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The Dragonflies And Damselsflies

By Bill Luscombe, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


There are other insects that occur in trout waters besides the big four (mayflies, stoneflies, midges, and caddisflies). Dragonflies and damselflies make up a significant portion of a trout's diet during their season. Dragonflies, and their dainty relatives the damselflies, both belong to the order Odonata, dragonflies being the suborder Anisoptera and damselflies Zygoptera. Adult dragonflies are robust and are easily distinguished from the adult damselflies by their size, the fact that they are fast fliers, and that they hold their wings flat, at right angles to their body like an aeroplane when at rest.

Damselflies are slim, slow fliers, and they fold their wings along their back when at rest. Adult damselflies also have the characteristic bright electric blue colouring with black bands along their abdomen.

Both suborders have similar mating habits, but what's important to the angler is that the nymph stages occur relatively early in the year (timing varies with water temperature) and are present throughout most of the fishing season. It's the nymphs that the fish take their keenest interest in.

It is quite easy to distinguish between the nymphs of the Odonata. Although both suborders have similar colour patterns (usually variations of greens and browns), damselfly nymphs are smaller (about  ½ an inch in length), with long, slender abdomens that have three feather-like gill filaments extending from their rearend like a tail. The damselfly nymphs are climbers, preferring to dwell on the stems and submerged leaves of aquatic vegetation where they stalk their insect prey. Dragonfly nymphs are larger (one inch or longer) and more robust, having broader, somewhat flattened abdomens with no exterior gill appendages. They dwell on the lake bottom, either crawling around in search of prey or buried in the mud awaiting their next meal.

The two suborders have distinct methods of locomotion as well. Damselfly nymphs swim through the water using a wriggling-type motion much like that of a snake, often appearing to use their abdomens and rear gill filaments as fins to propel themselves forward. The dragonflies usually crawl along the debris on the bottom of the lake or stream, but when threatened or attacking prey, they have the ability to eject water from their anal opening propelling themselves forward very quickly over distances of up to several inches.

Given the above information you can now think about what sort of fly patterns to use to imitate these little creatures. I have tied and fished several different patterns for each of the nymphs and have settled on two damselfly nymph and two dragonfly nymph patterns. They are the most consistent producers for me in coastal or interior waters.

Any really good damselfly pattern must display a swimming type of motion to be consistently effective, and marabou feather does the job well. Ian Forbes' damsel nymph pattern is simple to tie and very effective.

Forbe's Damsel Nymph:

Fly Tying Instructions:

  1. Wrap on the thread and X in the eyes just behind the eye of the hook.
  2. Wrap the thread to the bend of the hook and tie down a moderate clump of olive marabou, extending about a hook shank length past the bend as a tail.
  3. Tie in another clump of marabou and wrap the thread forward to the eyes.
  4. Then wrap the marabou forward forming a slim body, and tie off at the eyes.
  5. Tie in a smaller clump of marabou and X around the eyes to form a small bulbous head.
  6. Tie off behind the eyes.
  7. Tie in the partridge or ostrich and wrap two or three times around
  8. Tie off and whip finish.

An effective variation of this pattern can be tied with a bead head instead of the eyes.

The damselfly nymph patterns should be fished using a floating or slow sinking line near weeds or lilypads using a hand-twist retrieve. During the midday heat the damsel nymphs swim to the nearest reeds, weeds, or lilypads, crawl up them and hatch out into the adults. Trout key in on this migration and feed steadily near the surface for hours. If you twitch your retrieving hand just slightly while bringing in the line you will cause the marabou on the fly to undulate and will attract a bit more attention.

The two dragonfly nymph patterns I prefer are the D.D.D. and my own Rose Dragon. The D.D.D. is an excellent pattern (although it is a bit too slim to imitate a dragonfly nymph accurately) and is the one with which I prospect most. .

