Blessed with two sets of wings, adult damselflies possess an aerial deftness allowing them to capture other flying insects with ease. As nice as it is to watch winged damselfly, by far the more relevant stage for fly anglers is the aquatic nymph and long before the first electric blue male breaks free from the confines of his nymphal shuck, damselflies are constantly preyed upon by trout.
From the egg stage, tiny nymphs hatch and grow throughout winter months developing into what is without question the most important stage to both trout and angler. At first the nymphs are almost transparent yet as they undergo each instar (molt) so their colour alters from straw/pale yellow to light olive before finally turning to a darker olive/brown hue when they easily attain over an inch in length. Almost alien like in their appearance, mature damsel nymphs are impressive in size with carnivorous tendencies. Indeed, armed with a set of pinchers, they prey on other grubs and nymphs that venture too close and are more than capable of grabbing the occasional stickleback or minnow!
1. Nymphs undergo several molts before turning darker in colour.
2. Nymphs crawl out of water to shed their nymphal shuck and enter adulthood.
3. The male (blue) and female can mate on the wing but most attach to plants.
4. Females choose a sheltered bay to deposit their eggs in the water.
WHEN THE TROUT TAKE NOTICE
It’s at the start of the New Year that I’ve noticed trout feeding on the immature damsel nymphs. Although miniatures of the summer nymph, these small damsels are found in staggering numbers around decaying weedbeds and if these are in a sheltered bay then so much the better. Given our current run of milder conditions throughout winter, it’s still possible to find weed close to the surface on some fisheries. With this, I’ve experienced trout cruising in the upper layers as they flush out and feast on defenceless damsel nymphs.
I became aware of this by chance. In late December 1985, a day was organized on Bigland Hall Trout fishery. My diary shows that shortly after lunch, fish were feeding in a bay. The rise form pointed to buzzer feeders and there was the odd black buzzer about. I threw all manner of pupa imitations at those trout and then by chance, tied on a small PTN nymph. Thankfully, a trout eventually took hold. Spooning that fish was a revelation. It was crammed full of one wriggling mass of small, straw coloured damsel nymphs. Having not seen the like of this before, my nearest imitation was a washed out PTN. Fishing a single fly through the weedy jungle I ended that session with eight trout.
At home, on closer inspection, a stack of suitable imitations was promptly tied up. Nowadays, I always have a few lightly coloured nymphs, especially through the winter months. I’d encourage everyone to carry a few sample pots or something similar with them when fishing. Not only does this help decipher trout’s stomach contents, any findings can be taken home for closer study that is never time wasted when it comes to dressing flies.
ON THE CRAWL
As we’ve discovered, damsel nymphs are worth fishing from late winter and throughout spring. However, the cream of our sport is in the summer hatch period.
Damselflies do not hatch at the water’s surface. Instead the nymphs migrate shoreward where, on reaching bankside safety, crawl up reed stems, boulders, fence post and the like to hatch into winged adults. These nymphs aren’t fussy at this stage and so long as it is clear of water, they’ll use any convenient item to undertake the critical transformation. I’ve found them on my fishing bag. Take a quick look around next time you’re out and the dried remnants of a damsel nymphal husk should be found on many features close to water.
Some mature nymphs will creep along the lakebed when heading for the shoreline; however, many of them actually swim. In fact, they can be seen making for land just beneath the water’s surface. This makes them extremely vulnerable and trout are quick to take advantage. Try to study the behaviour of a natural here and watch how it swims. That long, slender abdomen wriggles from side-to-side as it moves. Following a short swimming burst, just like the olive nymphs, damsels need to rest. They appear to spread their limbs and tails which I’m sure is to create a greater surface area to prevent them from sinking too deep.
These very actions are what we strive to simulate when fishing our imitations. Obviously, it’s more difficult for us to realise that side-to-side motion (see diagram above) but we can easily achieve a sink-and-draw action to the fly which is sure to increase its attractiveness. This is best done by incorporating mobile materials like marabou and rabbit fur into our flies and adding a little ballast close to the hook eye.
It’s easy to slip into autopilot and yank back a fly on one foot long pulls. Having cast out, begin the retrieve with an erratic figure-ofeight, followed by a longish pause. Now, if your rod tip is pointing down slightly to your right, try sweeping across your front to the left and, although drawing the fly a little closer, it also changes its path. Pause for a few moments then kick-in with a short figure-of-eight retrieve again. Pause once more and switch the rod tip back to the right.
Continuing like this really does allow our fly to behave more lifelike and erratic.
Because of all this I am personally happiest fishing a single fly and concentrating on getting the presentation absolutely right.
In relative terms, as damsel nymphs show a fair turn of speed, trout often intercept them with haste. A taught line then between fly and angler could result in breakages, especially if you’re retrieving when a trout hits. To cushion violent takes, provide some slack into our system. Try holding the rod tip some 18 inches to two foot clear of the water surface. From the rod tip the resulting bowing line creates enough loose line to act as a buffer against savage takes.
Like many insects damselflies thrive off warmth so expect the best of any activity to take place from mid morning onwards.
Those flies that do make it to adulthood now seek a mate. This often takes place on the wing and female damsels can even be seen egg laying whilst the male is still attached! Sheltered parts of a water are the favoured places for this, where females can be found dipping their abdomen tips along reedy margins, quiet bays or amongst water lilies. They may also crawl down reeds beneath the water line to deposit their eggs. Although fishing dry damsel patterns in open water is not a tactic that can be relied upon, it’s always worth carrying a few adult/dry fly damsel patterns for those unique circumstances. I’ve come across one or two specialist trout that have taken up station along a stand of reeds. Here they wait for female, egg laying damselfly and greedily snap them up when they alight. On more than one occasion I’ve tasted success by casting a large dry fly into the disturbed area.
Given calm conditions, a mirror like water surface improves the trout’s vision. Then, I’ve seen trout bow waving along, following an adult damsel flying along some 1-2ft above the surface. These trout then leap out, capturing the damselfly mid air, in spectacular fashion. Although we can’t actually copy this, a large wet fly cast in front of a feeding trout or even cast blind and pulled back has produced in these unusually circumstances.