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Sex, Death, and Fly-fishing
On a stretch of one of the forks of a small river near where I live in northern Colorado, there is, in the month of July, a fabulous Red Quill spinner fall. As near as I can tell, it consists of at least three different species of these reddish-brown mayflies ranging in size from number 12s down to 16s or 18s. The fall lasts for weeks sometimes more than a month on and off, coming and going, overlapping, hardly ever the same twice.
No, I don't know which specific bugs are involved and, at the risk of insulting the entomologists, I'm not sure how much it would matter if I did. When the fall comes off, you fish one of the Red Quill or Rusty Spinner patterns in the appropriate size. When it doesn't come off, knowing the Latin name of the insect that is mysteriously absent lets you piss and moan in a dead language, but otherwise doesn't help much.
And there are plenty of evenings when this thing doesn't work out from a fishing standpoint, even though the bugs are at least in evidence on an almost nightly basis. As spinner falls go, this is the spookiest one I've seen, probably only because I've seen so much of it. Usually it has to do with the weather.
Here on the East Slope of the Rocky Mountains midsummer is the season for hot, clear, bluebird days punctuated by late afternoon thundershowers. Mayfly spinners most of them, anyway like to fall in the evenings when the light is low, and the air is cool and maybe a little damp. That's a little damp; a full-fledged rain can put them off, depending on the timing.
If the rain comes early enough in the day, it's over before the spinner fall should happen, and it has actually helped things along by chilling and humidifying the air a little. It's part of the local lore that an early shower can mean a good spinner fall later on.
If a thunderstorm comes late enough, after the flies have already formed up over the stream and suddenly enough, without announcing itself with too much wind or cool air it can flush the bugs into the water where the trout can get them.
This can make for some great fishing, provided the rain is heavy enough to knock the flies down, but not so heavy it makes the water too rough for the trout to see them in which case the fish won't feed on them after all.
When that happens, you race downstream in your rain slicker to where the current pools out at the head of a small canyon reservoir in hopes that when the storm passes, the bugs will be collected down there and the trout will rise to them.
That's assuming the rain doesn't last too long, and doesn't muddy the water so much that the trout, once again, can't see the bugs on the surface of the stream, and, once again, won't eat them.
When the rain comes at its more normal time a few hours before dusk, before the spinner fall should start it may cool the air in the canyon too much, and cancel the event, although you might just hike up there anyway because some nights the weather clears off, warms up just enough (but not too much), gets very still, and the spinner fall is unusually heavy.
And I am not being sarcastic when I say that trout are known to be particularly fond of spinners.
On rare overcast, drizzly afternoons, the Red Quill dun hatch can last late, and the spinner fall can come early, giving you hours of good fishing with a transition point when both forms of the bug are on the water at once. Many trout can be caught on dry flies then if you're smart enough to notice what's happening with the weather, drop everything at home, and get up there early. Under gray skies and drizzle, dusk is usually too late.
Wet, gloomy summer days are unusual in semiarid Colorado, and this has only happened three times that I know of in something like ten years. I missed it once, although I sure heard about it later from some friends who were there. They caught lots of trout, including some big ones. It was great, they said, in a not so subtle tone of accusation.
The assumption out here is, you should always go fishing, period. If you don't, even for what might appear in other circles to be a good reason, the suspicion is that you are getting uppity or, even worse, lazy. You get some grief for staying home, and when the fishing was great, well...
People will forgive you for missing it once or twice, but no more than that.
On other days when I was there and ready, the air got too cool, or a stiff breeze came up, or the drizzle got too drizzly, or something. Once it was looking just right until a sheet of hail drew itself across the canyon like a gauze curtain, and my friend Koke Winter and I ended up huddling in the flimsy cover of a juniper tree getting whacked hard by a few less hailstones than if we'd been standing out in the open. A big one got me square on the back of the hand when I reached out to pick a nearly ripe raspberry. By morning I had a bruise the size of a quarter.
It was all over in about twenty minutes, and the evening slid into ideal, textbook conditions cool, still, dusky, humid except that not a single swallow flashed in the air over the stream to eat the bugs because there were no flies, and not a single trout rose for the same reason. The sky was clear with stars, the air was freshly washed and thick with clean, organic smells, the reservoir was a dark, disk-shaped mirror. To anyone but a fly-fisherman it would have seemed peaceful and quite pretty.
We figured the hail had killed all the flies and knocked all the trout senseless, so we went home. Koke doesn't drink anymore, so we couldn't even stop for a beer.
For the absolutely cosmic spinner fall, it seems as though perfect conditions have to also be preceded by perfect conditions, and I don't know how far back in time this meteorological juggling act has to go. I do know that even a slightly larger dose of what would normally be ideal is deadly. I suppose there's a lesson there.
