When to Get Sideways with Your Fly Rod

It’s never a good idea to get sideways with people (or your fly fishing partner). But sometimes it’s okay to get sideways with your fly rod.

sideways with your fly rod

Most photos of fly fishers casting or fighting fish show the fly rod pointed up—vertical, perpendicular to the ground. But there are three times when it makes sense to get sideways with your rod:

1. The sideways cast

Dave, my pod-cast partner, and I like to fish a little trout stream in the Timber Coulee area of Wisconsin. One of the better stretches has three runs which are covered by low-hanging tree branches. If you look closely, you can see a couple strike indicators hanging from the branches.

One of them may or may not be ours.

But we’ve been able to fish this stretch successfully by using a side-arm cast.

It’s not that difficult. The main challenge is your back cast. If you have tall grass or low-to-the ground obstructions, it won’t work. But if you’re close enough to the run for low-handing branches to interfered, you probably won’t need a long back cast.

2. The sideways hook set

We use a sideways hook set for nymphing under two conditions:

First, the strike is right in front of us — not downstream. Second, the strike is just a few feet in front of us. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The rationale for a sideways hook set is simple. Rather than pull the nymph up and possibly out of the fish’s mouth, we pull it to the side so that it goes into the fish’s mouth. Fish face the current. That is, they look upstream. So when we set the hook, we pull to the side in a downstream direction.

However, this technique does not work well when the strike is downstream from you or twenty feet or more in front of you. In both cases, you have a lot of fly line on the surface. The surface tension will slow down your hook set. It will feel like trying to run fast in a muddy field. You’ll simply get bogged down.

So, it’s best to keep your fly rod vertical in these instances.

You’ll be surprised how a quick straight-up lift of your rod will get the line off of the surface before you can say “Trout!” Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish on the other end. Your line will lift off the surface so quickly that your strike indicator will come shooting at you. It shows how effective this technique really is.

3. The sideways fight

Holding your fly rod high and pointing it to the sky makes for a great photo when fighting a fish. But when you’re trying to land a fish as quickly as possible (for the sake of its health), pulling it from side to side works best. This forces a fish to use its lateral muscles, and it tires it out in much less time.

Perpendicular may look right. But sometimes, getting your fly rod sideways is the most effective way to cast, hook, and fight fish.

My 5 Favorite All-Purpose Dry Fly Patterns

Pardon the overused pun, but I’m hooked on dry fly fishing. I love watching a trout rise to take a fly off of the river’s surface. My dry fly box is stocked and already in use for this spring and summer season of fishing. While I definitely carry more than five dry fly patterns, here are the five all-purpose flies, in various sizes.

dry fly patterns

I like these in sizes 14-18, with some size 20s in a couple of these patterns:

1. Parachute Adams

This is where it all begins for me.

If I could only use one dry fly, I’d choose a Parachute Adams for sure. This fly serves double-duty. I use it during a Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) hatch, but I also use it as an attractor pattern. It works equally well in Montana, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I carry some size 20s in this pattern because it has worked on days when trout stubbornly refuse a size 18.

2. Elk Hair Caddis

Like the Parachute Adams, the Elk Hair Caddis serves well as both an imitation and an attractor pattern. My dilemma is always the dubbing. I like black for the spring creeks in Minnesota or Wisconsin Driftless creeks, but green or tan works well for the Yellowstone River in Montana.

I’ve even had success with a larger Caddis pattern (size 12) during hopper season.

3. Light Cahill

I always make sure my fly box has an ample supply of Light Cahills to imitate Pale Morning Duns (PMDs). I’ve run into a lot of PMDs on the spring creeks in Montana and tailwaters like the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. Like a BWO, and PMD is a another mayfly species.

While the BWO has darker (gray) color, a PMD is much lighter pale color—as its name suggests.

4. Comparadun

I’m being a bit non-committal here as the Comparadun is a rather general pattern rather than a specific fly. I’ll go with gray if I want to imitate a BWO or light tan if I want to imitate a PMD. The key is that the Comparadun floats a bit lower in the film than a Parachute Adams or a Light Cahill.

