At about the same time each year that basketball junkies freak out on March Madness, a similar affliction consumes another equally avid group. It’s known as “Mayfly Madness,” a passion that consumes Eastern fly fishers. The madness is about the advent of a season—the Eastern spring mayfly season—and the arrival of the “First Four” major mayfly hatches in the region.
In Pennsylvania, the First Four begins with the appearance of the Blue-winged Olives (Baetis tricaudatus), which emerge around the middle of March. The Blue Quill (Paraleptophlebia adoptiva) hatches follow and usually start in the third or fourth week of April. Then come the Quill Gordons (Epeorus pleuralis), which also begin in mid-April. Finally, the Hendrickson(Ephemerella subvaria) duns surface, typically around the third or fourth week of April, ending in the first week of May. Each of the four hatches lasts about two weeks, but various species of Olives are present on many Eastern waters throughout the year because they have multiple broods.
Assigning specific times and dates to hatches is futile; they vary with the locality and weather. As a general rule, the colder the temperature, the later the hatch. For example, hatches in the northern part of Pennsylvania occur about two to three weeks later than the hatches in the central and southern parts of the state. Hatch dates vary from New England south through the mid-Atlantic states, and throughout the Midwest.
Unfortunately, due to the decline in water quality in many of our Eastern and Midwestern trout streams, the Hendrickson and Quill Gordon hatches have declined or disappeared. Of the four hatches, the Olives and the Blue Quills have proved to be the most hardy and widespread. In the East and Midwest, both insects continue to provide fishable and predictable hatches on most major trout streams, as well as on many of the lesser-known, smaller tributaries.
Perhaps no other stream demonstrates the complexities associatedwith Eastern spring hatches better than Fishing Creek, near State College in central Pennsylvania. Let’s use it as an example of how to solve the spring hatch puzzle: How to get hungry spring trout to eat your imitations when the fish don’t obey the rules?
There are many puzzling aspects of trout behavior, but perhaps the most mystifying is the fish’s selectivity during these spring hatches. Logic convinces me that after a long winter, without abundant food available, both native and freshly stocked, trout should have ravenous appetites and aggressively take every available, edible morsel in sight. But they don’t. In fact, they react to the spring hatches just as cautiously as late-season trout react to midges. My answer is to fish the spring hatches with as much preparation as I do when fishing low-water summer and fall hatches.
Fishing Creek Environment
The 5-mile Fishing Creek trophy-trout section from the Tylersville Fish Hatchery down to the bridge at the Lamar Fish Hatchery provides an ideal, relatively stable and nutrient-rich habitat for wild browns and rainbows and for many aquatic insects. It also offers a variety of water types. The section known as the Narrows, located below Tylersville, contains some fast-moving freestone water and flourishing populations of Olives and Blue Quills.
Under normal spring conditions (water temperatures of around 55 degrees F.), Olives appear on Fishing Creek any time from early March to early April and Blue Quills appear in April. Both insects often occur in large numbers concurrently. Duns of both species start appearing between 9:30 and 10:30 A.M.
Much of the Narrows structure consists of moderate to heavy riffles followed by relatively long, smooth pools. The nymphs of both species prefer the moderate riffles, which is where emergence takes place. The duns emerge there, but as their wings fill with fluid, they are rapidly swept downstream with the current into the calmer sections, where they drift for long distances before taking wing. If your home water lies within the range of Olives or Blue Quills, you should expect to find them in this type of stream habitat.
Fishing to a single emergence presents problems, because each has its peculiarities. But two or more hatches occurring simultaneously compounds the problem, and it happens often in spring on Fishing Creek. Then the trout have multiple choices: They can eat submerged nymphs, floating nymphs, emerging nymphs, nymph/dun combinations, and duns. Multiply those choices by the number of hatches occurring at the same time and you’re in the middle of a giant puzzle. And you don’t have all day to figure it out; spring hatches last about an hour and a half at the most. The solution? Fish only nymphs and duns.
I’ve had the good fortune to fish Fishing Creek with Dave Rothrock several times over the past few years. Dave understands the central Pennsylvania waters; he guides there, and he knows the aquatic insects and their imitations. He says that emerging and floating-nymph patterns are not necessary on spring hatches in his area. “Don’t bother tying them,” he advises. “During the emergence, trout will take the dun or the nymph.”
This is good advice, for it reduces the number of patterns required to fish either emergence effectively to two—a nymph and a dun. If you expect to hit both hatches concurrently, simply tie a nymph and a dun for each hatch.
