Many hardcore river fly fishermen have often wanted nothing to do with lake fly fishing for trout. Belly boats with Woolly Buggers for dredging the deep recesses of slack water are the first ideas these dedicated anglers envision, and catching lots of fourteen to sixteen inch trout on Stimulators sounds much more appealing to them. For those that have actually done lake fishing, you may have stuck to larger flies either at ice-out or in five foot plus of water. For the seasoned lake fisher, damsels are one of the many smaller imitations regularly used, but you may have stayed in this deeper water with these smaller patterns. However, the shallow aspect of damselfly fishing, the big fish that follow, and the often little to no fishing pressure can add to the success and enjoyment you have in stillwaters. This is what makes fly fishing damselflies shallow a must for all fly anglers.
Damselflies have an incomplete metamorphosis, meaning that they have only a nymphal and adult phase of their life cycle, just like mayflies, stoneflies, and dragonflies. Dragonflies are the other insect within the order odonata (toothy one), and thus damsel- and dragonflies share many characteristics and habits. They both are voracious predators and hunt insects and other tiny critters throughout their nymphal and adult phases. The damsels (zygoptera-twin/double wing) emerge with a normally olive or soft brown form of the adult and then change to a harder exoskeleton and stronger wings. They fall to the water quite easily during this first phase of the adult (teneral adult), but both phases are seen by the fish. The adults vary in the manner in which they deposit eggs, ranging from full submersion to dropping eggs close to the water. The nymphs (characterized by their three gills on the tip of their abdomen and their slender profile) are slow, deliberate swimmers that stay about a foot or less under the surface as they move toward the shore or to a relatively dry patch of weeds. Olives, grays, and tans are the most common colors of the nymph, and the action of the nymph is unmistakable with a side to side motion. A critical aspect of damselfly activity is the sun, and the nymphs emerge around mid-morning when the sun appears. The regional weather will determine when the emergence takes place, but June to July is a prime time with some rather abundant species present throughout the summer. The nymphs can start relatively deep (35 feet) in some instances, but come up to the upper section of water and migrate to shore and can also crawl directly out of the water in some environments. You can target fish feeding on the deeper nymphs, but this article concerns the upper stretches.
FLY FISHING DAMSELFLIES SHALLOW: THE FISHING EXPERIENCE
Any lake/reservoir that has aquatic vegetation more than likely has damselflies. Any fish that takes advantage of prey this size will feed on these insects, including trout, panfish, smallmouth, carp, and even largemouth in pressured waters. The key to this type of fishing is finding channels made by the vegetation, through which huge trout and other species cruise or lay in wait. This can be right next to the shore or out over flats where these channels form and where the vegetation comes out of the water, where the insects can dry themselves. If the vegetation is not dense enough to form channels, find areas where damsels can crawl out of the water such as cattails or other aquatic plants that stick out of the water.
Time and time again, fishing the shallows has produced fantastic fishing. One time I was fishing with a couple of guys on a private lake for four hours or so. These two fisherman got in their pontoon boats and headed straight for the deepest part of the lake, while I found a patch of vegetation right next to the shore. I caught about fifteen rainbows and browns up to twenty inches in this time, while they caught one between them in what would have been a tough day of fishing. On another private water, we fished a main lake in the early morning and did very well on various patterns. When the fishing became a bit tougher, we fished some smaller ponds. I had much more success than my other companions in these ponds filled with vegetation, catching large browns and rainbows on damselfly nymphs.
Fishing success comes on private and public water alike. One of my favorite bits of trout fishing is to fish alone on a public lake with expansive weed channels where hungry cutthroat up to twenty-four inches cruise these channels. Once the hatch begins, the water bubbles as the fish greedily gulp down the nymphs. On a smaller lake with smaller fish, the same thing occurred to such an extent that as we arrived on the top of a hill, the whole half of the lake literally boiled with fish feeding on damsels in the shallows. On another trip, we fished a small public water during June. There were a few float tubers on the lake cruising the deeper water with little success. We, on the other hand, walked the shore finding cruising hybrids and rainbows up to 25 inches and about seven pounds that were feeding on both adults and nymphs. The fish looked like orcas turning onto our flies or gulping them from the surface. Once the damselfly hatch ended, the fishing got really tough. This day started by sight fishing to a beautiful 24 inch hybrid that sucked in my fly and then ripped me to my backing through multiple weed beds.
One of the most compelling aspects of fly fishing damselflies shallow is that you can sight fish to large fish in bright light situations. Indeed, the damsels are usually at their best in this bright light. Big fish that are feeding aggressively in bright light toward the surface and shore in heavy cover require equipment and rigging to match this situation.
The needs of the fishing situation require one to be able to cast at very close to moderate distance. Soft presentation in these conditions is ideal and so an overly heavy line weight is usually not an advantage. The flies are not huge so the leader and tippet are usually not that large and thus a soft tip on the fly rod can help on hook sets. However, large fish plow into often multiple weed beds trying to rid themselves of your hook. Thus, a rod with power in the butt for lifting, plus a bit of flex, can help pull the fish from the weeds.
This is the gear I use: 5-6 weight rod, quality reel (large arbor if possible), at least 50 yards of backing, a weight forward line suitable to the conditions (i.e. long flats, close channels), a standard 9-12 foot tapered nylon leader (total) of 2X-4X or one that is built up to this size (diameter and rigidity of the line determines how the fly moves, so go as big as you can in breaking strength), and damselfly nymph or adult to match the hatch.
