June 07, 2023
Have you ever eaten a damselfly nymph? What started out as a dare turned into a group of us eating damselflies, and my fiancée Charlie Banks claiming “It doesn’t taste so bad!” It was a day we maybe tried too hard to eat and think like a trout, but we were rewarded.
By 10 A.M. that day we were surrounded by trout, and it sounded like someone was throwing bowling balls into the water every few minutes. With Charlie at my side, we walked across a 3-foot-deep freshwater flat in search of one of those cannonballing trout with a tan #14 Chubby Damsel dry fly at the ready.
Charlie is new to fly fishing. I introduced her to the sport when we started dating. With all the damselflies around, I knew trout were eating the nymphs, but we had no luck with subsurface presentations. So when the trout started making all that commotion I was thrilled to think she might have her first experience with a dry fly.
To keep us both calm during the hunt, I did not tell her what I had racing through my head. “If she hooks one of these giants, it could cause a heart failure.” In which of us, I don’t know.
We waded slowly and cautiously, making only occasional casts well in front of where we thought feeding trout might be headed. Minutes later, we heard an explosion just on the periphery of our vision, just 20 feet to our left. Charlie lifted the line, and made a change-of-direction cast toward the sound.
One second of silence passed, and then a giant head engulfed the fly and made us both scream. The trout grabbed the fly and immediately started making the reel sing, so there was no real hook-set as the fish raced into the backing. She avoided all the common mistakes like grabbing the line or clutching at the flying reel handle. Of course, I jumped into guide mode. “You’re doing great Charlie!” “Don’t touch the reel when the fish is running!” “Reel, reel, reel!” I possibly did too much talking but she kept her cool and followed her instincts, and I now know she’ll always have the confidence to battle any trout.
My only role was to get the fish into the net, which I thankfully did, as it was a Snake River cutthroat that had likely been swimming in this public reservoir for five years or more. When we had the fish in the net, we erupted with laughter—it was the kind of joy you only get to experience when you catch your very first fish on a dry fly—and it’s an 8-pound cutthroat from public water. Yes, the soon to be Mrs. Mayer was rewarded, and her first trout on a dry fly is on the cover of this magazine.
Watching a trout leap 12 inches out of the water and come down on top of your fly—or damn near rip the rod from your hand as it smashes your fly in 2 feet of water—may seem farfetched, but when you’re pursuing trout during a damselfly hatch, these are the types of experiences that leave you shaking in your boots.
Damselflies are elegant predators that symbolize purity, not unlike the waters they live in, next to, and above. There are three stages in their lives: egg, larva (nymph), and flying adult. They can be on the wing by early May, while the last of them (the common darter) could still be flying as late as early October. Where I live in Colorado, late June is generally peak season for damselflies.
Damselflies are part of the Odonata family, which means the “toothed one.” They are found all around the world in moving and still waters. Trout waters in North America, South America, New Zealand, Africa, and Europe all have them.
Damselflies range in size from 1 to 1½ inches in length. Their colors display the gender of the species. Male damselflies often have iridescent wings and colorful blue, green, or purple bodies. Females typically have a golden brown color, even on their wings.
Damselflies live for two months to three years as nymphs, undergoing up to 15 molts as they grow. Common colors in this stage are tan, brown, and olive. The larvae are hunting insects, ambushing and feeding upon other, smaller insects around vegetation, weed beds, and rocky shorelines.
There’s no doubt that some of the most aggressive and exciting fishing I’ve ever experienced is when trout are chasing and eating damselflies as they swim toward shore. The first time I witnessed this frenzy taking place was on the edge of Elevenmile Reservoir when I was 17 years old. I was amazed not only at how many fish were actively feeding, but how far they would move to catch and consume a single insect. I remember seeing trout move 6 feet out of their feeding lane to chase a single damsel near the shore.
My son refers to this stage of life as “little swimming snakes.” The larvae (nymphs) migrate toward the shoreline by undulating their bodies side-to-side in the water like a sidewinder snake. This is not a quick, graceful movement—it’s like they are towing something heavy.
