A Pale Morning Dun Speaks
by Rick Hafele
It’s cold on the bottom of a trout stream. Of course, as a cold-blooded mayfly nymph adapted to cold-water trout streams I find it rather comfortable. I’m sitting, along with a half dozen other nymphs, on the bottom of a gentle riffle among golf ball to baseball size stones lazily grazing on diatoms and bits of algae like we’ve done every day for almost a year now. I find it hard to keep track of time since every day is much like the one before, except that every day there seems to be a few less of us grazing. I’ve also noticed lately that most of my brothers and sisters around me now have odd growths on their backs shaped like two dark brownish-black slippers. I can’t see my own back, but it feels different and my skin seems to be getting tighter.
Suddenly a call goes out that an important meeting is scheduled and all the nymphs in my neighborhood must attend. Apparently the chief nymph has something critical to tell us. My buddies and I on the rock can hardly eat as this is the first time such a meeting has ever been called, and we have no idea what could be so important.
Hundreds, hell thousands, of nymphs start moving towards a hollowed out area surrounded by waving aquatic plants. The afternoon sun reflects off the water, and the sky looks like spilled paint in the water’s mirror-like surface. Crawling along the bottom may look safe, but moving from the rock crevices to the meeting location is risky. If you loose your footing the current quickly takes you away, and we’ve been told from our first days as nymphs to stay out of the current at all costs - when you drift away you never come back.
Once gathered together around the aquatic plants we all settle into a comfortable resting place. Some hang on the leaves of the plants. Others sit in the sand at the base of the stems. I find a nice flat stone off to one side to crawl onto just as the chief nymph stands up on a piece of dead wood lodged in the bottom and begins explaining what is happening.
“Dear brothers and sisters this is the day you’ve all been eating for,” he begins. “Within the next few days you will change in ways you can’t imagine. You’ve all seen the dark slipper-like growths on everyone’s back. And you’ve felt the tightness of your skin. In the past such feelings meant you needed to find a safe place to hide while your tight outer skin fell off and a new looser skin took its place. That was then, this is now.”
The head nymph pauses waiting to make sure we are all paying close attention, then goes on, “The next time you feel the gentle warming of the water, when the late morning sun slowly raises the water temperature, you will have an uncontrollable urge to let go of the bottom and swim towards the surface.”
“Yah, right,” I say to the nymph on my left. “That’s the last thing I’m going to do. See those fish just above eyeing us? It would be suicide to leave the stream bottom.”
The head nymph keeps talking, “You will try to resist, but resistance is futile and only prolongs the inevitable. It is the destiny of every nymph here and across the entire waterway to let go of the bottom and swim for the heavens above.”
He now stands straight up on his two back legs using his tails for balance, “I repeat, every nymph here and across the entire waterway will let go of the stream bottom and head for the surface. Many of you won’t make it. Some will be eaten just as you leave the cover of the bottom. Others will get swept up in swift currents and carried downstream to waiting trout. Many of you, however, will make it, and for those the most amazing thing will happen,” he yells at the top of his gills. “Just before you reach the surface you will slip out of your tight skins, and instead of a new nymph skin underneath, you will find you have two pair of wings unfolding from your backs. You will also notice that you are as mute as a clam, as you now have no mouth with which to talk, eat, or even drink a drop of water.”
“Whoa, this is getting a little far out,” I say as I look over at my buddy on the rock next to me. He looks back and quickly adds, “Why in the world would we all do something so dumb? I’m not going.”
The old nymph continues, “Why would you do such a dangerous thing? Well, you may have heard stories that someday you will be able to fly through the air like birds. Of course you didn’t believe these fairytales, but I’m here to tell you now they are true. If you get to the surface and poke your body through the tough film, you will take off into the air like snowflakes rising up to the clouds.” The old nymph’s gills twitch up and down, “Then fly quickly to the nearest tree to hide and wait, for within another 24 hours you will molt your skin one last time.”
His large eyes sparkle now as he prepares to finish his speech, “Once you’ve lost your last skin you will take to the air one more time for a great orgy in the sky. Wild sex for all, after which the ladies will lay their burden of eggs back onto the water’s surface. Then all will sleep.”
With that the old nymph drops down onto all six legs, walks slowly down the log, and disappears.
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” my buddy says, while flicking his tails up and down.
But just then he lets go of the stone he’s on, and with a shocked look on his face he begins swimming up. When I look around dozens more, then hundreds more, then thousands more nymphs start swimming up. That’s when I feel my own legs let go of the smooth round stone on the bottom and I’m floating downstream in the current.
“Holy crap!” I yell as a nymph next to me disappears into a trout’s mouth.
Other trout are swimming by with mouths open, darting left and right. Nymphs are disappearing left and right as well. I decide it is swim or get eaten, so swim I do. I swim like there’s no tomorrow, and then suddenly my skin begins to split open. I’m still a foot or so below the surface.
“Just like the old nymph predicted,” I yell, when suddenly I’m unable to speak.
Short crumpled wings poke out of my back, and I notice my body is no longer brown, but a beautiful pale yellow color. It is either by luck or grace that I make it to the surface, then through the surface. Others are there too, but not for long. It’s crazy. From above swallows dart down grabbing my kin off the water. From below trout keep coming up sucking my buddies back down. I flail my new wings until they feel stiff, then cross my tarsi hoping beyond hope to escape the attacks from above and below. I flap hard, and suddenly, like magic, I feel freedom. I’m flying.
Once in the air swallows keep coming. One barely misses me but gets a similar looking brother right beside me. As I head for the nearest tree I see a strange creature in the water waving a long slender stem in air. He seems to have one of my kind attached to a thread and is throwing it on the water. It doesn’t look much like me I think, but a trout sucks it down and he lets out a yell like some wild creature. I’m not going to complain if there is one less trout eating my buddies.
I land on a leaf and sit perfectly still. I’m so unnerved I don’t move a muscle the rest of that day or all that night. Late the next morning I once again have the strangest feeling when suddenly my my skin splits open, and within just a minute or two my pale yellow wings are clear as glass and I feel lighter and quite excited.
The late morning air is mild and calm and I can see that many others of my kind also look different than yesterday and have already started to fly off their leaves back into the sky. I think, “Well, no sense in stopping now, let’s go for it,” and fly off with the others.
We now fill the sky twenty or thirty feet above the water. A swarm of millions, nearly all males, we dance up and down in the sunlight. The swallows are back too, but to be honest I don’t care. I feel light as goose down as I flap my paper thin clear wings and dance up and down several feet through the air. Thousands, maybe millions of us, dance in unison. While flitting up and down I strain all thousand facets of my huge red eyes to find a pale rusty brown female any where in my vicinity. There she is. A few feet above and just ahead of me. I gave it all I have and fly in from behind and wrap my long front legs around her thorax. She knows just what to do and in seconds we are dropping slowly towards the water while we hold each other in our one and only embrace.
Just before hitting the water she lets go and flies away. I never see her again. I start twirling in the breeze. I can see a swallow change directions and head my way. Then I see the swallow’s mouth open......
PMD Nymph = Pheasant Tail Nymph #16-#18
PMD Emerger = Flash Cripple, Pale Morning Dun #16-#18
PMD Dry Fly = Quigley's Sparkle Flag Pale Morning Dun #16-#18
PMD Spinner = Organza Pale Morning Dun Spinner #16-#18
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