After all these years, fly-fishing for trout and salmon never grows old for me – and here’s why.
The sport offers predictability to knowledgeable fly rodders because they may know the general time and place where aquatic insect species hatch through the seasons, so they fly-fish then and there. Veteran fly rodders also learn when and where baitfish congregate, say rainbow smelts at the mouth of spawning streams after ice-out. Smelts attract salmonids.
Nature also provides unpredictability to keep us wildly curious, wondering if we’ll see something new and fun each day. Fly casters may run into an odd but heavy hatch that occurs for one day, or maybe an entire week or two. These exciting events stick in the mind because of how rare they are.
Naturally a heavy emergence may create a fish-feeding binge that translates into fantastic action, so folks remember it. If the hatch or baitfish doesn’t appear again for years or even decades, that adds to the memory.
For example, 21 years ago in mid-May I was fly-fishing the Sheepscot River a few miles upstream of Sheepscot Pond. The water tumbled and slid through a rock-strewn passage between mixed-growth forests and towering hemlocks.
On the east bank in the middle of the mild rapids, swale grass grew densely along a spring seep; an indentation on the shore made a calm spot. Hemiptera were coming off like a mini-blizzard in that flat patch, and the current washed many of the hatching bugs downstream to feeding brook trout, stationed below and frenetically gulping.
I had seen these intriguing bugs all my life but had never noticed a full-blown hatch before – nor since. That feeding frenzy made the day special.
As a kid I called these aquatic insects “backswimmers.” They lay on their backs in or on the water and propel themselves with two long, powerful legs that worked like oars. This insect resembles a tiny rowboat with a rower because of the body shape with the two appendages.
Backswimmers have six legs, making them a true insect, but the other four small legs require closer scrutiny to see them. (Good fly fishers have a touch of entomologist in them to keep up with hatches.)
In my teens, I often fished for brook trout in silt-bottomed beaver ponds, good Hemiptera habitat. A Wooly Worm matching the insect’s size and body color, as well as a palmering that imitated the shade and length of the two big legs, produced good fishing.
I then tied on this old-fashioned pattern in the right size and color, and fished it wet, creating a lifetime memory. Ernest Schwiebert originated better imitations but the Wooly Worm kept the rod bent that day.
Serious fly rodders who study insect hatches and baitfish behavior find a predictability that pleases the soul, because the modern world often feels as if it no longer makes sense. Fly-fishing often provides me with a well-defined order – at least on the water.
And nature offers fly fishers just enough surprises to keep life interesting. In short, days may pass when fishing goes pretty much as I might expect, but a steady diet of that would bore me. Pleasant distractions offer specific memories to ponder in midwinter or in any quiet moment.
This year spring didn’t spring early, so emergences will begin a week or two later. In central Maine, ubiquitous red quills will hatch this coming week or maybe at the beginning of next week, depending on elevation and latitude – late all right – but they will begin well before June.
This popular, prolific hatch has an intriguing twist, too. The female has a fat, creamish abdomen with a hint of primrose and a male a slender, mahogany body. A size 14 Hendrickson dry fly matches the female Ephe-merella subvaria, and a size 14 Red Quill dry matches the male E. subvaria.
I love this hatch. Mint-green leaves are unfurling now and blood-red trillium dot banks. In the first week of the hatch, fly rodders merely find rising trout, cast the fly above a dimpled ring and let it dead-drift back over the fish at the current’s exact speed. Fish are suckers for this presentation.
Yes, E. subvaria offers great predictability now but fly-fishing may provide a surprise or two beyond red quills. It might interest us enough to call a fly-fishing friend and say, “You won’t believe what happened today.” The voice tone indicates that “what happened” was good – or mighty weird.
One secret to fly-fishing success begins with memorizing at what time hatches normally start. For instance, in mid-May on my home rivers, red quills emerge from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and from late July through September, blue-winged olives (BWOs) hatch at 10 a.m. to noonish.
Red Quills and BWOs show us the definition of predictability, and on rivers I can get away from political dogma and proselytizing – the worst blathering I can remember since the Nixon years.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: