I try to find an excuse to get outside and lose myself in the mountains in every season, but May is the month I have always dedicated to wading in cold spring creeks in the pursuit of native trout. The streams seem to rush with an urgent desperation; maximum annual water levels attack boulders and logjams, rearranging the habitat sequence and changing the depth of my favorite pools. Trout respond to warming weather with an urgent burst of activity; feeding can be frenzied in the first abundant insect hatches of the new season. April is a month where fly fishing works its way back into my routine, but it is only to prepare my senses (and my feet and legs) for the bursting and blooming of May on the river. The peakof May fishing may just be the green and yellow drake mayfly hatches (it may…) that occur around Memorial Day. Until this past May, I had encountered yellow and green drake (genus Ephemera) a dozen or so times in my angling adventures, but never the giant green drakes I had heard old fishermen mention in quiet reverent tones around wood stoves and sips of whiskey. These mayflies I had heard could be extremely large, but sporadically located in the area streams. Aside from being an entomological bauble interesting me in school, I never considered that they might be abundant in my local haunts. As a kid, before I became interested in fly fishing, I never noticed them at all.
My introduction to the legendary giant green drake led me to understand the look in the eye of hatch-shocked fishermen babbling at fly shops, and the fervent hushed whispering in local groceries and dark taverns. The giant green drake (Litobrancha recurvata) is the largest mayfly in our Southern Appalachian streams and somewhat rare in the region. For most of their life (up to two years) the insects burrow deep into the sandy bottom of the stream, but for one brief moment in their lives they are dangerously available to the fish. Litobrancha hatches are often synchronized in one enormous pulse of hatching and mating activity, over a period of four to seven days. The other burrowing mayflies (also collectively known as drakes, including Ephemera, Hexagenia and several other obscure and rare genera) may hatch at various times throughout the year. Burrowing mayflies (order Ephemeroptera, family Ephemeridae) inhabit many streams in WNC, usually in sandy depositional areas with little or no currents. They are usually only visible during their adult phase, which may arrive and depart in the period of a few days. Fish are known to take advantage of the drake hatches and gorge themselves on the here-and-gone buffet.
From a fish's perspective, that May was incredible. The plentiful rain had the creek full, the fish looking up and the insects playing their role. The first three weeks of the month were filled with some of the largest creek trout I have ever caught in the Smokies and the Pisgahs. A rainy three day weekend lightened up into some glorious late spring weather, and I took advantage of the warm days to visit an old favorite stream in the Pisgah National Forest. I arrived at my favorite spot and noticed rings dotting the surface of the water as far as I could see, both up and down stream. I could see insects on the surface of the water from far away, and as I approached the hatch I was immediately surround by fluttering wings. The reclusive giant, Litobrancha, was in the air and on the surface of the water as far as I could see.
I stood upstream and fed my line down a long riffle to the pool where the rises came most frequently. Green drakes covered the surface of this pool and larvae could be seen struggling to emerge in the current. A pair of mallard ducks was taking advantage of the hatch, with necks extended they swam in frenzied circles chasing emerging mayflies. The rising trout seemed to be waiting for the insects that were moving, largely ignoring the huge numbers of motionless insects on the surface (drying out and resting for their first flight). Lacking a good imitation, we skittered large stimulators and caddis across the water and began catching fish. The hatch continued in earnest as insects rose from the water in clouds and landed on our bodies, fly rods and every bush and branch in sight. The rising fish seemed confused striking at insects with their tails and jumping completely out of the water. I am sure we were equally giddy, but the trout were in a state of sensory overload much like the befuddled fly-shocked fishermen I had observed in the fly store.
My friend and I caught our fill of fish (including some 16-18 inch native browns) and then stood and enjoyed the last moments of twilight and the hatching frenzy. Fish plopped far away and the bats and drakes fluttered and slashed overhead in an aerial orgiastic feast of sex and blood. The hike back to the truck was wordless, as my friend and I considered the treasure we had just stumbled upon. I was elated at the possibility of returning again and watching the bugs. The fishing was great, but I was more entranced by having observed such a primal effort to survive, reproduce and persist; in one concerted push, the giant green drake population initiated metamorphosis, hatched, left the water, reproduced (if luck would have it) and died. My mind was overloaded with questions, making the hike back to the truck a lucid experience. At each step I expected to wake up in my bed.
