For many fly fishers, the mayfly season is the main event of the entire year. So how and when can you profit best from hatches of this iconic insect? Dominic Garnett has some handy tips and fly patterns for every stage of the hatch.
After a strange cocktail of spring weather, there’s already a hint of expectancy in the air as we approach mayfly season. With good reason, too, because so-called “duffer’s fortnight” can be a ridiculously exciting time to be fly fishing.
So when can we expect the heaviest hatches? And what can the angler do to make the most of this productive yet short-lived period? Here are some hints and observations that should stand you in good stead.
What do anglers actually mean by “mayfly” ?
Without wishing to be pedantic, we should establish what most fly anglers mean when they talk about the mayfly. Let’s be clear: by “mayfly” they mean the bold and unmistakable Ephemera danica, characterised by its three tails, large size and pale yellow to greenish colouration.
This can be a little confusing, because a whole stack of smaller mayflies also exist. It’s just that we usually refer to these as olives, upwings and other names. If in doubt, check out our UK Upwing Flies infographic for a more thorough breakdown.
What are “classic” mayflies and why do trout go nuts for them?
Ephemera danica, the textbook mayfly, is a creature with a rather tragic lifecycle – a sort of natural ballet, followed by a car crash ending. Indeed, it spends a whole year on the riverbed, before living, breeding and dying in just a single day.
Unlike many of the smaller mayflies, whose larvae thrive in stony, fast water, these bigger mays are found in sandy and muddy territory where they make little burrows. Suffice to say, not all rivers are equal in terms of hatches, although most will have a show at some point.
The nymphs of Ephemera Danica are well concealed and hard to get at for most of the year, until late spring and early summer. Hatching in huge numbers might seem a recipe for carnage, but it ensures that enough will manage to breed while a whole range of animals, from frogs to wagtails, take their fill.
Unsurprisingly, trout go bonkers over this easy food source too. Like guests at a crazy drunken party, they go a bit over the top and do stupid things that they wouldn’t normally do. Like getting giddy and falling for a great big artificial fly on a thick line. Not that I’m saying every session in mayfly season will be as easy as lobbing out a big fly!
When do mayflies hatch?
Mayflies hatch in May, right? Not necessarily. It depends on the conditions, but mayflies tend to hatch in late May or June. This year, I’d expect the cold, late spring to throw things back a bit. If I was a betting man and could find some decent odds, I’d wager good money that this year’s magic period will be mid-June or even later.
The trick to timing it right is to keep having a sneaky look at your local river for signs. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one mayfly doesn’t make a hatch. The odd one will arrive early, while other loners will emerge as late as August and September! But it’s when they start to appear by the dozen that the fish will really nab them best. In fact, trout can initially appear quite suspicious of these big insects until they begin to emerge in force.
Tackling up for mayfly hatch
Due to the large size of the natural flies, the good news in mayfly season is that you can go a bit heavier with tackle. Something like a four to five weight rod would be my choice on the river, or a bit heavier on stillwaters, say a six weight.
As for leaders and tippets, mayfly imitations tend to be large and will quickly kink the lightest lines. Therefore, start with a tippet of 4-5lbs. Check your knots with care and retie if there are any kinks or weak points in the line too, because mayflies seem to tempt even the biggest, wiliest, most tackle-crunching trout to feed.
Different mayfly fly patterns and stages of the hatch
So you have your eye on a suitable stretch of river or lake. How should you start fishing? Which mayfly pattern should you use? This depends on the stage of the hatch. Here’s a rough guide:
Before the main carnival begins, you’ll start to see occasional big flies hatching. The trout will soon recognise these as tasty food, but won’t be gung-ho for a while yet.
We tend to associate mayfly season with classic dry flies, but they’ll often go for the nymphs rather than adults in the early hatch. Richard Walker’s Mayfly Nymph is a cracking fly, or you could try an Emerging Mayfly to give them an easy meal at the surface. Bide your time though, because good things do come to those who wait.
Now the fun really begins! Depending on the richness of the habitat, this period can last for a day or two, or a whole fortnight, producing veritable hordes of mayflies. The trout start to gorge and, if your timing is right, any suitable pattern will be taken.
There are many patterns to try, but a classic Hackled Dry Mayfly is as good a place as any to start. Another I like a lot is the Grey Wulf. Why this should work is odd, because it seems the wrong colour. Perhaps when there are lots of yellowish naturals, the darker fly stands out better?
My favourite of the mayfly patterns in a really busy hatch, however, is my own ultra-durable fly called the ‘Brawler’. I tie these using a specially produced floating tail, or a short section of old fly line in pale yellow. A deer hair wing completes a very tough fly. For a step by step tying guide see the Turrall Flies Blog. Unlike more delicate patterns, this one is durable enough to keep coming back for more, making it perfect for those days when the trout provide more hits than the Beatles.
If it’s been a particularly busy year, the latter stages of the mayfly season can be trickier than you might expect. The trout are stuffed, but like many wild animals, they’ll want to make the most of any period of abundance and will carry on eating. It’s just that they slow down and become more picky.
An emerger or Spent Mayfly is ideal, because they take less effort for a well-fattened trout to intercept. “Oh, go on then… just one more!” If that doesn’t work, you could also go for the lively route. In fact, I’ve spoken to river keepers who swear that when the trout are too well fed, the best results come from provoking them with a well-hackled pattern, walked a little at the surface if necessary.
Further thoughts on mayfly fishing…
Above all else, mayfly time is a period of opportunism. I know anglers who plan months ahead to have time off and travel. For the rest of us, keeping an eye out on our local rivers is the best we can do. And having some good excuses ready for when we want to sneak off at short notice!
Wherever you fish, ‘duffer’s fortnight’ is an amazing phenomenon. Most anglers in England and Wales think of rivers and brown trout when the word mayfly is mentioned; but Scottish and Irish anglers use bushy, loch style mayflies to great effect.
Nor are brown trout the only quarry for this exciting period. Quite a few of our smaller stillwater fisheries also have a good hatch, especially those where a feeder stream has them in abundance. This is a fantastic time to introduce a friend to dry fly fishing for rainbow trout, besides wild browns. In fact, and you can deliberately target the best fish in the lake if you time it right!
Nor does it end there, because I’ve caught some nice rudd or chub on mayflies, the latter even in July, well past the main hatch. Carp will home in on them in more natural lakes too. In fact, I was once on a lake in Norfolk carp fishing when mayflies suddenly appeared everywhere. I cursed the fact I only had bait fishing tackle, because I suspect an artificial fly might have tempted an absolute monster. Perhaps another day?
Wherever you find yourself this mayfly season, be sure to keep your eyes peeled, your car loaded up and your excuses prepared for a quick trip to the water! Like the trout, I wish you rich pickings and hope you catch your fill.
Read more …
For more of our blogger Dominic Garnett’s stories and articles, his website has books, blog posts and more to enjoy. Crooked Lines (£9.99), his collection of fishing tales, makes especially enjoyable summer reading. Or, discover the flies and innovative tactics used to catch a wide range of freshwater fish in his highly acclaimed Amazon Bestseller Flyfishing for Coarse Fish.