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7 Mayfly Spinner Solutions

Fluorescent pink or orange parachute posts can help you pick out your fly on big rivers, and the trout viewing from below mostly overlook the bright colors. Photo: Brian & Jenny Grossenbacher

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.

CDC Compara-dun

Compara-duns were developed in the 1970s by Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi. The original Compara-duns were tied with deer-hair wings, which are durable and still a good option. As with many things, time hid their success under a deluge of new patterns. But they work wonders, and like bell bottoms, are new again. Though they were originally tied to imitate mayfly duns, from the underside (the trout's view) they also look like spinners, and are easier to see from above.
The Compara-dun version I prefer has CDC wings. Though not as durable and carefree as deer hair, the trout like it, and it's easier to see on the water than hair wings. You can also use the very same pattern with great success when mayfly duns are hatching.
Avoid dragging CDC flies around in the water. They'll float longer.
Pictured:
Adams CDC Compara-Dun
Hook: #14-22 standard dry fly.
Thread: 12/0 gray.
Tails: Medium dun hackle fibers, split.
Dubbing: Fine Adams gray.
Wing: Natural dun CDC, Compara-dun style.
Note: The dubbing on either side of the wing props it up & spreads it side to side.

Double Trico Parachute

This has been my favorite Trico for the last ten years or so. Trout pick it out of the naturals, and anglers can see it. It fools around 80 percent of the fish on the Missouri, which is plenty.
Really tough trout, I leave behind for others. Those fish use up too much hatch time unproductively. Smart fly fishers know when to move on.
Like the Double Trico Spinner, this parachute mimics two flies on one hook except instead of two outspread wings, the Double Trico Parachute has two bodies. The two dots of black dubbing are widely separated by light gray or olive thread. My theory is, when trout are feasting on Tricos, they're just looking for black dots. They're not counting tails or wings. This fly shows them what they want, while singling itself out from the mass of naturals.
I used to hang a tiny, more realistic Trico spinner as a dropper off this one, but most fish ate the parachute. Now I prowl with full confidence that most fish will eat it — if the casts are true!
Pictured:
Double Trico Parachute
Hook: #16-18 standard dry fly (Orvis Big Eye for #20-22) Thread: Light gray 12/0.
Tail: Three medium dun hackle fibers.
body dots: Fine black dubbing.
Wingpost: Shell pink Antron.
Hackle: Medium dun Whiting 100s.

Double Spinner

This fly floats along under the 'more is better ' banner, and is also a little easier to see than a fly with a single set of spent wings. The Double Spinner has two sets of wings tied on one hook, and allows you to use slightly bigger hooks for a better shot at both hook-ups and landing the fish. Tiny hooks often end up pulling out of large fish, especially when they run through weeds.
Double Spinners at times seem to draw trout to them, and trout pick them out of a crowd of naturals — a plus during heavy spinner falls.
In flat-water scenarios, down-and-across presentations are the best presentations, showing the fly before the leader. Don't cast beyond the trout. Just the sight of leader material, and more importantly, the surface depression and shadow it casts, spooks educated fish. Drift your fly just on your side of the trout, showing him as little leader as possible. Cautious up-and-over casts work as well, but don't throw too much leader ahead of them. Since Trico-feeding fish may be rising every three to five seconds, just lead them by 12-18 inches. I like to cast over trout just as they rise to a natural. Their own rings and descent help mask your cast.
Pictured:
Double Trico Spinner
Hook: #16-20 standard dry fly.
Thread: Light gray 12/0.
Tail: Three medium or light dun hackle fibers.
Dubbing: Two separated dots of fine black dubbing, with gray thread showing between. Wings: White poly yarn or substitute.

Flop-over Spinners

After years of having my legs awash in the Missouri's summer flows, it suddenly dawned on me that a third of the PMD spinners didn't die in the usual way. Rather than the wings on each side spread wide, they just fell over sideways. This creates a curved torso and one-wing look. Since this outline was not mimicked by any fly-shop offering, I figured a new tying style would fool plenty of fish. It not only works well — the single wing is easier and quicker to tie. Both duns and spinners of other species die this way, or at least a portion of them do.
You'll note that I use medium dun hackle and hackle fibers for most of my dry-fly patterns. I find that fish accept its subdued look in various situations.
Pictured:
Flop Over PMD Spinner
Hook: #16-20 standard dry fly.
Thread: 12/0 yellow.
Tail: Medium dun hackle fibers, sparse, cocked up with dubbing.
Dubbing: Pale olive or two tone. Rusty color dubbing for male PMD spinners.
Wing: White poly or synthetic substitute, or natural dun CDC.

Rusty Parachute

Rusty spinners are imitations of male PMD spentwing spinners in my region, but also imitate other species here and nationwide too. Their numbers on the water are just a bit fewer than the pale olive/yellow females.
On big rivers like the Missouri, you need something that stands out on the water like my hi-vis Rusty Parachute. Like Compara-duns, parachutes have a spentwing look from below. This fools a percentage of fish, and at times, most of them. (Some tiers trim the hackle fibers into a more winglike silhouette.)
The Rusty Parachute was my go-to fly in last summer's PMD spinner fall. Don't hesitate to tie parachutes for other spinner falls, but keep the hackle a bit sparse. As with any mayfly pattern, you may like the look of a V or three-way split tail. Otherwise, use just three to five hackle fibers for a minimalist look.
Pictured:
Rusty Parachute
Hook: #16-20 standard dry fly.
Thread: Yellow 12/0.
Tail: Medium dun hackle fibers, sparse.
BODY: Frog Hair March Brown dubbing (#30170).
Wingpost: Shell pink Antron.
Hackle: Medium dun Whiting 100s.

Sunk Trico Spinner

Some Trico slurpers get fished hard, and as a result they become easier to fool just beneath the surface. With dry flies, the leader imprint on the surface makes a noticeable shadow, especially on a sunny morning. By sinking the fly and tippet just beneath the surface, you make nervous trout easier to fool. This has become a popular dodge among experienced anglers and guides, who use a variety of tiny beadheads rather than drys. Most guides use a small yarn strike indicator to hang the Sunk Spinner beneath. [For instructions on adding a small yarn indicator to your tippet, see page 53. The Editor.] The object isn't to get it deep, just an inch or two under the surface film. You can also use a dry fly for an indicator. On the Missouri, caddis are plentiful enough to attract trout all summer. A visible but realistic caddis pattern also makes a good strike indicator fly, as does the Double Trico Parachute.
Repeatedly drift the Sunk Spinner down the close side of a school of risers, taking a break if the group starts to spook. Trout will move farther to the side to eat submerged flies than they will for a dry. Never cast to the opposite side of a school as you will spook too many fish. Start with the trout closest to you.
As the Sunk Trico Spinner drifts past the trout, watch for any movement of your yarn, fly, or tippet. Snug up immediately, but with enough subtlety as not to spook the school. I use 5X to 7X fluorocarbon for the dropper tippet, but not for dry flies. While fluorocarbon is less visible underwater, it also makes bold imprints and shadows when you grease it to float a dry fly.
Pictured:
Sunk Trico Spinner
Hook: #20-24 short-shank emerger hook.
Bead: Extra-small rainbow glass bead.
Thread: Olive or gray 12/0.
Tail: Three medium dun hackle fibers.
Abdomen: Olive tying thread.
Thorax: Fine black dubbing.
Wing: Natural dun CDC, sparse and wetted to sink before casting.

Two Tone Spinners

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.
Pictured:
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

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