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Tips for fishing mayfly spinners, with Jim McLennan

Description: This week, my guest is longtime guide, fly shop owner, journalist, musician, and all-around great guy Jim McLennan [40:26]. Jim is a thoughtful fly fisher who always has solid tips on fly-fishing techniques, and this week we talk about mayfly spinners—their mysteries, how to identify when they are active, and how to target trout feeding on them. Mayfly spinner falls are some of the best opportunities to catch large trout on a dry fly because trout gorge on them and sometimes get stupid, so it pays to have some intelligence on taking advantage of these opportunities. And this is a timely podcast because in most parts of the country, we are about to get into the prime season for the tiny Trico spinners.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi, and welcome to the "Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer, and this week, my guest is Jim McLennan. Jim has been a guide, a fly shop owner, a writer, a musician. Jim's been fly fishing for over half a century. And Jim's one of those guys that really gets into the nitty-gritty of fly fishing. He's based in Alberta, Canada, on the Bow River and other surrounding rivers. And Jim has been a longtime friend and just a great, very thoughtful fly fisher. And the topic this week is mayfly spinners. Mayfly spinners can be a confusing aspect of fly fishing, but they can also be one of the best opportunities to catch a large trout on a dry fly.
And it's also a situation where the trout really feed with confidence and makes you feel like a hero sometimes when they're on mayfly spinners. I love...I will go out of my way to encounter a mayfly spinner fall. So we're gonna talk about the basics and then get a little bit more into the nitty-gritty black diamond, if you call it, aspects of fishing for trout that are eating mayfly spinners. And it's pretty appropriate because we are coming up now onto the Trico season, which is a little tiny mayfly, which is most important in the spinner stage. And hopefully, it'll help you all have a little bit more fun and productive time on trout rivers. So, hope you enjoy the discussion with Jim.
But first, let's do the Fly Box. And the Fly Box is where you either ask questions or make complaints to me, or share tips with other listeners, sometimes based on previous questions in the podcast. And if you have a question for the Fly Box, or a comment, or criticism, please send it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Your questions are what make this podcast interesting to most people, so I really rely on your interesting questions to add a little something to my interviews, add a lot to my interviews, actually. And no question is too basic. Don't worry about that. If I've answered it recently, I may not answer it, but if it's a really super basic question, I love to help demystify those aspects of fly fishing as well.
You can either just type your question in an email, or you can attach a voice file. And please try to keep your voice files two minutes or under. If they're too long and rambling, I may not play them. So try to keep your phone call questions short and sweet. The first question is from David, from Rome, Georgia. "I have two questions concerning saltwater flies. I've been fishing for juvenile tarpon, and I've had some success with Tarpon Toads, Laid-Up Tarpon flies, and a few other patterns that have mono eyes. I've noticed that after several casts, one side of the mono eyes is missing. I'm guessing that my casting might be causing the mono loop to catch one of the eyes and snap it off. Is there a way to correct this either through how I tie on the eyes, tie the mono loop to the fly, is another knot better, or is it my casting that needs work?" It always needs work.
"My second question is how to revive a fly after it's been fished in saltwater. The marabou and rabbits strips definitely get crusty by the time I return home from the water. I've tried to rinse them in fresh water, but that only helps a little. I suppose they're too far gone, I can try and save the hook for another tie. Your advice is always valued. Thanks for this great podcast and answering our questions." So, David, there's a number of things you could do with those mono eyes. First thing is if you're gonna use a loop knot for tarpon, make sure that the loop in front of the eyes is small enough so that it can't fold back over the eyes. And sometimes this is difficult, especially with really heavy mono that you're using for a shock tippet.
But if you can, you know, you just want a little play in that eye so that the fly swings freely. Just try to make that loop small so that it isn't big enough to go over the eyes and catch on them, because that can be a problem. Another solution to that is to not tie your tarpon flies on with a loop knot. There are a number of tarpon guides that I fish with that have been going to just a 3-turn clench knot for, you know, things like a 60-pound mono, without the fly swinging free. And I know that it seems like it wouldn't be advisable because the fly doesn't swing freely, but it works. I've proven it to myself, and when I fish for tarpon now, I just use a three-turn clench knot, and don't worry about the loop. So that's a problem, or that's possibly a solution.
The other thing is maybe try a different brand of mono eyes. Maybe the ones that you've got have a little bit too small of a central piece. And they do break off. I have them break off too. You might consider leaving the mono eyes off. Are they really needed on those Tarpon Toads and other flies? Not so sure you absolutely have to have eyes on those flies. They may work pretty well without them. And if one of them breaks off and the fly, you know, is not gonna swim quite right, then cut the other one off and see how it works.
Another possibility is to make your own eyes by burning monofilament and then dipping it in black UV epoxy or black nail polish, and then putting another coat of epoxy on. It's a little bit longer, but you can probably make them more durable by making them yourself out of heavy mono, like 30-pound or 40-pound mono. You may have to tie in two pieces because it's a little tricky to get kind of the dumbbell eyes with one piece of mono and getting it just right. But you may try that. So there's a few things to think about on those plastic eyes. Your second question, reviving a fly, it should work to soak them in fresh water. And you wanna soak them to make sure you get all that salt out and then rinse them. And if that's not working, the only thing I can suggest is that you add a little bit of a mild dish soap to the water when you wash those flies off, and wash them well.
And then I would rinse it really well because you probably don't want the smell of that dish soap on your flies. It may or may not put fish off, I'm not sure. I don't know if anybody knows. But you should be able to revive them. If it's just the salt water, you should be able to revive them. Try warm water, try a little dish soap, and just make sure you rinse them thoroughly and then dry them out thoroughly. You may even wanna use a hair dryer to dry them off. Although you don't want to go too hot with that hair dryer, because you'll make the rabbit strips brittle. So it's fine with marabou, but be careful with a hair dryer on those rabbit strips.
Here's an email from Seth, from Rockville, Maryland. "On a recent podcast, you said you almost never use an indicator instead of a dry dropper in small streams. And on occasion, when you have, you often regret it. Using a dry dropper is one of my favorite methods, but I've encountered some challenges so I hope you can answer a few questions. First, do you ever use more than one subsurface fly when fishing small streams? I know that usually the water is too shallow, but I've found that in the occasional deep pool, I want fish multiple depths. So in these spots I've used an indicator with two nymphs. Second, sometimes when fishing a dry dropper in a plunge pool where the water is fast, especially at the head of the pool, I find that the surface fly gets swamped and pulled under by the current, while an indicator is generally more buoyant in those situations.
Do you have any suggestions on dealing with this? Finally, it seems to me that one of the few disadvantages of a dry dropper is that it's higher to change the depth of the dropper than with an indicator. Other than cutting the tippet off and starting over, do you have any tips or tricks for quickly adjusting the distance between the dry and the dropper? Thank you for an always enjoyable, entertaining, and educational podcast. Keep up the great work." Thank you, Seth. That's a great question. I do sometimes use two subsurface flies with a dry dropper. I'll use a, you know, a slightly heavy nymph and then a smaller nymph underneath it. It does create problems though because you got three hooks going through the air and tangles can be really annoying.
But if you're careful with your casting, make sure you cast an open loop, and try to stay out of the trees, you know, it'll work. It'll work. It's a not something I do all the time, but I do it sometimes early season when I wanna get down. And regarding fishing a plunge pool, I still think that a dry fly is more subtle and there's always the chance for a fish to come up and smash that dry fly even in a deep plunge pool. So you might consider using a really big foam fly, maybe something bigger than you think you need in that plunge pool. But something, you know, something with some foam on it, and a big water-propellent wing, like, you know, something like a large Chubby Chernobyl or Chernobyl Ant or something with a lot of foam on it. That'll hold up a pretty good size nymph.
And, you know, if you don't get anything on the dry fly, no big deal, but you're gonna have those times when a fish is gonna eat your indicator and you're gonna be bummed that you had an indicator on instead of a dry fly. And it is more subtle, the dry fly just lands in a more subtle manner than an indicator. There are times, you know, in a really deep plunge pool when, yeah, maybe an indicator might work better, but try the big dry fly. And then as far as an adjustable dry dropper rig, I have gotten all kinds of clever solutions to this from people. And I haven't seen one that works for me. I've tried them all and I don't think anybody's got it yet. I had a couple of ideas myself on how to do it and they didn't work either.
So what I do is I just try to kind of split the difference between the shallowest water I think I'm gonna fish and the deepest water and I split the difference on my dry dropper. And usually, that works. So you may have to, you know, if it's really deep, you may have to throw that dry fly a little bit further upstream to get the fly to sink. And if it's too shallow, you may have to, you know, kind of lift your rod tip and make sure that you kind of draw on that dry fly a little bit so that the nymph doesn't sink in the shallow water. Or you just take your chances and have it bump bottom and have a lot of false strikes. But I haven't found a good adjustable dry dropper rig. I think there's still some research to be done there and, hopefully, someone will come up with a solution someday.
Sam: Hey, Tom, this is Sam calling from Minnesota. I do most of my fishing in Wisconsin though. I got a grandpa who's got a nice little private access to a beautiful little brook trout stream down there. But I was just calling because I was doing some fishing the other day and I caught a fair amount fishing with the, like, Hare's Ear, I was trying to match the... I saw some mayfly nymphs, I think they were in the water and so I was trying to match something like that. But when I swapped to my... I had a little Batman fly, a black little thing, and when I swapped to that, they started going crazy for it. I got fish almost on every cast. And so, I was wondering if, like, there's some random kind of like... I did catch one and I ate it and I checked in the stomach and it had black beetles that it was eating.
So I was wondering if there was stuff other than the obvious, like, rising through the water column that trout been feeding on, and, like, these kind of black beetle deals that it seemed like that's all that they were feeding on that day. So it seemed kind of random. It didn't look like any kind of mayfly or caddis nymph or stonefly that I've ever seen. So it just kind of seemed like some kind of hard shell black beetle, so it made me a little curious. And so, I was also wondering if, like, getting a stomach pump was a good idea, because I've heard all these old try-hard geezers get these stomach pumps and are pumping trout stomachs. But I don't know if I'm bridging on, like, obsessive territory if I get one of those and if that has any harm to the fish or what have you. So thanks for the podcast, appreciate all you do, and I love listening to it. So thank you.
Tom: So, Sam. fish do eat a lot of beetles. There are lots of terrestrial beetles that fall in the water, you know, they fly and then they don't fly very well and they hit stuff and they land on the water. They tumble into the water, they fall off of branches and streamside brush. There are also aquatic beetles. There are beetles that live their whole lives underwater as an adult. So there are lots of beetles out there, so I'm not surprised that you found a lot of black beetles in that fish's stomach. So, you know, fishing some kind of black sinking fly makes total sense. And even sometimes those terrestrial beetles that fall in the water, often they'll sink. They don't float that well so often they'll sink. And a sinking beetle or a sinking ant, for that matter, is a really good fly.
But that's a cool thing about fly fishing. You know, talking about the stomach pump and figuring out what the fish are eating, you can make it as simple as possible or you can get really geeky about it. And it's all up to what you wanna learn in fly fishing. I do use a stomach pump and, actually, it's technically a throat pump. You're not shoving that thing way down into a fish's stomach. You're just squirting some water down their throat and then sucking it back up. And what you're getting is what that fish has in its gullet, so it's what the fish ate very recently. It hasn't made it to the stomach yet. And there have been studies done on these things and they don't appear to cause any additional mortality to the fish.
You wanna do it quickly, you know, handling time with a fish is always the most critical thing. So if you think you wanna pump a fish's stomach while you're playing the fish, I would get that stomach pump out of your pack or vest, fill it with water while you're playing the fish, get it in the net, and then just very quickly squirt some water down the fish's throat and then suck it back up into the pump and see what they're eating. You know, because we don't kill fish anymore, most of us don't kill fish, we never really know what a fish is eating unless we use a throat pump. So, you know, if you don't kill fish, you can observe a trout, but you often can't see what they're eating and that's the only real way. And I think it's super educational.
You will have people that make fun of them. I think my friend, a huge fly fisherman, has said that's one of the most useless things that that you can have on a stream, and I respectfully disagree. But people will make fun of them, so just know that, you know, do it when nobody is looking, and don't post it on social media. But, you know, as far as harming the fish, it really doesn't. And while we're on that subject, I have an email in the same subject. "Hey, this is Caleb. I've been fly fishing since I was born. I just found your podcast. I've really enjoyed it. Now that I can drive, I've been able to go fishing more. Therefore recently I've been tying flies more. So I was wondering, what do you think about pumping the stomachs of trout? Is it to do or not? Thanks. Like, is it ethical and is it looked down by other fly fishermen?" Well, Caleb, I think I answered that. I think it's ethical. It is looked down by other fly fishermen, so, you know, but you do what you want. If you're not harming the trout, you decide whether you think it's okay or not. But I think it's okay.
This one is from Steven. "Hey, Tom, a couple questions for you about rods. First thing, love the show on everything you do for anglers. I can't seem to stop breaking rods. Am I bad at casting? I have broken about three or four rods in less than two years and it's driving me crazy. I will mention that I've been using cheap combos from the local sporting goods store. Is this a sign that I should spend the money and buy a nicer rod? Is glass the way to go? Or once again, am I just bad at casting? Thanks again for all you do." So, Steven first of all, a good fly rod matched with the right fly line should never break when you're casting, and even a cheap rod, I don't think is gonna break when you're casting. So I don't think it's your casting that is breaking those rods.
One of the reasons that rods break is that if you fish a lot of heavily weighted flies like coneheads, clouds or minnows, anything with big weighted eyes and you occasionally hit the tip of your rod with that fly, that can fracture the graphite. And the rod may not break right away, but over time, those fractures will open up and the rod will break. And graphite rods are, you know, as far as crush strengths are concerned, graphite rods, especially the less expensive rods are gonna be more prone... They're quite fragile. They're gonna be more prone to breakage if they get banged on something. The other thing is if, you know, if you're in a boat or in your car, you wanna make sure that especially the tips of those rods aren't banging on something when you're running the boat, because that can also put little stress fractures into the graphite.
Now, that being said, a more expensive rod, a better rod, is going to be stronger. It's going to have stronger hoop strength. That's why they cost more. There's a lot more involved in making a fly rod that is gonna have stronger crush strength and tensile strength than there is making a cheap rod. So, yeah, if you don't think you're banging that rod with a fly and you don't think you're banging on a boat or banging in on rocks or something, then probably a better quality rod, a more expensive rod is probably gonna last longer. The other thing about the expensive rod is all the good ones have a guarantee against breakage for any reason, at least most of them, usually with a small or sometimes a large, depending on the brand, service charge to fix the rod.
So, anyway I don't think it's your casting. I don't think it's your casting, unless your casting is causing those heavily weighted flies to hit the rod tip. Otherwise it's a fault of something else. Something is fracturing the rod, or as you said, it could be just the fact that they're inexpensive rods.
Christian: Hello, Tom. My name is Christian from Brooklyn, New York. The other week in your small streams episode, your guest was talking about wet wading in small streams and how it can be especially cold in the early and late season, and that they wear long Johns in order to help with that. One other tip I wanted to add as well. I do a lot of wet wading and I got a pair of cheap neoprene socks, like a wetsuit material that I wear underneath in order to help keep my toes warm. Thought it might be helpful. Have a good one. Bye.
Tom: Well, Christian, that's a great tip. And there are a number of reasons for using neoprene socks when wet wading. One is that if you bought your wading shoes for wearing with waders, and most people do, when you go wet wading, they're gonna be too big because they're meant to have a piece of neoprene in there from the foot of your wader. So wading with a neoprene sock will also take up that room inside the wading boot and will make things a lot more comfortable. And yet another reason for using neoprene socks is that your foot isn't gonna rub directly against the boot, and especially when you get sand and grit in there, and it can cause blisters if you're doing a lot of walking. So great tip. And there's lots of reasons for getting a pair of neoprene socks to wear when you're wet wading.
All right, here's an email. This one is from Eric, from Washington State. "I have a comment and suggestion for new fly anglers. I picked up fly fishing about seven years ago, but never really figured it out. My father-in-law helped me figure out the basics of casting, but due to health issues, wasn't able to go on the river with me. I bought some gear from a big-box store that got me on and in the water. I watched videos and read some books, but never really knew what I was doing, so I lost interest. My wife and I finally decided to take a bucket list trip to the East Coast in late September, 2021, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine for 2 weeks, loved it over there. Beautiful part of the country. I made it a point to go to the Orvis store in Manchester. I wanted to go to the fly fishing museum, but due to COVID, it was closed, which was a bummer.
After being at the store, my interest for fly fishing was reignited. In the following days, I found the podcast and obsessively started listening. After five or so episodes, I realized I had been doing everything wrong. From walking directly into the river like crazy bull in a china shop, to trying to cast a monster-weighted Woolly Bugger meant for an 8-weight with a 5-weight rod. I worked my way through the Fly Boxes and all the guests. I listened and took notes and went to the Orvis Fly Fishing Learning Center for more information and videos. I got an Orvis Recon, 9 foot 5 weight, a Hydro's reel, and an Orvis PRO line. The setup is night and day compared to the box store setup I hit. I figured out how to do a proper dry dropper set up and headed to a local river around home when the season started.
First day out, nothing. But the following weekend, I took your advice. Got my dropper deeper in the water column and, bam, I finally caught this small 5-inch to 6-inch trout. My first thought was "Great, now what?" Guess I didn't listen enough on how to land a fish. Luckily, I hadn't set the hook too much and the barbless hook, he jumped off as I got him to my feet. I just took a trip to Western Idaho to visit a friend to do some fishing on the Saint Joe River. We planned on taking out motorcycles to scout some water before the Saint Joe. We went to the Orvis Northwest outfitter store in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, awesome store, and very, very helpful staff. Sorry, I forgot their names. We told them our plans for the river and they said it was too high and not good due to recent rains. They suggested an area they had been in the day before instead.
They helped me pick out the right hopper-dropper patterns that were working. I bought my three-day license, a bunch of flies, a hat, and a new box for the flies. Off we went on the bikes, found lots of possible water and stopped at a spot we thought was good. I didn't bring all my gear, but I had my rod, real bag, and my new flies. Set up my rod and in I went. Bam, second drift and I had one hooked. Lost it, but the game was on. I finally did catch my very first cutthroat, not a huge one, but a pretty little cutthroat nonetheless. It all came together thanks to you, the podcast, and all your guests, Orvis company, and the great products and all the folks at Orvis Coeur d'Alene. We did go to the Saint Joe the next day, just to check it out, beautiful river, but way too crazy to fish that day.
My suggestion to new fly anglers is this, listen to the experts, go into your local fly shop, and don't be afraid to ask questions. They really wanna help you learn and catch fish. Just simply go out and practice, and don't be afraid to fail, because failure is the best teacher there is to learn. Just enjoy the process and get out and enjoy nature. Once again, as always, thank you so very much for the great podcast and putting all your great knowledge out there for us to absorb. Thanks to Orvis for building such great products and the folks at the Coeur d'Alene store for guiding me in the right direction. You have all made fly fishing fun for me again. P.S., I too enjoy smaller streams and creeks, feels much more private and engaging than bigger water."
Well, thank you very much, Eric, for that testimonial. And it's so important, as you've stressed, to find a good local fly shop or a fly shop in the area of where you're fishing. The people in most fly shops are gonna be so helpful. You know, fly shops used to be intimidating places where if you weren't some expert they wouldn't give you the time of day, but that's changed. The whole culture of fly fishing has changed. And if you go into a fly shop and the people aren't friendly and you feel intimidated because you're a beginner, well, then, find another fly shop because they're not gonna be in business for very long anyways. And again, most of the fly shops you find that people are gonna be super, super helpful.
And if you don't have a fly shop in your area, you know, another good resource is the Orvis Outfitter line with 800-548-9548. Those are all fly fishers that answer the telephone there, or the chats on the Orvis website. And they're always glad to answer your questions. You know, don't wait for the answer to come up on the Fly Box, because you don't know when it's gonna be here. So, you know, there's no substitute for real-life experience and being able to ask questions to people in real time. I'm flattered that the podcast does help some people, but there are even better ways to get that basic knowledge in fly fishing.
Here's an email from Michael, from Northern California. "I'm a big fan of the show and listen to every episode the week it's released. I have a couple of short questions for you, less technical and more broad. I'm a young father finishing out my degree after having gone through an immense amount of tragedy over the last year. My fiancé and I both worked on top of me being enrolled as a full-time student and raising our daughter to the best of our abilities. My birthday was recent and I wanted to, above all else, just go and have a day with my two girls at a stream getting my fly line wet. We went to Putah Creek and we were disappointed to find the area we went littered with loud party goers, as well as trash lining the banks.
In addition to their ruckus, they were stirring up the water and all the good wade in portions within reason. With shoulders loaded down with gear and a baby strapped to your back, behavior aside, I began to realize the problem I'm about to ask you about. Do you have any recommendations for going fishing with a young family, such as tips for location choice, wading versus floating, or minimizing packing? I know this is less of a fly fishing question, more of a dad question, but just wanted to see if you had any pointers. My other question is also only partly related to fly fishing. I quite enjoy writing about fly fishing, be it essays or poems and believe some of my work is noteworthy enough for some type of publishing. Do you have any tips on getting started as a fly fishing writer, how to find publishing outlets or at least where to look?
I completely understand if that's an inapplicable question, unworthy of response, but again, just curious if you had any pointers. Thanks for everything you do, and hearing me out." Well, Michael, as far as fishing with a young family, you know, the last thing that I would do is to take my family to a technical trout stream. Putah Creek is, I've never fished it, but I believe it's a spring creek, and it's fairly accessible. What I would do if I were you is find a place more off the beaten path. And it kind of goes without saying, but find a place where maybe it's not so famous a fishing spot, maybe it's a small stream that might have trout in it. Maybe it's a local lake that has sunfish or small bass in it.
You know, someplace where you're not gonna run into a lot of other anglers or other people, and just enjoy the day. Just, you know, if your family wants to fly fish too, especially if you go fishing for sunfish, it's really easy to get them into a sunfish on a fly rod. So that's what I always recommend, finding a quiet place on a lake somewhere with just panfish. You know, if you try to go to an area where it's a famous trout stream, you're gonna run into a lot of traffic and it's not gonna be much of a fun family experience. So that's the best advice I can give you. Regarding getting published, probably the best place to break into writing about fly fishing is local, you know, local, weekly newspapers, or you know, sometimes blogs will post other people's writing if they like it.
It's difficult to break into the, you know, the major magazines and print without any prior publishing experience. So I think the best place to start, maybe a local Trout Unlimited newsletter. If you have a Trout Unlimited chapter, offer to write a piece for their newsletter, or again, a local paper, a weekly paper, I would start there. I would start locally. And once you have some experience under your belt, then you can take those published articles to, you know, some of the national magazines and show them that you can write and it's been published. So that's probably the best way to start. It's not an easy way to's a terrible way to make a living because it never pays that much, but it sounds like you just want to share your experiences with people. So I would start locally and take her from there.
Mindy: Hey, Tom. My name's Mindy, and I live maybe an hour south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. So not bad spot to be trout fishing, done it for a handful of years. And I really got that push to pick up a fly rod for the first time to chase them this spring after I got a job in Yellowstone. I had a couple of months to plan and figure things out and research the area and then everything went out the window a couple weeks ago with that crazy, historic, 1 in 500-year flood event. Yeah, so fishing here has been pretty nutty, and I have been monitoring USGS's, like, discharges in water temps and stuff like that for these rivers. And those are honestly pretty, like, average now. They've kind of leveled out.
But I know there's so many other factors in this game, you know, like the habitat on so many of these rivers, completely just different now. And I know that there's some places you're getting more nutrients, less nutrients, whatever. And I know long term, this is gonna be a great thing, but, like, for the short term, for the right now, about less than a month even, after this flood event, I just wanted to know what your thoughts are on what's going on with these fish. Is it back to normal already? Am I just overthinking it and things are pretty chill? Or do you think there's some stuff going on with these fish that might change what I should or shouldn't be doing? Or just even, I just, if it's not even related to fishing really even, just something going on with these fish, I think it's super, super interesting.
So if you have any thoughts about anything like that, I would love to hear it. Otherwise, if you have any tips for the stretch of the Yellowstone River that's actually in the national park, I am all ears. Because for the second half of the season, I was hoping to chase some cutthroat on Slough Creek, Lamar, and the Yellowstone. Slough Creek and Lamar are just totally closed right now. Yeah, so I am all in for the Yellowstone, which is pretty intimidating coming from a spot where, honestly, I could probably hop across most of the creeks and rivers I've been fishing. But, yeah, anything you got, really appreciate it. Times are crazy, but thank you.
Tom: So, Mindy, I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know what's gonna happen in an area, but I can tell you what I have seen over the years in rivers that have had flood events. And, you know, particularly past floods on the Yellowstone, I've seen the damage and I've seen that river come back pretty quickly, even after not quite as devastating a flood as you saw this past year, but pretty severe floods. And, you know, some of the trout may have been pushed around and it may have lost some trout, but they've survived for hundreds of thousands of years through flood events. And they will come back quickly. The places where they don't come back really quickly are places where humans have tried to "fix the habitat."
It happened specifically in Vermont during Hurricane Irene where people put bulldozers in the river and channelized the river and hammered the banks. And those places took a long time to come back to good trout-holding water. Places where they kind of just let nature reheal the river without putting machines in the river, the fish came back much more quickly. Now, there are times when we have to put machines in the river to save life and limb. So those things are necessary. But, you know, I would stay away from places where they have tried to "fix the river" and fish areas where the water has dropped to a safe level. And it may look a mess, but vegetation will come back.
Sometimes you get even better habitat because logs and branches and things get blown into the river, sometimes a flood event will clean a lot of the silt off the spawning beds and places where insects live. So I don't know what to expect, but I'm optimistic. I've seen places where I thought there's not gonna be any trout fishing left in my lifetime, and within six months, the fish were back and pretty healthy. Well, they were always there. They didn't come back, but they just appeared. And so, trout are pretty resilient. As long as you have warm water temperature and no pollution, and people don't put bulldozers in the river too much, they'll come back. And I expect that I wouldn't hesitate as soon as the water drops to a safe level, to go out and fish the water and see what's happening.
You may see a decline in insect hatches for a year or two. But, again, insects come back pretty quickly. They repopulate from places that weren't affected as much by the floods. So I think things are gonna be fine. It's unfortunate that people lost property and there was a lot of damage, but I think the trout are gonna be fine. All right. That's the Fly Box for this week. Let's go talk to Jim McLennan about fishing mayfly spinner falls.
Well, my guest today is my old friend Jim McLennan, and Jim has been a guide and educator and a fly shop owner, and an Orvis sales rep. Jim now does a lot of writing for "Fly Fusion Magazine." Jim and his wife, Linda, teach fly fishing schools, still teaching. And Jim, I remember back when you were a guide, when you owned, what was the name of your shop?
Jim: The Country Pleasures, Calgary.
Tom: Country Pleasures. Country pleasures, in Calgary. And you were Leigh Perkins' guide when he went out and fished the Bow River, he loved the Bow River. He loved the dry fly fishing there. And something that you told Leigh was actually something that back when I was writing the "Orvis News" and editing the "Orvis News," the old print thing, was so cool that we did an article on that, which was 68 degrees in the Tricorythodes. And I remember that you told Leigh that when the air temperature hits 68 degrees, Trico spinners fall to the water. And Jim, I have used that because our local streams have pretty good Trico hatches. In fact, the stream in my backyard sometimes has a good Trico hatch. And I have learned that I can sit around the house and wait until the air temp hits about like, yeah, 65, 66, go out and down to the river, get ready, get in place, relax. And 68 degrees, boom, those spinners fall. It's been a game changer.
Jim: Well, I don't wanna burst the bubble here, but I didn't tell Leigh that. He told me that. And I don't know who told him, but I remember him telling me about it and later on, he credited me with it. But it was the other way around. So this is gonna ruin your whole...
Tom: Oh, my God.
Jim: ...picture. Yeah. And I wish, maybe it was somebody like Rick Ruoff or something, I don't remember...
Tom: Could be.
Jim: ...who told him.
Tom: Wow. I'm gonna have to dig into it. Well, that's just like the late Leigh Perkins too, to give credit to his guide instead of himself, you know? That's just the way he, wow, I never knew that.
Jim: For sure. Yeah. And I'd be happy to just, you know, go along with what you said, except someone out there in podcast land is gonna say, "No, wait a minute. I told him that."
Tom: I'll have to ask Ruoff. Well, Jim...
Jim: Yeah. That would have been a way to flush out whoever it was, but...
Tom: ...I guess the podcast is over because I was gonna get you to talk about mayfly spinners, but since you don't know anything about mayfly spinners and I can't ask Leigh Perkins, I guess we're done. I guess we're done here.
Jim: I guess that's okay. I'll see you later.
Tom: No, but, Jim...
Jim: I do have a little bit of a comment on that 68-degree thing. You know, ever since he was here and told me that, I've kind watched it and I've found it to be sort of generally true up here. Not infallible, it doesn't seem like, because we have some days in September, you know, when the air temperature might not get to 68 and we still have Tricos on the water. Maybe not as many as a nice warm morning, and I can't explain that except that, you know, maybe altitude latitude or something makes them a little more erratic or something. But in a general sense, I certainly have observed that it is air temperature that prompts this to happen.
And you, like, at least what I've come to like is a calm sunny morning. You know, unlike a lot of other insect events, the sunny bit seems to be important. And if you've got a big wind, of course, it just blows them all out into a field someplace. But certainly, air temperature seems to do it, but I'll pass the credit on the 68-degree bit to somebody who is as yet unknown, or unidentified.
Tom: Well, let's back up a bit and just talk about mayfly spinners in general, because I think people who are not really tuned into insects sometimes don't get it, or miss the opportunity that spinners provide. And so talk a little bit about, you know, general things that you've observed on the various mayfly spinner falls that you've seen over your long life in fly fishing.
Jim: Yeah. Well, I think you're completely right. And if it's a Trico thing, of course, it's pretty apparent because there's so many of them. But, you know, it's not uncommon to have fish rising, you know, fairly decently to what seems to be nothing on the water. And because we're used to seeing the mayfly duns, we'll see them on the water, see them standing up, and if it's something else, caddisflies or whatever, they're pretty apparent. But spinners, because of the way they, well, they die, they're laying there and they don't stick up out of the water at all. So unless you're right there looking at the water, you cannot see them.
And the other thing about almost all spinners is they're pretty close to transparent. And so, you know, you gotta get pretty close to the water to see them sometimes. And I think they get missed a lot because they're just not obvious. And if I see fish rising and I don't really know what's going on, you know, I think, "Well, maybe it's spinners." So try and get out in the current where the fish are rising or downstream where they're rising and get your nose right down on the water and see what's there even, you know, put a little screen in it. I used to carry a little screen with me so I could do that kind of thing. And it's surprising how often there are a few spinners there, or maybe quite a few spinners there that you just can't see from, you know, when you're casting the fish. So I think it's easy to overlook them because they're just not obvious.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. And, they often, you know, I've noticed that they often fall over riffles, and we are more likely to be fishing in pools and they fall in the riffles, you know, it could be a half mile above and, you know, we don't see them in the air.
Jim: Yeah. Unless you've, well, here where our streams generally flow from west to east out of the mountains, in the evening you can see them dancing because they're against the sun. They've got the sun behind them and you can quite often see them dancing over riffles. But otherwise, yeah. One thing I do with the Trico business, and I just thought of this, is when I get to the water, I kind of wanna get an idea whether the flies are around or the spinners are around. So I'll put my hand up right against the sun, and then if there's any bugs up there, any spinners up there dancing, you can see them, and get an idea whether they're way, way, way up there, or whether they're not very far away or whether there's not very many or lots.
So that's the thing I always do just to... And you can also kind of tell when they're done. I guess you'd tell by the fishing too, maybe, but if you do that and they're just none left, it's like, okay, I guess we're on the downside of the thing here now. So, yeah, it's different than fishing a hatch, for sure. You know, some similarities, but certainly there's some differences that it's good to be aware of.
Tom: Jim, tell people how to identify spinners in the air, as opposed to a, you know, a caddisfly or a stonefly. You know, how do you recognize that it's mayfly spinners?
Jim: Okay. Well, if you see against the sun, as I was talking about in an evening, this setting sun maybe, there's usually a bunch of them together and they go up and down in, you know, maybe go up for a couple of feet and then back down for a couple of feet. And they sort of sparkle against the sun. Caddisflies, they're more opaque, I guess, and they don't seem quite as, I don't know, elegant or something. The spinners, it looks like they're kind of doing a dance in the air, I guess maybe they are. So that's the way I would... I think I can tell when I see that. What about you? What do you identifying them by?
Tom: Yeah. I mean, caddisflies usually kind of progress upstream in a straight line, especially the mating flights, whereas mayfly spinners are gonna be mostly in one spot and they're gonna, yeah, dipping up and down, dancing is the way that you could really identify mayfly spinner falls.
Jim: Yeah. And the caddis sort of buzz. They're sort of buzzing along.
Tom: Yeah. And stoneflies just kind of bumble along.
Jim: Yeah. Like they're just about to trip over something.
Tom: Yeah. But, you know, it can be so hard in the evening if you can't look into the sun. You know, sometimes I've found that if I get into the middle of the river and I look straight up, I can see them. And sometimes they're way, way up there, and you say, "Oh, my God, it's almost dark. They're not gonna fall until after dark and I'm gonna miss it." Or they chicken out. I've found that, you know, if you get a cold wind right at dark, they'll chicken out and they'll be, you know, dancing around, dancing around, and then all of a sudden you get a breeze and they'll go back to the trees and they never fall, which is frustrating as all get-out.
Jim: Yeah. We see that with our Western March Brown fly that we get in May. Lots of times I've been out and I've seen the spinners dancing over a riffle, and I don't even remember, you know, something would've driven, you know, back to trees, but you'll see them dancing and dancing and dancing and dancing for, it seems like hours, and then that's it. You know, they're not on the water, they're not doing that, they're not on the water. I don't know what happened. Chickening out is a good idea. So that can be frustrating.
Tom: Yeah, it's like, "Come on, guys, fall," you know. I can't tell you...
Jim: "I know you wanna do this."
Tom: I know. I can't tell you the number of times I've been on a river and said, "Come on, get down on the water."
Jim: Yeah. "It's no good up there. Your arms must be tired."
Tom: Yeah. Now, Jim, you guys have a lot of PMDs, it's one of your most important mayfly hatches out there. It's a little cream-colored fly anywhere from a 16 to a 22, sometimes. There's various species. What time of day do they fall and how important are PMD spinner falls?
Jim: I think they're pretty important. I'm trying to think. I think I've seen them more in the evening than other times. The hatch, you know, here's is kind of a midday thing, but the spinner falls I've seen have been mostly in the evenings. There's a couple of interesting things, and you can correct me if I get this fouled up, but I think there's, is it the female spinners that are pretty much the same color as the duns? That kind of pale creamy olive, and the male ones are that rusty red, aren't they?
Tom: Oh, God.
Jim: I got that right?
Tom: I'm not sure. You know, I just tie my PMD spinners in kind of a neutral brown collar and call it good.
Jim: Some of the, I think it was colors, but the other interesting thing, and I don't know if you've seen this, but a lot of places where we see the pale morning dun hatches, there's an awful lot of, I just call them crippled duns. They're not spinners, they're duns that for one reason or the other have, I don't know, not emerged properly. They're fully emerged, but they kind of land dead or dying on the water. Like, maybe they get one wing stuck in the surface film or something, and it seems like this is a really, quite a large percentage of them like are that. So it's not a spinner, but the spinner imitation is just fine. It'd be interesting to know why that happened. It seems like far more than any other hatch I know, these crippled duns are underwater PMDs. Is there an Eastern equivalent of that? Does that happen with any of the eastern duns?
Tom: Yeah. You know, a lot of the tailwaters in the east, we have places like the Delaware River and the South Holston down in Tennessee, where you get these cream-colored flies. I think they're Ephemerellas that hatch in the afternoon, very similar to your PMD. And then we also get what most people call the Dorothea, which is a very late evening, almost dark, a little bit smaller fly about an 18, very skinny. Those hatch usually right at dark and spinners come back right at dark. But, you know, on the colder tailwaters, you will get what, you know, looks to me and acts like a PMD. It hatches about the same time. And, you know, sometimes they'll hatch as early as late morning, but usually, it's afternoon. And it's, you know, even in the middle of August, you'll get these cream-colored flies hatching in the middle of the day. So we do have some equivalents here in the east.
Jim: Are there a lot of those dead duns in that hatch too?
Tom: Yes. Yes. You do see that a lot and, you know, people will fish what they call a knockdown dun. They'll just tie a fly with one wing on one side, lying, you know, parallel to the shank. And that can be quite deadly because I think fish seek out those ones that are crippled or knocked down.
Jim: Yeah. That's interesting. The other thing that I have learned more recently, although I guess it's a while ago now, is that and this was, I guess, particularly with Tricos, but I'm sure it applies to all of them is that the real spinners float for a while, but then they eventually sink. And you can fish a sunken spinner, and sometimes that's just another thing to try, you know? And I think it was George Anderson that told me about that. And I think I noticed it happening unintentionally somewhere that I didn't know where my little spinner was, but when I, you know, picked up... I had a fish attached and I guess he took it while it was sunk. So that all makes sense, I think. And just the way Gary LaFontaine, I think, talking about grasshoppers would fish a sunken hopper because in his, you know, studious way of observing everything, he learned that they float for a while, but then they sank too. So there's always a new angle on this stuff.
Tom: There is. I think that, yeah, I think the sunken spinner is something that, you know, people have started to key into, but it makes total sense. Those things can't float forever and they get knocked around in riffles and they sink and... I think that that is one of the best places for a traditional winged wet fly, you know?
Jim: Probably so, yeah.
Tom: A balloon dun or a Light Cahill wet. That's what I often do, you know, when we have a spinner fall in the evening and it gets too dark to see the rises, I'll often switch to a little soft tackle or a wet fly and kind of swing it slowly through riffles and poodles. And, you know, of course you don't need to see it because you can feel the strike. So, yeah, that definitely works quite well.
Jim: It's a pretty versatile thing too. Unless the water is too deep, I mean, it's something you can try anytime and it's a really good emerging caddis sort of a thing. Or caddis pupa swing that downstream in front of the rises or even if there aren't rises, you can search water nicely with the wet fly swing. You know, it's been largely overlooked, I think, boy, for a long time, 40 years or something or 50 years probably since people did it very much. But it worked then and it still works. Nobody told the trout.
Tom: No. And before people fished dry flies, they'd see a fish rise and they'd throw a wet fly in front of it, and by God, they would catch fish and they didn't need to worry about fishing a dry fly.
Jim: Yeah. Why would you bother?
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. Why bother with trying to make something float when you could just throw a wet fly in front of them?
Jim: Yeah. And I find some sort of comfort in knowing that some of that old-fashioned stuff still works. But then that's probably revealing...
Tom: It does. Trout haven't changed, bugs haven't changed. So, you know, just because it's old-fashioned doesn't mean it won't work.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Tom: Jim, let's talk a little bit about identifying a spinner rise if you think that's a thing, and then kind of, you know, tackle approaches to fishing a spinner fall. So you think you've identified that there's some spinners around and you see fish rising. What to you indicates that fish are eating spinners?
Jim: Well, I would suspect that if the rise is very gentle, and I guess that would make maybe differentiating it from an emerger rise a little tricky, but if the fish are taking the, you know, the nymphs just under the surface, they're not really going to break the surface with their head. They might take it with their tail when they turn back down, but if it's a spinner, they are gonna get their upper jaw out of the water just a tiny bit. One thing I did when I first started fishing Trico spinner falls on the Bow, I found that I could actually hear them. They make this funny little, you know, very gentle, quiet little tap, which is their upper jaw just coming down against the surface of the water.
And I remember hearing that and thinking that's not the normal river sound, and finally seeing and in kind of an oddball place, shallow water, and realizing, that's a fish. So sometimes you can do that, but I think the gentleness and but they still have to take them pretty much right off the surface and that's about all I know. I'd be happy to hear of other ways to differentiate. What do you got there?
Tom: Yeah. It's like a smacking. It's almost like a lip-smacking sound, which makes sense. You do hear that a lot with Tricos. I find that if they're taking spinners, and it's why I love fishing spinner falls more than anything else, they get really confident and steady. And, you know, they get really preoccupied and the rises are, you know, very confident, they're steady. It's not tentative, you know, it's a pretty good solid, rise, but not with a lot of splash, like you said. Just the snout coming out.
Jim: Yeah. I think of it as a really happy fish when sometimes you get that little wiggle of the tail as they just kind of turn back down. It's almost like they're, "Oh, that's good."
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. And often you can get closer to the fish because they're really shallow in the, you know, they're hanging really shallow, so they don't, you know, when fish are shallow, they don't see very well.
Jim: Yeah their window is really small.
Tom: Around them, their window gets really constricted and they get so preoccupied with feeding that you can get a lot closer, you can make an accurate cast. But if I see fish all of a sudden start to get really steady and I don't see much on the water, you know, that to me indicates mayfly spinners.
Jim: That's a good tip. Something else just came to mind. When I'm fishing a Trico spinner fall, I've pretty much... this is gonna be heresy, I guess. I've pretty much given up fishing an actual spinner imitation. Because there's so many of them out there, I don't like the mathematics, the probability of them. I've taken in mine, I mean, I do sometimes use that double spinner, you know, you use maybe a size 14 hook with 2 Trico spinners tied. But lately, I've taken to fishing something else that imitates something they've also been eating at the same time of year. And up here, usually that would be a small dark caddis. And the dark seems to show up on the water and maybe like a 16 or an 18.
And it's my theory, which of course is completely unverified by the fish, except it works is... I mean it works sometimes. I don't know whether it works better, but I know my fly, I know which one's mine, so I know for sure whether I'm covering the fish or not. And they notice it because it stands, out and I just feel like I'm a little better off sometimes, you know, I'm not talking about throwing size eight stimulator at them, but something that they've also been eating and they, you know, here, when we've got Trico spinners in the morning, we usually have caddis hatches in the evening. So they're probably eating caddis last night. And it works some. I was taken into doing that because I just don't like the mathematics of throwing one more spinner into, you know, several hundred that are going over the fish. So, I don't know. Maybe that doesn't work everywhere, but it works here some. So that's my theory.
Tom: Yeah. I'll often fish, if there's so many spinners, which I don't have the luxury, usually the streams that I fish the spinners aren't that dense and the fish don't rise for that long, but if I do encounter that, sometimes small ant or a beetle, you know, a little terrestrial will also draw fish's attention. Doesn't always work. Again, like you said, doesn't always work. But if you got a really difficult fish and there's just so many flies, sometimes a little ant or beetle will work.
Jim: Yeah. That's something that Leigh told me way back when, was he would sometimes fish a little red ant pattern.
Tom: Oh, that red ant that he got from Vern Bressler. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. That's right. Yeah. The little...
Tom: The Snake River...
Jim: flying ant.
Tom: Yeah. Red flying ant. He loved that fly. Yeah.
Jim: Yep. And it works, as you said, sometimes but not at all. It's become one of Linda's favorite fly. Anytime the fish won't take the logical thing, she'll almost always go to that next. And it's kind of annoying because I like to be able to explain why things work. Sometimes you can't.
Tom: Yeah. We get geeky...
Jim: "Why did you pick that?" "I don't know."
Tom: We get geeky about this stuff, don't we? We have to know. We have to know.
Jim: We have to know. That's why, this is kind of off-topic, but it's not that I don't all the big foam dry flies, but I actually wrote a piece for fly fishermen about this kind of... It's almost like some of these are designed to find out how stupid a fly a trout can be, you know, caught with. And I think, no, don't do that. I want the fly on the end of my leader to at least seem to me to look like something that makes sense. Look at the stupid fly I got this one on. I'm embarrassed for on behalf of the fish sometimes. I don't know. Just too geeky.
Tom: I don't know. I think it's something they've seen and liked. I have a theory that fish takes some of these big foam flies, especially when I fish them on little tiny streams, they take it for a large moth.
Jim: Okay. Yeah. I like that, there you go.
Tom: I mean, if you turn on a light at night or somebody in the house leaves a window open, you know, I live on a trout stream, but what mostly do I find in the house in the morning? I find moths. Lots of them. All different, big ones, little ones. And I think fish eat a lot of moths.
Jim: Okay, good. I feel better. I appreciate that.
Tom: See? Yeah. So you don't have to feel bad for that fish. It wasn't that stupid after all.
Jim: Okay, good. Good. That makes things a lot better. I'll start fishing them again. Can I just talk about one other thing that's sort of related?
Tom: You could talk about anything you want, Jim, because I know it's gonna be a gem. So just go ahead.
Jim: Well, my last one wasn't but here, I'll try again. There's, not mayflies, but spent caddisflies are kind of a thing too sometimes. And when I learned this, it was when I learned most things, it was many years ago. I was on our home river, the Bow, one evening and there were lots of fish rising and it was clear, there was caddis stuff going on, you know, flying around and laying eggs and all that sort of stuff. And I couldn't catch any fish. I had lots of opportunities and it was just clear, they're not gonna eat this, probably, an Elk Hair, that I was throwing them. And finally it just got dark and I was giving up, and I had that little screen with me that I sort of stapled a little plastic screen between two dowels and used to carry it in my vest.
So I went right out in there where the fish were rising and held this screen in the current so I could catch whatever it was they were eating. And it was too dark to look at it then so I just rolled it up and put it back in my vest and went home. And I got it out when I got home and unrolled in the kitchen table. And there were just piles of these dead caddisflies that had to be what the fish were eating. They were all kind of mangled and, you know, wings kind of bent up, and not in very good shape. And so I thought, "Okay, well, I guess that's what it was." So I tied some flies that I thought would look like that, the right size and the right color and kind of, you know, be draggled looking.
And I went back the next night or a couple nights later to the same place, and I fished these without any floating, so they wouldn't float high. They might be kind of, sort of, in the film. And they worked. And I caught, you know, several fish doing that and I felt really clever. And I thought, well, in the name of science, I'll go back to that fly that didn't work last night and see what happened. And of course, it worked too. So I thought I'd learned all kinds of stuff or learned something really important, and who knows? But, they are a thing. I mean, after they've... You know, and I bet it's, I'm kind of hogging the conversation here, but I...
Tom: Well, you're supposed to be, you're my guest.
Jim: Oh, I see. Okay. Okay. It seems when there's a lot of caddis activity, I generally fish one of two flies, either some kind of adult, an Elk Hair or there's a friend of mine who ties a really nice little CDC caddis that really works well. And I either fish one of those or Gary LaFontaine's, what is it? Emergent Sparkle Pupa. And I fish just like a dry fly, you know, upstream or whatever it takes. But you know, drag-free and all that stuff, and that can work pretty good. If those two don't, then I'm in trouble because I don't know, I mean, I try all kinds of other things, but usually not much works. So swinging the wet fly downstream down and across to a rising fish works some, but not as much as it seems like it should. And you'll be happy to know that I've got a theory on why I can't catch the fish.
And there's so many possibilities with caddisflies because you can have the pupa swimming to the surface, the adults standing on the surface, kind of motionless, which they do sometimes. You can have the adults skating around or hopping up and down laying eggs. And you can have the dead ones that we were just talking about on the water, but some caddisflies, apparently, when they lay eggs, they swim to the bottom of the stream, lay the eggs down there, and then swim back up. So there's two more possibilities. And I just think, well, is there's something caddisy going on here? But I don't know quite what it is, and I usually never have time to figure it out. But what's your experience in that business? I'm really interested in finding out.
Tom: I have the exact same experience, Jim. Yes. You know...
Jim: Well, that's not what I wanted to hear.
Tom: Well, you know, I actually never ever use a high floating caddis invitation. If there's caddis around, I figure the fish either taking emerging caddis which they seem to prefer to the adult where I fish or there's spent caddis. I have this fly called the EC Caddis, which actually Orvis is selling now. And I tied on one of my live fly time events a couple of Mondays ago and people can find it on YouTube, but it's just a fur body and a little bit of snowshoe rabbit and a little bit of CDC over that. No hackle. And I fish it low in the film and I figure it's good for an emerging caddis and it's good for a spent caddis. And that's what I go with.
