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.