As we ease into May, our thoughts natural turn to our grandest upwinged species-the Mayfly. Tradition has that trout now throw caution to the wind by homing in on these large, ungainly flies. Interestingly, during the early stages of the celebrated Mayfly season, it’s thought that the very same trout are little cautious towards these outsized duns and it often takes them a day or two before they lock onto naturals proper. Then, any reasonable imitation presented with care is bound to be greedily engulfed. Of course there’s a lot more to it than simply flinging out a fly and hoping for the best
Where to Find Mayfly Hatches
Although our famous chalkstreams are perhaps best known for Mayfly hatches, these charming ephemerids are just as likely to thrive in less fertile rivers too. Many of the headwaters in my home county have a resident population. Granted, whilst the hatches are not on a huge scale there’s sufficient numbers of fly about to get the trout excited. Loughs and lakes too provide an ideal habitat and if these are chalk or limestone based then so much the better.
The Mayfly Life Cycle
Preferring silty areas, mayfly nymphs often reside in burrows. Measuring more than an inch in length on maturity, nymphs attain quite a size. Prior to hatching, like other upwinged nymphs their wing buds darker considerably. With a long, sinuous body, three tails and feathery gills lining their abdomens these elegant nymphs are very distinctive. As ever, coloration depends on location though overall nymphs wear a creamy-yellow coat. If there’s still any doubt, dark brown markings on the upper abdomen are a dead giveaway and are most conspicuous on the three abdominal segments nearest the tail.
As the critical hatch period approaches, nymphs do become restless and are thought to make dummy runs towards the surface. Vulnerable now, this helps explain why mayfly nymphs turn up in trout weeks before the season’s first dun are even seen. As you can image, with such elongated bodies, nymphs ascend with a vertical undulating action and once at the surface the nymphal shuck splits down a predetermined line. The actual emerging process takes but seconds. However, depending on atmospheric conditions and surface tension, newly emerged duns (sub imago) may remain on the surface for up to a few minutes as their faculties develop.
Those duns that do become airborne seek safety on the underside of board leafed trees before transforming into adult spinner (imago). Sexually mature now, male spinners gather to perform their mating dance in a bid to attract nearby females. Taking place towards evening time with mating complete, female spinners return to the water to deposit their eggs for the next generation. Mission accomplished spent spinners then litter the water surface, providing another feeding opportunity for trout. Indeed, whilst spinner falls are notoriously difficult to predict, under the right conditions, so intense is such activity it tends to overshadow daytime hatches.
Best Times of Day for Hatches
Those softer days when drizzle hangs in the air seem best when hatching duns can be expected anywhere from 11am onwards with heightening activity usually between 3-4pm. That said, I well remember the spring of ‘96’. A prolonged hot spell confined insect movements to dawn and dusk. Amazingly, both mayfly and for that matter, olives hatched early in the day and needed to be on the water by 7am get the best of it. Anglers arriving for a stint of more civilised sport were disappointed to find little in the way of drifting duns and rising trout. Though rather than intense hatches now, mayfly trickled off over a period of two months or so.
Best Mayfly Fishing Techniques
When the duns do finally show, although sport is never guaranteed, the excitement is second to none. Hopefully now, a dry fly presented with care will fool its share of trout. As with all dry fly fishing, timing the lift is crucial. Too soon and the fly is pulled away, leaving a very surprised, if not confused trout. Leave it too late and the fish has realised the fly to be an impostor, rejecting it instantly. Again, because of the sheer size of mayflies, trout frequently take them in a more deliberate fashion. A typical rise form is when trout porpoise, taking flies with their backs out of the water. Whilst there are many who recite a favourite phrase, I tend to wait a fraction longer than usual and gently tighten.
Recommended Leaders and Tippets
Although I generally advocate fine diameter tippets to promote a more natural movement of imitations, when it comes to big flies, leader set-up requires some thought. Be it dry or wet fly, mayfly patterns tend to be that bit more wind resistant. Casting such huge creations on fine tippets is courting disaster. Sure, you can just about get away with it at close range, but try pitching a fly into a brisk wind. Not only will the leader collapse, resulting in the fly falling back there’s a risk of leader twist too. Large hackled flies are prone to spinning during fishing and in no time they’ll snarl and kink fine, delicate tippets. Strong and robust, you won’t go far wrong with Orvis Super Strong in stout diameters of 4X (6lb) and 3X (8.5lb). Although large in diameter by today’s standards, a spool of this in 3X (8.5lb breaking strain) serves well for turning over large, bushy dry flies and is ideal for keeping dropper lengths clear of the main leader when wet fly fishing on lakes.
Recommended Dry Fly Presentations
Reputed for attracting larger trout to the surface, mayfly “spinner falls” arguably offer some of the finest dry fly fishing of the season. In honesty, I find spinner falls fickle at best and connecting with them is more by luck than good judgement. Many times I’ve sat it out, waiting for the wind to ease, only for a niggling breeze to keep spinners at bay. If you do catch it right the sport is best described as electrifying. I’m usually the first to preach about presenting flies static. However, as the light fades, movement can become a key trigger. Study any female spinners stuck in the surface film. With fluttering wings and contorting abdomens they dispense their precious eggs. These final throws create a surprising amount of disturbancewhich we should look to copy. Achieve this be either gently tweaking the rod tip, or by short, tugs of the fly line. Remember to maintain a higher than normal rod tip now, as takes can be savage!