ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Fishing spinner falls

Posted 5/15/24

By the time this piece appears in the River Reporter , the season’s first mayfly hatches, including Hendricksons, should be well underway. That means that mayflies in the spinner or imago …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Fishing spinner falls


By the time this piece appears in the River Reporter, the season’s first mayfly hatches, including Hendricksons, should be well underway. That means that mayflies in the spinner or imago stages will be completing their life cycles, with mating flights and egg laying, resulting in spent flies ending up on the river’s surface. 

While most fly fishers look to actual mayfly hatches to do their fishing, I’ve turned to spinner falls at dusk to cast my flies. It is at that time of day—when most anglers are leaving the water, seeking a meal and a cocktail—that I don my waders, string my fly rod and head to a favorite pool. 

Over the years, I have found that it is at this time, once the sun is off the water, that large trout begin to prowl and feed. Most spinner falls do not last very long, and when darkness falls trout feeding is concentrated. In addition—and since there normally are no flies hatching—feeding is relegated to the spent and dying flies. That, my friends, is a very big deal, in that we as anglers do not have to deal with all the vagaries of emerging flies and trout that feed below the surface. Instead, all rise forms will be associated with trout taking spent flies off the surface. 

A very long time ago, I turned to evening fishing because I learned that once the quill Gordon and Hendrickson hatches were over, so was most of the daytime fishing. So I usually wait until the sun is behind the mountain and shadows fall along the river to begin fishing. Then, even before wading into position, I’ll look skyward to see if there are any spinners flirting about above the water. Sometimes, these flies can be very high up and difficult to see. But unlike the duns, which were slow and cumbersome flyers, spinners are excellent in flight, flitting back and forth, looking to mate. 

As the evening progresses and once mating is complete, the spinners will mass closer and closer to the water. Then, after fertilization and egg laying are complete, the flies begin to die and drop to the river’s surface. That is when trout begin to feed. The rise associated with spinner falls is more delicate than those that take place when trout are feeding on hatching flies. Mostly you’ll see soft rings on the river’s surfaces, with a nose and tail appearing as a trout takes the dead and dying flies from the surface. 

Trout feed aggressively during spinner falls. In fact the large trout that feed during this short window appear to take every fly that enters their feeding cone of vision. In the quiet pools and tailouts, trout will cruise, looking for spent flies. In my experience, it is during these last hours of fishing with spinners on the water that large trout are most vulnerable and easiest to catch. In fact, I’ve been able to rise almost every large trout that I found feeding at dusk during spinner falls. 

And I’m not bragging here, merely making a statement of fact. These fish lie low during the day, so are not cast over a lot by fishermen, so when they feed, they really take a lot of flies in a very short period of time. If an angler can get his or her fly in front of one of these fish, I will bet that it will take that fly. It is about the only time when I’m fly fishing that I would just about guarantee a large trout in the net. 

Anglers, even those experienced folks, will find fishing during spinner falls and low-light conditions challenging at first. Because the darker it gets, the harder it will be to see the fly. But as anglers learn to fish this way, they will find that is not necessary to see the fly. 

This is how it works. Once a steadily feeding trout is located, the angler needs to cast his or her fly down and across to that fish, using the end of the fly line as an indicator. The line will be visible under low light, and even at dark. As the line approaches the area where the trout is rising and the angler hears or sees a splash, the hook is set. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated this scenario and hooked a very large trout well after dark. 

This type of fishing takes confidence in one’s ability as a fly caster. Because those anglers who can place their fly accurately and just upstream of a trout feeding on spent flies will reap rewards. Every time I’m fortunate enough to fish an evening spinner fall, I know that I will catch a large trout if I find one feeding. Often I’ve stayed waist deep as the night chill fell, hooking one last trout while fellow anglers were casing their rods and removing waders back at the car. Sometimes and very sadly, I’ve found them watching me from the stream bank, playing a fish when they should be fishing. 

From what I’ve learned over the years, spinner falls during the last light are the best and easiest time to catch big trout. So if you are somewhere one evening when mayflies are hatching, stick around at dusk and see what happens.

Tony Bonavist has a degree in aquatic biology from the University of  Montana, and was a fisheries biologist with the New York State DEC for over 25 years. He has been an instructor at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing and at the Frost Valley YMCA. Tony has been published in Trout Magazine, Fly Fisherman, Grays Sporting Journal, Classic Angling and the Big Sky Journal. He resides in Hurley, NY, with his boxer Marley.

ramblings, catskill fly, fisher, mayfly hatches, Hendricksons


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