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The Mayfly

Old Style and New Style - Shakespeare and Gilbert White -The Mayfly - Its Life and History - Mayfly Fishing.
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Now with religious awe, the farewell light
Blends with the solemn colouring of night;
Soft o'er the surface creep those lustres pale,
Tracking the fitful motions of the gale. (Wordsworth.)

If telegraph operators ever give thought to the meaning of messages that they read oft the wires, I have often wondered what they think in London Offices of those which tell the busy men of Lloyds or Lincoln's Inn that ' the mayfly is up '; and which as a rule defer this piece of news until the first two days of June.

Gilbert White, in his Naturalist's Calendar, relating chiefly to the years near 1768, when he noted the dates on which flowers opened, or migratory birds arrived, gives " Angler's May Fly (Ephemera Vulgata) June 3rd to 14th." As the year 1768 happened to be somewhat backward, one may perhaps put the usual date two days earlier. Even this makes good the misnomer by placing the mayfly festival in the month of June.

The Eleven Days.

Of course we are all supposed to know about the change in the calendar from Old Style to New Style, and the consternation it caused by the loss of the eleven days. Well, equally of course, we all do not. I, for one, had forgotten about it, but I have now ' read it up,' so cannot resist giving my rehash of this educational morsel.

Scotland, it appears, changed its calendar in the year 1600, but sleepy old England waited for another hundred and fifty years before she made the reform; just as she may wait another hundred and fifty before she adopts a decimal coinage system, such as Ceylon enjoyed long before I used to live there. Russia, as we know, still keeps to the Old Style, so is now I suppose some thirteen days wrong, by not omitting the leap years at the beginning of 1800, and 1900.

The change was made here in London in the autumn of 1752, by the suppression of all the days between September 2nd and September 14th; which caused such a commotion among the ignorant, that they petitioned the Government to ' give us back our eleven days.'

Well, it is interesting to note how the dates of seasons and festivals differ between the time of Shakespeare and Gilbert White. All Shakespeare's flowers and seasons seem described as being ten days too early. Shakespeare's month of April was really the period from about April 17th to May 10th. His spring sounds far more genial than ours does now. The mayfly time then was from May 18th to May 28th instead of that given in the History of Selborne.

Similarly, Shakespeare's autumn and early winter give us the opposite impression. They sound more rigorous than nowadays. His November began on November 10th or nth, and his Christmas Day on January 4th or 5th. Many of the old weather proverbs, about April showers, or hawthorn, become far more correct than they appear to be when we consider that dancing round the maypole, instead of taking place on our May 1st, was held ten days later. The saying ' when the days begin to lengthen et cet,' is true under either style, as the process is not much noticed until after mid January.

The Mayfly.

The following paragraphs are taken from Chambers' Encyclopedia, as being useful and descriptive.

Ephemera (' day fly ' or May-fly), a genus of well known insects which appear in vast numbers on summer evenings from rivers, canals, and ponds, and after a short merry life disappear as suddenly as they came. The genus Ephemera is type of the family Ephemeridae or May-flies in the wide sense. The family is often ranked within the Pseudo-neumptera suborder of Orthoptera, not far from Dragon-flies.

A thin delicate body, with filmy wings, of which the anterior are much the larger and sometimes the only pair: rudimentary mouth- parts in the adults, which fast throughout their short serial life: a long lived voracious larval existence in the water, with so called tracheal gills for aquatic respiration, are striking features of the Ephemerids.

The antenna: are short and awl-shaped; the eyes of the males are very large; the head- shield is enlarged, covering the rudimentary mouth-parts; the middle ring of the thorax is exaggerated; the legs are delicate; the thin abdomen ends in two or three long filaments.

The life history of these delicate ephemeral insects is very interesting. The eggs are laid in the water and give rise to aquatic larva?, which live sometimes two or three years, moulting many times.

They prefer running water, hide under stones or make burrows in the mud, have well developed mouth-parts, and feed hungrily enough cm other insects. The trachea:' or air- tubes are expanded in plate-like or tuft-like paired structures down the sides of the posterior body.

