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.
If you fish in Big Sky Country, or anywhere else trout live, you undoubtedly know about Drakes.
If you don’t, you should. They are the kings of all mayflies. Their size (#10-12) commands respect, and demands attention from fish and fishermen alike.
The most famous of the Drakes is the Green Drake, Drunella grandis. Brown Drakes, Ephemera Simulans, are a close second. And, the Gray Drake, Siphlonurus occidentalis, shrouded in mystery and misconception, ranks third.
Gray Drakes are found in several of Big Sky Country’s renowned fisheries, as well as a few of its sleepers.
The most notable Gray Drake activity in Big Sky Country is on the Lower Henry’s Fork below Ashton, ID. In Yellowstone Park, Gray Drakes can be seen in popular waters like Slough Creek, and the Yellowstone River above the falls. Less popular spots to encounter Gray Drakes in the Park include the Madison, Gibbon, and Lewis Rivers.
Gray Drakes may be the least celebrated of these esteemed mayflies, but they are hugely important, and provide outstanding opportunities for fly fishers in Big Sky Country.
Here are Four Geeky Bug Facts about Gray Drakes that will help you catch more fish.
1. The Duns Have an Identity Crisis
It’s hard being the lesser-known, underappreciated member of the Drake family. So, it’s understandable that Gray Drake duns would behave like something they are not – stoneflies.
Most mayflies live as nymphs in the bottom of lakes, rivers, and streams until it is time to complete their life cycle, at which point they swim to the surface and emerge as duns creating the one event that all fly fishers hold near and dear to their hearts – the hatch.
For many anglers, a hatch is the pinnacle of fly fishing. It’s the one time that both bugs and fish come to the water’s surface and allow us to interact with them and watch as the excitement unfolds.
Gray Drakes, however, rob us of this opportunity, choosing instead to act like stoneflies and crawl out of the river to emerge on stream side rocks and vegetation.
This is one of the main reasons that Gray Drakes don’t receive the accolades of Green and Brown Drakes. In fact, many experienced fly fishers have never seen a Gray Drake Dun. Although, a close examination of riparian rocks, grass, and willows will sometimes reveal these elusive duns waiting to molt into spinners.
Gray Drake duns are impressive in size and stature (#10-12). Their dark, slate gray wings slope over an olive gray body with distinct brown markings.
While Gray Drakes don’t necessarily present a chance to “Match the Hatch” they can produce savage eats along the banks on windy days. On rivers like the Henry’s Fork, where there is a sturdy population of Gray Drakes, resident bank-dwelling brown trout are accustomed to seeing these stately duns with the same frequency as terrestrials like hoppers and beetles when the wind blows.
2. The Spinners Suffer from Goldilocks Syndrome
If you have fished with Gray Drakes before, it was most likely with the spinner imitation. As cagey as the duns may be, the spinners are equally prolific. But, like Goldilocks, they want things to be just right.
Dense mating flights and corresponding spinner falls of Gray Drakes can occur anytime from mid-morning to evening. Research suggests that mating flights and egg laying activity seem to peak between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And, despite their large physique, Gray Drake spinners cannot cope with much more than moderate wind.
In Big Sky Country, the Gray Drake spinner Goldilocks scenario generally occurs on relatively calm days from mid to late morning after temperatures have had a chance to warm, and again in the evenings when the heat of the day subsides.
Like Goldilocks, Gray Drake Spinners want everything to be just right. Some days have a perfect combination of variables with little wind and moderate temps lasting throughout the day. These are the rare days that produce epic spinner falls with seemingly millions of insects mating and falling spent on the water. Other days are too cool or too windy, and the spinners never take flight, choosing instead to seek shelter in the riparian vegetation and wait for more suitable conditions. Some days the spinners take flight and tempt us as they hover high over the water only to vanish as soon as the wind picks up.
On most of the waters in Big Sky Country where Gray Drake spinners are found they will be a solid size 12. You will know you have found one if it has two tails, clear glassy wings with no mottling, and a rusty brown body with distinct horseshoe markings on the bottom of the abdomen.
3. The Nymphs Perform Daily Flash Mobs
Ok, not really, but sort of…
Of all the geeky bug facts associated with fly fishing, few are more fascinating than the behavior of Benthic Drift.
This is a daily phenomenon where at the same moment all of the individual nymphs in a given area will release from the stream substrate and drift with the current.
It’s the aquatic macroinvertebrate equivalent of a flash mob minus the singing, dancing, and viral YouTube stardom.
Decades of research has been aimed at explaining Benthic Drift, but one widely accepted theory is that drift is a mechanism for insect populations to colonize new habitat after carrying capacity has been reached.
Like bison migrating to a new section of grasslands after grazing the first one, nymphs drift downstream in search of greener pastures. When adults emerge, molt into spinners, and form mating flights they move back upstream to deposit their eggs and close the cycle.
Gray Drake nymphs migrate in impressive numbers toward the stream banks in preparation for emerging, and they also perform daily benthic drift flash mobs. These strong swimming nymphs with slender bodies concentrate like schools of baitfish drifting with the current, and trout love to intercept them along the way.
Benthic drifts predominantly occur in the mornings and evenings, which, coincidentally, is the same time as Gray Drake spinner falls.
Few fly fishers would pass up the chance to fish a size 12 dry fly to rising trout, and opt instead to fish a dead drifted or stripped nymph pattern subsurface.
But, as we know, Gray Drake spinners have a bad case of Goldilocks Syndrome and need conditions to be just right. Not every morning or evening will be perfect for spinners.
So, at these less than ideal times, when spinners aren’t falling and fish aren’t rising, nymph imitations fished with a dead drift, or a short darting stripped retrieve can be productive.
4. They Live in Lakes, Too
While extremely uncommon, there are some lakes in Big Sky Country which harbor populations of Siphlonurus mayflies. As such, the savvy stillwater angler who likes to explore new water should probably be prepared with at least a couple of Gray Drake imitations in their boxes. The first three facts about Gray Drakes apply in the stillwater environment, too. Since they migrate to, and emerge from shore, expect concentrations of emerging nymphs (and feeding trout) in the shallows near shore, and don’t be too concerned about dun imitations. Fish your nymph (whose colors vary greatly depending on the substrate and vegetation) with a retrieve that imitates their adroit swimming ability, with some occasional pauses for good measure.
Spinners will provide the best dry fly opportunities. Look for the big spinners on the water, near shore, primarily on calm mornings. Because they are such a shoreline dependent insect, this hatch is often accessible to stillwater anglers who are searching on foot. These are BIG BUGS, so there is usually no mistaking them for other stillwater mayflies, like Callibaetis. In our experience, spinners often sit on the water with upright wings, and the fish don’t seem that fussy about the fly pattern as long as the size is right, and the color is pretty close.
Now get out in Big Sky Country and find some Gray Drakes
Gray Drakes can be seen from June through September in parts of Big Sky Country.
Now that you know a little more about the inglorious Gray Drake you’ll be able to anticipate and plan for those epic spinner falls, and have some tricks up your sleeve for when conditions are ideal, and also when they aren’t just right.