This makes it look more a cripple or a dun that is struggling to take flight.

5. Royal Wulff

My final go-to fly is an attractor pattern. While I’m selecting a Royal Wulff as my fifth fly, my favorite attractor varies from week to week and from river to river. I like something with bushy hackle which can handle a lot of water.

So I’m also fond of an H & L Variant and a Red or Yellow Humpy. Occasionally, I’ll return to one of the first attractor patterns I ever used — the Renegade. It doesn’t stay “dry” quite as well in rough water, but even when submerged, it produces well.

You only need a few basic patterns for spring and summer dry fly fishing, but make sure you fly box is full of them in different sizes.

Second Thoughts on Barbless Hooks for Fly Fishing

Fly fishers often frown on barbed hooks. One guide and blogger wrote: “Barbs are barbaric.” The rationale is that a sharp barb on a hook damages a fish’s mouth when removed. Barbless hooks for fly fishing, however, slide out like a greased pig through the hands of its pursuer.

barbless hooks for fly fishing

I was on board with moving to barbless hooks until a friend made an observation that caused me to question the whole idea.

Post-Release Survival

My friend observed that a landed trout’s survival depends more on how quickly it is released — and kept wet during the release – than on whether the hook is barbless. In fact, he argued, it’s easier to land a trout more quickly on a barbed hook than a barbless one. That is, the time that it takes to reel in a trout on a barbed hook is less and thus enables the fly fisher to release the fish more quickly.

The quicker the time from the hookset to the release, the better.

What Studies Suggest

Of course, advocates of barbless hooks cite studies that suggest such hooks lead to a lower post-release mortality rate for trout. Simply “Google” the topic, and you’ll find plenty of articles discussing these studies.

You might be surprised, though, when you discover a few biologists and fly fishers who question the results of these studies.

Two decades ago, Doug Schill, an Idaho Fish and Game research biologist, looked at several studies done over the years and found that barbed hooks led to a negligibly higher mortality rate — 0.3 percent. He noted that a particular creek in Idaho had an average annual mortality rate of 30% to 65%.

“It is normal for fish to die at that rate,” he said. “So that 0.3 percent makes no difference.”

If he is right, that is well within the margin of error. Some studies simply show little correlation between barbed hooks and higher mortality rates.

The Larger Problem

I think there is an even larger problem related to fish mortality research.

Many studies simply do not and cannot account for enough variables to determine their accuracy. A family friend is a leading medical genomic researcher — probably one of the top five in his field in the world. He conducts prospective and retrospective studies and analyzes large data sets as his day job.

Yet he frequently scoffs at the confidence people have in the data. For example, the accuracy of any large pharmacogenomic study of cancer patients is determined by the gritty details, such as “Did the patient take the pill every day for three years,” and “How can we verify that she did?”

The problem almost always lies in the data, how it is collected, and whether it can be fully trusted. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” problem.

So many scientific studies are simply not conclusive. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in good science. I’m not a Luddite. It’s often non-scientific people, however, who talk the loudest and express the most emotion about the conclusiveness of scientific research. My podcast partner Dave has a saying, “Always confident, sometimes right,” to describe such people.

Personal Experience

Some anglers base their conclusions (understandably) on personal experience. But this does not come any closer to solving the problem.

I have read and listened to passionate accounts of how barbless hooks are the only way to go. Isn’t the issue common sense?

Yet others insist, from their experience, that barbless hooks for fly fishing create more problems than they solve. One angler claims that barbless hooks actually penetrate further than barbed hooks, creating more damage on their entrance than barbed hooks do on their exit.

This is why I have not jumped on the barbless hooks bandwagon.

I respect those who use barbless hooks for fly fishing, of course. And I always use barbless hooks when the law requires them. When in Yellowstone National Park, for example, I definitely use barbless hooks. I respect the laws of the land. I pinch down the barbs.

Fish-friendly and Conservation-Minded

But as conservation-minded as I am, I currently do not use barbless hooks when I have a choice. I’ve notice that other conservation-minded friends and fly fishing guides don’t either. I’m certainly open to changing my mind on this, though it will take more than the latest study to convince me.

