Fly Tying Petrella's Green Drake
May 14, 2014
Like the quiet murmurings between members of a secret society, a knowing look and softly spoken "the Drakes are on" has quickened the heartbeats of Eastern anglers for 200 years.
From late May on Pennsylvania streams such as Penns, Yellow, and Spruce creeks, through the venerable rivers of the Catskills and Adirondacks in June, Ephemera guttulata—the Green Drake—is at once The Holy Grail and Satan's Apple.
Large brown trout find these mayflies irresistible. Which, of course, also fuels the fervor of men and women who relentlessly pursue "everybody's favorite hatch" on many of America's legendary trout waters. All with that yearning hope of finally being in the right place at the right time.
My introduction to E. guttulata took place in Michigan, of all places, and it happened purely by accident.
I first met Chuck Mehne when he was an undergrad at Michigan State University. His sister lived next door to me, and she knew I was a dedicated fly fisher. Chuck, a novice with the typical enthusiasm of a rookie, was ecstatic to meet a veteran fly fisher and talk about trout, flies, and everything to do with them.
He was planning a trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, so I gave him a handful of gray stonefly nymphs I'd been tying, and wished him luck. About a month later, he stood at my doorstep bubbling and blabbering about the fish he'd caught.
Ten years later, Chuck was the owner of his own veterinary practice in Kalamazoo, and I had drifted out of the newspaper and magazine business to sell fly-fishing tackle for companies like Sage, Royal Wulff, and Simms.
I don't remember exactly how it came about, but somehow he convinced me to join him on a four-day trip to the Mackinac Bridge area to fish Hemingway's famed Little Two Hearted River and any other creek that looked inviting. That is how I found myself waist deep in the Driggs River early one afternoon, watching hundreds of large mayflies float past my waders.
Being a Michigan guy, the only big mayflies I knew about were Brown Drakes and of course Hexagenia limbata—this thing I had scooped up with my hat had me puzzled. At that time, I didn't even realize we had Green Drakes in Michigan, but there it was, sitting in the palm of my hand.
Rummaging through a half-dozen fly boxes, I found a couple of large dun imitations. They were bedraggled to the point of barely being recognizable, but I tied one on anyway, greased it with Gink, and dropped it along the edge of a foam line. Nothing.
I changed flies and made another very passable cast. Still nothing. I waded downstream a few steps and put the fly amid a lineup of floating bugs. Exasperated, I struggled through the streamside alders and walked 50 yards back upstream. After switching patterns again, something bubbled the surface as my fly danced next to a fallen log.
"A refusal," I rationalized. "Maybe too much drag." I cast again, a bit farther along the log. Another rise. Another refusal. And suddenly it all became very personal. "I'm going to figure this out!"
Since I was a long way from home, and fly shops aren't common in the UP backcountry, I had packed along a large box of hooks and materials. We were camped on the riverbank, so I hightailed back to my car and started tying.
Longer tails. Different body coloration. Some wood duck flank fibers for the wing. Back on the river, a fish looked over my offering and got excited. But not excited enough to take the big gulp.
Worrying that time was running out, I hurried back to the vise. Some new stuff on the market, called CDC, replaced standard hackle for the legs. Dubbing from a couple of friends out East for the body. More CDC, and a tuft of mottled marabou fibers on top of the wing looked pretty sexy as it wafted in the gentle breeze. Time to try this version.
BANG! It was like dragging sirloin steak past a starving dog.
Since this was late May, the Brown Drakes would soon be starting on both the Manistee River—where I live—and the Au Sable River (not to be confused with New York's Ausable) just a few miles away. I decided to hone my new pattern and tinker with color combinations to find out if this same pattern would work with that hatch as well.
When this new Green Drake pattern produced some of the best brookies I'd ever hooked on my home water, and several impressive browns on the Au Sable, it also become logical to adjust the colors and size to create a new Hexagenia imitation for the hatch everybody expected in a couple of weeks.
