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Ditch Damsel

Photo | Charlie Craven

This sexy, slender creation rides hook point up and wiggles when wet

Jay Zimmerman's Ditch Damsel is one of the most creative interpretations I have seen for this ubiquitous stillwater insect. The design elements on the wing and wire body ensure the fly rides hook point up, and the use of dyed mallard flank adds a slight bit of variegation to the pattern.

Damselfly nymphs inhabit lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers. They are most active in the late spring and early summer. They emerge on dry land, and as such, their pre-emergence is marked by a mass exodus toward the bank, where the nymphs can crawl out onto a sun-laden stick and dry their exoskeletons before hatching into the wonderful and acrobatic flying blue darts we see in the thrushes. Damselfly nymphs are long, skinny critters with big eyes, and they slide and swim with a seductive side-to-side action as they migrate toward dry ground. Trout, bass, and panfish all have a taste for these slender bites, and when you're in the right place at the right time, the action can be crazy.


Damsel patterns need to be tied slim and sparse, with a bit of weight to keep them swimming shallow and with as much wiggle and shimmy as one can manage. This is a tall order from a fly-designing standpoint. Luckily for me and you, I just happen to work with Jay Zimmerman, one of the most creative fly designers any of us will ever meet.


He and I often take a minute at the shop first thing in the morning to discuss what we tied the night before, or to share theories and ideas on new patterns. It was in one of these little brainstorming sessions that Jay first revealed this pattern to me. It immediately caught my eye, not only from a creative standpoint, but also from Jay's seamless melding and blending of materials to reach an end.

A good damsel imitation is essential on most stillwater fisheries. Trout, bass, and panfish all have a taste for these slender bites, and when you're in the right place at the right time, the action can be crazy. Photo | Charlie Craven

The Ditch Damsel, as Jay calls his fly, is clearly a product of his wonderfully creative and sometimes scattered brain. His damsel nymph pattern achieves the highly sought-after combination of being truly unique and unconventional while still being perfectly practical and easy to tie. There aren't many patterns that strike me as completely unique these days, and I knew the moment I saw Jay's creation that it was going to be a hit. Every single material on this fly is used and applied in a distinctive and thoughtful way, and they combine to create a wonderful profile and shape. The fact that Jay went so totally out of the box to create it makes it even more appealing to me.

I get so excited about stuff like this at this point in my life and I am not embarrassed to say I really wish I would have come up with this one myself. Tied on a long-shank hook in the inverted position, the fly swims hook point-up and relatively snag-free. The ingenious use of a two-toned wire body to counterweight the hook and achieve this point-up attitude in the water while still being accurately slim and beautiful is one of those things that a fly designer looks at and smacks his head. Though this technique is well used in other tying arenas, applying it to a small and thin damsel nymph is pure brilliance. Jay uses a marabou wing to further help the inversion, as well to give the fly a slinky action in the water. Not leaving well enough alone, Jay also adds a few strands of finely barred dyed mallard or wood duck fibers to the flank of the wings to create a bit of mottling and variegation as well as a heaping teaspoon of class.


Perhaps the most underappreciated and trailblazing technique he used here was stacking a small clump of rabbit fur on the top of the front of the wing. While the fly is dry, this clump just seems to blend into the wing and may leave you wondering why it's even there, but when wet, this clump melds into the wing, creating an ever-so-slightly thicker thorax to accurately mimic the real thing. Finished off with a pair of wriggling Sili Legs and melted mono eyes, this fly is a dead ringer for the real thing and is easily cast, won't foul or snag up, and is completely different than anything we've seen before.

Simple, common materials blended together smartly to create a unique look and a practical fly — man, I love this stuff! The fact that this fly can cross over well and imitate a leech makes it a great searching pattern for both cold and warmwater fish during the warmer months.

Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado, and is the featured tier in two Fly Fisherman DVDs: Warmwater Fly Tying and Saltwater Fly Tying. His latest book is Tying Nymphs: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns, available from Stackpole Books/Headwater Books (2016).


