From the Riverbank Part 12: Mayflies

From the Riverbank Part 12: Mayflies



The English countryside has settled comfortably into summer, with trees heavy in leaf, and the borders along the little lane leading down to the river brimming with wildflowers; cornflowers, irises, poppies and celandine with pink willow-herb and thistles towering over them all. Robert Byron, in his prose-poem All I have learnt, put it better than most: ‘If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit . . . . He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills, dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample vetches, and savour the virgin turf.’ There is a line of poplar trees a hundred yards away and parallel to the river on one of the beats, and, even when there is virtually no breeze, one can still hear the sussurant silken rustle of leaves across the meadow.  A stronger breeze will dislodge the catkin flowers of the giant weeping willows that proliferate along the bank in the summer, filling the air like snow in a mist and settling on the grass and forming little white dams where an overhanging branch trails in the water. Butterflies, too, flit about amongst the wildflowers, Common Blues, yellow Brimstones, Painted Ladies, Wood Whites, as though they have no control over which direction. to take. Yet, their journeys are not randomly taken by the wind. Painted Ladies make a journey of many thousand of miles, from Africa in the spring, and then, amazingly, fly all the way back in the autumn. Something like 11 million Painted Ladies enter the UK, and an astonishing 26 million depart, flying at around 3,000ft, at speeds of up to 30mph, a fact that was picked up by marine radar in Hampshire. These tiny creatures weigh less than a gram, with a brain the size of a pin head, and undertake these epic intercontinental migrations in order to find plants for their caterpillars to eat. Some have even been spotted as far north as the Arctic Circle.

With the mayfly binge-fest now over, the trout are becoming more choosy, and it becomes more difficult to lure them up to the surface. When it is hot, they tend to sink to the coolness at the bottom, anyway, and eat fresh-water shrimps, worms, smelt, fish eggs, crayfish and other crustaceans, but if there is a hatch of, say, sedge or caddis, they will take them as nymphs on their way up to the surface, and maybe follow them up. As I only cast to rising fish, this is the moment I am waiting patiently for. The middle of the day is possibly the worst time to catch fish, which thankfully coincides with a picnic lunch, followed by a snooze under a willow tree next to the hut, or, if feeling energetic, paint a little pastoral watercolour of the bend in the river. So, while Tommy the Trout is tucking into his raw prawn concoction down below, I am doing the same with a Heston Blumenthal Bloody Mary Prawn Cocktail spooned into an avacado. I was nervous about buying a large avocado at Waitrose, where they were trumpteted as being ‘perfectly ripe.Would it make it down to the riverbank in time? I recall seeing a strip cartoon in Private Eye showing The Life of an Avocado, with five panels, the first four of which read ‘Too Hard!’ and the fifth ‘Too Soft!’ My children are very sniffy about me eating a prawn cocktail, anyway, Heston or not, as they think it is naff 70s retro-food, along with Chicken Kiev and an Arctic roll. The perfect foil for the Heston is a chilled glass of Provençal rosé, in a shapely bottle, but one has to be careful, as there are now so many rosés out there now, some the colour of Aperol or Tizer, and many of them are virtually undrinkable, a bit like Aperol or Tizer. A good rule of thumb is the colour; the paler the better, with the best having a shade of flinty pink, when held up to a cloudless sky. Minuty, Whispering Angel and Domaine d’Ott all deliver the flinty element, but the prices of these classy rosés could make one blanche, if not blush. 

Even at the end of June, I was seeing singleton mayfly come off the water, looking forlornly around for a mate. Suppose he or she did not find one, having spent all that time living on the gravel at the bottom of the stream, waiting for the right moment to enter the world? The life cycle of mayflies comprise four stages, namely egg, nymph, subimago, and imago. Some species can release anything up to 10,000 eggs, laid on water, and allowed to float down and settle on plant-life or gravel, where they hatch within a couple of weeks and turn into nymphs, and they stay at that stage for at least a year, and sometimes two. When a certain size, the nymphal skin splits down the back and a winged form, called the subimago, or dun, emerges and flies to the safety of some foliage, where, overnight, more skin is discarded, and it turns into an imago, or spinner. Mayfly nymphs are preyed upon by carnivorous invertebrates and fish. Winged stages are devoured in flight by birds, bats, and predatory insects, including dragonflies, damselflies and hornets. Winged existence only lasts a matter of hours, so finding a mate as quickly as possible is paramount. Just imagine being the last mayfly standing, like Will Smith in I am Legend. You have avoided being eaten by a fish on your way to the surface and struggled to get off the surface, missed being gobbled up by a swift or bat once in the air, only to find there are no other mayfly to dance and mate with. What a life. Then you die. How sad is that? 


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