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Getting to grips with the Mayfly

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by John Bailey

Traditionally, the mayfly season stretching roughly from mid/late May into early June has been known as duffer's fortnight. But it's not always that easy. A series of calls around the country reveals recurring difficulties and, fortunately, solutions to overcome them. Our experts include England Internationals Jeremy Lucas, Stuart Crofts and John Horsey. We've also thrown in top guides Nick Hart and Dave Burgess as well as that legendary tackle dealer Tim Pilcher. Tim Smith, editor of Total Fly Fishing has also helped out as has Simon Cooper of Fishing Breaks.

We've roughly identified three areas of debate. Firstly, it's quite important to look at the artificial fly being used. Secondly, watercraft and technique - as well as low-down cunning - also play their part. And finally, we've looked at elements of the tackle list, picking out one or two wrinkles that really can put you that little bit ahead.

So let's now look at the artificial fly itself. Go to any tackle shop, look on any website, flip through any catalogue and you'll be bemused by the number of patterns available. But, probably, that's a good thing. All our experts agree that it's too easy to go out with just one or two artificials and hope they'll do the job. That's not the case. Tim Smith makes a point that the trout get very choosy, especially at the back end of the mayfly hatch. He sites a day when he and Andy Petherick of Hardy Greys fished the Test using thirty different patterns, getting through all of them during the course of the day. Interestingly, only two fish took the same pattern. Nick Hart definitely agrees. Down in the West Country he says the mayflies are smaller and frequently fish boil at standard patterns without taking them. It's best to vary the size, colour and profile until you find a pattern that is actually consumed. Certainly all the guys agree that it's important to have imitations that mimic all the stages of the mayfly - the emerger, the dun, the spinner and the spent insect. At the height of the season in particular, the fish get overfed and can become very picky indeed.

Stuart Crofts makes this point strongly. As he says, you can almost fish a dead budgie on heavily-stocked beats of the Test and have success but on wilder rivers, things just aren't as clear cut as people think and this is where watercraft and knowledge of the fish themselves comes in.  Stuart stresses that the main thing is to find fish feeding off the mayflies themselves. Very often, trout are actually feeding on something else and this is not always obvious. This is particularly important when the mayfly season first kicks off. The trout might be ignoring the mayflies and feeding on black gnats or off the mayfly nymphs themselves. Indeed, smaller food items are often easier for the trout to catch and Jeremy Lucas now emphasises this point. He says that for the first week of the hatch, it seems to take wild trout a long time first to recognise the mayflies and secondly to be able to catch them. What Jeremy sees is trout swirling at the big flies, trying to gulp them in and then missing them entirely. His advice is to leave a fly after an abortive take and almost certainly the trout will come back for a second or a third try. Once again, though, if this isn't working, fish the mayfly nymph.

Tim Smith has a good hint here. He advises just wiggling the rod tip, especially towards the end of the cast. This imparts a little bit of life to the mayfly, just like the original itself that often shakes before flying into the air. It's a movement the trout can't resist. I suggest searching out the smoothest water if you're going to locate the biggest fish. Big trout like to take their time coming up to the mayfly and inspecting it. If the water is too fast or choppy it spoils this approach and makes close observation by the fish difficult. It's in this connection that John Horsey stresses casting accuracy. If you can be pinpoint over fifteen, even ten yards, your chances rise hugely.

When it comes to the actual tackle used, the guys are unanimous that you need a whole mayfly wallet of different patterns, colours, sizes and silhouettes. You've got to experiment until you find what the trout want. And remember there are big regional differences in the size, colour and subspecies of mayfly coming off. Simon Cooper also makes a point that five-pound tippets are absolutely essential. Anything lighter means that the big, bushy mayfly won't turn over properly. Also, after a few casts, a thinner leader tends to corkscrew in a useless manner. Tim Pilcher stresses that gink of any sort shouldn't be used to keep the mayfly afloat. Powder is a lot better if the fly is to be kept fluffy, dry and riding high on the current.

And as for rods and reels…well, there was a huge vote on the side of both the Hardy Marksman range and also the Greys Streamflex rod and Streamlite reel combination. 'Exquisite', 'as good as they get', 'absolutely unbeatable' and 'I'd use nothing else' were the sort of comments we picked up. It's good to know that you don't need to go American during the European mayfly season!

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