Skip to main content
Original Issue


Whether examining a finger-lickin' good window or hefting 50-pound rocks in a stream, some anglers are bugs over collecting aquatic insects

It is a balmy May evening in Port Jervis, N.Y., and the folks stacked inside the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant off Main Street are crunching away and lickin' their fingers, and you expect to see the Colonel show up at any minute—white hair, goatee, white suit and all. But instead, here comes a short, blond man in a safari hat, approaching the huge plate-glass window with an ecstatic, dreamy look. He then begins to pluck insects delicately off the glass with a pair of tweezers. "Epeorus pleuralis," he murmurs. His name is Paul Schmookler, and he is a trout fisherman hooked on trout-stream insects. Epeorus pleuralis is a mayfly, and there are thousands plastered against the window. Inside, some customers stop eating; others grind on abstractedly, oblivious of the sicko outside. Schmookler continues to collect, carefully placing each mayfly in a small vial which he tucks inside a pouch hanging from his shoulder. The manager appears behind the thick glass, looking for all the world like Franklin Pangborn suddenly confronted by W.C. Fields. Pangborn gestures. The gesture says, "Get the hell out of here!" Schmookler continues to pluck away until his pouch is full. "Best collecting place around," he says. He gets into his car to head home to the Bronx, 90 miles away. "Strange world," he says. "People get upset if someone is picking insects off a window."

Although an advanced case, Schmookler is typical of an increasing number of fishermen who are becoming more fascinated by the insects trout feed upon than the fish themselves. Among their quarry are the delicate mayflies that emerge from a stream to live only for a day or two. Because of this fleeting existence the order to which mayflies belong is called the Ephemeroptera. Then there are the wormlike caddis larvae of the order Trichoptera that weave nets like underwater spiders or build houses out of twigs, leaves and grains of sand. And there are the Plecoptera, stoneflies, ranging from the tiny dark Allocapnia that emerge in midwinter to the chocolate-brown Pteronarcys, some fully two inches long and a succulent snack indeed for a trout.

All these bugs have their buffs. Schmookler, for instance, is particularly smitten with stoneflies, the Plecoptera. In Manhattan, Larry Solomon, a former president of the Theodore Gordon Fly-fishers, raises mayflies and caddis in his apartment. In Branford, Conn., Dr. Wilbur G. Downs, professor of epidemiology at the Yale Medical School, has pretty much put aside his fly rod in favor of collecting caddis, mayflies and stoneflies from streams in the Northeast. "It's an epidemic!" exclaims the epidemiologist of the burgeoning interest in the life-styles of aquatic insects.

In Portland, Ore., Rick Hafele, an entomologist, teams up on winter weekends with Dave Hughes, a freelance writer, to conduct an eight-hour workshop, Entomology and the Artificial Fly, in which they discuss insect identification and behavior and collecting methods on the stream. Touring Oregon, Washington and California, they rent motel conference rooms and charge $30 a person for a session, lunch included.

In Denton, Texas, Kenneth W. Stewart gets himself up for the day by playing a tape recording of the drumming signals of courting stoneflies. Some male stoneflies signal for unmated females by drumming the ground with their abdomens, and the females respond in kind to a male with the right vibes. A trout fisherman, Stewart is head of the Department of Biological Sciences at North Texas State University, and he and a colleague, Bill Stark of Mississippi College, have a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study the stone-fly nymphs of North America. Like other aquatic insects, stoneflies live underwater as nymphs before emerging from a stream to mate as adults.

Working out the life histories of the 500 or so stoneflies known in the U.S. and Canada is an intricate business. Most species can be identified with certainty only by means of an examination of the genitalia of the adult male. Indeed, this holds true for most insects, but stoneflies offer a further difficulty in that their lives sometimes develop erratically. The eggs and nymphs of some species can go into "diapause," a state of arrested development that may last as long as a year. This is one reason why the nymphs of more than half the stoneflies in the U.S. have yet to be identified by species. To identify them positively, in most cases, it is necessary that they be reared in cages set in a stream or in a laboratory aquarium. When they emerge, the adults can be correlated with the cast outer skins of the male or the female nymphs of a given species. Stewart's passion for categorizing stoneflies is such that he once rushed maturing nymphs of Isoperla rainiera from a small stream on Mount Hood in Oregon 1,740 miles to Denton by plane and pickup truck so he could observe them when they emerged as adults in his lab.

Both sporting and ecological considerations have triggered the explosion of interest in aquatic insects. They make up the bulk of the diet of trout and other fishes, and some species of mayflies and stoneflies in particular can serve as indices of water quality. Many aquatic insects are vital links in the energy flow of a stream because they eat dead leaves that fall from trees. Most of the carbon in the world is tied up in plants, and insects have a major role in freeing it. Moreover, a daily phenomenon known as "behavioral drift," which presumably has been going on as long as aquatic insects have been around but which was not discovered until 1960, has caused great excitement among scientists and the few anglers who know about it. Put simply, many mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, blackflies and Gammarids (crustaceans) release their hold on the bottom of a brook, stream or river in the first few hours after sunset to drift downstream, often in enormous numbers. During a 24-hour period, 170 million mayfly nymphs of the genus Baetis drifted past a sampling station on the Green River in Wyoming. According to Dr. Thomas F. Waters of the University of Minnesota, a leading authority on behavioral drift, trout especially select and defend territories in a stream best suited for intercepting the drifting nymphs. Put in fisherman's terms, this means that an angler would do well to fish a nymph imitation at the head of a pool after the sun goes down.

As a result of the booming interest, the Entomological Society of America now has an aquatic insects subsection, and the Midwest Benthological Society, which started in 1953 with 13 charter members devoted to the study of organisms that live on the bottoms of rivers and lakes, now has 1,100 members and has changed its name to the North American Benthological Society. Fittingly, NABS has a stonefly as its emblem. There is a new international journal. Aquatic Insects, catering to bug lovers of all sorts, and there are even three newsletters for, uh, nymphmaniacs: Eatonia, for mayfly mavens and named for the Rev. A.E. Eaton, an Anglican vicar who studied the Ephemeroptera as a hobby in the late 19th century; The Trichoptera Newsletter, which is about caddis; and Perla, for stonefly enthusiasts.

However, the glut of information is such that even the newsletters are often a couple of years behind the breaking news on the entomological front. Then again, these publications do not feel as compelled to rush the latest news into print as, say, a football tip sheet. The editor of Perla, Dr. Richard Baumann, formerly of the Smithsonian and now at Brigham Young University, often appears to lapse into blissful torpor simply thinking about what he's going to print. The idea of Perla was first hatched in 1968 at the Fourth International Symposium on Plecoptera held in Abisko, Swedish Lapland, but Baumann didn't get out the first issue until 1974. He explained to eager readers of the premier issue, "It might appear to be late to outsiders, but anyone familiar with the habits of many stoneflies should not be surprised. Only the first drumming signals were heard at Abisko, but even after oviposition [egg-laying], development is often not straightforward, and considerable spans of time may be spent in the dormant stages."

On the popular side, books for fishermen, such as Ernest Schwiebert's Nymphs, Larry Solomon and Eric Leiser's The Caddis and the Angler, and Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi's Hatches, have fueled interest. "A lot of interest has to do with all the books," says Downs, who started collecting systematically six years ago. Downs is assembling a reference collection of Northeastern aquatic insects for the Peabody Museum at Yale, and so far he has picked up about a dozen species that appear to be new to science. "This part of the country really hasn't been worked over thoroughly for a long time," he says. Downs spends the summer collecting and fly-fishing in Colorado and Wyoming, where he owns a couple of ranches, and all his Western caddis go to John Unzicker, who is working on the order at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Thrice a year the doctor also visits West Africa to look over tropical-medicine programs he has set up for Yale and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and he has collected mayflies in Tanzania, Senegal, Kenya and Nigeria. "Too much of mayfly collecting there has to be done on a one-night-stand basis," he says, "but I must say I've had some good collecting nights at airports, where the windows are brightly illuminated. If I could ever get into the upper Senegal River to work, I'd be in country with some interesting mayflies and caddis."

While collecting in the Northeast in June, Downs keeps an eye out for Siphlonisca aerodromia, a mayfly that has not been seen alive for more than 40 years. Apparently only two entomologists, C.P. Alexander, who discovered the species in 1907 along the Sacandaga River in northern New York, and G.C. Crampton, who collected a few specimens there in the 1930s, have ever seen Siphlonisca alive, but Downs hopes that this primitive species, a kind of dinosaur of mayflies, can be found in rivers in Vermont and New Hampshire that are similar to the Sacandaga, which has long been done in by a dam. "Everybody collecting in the East sort of has it in the back of their minds to get Siphlonisca," says Downs, who regularly drops in on the 90-year-old C.P. Alexander, the discoverer of the species, in Amherst, Mass. And what would happen to the person who found Siphlonisca again? "Among the small group of cognoscenti around the world, there would be those who know that Joe Blow found Siphlonisca in 1980," says Downs with a chuckle. "Everyone who reads Eatonia—and what a crowd that must be!—would surely know it. Joe Blow wouldn't be elected President of the United States, but he might get a free ticket to the next International Conference on Ephemeroptera, of which there already have been two."

