[The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of The St George’s Angling Club. Copies of the book can be purchased at www.calebgarling.com.]
THERE IS VERY REAL HISTORY to the idea of strength in numbers. A while ago living creatures figured out that the game of life was shaping around one basic idea: the strong feeding on the weak. After years of trial and error, many species decided that the key to surviving the contest was in playing the odds. If the end goal was to get a set of genes across the finish line to the next generation, the best solution was to have as many players on the field as possible. Some animals decreased their gestation time so they could have offspring faster and populate the world more often. Others increased the size of their litters from a couple to many. Deer, elk and other grazing animals decided to migrate and feed in herds, rather than as individuals. Predators in the shadows may kill prey, but they won’t kill lineage.
The phenomenon is not restricted to the forest and the grasslands either. Aquatic insects make use of numbers to survive the hungry mouths of fish. Since these bugs live submerged adult lives but must mate in the air above, at some point along the evolutionary highway, nymphs—the pre-mayfly form of the insect—agreed that The Collective was better off making a break for the surface than The Individual. Trout are the stream’s ultimate hunter—quick, aware and unforgiving. You can’t out-power or out- maneuver them, so everyone has to out-work them.
It is in these instances that fishermen take notice. These are hatches. But like most of life’s beautiful and important events, as much as we hold them to the sun in gratitude, those that study these things don’t totally understand them. To start, the actual signal for “charge!” that governs the surface exodus is not well understood. Environmental factors like air pressure, temperature, acidity, water volume, cloud cover and time of day, along with a host of more debatable notions, play a part in firing the starter’s gun. But they aren’t the whole story. Most fishermen will agree that your odds of experiencing a hatch are best in the early morning or late evening, with water in the low fifties and a mostly cloudy sky; yet they can also give you countless cases where any of those rules are broken—badly. So it is in this respect that a hatch of insects resonates with innate curiosity: recognition of organization, ignorance of structure.
The events before and after the hatch are not simple either. After a short time fertilized eggs turn to nymphs. It is in this form, not as a flying insect, that the bug spends most of its life—scuttling about the rocks underwater, over pebbles and in the sand of the riverbed or lake, feeding on algae and a host of imperceptible prey. While they are good swimmers and clingers of riverbeds, it is in the nymph’s best interest to stay out of sight. There is a lot of safety under rocks. At some point, after spending life peeking at that murky blue world above, they get the silent “charge!” signal and whether they are ready or not, they crawl or swim to the surface in great numbers. They avoid the trout they’d seen cruise overhead from time to time; they brave the swirling currents and powerful whirlpools that suck them back to the depths; they dodge a litany of destructive debris. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when they hit the surface, the moment for emergence is worse. Now the frantic nymph must shuck its heavy husk (its body armor and wet suit), spread unused wings (and keep them dry) and escape the surface tension into the open air. Depending on your perspective, water is an incredibly cumbersome and sticky liquid. We may rub it between our fingers, but to an almost-weightless insect, emerging from a body of water, while shucking husks and learning how to fly, is like trying to get out of a bubbling tar pit while changing your pants. And all of that stress compounds when they watch a friend pop to the surface, wave hello and disappear into the mouth of an opportunistic trout.
But those that emerge successfully take flight and fill the air like confetti. This is the most palpable stage of the hatch and now they enjoy that one ultimate act that every creature secretly lives for, whether they know, acknowledge or care to admit: sex. The air fills with fornication. Docking with every partner showing vacancy, they are living the dream. Over the river, on the ground, near rocks, on branches and even in the bushes, mayflies are dancing in a synchronized orgy. A happy and free buzz throbs in the air during a good hatch. If you look closely, you might even see little smiles. This can go for a while, but as with most matters concerning procreation, the fun is fleeting.
Together and in rat-tat-tat fashion the moms swoop to the water and deposit their newly fertilized eggs into the current. They are wary of the waiting mouths below, but pushed by the silent, unyielding drive to propagate. The successful mother gets her eggs into the water and watches her children fall and disappear into the darkness below. She doesn’t know it, but her offspring will settle safely and start the process anew.
Finished with their only true quest, the adult mayflies find their way onto the water in a sleepy daze and if a fish hadn’t caught them as a nymph, emerger, mayfly dun, or even while mating, it gets them now. But they don’t care. They are exhausted. Life is over. Complete. They lay their big, fragile wings on the surface, close their eyes and die; their bodies rotating in the river. They are a spinner, the final stage of life. The spinner may ride the current for miles, but at some point, that big mouth comes from the depths and takes them away.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at