Wing case/shell back: Olive marabou or mallard flank fibers. These can be coated with UV clear cure resin for durability.
Notes: About 20 years ago I had the good fortune to attend one of Denny Rickards’ stillwater seminars right down the road at Hebgen Lake. At that time, I’d really only fished dry flies on Hebgen during the Callibaetis hatch, and fooled around with a woolly bugger here and there on other lakes on other occasions. Listening to Denny (and seeing his big fish pictures) inspired me to buy an intermediate sinking line and get a little more serious about subsurface lake fishing. At the end of the class, he handed me a scruffy looking olive and orange fly and suggested that it would be a very good place to start experimenting. His words gave me the confidence to try it, and many of his other patterns. The Stillwater Nymph was a great fly for me from the start, and still is today. Fished slowly, with a hand twist or short pull and pause retrieve, this is a great fly to fish when you might not be sure what to tie on, or when you know the trout are around but there aren’t a ton of any specific insect hatching. It’s suggestive nature, and smaller size seem to get it done even in August, when the fish get a bit more choosy.
As members of the Big Sky Anglers community (a diverse, extremely clever, and good looking lot if there ever was one), our lives can all be described in terms of many different things, including fly fishing. And since this is a fly fishing website, I don’t feel bad talking about that here. It’s crazy for me to think that I first flung a fly into the water over 35 years ago. In that time, I’ve been truly fortunate to have fished in so many amazing and inspiring places with so many friendly and wonderful people. I’ve come to know more than a few amazing places as my home waters, and I’ve forged some of my most cherished relationships around angling.
Blah, blah, blah. Right? Sorry. Hang on. I’ll get around to it.
Spending time on the water (experience) manifests itself in knowledge and skills gained. That knowledge and skill, when applied correctly, often results in the achievement of the most basic objective in fly fishing – catching a fish; or a bunch of fish; or a big fish. But that most basic objective is certainly not the only reason that people are drawn to fly fishing. And, in the end, no matter how skillful and knowledgeable you become as an angler, there will always be those days when the fish just seem to disappear, leaving you standing by the water with a slack line.
I used to dread those bleak, fishless days in my younger years. They felt like some sort of failure back then. I don’t mind them so much any longer. Now, on the days when the fish just won’t show themselves, or I just can’t manage to crack the code, I just string up the subconscious 6-weight and have a go at fishing for something else. Memories.
Turns out, they are a lot easier to catch than fish.
If you fish enough [How much is enough?], over time you will likely amass more than a few wonderful memories to conjure up while you aren’t catching fish. For me, the great thing about being out on the water is that simple attendance makes it super easy to recall (catch) all those memories.
It turns out that there is a well-known technique for remembering unstructured information (like fishing stories) called the Roman Room. To use the method, one associates the individual pieces of information they wish to remember with the items in a room of an imaginary or not-so-imaginary house.
I didn’t even know this method existed until a couple of years ago, when I came across it while reading a magazine. Perhaps, over the years, I’ve unintentionally created a Roman Room out of every fishing spot I’ve ever been to, and associated memories with each rock, seam, run, and tree on the river bank? Every detail of the memories seems to just spring forth out of the water like a hungry cutthroat rising for a fat grasshopper – expected, but also unexpected. And those memories can make an otherwise slow day fly by, or a lonely day into a full and happy one.
I won’t bore you with examples of my own memories. They likely won’t mean a thing to you. But I’m sure you have your own to recall the next time you are out there not catching any fish, or maybe…
Aerialized mending is a common technique used by proficient anglers casting single handed rods. Reach casts, curve casts, tuck casts, puddle casts, and more all provide solutions to technical dry fly and nymphing presentation dilemmas. In the end, the reason we use aerialized casts is to avoid the need to manipulate the line once it has landed in the water. We avoid mends originating from the water’s surface because the water either creates a situation where attempted line control will result in unintended consequences such as sinking a dry fly, or spooking the hell out of the fish. I think we also use aerial mends to save time and energy. It’s easier to make one move in the air than it is to make two on the water.
