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Mayfly hatch stirs up action for fishermen


August 03, 2008|By BILL ANDERSON

I have been watching the annual arrival of the white miller mayflies for more than 40 years.

As kids, we hated to see them come because they swarmed our Coleman lanterns, creating a stinking mess of fried bugs and clogged lanterns. That hampered our catfish catching efforts.

Even as kids, we realized a special thing was occurring on the river.

Out beyond the range of the lanterns, there were splashing sounds that indicated a great deal of fish activity.

At some point, I became smart enough to tie on an old Jitterbug lure and was rewarded with several nice bass, and - to our great surprise - several nice channel cats.

A great number of hatches occur each year on the Potomac and similar rivers, but in terms of duration and the number of insects produced, the white miller hatch is still special.


The annual hatch of white mayflies is called by a variety of names, including white miller, white fly and fish fly. Locally, they are usually called white millers. A little to the north, the huge hatch on the Susquehanna River is usually called white flies.

The reason the white miller hatch is special is because of the large number of flies it produces over a long period of time, with the flies emerging nearly every evening. On most area streams and rivers, the hatch begins in mid-to-late July and can last well into September.

The main portion of the hatch usually coincides with the hottest, most humid weather of the summer. The hatch begins about an hour or so before dark.

The hatch has varied a great deal from year to year. In most years, the first two to three weeks offer the best fishing. You can expect evening action on a daily basis until the hatch is over in September.

The duns begin popping to the surface, where they ride the current for a short distance before flying off. You catch fish during this period, but it is really just a warmup for things to come.

The spinner stage usually does not begin until just before full darkness. It's easy to see because there will be swarms of flies over the water. Soon, the surface will be covered with dead and dying mayflies.

When the surface of the river is covered with floating mayflies, it creates a lot of in interest, especially early in the hatch. Almost every species of fish found in the river will get into the act. You are likely to catch smallmouth bass, sunfish, rock bass, carp, catfish or fallfish by using fly tackle.

You can also catch many fish on spinning tackle, using small surface lures or lightly weighted plastics lures. A great presentation is to use a three- or four-inch white plastic grub, and rig it like a plastic worm with no weight. The lure is then fished in the surface film with an upstream cast and small twitches. This is not an easy rig to cast unless you are using light spinning tackle.

Fly fishermen can use any number of patterns since the fish are not particularly selective. When using fly tackle, I usually go with durable dry flies like the Wulff-style flies or a small popping bug. Most of the best fishing occurs in the dark, so you want your fly to last as long as possible.

The white miller hatch is a real happening on the Potomac.

And best of all, this fishing usually lasts for many weeks.

Bill Anderson writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by e-mail at

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