It seems like your best bet for a workmanlike, day-to-day spinner fall is a clear, warm evening with no wind. This kind of conservative weather stops short of being the model of perfection, but it doesn't court disaster either.
The more you fish the more you start seeing these things the way a farmer does: it doesn't have to be great, just, please, don't let it be awful.
On those days you hike up the stream with the last direct rays of sunlight still on the water. This is a shallow, stooped-shouldered, forested canyon with a few rock outcrops at the water, and a few more standing up at the lip. The slope is gentle enough lower down to allow for some patches of wild grass. The stream has a sand and sandstone bottom, so even when it's clear it can seem to have a brownish cast to it. Some evenings it gets amber for a few seconds just before the light goes off it.
A good hundred yards downstream from the riffle we always start at, you can see the swarm of mayflies high in the air above the stream, dipping and climbing, their clear wings flashing. At these times they look like they're spinning, hence the name.
These particular mayflies seem to begin mating about the time the light goes off them. It's not a deep canyon, and it runs roughly east and west, so the sun stays on the water longer than you'd think it should. Not that you're likely to be impatient or anything. The bugs copulate on the wing, and then begin to fall on the water right around dark.
Sometimes, as the insects dip lower and lower over the stream, the odd, eager brown trout will jump out of the water and try to grab one. He seldom gets it. Nine times out of ten this is a little fish and you ignore it, but when it's a big trout you tie on an upright-winged Red Quill and cast it over there.
He almost never takes it. I know this to be true, but I have yet to figure out why. It should work but it doesn't, that's all.
Usually the few trout you see rising sporadically here and there while the spinners are still in the air will be taking ants, beetles, the occasional midge, errant mayfly dun, or caddis fly. Whatever happens to be around, in other words. This is not an especially rich stream, so the fish have learned to eat whatever is there.
On many nights the real spinner fall, and, therefore, the real hot fishing, begins after dark when you can't see what you're doing. You stumble over rocks, wade too deeply and ship water, snag your fly in the bushes, and tie wind knots in your leader that you don't know about until you hear them whistle past your ear. The question then is whether it will be easier to retie the leader or untie the knot, keeping in mind that you can't see what the hell you're doing in either case.
When you do get a good cast on the water, hints as to where your fly is and whether or not a trout has eaten it are sometimes telegraphed back to you in terms of spreading, starlit ripples and/or soft plopping sounds. But they're just hints. You can fish for hours without knowing for sure if you're using the wrongsized fly, getting a bad drift, or if you're getting strikes you don't know about.
There are a few of us who fish this thing regularly, even though the trout aren't normally very big, and even though we often don't catch very many of them. The fact is, we seem to be truly fascinated by it, and I say that based on the evidence.
When we go up there and the spinners aren't happening for some reason, we don't tie on streamers or fish ants to the bank feeders because that might trash the water if the spinners actually do come on later. Nor do we work upstream to fish the pocket water with caddis flies because the spinners might come on while we're gone. We do a lot of standing around with spinner patterns already tied to 5 or 6x tippets, fly rods under our arms, hands in pockets, waiting. Sometimes there's a big beaver to watch, or little brown myotis bats to dodge. It can be nice and peaceful.
I like to think of this spinner fall as one of the great enigmas: the kind of thing that puts all the how-to-do-it fly-fishing writing in its place. If you hit it just right, the problem is not "How to Catch Trout During a Spinner Fall" that's something you'll do without much trouble at all but hitting it right is a matter of exquisite timing and some luck. It's the kind of puzzle where the challenge isn't to put the pieces together, but just to locate all the damned pieces in the first place.
We sometimes catch ourselves getting a little conceited as we stand out there in the dark without having landed so much as a single trout between us all evening. I mean, this is the really difficult fishing, definitely not for amateurs.
Someone finally says, "I'll tell ya, this isn't something for those guys who have to have 'big fish and lots of 'em,' is it?"
And someone else answers, trying to keep the uncertainty out of his voice, "Nope, it sure isn't."
For the moment at least, we fall into that class of fishermen who fancy themselves to be poet/philosophers, and from that vantage point we manage to pull off one of the neatest tricks in all of sport: the fewer fish we catch the more superior we feel.
Part of the fascination has to do with the mayflies themselves. We fly-fishers have a historic and abiding affection for them, and it's no wonder.
First there's that seemingly magical transformation. The insects spend most of their lives as downright unattractive bugs living under rocks on the stream bottom, but then, one day when all the signals are green, they swim to the surface to emerge as these really pretty flies. Even people who aren't especially interested in bugs will admit that mayflies are quite beautiful, at least after you've explained that they're not some kind of mosquito.
Beauty from ugliness, the sudden freedom of flight after a lifetime under a rock, and all that. It really is something.
These are the mayfly duns, and, as we all know, the ones that aren't eaten up by trout or birds fly to bankside bushes where they soon molt into spinners.
