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Dreaming of June & Gray Drakes

Mar 27, 2012 | Mike Lawson


With spring-like weather making its way to Idaho, we're really starting to get "the itch" around here. And if you've ever been on the lower Henry's Fork during the latter part of June, then you know what's in store!

So here's a piece from Mike Lawson that might cure those last remaining symptoms of cabin fever. THINK JUNE!

"Siphlonurus occidentalis...sounds like a sexually transmitted disease. Latin names aside, the Gray Drake of the West is one of the most important, yet misunderstood large mayflies. It’s definitely an oddball. The fast swimming nymphs migrate from the main stem to soft water in the margins, sloughs, and backwaters of the stream where they crawl out to emerge like stoneflies. The duns are rarely important and the nymphs usually aren’t where the trout are.

The spinners are another story, with a mating ritual that involves ganging up over riffles and runs to lay their eggs. Some travel for miles to join the party, often resulting in clouds of sexually aroused insects over the water. They usually start falling on the water in the mid-morning hours and continue throughout the day.

The Gray Drakes occur on the Henry’s Fork during the middle of June, about the same time as their better known relatives, Green Drakes and Brown Drakes. Widely disturbed across the West, this species inhabits well-known rivers including the Crowsnest, Bow, Williamson, and Yellowstone. I worked as a fishing guide for Jim Danksin in West Yellowstone in 1973, and I often slept on his back porch, not far from the Madison’s South Fork. After work, the Gray Drake spinners would create furious dry-fly action near the estuary to Hebgen Lake. They also account for some of the finest dry fly-fishing of the season on the New Fork River near Pinedale, Wyoming. The heaviest concentrations of spinners I have ever experienced are on the lower Henry’s Fork near my home in St Anthony.

One problem with Gray Drakes: the concentration of spinners can be too heavy to fish. Trout get full pretty fast when the surface is carpeted with size-10 bugs. Fortunately, the spinners don’t really pile up until early evening, so if you get started in the morning, you should be able to catch more big trout than you deserve.

Most of the time you can get away with a size-10 Parachute Adams. If you find a tough fish you can tie a sparse, spent wing imitation as a dropper from the bend of the hook of your Parachute. Sometimes insects pile on the water in mating clusters. Rather than trying to imitate that, I’ve found a big Renegade will usually do the job.

One of the best things about living in St. Anthony is that even though one of the greatest trout rivers on earth flows through the middle of town, not many people fly fish. It isn’t like Livingston. Rene’ Harrop and I have lived here for forty years or so and somehow we have managed to keep our town known more for Idaho Potatoes than trout. A Subway shop overlooks the river just off Highway 20 and you should hear the cursing when the Gray Drakes are on-- plenty of Gray Drakes on sandwiches whether they were ordered or not.

Not long ago one of my neighbors, who lived in a nice home overlooking the river, invited my wife and me to a garden wedding reception for their daughter. I begged out because it was Gray Drake time, but I warned him to take the reception inside. When I tried to tell him about the volume of Gray Drakes he looked at me like I had ten heads. My wife, Sheralee, went to the reception and told me about it after I got home from fishing. The bride’s wedding dress and veil were covered with bugs and the big mayflies stuck to everything they touched. The salads and hors d'oeuvres were buried.

The wedding party and guests eventually scrambled inside, away from the pesky insects. The garden reception was ruined. My friend later asked me how I knew about the Drakes. I told him it was too bad he wasn’t a fly fisher. If he was, he’d know."

This piece appears in the 2012 Spring issue of The Drake magazine that started to hit new stands just last week. We'll be selling The Drake in our fly shop and online store. So be sure to check back in a few days as our shipment should be arriving shortly!