When the mayflies hatch
  |  First Published: November 2004

There’s no better time than spring. Mornings are milder, that first breath of air smells of earthy rain, the insects are stirring and flyfishers’ minds are conjuring images of last season’s hatches and catches.

By mid-morning the sun warms the day and we sit and observe the lake. Coinciding the day with a high-pressure system and light winds pays dividends, as a light wind day can be assured of setting the scene for a successful day.

With our rods at the ready we slowly walk the bank observing every inch of water. Looking for a sign from nature, for we know that at any time an insect will appear – turning most strong-willed flyfishers into shaking, babbling, novices.

Most of you already know what insect I’m talking about… the mayfly. That beautiful creature that turns trout into feeding machines in many Victorian trout lakes and anglers into raving fanatics.

The word mayfly means ‘to live for a day’, but it should mean ‘take it easy, be patient and observe’. To be successful, requires all these elements.

From the moment you start there is no need to hurry. Most would have heard the term, ‘gentlemen’s hours’. At this time of year, hatches generally don’t start until 10-11am, so that gives you time to enjoy the lush land and picturesque scenery that surrounds your fishing location. Yes! Nothing can be better than flyfishing.

There are many different species of mayfly in Victoria but the most common one that hatches on many lakes in big numbers in spring is the Ataloplebia australis (from the family Leptophlebiidae). It’s commonly referred to as the March Brown, (due to the mayfly of the northern hemisphere hatching in March), but here in Victoria it’s September, October, and November that are the prime months.


The term, ‘think like a fish’ is a good one, but I like to add ‘imagine the water in front of you as if you were swimming around on the bottom’.

What you’d see in regards to the first mayfly movement would be nymphs, brown in colour, scurrying about in readiness to ascend to the surface. The lake’s marauding trout will follow and devour them with ease as they sight their slow snake-like movement. The sighting by the flyfishers won’t happen until the nymphs have ascended to the surface and the searching trout engulfs the merging nymph creating a surface boil, which is what we can term the first rise form.


This is when you take out of your fly box an emerging nymph pattern. There are many patterns to choose from, but as long as it’s the right size, shape and colour, with the ability to sit right in the surface film, you’ll be in business. My favourite imitation is a Seals Fur Emerger (dark brown, on a size 12 hook, constructed from seals fur with the inclusion of a few turns of hackle around the thorax).

Trout, when feeding on mayfly, are constantly moving about taking an emerger here and there, so try to work out it’s direction after taking an emerger. Once achieved, cast your pattern to the area and let it sit. If you’re casting into the wind, make sure you retrieve slack line that is floating back towards you, so that if the trout takes your fly you will have a solid connection on the strike.

Emerging nymph patterns, like dry flies, require you to wait until the trout is in the downward position before you strike. On windy days, or where the surface has a fair amount of wave action, you will also need to have your fly line and leader floating high to combat any drag. Even when this is achieved you won’t have a 100 percent drag-free drift. This is generally only achieved when flyfishing out of boats, due to the boat drifting at the same rate as the water surface.


The dun stage is where it breaks free from its nymphal shuck, looking like a nymph with wings. As mentioned, the most commonly encountered mayfly at most lakes is from the family Leptophlebiidae, where the dun is termed the lambda dun. It has a distinct upside down Y-shape pattern in its wing which is a clear identification mark.

The first hatches of duns usually dry their wings untouched to then escape to the nearest lakeside bushes as the trout are more keyed in on emerging nymphs. But it doesn’t take long for the trout to notice the greater numbers of duns inducing the trout to change their minds.

Changing to a dun imitation should be your next tactic. My favourite is a Highland Dun or Cripple Dun (size 14). As with the emerging nymph, work out which direction the trout is travelling and present the fly, letting it sit.

When the duns appear in big numbers and trout are constantly feeding on them be prepared for the dun’s and your success to reduce as the trout slowly exhaust the numbers. The reasoning for this is that when the duns’ numbers are exhausted, the trout will target the next wave of emerging nymphs making their way up to the surface from the bottom. You will need to then change back to the emerging nymph.


