THE MAY HAYSTACK
In much of the Northeast spring there are a staple of hatches that one may encounter, that require patterns to be on-hand in order to avoid fishless days. Those hatches have become identified over time by their respective patterns most commonly tied and fished. Here in Central PA, those patterns hold true as well. They are the Dark Hendrickson, March Brown & Grey Fox hatches that we all have learned to love or hate over the years depending on your success or failure while fishing over them. On the waters I frequent, you really can’t avoid any of them, since oftentimes through May they are the only consistent hatches coming off. For instance, through May on the upper Allegheny the Dark Hendrickson is king, and when fish are seeing them nothing else even gets a look. When on Fishing Creek in May the March Brown hatch rules the day, and quite often is the only productive 2 hours of dry fly fishing to be had. And in May along the Pine Creek, Trout & Cedar Runs the Grey Fox hatch will overshadow everything else despite many other bugs showing on the water.
I, like most other fly fishermen in the region normally address this situation by having at least 3 different patterns for each of those hatches. For years I carried a correlating Catskill pattern, Parachute pattern and Comparadun pattern for each. Add into the mix a couple common sizes for all accordingly and you quickly fill another box of flies. And we all know how much spare room we already have in our vests…right? If you are like me, this leaves you with the issue of deciding which box to leave behind on any given stream. A decision that can too often come back to haunt you while standing midstream, staring at bugs in the air & scouring your boxes for something even remotely close.
This desire for simplification is what brought me back to the bench repeatedly looking for a “general” pattern. The most obvious one already out there is the Adams. However, this pattern has too often left me lacking in fish, and although an excellent pattern it’s not the consistent performer I was looking for. What I found to be the answer is the venerable Haystack. I fish the Haystack faithfully over many hatches, and have grown to rely on the pattern over the years. And I guess I should thank Francis (Fran) Betters, for sitting down at his bench as a young man in June of 1949. His pattern was tied originally to match the Green Drake hatch of the Ausable, and has since proven to be one of our timeless patterns. The predecessor to the Comparadun, I have found the older Haystack to be the much more productive of the two.
- Hook: 94840 #16-12
- Thread: 6/0 Brown Uni-thread
- Tail: Coastal Deer hair (heavy barred natural)
- Body: Hareline Dubbing #2 (March Brown)
- Wing: Coastal Deer hair (heavy barred natural)
My first few attempts to fill the niche with the Haystack proved to be lackluster in performance. It seemed like I had the colors where I wanted them, but no real improvement. This again brought me back to all three patterns of the classic patterns (March Brown, Grey Fox, Dark Hendrickson), sitting on my bench like soldiers in formation. Looking at all three together, the only thing that stood out in common was the distinct contrasts of the wing vs. the hackle in each. The contrast not only copies the particular insect hatching, but more importantly to me, appeared to provide a “mottled” affect on the water. This sent me back to the materials wall of several shops in the area in search of the perfect hair. I needed the right barring or contrast in order to cover all three hatches effectively. First thoughts went to Woodchuck hair for the barred tips, but have found woodchuck to be less than perfect for floating a dry fly and tend to rely on it for winging only. I ended up back in the Comparadun hairs but picking through them for the perfect patch. Comparadun hair these days are dyed so perfectly for the application, that they tend to lose all the barring. While an improvement for many smaller mayfly patterns, it actually detracted the quality I was looking for. But what I did find was a patch of Natural Coastal Deer hair that seemed about right. It was not as perfect in its tips as the majority of the Comparadun hair patches, and held very distinct barring. As they say, “the proof is in the details”. And that one detail has lightened my vest considerably for some time now. These days when sorting through hair bins or wall displays at the local pro-shops, I find myself tossing aside those “perfect” Comparadun patches. But you will see me smile whenever I find that one patch of hair with the distinct mottling and uneven dark tips. That same patch that otherwise tends to get tossed aside as imperfect and unusable.
Left-to-right: Coastal Deer Hairs Dun, Dark Dun, Natural, Mottled Natural. Notice both the dying process and some of the natural hairs shown, lack the necessary barring. The hair patch on the far right is what to look for.
I tie the May Haystack on a hook one size smaller than standard, and extend both the tail and wing slightly more than commonly found. I also tie it a bit sparse in both wing and tail, and only use a hair stacker if obviously necessary. It seems to fish a bit better if a little uneven, while the light barring tapered into a fine black tip of the Coastal Deer provides the perfect mottling I am looking for. This pattern has truly become my all-around pattern for all 3 of these hatches, and is my go-to pattern for May in Pennsylvania.
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