What became quickly obvious is that this particular pattern can be deadly either as an emerger or a dun. In fact, during the next several seasons in Michigan, the Green Drake version of this fly actually caught far more fish (at least five to one) when fished wet in a down-and-across swing than it did when fished dry, as a dun.
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For reasons obviously understood only by finicky fish, the Brown Drake version works best fished dry (three-to-one superiority in strikes), but the Hexagenia-size pattern is equally effective as an emerger or a "hatcher," as they're frequently referred to in Michigan. In fact, Jim Powers, a retired dentist who lives on the banks of the Manistee River upstream of Yellowtrees Landing, frequently prospects with the emerger version in late afternoon all through June and July.
So, if there aren't any duns floating on top, simply hold the fly under water until it's thoroughly soaked before making one backcast and presenting the fly. You can try a sporadic rod-tip-twitch, but a steady swimming action usually produces the best results.
Once the fish begin feeding heavily on duns, three false casts is all it takes to dry out the CDC and use it as a dry fly. A gentle twitch to interrupt the dead drift when the fly is in prime territory can be very effective—probably because of all the motion imparted by the CDC and mottled marabou.
Historically, some of the most fabled Green Drake fishing in the East has been done with a whitish-bodied Coffin Fly when the spinner fall happens in the dark of night.
Ed Van Put, a retired New York state fisheries biologist who's also an avowed "bug nut," says he's as mystified as everyone else when it comes to the hatch cycle of Green Drakes.
"Nobody can predict where or when the duns will emerge. I missed the hatch completely last year, and only saw a few this year. Shine a light after dark, though, and you'll see spinners filling the air and covering the water."
Without question, there is inherent joy in fishing during the middle of the afternoon with emergers and duns. The gentle whoosh of fly line in the sunlight, and the heart-stopping sight of a large trout boiling the surface is simply too tantalizing to be ignored.
Tracking it Down
The biggest problem with E. guttulata, as everyone points out, is finding it. New York Guide Nick Coppola (slickwateradventures.com) who's been fishing the Ausable since 2003, says "It's like chasing after that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I have clients who come here every year hoping to hit the Green Drakes. Some years, the hatch is great. Some years it's very light."
Because the hatch is so unpredictable, and moves from one stretch of the river to another almost nightly, Coppola takes a philosophical approach to the whole thing. "I carry the patterns in the hopes we'll hit it," he says, "but I'm always on the lookout for other flies while we're wading."
As with the famed Hex hatch, which happens in Michigan during mid-June through early July—at dusk and after dark—temperature plays a dominant role in Green Drake appearances.
Veteran fly fisher Del Bedinotti, from Albany, New York, recalls halcyon days chasing Green Drakes with such angling luminaries as Vince Marinaro, Art Flick, and Dick Talleur, on many of Pennsylvania's hallowed streams.
"The funny thing is that half the time I think people were seeing Brown Drakes (E. simulans) and they didn't know the difference," Bedinotti told me. "I know that on the East Branch of the Delaware we'd see Coffin Flies mixed in with E. simulans, but the Brown Drakes totally outnumbered the Green Drakes."
It was perhaps Marinaro, however, who perpetuated the lore of E. guttulata by devoting to it an entire chapter of his book A Modern Dry-Fly Code. In it, he wrote in 1950 "By rail, by motor, by airplane, and on foot the great trek begins, from every hamlet and village, town and city, converging on the big northern limestone streams—Penns Creek, Spring Creek, Spruce Creek, Fishing Creek—from all directions north, south, east, and west—drawn irresistibly by this Pied Piper of the insect world. Anything fabricated out of the imagination would not surpass the fantasy of Green Drake time."
And so it remains. Marinaro is gone now. So are Flick and Talleur. But the quest for Ephemera guttulata continues, and now supplicants have fresh offerings with which to tempt those maddeningly picky brown trout that make chasing "The Hatch" so intoxicating.
*Capt. Tony Petrella died shortly after writing this article, and it was published in the magazine after he died.