The importance of mayflies comes largely from their emergence and mating behavior. While many organisms assure the survival of their species using individualistic tools like stealth, speed, venom, or parental care, mayflies are famous instead for their "strength in numbers" approach. They coordinate their emergence and mating times (both time of year and time of day) so that they leave their safe habitats and emerge together in large numbers in a very short period of time. This can trigger feeding frenzies in every nearby insect-eater, from trout to birds to dragonflies, but there are simply so many mayflies at once that many luck out and survive to reproduce. These trout feeding frenzies are the stuff of legend among fly anglers, and they also pose one of our greatest challenges, because trout feeding feverishly on a thick hatch are often unwilling to strike any fly that doesn't properly imitate the mayfly of the hour.
The duns of each species typically emerge during an hour or two each day for a couple of weeks in the spring or summer, though there are some important fall hatching species. Some species follow more sporadic emergence strategies, and many of these combine to create a sort of "background noise" of miscellaneous mayfly activity on many trout streams throughout much of the summer. This mixed bag of mayflies provides good opportunities for anglers to catch rising trout that aren't too picky.
Mayfly nymphs emerge into duns in several different ways. Most often, the nymph swims to the water's surface and splits open its exoskeleton above the thorax
. The dun wriggles out onto the surface, where its wings fill with fluid hydraulically and allow it to take flight. (In contrast to the common myth of mayflies needing time to "dry their wings," this process is more like inflating a raft.) Different species may be quick or slow at each stage of this process. Some take a long time to escape their nymphal shuck
, making flies that imitate these "emergers" especially effective. Some species very quickly take flight when they hit the surface, while others ride the surface for some minutes like little sailboats, a prime target for hungry trout and a welcome sight for the dry fly angler. Cool or windy weather may prolong these struggles and increase the availability of mayflies to trout.
Many important species follow completely different emergence patterns. In some, full winged duns emerge on the bottom of the stream and float to the surface. Others swim to shore and crawl out on land before emerging. Learning to identify mayflies and associate them with the right behaviors gives an angler an advantage: the ability to make a good guess about which style and stage of emergence to imitate, simply from seeing and recognizing some duns or mature nymphs.