It’s mayfly time

Words by:
Barry Grantham
Featured in:
June 2024

I love this time of the year, it gives me the opportunity to use my favourite method when fly fishing on the river – that is, to fish the dry fly. The fly that is found in abundance on the river during the months of May and June is the mayfly.

The life-cycle of the mayfly is an interesting one. The male mayflies swarm above the water, and the female then flies into the swarm of males to mate. A male will grab a nearby female, with its long elongated legs making it an easy task for the male, which holds onto the female. The pair then mate in flight. The male releases the female, who then descends to the surface of the water to lay her eggs. The female then mated will fall spent on the surface of the water. There she lies motionless, with her wings spread out flat on the surface. If not eaten by a fish, she soon dies. This is an important time for the angler, as fish pick these surface lying flies off at their leisure. You usually find that the male mayfly very rarely returns to the water, but rather goes off to die on nearby land.

The eggs of the female fall to the bottom of the water, where they stick to plants and stones. It takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks for the nymph to hatch out from the egg. It all depends on the water conditions as to how long it takes. The hatched nymph will spend up to two years on the bottom of the water, before it emerges as an adult fly.

When the nymph is ready to emerge, it makes its way to the surface. Here it pulls itself free from the nymphal shuck (skin). It then emerges as a subimago, or dun. As it sits on the water surface drying its wings, the newly hatched mayfly is at its most vulnerable to the fish. Once the wings are dry, it flies off to join the swarming males and the cycle starts again.

An interesting thing I found out about the mayfly whilst doing some research was that it was one of the first winged insects. Fossils have been found dating back over 300 million years. In the British Isles there are 51 known species of mayfly and their sizes range from as small as 5mm to over 20mm in length.

There are plenty of imitations for the angler to choose from. The dry flies I like to use are these imitations: Spent Mayfly, Green Drake, Yellow Mayfly, Grey Wulff, an Adams or Hendrickson. If you want to fish below the surface, a weighted mayfly nymph will do the trick.

Some anglers have difficulty in casting the big fan wing mayflies like the green drake. They find that they waver about in the air when casting and then there is the danger on the back cast, of getting a hook in the eye, and on the forward cast getting the hook in your ear. This shows the importance of wearing glasses, preferably polarised. These also aid fish spotting. Some kind of headwear like a brimmed hat or baseball cap is essential too. I prefer a baseball cap. The peak helps shield any sun glare making it easy to peer into the water and spot the fish. Another problem that anglers find when fishing with fan wing flies is that they tend to spin and put a twist in your leader.

So how can we solve the above problems, the first one being the danger of the fly fluttering about as it is cast, and hooking into the eye or ear? I’ve already mentioned that glasses and headwear are a must. As an instructor with the Game Angling Instructors’ Association, it is the golden rule that we insist glasses and head protection are worn when we provide tuition. We also stress how important it is – you only have the two eyes.

There is a simple cast that also keeps the fluttering fly away from our face. This is called the Belgian cast. The back cast goes underneath the rod and on the forward cast, the line and fly travel over the rod, thus keeping the fly away from the angler’s face.

The other problem is the fly putting a twist in the leader. A good friend of mine, Steve Skuce, solved this problem – it was so simple. Steve made up some braided, tapered leaders. To stop the twisting, a micro swivel was attached. This works perfectly, problem solved.

The rod that I like to use for my mayfly fishing is an 8ft-long two-piece split bamboo rod of my own making, with a line rating of AFTM 5. It has a nice tip to middle action that allows me to produce nice casting loops.

The line I now use all the time for dry fly on the river is a double taper #5 silk line. I find they present a fly far better than the modern plastic ones. Yes, you have to treat it and dry it after each outing, but it is well worth the effort.

Tight lines, and enjoy the mayfly in May and June.

Words: Barry Grantham

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