If ever there was an insect, or stage of an insect, that needs the right weather conditions then the mayfly spinner is it. Days that are mild to warm with a light wind will always produce spinner activity.

On most lakes the greatest numbers will be found around the shallow edges. A flyfisher that sits back and intently watches will witness hovering, flame orange insects mating and laying their eggs onto the smooth glass-like water. The trout will cruise along the bottom searching and at any moment will either gently sip an egg layer, or with a few flicks of its tail, leap through the water with mouth agape, intercepting the aerial flyer.

It’s at this time you need take only one fly from your box – the Macquarie Red. No other fly comes near it.

Its size is perfect, its colour true to life, and its added body hackle floats it so high it sometimes fools trout into believing that it is just hovering above the surface. All that is required is to accurately and gently land the fly onto the smooth water, then wait for the disappearance.

There are occasions on mayfly lakes when spinners can be found on windy days. Some lakes by way of nature have trees around their shoreline. This creates windbreaks to small areas, forming calm conditions that are dependent on wind direction and strength.


This is the stage where the male and female spinners die and lay with their wings and legs outstretched – in the ‘spent’ position. Even though you will find spent spinners at all periods of the day, I find first light to be the most productive, especially when you know the night before had great numbers of the mating and egg laying spinners.

The edges of the lake on the windward side should be your destination. Keep low, watch, and wait, and don’t enter the water. Fly selection can be a number of patterns, but I favour the Rumpf Spinner due to its perfect imitation of the natural.

When you sight a big trout cruising in water barely covering its back, with every spot on its side showing, you’re bound to wittiness the trout attack and in the blink of an eye your imitation is gone! Only then will you realise the excitement of spent spinner flyfishing.


Although mayflies from the family Leptophlebiidae are most common on many of our mayfly lakes, there are many different species.

One noted mayfly is from the family Caenidae, a very small mayfly which hatches out at the same time as the bigger mayfly on some, but not all, lakes. Thankfully, when they hatch together the lake’s trout target the bigger mayfly in all its stages.

One days when the very small mayflies are the only ones hatching, things become more difficult. Identification of the small Caenid mayfly is easy with its few different colours but mainly due to its small size. Patterns tied on 16-18 hooks are needed.


Mayfly flyfishing in our lakes is just one dimension – and this has barely brushed on it. There are also the rivers and streams that can’t be covered here, but let me tell you this… every time I fish our Victorian mayfly lakes, I enjoy more than anything else. From the moment I set out on my fishing day, until the moment I return.

It’s a day that’s full of a joy within the bigger picture, and it’s impossible to describe in words. Only fellow flyfishers will understand this feeling – the feeling we get when the mayflies hatch!



Some recommended patterns, in no particular order, for the various stages of the most commonly encountered mayfly on Victorian trout lakes.


Seals Fur Emerger

Smith Emerger

Bean Ball emerger

Poly-winged Emerger

(size 16-12)


Highland Dun


Cripple Dun

March Drown

Para Dun

Cahill Quill

(size 16-12)


Macquarie Red

Orange Quill

Compara Spinner

Hackle-tip Spinner

Cocky Spinner

(size 16-12)


Rumpf Spinner

Poly-winged Spinner

Quill-body Spinner

(size 16-12)


B. The natural orange spinner – or the last stage of the mayfly.

D. A natural mayfly nymph ready to hatch into a dun.

294. A Pheasant Tail Nymph is a good representation of the natural. The added copper wire gets it down.

551. A Seal’s Fur Emerging Nymph. This fly sits right in the surface film like the natural insect.

552. The Highland Dun is one of the many imitating patterns of the second stage.

553. The Macquarie Red is the best imitation of the orange spinner mayfly.

749. Andy Scott holds a mayfly feeder that was taking duns from the surface.

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