In the meantime, I will land fish as quickly as possible, use forceps to remove the hook, and release a trout as quickly as possible. And always with wet hands.

Strategies for Fly Fishing New Water

Every stretch of river I’ve ever fly fished has something in common. There was always a first-time. Fly fishing new water has been productive for me over the years. But it takes a bit of intentionality — at least to make the practice effective.

So here are five strategies I’ve found helpful.

1. Commit to it

I prefer to fly fish familiar waters.

I like places that are productive and predictable. But the only way to find these places is to commit to trying new water. As silly as it sounds, I’ve had to force myself to leave the old familiar places for a day to try something new.

So the first strategy has to do with a mindset. It’s making a commitment to spend every third or fourth day you fly fish on new water. You can only break this commitment if you’re in the thick of a caddis hatch or hopper season. Then you have an excuse to remain in those familiar waters as long as you’re catching fish.

2. Gather intel

There is no excuse for ignoring this strategy with all the accessible information.

Check online fly fishing reports. Listen to the gossip at fly shops. Pick the brains of fly fishing friends. Buy books about fly fishing certain areas. I have books on fly fishing particular regions, rivers, and even the national parks.

3. Just fly fish it

All the intel in the world won’t help you if you don’t use it. So get out there and give it a try. Force yourself to follow through on your commitment. Take the intel to new water and give it a try.

4. Fly fish it again

After you’ve fly fished a stretch of water for the first time, go back and try it again.

If it fished well, I don’t need to convince you to try it again. But if it wasn’t productive, give it another shot. Maybe the fish weren’t feeding that day. Maybe you didn’t walk far enough. It was on my fifth or sixth trip to Montana’s Madison River as it emerges from the Bear Trap Canyon that I finally stumbled onto an amazing run that has produced some large rainbows over the years.

5. Keep a journal

Buy a moleskin journal or create a file on your laptop to record your experiences.
Describe what patterns you used, what the weather was like, the water conditions, and how much success you had. I’ve been surprised over the years how I’ve used this information the second or third time when fly fishing new waters.

The Reasonable Cost of Fly Fishing

Last week I stumbled onto an amazing bargain. I found a high-end St. Croix fly rod on sale for $1.60. Yes, you read that correctly—a dollar and sixty cents! The cost of fly fishing is amazing!

I also found high-quality flies on sale for 90 cents a dozen. However, it turns out that I’m 118 years too late. These deals appeared in a 1900 Sears catalog. I happened to see the catalog in a trendy coffee shop in Portland, Oregon.

Today’s Prices

This got me thinking about the cost of fly fishing today.

Even though a decent St. Croix fly rod will cost you a thousand times more ($160.00) today than it did in 1900, fly fishing is still a reasonably priced hobby. Sure, you can go crazy and burn through $3000.00 in a hurry to get set up if you insist on a top-of-the line products by Sage, Simms, Patagonia, Orvis, and Fishpond.

But you can fly fish on a tight budget, as Dave and I have had to do at times.

For the record, I own fly fishing gear manufactured by the afore-mentioned companies. I’m not knocking them, because their products are great. But the gear I’ve purchased from them was stretched over the last twenty-five years. I’m still wearing an Orvis fly vest that is over two decades old.

Recently, one of my sons purchased a “starter package” for his father-in-law. It cost $199. It included a decent fly rod, reel, line, a couple boxes of basic flies, and a few leaders. Throw in a pair of waders, wading boots, and a vest, and the total will still be between $400 and $500.

Starter Packages for Other Pursuits

If you’re tempted to complain about the price of fly fishing gear, consider what it costs to buy starter packages for other sports and hobbies.

A starter set of golf clubs will run about $200. Of course, you can spend that much on a driver. Don’t forget, too, about golf balls, and golf shoes. Oh yeah, add in green fees (which may run as much as a non-resident season fishing license in Montana).

Planning to hit the slopes?

