The Puzzle

The March Brown mayfly has been pretty much the only sizeable player on the trout’s stage over the past week.

The one consistent thing I have noted in thirty years of angling Catskill Rivers is that the same seasons will offer different conditions every time. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes quite grand, but anglers need to be ready and able to adapt, cause it won’t be boring.

The March Brown is a case in point. The quality and density of the hatch varies widely. In good years, you will find them hatching sporadically throughout the long hours of the day. In poor years, you may be lucky to see any of them at all. They can prodiuce some great fishing when there are enough of them about, or cause one to waste time casting big dry flies with unrequited hope.

This year the hatch has been relatively weak in the areas I have fished. I have seen a few duns each day, even some in the evening, but the trout have generally not been paying much attention. That means fishing imitations won’t get you bit.

The other noted characteristic of this continuing spring season is change, radical, drastic change. The rivers warmed early, with April weather in March, but the flies and the trout weren’t buying the promise of early spring. Then the cold returned with high flows, unsafe for boating and out of the question for wading. Two weeks ago I walked out on my porch after sunrise to a thermometer struggling to register a temperature of 31 degrees. When we drove out to launch the drift boat around 9:30 AM, it was all the way up to 34! Rivers had just come down to levels I consider safe for boating, and the water was in the forties. The rivers dropped quickly over that week. We didn’t get rain and the NYC DEC dropped the releases from both Delaware River dams, and yes, the daily temperatures took their cue and shot up into the eighties. Fishing went into a bit of a funk.

Most recently I was confronted with some unique behavior for spring trout. With a lot of wind, and the forests at peak leaf and pollen production, the low flows carried some huge scum lines on the rivers, reminiscent of the colored leaf parade of late autumn. Trout would cruise these scum lines and pick off tidbits, something small I couldn’t pick out amid the pollen, seeds and leaf matter. Some nice fish were spotted and observed, cruising for just a few minutes at a time and rising once, twice, perhaps three times in different locations for…something. The puzzle to be solved was to identify the something, and have the patience to stand and wait for long periods between these little snack tours.

The only bugs visible during these sessions have been small shad fly caddis and the very occasional March Browns. My favorite caddis pattern seduced a fine twenty inch brown on the first day I encountered these conditions, a hard won fish that required several hours of observation and the patience to wait for the gusty winds to subside just long enough to affect a cast. Puzzle solved? Well, no, at least not for any of the other cruising trout I attempted to catch over three days of this technical game. On day two I was blanked, not even a look at any fly including a terrestrial or two, sometimes the kings of those late autumn scum lines.

Yesterday I arrived to find the conditions looking a little better, at least until the winds cranked up and the scum lines began to thicken. There were fewer cruisers, and a few more caddis, while the occasional March Brown continued to float past unscathed. I watched more than one of those big duns drift peacefully for fifty yards. I stayed with the caddis, trying a couple of patterns and sizes from 16 down to 20. The size twenty olives came out next, when I spotted something smaller and darker at a distance that might have been little mayflies. No sale.

When the caddis failed to interest any cruising trout I reverted to big fly logic. I had tried various March Brown patterns over the course of this oddysey, duns and emergers in various color phases. They seemed to be perfect imitations, as they had been ignored just like the naturals. Last year I had designed a new crippled emerger that had taken a couple of difficult fish, so I knotted one on and told myself I was going to stick with the big fly until it produced. I didn’t have to wait too long.

The next cruiser I saw didn’t take it, likely because he wasn’t in the same location anymore, after I waited for a wind gust to subside. I was still watching that area when a flash and a gentle sip twenty feet upstream drew my attention, and an immediate cast. The Paradigm loaded fully and unrolled line and leader into the breeze, dropping the big fly gently, and right on target. There was that flash, the split second hover, and a gentle sip took down my big gangly size 10 fly. Oh he was a heavyweight! Made the vintage LRH sing like a rock and roll screamer! Twenty inches, with a big bull head and shoulders that belied the delicacy of his take.

My March Brown Crippled Emerger debuted in 2020. The tri color wing features tan and pale yellow CDC and EP Trigger Point Fibers to create the image of life.

The next riser slipped downstream from my casting target, and the fly ran out of drift at just the wrong moment, leaving me with a splashy refusal and the trout without a nice artificial snack. Did I mention this season has been about radical change? I cast to another flash and let my fly drift all the way down until drag began, then pulled it under with a tug. The line stopped with a jolt, and I was fast to another trout. This time we were both surpised, as I slipped the net under a seventeen inch wild brook trout, my largest brookie ever.

So last night I was back at the vise, crafting a few more of those big cripples. Maybe this solution to the puzzle will continue to be the answer. If not, I shouldn’t have to wait too long for something to change.

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