I apply Loon’s Aquel to my leader, but you can use your favorite floatant. If I use an adult damsel, I coat all the leader/tippet and the fly. If I fish a nymph, I leave one to two feet uncoated with the Aquel, and this tactic is more or less the greased leader technique but with movement on the fly. This allows the nymph to sit just under the surface of the water as I strip the fly in. For this reason, I never fish with fluorocarbon with this technique, nor do I fish any sort of weight on the fly unless it is tied around the hook shank and covered with a material that will keep the fly from sinking like a rock. The hook is usually just enough to allow the fly to sink and the Aquel to keep it in the zone. I, also, only fish with one fly when using this technique with nymphs since it cuts down on snags in the vegetation and allows the fly to stay in the zone better.
Many flies will work, but I tend to fish foam damselflies on the surface as adult imitations. Imitations of the nymphs can be as diverse as a large Hare’ s Ear or Rickard’s Stillwater Nymph, or you can match the hatch with standard marabou damsels. Articulation can be made with techniques utilized in tying Senyo’s Articulated Stonefly, since the natural damselfly has a pronounced side-to-side movement. If you tie your own flies, hooks that I use are Tiemcos 3761 or 3769 and Tiemco 105 or Gamakatsu C14 for larger fish. I tie my flies with longer yet sparser tails, but my favorite pattern is an articulated pattern, called the Ruffed Damsel, see below.
Position is critical for presentation when fly fishing damselflies shallow. The lanes of water within the vegetation are where the fish are going to be, so if the vegetation is close enough to shore, you can simply walk the shore. If you are on some expansive flats, a pontoon boat, kayak, or canoe (which float just off of the surface) are your best bets to access the lanes throughout these vegetation mazes, with flat-bottom boats etc. as alternatives as well. A float tube is wading hell in this type of environment, i.e., dense vegetation, and provides fewer sight-fishing opportunities. An anchor is extremely helpful if you cannot rest on the weed patches. Flats on lakes, where the geography on the land is open and of a gradual taper, are a good place to begin to look for these weed channels since the slope is moderate and will thus produce large amounts of vegetation. If you can find these flats by deeper water, this becomes a prime spot for finding a steady stream of fish.
CASTING AND RETRIEVE
After you have positioned yourself in the middle of the hatch in these shallows, the presentation is relatively easy. Make casts of 20 to 60 feet into the lanes and even pockets in any direction with your floating line. Keep in mind that side takes will be easier to detect if you are not sight fishing since the fish pulls on the fly more than if it had come up from behind the fly, but this should not deter you much from retrieving the fly where the fish are irrespective of stripping direction. If you are on a body of water that has short/sparse vegetation, than the fish can be anywhere within this flat of vegetation when they emerge, but look to the shore where they may be climbing stems of vegetation to emerge. Look for subtle signs of fish activity, like reeds jumping a centimeter or two. Look for channels in the thick vegetation by sight and with a fish finder, and do not retrieve the fly with the current produced by the wind since strike detection is greatly reduced. On this same line of thinking, make sure your fly line and leader are straightened out by hand before you begin fishing.
The retrieve with nymphs is invariably a continuous strip moving the fly an inch or less with each strip since the natural moves quite slowly linearly but a lot from side to side. I believe that this movement is more or less the primary trigger in this type of fishing. If you have an articulated pattern, pause just enough to allow the fly to move back, much like walking the dog in general tackle parlance. With adults, simply heave and leave it with occasional twitches. Looking for cruising fish is the most effective method here. Alternatively adults will crawl below the surface and then release themselves from the vegetation. The adults are helpless and provide a buffet for large trout, so you can experiment with adult wetflies stripped. Trout will also take flying adults from just over the surface, but good luck imitating this exact situation unless you can create a remote controlled fly that hovers just over the water.
With the adult pattern, simply do a standard dry fly hook-set. This is relatively straight forward. However, with the nymph pattern, setting the hook takes quite a bit of practice. I have broken more fish off on the hook-set while fishing small nymphs in Stillwater for trout than with any other fishing I do. The fish often suck in your fly relatively aggressively and at close quarters. Therefore, a soft hook-set is mandatory. A couple techniques work here. 1) Simply draw tight on the fly and let the fish begin to run and more or less hook itself as you give line to the running fish, lift the rod as soon as possible after the fish begins to run. You may also keep a small loop/portion of line handy to give a bit of line when the fish takes, but do not release it too quickly or your fly will spring out of the fishes mouth. 2) Lift the rod ever so gently with a “trout set”. Do not set the hook like Bill Dance on a largemouth bass! You will break fish after fish off with strong hook-sets.
PLAYING FISH IN VEGETATION
Playing the fish is also somewhat of a challenge since the fish often slams through all of the vegetation in the lake. Keep your rod tip high and pull as hard as you dare and bring a net to get the fish to hand before it breaks your fly off. A technique that I will use in desperation while the fish has stopped running is to subtly and smoothly move my rod hand up and down to break through the vegetation that is clinging to my line. If the line does not come free, the fish will break you off more times than not. This problem is usually the happiest one to have since you have done everything right to this point.
Bright days and the upper foot of water are usually not the recipe for many and large fish; However, anytime damsels are present, these shallows are more times than not the venue of some of the most exciting fishing of the season, even for hardcore river fishermen.