How To Fish Stillwaters

July 19th, 2004

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher


By Philip Rowley

To many, damselflies are the one insect synonymous with stillwaters. The vivid black and blue adults of some species are a common sight throughout the late spring and summer months. The active habits of damsel nymphs makes them a logical choice when exploring unfamiliar waters. Damsel nymphs are a year round food source that all stillwater fly-fishers should be familiar with. With over 450 species across North America, damselflies are widespread. From my observations, damsels are the third most important food source in the larder of stillwater trout.

Photos on the right: Top - Damsel nymph on the prowl amongst the vegetation.

Bottom: Adult damsel at rest. Notice the wing position, besides their size this is a key to avoid confusing damsels with their larger cousins, dragonflies.

The aquatic stage of the damselfly is the most important. Damsel nymphs are skinny and elongated. This is an important point to keep in mind at the vise. In addition to their long, slender bodies, damsel nymphs have three fan tails. The resting nymph waives these tails to draw oxygen as they form part of the insects' gill structure. The largest feature of the nymph is its head. Located on the sides of the head are a pair of prominent eyes. Six sturdy legs enable the nymph to clamber through the underwater jungle in search of prey. Damsel nymphs are plodding, methodical swimmers. They swim with their legs outstretched while moving their abdomen in a snake-like, sultry manner. This is a tiring motion as the nymph gains little forward progress so rests are frequent. This distinct swimming motion can be nearly impossible for the fly tier to imitate during selective feeding.

Damselflies have a one-year life cycle. Once hatched, the nymph begins its never ending quest for food. Fearsome predators, damsels use their long, foldable labium to subdue scuds, Chironomid larvae, and mayfly nymphs. Lying in ambush on the undersides of weeds is a favorite tactic. Growing through a series of molts called instars, the nymph can reach 1 1/2 inches at maturity. Damsels emerge from mid June to early July depending upon temperature and elevation. The mature nymphs leave the security of the weeds and swim en masse towards the nearest landfall. This subsurface migration provides a perfect silhouette for hungry trout. Splashy, aggressive rises are a good sign of a hatch. Marauding trout show reckless abandon during these hatches and often follow the nymphs into skinny water. It is important to retrieve the pattern in the same direction as the nymphs. In some instances this means anchoring or standing amongst the tulles or long-stemmed bulrushes. Those nymphs that survive the open water trek clamber up the first object they run into. The nymph's thorax splits and the emergent adult, or teneral crawls out. At first glance, the teneral is a carbon copy of the nymph. But soon after the teneral's body and wings telescope out. In less than half an hour the teneral is ready for its first clumsy flight lessons. During the entire emergence, the damsel is vulnerable to attack especially from ants and other insects. Although individually smaller than the damsel, the ants mass assault soon overcome this once fierce underwater predator. Those damsels emerging on long-stemmed bulrushes or tulles are not out of the woods either. Trout who could not get their fill of migrating nymphs turn their attention to the struggling tenerals. Under certain conditions, trout rub and knock the tenerals from their perches. With a quick stroke of their tails the trout return to savor the waterlogged tenerals. ~ PR

More on Damselflies from Phil Rowley's excellent book, Fly Patterns for Stillwaters next time.

Credits: Excerpt from Fly Patterns for Stillwaters By Philip Rowley, published by Frank Amato Publications. We appreciate use permission.

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