Trout recognize this movement, and they cruise the shoreline looking for easy meals. And it’s not just trout—I’ve had clients catch all kinds of species during this hatch, from tiger muskies to largemouth bass. If you think about it, all fish learn at a young age where to find easy meals. Even when they mature to giant status, bite-size damselfly nymphs still make great snacks.
Click here for recipes for the two damselfly patterns below.
To imitate damselfly nymphs, you have to consider many factors—but let’s start with the fly. By simply modifying the head and eyes of standard damselfly nymph imitations, I was able to create a more realistic imitation called the Mini Leech Jig Damsel. I use extra-small olive monofilament eyes, and tie them in front of a tungsten bead. I push the bead against the eyes and restart the thread behind the bead. This is the foundation that will shape the damsel’s head. I build the legs with ostrich herl, and the body with wrapped Krystal Flash and a strip of pine squirrel for movement. Finally, I pull a carapace of olive Dura Skin over the bend-side of the shank, and I disguise the bead by pulling the Dura Skin up and over the entire head of the fly, and pushing the hook eye right through the Dura Skin.
This creates a fly with a natural silhouette and convincing movement. The 60-degree jig hook has massive holding power for large trout and gives you a better hook-up rate than a standard J hook.
The challenge for all anglers is being able to present an imitation at the right depth, but the fly must also have a profile and movement like the naturals. To achieve this, I use different bead selections. If the target is feeding in water at 6 to 18 inches I use a fly that is tied with a 2.0 tungsten bead. It sinks slower and the sink rate is controlled even more by the micro pine squirrel. It also creates less of a disturbance when it lands on the water. In water depths of 2 feet or more, I go up in to a 2.4/3.0 slotted tungsten bead.
Selecting the right damselfly nymph imitation starts with choosing the right color. The most common colors I see in my home waters are olive, brown, and tan. When damselflies are swimming above or around vegetation they are most often olive. When they are swimming on the bottom near sediment or dirt they tend to be tan or brown. Like chameleons, they can transform their color to match their surroundings. This is both to evade predation and to help them prey on other insects.
Be willing to change the color of your damselfly imitation to match not only what you see in the water, but the surrounding structure.
The biggest challenge when fishing damselfly nymph imitations is being able to deliver the fly in shallow water, retrieve it without snagging the bottom or vegetation, and keep everything natural so as not to spook the fish.
Trout feeding on damselflies are often in such a shallow environment, you battle constantly with the threat of being seen. I often use a dry/dropper strategy and make a long cast before the trout comes into range. When the target is in range of the Mini Leech Jig Damsel, skate the surface fly 6 inches and pause. This matches the motion of the natural damselfly nymphs and keeps your fly elevated so you don’t snag as much. My favorite dry flies for this are #12-14 Chubby Damsel, #14 Goddard Caddis, and #16 Candy Shop Callibaetis.
Another effective way to deliver the Mini Leech Jig Damsel is by using a slow intermediate sinking fly line like Sonar Stillwater Clear Camo line that sinks at 1-2 inches per second. I use a short fluorocarbon tippet 24 to 36 inches long. You can then use a slow retrieve from the shore after casting out 30 to 45 feet and covering large swaths of water. Sometimes it’s important to cast even shorter so your flies spend more time near shore. Damselfly nymphs swim to the shore to break out of their nymphal shucks, so use a slow finger-over-finger retrieve to create a slow journey to the bank. You can also use the Johnny Cash technique where your hand movements match the picking guitar string movements with short strips of 3 to 6 inches with a pause between. It’s common for damselflies to stop and pause while they swim, and this is an important window for the trout to attack.
