As predicted, Spring almost seems to have been bypassed this year and as we enter early summer, our rivers are dramatically coming to life. Chris Ogborne takes a look at the enigmatic hawthorn fly, a species now well on the wing, with some expert tips and recommended fly patterns.
“There are many signs in the countryside that Spring has truly arrived: The swifts soaring and screaming overhead, the first cuckoo call and the first brood of hatched duckling paddling in the margins. But for me, there’s a humbler and less obvious candidate – the first Hawthorn flies hovering over the hedgerows.
Unless you’re lucky enough to fish a river that has a decent mayfly hatch, these jet black flies are likely to be the first real feast of the season for the trout. The hawthorns are prolific, for one thing. They can generate huge swarms and the fish love them. Once used to them, they will rise with total abandon often with a splashy rise form more often seen on Irish loughs at Mayfly time.
Like the mayfly, however, the fish seem to take a week or so to get locked into hawthorns. It’s almost as though the smaller wild brownies are afraid of their size, or maybe cautious would be a better word. I watched a little fish on the Fowey this week, rising from the river bed as each insect passed over him, but failing to find the confidence to take it. I’ve seen this behaviour before and even on the big lakes you can sometimes observe rainbows slashing at daddies without actually taking.
While you might need some patience, though, once the fish get a taste for hawthorns, there’s no stopping them. So when do trout take advantage most? Well, hawthorn flies are particularly susceptible to temperature change and if there’s a cold snap or even if the sun goes in for a while, you’ll often see them falling onto the water in large numbers, at which time the fish get well and truly locked on. Similarly in the evenings, as the days warmth recedes and the cool of evening takes over, there can be a significant fall.
Top hawthorn fly patterns and how to fish them
So which flies are best to imitate hawthorns? That old adage for fishing wild rivers is ‘any fly you like as long as it’s black’ has a lot of truth in it, and I’ll almost always start a days prospecting with the ubiquitous black gnat or an emerger version such as the Hi-Vis Black Gnat (below), one of my favourite barbless river flies. These small, black flies imitate are readily accepted as a small hawthorne (or any one of many small terrestrials!) even without that characteristic pair of trailing legs.
But there’s nothing like the real copy and the great thing about hawthorns is that they’re dead easy to imitate at the tying bench. You can exaggerate the all-black body and the gauzy, almost white wings with either a conventional pattern or even a parachute version, which not only replicates a drastically drowning fly, but makes it easy to spot in white water or faster runs.
Whichever pattern you try, fishing it well-drowned is often more productive than presenting it neatly; so think “in” rather than “on” the surface! If you don’t tie your own flies, Turrall produce several effective imitations, including the dry hawthorn (below):