Fishing the Mayfly is a wonderful experience, not only because you have a better chance of catching fish but because the imitation Mayfly is big - to imitate the real insect which can be up to 25mm long - so it is easy to see on the water's surface and you don't have to strain your eyes like you do with some teeny flies. The takes are also spectacularly exciting as the trout rise and feed off the surface with an exploding splash. At times the water can resemble a bubbling cauldron and the whole river seems to come alive. Also, usually, the Mayfly conveniently hatches when the weather has started to pick up, the sun is shining, summer fishing gear replaces heavy winter fleeces and picnics are brought out. I hope you are starting to see why it can be such a treat.
It is not such a great time for the Mayfly, however. Having spent two years cosy on the river or lake bed, snuggled down in gravel, sand or silt, it now struggles to the surface and if it's not eaten by a fish it will be dead within 24 hours anyway. The family name for Mayfly is ephemeroptera (from the Latin ephemera which refers to its short life cycle and the ptera which is Greek for `things with wings'). There are three species in this country: ephemera danica which is the most common type of Mayfly we get, ephemera vulgata which is also known as the Dark Mackerel because of the patterning on its wings, and ephemera lineata which is more than likely now extinct.
After the nymph has made its way to the water's surface - a process that takes less than a minute - it sits for a few seconds and dries its wings. The winged adult is now known as a dun (technically known as a sub-imago). If it's not snapped up at this stage by eager jaws, it flies off to the nearest bankside to find some undergrowth. After some time at rest, it sheds its whole skin again and this time emerges as a fully sexually mature adult known as a spinner (now known technically as an imago). This always makes me laugh because spinner sounds like "groover", and I think of the adult Mayfly and its new-found sexual maturity and imagine it getting ready to go to the disco. Which is kind of what it does because now the adult male and female go in search of each other to start their mating flights. Usually, but not always, this stage is reached by mid-afternoon and usually, but not always, they hatch off the water around lunch time.
When they've found each other, coupling takes place in the air and as soon as the female is fertilised the male drops dead over land. Now, the female Mayfly's last and only act, tummy full of eggs, is to find water and dip her abdomen in its surface to lay her eggs which then trickle to the bottom. After all this dancing about and laying of eggs she no longer has the strength to lift off and dies (sniff) on the water. She is now known as a spent spinner (or a knackered groover) and the fish take her at leisure knowing this is one food source that is going nowhere fast.
So there you have it. Oliver Edwards, entomology expert, fishing supremo and author of Fly-Tyer's Masterclass (Merlin Unwin) has two bits of advice for fishing the Mayfly: have a good representation of the Mayfly at each stage of their cycle (nymph, dun, spinner and spent spinner) and don't strike too soon in the excitement. It's the mistake most beginners make, so let the fish turn with the fly before setting the hook. If this has whetted your appetite to learn more about insect life, Orvis are running a grayling course on 16-17 October on the Itchen where you can catch bugs, learn about their life cycle and then tie your own fly from the natural. Telephone 01264 349519 for more details. Also before I head off to fish the Mayfly, just to let you know that The New Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing by Conrad Voss Bark and Eric Restall (Robert Hale) is published on Monday and is well worth a look.