Mayfly on the Chalkstreams

To some fly fishers the annual Mayfly (Ephemera Danica / Green  Drake) hatch is the pinnacle of their year’s Trout fishing.  It is very exciting with big splashy rises all over the river.  I have been lucky to fish and to guide hundreds of Mayfly days on the famous chalk stream rivers of Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire, especially the Test, Itchen, Kennet and Wylye and the limestone River Coln in the Cotswolds.  In this short blog I just want to give you a few tips and pointers to help you to plan your Mayfly days and to have the greatest enjoyment and success.

Firstly WHEN to go?  You might think May!  But no, it’s certainly not as simple as that.  In fact ‘up north’ it can be June.  Each river has slightly different start/end dates and these can vary by a couple of days from one year to another.  Also the hatch starts about a week earlier at the downstream end of the river compared to the upstream end.  For example on the lower River Test, downstream of Romsey, the hatch starts around 13th/15th May but on the upper reaches around Longparish / Wherwell it does not start until around  20th/22nd.  Some rivers – like the excellent chalk stream River Wylye in Wiltshire – have less intense but more prolonged Mayfly hatches.  It is common to get a decent hatch on the Wylye well into July and I’ve also known a good hatch on the River Coln in the Cotswolds in early-July.  The best advice I can give you is to take reliable local advice before booking…or ask me!

WHAT TIME OF DAY:   Many of my guiding clients have been looking forward for many months to their big day on the river during the Mayfly hatch.  They are itching to go and ask if we can have an early start.  I caution against this.  The peak of the hatch is usually in late-afternoon, often around 4pm to 5pm.  Often no flies hatch at all until late-morning then huge numbers in the late-afternoon.  In the mornings the Trout are often lying doggo on the river bed and ignoring any flies floated above their heads.  I’m sure they know that the easy pickings will come later on in the day and I’ve also often wondered how long it takes a Trout to digest a full stomach of flies before they are hungry again.  Then there is the factor of spooking the fish.  Cast over the fish in the morning and walk up and down the banks in full view of them and you could well be spooking the fish and spoiling your sport for later on in the day when the hatch starts and the fish get feeding.  So my advice is to have a lie in and a good breakfast; go to the river to sit and watch and to take in the scenery, but don’t start casting until at least 11am.  And take regular breaks from casting.  Be ready to be at your peak of effectiveness and enthusiasm in late-afternoon.

FLIES:  Over the years I’ve tried many different Mayfly patterns and I now keep coming back to the Grey Wulff in sizes 10 and 8.  The male Mayfly is smaller than the female and I’d say the size 10 and size 8 imitate approximately the size of the male and female.  I also like the Shadow Mayfly pattern (pictured below) and a Mayfly emerger, eg. tied Klinkhamer style, maybe with a CDC post.

Shadow Mayfly

TACKLE:  Most of my chalkstream fly fishing is done with a 4 or a 5-weight rod but sometimes in the Mayfly I use a 6-weight.  The River Test runs from north to south and because of the clear water you are usually casting in an upstream (approximately northerly) direction.  A size 8 Grey Wulff has a lot of wind resistance.  If you are faced with a stiff downstream breeze casting this fly on a 4 weight is, for most fly fishers, very difficult.  The answer is to use a stiffer rod such as a fast action 6-weight.  I never fish big Mayflies on a 4-weight rod and never on a light tippet or a long leader.  I’d recommend a 9 foot knotless co-polymer leader going down to a 5X (5lb) tippet.  And if it’s a dull day and there are big fish on the prowl – which there often are in the Mayfly hatch – then I’d be very happy tying the fly directly onto a 4X (6lb) tippet.  I never go as light as a 4lb tippet when fishing a Mayfly pattern and I don’t ever use fluorocarbon either.  Usually the fish are in an excited feeding frenzy and are not at all tippet shy.  I also like the insurance that a slightly stretchy co-polymer leader gives when it comes to striking a take.  And don’t strike too quickly.  I see many of my clients strike too soon and miss the fish.  At most times of the year with smaller dry flies yes I’d say a quick strike hooks more fish than a slow strike but in the Mayfly hatch saying ‘God Save the Queen’ between the rise and the strike will hook you more fish.

HOW:  It has often been called ‘duffers fortnight’ and sometimes the fishing can be very easy.  I’ve known complete beginners making a right hash of it all and still catch lots of fish.  But I’ve also known very difficult days when I have to keep changing the fly pattern to get takes.  If there are lots of duns on the water why should the fish take our artificial in preference to a natural?  And often they do not.  I’m sure that the Trout are often keying in on the moving struggling emerging fly and they are attracted by fly movement.  So give them fly movement.  If you can see that your fly is approaching a fish slowly straighten the leader and then with the rod tip give small fast twitches to the fly.  You are trying to get the fish’s attention to your fly over the others in the area and trying to make the Trout think that it’s alive and about to fly off.  It often works.  Give it a go.

BOOK IT NOW!  If you have not booked your Mayfly days already then you need to do so very soon as the majority of rods on the chalk streams are already sold out.  However we at Go Fly Fishing UK do still have a few excellent options available on the River Test and on other rivers.  Contact me on 07899 034728 or for latest availability, pricing, etc.




About Dave Martin

Dave caught his first Trout in 1970 at the age of 13 and his first fly caught Trout a couple of years later – both from the River Wharfe in the Yorkshire Dales. During a pre-Go Fly Fishing UK business career of 22 years Dave went fishing on at least 100 days…every year! He is very keen! Dave has now carried out over 1,200 bookings as a full-time professional fly fishing guide and trained/qualified instructor, of which over 400 were on the famous River Test. Dave is an Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide. Dave now lives in Yorkshire and guides and teaches on the River Wharfe and other waters in Yorkshire. Dave is also Secretary of Ilkley Angling Association and a member of Wild Trout Trust, Grayling Society, Angling Trust, Bradford City, Prince Albert and Saltaire.

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