By Jene Hughes
Green Drake. The name looms larger than life in fly-fishing insect lore.
In the past two years alone, Green Drakes have appeared in 50 articles I’ve edited, even though their hatches occupy only a week or two of the entire season. Because Green Drakes draw such attention, featuring them as a fish food should be simple, right? Yes—and no. Determining the relevant information about Green Drakes depends on where you live, meaning where you fish. For anglers whose excursions span the Continental Divide, the inescapable question—what, exactly, is a Green Drake—becomes significant.
The potentially perplexing Green Drake name was a fountain of delight for author John McDonald, who in his 1972 revision of Quill Gordon devoted an entire chapter to the mystique of the Green Drake name, observing that “The tallest tale in fly-fishing is, as it should be, not about a fish but about a fly. Its name is the green drake. ”
John Shewey, this magazine’s editor in chief, puts it far more succinctly: “The Green Drake is an event.”
Across the continent from Shewey’s Western home, Evan Lavery, owner of The Beaverkill Angler, agrees, describing hatches as “spectacular.”
McDonald’s chapter traces Green Drakes through angling’s most prominent authors, beginning with Charles Cotton’s 1676 contribution to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler and continuing through American icons Art Flick, Ernest Schwiebert, and Vince Marinaro, all of whom discussed different waters—and, importantly, different Green Drakes. A drake was even described in Dame Juliana Berners’s 1496 A Treatise of Fishing with an Angle.
There’s no doubt the Green Drake mystique endures: Chris Roslyn, in Eastern Fly Fishing (July/August 2012), recounted how fishing legends Vince Marinaro and Charlie Fox attempted stocking Green Drakes in Letort Spring Run, the anglers’ iconic home waters (the environmentally questionable effort failed). Jason Stemple, in Southwest Fly Fishing (July/August 2013), noted that on Colorado’s Gunnison River “by the first week of July the big juicy mayflies are . . . causing anglers to call in sick to work and forcing every fish in the river to the surface.” Similarly, Will Rice, in an upcoming feature in Northwest Fly Fishing, praises Green Drakes as “the most important hatch” among the seemingly continuous hatches that draw global anglers to the Henrys Fork of the Snake River in Idaho.
So back to the question: What is a Green Drake? Basically, American anglers encounter two totally different Green Drake mayflies—the Eastern and the Western. That simple distinction is, unfortunately, anemic, even for those of us typically disinclined to split taxonomic hairs. As American fly fishing migrated west, three mayfly species from two families were dubbed Green Drake.
The large mayfly commonly called the Green Drake in the British Isles is the Ephemera danica, and bestowing its name on the similar American fly found in the East made sense to our fly-fishing pioneers. And it still does. Both genera are members of the same family, Ephemeridae, or “common burrowers,” and share characteristics that, when known, are helpful to anglers.
When fly fishing reached the Rocky Mountains, however, attaching the Green Drake moniker to the similar large, spring-hatching mayflies sowed the seeds confusion. To most Western anglers, Green Drake means Drunella grandis—a totally different insect from an entirely different family, the Ephemerellidae, which bears the arguably sexier description “spiny crawlers.” At this point, though, the simple binary division of East/West diverges. A second member of the Western Ephemerellidae family, Drunella doddsii, is also called a Green Drake (conveniently, it’s similar to D. grandis and also hatches in the spring).
Newcomers to Western angling vernacular should realize that other subspecies in the Drunella genus, such as D. flavilinea, may be called Little Green Drakes. But Westerners call them “flavs,” and they hatch long after Green Drakes have come
The final question to ask is how—other than enjoying entomology—does this information apply to angling?
Eastern anglers know they can’t schedule vacations around Green Drake hatches. According to Lavery, some years have them, some years don’t. Although its title suggests a science-heavy slant, Mayflies: An Angler’s Study of Trout Water Ephemeroptera by Malcolm Knopp and Robert Cormier provides an eminently useful overview of Eastern Green Drake hatches. In a nutshell, it explains that nymphs leave their burrows (try deep holes, slow pools, and the fine gravel behind rocks) and emerge rapidly to spend considerable time fluttering on the surface to dry their wings. That implies that nymph and dun patterns are more important than emerger and
When asked, Tom Rosenbauer, author of The Orvis Guide to Beginning Fly Fishing, noted that “the spinners are [the most] reliable and always bring up the biggest fish of the season.”
In the West, hatches are more predictable, and anglers who can be somewhat flexible stand a reasonable (though far from certain) chance of planning a fishing trip to match the hatch. Western Green Drakes, which shelter themselves by crawling into crevices rather than burrowing, can be approached more broadly. Instead of emerging rapidly like the Eastern burrowers, the Western crawlers make multiple trips between the bottom and the surface before finally emerging. For anglers, that translates to using a variety of patterns and adjusting tactics during a hatch. Alert anglers change patterns as the trout shift their collective focus from nymphs to emergers to duns. In his Fly-Fishing Guide to the Henry’s Fork (host to the most famous of all Green Drake hatches), Mike Lawson advises, “You need patterns to cover the full gamut of the life cycle, including nymphs, emergers, cripples, duns, and spinners.”
Not surprisingly, Green Drakes on both sides of the country share one obviously important trait: hatches follow water temperatures. In the Eastern streams, hatches progress northward through the mountains as temperatures rise. In Western rivers, where temperatures depend as much on elevation as on latitude, hatches progress upstream as the waters warm following spring runoff.
Ultimately, the overriding characteristic shared by Eastern and Western Green Drakes is the degree of excitement they generate The giant mayflies give anglers the rare opportunity to cast big dry flies, often size 10s, to frenzied, aggressively feeding trout—even the monsters that otherwise lurk only at the bottoms of the deepest pools.
As Shewey says, the Green Drake is an event.