Last weekend, three friends from out of the area came to visit and fish for trout on the Little Juniata River.
Their original plan had been to come in mid-May in the hope of fishing the popular Sulphur hatch on the river or some of our other local streams. But heavy rain and high water washed out that trip, forcing them to reschedule at the end of the month. That postponement, however, opened a slightly different window of opportunity when a good hatch of Green Drakes began in the middle of the week on the Little Juniata, just a few days before their arrival.
My guests were excited to hear about the presence of Green Drakes, one of the biggest mayflies found in trout streams. These outsized insects have the reputation for bringing large trout to the surface to feed and for offering anglers a unique chance to take a trophy trout on a dry fly. Of course, like most things in fishing there are so many factors that can turn those kinds of angling dreams into nightmares. Years of experience have taught me to keep my expectations reasonable and to be prepared for almost any eventuality on a trout stream. This can be especially true with the Green Drakes.
My first meetings with the Green Drake hatch came in the early 1970s on Kettle Creek and Cross Fork Creek in Potter County. Later, I encountered Green Drakes closer to home on Yellow Creek, Spruce Creek and the Little Juniata River. But the ultimate Green Drake experience, of course, is on Penns Creek, which is justifiably famous for this species of mayfly. Not only are the Drakes on Penns exceptionally abundant, they are also almost the size of hummingbirds. The Green Drake hatch on Penns Creek is an amazing natural spectacle and one every fly-fisherman should experience at least once.
But as grand an event the Green Drake hatch can be, it can be equally problematic from the fishing standpoint. One of the keys to fishing the hatch is timing. Green Drakes typically hatch in good numbers for only an evening or two on a given section of the stream, with the peak of the emergence moving upstream during the duration of the hatch. So picking the area where the bugs might be the heaviest on any given evening is the favorite game of most Green Drake fanatics. And that was the situation my friends and I faced last Saturday.
I knew there had been a good hatch of Drakes on Wednesday and Thursday evening at the stretch we planned to fish, but hatching activity there had tapered off noticeably on Friday night, so I wasn't hopeful we would see that many Drakes coming off. I did, however, expect to see a significant spinner fall that evening. For those not familiar with the life cycle of mayflies, here is a brief explanation.
Most species of mayflies have a lifespan of almost exactly one year, beginning when the adult female mayflies lay their eggs in the waterway from which they came. The eggs hatch into tiny nymphs that live and grow on the stream bottom. After living underwater for an entire year, the nymphs of a given species by swimming to the surface of the water where the outer skin of the nymph splits open, and the winged adult literally emerges from its own skin.
Fly-fishermen refer to the newly hatched adult mayflies as "duns." The duns fly from the water and retreat to streamside vegetation, where they rest before undergoing one more transition. The adult mayflies molt a day or two later into their final stage, which fishermen call "spinners." Male and female spinners meet in swarms over the water and mate in flight. The females then deposit the fertilized eggs into the water to produce the next generation of their species. Their mission completed, the females die soon after and often fall back into the water themselves. This so-called spinner fall can sometimes produce as many or more rising trout than the hatching duns will.
On hot, bright days, such as we experienced last Saturday, the spinner fall tends to commence just a few minutes before dark, which provokes a short duration of frantic feeding as the light fades over the stream. As usual, it was grand to watch the show. Early on came a few of the eerie-looking male spinners with their stark white bodies, which make them look like a flying cigarette butt. For those who had the presence of mind to look upward into the twilight sky, they were treated to the sight of swarms of the big mayflies in their mating flight. As darkness crept over river, the females began to descend on the water's surface to lay their eggs. The trout began feeding on the spent females, here and there at first, then a steady session of gorging on the helpless bugs that began to blanket the surface.
I would love to conclude this story by saying we caught trout after trout during that amazing feeding frenzy, but that wasn't what happened. We did catch a few fish, but as is often the case during such an event, competing with all the natural insects on the water sometimes borders on futility. As I told my friends as we left the stream in the darkness, "I'm a good fly tier, but I'm no match for God."