The Stream Doctor

April 11th, 2005

Email YOUR Questions directly to the Stream Doctor. This is your opportunity to get an experts professional opinion on anything stream related.

Q. Just found your column and it is truly amazing!

I have a lot of rust to shake off as I haven't had a chance to do much fly-fishing as an adult. I am hoping to do more now, and I was hoping to ask a question of you. I have loved to stream and creek fly-fish my entire life, but I have never become proficient and knowledgeable about real stream mechanics.

I realize now how important it is to learn and really understand entomology.

If you could suggest one or two books to a "novice" fly-fisherman that would really give him a strong hold on understanding fly-fishing entomology, which books would you recommend?

The only thing I have learned in life is how much there is to learn. It is overwhelming. I really want to be a better fly-fisherman. I catch fish when I go out because I ask someone what pattern I should be using. If that doesn't work, I go through to my stable of elk-hair caddis, woolly buggers, etc., and eventually get some fish. Every once in a while I find the right pattern and it is fish after fish.

I guess the object is no longer simply to catch fish, but to really figure out what the hell I am doing. I want to understand why I am catching fish, and become proficient at understanding what is going on above and below the water. I want to be able to walk out and read the signs - which I am sure are everywhere like huge billboards of information, but I currently don't see them because I don't have the foundation and know what to look for. I want to be a consistent producer based on my knowledge of streams and bugs.

What books would you recommend? I want to know the important bugs, their life-cycles and stages, their habitat, and be able to RECOGNIZE them. I need the building blocks.

Thank you very much, Paul Henry

A. Thanks for the kind words about the column, Paul.

Since I don't know what part of the country you fish, I'm going to have to be pretty generic in terms of recommending books on entomology. It also sounds like you're asking about books with two kinds of information:

    (1) books about habitat, ecology, and biology of streams and

    (2) books on entomology. At least that's how I'm going to frame my response; hope it works for you.

First, let's start out with books that will provide you the "building blocks" for learning about streams, how they work, and general information on aquatic insects. The only book on the market that fits this bill is:

Streams: Their Ecology and Life, by Colbert E. Cushing and J. David Allan. 2001, Academic Press, ISBN 0-12-050340-9. 366 pp.

Yes, this looks like I'm being self-serving, but it fits the bill of what you want. Dave and I wrote the book with the specific idea of conveying the basics of stream ecology to lay readers. It will tell you all the basic principles of the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of streams and has chapters on all major plant and animal groups found in and around streams. The chapter on insects will more than fill the bill for what you want to know about life-histories plus it has a lot of nice colored photos of many insects.

There actually is one other book that somewhat parallels ours, written by a good friend, but I'm not sure of it's availability; that's why I said that ours was the only one on the market. It is:

Wildstream, by Thomas F. Waters. 2000. Riparian Press. ISBN 0-9637616-1-7. 608 pp.

Tom's book is much longer than ours, his emphasis is a bit different, and it has no color.

These are the only two books that I would recommend for someone wanting to learn about the basic ecological characteristics of streams and their watersheds without getting too technical. If it turns out that you want to get more technical, let me know and I'll send you titles for these.

Now for some books that will help you recognize the different kinds of insects. Again, this can range from the fairly non-technical to sophisticated identification books with taxonomical keys to all insects. I'm assuming you want the former, so my first choice would be:

Aquatic Entomology, by W. Patrick McCafferty. 1981, Jones and Bartlett Publ. ISBN 0-86720-017-0. 448 pp.

This book, although quite bulky, has a lot of good line drawings, half-tones, and beautiful colored paintings of many aquatic insects, both immatures and adults. It also has keys to help in identification. It has some ecology in it.

Another small book that is restricted geographically but would still be good for general identification is:

An Illustrated Guide to the Mountain Stream Insects of Colorado, 2nd Ed., by James V. Ward, Boris C. Kondratieff, and Robert E. Zuellig. 2002, Univ. Press of Colorado, ISBN 0-87081-653-5. 219 pp.

It has a few pages of general ecology but is mostly composed of keys for identification of the Colorado stream insects with black-and-white line drawings.

Now if you really decide that you want to get into insect identification and the science of aquatic entomology, the book you want is:

An Introduction to the Aquatic Insects of North America, 3rd Ed., Richard W. Merritt and Kenneth W. Cummins (eds.). 1996. Kendall Hunt Publ. Co., ISBN 0-7872-1761-1. 862 pp.

Ken tells me that a new edition of this book is due any day. It contains chapters by various authorities on the different insect groups, keys to the genus level, much ecological and biological information on all groups; in short, it is the choice of professionals looking for broad coverage of all insect groups.

The above books, with the exception of the Colorado book, are fairly general and applicable to any part of the country. I'm sure that you could find books in your local fly shops that might be more specific on insects in your area. I know there are several for the western U.S.; there are guides to western hatches, streamside identification booklets, and on and on. I'm sure you can find something similar and more specific if you fish in the east.

My overall recommendation to you, given your original questions, would be to start with either Streams: Their Ecology and Life or Wildstream to get a good foundation on how streams work and then go on to some books (general or regional) that teach you about insects. You may find enough about insects in Streams or Wildstream to satisfy you.

PS: My previous columns of January 19, 2004 and December 16, 2002 contain further information on similar books, some of which are described above; you can access these through my current column. ~ Bert

If you have a question, please feel free to contact me.
~ C. E. (Bert) Cushing, aka Streamdoctor
105 W. Cherokee Dr.
Estes Park, CO 80517
Phone: 970-577-1584

The 'Stream Doctor' is a retired professional stream ecologist and author, now living in the West and spending way too much time fly-fishing. You are invited to submit questions relating to anything stream related directly to him for use in this Q & A Feature at

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