Spring Bug Hatches

Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) announce the arrival of spring. Photo: E. Neale Streeks

Spring Bug Hatches

In their descriptions of spring Baetis hatches in this issue, Dave Hughes and Ted Fauceglia touch on the great spring-hatch conundrum: Why is it that winter-hungry fish are so paranoically selective? We assume that trout must eat or starve. Yet they reject our seemingly perfect imitations — and naturals. We offer them a taste of quiche and they sip mysterious unseen itsybitsies. Failing to score on a spring Baetis emergence, when the trout are rising to the left and right, is like whiffing at the plate in slow-pitch softball — it simply can't happen. But it does.


The Baetis hatches announce the arrival of our spring, and some continue into summer, especially on those delightful spring creeks and tailwaters where the water temperatures remain cold. And the insects re-emerge magically in fall to provide us with that last bittersweet dry-fly fishing to close the season. They are our seasonal harbingers. They whet our hatch appetites when the grouse drum and the wild gobblers call on the hillside, before the snowbanks melt beneath the hemlocks. Then they say goodbye as our leaves abandon the trees and the autumn steelhead head upriver on appointed tasks.


One fine May afternoon I sat while #18 Olives popped to the surface on the Mettawee and the trout sucked them down gently in the glassy meadow glides near Pawlet village in Vermont. I sat for a while and watched the petite dejeuner being enjoyed by small rainbows and browns. I felt the confidence of a Christian holding four aces: Those trout would be mine, all mine.

What happened was predictable. I selected one perfect dry imitation after another and cast delicately. Each fly drifted drag-free down the current lanes and over the deliberately feeding trout. Each was ignored with Epicurean disdain. I focused intensely on the task at hand. Then, slowly, the icy grip of frustration tightened in my chest. I glanced up- and downstream . . . no one there to witness . . . and threw more flies. The naturals kept disappearing in delicate dimple-rises to the left and right of my imitations.

I collapsed by the stream again and simply watched the show — humbled, dejected, puzzled, distraught. Then I headed for home, tail between my legs. I have had similar experiences across the land, and the occasional victory that left me flushed with victory.

Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) announce the arrival of spring. Photo: E. Neale Streeks

I fished one chilly April afternoon with my friend Rene Harrop on DePuy's Spring Creek near Livingston, Montana, when the trout fed happily, ranging to and fro in the clear shallows, taking small nymphs and the occasional emerger. We fished together but apart, each lost in similar devotions, meeting occasionally to trade notes of frustration. We never did solve the riddle that day: The trout fed, and we entertained them with our fancies.

I recall fishing the Clark Fork near Missoula with Gary LaFontaine one fall day when the wind blew snowflakes upriver and the rainbows burned the water with their frantic attacks on an Olive hatch. Gary solved the riddle for us that day with an #18 Adams punched hard at the water, repeatedly, fast, urgently, breathlessly. The 'bows ate that way, too, and the greedy ones got hooked. We fished our brains out, and we hoped the feeding frenzy would go on forever. But of course the hatch quit and we stumbled back to the car to warm our shivering, miserable bodies.

I like to think of that as a "Baetis day," the kind of day when the clouds scud in low and rain or snow blows parallel to the water and you blow on your hands and hunch down in your raingear and polypro for just a little creature comfort. More importantly, I think of that day as a victory — a day when I got some payback on those finicky Baetis feeders that have challenged my early- and late-season fishing since I started haunting streams.

If you've got the answers to the Baetis riddle, I'd like to hear about them. I'm ready to begin the season, and I'd like to go forth carrying real aces. Hughes, Fauceglia, and Purnell have given us some good advice in this issue — and maybe even some final answers. I hope so; I deserve them; I've been there — done that. Opening Day, here I come!

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