A decent snowboard will cost between $300 and $400. Bindings and boots will set you back another $300 to $400. Lift tickets, like green fees, are not cheap either.

Big-game hunting is not cheap either. If you want a 30.06 or .270 caliber in a Ruger, Winchester, or Remington – expect to pay $450 or so for a basic quality rifle. Add another $200 for a decent scope. And that doesn’t include travel, lodging, and tags.

You get the idea. Fly fishing is a reasonably priced sport.

Why Cheaper is Better to Start

If you’re just getting started or buying for someone who is, I suggest starting with an affordable, modestly priced package. Here are three reasons why:

First, you don’t want to get stuck with expensive gear if you decide fly fishing is not for you.

Second, part of the fun is up-grading and saving for a high-end rod or waders.

If you start out with a Sage X or a Winston Boron IIIx, you won’t appreciate the high quality of these rods. Besides, you won’t be able to get anything better (even though you could spend more).

Third, you will have a better sense of what you want after you’ve fly fished awhile. A Sage X and a Winston Boron IIIx are comparable in price. But they act differently. The Sage X is more of a streamer rod and designed for distance. You’ll make a better choice as to which rod fits you after you’ve fly fished awhile.

If you plan to start fly fishing, you can be thankful that it’s a relatively affordable sport. But don’t expect to get a decent fly rod for less than two bucks unless you can travel back in time.

Know Your Pattern: Serendipity

One early fall morning in Montana, I marched into a fly shop after a terrific day on the Madison River, bent on replenishing my dwindling supply of Olive Serendipities.

pattern serendipity

“What are you looking for?” the fly shop person asked.

“Got any Olive Serendipities?”

“You don’t want caddis,” he said. “The caddis stopped about a month ago.”

Of course he was right. The hatches ended some time in September.

A day earlier, however, I caught one of the heaviest fish I’ve ever hooked on a fly rod on a #18 Olive Serendipity, a caddis nymph. Steve and I were fishing near West Yellowstone, and we each caught a fat, 20-inch Hebgen Lake rainbow on our dropper at the far end of the swing.

At least in the West, this nymph pattern is consistently deadly. Here’s a little more background on the nymph:

1. Where it originated

In Fly Patterns of Yellowstone Volume vol 2, Craig Matthews and John Juracek trace the pattern to the late 1980s. A guy by the name of Ross Merigold brought the pattern to the attention of the tiers at the Blue Ribbon Fly Shop, which Matthews owned, in West Yellowstone. Mathews credits Merigold with the founding of the pattern. A California tyer, Merigold was also the creator of the RAM caddis, and the Serendipity is just a riff off the RAM caddis.

Today the Serendipity is a staple of fly fishers everywhere in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

2. How it’s made

The fly was first tied with a brown zelon body with a head of trimmed deer hair on a size #16 hook. Other versions then emerged, including a body with brown thread instead of the zelon, known as the Three Dollar Serendipity, named after the Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison River.

Tying the Serendipity begins by tying in a length of gold wire, wrapping the thread evenly over the wire to the bend of the hook, then forward back to the eye. The process ends by tying on a clump of deer hair on the eye, trimming it, and voila!

Easier said than done, of course. Twisting on the zelon to create the segmentation for the body takes some chops.

See this short video by Craig Mathews on how to tie the Original Serendipity.

Today there is the Olive Serendipity, the Guide’s Serendipity, a white Serendipity, and a Chrystal Serendipity, which uses pearl Krystal flash for the body. And I’m sure there are a thousand other riffs off the original.

3. Why it works

This nymph doesn’t just work. It slays trout. Matthews and Juracek say, “We think that it is the most important nymph pattern to come on to the scene in at least thirty years and maybe more.”

No one really knows why it is so consistently effective.

Matthews and Juracek say that perhaps it was the smaller size (#16) that made it so effective in the late 1980s. Up to that point, fly fishers often tossed bigger nymphs (#12 and #14). Perhaps the nymph represents more trout food than other flies. The Serendipity seems, generally, to work better than the Pheasant Tail in the same size.

