Kiel explains how to catch trout feeding on damselflies, and in particular, the adults in flight.
Well, after what felt like the longest winter in my memory, finally that big golden disc in the sky has shown itself. Prior to that, cold days and lots of water around made for a great spring on the lakes, with more than enough dun hatches to keep all of us trout fishos happy. But as 2022 drew to a close, and the New Year arrived, we’ve found warmer weather and less cloud. With this warmth and bright sun, we’ve had to say goodbye to those mayfly hatches for the most part. In their place, and sometimes unwillingly, we’ve said hello to the trout silly season: leaping, jumping, flopping and splashing.
In our eyes, they’re not acting like trout should. Ignoring beats to dart around erratically. Swimming full steam under 14 bugs to then leaping 3 feet out of the water to catch that one dragonfly, spinner or damselfly they’ve been chasing. Strange, confusing… but still catchable.
Right across south-eastern Australia, a significant part of a lake trout’s diet during these warmer months is damselflies, from the aquatic nymphs to the flying adults. Not to be confused with dragonflies (also a portion of a trout’s diet, but another story) damsels are the petite and somewhat prettier insects. With wings folded back at rest rather than out at right angles, they’re smaller, skinnier and generally brighter than dragonflies. Vivid blues and reds. Sometimes in the high country, certain species are almost neon in colour – something to think about with fly choice.
Damselflies are most commonly known to us flyfishers for their nymphs. Long skinny nymphs swimming between rocks, weed and reeds all year round, until they grow big enough – and fit enough – to crawl from the water and hatch into a flying insect. It’s during these warmer months we find the nymphs climbing up reeds, onto rocks or even travelling across the ground onto a tree or post to hatch into the winged form. Due to this crawling out, we don’t get a typical nymph emergence as we do with many mayfly species. But we still have trout feeding on these nymphs as they swim towards the water’s surface, moving somewhat like a snake, wriggling their long slender tails to propel themselves to a safe place to crawl onto land.
If you ever see trout slamming reeds or dead trees, it could be to feed on these nymphs. The process is much like the dragonfly’s nymph, the mudeye, only damsel nymphs prefer to migrate during daylight. Once into a safe place and hatched from the nymph into a winged insect, the juvenile damselflies hide, setting and drying their wings.
You can spook these juvenile damsels out of the long grass as you walk the lakeshore, or see them twinkling like Christmas tinsel on top of the weed-beds. Pale in colour compared to the fully grown adults, and clumsy fliers. Sometimes taking flight just to bomb in the water. But mostly staying put until they can fly better.
It’s the adult damselflies which produce most of the surface activity from the trout – visually exciting, but sometimes frustrating fishing. The adults are very strong flyers, erratic and fast. Zooming around above the lake, looking for a meal or a mate, and what feels like teasing the fish into leaping from the water.
A hopeless task for flyfishers?
These fast flying bugs have long been considered as ‘fool’s gold’, with trout leaping up to one metre out of the water to catch the damsels mid-flight. Fast bow-waves or fleeting shadows give away the fish as they track the flying damsels.
As our minds race, we all think, how is my stationary fly sitting on the surface, going to trick these erratic fish?
To paraphrase Peter Hayes from an earlier FlyStream column, damselfly leapers are like a driver looking through the windscreen to the road ahead… yet our flies are on the windscreen. But don’t despair. Sometimes, it is possible to enjoy world-class fishing for trout feeding on adult damselflies.
Sighting and dry fly eats
If you’d like to crack this damsel code, or at least try to, remember trial and error can pave the path to success.
Philip Weigall tells the story of watching trout at O’Neills Bay, Lake Eucumbene years ago, and eventually realising that they were hunting for the ‘hard’ profile of a long skinny body. This is very important when the fish are focused on the adult damsels alone; those days where there aren’t any spinners or duns about. The Fulling Mill Braided Butt Damsel is perfect for this. Bright blue in colour to match one of most common lake damsel colour schemes. Size 12, long skinny braided tail, grizzle hackle for wings, and a parachute hackle sitting it low in the water. In my eyes, and a lot of the time the trout’s eyes, it’s a perfect representation of an adult damsel.
Or you can tie your own based on the same principles, with that braid body the key ingredient. With long nights and a few beers at the vise, imaginations can run wild.
On mild to warm days, you’ll find adult damsels do actually land on the water to lay eggs, or even more incredibly, crawl down reeds face-first into the water to do the same. Or they fly around mating, connected tail to head. Clipping the water as they struggle to keep airborne, dodging flying predators like birds or even dragonflies. Or maybe the damsels are trying to snatch a tasty midge or dun from the surface. These ‘on the windscreen’ moments give confidence that we can fool trout feeding on adult damsels – at least some of the time.
