by William G. Tapply
I thought I found a pond full of carp. Its surface lay flat and still under the blazing Montana morning sun, and I spotted the great swirls, sloshes and boils from a hundred yards away, still bumping along the old farm road.
Well, I thought, there’s nothing wrong with carp.
I parked under a poplar and tiptoed to the water and took a look.
No carp. brook trout. But they looked as big as carp. They cruised through the reeds and along the edges of the weed beds, one tumbling to the surface every minute or so. These weren’t the dainty, sipping fish you’d expect from big trout when they’re feeding on mayflies. These came suddenly, were violent and deadly. Sometimes a fish’s momentum would throw it completely out of the water.
It was a few minutes before I saw what they were eating.
Damselflies. They swarmed in the air and covered the reeds. Every now and then one of them would fall to the surface of the water. Suicide.
I later found that trout devour adult dragonflies whenever and wherever they find them, which is the case in July and August on the weedy banks of most trout ponds and lakes, and in the dead-water sections of rivers and headwaters. But back then, my experience with dragonflies was limited to the nymphs, which I knew trout loved. That was a revelation.
I rummaged in my fly boxes. I carried about a dozen of these, but none even remotely resembled a dragonfly, with its long, needle-like abdomen, fluffy, translucent wings, and bright neon colors.
I finally managed to catch one of these trout on a stripped down green drake pattern but knew it was an anomaly. What bothered me was the many trout I hadn’t caught. They were over the moon with excitement but didn’t even look for hoppers or beetles, my standard dry flies on trout ponds when the Callibaetis aren’t hatching. These Montana fish would eat nothing but dragonflies.
That evening I stopped at a local fly shop and told the salesman about my discovery. He shrugged, acknowledging that the hatching of the damselflies was a big event at many western trout ponds, and showed me the deer hair pattern they wore. I bought half a dozen and went back to this pond the next morning and enjoyed one of those rare and unforgettable trout orgies. By the afternoon I had left each of my store bought fry in the mouth of a large trout.
When trout attack dragonflies, they can be quite picky. I am convinced that an exact imitation evokes far more attitudes than a mere suggestive approximation. There are few things more disheartening than watching a 20 inch trout spot your fly, zoom in on it, then slam on the brakes, stare at it from about an inch away, shrug, turn and swim away. When dragonflies hatch, you want confidence in your fly.
Damselfly fishing is generally best when the nymphs hatch from late June to mid-morning and are fully grown for much of the summer. Electric blue seems to be the most common color, but I’ve also come across reds, greens, olives, and browns. The most exciting and productive method is sight fishing for cruisers on a bright, sunny, flat and calm day. Good polarizing sunglasses are just as important as a good bow tie. A gentle breeze that barely moves the surface makes it a little harder to see into the water, but it’s easier to track the fish without startling them. Even though the surface is rippled, the fish seem a little less tough.
A 5 or 6 weight set with a floating line facing forward is about right for both casting a reasonably air resistant fly and driving big fish out of the weeds. You don’t need a particularly long or fine leader. Twelve feet, tapered fourfold, will do the trick. Finer tips won’t cause the fly to flip or allow you to land big trout fast enough to avoid tiring them.
Perhaps the most important things when sight fishing with dragonflies are a wide-brimmed hat and good pair of polarizing sunglasses. Amber lenses maximize contrast, allowing you to see fish below the water’s surface.
A floating tube is ideal for this type of fishing. Whenever possible, however, I prefer to stay away from the water and crawl along the shore. When I see a trout I try to predict its route and drop my fly 10 or 12 feet in front of the fish. When I see the trout start to change direction, I don’t twitch the fly back and forth when I see it change direction. Sometimes the fish will turn and charge.
Editor’s Note: When I was the editor of american angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his passing in the summer of 2009. He was by far the best author I’ve ever edited and we developed a friendship around our mutual interests in fishing and literature. He wrote books and articles about fishing and hunting, as well as great detective stories, often involving fly fishing.