Dry fly drifters dream all winter long about the coming of May. As the piles of snow and drifts of ice slowly surrender to the (relatively) warm days of early Spring, I would gaze through the office window and watch the river for any signs of aquatic insect activity. Any semblance of the slightest reaction from the trout is what I would wait for. Very occasional rises might garner my attention, but it’s really the consistent surface-feeding pattern that I’m waiting for. That timed rhythm of a confident and consistently-rising trout that is finally looking toward the surface film for a delivered meal. When that day arrives, it starts a whole new Dry Fly Season on the spring-fed headweaters of the Little Manistee.
That blessed day arrived here in early May and the dry fly season is now afoot at North Rivers Lodge. Sparse hatches of Blue Wing Olives were the first appetizers on the menu of a steady five month diet of emerging insects. Since then, the Hendricksons have arrived – a favorite dinner guest of the trout in May. Other bugs will follow according to their respective schedules, so my fly box is loaded and prepared for their predictable emergence. The early season is usually an easy assortment of go-to flies. They’re hardly top secret, so I’ve listed my top five picks of May favorites on the Upper Little Manistee:
1. BWOs, the Blue Wing Olive
First emerging when snow is still covering the ground and ice is shelving the riverbanks, the tiniest of BWOs are generally ignored by the trout. With the season’s first warming rays of sunlight, slightly larger olives start to emerge and will gain size and mass as the season progresses. They’ll be around for the next several months, in varying sizes and shades. I always have an assortment of emerger, adult, and spent-wing patterns. This fly will become increasingly insignificant as larger morsels are on their way, but BWOs will be around for a few months so it’s wise to keep a few on hand. They don’t take up much room in the fly box.
2. White Caddis , the Elk Hair Caddis
There are many varieties of Caddis ever-present on the Little Manistee. Here, towards the headwaters, the White Caddis is a season-long regular at the noon hour lunch counter. Typically associated with sunny, mid-day appearances in Spring, the caddis will skitter about wherever the breeze and currents take them. An Elk Hair Caddis is a good attractant when nothing much else is going on. As added benefit, in a pinch an Elk Hair Caddis will pass as an early yellow stonefly imitation. A caddis emerger pattern is a good alternative to float just under the surface film to coax up a shy mid-day trout from the shadows of depth.
3. The Hendrickson Family’s Friends, the Adams
Affectionately known as Hennies, the Hendrickson is the first substantial meal to emerge from the river where the gravel beds meet the silty edges. This is the season’s first significant fly that has dry fly traditionalists calling their friends and planning the season’s first trip Up North to their favorite Michigan river. It’s the season’s first fly to create an amazing bio-mass of spinning clouds that excite both fish and fishers in the late afternoon on overcast days. The assortment of available Hendrickson patterns can be staggering, but I’ve simplified over the years to carry an assortment of Adams variants. A Michigan original, the Adams Fly was born in Kingsley, Michigan. Naturally, the town of Kingsley has an annual festival to celebrate Dr. Adams original pattern. Adams are now tied in a host of patterns and stages, notably in parachute, spent wing and emerger. The Irresistible Adams pattern has added body mass; a bonus to trigger a feeding trout, much like bacon added to a cheeseburger triggers a feeding angler. Always observe the size and color of natural Hendricksons present, then choose accordingly!
4. Ephemerella Invaria, The Sulphur Mayfly
In my opinion, the Sulphur is hands down by far the prettiest species of the Mayfly genus. Sulphurs will appear in mid-May when the weather patterns become more consistently warm and spring begins to look less like the winter we’re trying to leave behind. The Sulphurs don’t emerge from the Upper Little Manistee in huge numbers, but they do trigger feeding patterns in trout, just enough to keep a variety of imitations in my fly box. I’ll only fish Sulphurs when I see Sulphurs present; usually on sunny, late afternoons. The usual assortment of sizes in emerger, dun, parachute and spent-wing patterns can also imitate a light Hendrickson, if needed.
5. Good, Old-School Bucktails
Those of us fortunate enough to have inherited our Grandfather’s fly box can peak inside and have a glimpse into the Golden Age of fly fishing. There, you will most likely find an assortment of bucktails. Back in the day, these were the standard streamers, by definition of the term. Unlike today’s variations of eight-inch, jointed, weighted, bedazzled streamers (which require an 8wt rod and a presentation with all the stealth and grace of catapulting a 2 pound chicken), bucktails handsomely compliment a bamboo rod. Their wind resistance presents a roll cast with ease, finesse and accuracy necessary in the tight quarters of skinny water. My ideal traditional bucktails are the Mickey Finn, Black Nosed Dace, and Bucktail Coachman. Tied about 12 inches below a splitshot weight, strip these baitfish imitations below the woody jams and under the gnarly tag alder roots. When least expected, an adult brook trout will hit a colorful, darting bucktail with a most admirable THUD.
May is the time of my scheduled emergence as well, with a long, full, promising trout season ahead. It’s evident that my selected May Favs are the time-proven fur and feather classics. This could mislabel me as a “purist” with the vintage bamboo rods and old-timey flies – but I’ve always found the term “traditionalist” a little more palatable, probably more accurate, and definitely less snobby. Long, brutal winters of the off-season spent reading and re-reading classic fly fishing literature can have that effect, while romancing the anticipation of May. That, and I just like interesting old things. Classic flies, like classic literature, never die and they’re always worth revisiting. They can serve to remind us that fly patterns may have changed over the decades, but the trout have not.