As pretty as the duns are, the spinners are even prettier. Their tails get longer and more graceful, their body colors brighten, and their wings get clear and sparkly. They're lovely, and this seems appropriate to us, because now the bugs' only chores in life are to mate and expire. Scientists call the whole group of mayflies Ephemeridae, from the same Latin that gave us "ephemeral," or "lasting for a brief time; short-lived; transitory." Even "tragic" if you want to stretch it.
We seem to have a real affection for the image of a beautiful insect that only lives for a single day (more or less) and whose only mission is to make love just once. They don't even eat. Poets got off on this as symbolic of the fleeting nature of life, love, and beauty until it became a cliché and had to be dropped or turned into a joke. The last literary reference I saw to it was in an old Playboy cartoon that showed a boy mayfly saying to a girl mayfly, "What do you mean, 'not tonight'!?"
Mayflies and fly-fishing have always been inseparably connected (they're our favorite bug, after all), and that may be one reason why the sport is still seen as contemplative, even now with all our scientific and technical hoopla.
This really is kind of sweet, in a nineteenth-century sort of way, and it's not too difficult to attach religious overtones to it as well, but it's also efficient as all get out in a biological sense. Technically, this behavior is called semelparity, and it is described best by David Quammen in his wonderful book Natural Acts: "An animal or plant waits a very long time to breed only once, does so with suicidal strenuosity, and then promptly dies. The act of sexual procreation proves to be ecstatically fatal, fatally ecstatic. And the rest of us are left merely to say: Wow."
Quammen points out that bamboo trees (from which fly rods are made) do it this way, and that salmon (on which fly rods are used) do it this way, too. I think that's interesting. Could there be some wild, metaphysical connection that makes fly-fishing incredibly sexy?
I sincerely hope so.
Mayflies mate and die en masse (it's been referred to as an orgy, but never as a mass suicide) probably at least partly for the same reason that large numbers of them hatch all at once: because hungry trout eat great numbers of them at these times and, with lots of the bugs making a break for it at once, some will get away to finish the business. It's a kind of suicidal diversionary tactic, and it works just fine in a system where the individual doesn't count for much.
The spinners mate and lay their eggs a little upstream from where the duns hatched, usually over a riffle, thus ensuring that the new eggs, as they wash downstream, will land on the bottom more or less in the same place the last batch did. If they hadn't always leapfrogged upstream like this; that is, if they'd mated and laid their eggs each season where they'd just hatched, they'd have slid downstream a few yards each year, and by now they'd have washed out to sea and become extinct.
And they don't all hatch or fall on the same day either. These things usually stretch over periods of days or weeks, and may start early one year and late the next as conditions dictate, so that something like a random storm or cold snap won't wipe out an entire population.
Hatches and spinner falls are large links in the general food chain, too. The bugs are regularly eaten by creatures like swallows, nighthawks, bats, and, of course, trout. Having the hatches and falls last for days or weeks ensures that the mayflies will survive into future generations, but it also means that trout and others can make dozens of meals out of them instead of just one.
Once the falls have started there are always a few stray, expired spinners floating in shallow backwaters and stuck to weeds. These are clues. While waiting to see what's going to happen this evening, you can cruise the banks and at least see if there was a good rise the night before when you were somewhere else.
And nothing is wasted either. At the end of the spinner fall the few little dead bodies that aren't eaten by trout end up making a small but real contribution to the decomposing organic matter on the stream bottom that serves as fertilizer for more aquatic vegetation that is grazed upon by later generations of mayfly nymphs that hatch to feed new generations of birds, bats, fish, and so on.
It's nothing short of elegant, and the mayfly/trout connection we fly-fishers look so hard for is just a thin slice of it. There are also the game animals that drink from the stream, and the fishing birds that live on young trout, muskrats that eat the aquatic plants, and the swallows that eat the mayflies and live in the cliffs that were excavated by the stream itself.
A good ecologist can put dovetail into dovetail until the whole thing stretches out of sight. We call it an ecosystem now; earlier Americans called it the Sacred Circle. Either way it can make your poor little head swim with a vision of a thing of great size and strength that still depends on the underpinning of its smallest members.
It's a little harder to place our own role in all this because we're the ones doing the placing, so we naturally want to put ourselves at the top somehow, even though we don't actually fit there. Some say we humans have gotten to be so aberrant now that we don't fit anywhere in all this. I don't quite buy that, although it must be admitted that we're not exactly a harmonious species.
This fishing business probably has something to do with play practicing a highly refined food-gathering technique as if it really mattered, even though we don't need the food and will probably release any trout we happen to catch. Play is what puppies do. It looks like good, innocent fun and it is but it also develops the predatory skills that will be needed later in life by the serious adult canine. Ever notice how hard a puppy can bite?
I don't know exactly what fly-fishing teaches us, but I think it's something we need to know.
