Matching The Drake Hatch
May 14, 2018
All sports have their ultimate events: baseball has the World Series, football has the Super Bowl, and golf has the four major championship tournaments. For fly fishing in Eastern U.S trout streams, the annual climax has to be the largest mayflies of the year. Sure, some small-fly cranks will disagree, but for me, the season's hatch-matching pinnacle revolves around "the drakes."
Green Drake nymphs are similar in shape and color to the other drakes, in fact most people can't tell them apart. Photos: Paul Weamer
No one tailgates for midges, and you won't have to arrive early to get a good spot for Tricos. But both are common with the five major drake hatches because they are truly events in every sense of the word. If you hit Eastern Green Drakes on New York's Beaverkill River, you'll see that the legions of fly fishers are only eclipsed by the unimaginable number of mayflies.
There are drakes in the West too. Last year, I fished a Western Green Drake hatch on Montana's Big Hole River. Brook trout plucked flies from the surface with gusto, and fish were caught. But the hatch was never that heavy, and as far as we could tell, my friends and I were the only ones fishing it.
There are many Eastern mayfly species that fly fishers loosely term drakes, but I'm going to focus on the five largest ones, which are often identified by their common names: Green Drakes, Dark Green Drakes, Brown Drakes, Yellow Drakes, and Golden Drakes.
All mayfly nymphs are divided into four categories: crawlers, swimmers, clingers, and burrowers. These labels describe the way in which nymphs move and where they tend to live in a streambed. Four of the five big drakes are burrowers, the exception being Golden Drakes—strange burrower/crawler hybrids in the Anthopotamus genus.
What is a Drake?
The origin of the word "drake" is in the Greek word draco or dragon. But English is a complicated language, and drake can also be defined as a male duck or even a small cannon. So why was the term attached to a handful of our most famous mayfly hatches?
In parts of the United Kingdom, the drake name is applied to any live mayfly used as fishing bait. That's right, in the country that birthed modern fly fishing, real living mayflies are often impaled on hooks and used as bait just like a glob of red worms: It breaks your heart just thinking about it.
Darrel Martin's book, The Fly Fisher's Illustrated Dictionary, has a small section dedicated the origins of the drake name. He traces the term's usage to its first known appearance in Dame Juliana Berners's 1496 Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle. The book uses the term "drakes" to describe fly patterns constructed by using feathers from a male duck. Martin also mentions other books that attribute the drake name to mayflies with upward-curving tails—similar to the flamboyant tails on a male duck.
Their dragon-derived name implies that these mayflies are enormous insects. Though I guess it could also mean that they breathe fire and have a taste for townsfolk, but maybe this is where the dragon analogy falls apart. All drakes aren't huge. Slate Drakes (Isonychia sp.) and Gray Drakes (Siphlonurus spp.) are often size 12 and size 14, which isn't small, but nowhere near the massive size 6 and 8 that some drakes can attain. This is why it's important to understand the difference between scientific and common mayfly names.
Scientific names are based on physical traits or DNA that link different mayfly species by their family and genus. Common names are simply bestowed haphazardly by anglers. Because they have no standardization, and no scientific basis, common names can often cause confusion. Anglers on Pennsylvania's Yellow Breeches Creek call Hexagenia atrocaudata mayflies Brown Drakes, while most anglers throughout the rest of the state call only Ephemera simulans mayflies Brown Drakes: two completely different mayflies called the same name by various angling populations in the same state. Hopefully this "treatyse" sheds some light on these important insects and how to find and imitate them.
#8-12 2XL Hooks
The first drake hatch of the year, the Green Drake, is also the most eagerly anticipated. This hatch reaches such mythological proportions that some famous trout streams where this hatch occurs, like Pennsylvania's Penns Creek, are actually defined by it. Eastern Green Drakes have become legendary due to decades of literature on them, but they definitely live up to the hype (most years). The best fishing often occurs late at night when most fly fishers are just leaving the river.
I live right on Penns Creek, and that gives me a front-row seat to the Green Drake circus every year. Penns is famous, so it can be crowded with fly fishers anytime from mid-April through June.
But when the drakes arrive, the crowds reach another level—fly fishers have trouble finding a place to park. Some of them arrive as early as 9 in the morning to hold a spot for a hatch that doesn't really get going until just before dark!
Weather events can greatly impact this hatch. Cool, cloudy, or rainy weather can instigate excellent all-day fishing, while hot days and low water can make the best fishing occur just after sunrise, the coolest part of the day.
