Mayfly spinners possess a rare quality of beauty and delicacy. Their mating dances vary in tempo, up and down aerial drops, and stream location, depending on species and water type. When the party is over, thousands of spent flies alight, falling to the water like snowflakes. The trout look up.
Fishermen, by chance or plan, find themselves in a target-rich environment. Lots of rising trout dot the surface. In places, those rings overlap like the Olympic flag. With luck, big trout heads protrude, gobbling in a fleeting bounty.
On fast-water streams, spinners flush out quickly. Anglers need to be aware, by watching both sky and water. Then they should act decisively. Secure the right fly, test the tippet, and start hunting rising fish pronto, while the spinners are thick.
Some trout stand their ground and feed in swift eddy lines, riffles, and boulder pockets. Other fish drop into slower water to feed on the dead flies that can’t get away. Big trout often favor bank slicks, eddies, and tailouts, where they don’t have to fight the current. In either case, the clock is ticking.
On slower rivers, spinner falls last longer. The current doesn’t whisk them away. They can circulate in big eddies for hours. Flat water means spookier fish, with more refined tastes. Finer tippet and more precise (or convincing) patterns are in order. You may not have to cover as much mileage as on fast water. Instead, you may have to spend more time per fish. On a fish-rich tailwater, a couple hundred yards can be all the river you need. Regardless of the water type, this golden opportunity won’t last forever. When spentwings start bouncing off your wadered legs, it’s time to pull out the fly box.
Spinner or spentwing patterns have been around for hundreds of years. When colonists were settling America, a handful of Englishmen were casting palmered spentwings on horsehair. Then and now the challenges include sneaking up on fish, mimicking nature’s flies, and minimizing tippet diameter. Precision casting can make or break success.
I guide on Montana’s spinner-rich Missouri River. Trico and PMD spinner falls can last for hours, and go on daily for months. Since spinners and their imitations are difficult to see on the water, added challenges arise.
Many fly fishers can’t see tiny flies at a distance, so visual aids are in order. Developing flies that are visible and sometimes bigger than the naturals is key (as long as they work).
Skilled and sharp-eyed fly fishers have the option of “downsizing” when necessary. (Spentwings down to #28s are effective in some places.) Others choose to attach a tiny dry fly to a larger, more visible dry. There are times when two dry flies drag each other around unnaturally, though.
The following patterns are stylistic variations I’ve had success with. They can serve as starting points for the fishing in your region. Tweak, minimize, or add to these as your trout and fly-tying whims dictate. Depending where you fish, mayfly species, and even the sizes and colors of the same species can vary.
Combine onstream observation with a dedicated spinner selection, and success will follow. With twitchy fish, skilled casting is the most important factor. Make your first couple casts short of the fish, low, and quick, to feel it out. Put the next one just an inch on your side of the trout. Most trout weave back and forth a bit. Cautious repetition is the name of the game, as they have a lot of naturals to choose from. The worst thing to do is make the first cast too long, and line them. Game over.
Neale Streeks is a Missouri River guide with Montana River Outfitters (montanariveroutfitters.com). He has written five books and numerous magazine articles.
- Traditional spentwing patterns have been around for decades, and continue to fool plenty of trout. Different wing materials, tail fibers, and dubbings have been conjured in every imaginable way. Natural spinner colors include pale olives to pale yellows, tans to rusty browns (including some pinkish hues), grays to almost white, and black. Some anglers add a short hi-vis post to enhance their fly’s visibility.
Carry sizes #14-22 to cover most fishing situations and let your selection evolve from there to include what you see onstream.
Many basic spinner patterns are poor imitations because the body colors are too dark, and too monochromatic. It’s important generally to use light-color bodies because the underside of natural spinners (the side the fish see) is often lighter than the top. Also, the thorax and body are often subtly different.
PMDs especially exhibit subtle color variations within the same fly. The Two Tone Spinner reflects this, endeavoring to show fish at least one color they want to see. This occurs with other mayflies too. Female spinners that have dropped their eggs have a translucent abdomen in some species. Yellow thread helps bring the colors out of the dubbing, especially when wet.
Two Tone PMD Spinner
Hook: #16-20 standard dry fly (Orvis Big Eye hooks for #22-24).
Thread: 12/0 yellow.
Tail: Medium dun hackle fibers, sparse.
Abdomen: Pale sulphur orange Spectrablend.
Thorax: Pale olive dubbing.
Wings: White poly yarn or other synthetic.
Fly Photos: Jeff Simpson