In “Trout Eyes,” the late William G. Tapply wrote an essay about his preference for using dry flies and said: “Sportsmanship, tradition, artfulness, and aesthetic values have nothing to do with (the choice).”
Tapply succinctly elaborated by claiming: “Dry-fly fishing is the easiest way to catch trout.”
That same realization drew me into dry-fly fishing in my mid-teens. On May afternoons when floating aquatic insects littered the surface of my home river, brown trout, brook trout and landlocked salmon turned their attention to hatching mayflies. Consistent success called for matching a dry fly or emerger to natural bugs, floating on the meniscus.
In April, worms worked great, particularly later in the month when two natural signs ushered in wicked fast bait fishing: black flies swarming and alder leaves reaching the size of a mouse’s ear.
My tactic with garden hackle proved deadly in the fourth month and included threading a worm onto the hook and casting it with a fly rod. I let the submerged bait drift naturally in the current and did well … until the water temperature reached 53 degrees in early May. Then, salmonids in this river concentrated on mayflies and ignored worms. Insects were so numerous on the water that fish lost interest in everything else. Before figuring this out, I spent many fishless days, casting worms.
Tapply noticed the same phenomenon, and in his book, he mentioned that dry flies worked in New England in May. However, he felt weighted nymphs made a better choice in April’s high, cold water, surely a purist.
In my teens, the lack of a stream thermometer kept me from realizing that 53 degrees was a key temperature for the first major hatch, but red trilliums tipped me off to the beginning of this mayfly event, a lovely blossom that blooms before leaves have fully unfurled in the above canopy.
Folks in the old days called red trilliums “stinking Benjamins.” The colloquial name refers to the rotten-meat odor of the blossom, so in my youth — being a crummy joker — I’d invite unknowing victims to smell the flower. While cursing, they retched and gagged.
On my home river, the first floating insect to excite salmonids was a male mayfly, imitated by a Red Quill dry fly. This was one of the few species that requires such a gender-specific fly. The hatch occurred in the afternoon, and for some reason, nearly all of them were males.
The male have a slender mahogany body and the female a fat pinkish one. I have no clue where the females were and still don’t, but they must have been somewhere or the species would be extinct.
During the hatch, browns, brookies and landlocks rose all over the pools, and action could be blistering hot with a Red Quill dry fly.
In my teens, an elderly man with a Hardy bamboo rod, Harris Tweed Irish fishing hat, Pendleton shirt and coated canvas waders, the classic uniform of that era, told me to stand below rising fish so the cast lay out in a quartering direction upstream. That angle made it possible to drop a fly above a fish without putting the leader over its lie.
He instructed me to land the fly five feet above the fish so it floated over the fish with no “drag.” As he explained, the current sometimes sped up or slowed down the line’s drift downstream, which dragged the fly across the surface or impeded its progress downstream. Drag also screwed up a submerged-fly presentation. I believed his advice with God-like reverence.
At worst, drag makes a V-shaped wake, but subtle drag turns fish off, too. The caster must look at debris or foam floating in the water beside the fly. Are both the fly and nature’s indicator drifting at the same speed? If not, the caster moves one way or the other to correct the problem.
With that guy’s help and advice from others like him, I picked up matching the hatch and presentation and lived for May and early June hatches on this river. It was as big a deal to me as deer season.
In my early 20s, a magazine article in one of the big three claimed dry-fly fishing required great skill.
“It does?” I said to myself.
If a fly caster sneaks up on a rising salmonid, presents the fly without a drag and matches the natural in size, color scheme and silhouette, then folks can depend on a bend in the rod in this merry month of May.
In May, insects often hatch in afternoon, but by mid-June, these emergences move into evening when it’s cooler.
Summer hatches offer 30 to 45 minutes of action between sunset and full dark, but now, we can fly-fish all afternoon. Furthermore, some rivers have morning hatches, too, making a day on the water a 10- to 12-hour shift.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at: