March brown hatches
Paul Procter offers some top tips for making the most of the season's first ephemerid hatches.
In my neck of the woods, March 15 welcomes the dawn of a new trout season. For some areas, this might be a week or so early, though equally, regions exist where opening day gets pushed back to April 1. Up north and deep in the Welsh valleys, those lucky enough to be wandering a river bank by mid-March usually run into one of our most iconic upwinged species, the March Brown.
Early season can be a bleak time when biting winds ravage an already tired landscape. Seldom does a day pass now when icy hail showers don't keep the temperatures pegged well down. With our minds firmly fixed on the warm summer evenings of last year, dominated by flotillas of blue-winged olives, it's hard to imagine any fly would be foolish enough to brave such harsh conditions. Yet the aptly named March brown (Rhithrogena germanica) appears to relish these extremes. Of course they're just as likely to occur on a sunny afternoon, but come a raw spring day they've thrown me a lifeline more times than I can remember.
As their name implies, March browns are usually expected throughout the first official month of spring. Interestingly, they've been known to appear earlier and as far north as Scotland. A reliable source tells me that flurries are often seen on the Aberdeenshire Don throughout February. Perhaps these are eager scouts, as my own experiences have seen hatches kick off towards the back-end of March and reach well into April. Either way, these elegant, brindle-winged ephemerids are one of the first to put on a show.
Of similar size and markings, large brook duns (Ecdyonurus torrentis, the false March brown) are, understandably, frequently mistaken for March browns. However, the real deal can be identified by a small clear patch in the centre of its forewing and, if further doubt exists, then a black fleck in the femur of each leg will give you a positive ID. Besides, large brook duns tend to awaken a good month later, so really there should be little confusion.
Prehistoric looking and squat by ephemerid standards, March brown nymphs are adapted to the faster flowing parts of a river. Referred to as stone clingers, their favoured haunt is amongst stones and pebbles, especially close to the head of tumbling pools. Here their hydrodynamic shape forces them against any stonework, affording them the grip of a Formula One car. Anglers who are keen and arrive well before any anticipated surface activity should gravitate towards these spots where a spell of nymphing should get them amongst a trout or two.
The first duns may appear as early as 11am. Two seasons ago in Cumbria, we had what can only be described as an eager clutch of flies, as the first duns stretched their wings a fraction before 10:30am. The unusually mild weather back then had clearly made them impatient, although given more normal temperatures, any action generally occurs a short time after lunch. Of course, we're dealing with nature here so rules are rarely hard and fast and, faced with an icy blast, hatches can be delayed. More than once I've been kept waiting until 3pm before the magic started.
Although prolonged fly hatches are something we all long for, it's often those sparser spells of activity which excite fish most. And here's the spin: a typical March brown hatch consists more of bursts and flurries rather than sustained activity. Such short-lived flurries are usually dense enough to have trout looking up in no time. Admittedly, these stints might only last five minutes or so, but if you're primed, then it's enough time to bag yourself a spanking spring trout or two.
Being ready is the name of the game, so you should have two rods set up. One armed with nymphs/spiders for quiet spells or searching pools, and the other, a single dry on a tapered leader, ready for that exciting flush of fly. Carting two outfits about sounds a bit much, but in reality it's no different to double gunning. Besides, flurries of duns frequently begin without warning. One minute nothing stirs, and the next, flies are billowing into the air. It may sound somewhat of an exaggeration, yet those who have witnessed this phenomena will nod knowingly. And, having a dry fly tethered to a spare rod can make all the difference, if only to prevent time wasted when you're fumbling about swapping flies or leaders!
Where flies carpet the surface, in a bid to reduce journeys from the streambed to the surface, trout invariably position themselves high in the water column. Now, such fish merely have to tilt upwards to claim their prize. However, stationed only inches from the surface reduces their window of vision, which means two things: firstly, with care, you can usually get to within a few rod lengths of fish, helping presentation; and, secondly, your fly must be delivered closer to the actual rise form. I usually lead a rise by 2-3ft, far enough upstream as not to create disturbance on landing, yet not so far that drag has time to set in.
A pattern usually develops where a flood of duns emerge every so often, with three or four occurring over a good few hours. Rather than stand about waiting for the next flush of duns, searching water using subsurface flies passes time quickly. Besides, chances are, any trout feeding on early flurries will still be occupying their feeding lies. Granted, they won't be rising, but they may be tempted by a carefully presented wet fly or nymph. A brace of spiders pitched across racing currents and left to trundle downstream before swinging gently back towards your bank should suffice. To help them dig in, a weighted nymph takes point position too.
This down and across style of wet fly fishing is often frowned upon as unskilled, and yet it takes a surprising number of trout, especially when the chips are down. Your aim is to constantly search pools, so rather than remaining rooted to one spot, take a pace or two downstream between casts. This way, you're constantly covering unexplored water. Trout in fast water only have a spilt second to secure a potential meal and consequently hit the fly with a fair old jolt. Angling your rod at approximately 45° creates a length of bowing line that acts as a cushion during any smash takes.
Occasionally, you'll be blessed with March Browns that trickle off for a good few hours without a pause. With a steady supply of duns on the menu, larger trout will join the hunt. Granted, they'll never venture far from underwater lairs, but often their guard drops as they mop up a surplus of flies. Targeting these daddy trout in such circumstances is as good as it gets in my book. Though do take care as trophy fish are nervous creatures that easily shut down after a misplaced cast, or heavy footfall. My best advice here is not to rush, though that's more easily said than done, especially when you know the hatch could dry up at any moment!
March Brown Nymph
Hook: Partridge heavy wet supreme #12
Thread: Brown 8/0
Weight (optional): Lead wire
Rib: Copper wire
Tail: Coq-de-Leon hackle fibres
Abdomen: Hare's fur dubbing
Thorax/Legs: CDC fibres
Thorax Cover: Pearly tinsel
Head: 3mm black tungsten bead
A stubby profile is more than suggestive of the squat-like natural nymphs. Loose CDC fibres arranged in a dubbing loop then teased out make for legs with plenty of movement. Where shallow runs or pools exist, use a lighter pattern without a lead underbody.
March Brown Spider
Hook: Partridge spider #12
Thread: Pearsall's gossamer No6a orange
Rib: Fine gold wire
Body: Rabbit fur from nape of neck
Hackle: Brown partridge
For searching water or general wet fly fishing during early season, this spider pattern is a winner. Where feeding fish are encountered, three of these can be knotted on with confidence. In rough water, to achieve a bit more depth, swap the point spider for a weighted nymph (above).
Hook: Fulling Mill super grub #10-12
Thread: Davnille's 6/0 orange
Abdomen: Tan rabbit/hare's fur dubbing
Thorax: Orvis peacock ice dubbing
Wing: White TMC aero dry wing
Hackle: Natural CDC fibres in a dubbing loop
A Klinkhamer can be dynamite at March brown time and my preferred tying incorporates a CDC hackle that creates a certain ‘buzz'. When trout are knocking off either emergers or duns, you won't go far wrong with this dressing.