Taster's Guide to Mayflies

Taster's Guide to Mayflies

  • By: Jim Dean
  • Photography by: Cathy Beck
  • and Barry Beck
Green Drake

When a young friend, Cody Cantwell, ate a baby green drake (Ephemerella drunella flavilinea) while we were fishing the Railroad Ranch stretch of the Henry’s Fork in Idaho last June, I asked him, “Why?”

“I just wanted to see what it tasted like,” he replied, a bit sheepishly. “These big rainbows love Flavs, and I was curious to see what the big deal is.”

“And how was it?” I asked.

“Not bad,” he said, running his tongue over his teeth. “A little crunchy, but not nearly as dry and bitter as the caddis I ate last night.”

I looked at him incredulously. Cody is 18 and the son of my long-time fishing buddy, Cam Cantwell; I realized that this was a gross-out played largely for laughs, but I know other fishermen, even adults, who have popped the random trout bug into their mouths for shock value or out of curiosity. I wondered: What do mayflies taste like, anyway? Or other trout foods? Would such adventurous gastronomy be merely a gag (sorry), or worthy of greater experiment?

We will never know what a Flav or any other mayfly tastes like to a trout, but we have long accepted the explanation that a trout’s selective feeding is an evolved adaptation to concentrate on food that offers the most benefit for the effort. Angling experience also suggests that this reward may be enhanced by the sheer abundance of a hatch. Certainly it’s not a case where thoughtful trout feeding up and down a river are making whimsical decisions—hmm, we’re in the mood for PMDs today. Even so, if you float a beetle through an impressive hatch of mayflies being confidently devoured by every trout in sight, that beetle is at risk. It makes you wonder whether trout and humans might not share at least one trait—if we’re snacking on our favorite sour cream chips and somebody offers us a juicy cheeseburger, we’re likely to eat it. And, yeah, we also think about spawning a long time before we get around to it, too, but that’s another issue.

The notion of a mayfly-tasting guide has been aging in the dark, cool cellar of my subconscious since the early 1970s, when I spent a day fishing with Nelson Bryant, long-time outdoor editor of The New York Times. That evening, over a fine dinner and an even more exquisite bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, Nelson offered the chance remark that he had always thought his literary skills would be best fulfilled writing taster’s notes for wine. I was charmed by that admission. Or for mayflies, I remember thinking.

Cody’s appetite, however, was a limiting factor in my project, as is my experience as an angler and oenophile. Furthermore, with many hundreds of mayfly species—and Heaven knows how many other relevant insects—any listing of taster’s notes must be introductory at best. A purely arbitrary decision was made to sample only popular species that trout eat on the surface (an √©litist approach not out of character among fly fishermen or, for that matter, wine snobs).

These may prove an acquired taste, but bear in mind that sophisticated enjoyment is a gradually refined attribute. After all, with maturity we evolve certain standards, outgrowing our collegiate fascination with Purple Passion (Everclear and grape juice), despite its social enhancements.

One must also quaff responsibly, of course. The consumption of vast quantities of aquatic or terrestrial bugs is not encouraged (catch-and-release is enough of an inconvenience for trout without competing with them for their livelihood).

But if temptation proves too great, or you fail to close your mouth during a massive hatch, a healthy swish of red or white should set things right.

The Tasting

Included are samplings of both Eastern and Western mayflies, along with a few other insects trout commonly consume.

  • Blue-Wing Olive Somewhat bland and lean with no discernible fruit, but more than adequate tannins. Can be, and often is, consumed in such great quantities that it can brighten an otherwise dreary day.
  • Eastern Green Drake A seasonal favorite much sought after. Substantial and meaty, but often best served after it has morphed into more delicate maturity. Limited availability in some years.
  • Sulphur Mildly herbaceous with captivating color. One would be tempted to call it the Chateau D’Yquem Sauterne of mayflies were it not for its long, silty finish. Most approachable in May and June.
  • Western Green Drake Tightly wound core of pudding and a complex, chewy bouquet of corral cookies and tall prairie grass. 2010 and 2011 were outstanding years.
  • Flav Plush mushroomy notes, lingering tannins and memorable earthiness. An elegant, but by no means dainty, choice.
  • Pale Morning Dun A perennial favorite with hints of mineral and detritus. Though widely and often profusely available, it can sometimes prove discouragingly inconsequential—the Pinot Grigio of mayflies.
  • Caddis Racy, acidic and somewhat bitter, with a very dry finish. Regionally abundant and often a generous, end-of-the-day option.
  • Golden Stonefly A lively and jammy mouthful with good body, though somewhat rustic in texture. Ample custard notes and a long, not always agreeable, finish. Needs time.
  • Beetle A bold and nearly universal choice—plonk for the multitudes. Straightforward, with little complexity. Crisp, nutlike finish.
  • Cranefly Frequently unappreciated choice; lean and chalky, but with legs to die for.
  • Ant Spicy and tart with formic acid notes and a peppery finish. Pairs well with streamside picnics.

Jim Dean is a former editor of North Carolina Wildlife Magazine, and writes often about fly-fishing.