With mayfly time just around the corner, Jim has a few tricks and tactics.
In this scribe’s mind, there is no doubt that the pinnacle of flyfishing is casting a dry fly to mayfly feeders. It’s no wonder this particular family of insects has, for well over a century now, had more written about it than any other. Mayfly (or Ephemera as the scientists like to call them) are found all over the world in various forms and species, and there are endless written words extolling the magic of chasing mayfly hatches. A reader might even ask why I am writing more!
Well, many days of my flyfishing in Tasmania and western Victoria over a lifetime, has been mainly to mayfly dun feeders, but just occasionally interspersed with some exceptional mayfly spinner fishing. These short notes are more about this spinner – the final stage of the insect’s existence, or the imago, as scientists also call it. To me, in this last stage, it is a most beautiful insect. Graceful in looks, in flight, and in colour; from hot orange to black and many hues in between. The wings are cellophane-clear, and there are those superb setae or long tails. They just look magic to me; one of Nature’s superb creations.
The mayfly starts life as an egg which sinks to the bottom. The egg then hatches into a quite dreary-looking nymph, which spends, depending on species, months to a year or more feeding and growing on the bed of a lake or river. Finally, the nymph wriggles to the surface to hatch into a drab-coloured dun, or sub imago. It then drifts or flutters ashore, to eventually shed its skin again and finally hatch into the most perfect and beautiful insect. From that point, it only has a matter of hours to dance in a rising and falling flight, wings glistening in the sunlight. I can even put my rod down for a while and simply watch this magic event. It usually occurs late on a still-ish warm morning or in the afternoon. The spinners then mate in flight, and the female lays its eggs on surface. A very short time afterwards, both males and females die. To me, it doesn’t seem quite right: such a beautiful creature, and a life that lasts only a few short hours.
Our very own biologist here in Victoria, Alfred Dunbavin Butcher, who later became head of the long-replaced Fisheries and Game Department, claimed in his research into trout foods in the 1950s, that caddis were/are the number one important food for a trout. Well this correspondent is certainly not as scientifically qualified, but would like to comment that, whilst this might be so, trout find mayfly more delectable than caddis! They are the Belgian chocolates for a trout, particularly after they have hatched from a nymph into the dun and later the final short existence as a spinner.
In a conversation with Andrew Fuller on the subject of how impossible and frustrating trout rising to mayfly spinners can be, I told him of a small trick I found out from Noel Jetson years ago. I was struggling to catch a fish on the Brumby’s Creek near Cressy in Tasmania, Noel’s hometown. At the time, he had a small fly tackle store called Jetfly – one might even have called it a drop-in and therapy centre for both mainlanders and locals who carried the disease of flyfishing!
I was casting to some serious risers feeding on very dark or black spinners. Noel could see I was struggling to hook up and yelled out over the water to try a hot orange spinner. Well, much to my surprise it worked, and a few trout succumbed to my new offerings. I didn’t ask but I suspect Noel only discovered this trick after some frustration as well. After all, we flyfishers normally like to ‘match the hatch’.
When trout are rising to black spinners try an orange spinner fly and when they are feeding on orange spinners, try a black spinner. I warned Andrew that this system doesn’t always work. However, sometimes it can make a big difference.
Many years ago, I remember fishing the Macquarie River in the midlands of Tasmania, well up from the Stewarton bridge, when the tactic really worked. Some weeks later, I was sitting on David Scholes’ veranda telling him about it. He just shrugged his shoulders, agreed, and made the comment that it particularly works well along the lee of a stretch of weed. He then added that it was an old trick. I was somewhat deflated, as I thought I was passing on something special, something new!
I’ve written before that I think the book of flyfishing might be a hundred pages, but we don’t live long enough to get to page ten! Sometimes the old codgers in flyfishing can teach the youngsters plenty, but also, sometimes, vice versa. This correspondent is rapidly becoming an old codger, albeit hopefully still learning as I go along life’s short path.
The Tasmanians have been serious thinkers about mayfly spinner fishing. They’ve had great waters with prolific hatches to become experienced. It is sad so much has been lost, particularly some of the great mayfly fishing on rivers like the Macquarie and the Break O’Day, and especially the magic of the mayfly on Lake Sorell and the now drained Lagoon of Islands. Modern irrigation methods and changes in agriculture have in part led to the demise of these once legendary waters, and sadly, I doubt we will ever see the likes of the halcyon days which David Scholes described, ever again. However, on a brighter note, there is still much left to be enjoyed.
Dick Wigram wrote about the Cocky Spinner with its half-moon hackle leaving the fly sitting low in the water to trip-up fish picking off the dead spent mayfly after their mating dance. Other anglers use parachute-hackled flies for the same result. David Scholes wrote of the Macquarie Red and Black, describing how important it was some days to have the fly riding high on the water, rather than sitting low. All of these techniques give fruitful results… sometimes. It is important to change tactics if needed.
Then there are times when spinner feeders are well-nigh impossible. One day, fishing with a mate on one of the small lagoons just west of Carters in the Nineteen Lagoons area in Tasmania, I found trout that were seriously uncatchable. I was wading beside a clump of weeds and polaroided a large brown. Before I could cast, this fish rose towards a natural black spinner, inspected it from three different angles, and then refused to eat it! I pulled up stumps and went over to another lagoon, as sometimes the fishing pressure on some of our waters lead trout to become very spooky indeed. A week later, a return to the same lagoon yielded some nice fish.
Bill Beck, a doyen of dun hatches on Tasmania’s Little Pine Lagoon, describes a large hatch as a mega-hatch. He discovered that both at the start of the hatch and the mopping up period after the main hatch, often yield more trout than the peak of the hatch. I think trout do see better than we believe and in the midst of a large hatch they seem to pick out the naturals and refuse the artificial. Sometimes too, by giving the fly a very small amount of movement in the midst of a hatch, an angler will trip up a few as well. Fish the dry fly as a living insect! (The title of a book many years ago.)
During mayfly season, I often use a nymph under an indicator if there is no action on arrival at a lake or river. As the day progresses, if the nymph starts to get eaten a few times, it usually heralds a forthcoming dun hatch. It means the nymphs are on the move. I then prepare and change over to the dry fly as the first rising trout seem to be more willing to take the fly, and I, for one, do not want to miss the early action! Then, as the hatch develops, I often find the fish get really difficult. Later, after proceedings die down and many anglers head home, thinking it is all over, I frequently stay on and whilst the insects have ceased, a few trout keep looking and I usually pick up an extra trout or two late in the day.
But back to the spinners, and the way a trout feeds on spinners always mesmerises me. Sometimes there is an eagerness and an angler will see a hump of water before the actual take. Other times, the take is so imperceptible that in a heavy ripple it can be easy to miss.
The timing of the strike is paramount too. As a general rule, a slow take is met with a slow strike and a faster take is met with a quicker strike. Whatever, the most important point is to lift the fly rod with purpose and confidence. A snatched or loose-line strike usually ends in failure.
For further reading:
The Uncertain Trout by R.H. (Dick) Wigram
A Fly-fisher in Tasmania, The Enchanting Break O’Day, and Macquarie River Reflections – all by David Scholes.
The Freshwater Fish of Victoria and their Food by A. Dunbavin Butcher
Fishing the Dry Fly as a Living Insect by Leonard M. Wright