Macquarie River Mayfly Spinners

Craig Rist

Watching a trout of any size take your dry fly is something you never tire of. From the moment the fly disappears in a swirl, time seems to stop, as you wait for those crucial seconds to pass before lifting the rod to set the hook. What happens next can be either a solid hook up or a limp fly line heading back over your shoulder. When it all comes together and the fish takes the fly clean, that moment would have to be one of the most addictive things about dry fly fishing.

The dun hatch of the mayfly is famous in our highland lakes during early summer, but it's the spinner stage of the mayfly on our lowland rivers that first sparks the interest of both trout and fly angler. Books by David Scholes and Tony Ritchie have educated and motivated many to experience this spectacular event on the lowland rivers of Tasmania. The Macquarie River is one of these rivers that have become famous for its red and black spinner hatches. The Macquarie starts from the hills east of the town of Ross and flows north through farmland to Longford where it joins the South Esk River. This slow lowland river with its weedy runs and broadwaters make this an ideal habitat for the mayfly's life cycle. It all starts in late spring as the weather starts to warm up, triggering an explosion of life after a cold winter. Mayfly nymphs start to swim to the surface emerging as a brownish coloured dun. The duns then fly off the water taking refuge amongst the riverside grasses and other vegetation. They stay there for a couple of days before changing their appearance yet again as they moult into the adult mayfly spinner. This is their final transformation allowing them to mate and lay their eggs back into the river when the conditions are right.
The red mayfly spinner has clear wings, an orange coloured abdomen and a black thorax and head. While the Black Spinner has the same clear wings, the entire abdomen, thorax and head are black. Both the red and black spinners have three long tails that stretch out behind them. The mayfly spinner hatch first appears on the Macquarie around October and runs through to the end of January. They then reappear in numbers from February onwards.
By the middle of November the trout on the Macquarie are well and truly on the look out for spinners. Warm days and light winds are ideal times to find spinners back over the water. Once they have finished laying their eggs they will die, lying spent on the water with their clear wings laid out flat across the surface, making an easy meal for the trout. A good time to be on the water is from 9 or 10am when things start to warm up a bit. Expect to see spinners on the water at any time from mid morning until late in the afternoon, depending on the weather. As a general rule there is a hatch in the morning and again in the afternoon. A late evening rise to spinners and caddis can also be anticipated.The sight of a once lifeless river instantly coming to life with rising trout will get any angler, armed with a fly rod and the right fly, pretty excited.
A day on the Lower Macquarie
Not everybody has the luxury of going fishing on the best days of the week, including me. Sometimes you just have to take what you are given. When planning a days fishing a week in advance you can only hope the weather is going to be on your side. It was the month of December and I still hadn't had a chance to squeeze in my annual trip to the Macquarie River. There are just too many places to fish in Tasmania and not enough time to fish them all.
The weather forecast wasn't looking good with cold fronts expected to pass over during the day. Despite this, I wanted to spend the day on the lower Macquarie River, if only to check out a new stretch of water. The section of the lower Macquarie flowing past the town of Cressy becomes a much wider river after receiving the additional volume of water from the Lake River and the Poatina tailrace water of Brumbys Creek. This part of the river had been on my list of things to do for some time now, so today was going to be the day.
The morning sun was trying to break through the clouds, as I drove through Latrobe to pick up Simon, giving me some hope for the days fishing. We left Latrobe uncertain of how successful the day was going to be, yet excited to be exploring a new section of the Macquarie. By 10 a.m. we had arrived at Cressy, the sun free of any clouds at this stage, but we could see dark intimidating clouds making their way off the mountains towards us. We pulled up at the river and hastily threw our waders on and put our rods together.
One other car in the parking area was the only sign of anyone else desperate enough to be on the river today. We figured that most people would fish upstream so we decided to walk down the river and then fish our way back to the car. We had only walked 100 m when the cold wind started to blow and then down came the rain. We looked at each other and laughed, "what are we doing here on a day like this." We took shelter under a tree and talked about what the fishing may have been like if the weather wasn't so miserable. Fifteen minutes later the wind slowed and the sun beamed through the clouds. We continued on, despite the obvious signs of more rain, if only to see what this section of the Macquarie River had to offer for future trips.
I had left the car with a size 14 Orange and Black Spinner tied to my tippet. By now, I had tied on a Stick Caddis under the dry fly using a short length of line tied to the bend of the hook. The chance of finding trout feeding on spinners at this stage wasn't looking good. Looking down the river I was surprised to notice a single rise in a pocket of calm water protected from the wind by a stand of trees. These trees made it impossible to get below the rise to make a cast. There was no other option than to cast directly down stream. I delivered a slack line cast above the rise, giving the flies some chance of a drag free drift. The fly line and leader started to straighten out immediately upon hitting the water. I watched the dry fly intently as it floated down through the strap weed, hoping the stick caddis underneath wouldn't catch on weed before it reached the fish. The dry was finally pulled under moments before drag was about to set in. I immediately lifted into a lively fish, nothing huge; maybe a pound, but still a lot of fun on a four weight fly rod. I soon had the little river fish lying in the weeds, I slipped the hook out and he kicked back into the river.
Our plan was to fast track it down river and then fish our way back to the car staying well back from the river to prevent spooking any fish on the way down. More wind and rain followed, then the sun finally reappeared as the clouds started to take on a lighter shade of grey.
The heat from the sun was starting to dry everything out. This was a positive sign as the temperature continued to rise. We focused our attention on the sections of river that were sheltered by high banks and trees. These are the places to seek out when the conditions are less than ideal. Spotting another rise at the side of a fast run saw me scrambling down the bank below the rise. Stripping line off the reel I waited for the fish to rise again. As it did, I landed the flies a metre in front of the fish. I was fully expecting to see the dry pull under again but it was the orange and black spinner that this fish was after as it disappeared in a swirl. Resisting the urge to strike immediately I paused to let the fish turn down before lifting the rod. When fishing two flies like this it can be hard to change between instantly lifting the rod when the floater is pulled under and pausing for those few seconds when the dry is taken. If in doubt I try to pause before setting the hook just in case the dry has in fact been taken. That way there seems to be less chance of missing the hook up. After a short fight another fat little river fish was landed and released. Things were starting to look up and so were the fish. I decided to remove the stick caddis dropper confident that the next fish would also take the dry.
We were both making our way down the river at a pretty fast pace, only stopping to check out the pockets of calm water that just screamed "fish here". One such place was a stretch of quiet water along a high deep bank below a willow tree that had grown out into the river. Tall grass grew right to the rivers edge with the water a metre below. This situation created a calm section of water out of the wind that would allow the spinners to safely fly out over the water and lay their eggs. As good as it looked, there were no rises, just a feeling that there should be a fish hard in along this bank. Standing back from the edge I shot leader and fly out over the tall grass using a bow and arrow cast. I could only just see the fly on the water through the tall grass. Seconds later a trout of around 2 pounds came into view under the fly. Very slowly I watched the fish ease up to the fly pause for a millisecond and then take the fly. I let the fish turn down before setting the hook. The fish made a dash straight out into the middle of the river taking the fly line through some thick weed in the process, before leaping clear of the water. The fly line cut a track through the weed as it broke free leaving a clump of weed hanging from the line. I managed to keep the fish away from the willow tree by steering the fish down stream eventually leading it into a shallow weedy corner, a great looking river fish that was soon revived and swimming free again.
You know I tried casting that fly over several more likely spots on our way down the river with no response. I guess sometimes you do need a bit of luck on your side!
Finally we started to fish our way back to the car. The sun had stayed out and we were now kicking out grasshoppers from beneath our feet. Simon and I spread out so we could both fish a section of unfished water. Once you had fished up to the starting point of the other person, you would then walk up past them staying well back off the waters edge giving them another 100 metres to fish, before returning to the water. This process was repeated all the way back to the car. Each time we crossed paths gave us an opportunity to discuss fish caught and lessens learnt. The wind was still quite strong, so there were no great clouds of spinners hovering over the water in these conditions. Despite this, these river trout were still on the look out for them and any rise covered successfully with a black or red spinner was eaten.
Fish were located by rise formations and the distinctive splashy sound of a rise that was quite often heard from behind you. Each time the sun appeared from behind the clouds it was possible to spot fish from the high banks with the aid of Polaroid sunglasses. Finding fish that were not rising, using Polaroid sunglasses, gave us another opportunity to catch fish that we may have otherwise walked past. Finding a fish patrolling the quiet back waters or holding stationary in the current, taking nymphs, oblivious of your presence, is a treat on its own. But then to see the initial reaction from the fish as it first notices your fly and then move up, inspect your fly, before taking it like a natural, is the ultimate in sight fishing.
Back at the car the weather had turned again and was starting to rain. Fortunately we had seen the best of the day when it had counted, explored a new section of the Macquarie and caught some nice fish along the way in less than perfect conditions. As we left the river we where already planning a return trip. If the fishing was this good on a day like this, what could it be like with little or no wind and the temperature above 20 degrees?

