We got on the river around 6 PM. The summer sun still
hung well up in the sky, and a wind riffled across the
normally still waters. It didn't bode well for a good
hatch if the wind kept up this pace. After wading out
to the end of the innermost island, it became apparent,
rather quickly, that damselflies were the current food
I tied on a blue foam and yarn creation that splayed out
across the surface in its best representation of a worn,
exhausted damsel. I couldn't seem to buy a strike, and
managed to miss most of the ones that I did get. A couple
of small fish took the fly as I skated it back towards me
across the top of the water. My fishing partner was doing
much better, taking a half dozen bass or more in the
10 - 14" range.
7 PM, and the damsels were disappearing from the sky. As
if on cue, the Light Cahills began to come off, not in large
quantities, but consistently enough to get the attention of
the fish. I switched over to a white foam Comparadun, while
a #14 parachute Cahill was the fly of choice for my compatriot.
The low riding parachute was definitely the ticket, as she took
6 or 7 good fish to my two in a half hour period.
Frustrated, I snipped the fly free and switched over to an
Arctic Fox and Flex-o minnow pattern. The first cast took
an aggressive 9" bass. A couple more casts, another small
fish. An attempted long cast collapsed about 2/3 of the way
to it's target, and the fly swung with the current as I stripped
in the line. I finally caught up with the fly, and on the second
strip, just inches below the surface, a slab of olive and bronze
appeared, and the fly disappeared. Cutting and bulldogging in
the current, the fish refused to come up and display the
aerobatics that I so love in river smallies. After several
minutes of spirited give and take, a 16" fish slides across
the top of the water to my side. I quickly unhook the thick
fish, and after a few moments in the current, watch it swim
off strongly towards the bottom. This fly has used up its
dose of fish attraction, as no more bass showed an interest
in the bulky streamer, content to sip mayflies from the surface.
8 PM. As the sun lowered in the sky, the horizon and the
river began to turn vibrant shades of pink and orange.
And then it started.
There's an audible popping sound when a whitefly breaks through
the surface of the water, shooting off towards the heavens.
The whitefly, Ephoron Leukon for the Latin inclined,
is the whole reason that we're out here fishing tonight. Pop,
pop. Every fly fisher on this stretch of river is changing flies.
Some fish the classic hatch matcher, the White Wulff. Some,
emergers or wets, some fish dry and dropper tandems. Whatever
the rig of choice, the reason is the same. These large white
mayflies are a readily visible source of protein, and a good
hatch is the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell on the Susquehanna.
Pop, pop. The rings of rise forms spread across the river in
ever increasing circles.
The hatch of whiteflies in my usual haunts on the river has
been rather poor this year. I'm up in a new stretch of water,
hoping for a strong hatch to bring the fish up. Be careful
what you wish for.
I lay the #12 White Wulff out on the water, and almost as it
touches down, it disappears in the middle of a rise form.
I tighten up on the line, and a 12" bass comes bursting from
the water, leaping and turning. Pop, pop. Fish rise, almost
within arm's reach, as I play the fish to hand and release it.
I turn up river to cast into the current above me. I have to
pause, as the last pinks and oranges reflect off the river's
surface, there seems to be an uncountable mass of mayflies
moving across this back lit frame. A quick glance down shows
that my vest is layered in flies, as they arrange themselves
across every piece of available space, giving the appearance
of squadrons of planes, staging on the deck of an aircraft
carrier. It doesn't do any good to wipe them off, they're
immediately replaced with new insects. I really wish I had
remembered my hat, though.
Another cast, and I miss the strike on a splashy rise. Probably
a rock bass, but I've got to know. I cast ahead of the rise,
and again, a splashy take. A quick struggle followed by the
"wet dishrag" defense. I slide the fat rock bass to hand,
and unhook the fly, seeing another half dozen real flies down
in the fish's mouth. You don't breathe through your nose right
now, and breathing through the mouth is often done from behind
a protective hand. Eyes are held in perpetual squint, to limit
the amount of available space that a fly can crash into.
The term "blizzard hatch" can be the only applicable description
at times, and with the whiteflies it is doubly apropos. From a
hundred yards out in the river, a glance back towards shore shows
that from five feet up the tree line down to the surface of the
water, there is nothing but white. Even the water itself runs
past like a flowing white carpet, the surface strewn with
nymphal shucks, the first few spinners, and a plethora of
flies that, for a variety of reasons, never completed their
transformation. This is what they were waiting for.
From the depths they rise up, on some silent trigger. Their
aggressive, voracious feeding puts the bass down, and they
dominate this dual orgy of procreation and consumption. We're
suddenly surrounded, as pods of 5 - 10 channel cats prowl the
surface. They raise their heads part way out of the water,
skimming open mouthed across the vast field of remnants of
the hatch. Like prehistoric vacuum cleaners, they swim
serpentine paths across the water, leaving a trail of
darkness in the white of the surface. They get so intent
on feeding they seem oblivious to the world surrounding them,
often heading on seeming collision courses with each other,
or people crazy enough to stand out in the midst of this chaos.
It's easy to get their attention, though. Shift a rock
underfoot, or slap the surface of the water with a rod tip.
The catfish disappears in a splash of water and spinners.
This can set off a chain reaction, as every catfish within
15 or 20 feet reacts to the very loud vanishing act of one
of their brethren. Enough catfish feeding in one area, and
it sounds as though someone has lobbed a cinder block into
The channel cats are catchable in this feeding frenzy. Find
a feeding fish, try and anticipate the travel path. Lay a
spinner or dun in front and wait until the fish is in the
area of the cast. A gentle lift will tell you if the fish
took the fly or not. Readiness is required, tough, as your
gentle lift of the rod may be followed by a reel chattering
run, as a couple feet worth of channel cat decides to head
I try to "break the hatch" and find a bass or two in this
mass of open mouths and barbels. A soft hackle and a white
popper both go untouched, each retrieve brings back a fly
with its hook point obscured by a mass of accumulated
whitefly detritus. I hear the song of a catfish on the
reel from below.
"Need a hand?"
I head down river, trying to avoid spooking to many catfish,
or myself. I arrive as my fishing partner is turning slowly
in the current, as the fish on the end of her line heads
upriver. More upstream struggles, and this fish has been
on for a while. The fish turns downstream, and is going
to be heading right between us. As I see the line inbound,
I take a step back, making sure there's adequate space.
The catfish panics, diving to the right, which happens to
run it right between my partner's legs. There's a panicked
look on her face, and then she drops into the water, trying
to work the rod under her foot before the fish turns and
wraps around her leg. As she gets clear of the line, I
take the rod, holding it to the side as I help her get to
her feet. Now running on adrenaline, she works the rod and
the fish to the limit, bringing a 15-16" channel cat up to
the surface. It comes up tail first, having snagged the
fly just in front of the tail fin. That explains the long,
drawn out fight.
Soaking wet, it's definitely time to head in. The bulk of
the spinner fall is over, and the bass have ceded almost
fully to the marauding channels. A few flies still fill
the air with a gentle hum. We'll both be picking flies
out of our vests and clothes when we get to shore. Even
on a hot, steamy, drought-perpetuating day, you can still
be lucky enough to get caught in a blizzard. ~ Jason