Brown Drakes (Ephemera simulans) are to fly fishers what the New Kids on the Block were to teenage girls in 1990. If they made mayfly posters, you would definitely have one of a Brown Drake on the wall in your bedroom. You would do anything in your power to go see their show. And, if you were lucky enough to see them perform, the sheer thrill of the experience could produce tears of joy.
Like their boy band counterparts, Brown Drakes are a national phenomenon. These massive, size #8-12, mayflies are found in many of fly fishing’s most elite venues from the East Coast’s Delaware to the Midwest’s Ausable, and out to the fabled waters of the Henry’s Fork in Big Sky Country.
Here are Three Geeky Bug Facts about Brown Drakes that will help you catch more fish.
1. Brown Drakes aren’t always Night Owls
Brown Drakes are synonymous with evening fishing. Ask most experienced anglers about them, and you’ll hear a tale of big fish rising to big flies as daytime fades into darkness. Many an epic evening has been had on the Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork during late June and early July when Brown Drakes are hatching. Often times a mating flight will coincide with an emergence providing both duns and spinners for the Fork’s world class rainbows to feast upon. Emergences generally occur in the final hours of daylight, and can last well into darkness. Unsettled weather due to evening thunderstorms is common up in the caldera during this time of year. These storms have been known to produce thick hatches of Brown Drakes both before and immediately following the deluge.
However, these stormy conditions will generally squash the mating flight and subsequent spinner fall. When this happens, it’s possible to see good numbers of Brown Drake spinners flying on the following morning if conditions are appropriate (warm and relatively calm). During periods of stormy weather that last for multiple days, spinners will jump at any opportunity to form a mating flight and finish their life cycle. This can occur in small localized areas of the Ranch where bugs can fly on the leeward side of streambank trees and foliage.
While Brown Drakes are best known for their twilight emergences, don’t forget to keep an eye out for localized mating flights and spinner falls during the morning and early afternoon, especially after periods of stormy weather.
2. Brown Drake Emergers act like Daredevils
If you’re thinking of the red and white striped spoon named Daredevil that you can find in Grandpa’s old tackle box, that’s not the idea. Brown Drake Emergers more closely resemble the shot out of a cannon while wearing a red, white and blue leather jumpsuit style daredevil.
Unlike their drake cousins, the Green Drakes (Drunella grandis), who are awkward, clumsy, vulnerable emergers, the Brown Drake nymph emerges at the surface with speed and skill, making them a difficult target for feeding trout.
Aquatic insect maestro, Jason Neuswanger of troutnut.com, appropriately describes the emergence of a Brown Drake nymph as popping through the surface and into the air like it was shot from a cannon.
It’s common to see large trout feed with a swirling, aggressive rise just below the water’s surface during periods of Brown Drake activity. This is undoubtedly the result of the fish chasing a Brown Drake nymph as it ascends through the water column.
Imitations of crippled Brown Drake emergers will sometimes fool a feeding trout. However, drift sampling during peak emergences generally reveals far fewer crippled emergers compared to the vast numbers of duns, spinners, and nymphs.
Brown Drake nymphs have slender bodies built for burrowing. The nymph’s coloration is similar to the adult’s with a mix of amber, brown, and olive. The slim thorax has definitive mottling, and the abdomen has pronounced, feathery gills. Sizes range from size #8-12.
A Brown Drake nymph is an excellent addition to your quiver, and, rather than an Emerger imitation, may be just the ticket when tricky fish seem to be keyed in to subsurface activity.
3. You won’t find Brown Drakes just anywhere. It has to be the right place at the right time.
Brown Drakes are found in a variety of celebrated trout waters across North America.
In Big Sky Country, the best populations of Brown Drakes are found in the lower Missouri River near Cascade, MT, the upper Gibbon River in Yellowstone Park, and in the Railroad Ranch section of Idaho’s Henry’s Fork. Another renowned Gem State fishery, Silver Creek, has an infamous Brown Drake Hatch as well.
Simply knowing that Brown Drakes are found in a certain watershed is not enough to guarantee your success in witnessing the revered spectacle that these massive mayflies create.
Brown Drakes have very specific and limited habitat requirements. Within a given body of water you will find some reaches that produce massive numbers of Brown Drakes, and others that are devoid.
Knowing the right habitat to look for is critical to finding Brown Drakes. The nymphs are borrowers with distinct tusks for digging u-shaped tunnels into fine gravel and silt substrates. They prefer large areas of quiet water with gentle currents over fast paced riffles and runs.
Fishing the Brown Drake hatch and spinner fall by and large requires playing the waiting game. A large part of the thrill that Brown Drakes create is the suspense that builds while you sit and watch as an early summer evening fades away. The sun drops. The air cools. And, slowly the river comes to life.
If you find yourself sitting on the banks of the Railroad Ranch, or any other water that has a good population of Brown Drakes, at a time when the hatch is happening, and daylight is getting scarce, but you haven’t seen a single dun or spinner, there is a good chance that you have parked yourself on the wrong piece of water. Consider a change of venue, and search for quiet water with a fine gravel or silty substrate.
Now get out and find some Brown Drakes!
Whether you are fishing the Holy Waters in Michigan, the mainstem of the Big D, or the Millionaires Pool on the Railroad Ranch, do everything you can to catch the Brown Drakes. It’s one of the pinnacles in the sport of fly fishing for trout. But, bear in mind, in addition to the storied evening hatches, you could see some great fishing with spinners in the mornings and early afternoons, sometimes a nymph could be your best fly, and like Dr. John said, make sure you’re not in the wrong place at the right time.