ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Fly patterns for early season mayfly hatches

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 4/21/20

Very soon, and with a little cooperation from the weather, the season’s first, eagerly awaited mayfly hatches will begin. Right now, most fly fishers are looking over their tackle, waders, …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Fly patterns for early season mayfly hatches

Posted

Very soon, and with a little cooperation from the weather, the season’s first, eagerly awaited mayfly hatches will begin. Right now, most fly fishers are looking over their tackle, waders, rods, reels and fly lines to see what might need attention. Unfortunately, many of us wait until the season is almost upon us to check our fly boxes. Even at this late date, I’ve barely peeked at my boxes since I hung up my waders last fall. So, I’ll likely be in for a surprise once I check to see how many flies I’ll need to tie in the next few days to be anywhere near ready once hatching begins.

There are three mayfly hatches early on that anglers need to be aware of and prepared for. The first is Quill Gordon, which begins mid to late April if conditions are right. That hatch normally comes off right around noon, but I’ve seen is as late as 4 p.m. on the Willowemoc.

The next and perhaps the most important emergence of the new season and the one most talked about by anglers is the Hendrickson hatch. That hatch normally begins the last week of April, but upon occasion, it has hatched earlier and known to extend into May. Unlike most mayflies, the male and female flies are distinctly different in appearance and size. The male is the Red Quill and the female is the Hendrickson. The male is smaller and has a distinctive, reddish-brown body. Why this hatch is called the Hendrickson hatch and not the Red Quill hatch, I have no clue. The Hendrickson/Red Quill hatch begins right around 2 p.m. and can last several hours on some rivers.

The third hatch is of less importance. Blue Quills are small, dark flies about a size 16. Hatching begins about an hour or so before Hendrickson, so Blue Quills are a good indicator that the bigger flies will soon follow. Over many years of fishing these hatches, I’ve never seen a lot of surface activity when Blue Quills were on the water, nor have I taken a trout on one. But Blue Quills do hatch in good numbers, so anglers should be prepared.

When I purchased Ernie Schwiebert’s book “Matching the Hatch,” it appeared that, in order to be successful, it would be necessary for me to have a specific pattern for each species of mayfly. And like most fly fishers, I adopted that philosophy for much of my angling career. Then at some point, I stopped tying wings on my dry flies—those wingless flies worked just fine. Then, as my thought process evolved, I wondered whether one fly pattern would work—that is to say, one fly that would represent several different but similar species.

So I asked the question: Do we need Quill Gordons, Hendricksons, Red Quills and Blue Quills in our fly boxes to match those hatches, or would one pattern work for all three species? After a brief experimentation, I found that those three species are pretty much interchangeable! All three flies have dun-colored wings with different colored bodies, but not that different. So, here’s the solution: tie or buy Hendricksons, Red Quills, or Quill Gordons—not all three—in sizes 12, 14 and 16, and you should cover all three mayflies. Add some Pheasant Tail nymphs in size 14, Gold Ribbed Hares Ear wet flies in size 12 and Rusty Spinners in size 14. With one of those flies, you should be able to fish for trout feeding on nymphs, chasing emerging flies, taking duns off the surface, or rising too late afternoon spinner falls. Just keep in mind, that the cold-water temperatures associated with early season fishing often find more hatching flies than rising trout.

I’ve always tried to minimize the number of patterns that I use while still being successful. That means less tying, fewer fly boxes and less equipment to carry. My guess is that most fly fisheries are traditionalists and won’t try this approach. For those anglers where I’ve tweaked some interest, John Atherton’s “The Fly and The Fish” is worth reading.

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