Jim: Well, that's a good idea that you can kind of cover both of those. That's right. You're the snowshoe, the rabbit foot guy.
Tom: Well, I don't know. I don't know if I'm the rabbit foot guy, I got it from other people, but I use a lot of it.
Jim: The usual, isn't it? Yeah. Yeah. Well, I know that your, let's see, your PMD CDC, rabbit's foot emerger thing, I've had really good results with that when are on fish are on PMD. So that rabbit's foot stuff I think is pretty good.
Tom: Yeah. It's nice to work with, and you know, it floats okay. It doesn't float as well as you would think a snowshoe rabbit's foot would float. It needs floating. But I think that it's kind of soft and wiggly enough, very similar to CDC that it, you know, just gives you a nice profile, better than deer hair sometimes.
Jim: Yeah, and it's sparkly too, I think.
Tom: Yeah. It has a little sparkle to it. Yeah, yeah.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. That can't hurt. Anyway, my caddis experience is incomplete to this point.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's why I like mayfly spinners, because you know they're on the water, you know the fish are feeding on the surface, you know what the thing looks like, and you know they're going to eat it. And, you know, it's just caddisflies, maybe they'll eat it, maybe they won't. But, boy, if, you know, if I see a fish rising steadily to a mayfly spinner, I know I'm gonna catch that fish unless I spook it.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. That's a good feeling. Do you fish them, well, I'm sure you do it both ways, but do you fish from downstream of the fish or do you do the down and across with the reach cast business?
Tom: Depends on what kind of river I'm on. If I'm in a smaller stream, I like to go straight upstream, just putting tippet over their head. If I'm on a bigger river where I can get across from the fish without spooking them, then, yeah, the downstream presentation seems to work better, you know, showing the fish the fly before the tippet and all that. If I can, even on a bigger river, I would rather get directly below a fish. I don't know, how about you?
Jim: Well, no, I'm the same way. And this is another thing I saw George Anderson do, I guess probably on the spring creeks near Livingston. Because he's such a consistent and accurate caster, he'd put the fly... Well, let me back up. If you talked to any of the guides there, they'd say, "Well, you gotta get above these fish and off the side and do a down and across business." Which certainly works. But, you know, and George just would say, "Eh, I just like to cast straight up to them." And basically said, just what you do, which you said, he puts the fly, I don't know, 6 or 8 inches upstream of the fish, and it works.
And I started doing that in places like the Missouri River and here on our streams. And if you can make the cast consistent enough, I think if the fish are really going, if they're up there, you know, as you said, really rising consistently and they're happy and they're hanging just beneath the surface, it seems better if you can put the fly 1 foot upstream of the fish rather than 3 feet upstream of the fish. And all I can think of is it's kind of there and in their mouth before they really give it enough thought, or something. I don't know. But, yeah, I prefer to do that too.
Tom: Yeah. When you fish straight upstream, you're in the same current lane, usually, unless you're right in the tail or pool, you're in the same current lane and drag is seldom a problem when you fish straight upstream to them.
Jim: Yeah. And no need to mend or anything. And you have better hooking angle for sure.
Tom: Yeah. A much better hooking angle. Yeah. The fish often hook themselves when you fish straight upstream to them, you know?
Jim: Yeah. And if it's a pod of fish, like you see on the Missouri and the Big Horn and stuff like that, if you wanna be really greedy, you're better off to be downstream with them because you can take the outside fish of the pod maybe, and then he will peel off, out into the river and then leave the others alone. If you're fishing downstream to that pod, you'll have to take the upstream fish and he'll just run through the pod when you hook them up. That's just if you like to be greedy.
Tom: Yeah. And if you're trying to throw downstream to fish, you know, you position your fly so that it floats drag free over one fish, but then it might drag over the rest of the pod. And that can spook them or it can make them wise to the fly. So, yeah, I like to get downstream of them.
Jim: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And my preference too. Funny when you fish a pod like that, it's really kind of either direction, I guess, especially if you're doing that down and across thing, there'd be a big bunch of fish, maybe a dozen fish in a fairly small area going really well. If it's a good heavy Trico spinner fall, and you fish for a while and you haven't got things quite figured out yet, and then you kind of realize it's not quite as many fish going as there were a few minutes ago.
Tom: Yeah. I wonder why.
Jim: Then you fish a little longer, and then you see there's only two. There were about a dozen about five minutes ago. I wonder what happened. I wonder. It must have been a bird flew over or something. It couldn't have been anything else.
Tom: And that's the advantage that the wading angler has, because if you're in a drift boat, you almost always have to fish downstream to the fish, unless you sneak around them and come up behind them in a back eddy or something like that. But you almost always have to fish downstream because you don't wanna row over the fish you're gonna cast to. Whereas the wading angler can just sneak up right behind them if the water's wadable.
Jim: Sure. Yeah. I really don't like fishing to rising fish from a drift boat. I like fishing from a drift boat, but if there's a nice rising fish, I want to drift on by them, pull in and get out and fish for them on foot. It's just you, you know, the boat's not bobbing around and the guy rowing doesn't, you don't have to worry about whether he is gonna let the boat slide too close or splash with an oar, or I don't know. And you don't have to hurry. You can just pull in, look it over, and... I prefer that. I think a boat in a big river, for me, is as much a way of getting from one good spot to another so I can get a fish on foot.
Tom: You mean you don't just drift on through and throw a bobber over them like most people?
Jim: Oh, well, of course, I do. That's the funny thing, you know, on, well, here in the Missouri too I try and fish some, there's a lot of fishermen, a lot of boats, bet there's not that many guys creeping around the banks on foot looking for rising fish, you know?
Tom: No, no there aren't.
Jim: There are some, but not very many. And that's okay with me. That's what I like to do. My favorite thing is just doing that, just looking for the snouts, you know?
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, stalking fish, to my way of thinking, and that's just me, but it sounds like you too, stalking a single fish or a pod of fish is about as good as it gets, you know? It involves the element of hunting and casting and fly selection. It's just everything.
Jim: Yeah. I agree. And if I wanted to be really snobby, I'd say I'd rather it was a single fish than a pod. Just because, I don't know, you can't... You know, sometimes with a pod you'll catch the fish you weren't casting too, or you just throw it out there and hope for the best. And one of them meets it, that's good. But I like the one-on-one sort of thing.
Tom: Although the one-on-one usually is a lot more alert and spookier whereas when they get in a pod they're a little more comfortable and you can make a little more mistakes. I have to admit, I will often look for three or four fish feeding together instead of a single one.
Jim: You have the luxury of making that choice. When there's a pod, I think you get a little bit of help from the competition angle depending on what they're eating, but, you know, sometimes they don't like that other fish getting something. And I think they'll move a little farther for your fly, sometimes.
Tom: Yeah. In a pod the disturbance that all the fish rising make will actually, you know, hide your casting mistakes too.
Jim: That's right too. Yeah. Yeah, they're all busy... They just get so busy. The first time I ever fished the Missouri down, you know, below, I guess that's [inaudible 01:23:34] ultra-dam, I guess. We were there for the Trico thing and went out one morning and fished this section of river, and it was fine. Then the next morning went back, and I looked up the river from where, you know, we're standing, and there was this riffle along the bank. I thought, "There wasn't a riffle there yesterday. What's going on?" And I got close and it was like, holy cow, that's about 20 fish just giving her, you know, and the shallow water on this dam. First time I ever saw that, which is pretty cool.
Tom: The first time I saw that was on the Missouri too, with Paul Rouse. I remember seeing those giant pods of fish eating Tricos and it looks just like a riffle. It's amazing. Amazing.
Jim: Yeah, well, lots of fun.
Tom: So, Jim, besides Tricos, let's kind of go through, in the Rocky Mountains where you live, what are the mayfly spinners that are most important and really produce the best fishing? What should people look for?
Jim: Well, the pale morning dun thing, I don't know that I've ever sort of gone out trying to find a PMD spinner fall. In our streams, it's likely to happen when there's more caddis around than anything else, so it kinda gets lost in the shuffle there. Our March Browns in May, as I said, that can be good sometimes, and it seems to happen kind of simultaneous with the duns emerging. And I'd also say the other one that, we don't have a lot of streams like this, but where we have the right kind of slow streams, soft silty bottoms, we have brown drakes. And those spinners can be good. And they also seem to be around, it could be, well, I've been out, of course, up here at least, I think everywhere's a really, really late evening deal.
