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Of Dragons and Damsels

Fishing the Blues
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Adult damsels and dragons have fascinated me for almost twenty years.  I first observed trout chasing adult damsels at Hohnholz Lake #1 in June of 1986.  I observed trout picking off newly hatched damsels that were blown into the lake while drying their wings.  I tied my first adult damsel imitation after that experience.  It was a long shank dry fly hook with grizzly hackle at both ends and damsel blue floss wrapped on the shank.  I took this fly to the same lake a week later and caught several rainbows with this crude imitation.

I didn’t fish anywhere that had abundant damsels for a number of years.  But I still experimented with an adult damsel pattern.  My next pattern was tied with blue craft foam.  It had a long abdomen of blue craft foam, blue foam from dry cleaners hanger covers for a body, burnt mono eyes, and macramé yarn wings.  I got to test this fly on a couple of different lakes, including a small lake near Granby and several lakes near Divide, Colorado.  It caught trout, but I still wasn’t satisfied with the fly pattern – it just didn’t look good enough for my own taste. 

Sometime before I started working on the foam patterns, I would search craft stores, flea markets, fabric shops, and thrift shops for materials for fly tying.  I found some interesting things, but one of my favorites was the big bag of baby blue macramé yarn that I found at a thrift shop for $1.50.  As you should know, blue yarn is not used much in fly tying.  In fact, blue anything is not used much in fly tying.  I don’t know why, but I purchased that bag of yarn and put it away in my fly tying materials.  I didn’t have a use for it at the time, but I think I just had a hunch I could use it.

I guess I had an epiphany when I first spotted foam damsel and dragonfly cutters for sale on the Internet.  Tony Tomsu marketed them through his company River Road Creations in Stevensville, Montana.  I looked at the product and immediately ordered a set of three cutters.  I promptly stamped out some damsel bodies, marked them with black lines with a permanent black marker, and tried tying some adult damsels with the bodies. I first tied the bodies with an under body of blue tinsel chenille, but the chenille didn’t look anything like the body of a real damsel.  Then I remembered the baby blue macramé yarn that I had purchased many years before.  I looked carefully at pictures of damsels on the Internet, looked at the real bugs when I was fly fishing, and decided that that macramé yarn was the perfect material for damsel bodies.  I added plastic bead chain eyes (which I had found in fabric stores), white macramé wings, a size 12 2X long hook (Dai Riki 730), and I was in business.  I also had just joined Arrowhead Ranch, a private membership fly fishing ranch in South Park.  The ranch had four nice lakes that just happened to have bountiful hatches of damsels starting in early July.  It was a match made in heaven.

Author's Adult Damselfly Pattern

For the first five years that I was a member of Arrowhead, I didn’t use the adult damsel pattern much.  I caught several trout on that fly, but I preferred to use my old favorites for the ranch - callibaetis Quigley Cripples and my Colorado Crystal Beetle.  In the fifth year that I was a member, I actively targeted trout that were taking adult damsels on East Lake, the largest of the ranch lakes.  I observed trout in the shallows on one side of the lake and studied the rises.  The rise form of trout taking damsels is very distinctive.  The rise is similar to a carp rolling in the shallows of a lake.  The fish rolls over in taking the damsel.  I had observed this rise form in the lakes I had fished near Divide, Colorado and could now identify that trout were taking damsels. I was able to take my pontoon boat along the shore and identify individual fish and cast to them. 

I was somewhat successful and landed several dozen trout, including rainbows, browns, brook trout, and cutthroats.  I still had to refine my stalking and casting techniques, but I had started to pick up the basic strategy to pursue trout with adult damsels.  



Author's Adult Dragonfly Pattern

Recently, I decided to make adult damsels and dragonflies my main emphasis at Arrowhead Ranch.  Each year, I try to take some aspect of lake fishing for trout and make it a focal point of my fly fishing strategy for the ranch.  I began fishing adult damsels on the Upper and Lower Trophy Lakes, where I had observed a number of trout that were actively feeding on adult damsels.  I had landed a few trout in these lakes the previous year, and they had been fairly big rainbows. I began by fishing from the shore in late June, just when the weed beds were beginning to emerge in the Lower Trophy Lake.  I soon took to my pontoon boat and fished the entire outer perimeter of the big weed bed in the lake, sight fishing for rising trout and catching quite a few.  I learned a lesson in strategy when I fished the lake with Dan Wright, a good friend and world-class fly caster.  He observed me and was taking pictures as I fished.  He noticed that the rising trout would disappear if you “lined” them on a false cast.  If you put a fly line over them when they were chasing damsels in the shallows, they immediately quit rising and took to deeper water.  Dan and I had observed similar behavior at North Delaney Butte Lake in North Park earlier that year.  We were casting to mostly brown trout feeding in the shallows during the callibaetis hatch, but they also would disappear if you lined them.  This behavior called for a change in strategy, and from then on I would false cast at right angles to the direction that the rising trout was from me.  I would then just lay out the line in one cast, trying to place it right in front of the feeding trout. This strategy proved to the best for trout that were feeding on adult damsels.  I also learned that I must fish adult damsels and dragonflies on fairly stout tippets.  I generally use 2X tippet on both damsels and dragonflies.  This is because I lost too many fish fishing a 4X tippet.  The flies attract some fairly large individuals and the fish always try to take off for the nearest weed bed, so you must have a strong tippet for this kind of fly fishing.

Nice Rainbow Took a Brown Dragonfly

An outgrowth of my damsel endeavors was my idea to fish dragonfly adults in late summer.  There had always been lots of adult dragonflies in the lakes on the ranch and I had even caught a couple of trout on my adult dragonfly pattern the previous few years.  I had seen trout occasionally chase dragonflies as they laid eggs in the lake, flying in mated pairs and skipping across the water surface.  I decided to target the Upper Trophy Lake, which had many dragonflies that flew around the periphery of the lake.  I soon brought out my adult dragonfly pattern and began fishing it.  Initially, I concentrated on the inlet end of the lake, near some weed beds that also harbored good numbers of damsels, progressing to the edges of the lake and in the middle, letting my dragonfly just sit on the water when there was a light chop on the surface.  The hits were often ferocious and occasionally a trout would hit the fly several times in a row.  I’ve tried dragonflies and caught trout on red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet - all the colors of the rainbow

.  The trout seemed to recognize the outline of a dragonfly and would readily take it on the water.

I also experimented with my damsel and dragonfly patterns for warm water fish.  Fishing the flies at Don Brown’s one acre pond near his home south of Berthoud and I caught lots of bass and bluegills.  I also tried the pattern in Las Moras Creek, a little spring creek in Texas that is a tributary of the Rio Grande River.  It again caught bluegills and bass and worked as well as any fly that I tried. I am anxious to try more bass/bluegill fishing in the future; it’s a lot of fun. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal and some other warm water lakes are also on my list of places to try damselfly patterns.         

I finally began photographing some of the fish I caught on damsels and dragons recently with an entry-level digital camera. It’s fun to photograph fish with the flies I caught them on.  I now have a nice archive of how effective my fly patterns can be.  In the future I want to get photographs of stalking and playing the fish and possibly some photos of the rising fish.  It’s difficult to wait out the winters waiting for the damsel/dragonfly time to begin.    


© 2022 Richard Pilatzke
Previously published in the newsletter of the Cutthroat Chapter TU and is posted on the website of the Gunnison Gorge Anglers.
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