Fishmail: Flies and Lies

June 1st, 2002

I'm a pretty credulous bloke, really. Tell me that the word 'gullible' is being removed from the Oxford English Dictionary and I will almost certainly believe you. Better still, tell me one of the Three Great Lies and you will find me happily nodding, oblivious in my naivety. For those of you unfamilar with these great national institutions, they are as follows: "There's a cheque in the post". "I'm from British Telecom, and I'm here to help". And, well, the third is probably too impolite for a public website, even this one. In any case, I propose to replace the third with a new Great Lie, one with which I have become distressingly familiar in the last three weeks: Trout eat mayflies.

Now, I know this may come as a surprise to some of you. Flyfishing literature is stuffed with accounts of the trout's fondness for ephemerids. Stretches of river where these curious and beautiful insects hatch are booked years in advance during mayfly season; people travel from all over the world to fish for trout on our chalkstreams and loughs, convinced that everything that they have read and heard about the mayfly is an undiluted truth, one of the few predictable features in the chaotic landscape that is flyfishing. The mayfly has lent its name to countless pubs, cafes and restaurants wherever they are found – and even where they aren't. It has come to symbolise everything that is right and proper about trout fishing, which makes the horrible truth even more shocking.

Two weeks ago I described my torture on Lough Corrib as mayflies swarmed everywhere, studiously ignored by even the smallest and dimmest trout. Amidst hatches of epic proportion, the lake's surface awash with shucks, barely a rising trout was to be seen for days on end. The fish, when they eventually came, took not adult mayfly patterns or even nymphs, but small, nondescript CDC emergers and Shipman's buzzers. Having driven 500 miles to experience the cream of Irish trout fishing, we might as well have been at Rutland.

Shift to the lower Test last Sunday, where every pool looked like a bonsai version of Auckland harbour during the round-the-world yacht race – hundreds of tiny sails meandering in the current as the mayfly went about their business undisturbed. You could follow one for a hundred yards downstream and find it unmolested by fish. Never can an insect have felt so short-changed by its pitifully short lifespan; these happy individuals could have lived for years, their long, comfortable lives utterly devoid of any danger from even the laziest stockie.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the fish must have gorged themselves already, or that they hadn't yet tuned in to the giant floating larder that the mayfly represents. Well: we cleaned a couple of Corrib fish, and while some of them had some mayflies in them, they were equally full of cased caddis and the usual yucky green stuff. I came to a different conclusion. Trout just don't like mayflies very much.

I'm kidding, of course. This has been an odd season, in which nothing has happened quite when it was supposed to or for the right reasons, and I know as well as anybody that there might be a hundred reasons why the fish might have chosen to ignore the bounteous scoff on offer. But it has made me think quite hard about what, if anything, this kind of fishing means. If you're lucky enough to get onto a chalkstream during mayfly time, you can expect to pay at least 50% more than at any other time. If I'd crossed the world to fish the Corrib, or paid 200 for my chance to plunder the Test last Sunday (I didn't) and had blanked (I did), I would have been deeply unhappy – at the trout for being so bloody uncooperative, at the mayfly for being so desperately undelicious, at myself for being so unbelievably gullible.

In the end, I had as least as much fun just observing these amazing creatures doing their poignantly intense thing – something I would have been unlikely to have given myself the chance to do if the fish had been slashing them from the surface. Sometimes, nature is a lot more interesting than fishing, especially when your nose is full of insects. In my endless pursuit of fish, I have often lost sight of this and failed to fully appreciate something extraordinary – a sunset, a snake, a sedge hatch. Robert Louis Stevenson, a good fisherman and a man who knew all about the wondrousness of rivers, said that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, a sentiment that resonates ever more clearly as I realise what the greatest lie of all is; that fishing is all about catching fish.

Next week: The art of blanking

Sean Geer ( is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

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