A mayfly spinner lies on the surface of the stream in what fishermen call the "spent" position. To picture it accurately, remember that the insect has just had the first and only orgasm of its life and is now, in the natural course of things, dying from it. His body lies flush with the water, wings spread, legs out flat, tails splayed wistfully. Usually he's limp. If he struggles at all, he does it feebly at best. There's probably a silly look on his face, although it's hard to tell with insects.
Now picture seventy-five or a hundred of them lying on the water within casting range of where you're standing. As spinner falls go, this is not a terribly heavy one, though if you hit it right it's plenty heavy enough.
You have to imagine this even on-site because the bugs lying flat on the water are all but impossible to see. Even in good light their clear wings will have faded to nothing more than faint outlines, and the light will probably be turning a dull gray by now. It's very possible to fish a spinner fall successfully without ever getting a look at the bug you're imitating so carefully. It can become a matter of belief.
What you will see, if all is as it should be, are the distinctive rises of brown trout. The spinner rise is lazy, or at least businesslike, because, it's said, the fish "know" that the bugs are spent and won't get away.
There are differences of opinion about what trout know in an intellectual sense, but I have to buy the characterization. A trout feeding on an active insect say, a mayfly dun, caddis fly, or even an egg-laying spinner fluttering on the surface is likely to slash at it eagerly, but the same fish will sip the drifting spinners lazily. In slightly faster water, he might show the porpoising, head and tail rise, but that's about as excited as he gets.
This is important. How hard a trout works to get a given bite of food determines how many of those bites he has to take to first get even, and then make a profit, physiologically speaking. This goes right to survival, with no detours for fooling around or showing off.
During a spinner fall the fish will often ease down into the slower water below the riffle, or even to the tail of the pool. Why fight the heavier flows up ahead? The bugs have had it, and they'll be down here where it's easy soon enough.
Of course the trout understand what's going on. It's nothing less than conceited to think we do, but of course they don't.
The last time it all came together for me was two seasons ago. The weather seemed right, and my friend A. K. Best and I had driven past what was an almost sure caddis hatch on a nearby stream to check on the spinners. It was an act of bravado. It felt promising.
We saw the swallows weaving in the air first, and only spotted the bugs when we were at The Spot with the toes of our waders in the water. Even then they were just faint specks that showed up only because they were moving. There were no wings flashing in the last of the sunlight that evening. It was cloudy, cool for summer, threatening rain, but not raining yet.
We had the stream to ourselves because only tough, smart fishermen like us aren't afraid to get wet.
dI don't know what A.K. fished with, although I'm sure he announced the pattern with the usual flourish. I tied on a # 14 Michigan Chocolate spinner, a fly A.K. had turned me on to years before.
This thing has fine split tails of pale dun hackle fibers, spent hen hackle wings of the same color, and a thinly dubbed, dark brown body. Generally the feather wings of spinner flies are white because that's as close as most tiers feel they can come to clear with natural material, but A.K. had once told me that the pale dun wings become more realistically indistinct in the water than the white ones everyone else uses. This from a man who has been known to stop casting when the trout are biting, catch a natural insect, and float it in a backwater next to his imitation, cackling to himself if he likes what he sees, going silent and thoughtful if he doesn't.
The flies began to fall, and the fish started to feed with just enough light left to see by. It was all strangely matter-of-fact, as things you wait for patiently sometimes are when they finally happen. We picked what we thought were the biggest trout, fished long, thin leaders to mimic the flaccid drift of the spinners, and caught fish until past closing time at Andrea's Cafe.
It was as simple as that.
The Red Quill spinner fall on the North Fork is one of the few things in nature that I feel actually belongs to me and a few friends. I don't mean it's a secret. In fact, during the weeks it's on you'll see the odd new face from time to time. Often it's a guy who's well-dressed, well-equipped, and who looks a bit out of place, but he's sniffed this thing out and there he is, ready to catch some trout.
He sometimes picks us out as locals (using the fly-fisherman's innate skill for evaluating fashion and body language) and asks us what the story is on this spinner fall he's heard about.
"Well, some nights it comes off and some nights it doesn't," we say. This sounds pointedly vague and useless and the guy's brow furrows with suspicion. He's no kid. He's been snowed by smart-assed locals before.
I guess we are exercising a little home-courtsmanship, but it's basically the truth. That's all we really know about it.
Of course, waiting out there in the dark with the sky full of bats and owls, we sometimes begin asking the great questions that can kill time so nicely: sex, death, and fly-fishing; the meanings of life and sport; are we real participants or just observers, and what kind of difference does it make?
The new face, who may well disappear after a few more nights of this, joins in the conversation, but he remains wary and watchful. If something wonderful isn't about to happen, then why the hell are we all standing around like this?
Copyright © 1990 by John Gierach