Photo by John Miller

Is the Green Drake hatch overrated?

Soon, the word will go out that Green Drakes are on the water. Like all species of Catskill mayflies, this one hatches religiously and on time right around Memorial Day. Like Hendrickson, it is eagerly awaited by fly fishers, because on some rivers, it causes large trout to feed. Unlike Hendrickson, which hatches about the third week in April, when rivers are cold, trout lethargic and surface activity limited, this fly hatches when water temperatures are favorable to trout feeding. The Green Drake is considered to be the pinnacle of Eastern mayfly hatches.

Green Drakes are burrowers in the family Ephemeridae, and prefer rivers with soft bottoms and warmer temperatures than those found immediately downstream of tailwaters. For example, the species is not found in the East Branch much above Shinhopple. Duns (the adult stage that occurs immediately after the flies emerges from the water) appear in late afternoon, often in very large numbers. It takes about three days for duns to molt into spinners (the stage that mates and then dies and falls back onto the water).

Despite all the excitement they cause, taking advantage of a Green Drakes hatch can be difficult. Some years ago two friends and I, all instructors at the Wulff School, journeyed to the lower East Branch in search of Green Drakes. We had information that large numbers were hatching at dusk. We chose a section of river below Pepacton Reservoir where we had found the species in previous years. 

By the time we left Lew Beach, it was close to 5:30 p.m., so we didn’t reach our destination until after 6. It was close to 6:30 before we were on the water, stringing rods. The Drakes had already begun, with duns popping here and there, clumsily lifting off and lumbering to the safety of trees. Trout had started too, and there were slashing rises as fish chased emerging flies.

My friends waded in and began casting to the feeding fish. Time after time, their artificials floated over rises, not to be taken. By 7:30, the hatch had intensified, with hatching duns leaving the river in huge numbers. A few minutes later, coffin flies, the spinner stage, begin to mass over the river in their mating flight. Soon the dead and dying spinners were on the water, mixing with hatching duns. But very soon the rises slowed and stopped.

What happened? All this food and no more rises!

We stayed till dark; not one of us moved a fish. On the way out, I shone my lamp on the water, and what a spectacle! Thousands of dead, and dying coffin flies carpeted the river. In all my years fishing Catskills, I had never seen anything like this. Yet we didn’t raise a fish.

The Green Drake, like the Western Salmon Fly, is a very large insect. Both species hatch in huge numbers. Unlike Salmon Flies, which leave the water to molt, Green Drakes hatch between the bottom and surface, and the trout take the emerging duns during this process. So sometimes they feed exclusively on emergers, not the duns. In addition, trout get full quickly due to the large size of the species and the massive numbers in which it hatches, so feeding doesn’t last that long. Taken together, these factors mean that raising trout can be a real conundrum for the angler.

I have fished this hatch several times and recall catching trout on dry flies once. Another time I caught a few by swinging a sinking pattern during a period of off-color water. All the other times I was skunked fishing both dry and wet flies.

So my advice, for what it’s worth? Be on the river at the very beginning of a Green Drake hatch, and be prepared to fish under the surface.

 

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