Mayflies and the birth of fly-fishing

Paul Smith
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Do you remember buying your first fishing rod? Or should I say, do you recall your father or mother giving you that first fishing pole?

Many of us older guys started out with a simple bamboo pole. I talked last week about how those long and clumsy fishing instruments would be packed up vertically outside general stores. That was in the good old days, long before high modulus graphite.

You don't see bamboo poles anymore, at least not the long, one-piece variety. Generally they endured just one year of hard fishing, unless you took exceptionally good care of them. Mine usually weathered year round on the picket fence beside my parent's house in Spaniard's Bay. A new one was in order each spring.

Many of us boys preferred the old bamboo pole even after we had the proper spin cast sort of fishing rods. The game was often who could catch the most trout, and the bamboo was a formidable weapon. If a trout as much as sniffed a worm, it found itself plucked from its watery element and sent flying though the air onto dry land. It was sudden death.

Many of us were deadly anglers with the bamboo, at least for small, hungry, springtime trout. We'd use black nylon line and a small black hook baited with a worm. The bobber was optional; some of us considering its use quite amateurish.

If I used a bobber, it was generally a very lightweight cork variety, not the heavy plastic ones that splash loudly on touchdown. Mostly I made my own bobbers and painted them orange or red.

Bamboo trouting was all about stealth. You couldn't cast very far and generally would be laying that juicy worm right where the trout were congregated. The presentation was slow and deliberate, dropping the bait gently on the still water.

My father taught me at a tender age how to catch trout on a simple pole. It was a valuable skill, I think.

From a survival perspective, one should know how to catch a fish when you are seriously hungry. A pole can be cut with a survival knife and some hooks and a line should be an essential component of everyone's survival kit. Bait can be found most anywhere in nature if you do a little picking and poking.

There are all sorts of grubs and insects to be found under rocks and around the roots of plants. Insect larvae abound on the bottom of shallow ponds, clinging to rocks, sticks, and logs. Trout absolutely love these delicious morsels. Actually, it's one of their primary food sources. You don't see many earthworms in our lakes, ponds and rivers.

Did you ever notice those tiny crusty creatures that look like little bits of debris stuck to rocks on the bottom of a pond? They don't even look alive until you pick one up in your fingers and squeeze it. Inside there's a tender larvae, full of protein to sustain a hungry trout. These are caddis fly larvae, and they coat themselves with bits of wood, tiny rocks, and whatever else is available to camouflage themselves from mortal enemies like our beloved mud trout. It's nature's way of allowing their species a niche to survive in. These nymphs make wonderful bait on a tiny hook when there are no worms available.

Wait a minute here.

Why not tie up a caddis nymph fly and put it in your survival kit? That way, there's no need to go wading around in the water looking for live bait. Isn't this how fly fishing started centuries ago? Some angler with a pole couldn't find any bait, so he or she had the notion to create something artificial that looked a whole lot like the real thing.

That's the very essence of fly fishing, and its beginnings were essentially pragmatic, in contrast to how we often consider the long rod as a bit of a self-imposed handicap.

Most likely, the fly fishing flame was ignited by the spectacle of mayflies. Unlike their caddis cousins, mayfly nymphs are free swimmers and survive through speed and agility.

They are typically less than an inch long and have two or three long tails, depending on the species. When it comes time for mating, metamorphosis transforms these plain aquatic nymphs into wondrous albeit short lived airborne creatures. They spout wings and burst into the air before landing on pond side trees and plants to procreate their kind. Then they fall back to the water and die.

The critical window of opportunity for both trout and anglers is when the mayfly first comes to the surface of the pond. It must sit on the still water and dry its wings before it can fly. Mother Nature certainly has her nasty side. These poor defenceless insects are easy pickings for hungry trout. They just sit there, wings upright like tiny sails, hoping to lift off before being eaten by a trout.

There are 2,500 mayfly species worldwide and over 600 in North America alone. There are hatches so prolific that they can be detected on Doppler weather radar. Creative fly fishers go to great lengths imitating them, often elevating their craft to the level of art.

But what about our ancient angler, trying to snag a trout with nothing but pole and hook? Certainly he or she must have observed trout gorging themselves on hatching mayflies. No doubt an attempt was made to impale one on a hook in an attempt to fool a trout. It likely didn't work. A dead mayfly on a hook looks nothing like the real thing. Inevitably, and thankfully, our angler thought of tying a feather on a hook. No doubt the trout devoured the offering, and fly fishing was born.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard's Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at

Geographic location: North America

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