CHASING HATCHES IS STUPID and obnoxious. I know. I’ve tried. Pursuing particular insects insures that the potential for disappointment will dwarf the likelihood of success. If us fishing media folk are to be believed (also a bad idea), fishing is an appreciation of the moment, being present, or some other Baba Ram Das shit. Planning for, and expecting to control, something as ephemeral as when bugs emerge from the water just seems arrogant and maybe a little entitled.
My Uncle Jim’s from northern Minnesota and spent his career teaching and coaching football at a middle school outside of Chicago. I never saw him expect anything from a day of fishing, and he only got pissed off when the prop on his outboard smashed into an unseen rock, then I’d get to learn new swear words. Sometimes, when we were bass fishing, he’d tell stories about the time he fished for trout in the Rockies in 1978.
In Montana, where I now live and guide, people plan their lives around the uncertainty of insect behavior. This is more silly than trying to plan the stability of your future around the stock market. Most of the time, it doesn’t work out the way we imagine. The bugs are early or late; the fish are gorged; the river’s high. Often, hatch chasers find decent fishing, but get disappointed when we don’t find the exact fish we want, eating the exact bugs we planned for, in the exact manner we dreamed about. We turn into assholes.
Since I dislike assholes, particularly myself as one, I’ve decided to love the bugs that no one chases, the ones we don’t bother to predict, like March Browns.
A few years ago, my uncle visited me in late spring. Guide and tourist season was just starting. I’d been taking advantage of the early season, binging on fishing and beer, enjoying boat time with friends before rowing turned back into a job. The subsurface bite had been good for months, but the dry flies were inconsistent. We had technical spring baetis on cloudy days, and the Mother’s Day caddis provided a week of gluttony, but that had been about it.
Uncle Jim stared out the window of my truck at foothills and alfalfa fields, space and topography. I imagined that he might be having big-screen Redford dreams.
“Don’t expect to be throwing dries.” I told him.
It felt odd, having him in the passenger seat.
“I’ve guided this stretch a few times the past week. It’s been good, but all on nymphs.”
He smiled at me and just said, “Okay.”
The morning went as expected. I rowed, called out drifts and holding water, said “mend” a lot. Jim caught fish, kept asking when I was going to cast. Just after lunch, a thunderstorm churned across the mountains. First the wind scratched the water, then hail pocked it, and finally rain. Afternoon storms are common here, but this one had a strange gap in it, like the eye of a hurricane. The clouds remained, but the wind died and the rain trickled.
Enormous, reddish-brown mayflies rose in sheets. I’ve fished that piece of river hundreds of times; I’ve never seen a March Brown hatch that thick, or seen that many fish react. Trout appeared from bank to bank. For 45 minutes, during the gap in that storm, everything looked up. Jim saw my face and I think maybe recognized a kid from 1984.
“You gonna fish now?”
I dropped anchor and tied on enormous parachutes, caricatures of mayflies.
My uncle taught me how to throw a baitcaster and a fly rod, how to rig soft-plastics and twitch poppers. He showed me what a hexagenia nymph looks like and how to fillet walleye, pike, bass, bluegill, and crappie. But Jim hadn’t cast a dry fly to a trout in more than 40 years. I won’t claim that he rediscovered some deeply buried magic and laid out perfect 40 foot loops. His casts were halting and a little rushed, but he caught fish and watched the river come alive with trout and March Browns. After I netted and released his second fish, he pushed me away and told me to go fishing. I did.
The storm came back just as the bugs petered out, angrier this time. Jim and I didn’t talk. We stowed the rods, and I rowed hard, stopping every fifteen minutes to bail the boat.
At the ramp, my uncle’s clothes hung from his slightly stooped frame. He smiled as broadly as a reserved, baby-boomer Catholic from Minnesota can, and said, “Well, that was fun,” without a trace of sarcasm.
I’ve seen plenty of March Brown hatches, but that day defines them for me. We Americans appropriated the name “March” Brown from England, where the big spring mayflies supposedly do appear in March. In the states, the Eastern and Midwestern variety often doesn’t hatch until May. The Western version is exceptionally erratic. Some temperate West Coast streams can see them as early as February. In the Mountain West, it’s usually more like June.
They’re not bugs that lend themselves to planning, which means everyone appreciates them when they happen but no one is disappointed when they don’t. If they appear, you get them, and just because you found them today doesn’t mean they’ll be back tomorrow. I suppose there’s a lesson in that, but I’m not going to stretch another fishing truism into a Buddhist koan. I’ll just say that my favorite days of dry-fly fishing are the ones I don’t expect, and even though I spend ten times as many days on the water as my Uncle Jim, he still knows more about fishing than I do.