I returned to this place three of the next four nights, each time welcomed with a flurry of insect activity before dusk. The fish appeared to become quite satiated (or possibly hook-shy, since we caught and released more than 75 trout between three or four anglers over those few days). At any rate, the fish feeding became a great deal more selective, and a long clean drift on a perfect and precise presentation to a rising fish was necessary to entice a rise. The drakes didn't let up, however, and after the second day the giant green drakes (Litobrancha) were joined by an emergence of yellow (Ephemera) drakes. The pair of mallard ducks did not seem to lose their feeding enthusiasm (neither did the bats) but the trout we caught were swollen with mayflies. I believe at the tail end of the hatch (around day four or five), fish were actually too full to even attempt to feed on the abundance of fat green drakes.
The walk out that last night was particularly quite and contemplative; especially since we were guided along sections of the trail by firefly light. I had heard the fly-shop mafia and the noveau-rich eco-tourista yammering about insect hatches of this magnitude ad nauseum (salmonflies, Hexagenia, blue-wing Olives, etc), but only somewhere else in the world. I never once had suspected that my humble hillbilly home waters might harbor treasures like those touted by the name-dropping drift boat junkies. For just a moment, I lost my grip on reality; I suspected my uncles, fishing buddies and mentors of secretly knowing about these Memorial Day hatches and keeping me in the dark for their angling gain. I quickly surrendered that line of reasoning when I realized what a blabbering drooling idiot I had become over the week, staring into space and mumbling repetitively "mayflies this big man…". No one could ever keep that big a secret. This was the proof: I had the hatch to myself (excluding my friends) for the whole time. No one else seemed to know.
I did a little homework on Litobrancha and I found that these hatches may be predictable. Larger streams are a better bet for burrowing mayfly habitat; especially in deep sandy sections with reduced stream flow (big pools are a great place to look). Both Ephemera and Litobrancha can be found in these habitats, usually together. The adult giant green drake is quite distinctive, sometimes more than 3 inches long (from the head to the end of the body, not including the caudal cerci, or tails). The wings are completely clear, without the pigmentation near the bullae found in Ephemera (see picture). Even a good yellow drake hatch is often excellent fishing, trout are very keen on the enormous (often two inches or better) mayflies. Yellow drakes offer excellent fishing for the duration of the hatch (emergers, duns, cripples, spinners) and the spinner fall is often quite dramatic (large Ephemera spinners are often locally known as 'coffin flies', for their dramatic white and black coloration).
Start keeping an eye out for yellow (Epehemera) drakes before dusk, in the beginning to middle of May. The presence of yellow drakes is a good sign for finding a hatch of the giant green drakes (Litobrancha), so be thinking ahead. A good piece of local wisdom says that serious hatches occur the first clear day after several days of rainy weather, and this seems to be true for both genera of drakes. If you are intent on learning more about the insects in your local fishing stream, hang out after dark and light a propane lantern (but don't start a fire). You will soon be covered in insects, and if drakes are present then they will quickly become very apparent, mobbing the sheet with vigor. You may find insects on your home creek that you have never seen before, something to think about when in January while you tie flies for the spring.
Even if you are not excited about insects or fish, May is a good time of the year to look for wild strawberries and morel mushrooms. For me, the spring drake hatch is one of the grand eternal cycles of nature that make flyfishing such a rewarding exercise. Even so, I imagine that if you find wild trout responding to a drake hatch, you will forget all about the finer abstract points of life and concern yourself largely with keeping the fish off the end of your line. If you want to convert a friend to trout fishing, I recommend the month of May in Western North Carolina streams. The giant green drake could change your life.
Written By: Jason Robinson, © April, 2004
Photographs By: © Jason Robinson