4. How to fish it

Steve and I fish the Serendipity as a midge-larva, dead-drifting it along the bottom. Depending on what we’re doing and where we’re fishing, we’ll drop the nymph anywhere from eight inches to a foot or more off a top fly. This fall, we tied on a #14 Stone Fly and then dropped the #18 Olive Serendipity. Steve caught more fish than I did on the nymph, but I got in the last word with the biggest fish of the day.

This spring, I plan to experiment with the Serendipity in the Minnesota and Wisconsin Driftless.

Other Articles in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    Know Your Pattern: The Prince Nymph

    Know Your Pattern: The H and L Variant

    Know Your Pattern: The Parachute Adams

    Know Your Pattern: The Royal Coachman

    Know Your Pattern: The San Juan Worm

    Know Your Pattern: The Woolly Bugger

Small Difference Makers for Landing Large Trout

My son, Luke, keeps sending me hurtful text messages. These texts contain reports and photos of landing large trout on the South Platte River in Colorado. He has caught several 19- and 20-inchers in the last two weeks. I’m hurt since I’m not there to join in on the fun.

landing large trout

But a comment in one of his text messages struck me. Luke talked about something that made all the difference in landing these big fish. His comment got me thinking about the “difference makers” that lead to success in landing big fish. Here are four that have worked well for me when I have large trout on the other end of the line.

1. Fishing with a heavier tippet.

Go as heavy as you can. I used to think that I always needed a 6x tippet (roughly 3.5 pound test) with a size #18 fly whether a nymph or a dry.

Anything larger risks looking like a rope.

But I’ve had success with a 5x (about 4.75 pound test) and sometimes even a 4x (about 6 pound test) tippet. You can get away with a heavier size if the water is a bit off-color or the current is faster. Choppy current is your friend, too, if you’re fishing dry flies. The trout don’t get as good a look at the tippet.

2. Fighting the brute from the side.

If you’re striking a classic pose for a photo, then I suppose pointing your rod tip to the sky and trying to pull the fish directly towards you makes sense. But if you want to land that brute, you need to try something different.

You want to pull the fish from side to side rather than directly towards you. It is the side to side pressure which works against a fish’s muscles and tires it out.

So, for example, if you’ve pulled the trout to the left for thirty seconds or so, switch and pull it to your right. Go back and forth and you’ll tire it more quickly than you might expect.

3. Setting the drag properly on your reel.

Your fly reel has an adjustable drag — a lever or a dial which determines how much pressure a fish must exert to pull the line out of the reel.

The basic rule is to set the drag’s tension on the light side. However, if it’s too tight, a sudden surge by the fish will snap the tippet. But if it’s too light, the fish will invariably run for cover and snag or snap your line on a submerged branch or other obstruction. I often adjust my drag even as I’m retrieving a fish.

With a larger fish, I will typically tighten my drag as the fish tires and is less prone to make a sudden run downriver. I want to get it in as quickly as possible.

4. Using a long-handled net.

For years I’ve used a small hand-made net by Brodin.

A couple years ago, generous friends gave me a Fishpond Nomad Emerger. I can still clip it to my fly fishing vest, and it doesn’t feel as bulky as it might look. But it has a larger basket as well as a longer handle.

This has been a difference maker when I’m fishing alone. I don’t have to pull in a big trout as close to my body — where bad things tend to happen — with a long-handled net.

This was the difference maker for my son, Luke.

I told him to go buy the same net I’ve been using since he was running into some big fish. He did, and he reported that he would have had a hard time landing those twenty-inch rainbows with his shorter net.

Fly Fishing Tips Below the Surface

You can find some great fly fishing tips below the surface. I’m referring to the surface of our articles and podcasts — not the film of a river or lake. There are some great insights in the “comments” section below each article or episode we post. Our readers post some terrific ideas, hacks, and tips.

fly fishing tips below the surface

Here are a few insights we found helpful. You might benefit from them too:

Wet Waders and Boots

I bring along a plastic garbage bag for transporting my wet waders home from the river. But Thomas suggested a better idea. He uses a low-walled plastic tub for carrying his wet boots and waders. It’s convenient and usually keeps the mud and sand on the bottom.