Nymphs. Various species of Olives and Blue Quills hatch throughout the season. As the season progresses, their body and wing colors change, usually becoming darker. Fishing Creek spring Olive nymphs are medium-olive with a slightly brown cast and measure about a #20, 1X-long nymph hook. Blue Quill nymphs are reddish-brown with a subtle tan cast and are about a #18, 1X-long nymph hook.
I use Tiemco 3761 heavy-wire hooks for both patterns, and I don’t weight them. Lead deadens fly movement. The more freely they move with the current, the more natural they look and act.
It’s important to keep in mind that both Olive and Blue Quill body and wing colors will vary from region to region, and in some cases from watershed to watershed. Their coloration also varies throughout the season. Use a small dip net on your home waters to check on these color differences and vary your imitations to match them.
Duns. A trout’s selectivity reaches its most critical point when the fish is taking duns. The more realistic the pattern, the better the results. Unlike generic nymph patterns, which will take trout, generic dun imitations seldom work. I’ve fished generic nymphs (the Pheasant Tail, for instance) during both Olive and Blue Quill hatches and have had reasonably good success with them. But when the duns are on the water, generic patterns are useless, especially after the hatch has been on for several days.
Many anglers swear by the Adams for matching these hatches. They argue that in the right size, and with the right presentation, the fly works just as well as realistic imitations. I agree that presentation is important, but both Rothrock and I find that accurate imitation is most important, especially when fishing to slow-water trout. I imitate every aspect of the natural—color, size, and design.
Rothrock says, “Many of the streams in central Pennsylvania have wild trout, and the waters are heavily fished. The trout see a lot of flies and it heightens their selectivity. I use cut-wing duns exclusively for this fishing. Of course, good presentations are also important.”
Other expert anglers (Caucci/Nastasi, Hatches I and II [The Lyons Press, 1997], and Swisher/Richards, Selective Trout [The Lyons Press, 1989]) prefer no-hackle imitations for these hatches, especially when they occur on flat water, where trout get a good look at the fly and have become extremely selective.
No-hackle patterns work fine, but I prefer my own patterns with a poly-yarn parachute-style wing because they work on the waters I fish, and they perform well in both flat and riffle water without a fly change. (Tie the fly with four wraps of hackle and grease it well.)
The poly-yarn parachute wing serves as my standard pattern for all my mayfly dun patterns tied in sizes ranging from #14-#28. The poly wing offers a realistic profile that’s durable and easy to tie. And if I tie it correctly and thoroughly treat it with floatant, it floats like a Humpy in both fast and slow water. The pattern has worked well on both pocketwater and slow-water risers. With slight variations in color, I use the pattern for Blue Quill and Olive hatches all season long.
Fishing Creek spring Olive duns have medium olive-brown bodies with medium dun-colored tails and wings. They are about a #20 hook. Fishing Creek spring Blue Quill duns have tannish-red bodies with light-dun wings and tails. I tie both imitations on Tiemco 100 hooks: Olives (#20-#22), and Blue Quills (#16-#18).
Changing flies is time consuming. To reduce the number of fly changes, I fish a combination of two flies, which gives me several options. If two hatches are on at the same time, I can fish a dry pattern of one species and a nymph of the other. If the nymph fails, I switch to two dun patterns, one of each species. If the fish are only taking Olive duns, I fish two Olive dun imitations. And if they’re only taking Blue Quills, I fish two Blue Quill patterns.
Prior to the start of any hatch, I fish two nymphs. The two patterns might be two sizes of the same style and imitation of the same species. Or I might fish two different imitations of one species in the same size. There are many options, but essentially it’s an organized effort to test what the trout respond to, and find the right fly.
My favorite leader setup consists of a 10-footer tapered to 5X or 6X to which I tie my first fly. I then tie a minimum of 24 inches of 6X tippet to the first fly (hook eye or bend) and tie another fly (the point fly) to this dropper.
If I’m fishing two nymphs and I need weight, I attach split-shot from 8 to 12 inches above the first fly. The amount of weight depends on the depth and speed of the current. I don’t use split-shot if I’m fishing a dry as the first fly and a nymph on the point; I treat the dry with floatant, but not the nymph at the point.
The patterns that I have designed for my Olive and Blue Quill imitations are based on my impressions of insects that I’ve collected and photographed and on my own observations of trout behavior toward the insects. But the patterns that have produced the most consistent results on specific streams and rivers are based on the advice that I’ve received from the locals in the area.
Whether it’s the Bighorn River in Montana, the Au Sable in Michigan, the Battenkill in Vermont, the Grand in Canada, or Fishing Creek in Pennsylvania, locally designed patterns work best. Make sure you sample the spring Olives and Blue Quills on your stream and design your imitations to match them. Tight lines!
Ted Fauceglia is a photographer and writer from Sharpsville, Pennsylvania.