Winter is finally retreating—it is getting warmer, the clocks have changed, and the days are longer with possibly the final daylight-saving time in our era occurring. This all means one thing for us cabin fever fishermen: the beginning of dry fly season! While people may think of the Western United States when they hear of fly fishing, only two hours outside of New York City in the Catskills, the birthplace of American fly fishing still remains a mecca for spring dry fly fishing. The famed Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, or peaceful Upper Delaware rivers are luckily still blessed with nearly every mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly species in the Eastern United States.
Each year thousands of anglers flock to the area attempting to time that perfect hatch. While many, many hatches occur on these systems, sometimes simultaneously, here I will outline three of my favorite spring and summertime hatches that are nearly guaranteed each year. Beware though, nothing is ever certain in fishing! Weather plays a major factor in the timing of these hatches as well as the reservoir conditions that are the crux of some of these cold-water systems like the Upper Delaware.
The Hendrickson (Euphemerella subvaria) is regarded by many, myself included, as the official start of dry fly season. It remains one of the premier hatches today and each year anglers await the news that the Hendricksons have begun. Beginning in April and lasting throughout the end of May, this is one of the most dependable hatches on many rivers. Being the first hatch of the year, trout gorge themselves, taking nearly every fly that passes overhead. For this reason, this is a time of year when fishing is deemed the easiest on the technical Catskill streams.
Even though fish are hungry as they begin to feed after a long winter, they are still smart, and matching the hatch is still relevant here. The most complicated element of this hatch is the significant differences between males and females in color and size (#12-14). This has led to some confusion over the years as anglers have adapted to almost pseudo-names to describe which types of Hendricksons are hatching. Oftentimes, anglers call male Hendricksons “Red Quills” or “dark Hendricksons” to describe the variety of deep reds to light pinks they present in. Females, on the other hand, are smaller in size and tend to be more tan and yellow; often referred to as “light Hendricksons.” So, while you can leave the nymphs, streamers, and wet flies at home, you need an arsenal of different colors and sizes of Hendricksons to accurately match the favorite at that moment. I tend to find that standing out in the crowd just slightly tends to yield the best success in tricking a big brown.
The March brown naming is rather confusing. March browns (Maccaffertium vicarium) do not hatch in March. This hatch typically starts in May, but its name is derived from a similar-looking species found in Europe that does indeed hatch in March. While this is one of the most anticipated hatches, this is vastly different from the super hatch of the Hendrickson. Most anglers, when they think of a hatch, envision a blanket of flies completely covering the water. This may happen with the Hendricksons but that is not what occurs with the March Brown. Typically, this hatch does not produce large numbers of flies. It is more of a steady trickle throughout the day. But, March Browns are monsters in comparison to the previous hatches, easily reaching #10-14 size. What this means for a trout is an easy, substantial meal that becomes highly pursued throughout all lifecycles. This scenario creates perfect conditions for blind casting large dry flies throughout the river and is often the most productive technique during this time as fish are always looking up. For the angler, the shock of a surprise brown trout eating on a massive dry fly is exhilarating.
Sulphurs go one of two ways: either you love them or you hate them. For me, it is certainly the latter. They are a reliable, important hatch, but they usually result in frustration for many fishermen. Of note, I did not provide a scientific name here due to the multitude of Sulphurs that emerge on many rivers. To me, these are all grouped as “yellow bugs” and I will leave the further classification for experts.
Many Sulphur hatches occur throughout the year. The most dependable hatches happen on the Upper Delaware River systems. The first Sulphurs that hatch are referred to as “Big Sulphurs.” These Sulphurs are larger (#14-16) than their usual counterparts (#16-20) and appear at the tail end of the Hendrickson hatch. This is the first infuriating moment with Sulphurs as they often confuse anglers by mirroring a yellowish female Hendrickson. If you are fishing Hendricksons and you cannot seem to get a rise, I would suggest trying a Sulphur. On a more positive note, the Big Sulphur hatch is long-lasting and provides some of the best evening opportunities in early spring.
Little Summer Sulphurs
Late in the season, the upper West Branch with its reliable cold water has consistent hatches of “Little Summer Sulphurs.” These mayflies provide excellent opportunities all throughout the day, even after most of the Eastern streams are too hot, dry, and unsafe to fish. However, during this time, trout are at their peak spookiness. They have seen 100s of fly lines daily for several weeks. The water is low and clear. And even the slightest drag or color difference can turn a trout off. This is 6X or 7X season as small diameter tippets become the norm trying to trick these picky fish. This is the most technical and difficult time (and frankly downright infuriating most of the time), but it is still exciting to witness these prolific Sulphur hatches. These smaller Sulphurs actually start hatching well before the dog days of summer kick in. So, when all else fails, try a smaller variation of a yellow Sulphur amid a stubborn Hendrickson hatch or at the end of the day.
While I only talked about three major, almost predictable hatches, many other flies hatch during the spring and early summer on the Catskill streams. Blue Winged olives are actually the first player of the year right before Hendricksons. Slate Drakes or Isos add to the mix with a variety of Caddis (apple caddis, tan caddis, grannoms) complicating the matter immensely. And let’s not forget about the infamous Green and Brown Drakes that are less predictable. Nonetheless, if you happen to hit the Green Drakes on the Beaverkill River, you are surely in for a treat. So as George Daniel instructs that nymphing should be dynamic, I implore you to use a similar style with dry fly fishing during this time. If you find a fish feeding consistently, it may take several fly changes or some careful watching to figure out what fly it is keyed in on. The spring can be easy fishing at moments but challenging in its own way.
Featured image courtesy of Ryan Halkirt