1. Start the thread behind the hook eye and wrap a smooth thread base to just slightly down onto the hook bend. Cut the end of the Mirage Tinsel, leaving a pointed tip. Catch the tip end of the Mirage Tinsel under a couple flat wraps of thread at the end of the thread base. Return the thread to the hook eye, keeping it flat on the hook as you go.
2. Wrap the Mirage Tinsel forward with abutting turns all the way to the hook eye. Tie the tinsel off at the eye and clip the excess. Break two strands of olive and one strand of silver wire from the spool. Use your thumbnail to square the butts and even them up. Catch the ends of all three strands of wire under a narrow band of thread right behind the hook eye.
3. Begin wrapping all three strands of wire, as one unit, back toward the bend of the hook in tight, abutting turns. Continue wrapping the wire back to the hook bend, leaving a short tag of Mirage Tinsel sticking out past the end of the wire body. Grasp the ends of all three wire strands close to the hook and helicopter (twist around in a circle like a helicopter blade) the wire until it breaks off flush.
4. Invert the hook in the vise. Place a set of melted mono eyes about an eye length back from the hook eye. Make three or four turns of thread from the back of the eyes on the near side to the front of the eyes on the far side, forming the first leg of an X wrap. Make three or four more wraps in the opposite direction, from the near front to far back side of the eyes to square them up on the hook. Repeat the process one more time to anchor the eyes firmly in place.
5. Select a straight marabou feather with a square tip. Clip the tip out of the feather and wet it a bit to tame the fibers down. Measure the marabou feather against the hook so it extends from just behind the eyes to about a shank length beyond the hook bend. Wet the tip of the feather with your mouth, hold the feather in place just behind the eyes with your thread hand to measure it once more, and then reach in and transfer the marabou feather to your material hand. Catch the base of the marabou feather with a couple turns of thread to anchor it squarely on top (really the bottom) of the hook.
6. Select a well-marked dyed gold mallard flank feather and preen out four or six fibers so their tips are even. Peel the fibers from the stem and divide them slightly. Lay the mallard fibers up against the hook so the tips reach about two-thirds of the way up the wing and there is one bunch of two or three fibers on each side of the hook point. Pinch the mallard fibers down right behind the eyes on either side of the wing and hook point using your material hand. Use two wraps over the mallard fibers to bind them in place. Clip the butt ends of the mallard fibers off flush at the eyes.
7. Fold the end of an olive rabbit strip, fanning the fur out from the hide. You want a pretty sparse bunch of fur here and you can easily separate out a small clump by folding the hide like this. Grasp the fur tightly in your fingertips and rip it straight out of the hide. Measure the clump of rabbit fur against the marabou wing so it is about half as long as the wing itself.
8. Wet the rabbit fur clump so it slicks down a bit and is easier to handle. Pinch the rabbit fur down behind the eyes exactly as you did with the marabou and mallard fibers. Make a few thread wraps over the base of the rabbit behind the eyes. Clip the excess butt ends flush. The rabbit should reach just past the bend of the hook. Again, watch out for the upturned point here. Trim the butt ends of the rabbit fur flush behind the eyes.
9. Loop a length of Sili Legs around the shank between the hook eye and the mono eyes. Catch the Sili Legs with just a couple wraps of thread behind the eyes. Position the legs along the sides of the fly as shown here, not on top of the wing. Once the legs are positioned, cinch them in place with a couple more tight thread turns. Dub the thread with a small amount of dubbing. You want a thin strand, as we don't want to bulk the head up too much.
10. Before you wrap the dubbing, color the eyes with a black Sharpie. I leave the coloring of the eyes until now so I don't rub the ink off in the previous tying steps. From this point forward, avoid touching the eyes. Once they dry they'll be fine. Truth be told, damsel nymph eyes are really closer to the color of the plain mono than black, but black makes the fly look way sexier.
11. Grab the marabou wing, the rabbit tuft, and the legs in your thread hand and pull them up and forward over the hook eye. Make three or four turns of dubbing up against the base of the wing (behind it) to prop everything up a bit.
12. Continue dubbing forward to the back of the mono eyes. Make a couple of X-wraps with the dubbed thread through the eyes, forming a rounded head. Finish up with a single turn of dubbing around the hook in front of the eyes and end with bare thread right behind the hook eye. Whip-finish and clip the tying thread. Trim the legs even with the back end of the wire body.

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