The trout taking these damsels which are briefly on or just under the surface, turn from leapers to sippers. Standing back and watching what’s going on is key. Find the right fish and cast your damsel dry into its path as it sips at least some damsels (even if it’s leaping for others) will usually result in an eat. Remember, most ‘water touching’ damsels only stay on the surface for a few seconds, before taking flight again.
Through that trial and error, I’ve found if you have a trout approaching your stationary dry fly and it turns away at the last second, it helps to twitch your fly a couple of centimetres (not too much, just a twitch) to imitate a damsel about to take flight. Give your fly life and get noticed.
Braided damsel patterns also work on leaping trout, but you’ll need to stay confident in your fly: it is the right one. Covering leapers is hard work as they’re moving so quickly, so find a spot in the lake where there are lots of leaping trout, i.e., plenty of targets. Your fly is realistic, so cast it out, set a trap, stay confident and one of those leapers will make a mistake, particularly if they see the fly land.
If everything lines up, you may also find a spot you can polaroid these trout, which is a huge advantage. Using quick and accurate casting, cover fish before they leap.
Other dry fly options
I’m a big fan of the braid damsel dries, but as usual, flyfishing isn’t as neat and tidy as having one pattern that always works. Another good fly for leaping trout is a Macquarie Red spinner pattern. As the name suggests, it’s great to use when there’s also mayfly spinners about – a bet each way. Mark Weigall uses this fly a lot as it sits high on the water with its fully palmered hackle, perhaps suggesting a red damsel landing on the water’s surface.
For damsel dries generally, it’s important to have a variety of not only colours and sizes (red comes a close second to blue, followed by green) but a variety of buoyancies. The way your fly sits on the water can be key – low-sitting subtle sparse flies, through to high floating fully-palmered flies.
Sometimes as you try different tactics, weird things happen. I’d be lying if I said I always know why! For example, for some reason, when the damsel feeders get too hard, I tie a floating black beetle off the back of the dry damsel. Even if I’m not seeing black beetles on the water. Tie it about 1.5 metres behind. A lot of eats come on that floating foam beetle. Whether it’s just a buggy fly, or maybe looks like a floating snail? Maybe the damsel draws the trout in and then they take the beetle. I’m not sure, but if you’re struggling, try it.
During the warmer months, you may find those trout subsurface feeding, leaving only swirls on the water. This indicates a nymph eat, and may well be trout feeding on the damsel nymphs as they swim to find that safe place to crawl out. This is a perfect time to fish your damsel nymphs.
Although damsel migration time is the hot time to fish damsel nymphs, keep in mind too that, unlike lake mayfly nymphs, damsel nymphs are active and available to the trout all year – even in the dead of winter. Fishing your nymph deep can be very effective outside of migrations.
Again, more than enough fly choices out there, but one huge tip I can give here is, the skinnier the better. Rolling over rocks and spending way too much time staring at the water, I’ve realised these nymphs are very skinny, have a long tail and even a skinny head. Legs present with wing pads over the top. Depending on age and species, the whole nymph varies from around 25 to 50mm in length. They can also change colour during their development to camouflage with surrounding vegetation, so it’s worth having colours from pale browns through to bright greens.
The Fulling Mill Living Damsel or Stu Tripney’s Deadly Damsel are perfect here due to their skinny profile and colour. When fishing these flies, there are a bunch of retrieves that work well. A very slow figure-eight retrieve is one that is successful with these subsurface feeding trout. Small ticks, moving your nymph about half an inch with a one second pauses between works well too. A Jon Clewlow secret retrieve is to fish your damsel nymph under an indicator. Let the breeze swim your fly for you – the real nymphs often don’t swim very fast at all. Fish one or all of these styles, and you’ll trick a damsel nymph feeder.
Not hopeless after all
All in all, these damsel feeders can be fooled. It can be intense fishing, frustrating, but also fun.
Get out there and give damsel feeders a go.
FlyStream Facts – The season of damsels and dragons
Spring 2022 was Victoria’s wettest on record, and the rest of the year wasn’t too far behind – and that’s on the back of two preceding wet years. As damselflies and dragonflies require water for their nymphs to survive and grow, the sheer amount of it has resulted in a boom for both. If you’ve noticed damsels and dragons flying around in great numbers – even a long way from any lakes or streams – that’s the reason. In fact, cold-blooded analysis by scientists has found the same thing.
So, although damselflies are important trout food every year, right now they’re probably about as high up the rankings as they get – the perfect occasion to get acquainted with fishing imitations.