Dragonflies and fishing
If you have fished in the region, either on a lake, river, or stream, you will see and hear other wildlife.Muskrats and otters can be found in many lakes and along rivers. Birds of all kinds are abundant as well, on and near waterways. Flying creatures make their presence known by the sense of touch (and bite). The pesky black flies and mosquitoes that appear in the spring can make fishing an exercise of alternating between casting and swatting.
There is a family of insects, however, that has a voracious appetite for small flying insects. This family of flying carnivores is called the Odonata family, or dragonflies and damselflies. These insects are plentiful along waterway shorelines during the warmer months of spring, summer and through the beginning of fall. They are very efficient in catching prey. A single dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes per day. They can frequently be seen flying over the water, perhaps hovering in one spot before darting away at high speeds to catch a meal. With their legs, they capture prey in mid-flight and then perch somewhere to eat their still-squirming meal.
Dragonflies need water for their life cycle. Adult dragonflies breed and lay their eggs in or near the water, usually on top of an aquatic plant, stick, or other debris in the water. The eggs hatch into nymphs, which spend one to two years in the water, depending on the species, before they emerge as an adult. They feed on other insects; small tadpoles; very young fish, called fry; and anything else they can grab. They stay near the bottom, which is important to know if you are using nymph-pattern flies.
Dragonfly nymphs have six stout legs, which they use to walk about the river-bottom and climb up on objects. They also have the ability to take in and thrust water out of their gill chamber, giving them the ability to quickly dart after prey or out of harm’s way. Nymphs are well camouflaged and are found around sticks and debris. If fishing flies, you want to present the fly near the bottom where the nymph habitat is located. There are many plastic nymph lures that work as well, and a “Texas-rigged” nymph helps to avoid getting snagged as much. Take the barb of the hook through the head and follow through with the shank, then embed the barb into the mid-part of the abdomen. Fish larger sizes of nymph during the spring and early summer, and smaller nymphs later into the fall, as the bulk of dragonfly emergence takes place in the earlier part of the season, and they will be the larger nymphs.
While we are talking about the Odonatan family, it’s important to mention damselflies. Damselflies are smaller than dragonflies with wings folded behind their back instead of out to the sides like those of a dragonfly. Like dragonflies, the adults of the various species come in an assortment of colors, with the females being less colorful, sometimes to the extent of the female appearing like an entirely different species to someone just starting out in Odonatan identification. Like the adults, damselfly nymphs are smaller than dragonfly nymphs. Damselfly nymphs can change their color to match their surroundings: brown, tan, green and olive are the most encountered colors.
Fishing using nymph patterns is similar with either dragonflies or damselflies. Try to match the nymph pattern or artificial lure with the species that are present where you fish. Fresh exuvia (the outer skin that nymphs leave on sticks or rocks above the water when they emerge as adults) is a clue that fish are feeding on that species. Different species of Odonatan emerge at different times of the spring and summer. Your target species of fish will determine what size or species of nymph pattern to fish. The larger dragonfly nymphs will do well for bass, and the smaller damselfly nymphs are better suited for trout fishing in a stream. Hook sixes of #12 or #14 work well for damsel nymph patterns and longer shank hooks of #4 to #8 are used for dragonfly nymphs. Retrieve with a slow crawl technique with a couple of twitches to simulate the nymph’s use of the gill chamber squirt to propel itself.
There are several good guides to dragonflies and damselflies, and many are of a handy field guide size that are easy to carry. A good beginners guide is “Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies,” available from Amazon. For people with a mobile device, a free app can be found here: www.birdseyebirding.com/apps/dragonfly-id-app.
If you fish the same areas a few times over the summer, you will soon find that new species appear at various times during our warm months. There are several fly-tying guidebooks for nymphs, and even some adult patterns. Likewise, for plastic nymphs, there are several color variations and sizes available. Water visibility will play a part in color; if the water is reasonably clear, then natural colors will probably work the best. Most larvae netted during macroinvertebrate surveys are light to dark brown.
So when you are out fishing at the stream or pond, check out what is emerging or flying. If you are not sure what to use, try a “best-guess” nymph in a natural color. And if you are having good luck with another natural or artificial bait, still keep an eye on the dragonflies; every time you see them in flight, they are most likely munching on those pesky flying insects that are trying to munch on you!