It’s a lot less messy than stuffing it all into a garbage bag.

Counter Intuitive Dry Fly Measures

My first reaction when my dry fly sinks is to retrieve it and dry it. But Duane’s story makes me pause.

“Once while fishing the Gallatin in Yellowstone Park,” he writes, “my orange Elk Hair sank, and in disgust, I was about to yank it out of the water for drying and recast when a large mouth on a BIG Cutthroat came up and grabbed it.

“The trout that day ignored it floating, but loved it sunk.”

Duane also says, “Many times I have tried matching the hatch on rising trout and was ignored, then changed to a #14 Royal Wulff – which looked absolutely nothing like the BWO hatch and bingo!”

Going with a High-End Fly Rod

On our podcast, Dave and I have been advocate for shelling out several hundred bucks for a higher quality fly rod. We prefer to save our money elsewhere. Of course, you can catch trout on a low-end fly rod. But if you fly fish enough, you’ll appreciate the quality that a high end rod provides.

Jim made this point in a recent comment: “I never believed it made a difference until I bought a Winston fly rod. I’ve had a lot of cheaper rods and they fished well. But once I upgraded, those cheaper rods don’t get used as much these days.”

Storing Dropper Rigs

Some fly fishers like to tie their dropper rigs in advance – in the warmth and leisure of their home. But how do you transport these without getting them tangled.

Thomas recommends the Smith Creek Rig Keeper for storing your dropper rigs. He says it’s been worth the few bucks to avoid frustrating tangles.

Making Small Adjustments

Dave and I have talked before about the art of making small adjustments.

One of our listeners, David, shared several small adjustments he regularly makes. These include going to a smaller tippet size on clear water under bright blue skies; lengthening his leader for dry fly fishing or shortening it for nymph and streamer fishing; switching to a fly of a different size or color; changing up the retrieve while streamer fishing; and varying the depth and weight while nymph fishing.

David claims that the endless adjustments you have to make while fly fishing is what makes it such a fascinating, wonderful sport.

We agree!

There’s more wisdom like this “below the surface” in the comments section of each article or podcast episode we post. You might find something that results in catching more fish or at least making your day on the water more enjoyable.

Episodes on Fly Fishing Adjustments

We’ve published two episodes on making fly fishing adjustments:

    Adjustments to Improve Your Fly Fishing Game

    The Art of Making Small Adjustments on the River

Steve’s Suggestions for New Fly Fishers

When I was a boy, I devoured every issue of Field & Stream magazine. The piece to which I always turned first was “Tap’s Tips” — an advice column written by H. G. Tapply. I had no idea that dipping wooden matches in nail polish would waterproof them. Nor did I know, until I read “Tap’s Tips,” that cutting an old rubber or synthetic sponge in cubes provides a supply of bobbers. Uh, make that strike indicators. In the spirit of “Tap’s Tips,” I’ve come up with five suggestions for new fly fishers:

1. Tie on your dropper ahead of time.

My son, Luke, has caught some big trout this spring on the South Platte River in Colorado with a two-fly combination. I talked to him the other day, and he told me that he puts together about three “two-fly” combinations while he’s watching sports on television. It saves time for him when he’s out on the river—especially on cold days when fingers tend to fumble.

What this means is tying on a piece of tippet to the bend in the hook of your lead fly and then tying on the dropper (second fly at the end of the tippet). Then, when you get to the river, you only have to tie on your lead fly. Such suggestions for new fly fishers can turn frustration as you start your day on the river to confidence.

2. Take along a old throw rug and a garbage bag

You’ll use the throw rug when you’re sitting on the bumper and putting on your waders. It beats stepping in gravel, wet grass, or mud. Then, you can throw your wet waders and boots in a garbage bag for the drive home. It keeps the back of your SUV or the trunk of your car clean and dry.

Make sure you removed the wet stuff as soon as you get home to clean it and let it air dry.

