Mom has a meth lab in the basement

Author Ann Miller in episode 3 of Reading the Water
smoking mayfly
Photo: Joe Cummings

What does an avid fly angler do when they can’t find a comprehensive guide with information about insect hatches, taxonomy, behavior, and flies to match those hatches in their part of the country? Well, if you’re an aquatic biologist and writer like Ann Miller, you build streams in your basement and garage, analyze and photograph the bugs as they develop through their lifecycles, and then write the most comprehensive and authoritative books on the subject. In the third episode of the Reading the Water podcast, “Mom Has a Methlab in the Basement,” Ann sits down to talk with host Tim Schulz about her journey.

“Frank (Amato) at that time had published Hatch Guide for Western Streams by Jim Schollmeyer,” Ann says. Because Thomas Ames had published books about eastern hatches, Ann’s knowledge of midwestern flies filled a void, and in early 2009, she started a three-year project to fill 348 pages with Latin names, lifecycles, fly patterns, and photos. “We signed a contract, and it pretty much started January first, which was not very smart on my part because there’s not a lot going on then.”

“I had a couple of friends that helped me with photography and figuring out how to photograph insects that are moving, how to slow them down, and how to get the lighting right,” Ann tells Tim. “As I went on, I learned a lot on my own as well.”

But mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies live around water for a reason. “I had to capture them in the field and bring them home,” Ann says. “But then I was also running my kids around after school to dance or to band practice, and then I’d get home, and I’d get my insects, and they’d be dead.”

That’s when Ann decided she needed a better way. She filled troughs with gravel and water from rivers, used pumps to keep the water moving, filled her basement and garage with streams of her own, and started checking the flies off her list. “My daughters were convinced that, you know, Mom had a meth lab going. I became quite a little local celebrity.”

Eventually, and on schedule, Ann completed the Hatch Guide for Upper Midwest Streams, which sold through two printings before Amato took it out of press. Working with Stackpole now, Ann put together the Pocketguide to Upper Midwest Hatches, an expanded edition of her first book, including terrestrials and crustaceans, in addition to mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies.

For the fly patterns, Ann relied on an army of local tiers. “I think people in the fly fishing and tying world are some of the most generous people, with knowledge and materials. I think the people that are involved in fly fishing are really extra special.”

Unable to pick her favorite river, Ann says, “You know, whatever river you’re standing in is your favorite river at that time, right?”

Exactly what you’d expect her to say.

You can listen to the entire discussion with Ann Miller in Episode 3 of the Reading the Water podcast, available through Substack, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Pocket Casts.