When things are quiet a great searching fly combination is a Royal Wolf with a stick caddis or mayfly nymph dropper. Prior to and during the time when the mayfly duns are emerging, a size 14 brown seal fur nymph covered with floatant and fished in the surface film can be very effective. A fly such as the Brown Dun can be used when the fish are taking the floating duns.
Red or black spinner flies are usually tied with or without a palmered hackle along the body. The Macquarie Red, originally tied by Max Christensen, is a very effective palmered style fly that floats high on the water. This famous red spinner fly imitation has fooled countless fish over the years and is well worth carrying a few in your fly box. When fish are refusing this pattern, a fly tied without the palmered hackle along the body can work at times. The hackle on this fly can also be trimmed top and bottom, turning this fly into a spent spinner when trout are mopping up the dead mayflies.
Many variations of the "Macquarie Red" can be tied using different materials, if only to satisfy the fly tiers creative imagination. For example, in my variation of the red spinner I use three grey Micro Fibits for the tails and orange Supreme Hair for the body. The palmered body hackle and the main hackle are tied with a black or red rooster saddle feather. As I said, many variations can be tied and used successfully. I think its the size, shape and the way the fly sits on the water that is often the deciding factor when it comes down to a trout taking the artificial.
Including your own individual touch to an existing pattern or creating your own is one of the joys of fly tying. There's always something very satisfying about catching a fish on one of your own ties.

Craig Rist

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