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Catching Smallmouth Like Trout – The White Mayfly Hatch of Autumn

Return of  the “Leukons”

I was able to finally get down to my “laboratory” near my house. It’s a cool section of the upper Mississippi with a shallow rocky encroachment that extents out from shore, probably 60 feet and gives way to a deep run against the far bank.

Before this rock flats, there’s big slick which tails out on the upriver side. Fish often hold toward the end of the tail-out.

This is especially true during the autumn mayfly hatch of ephoron leukons. The river moves over a natural area of large rocks (many 2 -4 feet in diameter) for approximately 50 yards before riffling over the shallow downstream rim which then drops in to deeper and slower water. 

The fish, of course, seem to move around from day to day. Some days they are on top and you can pick them off up and down stream of the rocks. Other days, the fish patrol the perimeter of this outcropping.

Of particular note is the number of small crayfish present. These critters range in length from 1 – 4 inches and seem to be scurrying everywhere in water 1 – 3 feet deep.

We are coming off record high flood waters due to heavy rains in late June. The primary flood plain was covered with water most of the early summer as the river rose to nearly ten feet above it’s normal summer level! Remnants of the flood waters are everywhere with flotsam hanging in the trees. Small stands of river willow and indigenous grasses are just starting to take hold again. The best part is: No Bugs! Apparently high water eliminated much of the biting fly issues, at least in the short term.

Upon my arrival last night, I could see a light haze above the water surface, probably an hour before sundown. The haze was a moderate hatch of the White Mayflies. Since this is an annual occurrence in my area, I don’t get too excited unless I see rise forms on the slick. 

The evening hatch of “leukons” is generally unproductive for fishing. The reason? The duns are not touching down with regularity, thus the fish don’t get on them. At times, when the planets line up, you get enough duns lighting along with cripples, to insight a reasonable top water bite.

It is for this rare occurrence, that one must visit the river as much as possible to hit those magic nights when the smallies are looking up and numerous fish are sucking in duns that periodically fall to the surface during early evening. On those nights, you can pick your fish and catch nearly everyone that is rising. This is truly one of the coolest fishing scenarios of which I have had the pleasure of partaking. You never know how big they’ll be, but sometimes the rise form and subsequent mounding of the water, can foretell big bodies beneath.

When I go down for the evening “leukons” bite, I rarely fish until I spot rising fish. I generally just stand there and scan for risers. At times, I will flail away subsurface, always looking for the tell-tale rise form.

Tonight I spied one infrequently rising fish, near the end of the upstream tail out – that was it! As usual, even though the hatch was pretty robust, the mayflies weren’t providing a conveyor belt-type smorgasbord required for a good bite. I think this happens many times after dark when I’m long gone. 

Nonetheless, I figured I’d check out the riser and, using a Triple Hackle White Fly on a size #8 – #10 hook. I like the over-sized hook and will often use a #8, if I can get it to float. On this tie, I make the rear hackle a bit longer to counter balance the added weight of the over-sized hook (it’s just a theory). I use calf tail as it replicates the shuck that often clings to the dun as it emerges. I use enough calf tail to it extends nearly to the eye. Then I simply over-wrap with white or cream thread to create a slim body. Any light mayfly or other white fly can be used as well – the fish are not very particular.

The first cast over the fish brought it up to snatch my fly. It did not jump but instead took several twenty foot runs that nearly took my breath away. It was one of the strongest fish I’ve hooked this summer. I had to take it easy with the tiny hook I was using.

After a great fight, I slid the fish close and lipped him. It was eighteen inches and fought like it was twenty-two.

The hook was just barely embedded into the thin outer layer of his lower mandible – I was incredibly lucky to land the fish. It was full bodied – as they all are up this way.

The gorgeous vertical strips were admired briefly before returning the fish to the water. 

Sometimes one fish is all you need.

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