Most years the heaviest Green Drake hatches and spinner falls (Green Drake spinners are commonly called "Coffin Flies") occur during the last hour of daylight, and well into the night.
To beat the crowds and find the best fishing during the Green Drake hatch, I often arrive when everyone else is leaving the stream. I don't have to worry about finding a parking place, and I get most of the water to myself.
Here are a few more tricks to successfully fishing this hatch after dark: First, pick a flat, quiet pool. It will be much easier for you to see trout rise in the glassy water, or to hear them rise without the music of a churning riffle.
Use giant, hackled flies, one to two sizes larger than the naturals. They will be easier for you to see and easier for trout to pick out amidst the staggering number of naturals.
Choose a moonlight night if possible. The fish don't seem to mind the extra light during the Green Drake hatch, and it's amazing how well you can see after your eyes adjust.
Finally, fish the hatch early in its progression. The number of rising fish seems to diminish as the hatch matures.
It's the same for fishing the nymphs. The most productive nymph fishing is usually one to two weeks before the hatch begins. By the time the duns appear, there are often too many real nymphs for your imitations to get noticed.
Dark Green Drakes
#6-10 2XL Hooks
Dark Green Drakes are much less common and also less celebrated than their Green Drake cousins, but they can still be an important hatch if you know where to find them. Dark Green Drakes prefer small, heavily canopied streams. Picture a mountain, spring-fed brook trout stream and you got it.Dark Green Drakes aren't as "famous" as their cousins, but they can be important on small, cold Northeast trout streams. Use smaller hooks (#12) for tiny streams and diminutive trout.
Penn State University entomologist Greg Hoover once took me to a small, icy-cold, boggy stream in central Pennsylvania where he knew Dark Green Drakes flourished. I spent the afternoon photographing the mayflies.
Occasionally, I stopped long enough to watch a brightly colored brook trout steal one of these over-sized drakes from the surface. A few Dark Green Drake spinners also appeared, and their bodies were as orange as the fins of the brook trout that ate them, very different from their dark olive-gray dun body colors.
Because these mayflies usually live in small streams with smaller trout, I suggest using flies that are smaller than the naturals. Dark Green Drakes can be as large as a size 6 hook, though size 8 and 10 are more common. But there are two negative consequences of using fly patterns this large for comparatively tiny trout.
First, large hackled flies are difficult for diminutive trout to get into their mouths, causing anglers to "miss" many of the fish that try to eat their flies. The other nasty consequence is the increased physical risk. The big hooks can sometimes impale a small trout through its eye or even the top of its head, causing permanent damage or even death.
#10-12 2XL Hooks
Brown Drakes are the only big drakes that geographically cover the entire nation from coast to coast, in the Rockies, Midwest, and in the Great Lakes region. They behave like Green Drakes, and can be confusing and frustrating to Eastern anglers who are expecting to find paler Green Drakes emerging, while the trout are actually keying on the much darker Brown Drakes.Brown Drakes are the most widespread of all the big mayflies, making them nationally important on many of the country's best trout streams.
They behave like Green Drakes, and can be confusing and frustrating to Eastern anglers who are expecting to find paler Green Drakes emerging, while the trout are actually keying on the much darker Brown Drakes.
In the East, Brown Drakes usually begin emerging near the end of the Green Drakes, and it's common for the two to overlap. It's important to note that not every stream that has one hatch will have the other. But all of the hatch information, weather quirks, and fishing tactics that were outlined for Green Drakes also apply to Brown Drakes.
Brown Drakes can appear in similar "super-hatch" numbers, covering fly fishers and forcing them to pick the bugs out of their clothes and cars after an evening of fishing.
Brown Drake spinners are unusual because they often manage to keep their wings upright, not spent, after mating. They are the only species I know that does this, and it can be important in terms of fly selection. I have found fish eating only the upright spinners and refusing those lying flat with outstretched wings. A standard Catskill-style dun pattern does the trick.
A typical Green Drake emergence lasts a week or more, but the Brown Drake emergence is much shorter (about three to five days), making it difficult to time correctly. It's possible for fly fishers who fish every weekend to miss this hatch entirely.
#10-12 2XL Hooks
Yellow Drakes have the longest hatch duration of all the drakes. A few early birds sometimes appear near the end of the Green and Brown Drakes, but the bulk of Yellow Drakes usually arrive after the both have ended. Sporadic hatches often continue for two months or more, though seldom as heavy as they are during the first week.Yellow Drakes have the longest hatch period of the big drakes, but they sometimes last into the dog days of summer. Try to hit this one early.
