Matching the Hendrickson

Matching the Hendrickson

on Connecticut's Farmington River and beyond

  • By: Chris Santella

Matching the Hendrickson

on Connecticut’s Farmington River and beyond.




appearance of Ephemerella subvaria is a sign that spring—and more important, trout season—has arrived in earnest. This mayfly—in many venues, the first good hatch of the season—is encountered from southern Appalachia through Pennsylvania, west to Michigan and Wisconsin, and throughout New England as far north as Maine. In the southern part of its range, it might occur in April; farther north, it appears toward the middle or latter part of May.

Ephemeralla subvaria, the Hendrickson, can be found in a variety of habitats, from low-gradient, gravel-bottomed streams to the pocket water of fast-flowing mountain freestones. While fish may show interest in the spinner fall, the most intense action generally focuses around the duns, which float like armadas of grayish-sailed sloops through troubled waters punctuated by dimpled snouts. (Males frequently have a more reddish tint, and are sometimes emulated with another old standby, the Red Quill.)

The Hendrickson has a provenance tied closely to the history of American fly-fishing. The story goes that one Albert Everett Hendrickson, of Scarsdale, New York, wrote a letter to Roy Steenrod, a friend and acolyte of the legendary Theodore Gordon, about creating a pattern to match the dark, up-winged dun of the Ephemerella subvaria. Steenrod, who frequented the Beaverkill, Esopus, Neversink and Willowemoc in the Catskills, invited Hendrickson to come fishing. One day in 1916, while fishing the Beaverkill below Junction Pool at the town of Roscoe, a prodigious hatch of the mayflies came off. Steenrod plucked one of the insects off the water and, over lunch, tied a fly to match. It proved to be a winner, and the pair caught fish after fish that day and the next. On the third day, the matter of naming the fly arose. Steenrod graciously named the fly after his new fishing friend. In a twist that speaks to the ubiquity of the pattern and its incredible productivity, we now refer to the insect—not just the fly—as the Hendrickson!

“I grew up in Southington, Connecticut, in the middle of the state,” said Chris Conaty, who is director of product development for Oregon-based Idylwilde Flies, but still travels east each year to fish the river. “We had a crab apple tree in our back yard. When that tree was in flower, you could be certain that the Hendrickson hatch was in progress on the West Branch of the Farmington River, about 30 miles to the north. You could call one of the tackle shops up there, and they’d confirm it. That crab apple tree was an incredibly accurate biologic indicator.

“My dad taught school,” Conaty continued. “Each spring—always in early May, and frequently on May 3, just after the crab apple had blossomed—there was a day during the week when he’d tell me, ‘We’re going to miss school tomorrow and go to the river.’ He’d call in sick, he’d call me in sick, and we’d drive up early enough to scout the river and stake out a spot well before the hatch began, which was usually around 1:00 PM. I was eight or nine the first time I went along. We’d sit on the water, waiting for the first bugs to emerge and the first fish to rise. People had good etiquette and would ask if you were resting the water. If you said you were, they would move on. I’d stand next to my dad; he’d cast, get a rise, set the hook and hand me the rod. They were all hatchery fish in those days on the Farmington, probably planted a few days before. I remember that sometimes for the first few days the Hendricksons came off, the fish wouldn’t rise in good numbers. I believe it was because the flies (or, for that matter, the naturals) didn’t look like the pellets they were used to. After a while, they caught on. Some days, it was truly magnificent, with fish rising every three or four feet across the pool. The hatch might go on an hour or two. We’d fish swimming nymphs and Comparaduns, which had just come out around this time. They were revolutionary, and became the go-to pattern. As I grew into a teenager, I tried tying Comparaduns. I found it difficult to fan out the hair so the fly would land on the water upright. My flies would often fall on their side. To my surprise, the fish would eat these even better. This was a lesson.”

Conaty fishes the Farmington each year for good reason: In a state not exactly celebrated for its trout fisheries, the West Branch of the Farmington is a bright spot. Year-round cold water from the Colebrook and West Branch reservoirs, and aggressive management practices, have made the Farmington southern New England’s premier trout fishery. The Farmington is still supplemented with hatchery fish, though a smattering of browns and rainbows—both wild fish and holdovers—can push the 20-inch mark.

“I’ve been living out in the western United States for almost 30 years,” Conaty continued, “but I try to get back to Connecticut each year to fish with my dad. I can only get away in August so I miss the Hendrickson hatch. But we fish the same water and I’m brought back to the crab apple tree and my dad and his fishing buddies in their checked shirts. It’s not the kind of fishing I’d spend a minute on out West, but the memories run deep.”

And one of Conaty’s favorites?

“My dad had a group of fishing buddies, four other teachers from town, and on those mid-week trips, we’d often meet one or two of those guys up there. They’d have skipped school as well. I have a picture of my dad with one of his buddies from that time on the banks of the Farmington. They both have long ’70s sideburns, longer hair, checked flannel shirts and canvas chest waders. They each have a can of Schlitz beer in their hand, and there’s a Styrofoam cooler in the background. They’re waiting for the hatch to come off. Every time I look at that photo, I can smell the crab apple tree in my old back yard and can see the heads poking up in that pool.”


Excerpted from Chris Santella’s The Hatch is On!, from Lyons Press ( Reprinted with permission.

photograph by BRIAN O'KEEFE


photograph by Tommy Baranowsky

photograph by David skok


photograph by richard franklin


photograph by david skok