When they hatch into adults, damselflies do not waste any time. Mating swarms of them hover above the water, gather on protruding vegetation in the shallows, or flock to rocky shorelines. Within a few days of emerging, damselflies begin searching for a mate. This is most pronounced during the warmest days of summer or near summer solstice. Males use the end of their tail to clasp onto the back of the females’ heads during flight, and the females curl their tails beneath themselves and attach it to the portion of his abdomen where he has deposited sperm. Entomologists call this the mating wheel.
They continue to fly in this position for several minutes before detaching. The female lands on the water and lays her eggs directly in plant life. It is not unusual for female damselflies to submerge themselves to lay eggs. Males guard the eggs until they hatch a few days later.
I have a vivid memory of when at age 14, I witnessed a brown trout leap out of the water and snag an electric-blue adult damselfly clean out of the air. Clearly the trout was watching that airborne insect from below, and followed it until it paused in midair, creating the perfect opportunity for an airborne attack. The event made me addicted to the thrill of fishing damselfly hatches—knowing that the trout are willing to abandon caution if they are convinced they have found their target.
Since that time, I have had some awesome takes here or there on standard adult damselfly imitations, but I could not find a dry fly that would float like a cork and appear natural from the point of view of the trout.
Trout are more willing to take a large dry fly like a damselfly when it surfs in and out of view in conditions I call “big fish chop.” Trout rely on distortion on the water’s surface to hide below from predators. But many flies sink when that chop picks up, and some of the best dry-fly fishing happens in windy conditions.
I decided what I needed to complete the ultimate damselfly dry fly was a “mother ship”—a fly that looked the part, but I was still able to battle the roughest seas and hold an anchor fly no matter how big the waves.
Then one day it hit me: Take some of the features of the best floating attractor dry fly ever—the Chubby Chernobyl—and modify it into an adult damselfly.
This is how the Chubby Damsel was born—taking the bouncy action of a Chubby but using slim blue/tan/olive 2mm foam to imitate the most common colors you see on the water. Chicone’s Barred Regular Crusher Legs represent the wet wings on the surface like stabilizers on a canoe. The poly yarn tuft is a great sighter for tracking the fly. The extended damsel braid tail completes the realistic look with the tip coated in resin to prevent fraying.
I most often fish the Chubby Damsel with three general strategies. I often start the damselfly season (or start the day) with a single searching dry fly that will capture the attention of any cruising or ambushing trout. Early in the summer, late May to early July, is best for this technique when the trout are not as accustomed to feeding on damselflies. Unlike many anglers, I prefer the fly to remain still—influenced only by the current or waves. If you watch drowned adult damselflies they don’t move—except for sometimes the buzzing wings.
My secondary approach is to trail an extra dry fly to match another hatch that is taking place during the summer months. I add a #14 Adams to match a spinner Callibaetis, #16 Barr’s PMD Vis-A-Dun, or sometimes I add a second big bite like a #8-12 Thunder Thighs.
The key to maintaining a proper drift is to attach the second fly using a loop knot. It is common to attract the trout to come for an inspection, and if the fish does not commit to the big meal, it will have a second choice of the smaller trailing fly. It’s wise to offer choices!
My favorite way is to use the mothership to support a dropper damselfly nymph when the hatch is seriously underway, and the trout are looking for those nymphs. This is the most effective way to deliver to aggressive trout because you can present your fly in the shallow areas. Not only is the suspending technique effective, but it also allows you the chance to strip the two flies and add a little action, matching the struggling movements of a downed adult damselfly, and the challenged swimming motion of a damselfly nymph.
In my opinion, the best way to become the ultimate angler is by remaining a student every day you hit the water. The damselfly hatch is a great way of understanding stillwater fisheries—and succeeding. I promise that, like Charlie, you will become a believer in the damselfly hatch when your heart skips a beat and you catch a giant trout during this prolific hatch.
Landon Mayer is a Colorado fly-fishing guide and Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He lives in Woodland Park, Colorado. His most recent book is Landon Mayer’s Guide Flies: Easy-to-Tie Patterns for Tough Trout (Stackpole Books, 2022).
Instagram: @landonmayerflyfishing | landonmayerflyfishing.com