Yellow Drakes are one of spring's final hatches before streams deteriorate into low, warm summer flows. Some years, the water is already too warm for successful catch-and-release trout fishing during the Yellow Drakes.
Low water also sometimes makes it difficult to fish Yellow Drake nymph patterns because their large size makes them heavy. They tend to snag the stream bottom, and they are more easily discerned as forgeries in low, clear water.
In years with lots of water, however, and cooler average temperatures, this hatch can be magic.
Yellow Drake nymphs look nearly identical to Brown Drake nymphs. It is very difficult for most fly fishers to differentiate the two most of the year. But during the Brown Drake emergence, those nymphs have black, well-developed wingcases, while Yellow Drakes are not yet that developed. Immediately after the Brown Drake hatch ends, the rest of the large, burrowing nymphs you find with black, well-defined wingpads are almost assuredly Yellow Drakes.
The best fishing opportunities are usually during the first week of the hatch. Look for the duns to begin emerging in the final 15 to 30 minutes of daylight. Hatches and spinner falls never reach the intensity of Green or Brown drakes, so use appropriately sized fly patterns. Oversized flies are quickly rejected.
#10-14 2XL Hooks
Golden Drakes are unique mayflies. The nymphs straddle the taxonomic delineation between burrowers and crawlers. They don't actually dig burrows, but rather they crawl into small depressions in silty stream bottoms that are similar to burrows. They are the lone drake with a genus containing more than one species. For example, an Eastern Green Drake's species is E. guttulata. Simple. There are no other options. But if you find a Golden Drake it could be in the species A. distinctus, A. myops, A. verticis (also found in the Western U.S.), A. neglectus neglectus, or A. neglectus disjunctus though A. distinctus duns are the largest and most commonly found in trout streams.Golden Drakes are the least reliable of all the big summer drakes. Hot weather can push the hatch into the early hours of the morning, so look for cool, overcast days to get the best dry-fly fishing.
Golden Drakes have three tails, though their middle tail is sometimes approximately two-thirds the length of the outer tails. But you cannot use this as a definitive measure to determine whether you found a Golden Drake, because some have three equal-length tails, a curious if not complicating trait.
While Golden Drakes are the least reliable of all the drake hatches, I've seen these mayflies invoke some excellent fishing. They are the first drakes of summer, and therefore suffer from the same warm-weather problems as Yellow Drakes.
I had two concurrent seasons on the main stem of the Delaware that highlight the Golden Drake fishing plight. The first year, the water was cool and the mayflies appeared nightly, trickling down a slow pool where every insect was eagerly greeted by a wild rainbow trout. The fishing was fantastic. The next year, the water was considerably warmer and in the exact same spot as the year before, I never saw a Golden Drake. They must have all hatched in the middle of the night.
You don't have to have a vast array of fly patterns to match each drake hatch. The nymphs look enough alike that a Green Drake nymph pattern, tied on a 2XL nymph hook, generally does a good job of imitating all of them.Paul Weamer's favorite dry flies for big drakes can be used for any of the hatches merely by changing the colors and the sizes. Since the natural nymphs are so similar, a #8-12 Green Drake nymph is adequate for most pre-hatch subsurface fishing.
Sometimes trout become so selective to preying on moving, wiggling insects that jointed nymphs become better choices. You can dangle these types of flies downstream on a tight line, allowing them to hang in the current so they pulse and swim if you slowly retrieve them.
Duns and spinners of different drake species can be imitated by simply changing body colors to match the naturals. Parachute flies with trailing shucks work very well for fishing until sunset. But hackled flies such as Dette Coffin Flies or Wulff patterns are more visible after dark.
Most of the time, fish prefer to see drag-free drifts, but later in the hatch, they become accustomed to movement, and it can be extremely effective to twitch the fly just before it reaches the trout.
Use the heaviest possible tippets with these hatches. Strikes can be aggressive and there is seldom a reason to go lighter than 4X.
Most drake nymphs live subsurface for two years, feeding and growing until they hatch into large, winged insects. But they are clumsy fliers, and delicate creatures without functioning mouths.
These traits make it difficult for them to eat elves and wizards like other dragons. And it makes them more akin to Puff the Magic Dragon than The Hobbit's Smaug. But if you can learn to slay these dragons, the fly-fishing kingdom will be yours.