need to put weight on the leader or use the fly on a dropper with a heavier fly on the point. While the fly works well as a searching nymph, it can also be productive during a hatch (more trout than you might suspect are taking nymphs off the bottom rather than duns off the top).
Hot Spot Pheasant Tail
(Originator Unknown) pattern from Westfly
Hook – Mustad 9671, sizes 8-20
Thread – Brown
Tail – Four pheasant tail fibers
Rib – Fine copper wire
Body – Pheasant tail fibers wrapped on hook
Thorax – Orange or chartreuse Haretron or sparkle dubbing
Wingcase – Pheasant tail fibers pulled over the thorax
Uses – The bright thorax may help fish focus on this variation of the traditional Pheasant Tail Nymph. “Hot spots” such as this bright thorax may not be as unnatural as they might appear.
Variations – Can be tied with or without a beadhead. Vary the size to match different insect species.
You can pick up Dave Hughes book, “Western Mayfly Hatches” at Amazon books by going to the following link. It is where most of this information came from.