The sun's gotta be pretty much gone. And some evenings it'll be duns, some evenings it'll be spinners, and some evenings it'll be both. So those are the ones... The ones that I don't know much about are green drake spinners, and they may fall really early in the morning or at night or something. And the little blue wing olive mayflies, I don't really know much about those spinner falls. Is that a middle-of-the-night thing? Or am I not getting up early enough?
Tom: I'm not sure. I've seen, you know, all the etymology books say that Baetis or little blue wing olive spinners are unimportant. But I have seen, I remember once on the South Platte in Colorado, a spinner fall in the evening of blue wing olives, and it was terrific. And green drakes, yeah, I don't know much about... I can't remember ever seeing a spinner fall of green drakes. Maybe they fall after dark. Not sure. One thing, you mentioned earlier in the morning, one thing that that I've noticed is that if you have really warm weather, you will sometimes have a spinner fall in the morning. Tricos obviously we have spinner falls in the morning.
But things like Hendricksons, which is our big spring mayfly here in the east, I have occasionally seen spinner falls in the morning of those. And it's awesome because nobody's fishing, nobody's around, nobody expected it. And, you know, a really warm spring morning, sometimes you'll see those spinners falling in the morning. And it's nice because you can see, you know, they fall in the evening. Usually they fall right before dark and you can't see, but if you know, it's gonna get a little bit lighter, you know, it can be nice, because you can see what you're doing. And in hot weather people should really look in the morning because you may see some spinners coming down.
Jim: Yeah. The other thing that, I think quite a few bugs, both, well, PMDs and I think some of the other, you know, there's lots of other mayflies around in little smaller numbers I guess. But there seems to be a lot of mayflies for which the spinner is that rusty brown sort of color and a rusty spinner is a pretty good fly other than just, you know, when you know that PMD spinners are on the water, for instance. But a rusty spinner can be almost a searching pattern sometimes. And it would be a pretty good thing if you could fish two flies, you could fish it with something else, you know, like another, fish two dry flies. I do that quite a bit.
Tom: A big foam fly, maybe, in a rusty spinner?
Jim: No. No. A logical fly. Well, I guess that would be cool though. You could kind of split the difference. Put on a big, stupid foam fly with a really nice little rusty spinner to kind of hide it.
Tom: I've done it. I've done it.
Jim: And I know what you're gonna tell me. I don't wanna hear it. I don't wanna hear it.
Tom: No, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
Jim: Okay. Okay. Sometimes I do quite often fish, in hopper season, fish a hopper with a small ant or a beetle with it. It is surprising how many times they'll take the smaller bug. I don't quite know why that would be. Maybe they've seen too many hoppers thrown at them or something.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. That's possible.
Jim: Anyway. Lots of theories. One of the great things is we're never gonna know all of this stuff, for sure.
Tom: We're never gonna know half of it, I don't think, Jim, are we? No matter how long we fish, we're never gonna be able to predict it. Every day's a new day out there, which is why we love it.
Jim: That's the whole point. That's the whole point. Yeah, exactly. The only thing we know is it won't be just like it was yesterday.
Tom: Yeah. Tell me about it. Tell me about it.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. But that carries us...we can use that when the fishing is lousy and, you know, as well as when it's good.
Tom: Yeah. The one thing we haven't talked about is the big Hex. Hexagenia. And I don't get to fish them that often. I remember fishing it in your part of the world, in some streams, north of Calgary, with the Jensens and having an unbelievable late evening fishing to the, you know, giant Hex spinner. But I can't offer a lot of advice on that.
Jim: Well, I'm in the same boat. In fact, if I'm gonna be completely honest, I have never fished it. We don't have it, I don't think, in a lot of places. I know the streams that you're talking about and I know those streams have them. But I have not done that. The closest I've come is the brown drake in some of those same streams. It happens. The boundary happens I think in sort of mid-June maybe seeing that Hex a little later, maybe about since that year.
Tom: Yeah. It's usually early July. Right about this time of year is when Hexes hatch. And they hatch on lakes a lot, you know, it's more of slower, silty water, bigger rivers and, yeah, it's a big hatch on a lot of lakes. Even the great lakes. You know, even Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan have Hex hatches. Yeah. I mean, they get so thick. What was it? A couple of weeks ago, there was a baseball game where the Hex spinners were so thick that it became a problem.
Jim: Is that right?
Tom: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: That's sort of funny, but, huh? Yeah. It's just one... We don't have it a lot of places. Well, I don't think we have it in a lot of places. Of course, until about 20 years ago, nobody in Alberta except, I had one other friend who used to fish up at that same... He fished with Dave and Amelia, and he knew about the Hexes about 20 years ago. But other than that, it was unknown. And so, I suppose it's probably on some other streams, but the streams that nobody is ever on after dark [crosstalk 01:32:39]. But anything that happens at 3:00 in the morning probably goes unnoticed by fly fishermen.
Tom: Except in Michigan. They know all about it there. They know all about it there.
Jim: Yep. Yep. That's another one of those things. We have work to do still.
Tom: Yeah. I wish we had more Hexes, you know? I mean, what's not to like about a giant mayfly that brings up the biggest fish in the river, you know? And you can fish like 2X tippets and stuff like that.
Jim: Yeah. Well, maybe we can start a stalking program.
Tom: Yeah. I don't think that'll work. If they'll be there, they're gonna be there. They got wings.
Jim: Didn't somebody try that? Southeast, someone tried to...
Tom: Yeah. Marinaro and Fox back in the '50s, tried to transplant Eastern green drakes and it became a total failure. But, you know, it makes sense. I mean, mayflies got wings and they get blown around. I mean, I've seen mayflies in the Florida Keys. Where the hell did they come from? You know, they get blown around by wind and they get distributed, and if they were gonna be in a stream, they'd be in a stream.
Jim: Yep. Yeah. It's sort of funny how they can get transported around and, you know, some of the other talk about the invasive species and the nasty things that are in some streams with the whirling disease, stuff that, you know, birds can move that stuff around too pretty easily, I think. So, you know, a topic for another date. That's a...
Tom: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Jim, I wanna thank you for sharing your knowledge about mayfly spinners and spent caddis, which I'm glad you brought up, because that's an important topic. And you've really burst my bubble about the 68 degrees thing.
Jim: When you were describing that, I thought, "Should I tell him, or should I just go with it? Okay. I'll tell him."
Tom: Well, I'm gonna have to talk to some of Leigh's old guides, and it might have been Ruoff. You might be right. Because that's just something that...
Jim: That's, I guess, a big brilliant mind.
Tom: Yeah. That's just something that Rick Ruoff would've observed, he's such a brilliant guide.
Jim: That's right. He's such a naturalist. Yeah.
Tom: Yep. I'm gonna find out and we'll set the record straight.
Jim: Let me know. Let me know.
Tom: Okay. I will. I will.
Jim: Okay. All right. Well, I appreciate being on this with you. It's an honor, my friend.
Tom: Oh, well, it's an honor to have you here, Jim. And I can't believe I've never done a podcast with you before. All the years we've hung out together, we haven't fished much together. I mean, I've never fished the Bow, believe it or not. It's on my list.
Jim: Yeah. It's hard to imagine you've been to Alberta to fish and not fished the Bow.
Tom: No. Well, yeah, I was up north, so I didn't down to the south.
Jim: Yeah. There is still time. There's still time.
Tom: Oh, yeah, something to be corrected. I'm still upright. So I'll...
Jim: Well, that's good. That's good. I love your, what is it on your email...? What do we call it? I can't remember what they call those things. The little heading, your title is, what is it, chief enthusiast?
Tom: Yeah. That's what they call you when you've been there 45 years and they don't know what else to call you.
Jim: Well, I think it's pretty accurate. And I think it's what they need and what they got. So good for them and good for you.
Tom: Well, thank you, Jim. Thank you.
Jim: All right.
Tom: Well, my friend, it has been great talking to you. We've been talking to Jim McLennan of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a long-time guide, educator, writer, musician, fly shop owner, and all-around good guy. So, thank you, Jim.
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