Fly Tying Instructions:

  1. Wrap on tying thread and tie in the tail of 4-5 strands of pheasant tail, about shank length long.
  2. Secure to the butt 4 stands of peacock herl.
  3. Spin to twist then together and wrap to a point mid-way between the hook point and the eye of the hook.
  4. Tie off and cut.
  5. Tie in a small bunch of pheasant tail fibres.
  6. Tie in the olive chenille and wrap the chenille to just behind the eye.
  7. Tie off and cut leaving enough room to tie in the swimmerets and whip finish.
  8. Pull the pheasant tail fibres over the back, tie off and cut off excess.
  9. Tie in 4 strands of pheasant tail at the head so that they trail back along the left side of the fly, about shank length.
  10. Repeat for the right side.
  11. Tie off and whip finish the head.

The Rose Dragon is my own pattern that I developed when the D.D.D. wasn't working and I was in the middle of a good dragonfly hatch; I needed a closer imitation. The pattern is as follows:

Fly Tying Instructions:

  1. Fasten the copper wire to the butt of the hook.
  2. Form a dubbing loop and dub on the antron to form an abdomen just over half the length of the shank.
  3. Wrap the copper wire in the opposite direction to the dubbed body to form a rib and tie off.
  4. Tie in pheasant tail fibres on the top of the shank and then the olive chenille.
  5. Wrap the chenille forward and tie off, leaving just enough room for the head. Don't cut the chenille off.
  6. Grasp the pheasant fibres and pull them over the back of the thorax to form a wingcase and tie it off.
  7. Take a few pheasant fibres and tie them in on the far side of the fly, at the point where the base of the head will be, to form the left legs, then do the same on the near side.
  8. Form the head with the remaining chenille, tie off and trim excess.
  9. Whip finish and cement.
  10. Using a pair of needlenose pliers squeeze the abdomen into a semi-flat shape to resemble the shape of the natural, and you're done.

Dragonfly nymphs should be fished right on or very near the bottom. Use a full sinking line and a short leader and slowly hand-twist or troll the fly along. Every so often you should give it a few quick pulls to imitate the insect shooting forward as if attacking prey or trying to escape a predator, then let it rest a moment or two before starting the slow retrieve again. You will often get a strike just as you start the fly moving again after letting it rest.

Trout very seldom eats adult dragonflies. In all my years of fishing I have only ever seen it done twice. However, adult damselflies are another matter. While not the norm, I have often found myself in situations where some trout are taking the adults while others are feeding on the nymphs. If you happen upon fish taking adult here is a pattern I designed that works exceedingly well . . . and it floats well too:

Bill's Adult Damsel:

Fly Tying Instructions:

  1. Wrap thread to butt of hook.
  2. Tie down the thin blue foam with about 2x the shank length extending rearwards.
  3. Lift the foam out of the way and wrap thread forward to the head.
  4. Tie down the other end of the foam at the head.
  5. Clip excess.
  6. Tie in 2 small clumps of deer hair, one to each side, spent-wing style.
  7. Clip excess. X in the plastic eyes.
  8. Tie off, whip finish, and cement.
  9. Mark the blue foam with several bands of black felt pen to give it the black banded look of the natural adult.

Nymphing with damselfly or dragonfly imitations or fishing dry fly with a damsel adult can be exciting and nerve-wracking. When the trout are onto these insects they become selective and aggressive. If you can manage to offer the fish an accurate imitation you'll be in for a day of fishing you won't soon forget.

Bill Luscombe has been hunting and fishing for most of his 42 years. He has been flyfishing for 20 years. He instructs flyfishing, and has done so for the past 12 years. He also instructs the federal FSET firearms course and the BC CORE hunter training course. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and has been writing freelance since 1987. He has been published in BC Sport Fishing Magazine, Outdoor Edge, BC Outdoors, Western Sportsman, Island Fish Finder, and the BC Hunting Guide.

Bill Luscombe was born an army brat and raised in Ladner (Delta, BC) where he was raised hunting waterfowl and pheasants. He presently resides in North Cowichan on southern Vancouver Island where he has lived and worked full time as a professional forester since 1982.

He presently works in Nanaimo for the BC Forest Service and continue to write the fly-fishing column for BC Sport Fishing Magazine as well as contributing articles freelance to various outdoor magazines in western Canada. Bill Luscombe is also a BC Director of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association.

"Catching fish is not hard. You simply need to understand what makes them tick. If you think like a fish, you will catch fish. It´s as simple as that."- Bill Luscombe



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