A pupa stage eventually follows, during which the larva acquires wings and other adult structures, but the insect which emerges and leaves the water is, curiously enough, not yet ready for its short adult life. Though it has wings, it is still encumbered by a delicate robe.

This sub-imago, as it is often called, finds some resting place on grass stem or tree trunk, gets rid of its last encumbrance, and begins its life of a day.

The cast-off ghost-like exuviae are found m great numbers. In the summer evening the males and females enjoy a brief merry love- dance. The females are fertilised, the eggs are dropped info the water, and then sometimes in a single day the bright crowd is gone. It is literally true that at the moment of their climax they die.

The most familiar species is Ephemera vnlgata, the common may-fly, the green drake (subimago) and gray drake of anglers.

Mayfly Fishing.

As a rule, the mayfly week offers an ideal holiday to the angler; giving to many a man his first real summer outing in the water meadows. My earliest experience of it was vastly different. Keen disappointment, accompanied by equally keen north wind, was the first introduction I had to the so called carnival of mayfly fishing. Wind swept meadows, bending rushes, and a cold gray river hurrying towards you in waves and eddies, formed the conditions and prospect of the glorious first of June in that year; and continued, with slight changes of a more favourable nature, until the sixth.

Facing the wind on the opening day, I looked in vain for the mayfly, which I was told might appear between eleven and twelve, o'clock. It was impossible to find any turn or curve in the bank where the water was quieter, so after two hours of waiting in the driving rain, I speared my rod in the rushes, stood in its shelter, and shivered. Later in the afternoon a few mayflies could be seen, carried along in midstream like dead leaves in October, but no attempt at a rise broke the surface.

As a matter of fact, even in favourable weather, trout are rather chary at making such a mouthful as a mayfly appears to them; but after the first day or two they put this feeling aside, and only temper their extreme greediness by an aggravating caution as to how, when, and where they shall indulge themselves. It was three days before I saw a mayfly taken - perhaps by a smallish grayling - and although I thrashed different patterns over the place he never rose again.

Not only did I not catch a trout, but neither did anyone else on that part of the river. However it is no use dilating upon so chilling an experience, excepting just to show that those who use rosy-hued ink in describing their holiday sport have had, like many better men, to go through the mill of adverse conditions during a previous season.

It is the enthusiasm engendered by certain matchless half hours that prompts us to spend half days, or even half weeks, by river banks under almost hopeless circumstances.

Looking back on it now, I had of course acted as the young man in a hurry; for, although the greater part of the mayfly season that year was a failure owing to the weather, yet between the sixth and twelfth of June numerous two and three pounders were killed - I never like this word applied to trout: it always sounds more applicable to spearing eels or flat fish - on spent gnat late in the evening.

Other seasons, other conditions. The very next year the ' Fly is up ' telegram came at Whitsuntide; and on the second of June the thermometer touched 80 in the shade. In making my way to the small hut by the river side, the long grass, the air, and the water were literally swarming with mayflies. They were on one's bare neck and arms, almost n one's mouth. They danced up and down in thousands. Those that fluttered on to the water were not Laken by the ash, who possessed their appetites in patience until between four and five o'clock.

I knew little or nothing of their various stages or life history, but kept affixing and changing ' gladstones,' ' grey-drakes,' and ' straddle bugs '; continually throwing over rises in feverish excitement until it was dark, with the only result of a pound grayling - the first I had ever seen. Other rods were more successful of course. A trout of lbs. was laid on the side bar at the inn where ' no four- penny beer served here ' secured comparative privacy. I touched it, or rather worshipped it, with mournful envy, wondering if I should ever land such a prize - and I never have yet.

