Catch the hatch

The farther south an angler gets from the Canadian border, the less terrifying the words “mayfly hatch” become. In warmer, more fertile waters, a longer growing season means nearly year-round food in the form of minnows, insects and other forage. But for those rocky, cold, less fertile lakes up north with a short growing season, the mid-summer mayfly hatch serves as the fuel for a lake’s fish-producing engine, and becomes an issue for any angler plying the water for walleye, bass or other game fish. Not only do several species of these large-winged insects hatch at the same time throughout June and July in the northern tier of Minnesota, but they do so in a manner that literally leaves mats of hatching, dying and dead mayflies stretching for up to a mile, like a beige and yellow oil slick on the surface but unlike petroleum, these are fish-filling smorgasbords.

As a result, it is tough for anglers unfamiliar with “the hatch” to turn the heads of walleye during this time where the nymphs swim to the surface, sprout wings in the film, and take flight to complete their metamorphosis on land before mating and dying over the water. At all stages in the insects’ brief transition and terrestrial life, the fish need only swim around with their mouths open to pick off the two- and three-inch long bugs at any level of the water column and fill their stomachs to capacity.

Of course it would be then that my week vacation on the shores of Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion would coincide with the annual all-you-can-eat buffet for the golden-sided denizens of the nearly 40,000 acres of pine-and-popple-trimmed water. Upon arrival at the little cabin on the gravelly northwest shore of Big Bay, the near mid-point of the lake, I found two welcome mats. The actual braided fabric mat at the front door of the structure which read “Welcome to the Lake,” and a collection of various species of mayflies covering the bottom two feet of the screen door, which seemed to say: “Have Fun Not Catching Any Fish.”

I unloaded my gear and got my rods and tackle ready for the following day, knowing there was only one thing I could do in hopes of hooking up with a few fish for the pan, and that was find productive water and match the hatch. I picked through a few of the mayflies decorating the outside walls of the cabin and saw that most were of the bigger varieties. There’d be no tiny versions to imitate these were the porterhouse steaks of the insect world and their bodies stretched about as long as half of a nightcrawler. Additionally, I was able to watch a few make their way from the water to land, and saw that they would wiggle their way up the water column to the surface where their brand new wings would propel their nymphal shuck to a place where they could hang out and shed the confines of their prior aquatic life. These vibrations undoubtedly called to fish at this time of year.

Luckily, throughout the winter, I had spent many of my nights cranking out spinners of all sizes for my walleye fishing efforts this summer, with most of them being two-hook, half-crawler harnesses my favorite set-up. It’s been said that luck is the residue of preparation; and to overcome the misfortune of scheduling my vacation in the midst of the mayfly hatch, the four dozen spinners that I had at the ready would have to produce a lucky residue thicker than the bugs that coated the bottom foot of the shoreline.

As I lowered the flickering blade of my first spinner rigged with a chunk of crawler in tow, I expected a silent first trip on the water, but it wasn’t long until a solid tap signified a fish was upon my best offering, a combination of wiggle and piece of meat comparable to those mayflies making their way through the water. The thirteen-inch walleye came to hand and I let it slide back into the red-stained bog water of the rocky lake, and I took it as a positive sign that despite the binge going on below, my bait would still be considered in this time of plenty. By the end of the ninety-minute trip, I had three walleyes from 14 to 17 inches on the stringer to take back home for our first breakfast on the lakeshore. It was a meal which we would repeat on several days and no one tired of.

While early season fishing gives anglers a chance to take advantage of hungry fish coming out of winter, mid-season can provide a natural bounty that might give fish pause, because their bellies are full and in turn give anglers heartburn. But by being aware of what’s going on in terms of hatches, what cues those food sources give off and what fish are keying in on, anglers can still find ways to catch fish and make the phrase “mayfly hatch” seem a whole lot less scaryin our outdoors.