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A River Keeper’s Year: Summer

The third in a series of blog posts by Dr John Urquhart.

We are, I suppose, river keepers, of sorts; my wife April, my other best friend Kerry, and me…


The first of the two best months of the year. There was some dislocation when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, in 1582, which may explain why the mayfly do not appear in numbers until the end of the month we now call May and often not until June. The mayfly is the most magnificent fly on the river, although it has a tragic life story, which begins as an egg hatching into a nymph in the riverside silt. Here it will live for a year, until lengthening daylight hours convince it to rise to the surface and hatch into the first of two adult forms. It will now live for only a day more.

There is also now the convergence of events where trout are their hungriest and the food is the most abundant. We left the female fish in the first part of this series in winter after she has laid her eggs in the redd she has prepared on the river bed. She has used her tail to dig, which has left it injured, and worn herself out in the process. We don’t fish while she lays her eggs and recovers, out of respect; but as winter turns to spring, she regains her strength and condition and by late May is ready to feed. Enter the mayfly.

Here is a newly hatched mayfly dun, drying its wings while resting on the back of my hand.

As can be seen from the pictures, the mayfly dun, as immediately hatched from the nymph, has mouth parts which allows it to feed while it develops into the next adult form. Amazingly, this takes a matter of hours, and when it sheds its skin for the second time that day, it becomes a spinner. Now sexually mature, with new body, new wings, but tragically for the insect, no mouthparts.

A Mayfly Spinner

The mayfly spinner. Longer tails – three of them – help identification. Sexually mature; but no mouthparts, so destined to die within the day, after mating.

It is by now the evening of its last day on earth, and it engages in a courtship dance of breathtaking beauty, rising and falling in the evening sunshine as if suspended on threads, before mating in mid-air. The female lays her eggs on the water surface, upstream of where she emerged just hours before, so that they settle close to where she emerged (or else there would be no more mayflies, for they would be out at sea). Now exhausted, for since they ceased being duns and became spinners, exchanging sexual maturity for the ability to feed, they have starved, so both male and female fall to the river surface, and are eaten by the trout waiting beneath.

So begins the most entertaining fishing of the year, known pejoratively for years as “Duffers’ fortnight” because it was said that so hungry were the trout, and so abundant the food, even the most inept fisherman could not fail to catch.

Work on the river is set aside for now, as the sport is at the best. There will be new members of the syndicate to be guided on the river, shown the idiosyncrasies of the river bed and the safe way to wade upstream, for we fish, in every sense, upstream. Entering the river downstream of where we intend fishing, the trout will be swimming into the current, with a blind spot behind, which we exploit. We cast our imitation fly, tied to a piece of nylon measured in diameters of thousandths of an inch, in turn connected to a line whose substance allows us to place the almost weightless fly where we intend. We cast over his head and allow the fly to drift back on the current. If this can be achieved without splashing or otherwise alerting the fish to our presence, so much the better. If the imitation matches the insects the trout are feeding on, then better still.

You hope for the glorious moment when the trout – who will be clearly visible in the clear water – will hesitate, turn towards the fly, and, silently thinking “Y’know what, I’m having that,” eats it. A lift of the rod tip sets the hook, and we are off to the races.

April, off to the races with a wild brown trout she has deceived. The trout is quite cross about being fooled, but April will release him back to the river.

There is debate about what nerve endings there are in the bony jaw of a trout, but we use hooks that have no barb, so they slip out of the trout easily, often immediately after capture, and frequently long before. Fish eat other fish, many of which – sticklebacks, perch – have prominent spines; the fish don’t mind this. He’ll be cross, and rightly so, but mostly because he’s been deceived. My favourite American author, John Geirach: ” I don’t think he ever realised what had happened to him, but he didn’t like it and apparently decided to swim over to the other side to think it over.”

When eventually he comes to the net, he deserves to be treated with respect. We don’t ever kill a trout unless it is injured such that it won’t survive; we treat a scrape or laceration from an otter or cormorant with a first aid spray, as described before. If you must take a life, do it quickly and humanely. Otherwise, grant your fish time to get its breath back, holding it into the current so that water flows through the gills. He’ll let you know when he’s ready, with a tensing of the body and then away, with a spoken message from me, to come back and see me next year. He’ll be wiser then, of course, and harder to fool. But if he’s been handled gently, he’ll be back.

Fooled you. Now back to the water with you.

Now, I’m back to my fishing, but I’ll be back writing once more to round off the year. In the final part of the series, I will move from summer into the autumn, I’ll see you then.