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It’s Mayfly time! It’s dry fly time!

The Mayfly hatch can bring about the best dry fly sport of the year...providing you know how to approach it

I used to love Mayfly time, when I was fit enough to spend many hours by the river (see later) watching the duns hatch and casting an imitation to the rising trout, then having a late lunch and a rest, prior to the evening rise, when the fish would make pigs of themselves on the spent female spinners. And, for several years, I greatly enjoyed my two or three weeks fishing the wonderful Lough Erne with my pals, John Todd and Jo Rippier, with a day away on Lough Conn with the delightful Padraigh Kelly.

At home, in the north of England, the upper Aire was my Mayfly river and in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the hatches were tremendous. But I did enjoy driving to the ‘Deep South’ and having a few days on a chalkstream, for the chalkstream fly-fishers seem to celebrate Mayfly time splendidly, with riverside towns like Stockbridge alive with folk yattering enthusiastically whilst enjoying a pre-fishing breakfast before hitting the tackle shops to top up their fly boxes with new and ‘essential’ new Dun and Spinner dry imitations.

The last time I fished the Test was downstream of Stockbridge and, like other dry fly folk, I spent much of the time moving slowly along the bank looking out for rising trout or sitting on one of the many benches, awaiting fly and rise. But I learned that not all those carrying a fly rod were “chalkstream fly-fishers [who] seem to celebrate Mayfly Time” or who thought it essential “to top up their fly boxes with new and ‘essential’ Dun and Spinner imitations.”

The opposite bank to where I fished was a day-ticket water, and the fly-fishing there seem to spend long hours cast-cast-casting without moving, instead of slowly walking the river looking for rising trout or sitting on a bench and watching for a rise. Indeed, that some seemed unaware of the Mayfly and the tradition of the dry fly was borne out by my second trout on the first of my three days’ fishing there. It took the same Poly Mayfly Dun that caught the first fish. This one was rising, two yards from the bank and barely two yards upstream of where I was standing, to every real Mayfly dun that floated over its nose. I flicked the leader up and across, ‘tenkara’ style, the fly landed on the water and it grabbed it. The fish was a rainbow trout of a good five pounds in weight, and in its jaw, close to my dry fly, was a three-inch long black lure with a gold bead at the front.

A black lure! At Mayfly Time? In the Hallowed Test? Where Halford and George Selwyn Marryat perfected the art of the dry fly?

The first day was cool, and sport on the slow side, but Day Two was quite a different day, with warm sunshine and a light westerly breeze until the weather broke in late afternoon. There was a nice trickle of Mayfly duns together with medium olives, and around the river were lots of alder flies and some late orange-tip butterflies. Cuckoos cuckooed all day and that aerobatic falcon, the hobby, zoomed to and fro as it caught Mayflies and devoured them whilst still in flight.

Through the morning I caught four trout that were not memorable and missed one that was. It was lying, on the fin, less than a yard from the bank, feeding keenly on Mayfly duns, three yards upstream of where I was crouched. Every time it took a real Mayfly, I put my artificial over its nose. On 22 occasions that trout took a real Mayfly but turned its nose down at mine. Then it took the 23rd real Mayfly, rose to my artificial, and I missed it!

At 1pm I was sitting on the bench, not far from the top of the beat, watching a chap on the other bank cast-cast-casting a fly that landed in a plop on the water, but to no avail, when I spotted a trout rising not too far away on a now sparse dun hatch. The trout rose again and I cast out the fly, a CdC Dun. And up it came. It zoomed off powerfully and tried to get into some trailing branches a few yards downstream, but the rod, with side-strain, forced it away. Then it came to the net. Only (only?) eleven inches long, it was a fin-perfect, wild, Test brown trout, and it may well have been the only truly wild trout I caught on that trip.

The man on the other bank, who had still caught nothing, asked me what I had caught that trout on.
“A CdC Dun,” I yelled.
“A what?” he yelled back.
“An imitation of a Mayfly dun!”
“Dry fly’s a waste of time!” was bellowed back at me.

                       *                               *                                 *

I am writing this on May 3, 2019 and have some sad personal news. In March I found myself going a bit dizzy if I tried to rush about, or lift heavy things, or, when sitting on the ground (as by the river) tried to stand up quickly. A visit to the GP resulted in an echocardiogram that showed a wonky aortic valve and slight thickening to the heart’s left ventricle wall. Since then, I have been told to “take it easy”, to “avoid stress”, such as driving on the M6, and not to work too hard. The problem will be solved in the next few weeks and, with a new bit of plumbing, I should be my old, fit self. But it does mean that I cannot wade deep, turbulent rivers, or walk often two or three miles of river bank. I have fished, pals taking me to Barnsfold Water where I can cast a team of Buzzers out for Frank Casson’s rainbow trout (that are wonderful on the table); last week I even caught a bream on a Crisp Packet Buzzer!

Yet it is sign that I am getting older and it brought to mind others who once fished every day they could year after year after year.

I knew Hugh Falkus well through his late 60s and 70s, and in those years he fished little, but enjoyed being by the water. On Mondays, he and his pal Bill fished the Cumberland Derwent... well Bill fished, but Hugh sat under an awning by Bill’s Range Rover and sipped Scotch whilst reading a collection of newspapers, before opening some claret with lunch. I occasionally joined them and before we left Hugh would go to the water’s edge with a 15’ Bruce & Walker Hexagraph  [do you remember those abominations?] and make half a dozen casts. And that was it.

Dear old Fred J Taylor similarly slowed down, and the last time I saw him (he was walking to the CLA Game Fair at Blenheim Palace and we gave him a lift to the Shooting Times stand, for I was with Roland who was making a programme about the Fair and would drive round in his Range Rover), I asked, “Doing much fishing, Fred?”
“Oh no, Malcolm,” he replied. “I potter sometimes down to the stream and if I catch a nice perch I may take it home for lunch. I’m not up to making big bags or lots of casting with a fly rod.”

And then there was the great Arthur Oglesby. Like me he was diagnosed with a wonky heart valve, but instead of waiting for the NHS to sort it out he couldn’t wait. He and his wife Grace (Amazing Grace... a great fly-fisher) were booked to go to Alaska and he had been told that flying was out until the valve had been replaced. So he went private, had a pig’s valve put in and it killed him. The BBC phoned me up. “Would I give a brief resume of Arthur’s angling life for the obituary programme, Brief Lives?” I recorded it in their Manchester Oxford Road studios (now gone) and they paid me well, including a repeat fee.
I phoned Kathy Falkus, Hugh’s widow.
“Did the BBC pay you?”
“Yes.” I told her how much.
“Hugh would be tickled pink you made money out of Arthur’s demise,” she said.
Don’t any of you expect to make money out of my demise!
Enjoy Mayfly Time!

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