My first encounter with mayflies, or at least the first memorable encounter, happened at J.P. Coleman State Park on Pickwick Lake. It was the first week of June, and the weather was about as perfect as it can get. We were chunking some spinners and crankbaits when we came upon a willow tree hanging over the water. The willow was covered with yellow mayflies, and naturally some were falling to the surface of the lake.
The water was "plooping" as fish rose to inhale the dying insects.
I broke out the fly rod and attached a mayfly match to the tippet as my wife changed to a Mepps spinner with a yellow hair accent. For the next 30 minutes we boated and kept enough redear bream and fat bluegills for a few meals.
Each cast drew a strike, but not always a hook-up. We even caught some small bass and shad. It seems every fish likes a mayfly for lunch.
The day was a perfect success thanks to the little yellow critters in the willow. The old cliché, "it just doesn’t get any better than this," certainly applied.
So, just what are these delicate little creatures that fish find so tasty, and what influence have they had on fishing?
For the answers, I looked first to Jamie Burley, an etymologist with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.
"The mayfly is just one of many species of insects that live around water," Burley said. "And, just like others, mayflies have a cyclic life that includes nymph and adult stages.
"It is during the latter of these two stages that fish find them so attractive."
In the mayflies’ existence, the nymphet stage is the longest.
According to the Audubon Field Guide to Insects, there are some 2,100 types of mayflies. Some have up to a four-year larval, or nymph, stage.
Burley said the local mayflies here in Mississippi have an egg-to-adult lifespan of about one year.
And the fish just love them.
"There is a stretch of the old Natchez Trace that was submerged when the (Ross Barnett) reservoir was filled," said Charles Golden, an avid fisherman from Scott County. "Along the nearby shore there have always been mayflies in the late spring and summer.
"I have always caught a mixed bag there, fishing right at the edge of the vegetation."
Golden went on to expand on his statement about the fish he catches, saying most catches were bluegills and redears — but he has caught a few yearling bass and even catfish and crappie.
Using a wet fly patterned after the mayfly nymph he buys at local tackle shops, Golden puts the bait where he wants it to be then retrieves it with very short strips.
Never long or fast strips until he is ready to recast.
"I’m no scientist, but these nymphs can’t be the fastest swimmers in the lake," said Golden, as he used his left hand to pull line between his little finger and ring finger of his right hand while slowly bringing up the rod tip. "I figure the fish are in here to eat the bugs (nymphs) just before they emerge and molt."
Golden went on to describe his "honey hole" as one where the bream bed is on the old roadbed; the fish have the security of deeper water on both sides of the old roadway.
The old road had gravel shoulders and was relatively flat — two things Golden said he has found ideal for bedding bream. The trees and bushes just yards away are where the mayflies complete their adult life, albeit it’s a one-day event.
"I’ve been fishing the ’Rez since it was finished, and this is one of the most-consistent fisheries for bream I’ve found," Golden said. "When the bream are bedding on the old Trace a black ant is one of the best wet flies to use — in fact that is all I use for bedding bream.
"I switch to the mayfly nymph when the fish move toward the cover along the shoreline — when the first mayflies start to appear. They don’t last long — from the first to the last, maybe a week."
According to Mississippi State University Entomologist Blake Layton, the adult life of a mayfly is very short. Adults have only one purpose — to mate and reproduce — usually in a single day.
Adults have no mouth parts and no digestive system. They mate in flight over water, and then return to the water where the female lays eggs, and both die.
Since this part of the lifecycle takes place on or above the surface, that is where the fish will go to grab them.
"The mass emergence is one of those natural phenomena that occur for species preservation," Layton said. "The sheer numbers are so overwhelming to the insect’s predators that many will survive."
But when one fish notices the falling bugs, the feed is on.
"Fish are much attuned to the sounds within their environment," said Tom Holman, fisheries biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "They have the ability to interpret sound waves with much of their bodies. So when they hear another fish feeding on the surface, they tune in to the fact that food is available on or near the surface."
Holman said as long as surface feeding is continuing that surrounding fish will be attracted to the meal.
Flipping through the pages of a fly catalog reveals a plenitude of mayfly wannabes; that is, fly patterns intended to imitate the nymph, or adult, stage of the mayfly, stone fly, or caddis fly.
Save the mail fee, however, because aside from a few Harvard-educated New England brook trout, few Mississippi fish will distinguish the difference in the whole lot.
A few of the names associated with such flies include "dun," which is the sub-imago stage of the mayfly just before it becomes an adult. The imago is the full adult stage of the insect.
Nymphs, of course, indicate the stage of the fly prior to emerging.
Mississippi fly fishermen
Now that we have had a lesson in what it means to be a mayfly and where the lifecycle of the little critters enters the picture, here are the filets the Mississippi angler can take to the kitchen.
The nymph stage calls for the use of a wet fly. Patterns are numerous and available at all major fishing tackle outlets.
Since the nymph is alive and active long before the adult emerges, fly anglers should fish the nymph wannabes where hatches normally occur.
Since the water is usually shallow in these areas, wade fisherman or kayak paddlers will have the advantage.
One of the largest emergings at the ’Rez happens near the spillway and along the dam.
According to Lyton, mayflies are not attracted to the lights: The lights just allow them to be seen by more people in a high-traffic area.
According to MMNS Collections Manager Scott Peyton, natural currents and winds are the most likely cause for the high number of nymphs along the dam.
The sand, mud and sediment in the riprap, along with the crevices along the rocks, are excellent environments for the mayfly to complete its lifecycle. The riprap connection is shared by Layton who witnessed a similar emergence on Grenada Lake.
Back to the ’Rez, the piers around the Jackson Yacht Club (where there is again the proximity of riprap) are the scene of an annual hatch.
The Highway 43 area connecting Rankin and Madison counties is another area where mayflies are prevalent during the spring and summer.
Mayflies in action
Golden had 15 to 20 fat bream on a stringer. His old Martin reel looked like the survivor of many storms, but it still functioned smoothly.
He was using a 9-foot rod and a 4X tapered leader with his nymph. For a dry fly he used a 6X tapered leader.
If the tapered tippets are not available, Golden said he always keeps a roll of 5X in his fishing vest for general use.
"The smaller 6X (leader) allows the dry fly to float more naturally, in my opinion," Golden said. "The heavier tippet (the 4X) being a 5-pound test has saved many a fly that might otherwise have been lost to some underwater trash."
Elvis Fields of Port Gibson has been creating fly patterns based on mayflies for many years. A member of the Magnolia Fly Fishers, Fields uses a straight pin attached to the hook to create the elongated body of the mayfly. Fields is retired, and spends his time tying flies and fishing.
Another fly fisherman is David Frazier. Also a member of Magnolia Fly Fishers, Frazier ties a fly named Slim Shady based on a mayfly pattern.
"I originally tied this fly as a goof-off at work one day for Renee," he said. "She wanted a purple fly. I tied it so she could fish it on the Chunky River for bream. She has used it on the Red Creek and Holiday Creek.
"It was for bream, but ended up being a really good bug for bass, bream and the occasional shad."
Slim Shady should be fished on a slow drift, but a quick drag gets results if conditions are right. Cast to the edge of bank in creeks and rivers and let current pull it out, and start a drift. On ponds and lakes, cast beyond the target area and use soft, short strips with pauses every 2 to 3 inches.
Use a gentle, dragging pickup. This causes a smooth, rapid movement that triggers a strike; they fear it’s about to take off, I suppose.
It works well early spring to mid-summer, especially in low water on creeks and rivers. It’s a mayfly imitation at heart.