The Mayfly Life Cycle

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.

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.

S3:E32 The Art of Making Small Adjustments on the River

fly fishing

Making small adjustments on the river is the secret sauce to better days on the river. No one ever tells a new fly fisher that the three attractor patterns in his or her fly box won’t work every time out. Sooner or later, we all learn that fly fishing is all about a thousand adjustments. In this episode, we discuss the importance of the ability to know when to switch out one pattern for another or go up or down a size or switch to nymphs or streamers. It’s all about adjustments.

Listen now to “Making Small Adjustments on the River”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

What kinds of adjustments do you make most often on the river? How patient are you when what you’re slinging isn’t working?

REFER THE PODCAST!

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

That is the most simple way to help us grow!

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Fly Fishing Podcast” on the top navigation.

The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

We’ve published a book for regular-Joe-and-Jane fly fishers called The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

One person who purchased the book called it “Cliffs Notes” for fly fishers.

To switch metaphors, perhaps it’s more like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Buy it today on Amazon for only $16.99!

Know Your Pattern: H and L Variant

H and L Variant

H and L Variant is a new fly. At least to me. I recently picked up the fly at a fly shop near Winter Park, Colorado. Frankly, I had not even heard of the H and L Variant until a friend put me on to it. Shows what I know.

The H and L Variant is no new fly, of course. Here is a snapshot of this oldie but goodie:

1. How it originated

R.C. Coffman (a western Colorado fly fisher) ostensibly tied the first H and L Variant. He apparently sold so many of the fly in the mid-to-late 1950s to President Eisenhower that he (Coffman) said he was able to buy a “house and a lot” (thus the “H” and “L”) on the Fryingpan River in Colorado.

Sounds apocryphal to me.

Using today’s math and valuations, Coffman would have likely had to sell $350,000 worth of $2 flies to buy even a sliver of real estate along the Fryingpan River.

I bet that Coffman was a really good story-teller. He certainly created a fly for the ages.

2. How it’s designed

I am certainly no fly-tying expert but when I saw the H and L Variant for the first time, it reminded me of the Royal Coachman chassis. Like the Royal Coachman dry fly, the H and L Variant has calf-tail wings and a body of peacock herl. According to Skip Morris, the H and L Variant body is created by partially stripping a peacock quill and wrapping it so “the bare quill forms the rear half of the body and the fiber-covered quill the front half.”

The other distinguishing feature is its calf-tail-hair tail, which along with its calf-tail-hair wings, gives it its buoyancy.

3. Why it works

The H and L Variant is what is known as a “rough water” fly.

That is, as one writer put it, “this fly floats like a cork.” It sits nice and high in swift-moving current and stays dry. I also love the fly’s visibility in low light. One writer called its calf-hair wings and tail “white beacons.” They are. And my middle-aged eyes appreciate it!

I should state the obvious: the H and L Variant is an attractor pattern, generally, though I did see at least one fly fisher mention that he uses the fly as a Green Drake imitation on western rivers, such as the Roaring Fork and Colorado.

4. When to use it

I’ve made the H and L Variant one of my go-to attractor patterns when I want to surface evening risers. I did that recently on the Fall River in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had caught several brook trout on Caddis emergers but not on a dry fly Caddis or a Purple Haze pattern, two of my favorites. Stumped, I tied on the H and L Variant, and within ten minutes I had my first brookie on a dry fly.

The H and L Variant is more visible (at least it is to me) than any other attractor pattern. So, if you are fishing small, swift-moving streams or rough water, this is the fly.

The H and L Variant Name

I do not mean any disrespect to Mr. Coffman, but name H and L Variant is just about the most clunky name for a fly that I can imagine. But I tip my hat to him for creating a dry fly classic with a rich legacy and a bright future.

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    The Royal Coachman

    The San Juan Worm

    The Parachute Adams

Know Your Pattern – The Royal Coachman

Not everyone likes the Royal Coachman. According to Paul Schullery, one angler called it “an act of aesthetic vandalism, a grotesque violence perpetrated on a fly box.”

But I am rather fond of this fly. Actually, I am rather fond of couple of its modifications — the Royal Wulff and the Royal Trude. The following profile will help you appreciate this dry fly pattern and use it more effectively:

1. How it originated

Paul Schullery’s essay, “Royal Coachman and Friends” (found in his book, Royal Coachman: The Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing), tells the story of this magnificent pattern. John Haily, a professional fly tyer in New York, first tied this pattern in 1878. He simply created a more flashy version of an older British pattern, the Coachman. He added some red silk in the middle and a little sprig of wood duck feathers for a tail. Then, he mailed his sample fly to L.C. Orvis, the brother of Charles Orvis, who founded The Orvis Company.

Yes, the Orvis rod or waders or vest you may use comes from that company.

The rest is history.

2. How it has been modified

Legendary fly fisher Lee Wulff famously modified the Royal Coachman in the 1930s by replacing its wings and tail with white calf hair. Dan Bailey promoted this fly to western anglers in his fly shop in Livingston, Montana, and through his mail-order business. He gets the credit for suggesting the name “Royal Wulff.” The calf hair makes this fly float well in rough water of western rivers.

According to The Orvis Company, the Royal Trude originated even earlier in Island Park, Idaho (near Henry’s Fork of the Snake River). Apparently an angler in the early 1900s tied it as a joke. But it turned into a serious pattern.

The Royal Trude has a long wing of white calf hair which runs the length of the fly. A friend swears by this pattern on the Yellowstone River. He is a one-fly kind of guy, and he has used it successfully during the salmon fly hatch and during hopper season.

3. Why it works

Who knows?

It is definitely an attractor pattern. Paul Schullery notes that fly fishers “want to believe it looks like something — a dragonfly, a moth, a crippled hummingbird, a lightening bug; there is a desperation in these efforts to label the fly. And it’s unnecessary. Trout take flies for lots of reason we know and for some we’ll never understand.”

4. When to use it

The Royal Wulff or Royal Trude is a great pattern to use when you are trying to coax a trout to the surface when there is no obvious hatch in play.

For awhile I stopped using The Royal Coachman and its derivatives because they were so popular. I feared the trout would get tired of seeing them. So I gravitated more towards Humpy patterns and even an Elk Hair Caddis for those times when I wanted an attractor pattern that would stay afloat in choppy water.

But I have a hunch that the “Royals” have a lot of life left in them. Trout may see fewer Royals these days due to the myriad of other patterns available. So I’m predicting they will make a comeback as they give new generations of trout a fresh look.

I do hope the comeback happens. After all, as Schullery points out, “the Royal Coachman is the first great American fly pattern.”