The next day, 1 was upon the water soon after eleven; taking up a position just where a double turn in the narrows formed some tempting green glides close under the sleep bank. After a short lime three fish were located, evidently trout, from the determined snap which caused a mayfly to disappear as though it had trodden on a steel trap. On the opposite side, luckily well away from the water, beyond a clump of brambles and reeds I had an audience, two men; who not only meant to stop, but had spotted the three fish and pointed them out to each other. ' You see, he'll get them all ' I heard the one say; a remark which so touched my pride that 1 determined to live up to this prophetic reputation in spite of the fact that I had never caught a trout upon a mayfly in my life.

Nothing went wrong: I was able to get fairly close below the upper fish, cast my gladstone at the head of the run, and before realising quite what had happened, tightened into a nice trout, netting him almost at my feet (1 lb. 6 ounces) to the huge satisfaction of the chief actor, and the audience on the bank. Both the others followed his greedy example at the first cast, 1 lb. 1 ounce, and 1 lb. 4 ounces - the best trio I had ever taken consecutively.

Never did the words ' I told you so ' sound so sweetly in anyone's ears as on that occasion. Inwardly I vowed the reward that mugs of flowing ale should moisten the lips of the utterer.

After this the fly was only taken by the very largest grayling, which, on being hooked, bore down stream like small salmon in their first rush. It soon became easy to tell them from trout. They constantly missed the fly, and always left a bubble on the surface after doing so; besides showing their large back fin as they turned away. If they took the fly and were held hard, a constant wriggling motion, as well as their persistent pulling down stream settled all doubt. As I had a distaste to landing and unhooking them, I found after a few days, that the easiest way was to let them get well below one in the current, and then give the line a sharp tweak, which usually brought about the desired parting.

One rise, where a long cast had to be made upstream, over some rushes, and right into the sunlight, was followed by a gollop, a strike, and a course downstream that made the reel seem a humming top until the line was out to its last few yards of backing. Although I had hurried after it with the rod bent down to the water - quite a wrong position for the situation - he was round the bend into a deep channel, and strong current, before I could check him.

For fully five minutes I could do nothing but hold on; standing out in a tongue of mud at the end of the rushes, where a deepish dyke came Into the main stream.

The strain on the rod was so great that I held it straight out, and slowly ground him up from the reel foot by foot, unable to put the rod down and handline him. As he came near, all I could see was a large rush, apparently on the fish's back, with both fish and rush athwart the stream.

It was the largest grayling I have seen, hooked foul right through the spines of its great dorsal fin. It was so completely done up that, when released, it floated away round the bend with only a gasping movement.

The spring-balance I had in my bag only drew out to two pounds and it was obvious cruelty to impale the wretched fish on so useless a gauge as this. Had this grayling been taken in season, he should certainly have been mounted, for only once have I seen his equal, in a glass case, caught by a Southampton angler, and labelled as an ounce under four pounds.

On rivers where one can secure a piece of water to oneself after tea time towards the end of the mayfly season, and in the exact spot where the memories of bygone Junes recreate the sport and successes of previous years, the fascination of again watching the water causes one to think how little human nature, and human instincts, have changed during the past few thousand years.

How old Horace would have loved fly fishing: that is if trout abound in the Bandusian stream, as they do in the Bidassoa. How he would have sat upon the bank on a summer afternoon waiting for the shadows to lengthen, and have conjured up the ivory forms of Cloe or of Lalage glancing under the deeper water, or sitting in a shallow with wet hair clinging to their supple-moulded backs.

How he would have recalled their voices - ' dulce ridentem dulce loquentem ' - babbling among the stones; and then have grasped his willow rod, as a deep-toned ploop told him that a trout had begun to suck down flies under the tallest clump of iris close to the opposite bank.

These thoughts of naiads of the stream come over us all - so strongly indeed at seasons, that it is some time before we can rouse ourselves to focus our eyes and realise that it is time to be up and doing, if we intend to discard these waking dreams, and take full advantage of that delicious half hour between sunset and dusk which the gods have provided. Horace must have loved the birds, as he loved nature's changing face, and the fleeting seasons that passed over his whitening head on the Sabine farm, but left his heart as ruddy as Falernian wine.

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