A little while ago I wrote a piece called “Naked Slovenian Woman” and it was published in a fly fishing magazine and also here on the blog. You can look it up if you are curious. I noticed from the statistics provided by the blog host that this particular post had an unusual number of “hits”. I was puzzled at first but, when I thought about it, I realised that maybe a few of the new readers might be chaps were surfing the web in the hope of finding a bit of titillation and that they were probably disappointed to find themselves looking at some boring old blog put together by a fisherman!

Looking at the title of this post I would not be surprised if there isn´t another surge of interest again, but if you are seeking out something salacious, I am going to disappoint you once again. Sorry! The subject of this piece is the life cycles of salmon and mayflies!

Still here? Cool. I know that I am talking to hard core fishermen now!

Why salmon and mayflies? Well, it occurred to me that very few of the details of what we fishermen, particularly fly fishermen ever make it outside into the real world and into the knowledge and consciences of those who are not afflicted by this curious bug. People who have never heard of a brown trout or a stonefly or a caddis will recognise instantly the mayfly and the salmon and something of the drama of their lives.

Why is this? I have no idea but I do have a theory which, of course, you have every right to dismiss or even laugh at. According to this theory of mine, the public interest in these creatures is related to the idea of sex and of death and, ultimately, to the idea of sacrifice.

Let me say right at the outset that I am in no way qualified to write as an authority about either of these groups and I am sure many readers have much more detailed knowledge. I have never caught a salmon and work commitments prevent me from joining friends and family when “the mayfly” is up back in Ireland.

Mayflies belong to a huge and ancient order of insects that includes also the dragonflies and damselflies and they are unique among insects undergoing a further moult after having developed functional wings. So there are really two winged insects, the dun and then the spinner (or subimago and imago in the scientific parlance).

The fact about the insects which is widely known is that they live “for just one day” which is a fair approximation of the truth. The untold part of the story is that of the aquatic nymph which later emerges as the winged adult can live for a year or more on the bottom of a stream or a body of fresh water. It seems extraordinary to me that the pinhead eggs deposited by the female spinner contains all the DNA needed to construct not just one but two adult insects and many larval instars.

When the female has deposited her eggs she dies. She is spent. Back at home in Ireland my brother Sean and my friends Mark McCann and Steve Lawler have recently been fishing the “spent gnat” on the limestone loughs. This is an event that draws people from all around the country and even further afield. One of the pictures that Mark sent me this year was of a dead spinner trapped in the surface film and drifting above the stony floor of Lough Arrow. All that remains at the end of the life of the such a female mayfly is the promise of a future generation that she can never survive to see. There we go: sex and death.

And it is the same with salmon. Our own “local” European species is the Atlantic salmon. We have a few salmon rivers here in the north of Spain but this is at the southernmost end of their natural distribution. Atlantic salmon also run into rivers further north in Europe, the northeastern coast of North America and Russia.

The life history of salmon is so well known that I will not repeat it here. The fish exhaust themselves as they push their way upriver, often over great distances, to spawn. Many Atlantic salmon die but some, emaciated, do survive as kelts and return to sea again. Some fish spawn multiple times.

Unlike the Atlantic salmon, the various species of Pacific salmon do not survive spawning. Like the Atlantic species, they do not feed in fresh water as they swim upstream to seek out their spawning grounds. The carcasses and the bodies of these migrants fish feed bears and sturgeon and bald eagles and trees and the migrating fish offer a conduit of nutrients linking the ocean ecosystem and the heart of continents.

Like the mayflies, it is the drive to reproduce and to answer to instinct at whatever cost that, in my view, make these remarkable animals resonate in our collective imaginations, whether we happen to be fishermen or not.

Mark sent me this photo of a spent mayfly from Lough Arrow. This is Ephemera danica and is understood to be “mayfly” In Ireland and elsewhere. Of course there are many other species. Over 3,000 species have been recorded.