***This Article Appears in the May 2023 Northwoods Sporting Journal***
May in the Northeast, probably the most anticipated month on a fly fishers calendar. As I tell all of my prospective clients, this is the time to book a trip! There is so much to look forward to this month that it can be a little overwhelming. Lakes and ponds are fishing great with trout feeding all day right up near the surface, bass and pike are shallow and aggressively feeding pre-spawn, and of course the river fishing is quite literally heating up, whether from a drift boat or while wading.
With so many fantastic opportunities, I have at times, found myself overwhelmed trying to fit guide trips, fly fishing competitions, and my own fishing into one short month. Here is how I tackle the month of May to maximize prime time in the Northeast.
As the calendar turns from April to May things are changing rapidly. Water levels and temperature are the biggest factors to consider when heading out with a fly rod. Early May, especially in Northern New England, still means cold and high water. Your best bet for consistent fishing will be lakes and ponds. Fish will generally be shallow searching for food anywhere the water is warmest. Look for shallow bays and shorelines that heat up quicker and you will find fish. River fishing in early May will be inconsistent until the first round of bugs begin hatching AND river temps rise into the 50’s, but generally will be getting better day by day. This is also the time I like to head south and west to limestone and spring creeks in PA and NY, or tailwaters in southern New England. Trout in these types of environments are much more active in cold water and can provide very good river fishing before things pick up in Northern New England.
As we transition into mid May, warmer than average weather will kick off “primetime” and Colder than average weather will prolong the early May pattern. Let the weather and water temps determine what to fish for and where. Keep in mind, the further North and East you are, the more delayed prime fishing conditions will likely be.
Prime Time, during the last 2-3 weeks of the Month in Northern Vermont, is when I spend the vast majority of my time on rivers trout fishing, save from a few days on Lake Champlain chasing smallmouth. Most of my clients understand this is the time to fish and my guiding schedule is full. This is also the time of the year to float some of the bigger rivers in the area before water levels drop. Again let the stream thermometer help you dictate where to fish. For example, if mountain streams are still cold from snowmelt, look for lower elevation rivers where the water will be warmer. As river temps range through the 50’s and into the low 60’s trout will be extremely active throughout the day as they are at their peak metabolic rate. Concurrently, the greatest number of mayfly, caddis and stoneflies are found in the drift at this time.
The challenge later in May is no longer finding active fish, it's figuring out the daily puzzle. With so many species of bugs hatching in late May, trout are seeing all colors, sizes and behaviors of insects and while trout feed opportunistically, there are days or times when trout will key into specific insects, life stages, or even colors. For instance, a few years ago I had back to back float trips on the same stretch of river, with the same conditions both days. After my two clients caught 30-40 trout on natural pheasant tail nymphs on a Monday, my Tuesday clients could not seem to get even a bite to start. Finally we pulled up to a run and I ran through a ridiculous number of patterns, committing to figuring out the puzzle before floating over anymore fish. Finally I tied on the same pheasant tail but with a fluorescent collar, aka the Frenchie, and we proceeded to catch trout one after another for the rest of the day. When I figure out why an entire river of trout needs a fluorescent orange collar on their pheasant tails on a particular day, I’ll be the best guide the world had ever seen! One last quick tip for late May, swing all of your nymphs at the end of the drift. Dead drifts are great most of the time, but somedays trout want a moving fly.
May surely lives up to its hype as prime time to fly fish in the Northeast, but it is an intense time of change on our waterways. To capitalize on the best fishing opportunities and increase your catch rate, let the weather, water temperatures and river flows dictate where you fly fish and what tactics you employ.
Ben Wilcox is owner of Maple Country Anglers, located in Northwest Vermont. He is a current member of the USA Fly Fishing Team. He is a registered Maine Guide and graduate of the University of Maine. He also owns a large Maple Sugaring Business, Amber Ridge Maple. These occupations allow him to be in the woods or water nearly every day of the year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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