Newsflash: In the slow-moving world of aquatic-entomology, word has just filtered out that Dr. K.E. Gibbs informed the Third International Conference on Ephemeroptera in Winnipeg last year that she had found Siphlonisca aerodromia in abundance in central Maine. Says Downs, "My life is far from ruined. I would still like to find it myself. It's like climbing Mount Everest."

Driven as these insect trackers are, perhaps no angler is more bugs about aquatic insects than Schmookler. Now 34, he has been a collector since he was five. He also used to collect safes, but, as he says, "They got too heavy." For a long while Schmookler specialized and dealt in butterflies as a sideline, but eight years ago, when his growing lust for aquatic insects could no longer be controlled, he sold his cigarette and candy vending-machine route, which just happened to parallel several trout streams in New York and Connecticut, to turn over rocks full-time. Up to his knees in a stream, he will bend down and suddenly yank a 50-pound rock from the bottom to look at the startled creatures still clinging to the underside with their claws. "Love it, love it!" he exults. Although Schmookler has a license to collect aquatic insects in streams officially classified as trout water in New York (a number of states require just such a license or a permit), he often collects in non-trout waters that have been junked up with debris because he can use the trash to advantage. Hellgrammite larvae dearly love to crawl under a tattered mattress on a stream bank to pupate, and several hundred nymphs of the stoneflies Taeniopteryx nivalis and Brachyptera fasciata can be found around the tubes in an old TV set where leaves have gathered.

Under the corporate names of Visual Life Sciences, Inc. and 20th Century Angler, Ltd., Schmookler has found a way to make his avocation pay off. He embeds and sells individually identified specimens of stoneflies, mayflies, caddis and other aquatic denizens in clear polyacrylic blocks for $6.75 each. Entombed in these transparent mausoleums, with their natural colors still vivid and their legs extended, the insects provide fly-tiers with a far more accurate model to imitate than any two-dimensional photograph or even a soggy specimen adrift in a vial of alcohol. "A stack of them makes an instant reference library for a fisherman," Schmookler says. "He doesn't have to worry about collecting. breaking his own leg or breaking off a leg of a specimen." The polyacrylic concoction is of Schmookler's own devising, and recently he embedded a parrot in it without loss of plumage color. "I could do a mouse," he confided to a friend. "I could do a human being."

A couple of years ago, Schmookler started his own mayfly experiment in a stream on a friend's property in the Catskills. He catches pregnant females of Ephemera simulans and E. varia and has them deposit their eggs in cages made from mosquito netting, which he then places in the stream next to a silty bank. "When the eggs hatch into nymphs, they immediately go through the netting into the silt, where they will be safe from predators," he says. "In nature, many of them would be eaten before they could get into the silt. When they emerge as adults to mate and lay eggs, the trout will have a chance at them." Inasmuch as E. simulans and E. varia use less oxygen than many other species because they are silt burrowers and because they are better able to withstand heat, Schmookler sees possibilities of stocking them in trout streams that have lost their mayfly hatches.

Schmookler's own fly tying and fishing have improved greatly as a result of collecting. "I don't claim to be a great fisherman," he says, "but I have all the confidence in the world. I know just how to tie my nymphs and just how and where to fish them in a stream. I know what's going on down there."

One evening a couple of months ago, Schmookler was at home happily looking over his collection of Plecoptera when the phone rang. The caller was a woman taking a political survey.

"Are you a Republican?" she asked.

"No," replied Schmookler just before the line went click, "I'm a Plecopteran."

Another newsflash: the manager of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Port Jervis has put up curtains.


In Manhattan, Larry Solomon, a former president of the Theodore Gordon Fly-fishers, raises mayflies and caddis in his apartment.


Kenneth W. Stewart, of Denton, Texas, charges himself up for the day by playing a recording of the drumming signals of courting stoneflies.