There’s something simmering beneath the surface of lakes and ponds right now, and most anglers will blast right past it in a lather to hit the more glamorous, and less predictable, spring hatches on rivers and streams. But the “dungeon bugs” of still waters can offer plenty of action, and comparatively few anglers bother with them.
More good news: Opportunities abound, since damselflies and dragonflies thrive in lakes and ponds across the nation. Hatch times vary with latitude and altitude, but broadly speaking the show opens in May, with some of the best performances taking place close to shore.
By virtue of sheer numbers, damselfly nymphs rank high on the aquatic menu, available to trout year-round but at their most helpless when struck by the urge to emerge. Damsels, however, don’t hatch on the surface film. They migrate toward whatever, in their tiny worldview, constitutes dry land: downed timber, tules, or reeds sticking above the waterline; rocks or docks; or the shoreline itself. There they shed the nymphal skin to become airborne. If you see these papery, castoff shucks, and the presence of adult flies, you’re in the right place at the right time.
As they make their shoreward exodus, most damsel nymphs crawl along the bottom. Getting your fly down among the naturals usually produces the best action. In water depths of 4 feet or less, go with a floating line, an unweighted or lightly weighted fly, and a 9- to 12-foot leader. Cast out perpendicular to the shoreline, and let the fly sink for, say, 10 seconds, and then begin a slow, steady retrieve; a hand-twist works well. Inch the fly back into shallower water to replicate the natural insect’s path. Increase the countdown on each cast until you touch bottom, and then back off a few counts to keep your fly snag-free. Use the same technique in deeper water with a sink-tip or full-sinking line.
Some damsel nymphs, however, swim to shore on or just under the surface, triggering the violent, take-and-turn boils of every angler’s fantasy. Target these trout with a floating line and an unweighted fly. Damsels appear to swim at a pretty good clip, but if you look closely, there’s a lot of shoulder-shrugging, butt-wiggling body motion, with frequent stops to rest, for precious little forward progress–it’s a lot like me paddling a canoe. Duplicate this movement with slow, 8- to 12-inch strips, pausing between pulls. And stay sharp. Trout frequently grab the fly when it’s motionless.
On gusty days, freshly hatched adult damsels (and dragonflies) may be blown into the water and picked off. But it’s not a bankable occurrence–I’ve witnessed it once or twice in 20 years–and unimportant to fishermen.
With armor-plated abdomens, bizarre extraterrestrial eyes, and a hinged lower jaw that snaps out to snatch a meal, dragonfly nymphs are a scaled-down version of Sigourney Weaver’s worst nightmare. In its landward migration, the dragon nymph is strictly a pedestrian. It walks rather than swims, though when alarmed, it can force a jet of water out its rear end and squirt to safety. Aside from being a really cool skill to have, this gives a clue about the fishing. Again, cast perpendicular to the shore, and use the countdown technique with a slow-crawl retrieve punctuated with quick 6-inch strips and a pause. Keep the rod tip right down to the water, or even a few inches under the surface with a sinking line, to minimize slack–pickups can be subtle. Concentrate on the perimeter of weedbeds and shallow edges that drop abruptly into deeper water.
Dragonfly time is marked by the psychedelically colored adults darting about and abandoned nymphal skins clinging to shoreline vegetation, though you won’t find either in big numbers. The hatches aren’t dense, but when these beefy nymphs start moving, the trout aren’t far behind. Sally forth and slay them.
Damselfly nymphs can change color to match their surroundings. Shades of green, olive, brown, and tan are common. I prefer damsel nymphs with lifelike mobility, such as this Marabou Damsel. Sizes 12 and 14 work just about everywhere. Dragonfly nymph patterns are bigger, like this Spun Wool Dragon, usually weighted with lead wire or barbell eyes, and tied on 2XL hooks, sizes 4 to 10. –TED LEESON