3. Use barrel swivels to connect your leader to tippet.

Sure, you’ll eventually want to learn a surgeon’s knot or something similar for tying tippet onto a leader. However, you can get by with the same knot you use for tying on your fly—an improved clinch knot—if you use a barrel swivel. Simply tie the leader to one end of the swivel and the tippet to another. Use the smallest barrel swivel you can find. This works best for nymphing since the extra bit of weight is not an issue.

If you are dry fly fishing, you’ll need a longer tippet since the barrel swivel may sink slightly.

4. Flick your wrists when making a cast.

Most beginners use too much of their body when casting. The trick is to make your rod do the work.

To accomplish this, all you need to do is to flick your wrist sharply when making a cast. Practice by making a “revolver” out of your hand (index finger pointed forward, thumb pointed up). Then flick your wrist up and down. You’ll use this same motion when you have a rod in hand.

5. Pull fish to the side when you’re fighting them.

I learned this tip from Gary Borger, whose many books on nymphing, fly fishing gear, flies, and fly fishing techniques are packaged as practical suggestions for new fly fishers.

You’ll tire out trout more quickly when you pull them from side to side. This forces them to use their muscles in a way that pulling up on your rod does not. This, of course, probably doesn’t apply to the 8-inch Brookie that you’re ripping out of a small pool. The technique works great, though, in larger runs with larger fish.

The Mayfly Life Cycle

There’s nothing more exciting than reflecting on the life cycle of a mayfly. Well, actually there is. It’s catching trout—and lots of them. If you want to catch more trout, it’s helpful (though not necessarily exciting) to think about the life cycle of a mayfly. It will help you know what you’re trying to imitate.

mayfly life cycle

1. The Nymph stage

A mayfly spends all but one or two days of its life underwater as a nymph. It’s no wonder, then, that 85% of a trout’s diet comes from beneath the surface. It’s why fishing nymph patterns is almost always a sure bet. Nymphs move about the stream as they feed and molt and then drift into the current or dart from place to place.

If you want to get technical, there are four categories of Mayfly nymphs. Dave Hughes, in his Pocketguide to Western Hatches, classifies them as swimmers, crawlers, clingers, or burrowers. You could vary your strategy if you’re trying to imitate a certain kind of mayfly. However, most of the time, the tried-and-true dead drift method will work. Standard patterns include Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail. A Prince Nymph works fine, too, even though it was originally designed as a Stonefly nymph.

2. The Emerger stage

In this brief stage, the child becomes an adult when the skin splits along the back of the nymph and the winged dun escapes. This happens as the emerger rises to the surface and sheds its skin underwater. Some nymphs, however, crawl to the edge of the river where they shed their skin on the rocks or grass. This explains why you often see empty “casings” on rocks near a river’s edge.

It’s often a good idea to trail your dry fly with an emerger pattern, which you fish just under the film. Sometimes you’ll even see “rising” trout which don’t seem to be feeding on the surface flies. If so, definitely switch to an emerger pattern.

3. The Dun stage

Now the fly has become a young adult. The dun stage is a favorite for fly fishers, and many standard patterns—such as the Parachute Adams, the Comparadun, and attractors like a Royal Wulff—imitate this stage. Mayfly duns ride the surface until their upright wings are dry and hardened for flight. This ride can last for ten to twenty feet.

Fortunately for fly fishers, most mayflies hatch (technically “emerge”) during daylight hours. Prime time is 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., depending on wind and water temperature. Overcast, cool days are ideal, especially for Baetis flies and Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs).

4. The Spinner stage

This is the fully formed adult stage in which mayflies are ready to mate. As Dave Hughes says, “Mating takes place in the air, another bit of incomparable grace.” At this point, the females are spent and fall to the water. This creates a “spinner fall” — another opportunity for the trout to roil the surface as they feed. Anglers who see mayflies with flat wings like an airplane – rather than with wings sticking up – should switch to a spinner or “spent wing” pattern.

On some days, you might be able to catch a trout on a pattern that imitates any of these stages. But other days, trout are more selective and zone in on a particular stage. Switching to a pattern that reflects a different stage in a mayfly’s life cycle might trigger some superb fishing.