Why don’t more anglers incorporate aerial mends such as reach casts into their casting and fishing while using 2-handed (Spey and Switch) rods? I don’t know the answer, because I use them all the time. Here’s my pitch for why you should too.
The energy savings is why I originally gravitated to using aerial mends (particularly upstream reach casts) in my 2-Handed casting and fishing a number of years ago. Consider your typical swung fly presentation with a sink tip line and 2-handed rod. It goes something like this:
1 – Cast to 90 degrees, or slightly up or downriver depending on the situation, landing the fly and sink tip well beyond the target zone where you think the fish will be laying.
2 – Execute an upstream, pull back mend, as masterfully described and chronicled by Scott Howell in his Skagit Master 2 DVD to set up a dead drift and allow the fly and tip to sink. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen this video, and you fish sink tips, get it.
3 – Follow the drift down as it sinks, and then work the fly across the run on the swing.
For me, the most exhausting part of this presentation, when repeated 11,529 times over a weekend of winter steelheading, is the pull-back mend. Lifting and placing the heavy Spey line, big fly, and shooting line over and over was wearing out my shoulder. My response was to make the pull-back mend in the air, before the fly and line landed on the water, while the loop was turning over. The result was/is the same as if you made a standard cast and mend, but without having to pull against the water. As long as your line, sinktip, and fly turn over completely, the presentation is the same, with the added bonus of effort reduction.
While I started making these reach casts with my 2-handers for energy savings, I eventually found them to have at least one other great advantage in presenting the fly. Above, I described a typical big river situation where the holding water is between mid-river and your bank. In that situation, you are able to cast well beyond the suspected holding lies and sweep the whole area. But what about smaller water, or side channel water, where the fish are actually holding tight to the bank? This is a situation regularly encountered when Spey fishing for trout. You can’t cast beyond the zone to set up your drift with a pull-back mend unless you like hooking a lot of tree trout, stick steelhead, and rock bass. And if you cast right to the bank and execute the pull-back mend, your fly is essentially ripped clear of the fishy zone before the swing even starts. But execute an aerial reach cast, landing the fly right on shore, and you are set up to sink the fly and swing it through all that water you would have missed. The technique also applies wherever there is a seam, heavy chop, or other obstruction that limits effective mending on the water!
So, in summary – Aerial reach casts with 2-handed rods. Easier. Better. Give it a try! The first few attempts might be a mess, and getting the hang of precise aim takes some time, but hey, what else are you going to be doing out there on the river between grabs? If you are already using some of these tactics with 2-handers, I’d love to hear other benefits you’ve found, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!
While most of the insect species that fly anglers find relevant exist in relative obscurity outside of our odd band of brothers and sisters, the damselfly is well known to nearly anyone who has spent time near water. Their adult forms are fairly large, with beautifully colored and patterned bodies, bulbous compound eyes, and flight skills that might make you believe that fairies do exist. Montana is home to 36 species of damsels (scientific order Odonata / suborder Zygoptera), and with common names like River Jewelwing, Emma’s Dancer, Sedge Sprite, and Alkali Bluet, the intrigue only grows. Their conspicuous presence on warm, calm, summer days at the lake make these insects a symbol of good times.
But hidden behind the feminine name of this insect is a nasty secret. They are deadly predators. That fact alone makes them obviously cooler than your average mayfly! Damselfly nymphs are equipped with a long, extendable mouth part (think of a hinged arm with a pincer mouth on the end) which they are able to shoot forward at amazing speed to capture prey that includes tiny daphnia, other aquatic insect larvae, and even small fish!
Adult damsels are equally predatory, and we regularly observe them zooming about, feeding on emerging Callibaetis mayflies while we are out gulper fishing. Damsels also feast on mosquitoes, which makes them a friend of mine.
While their predatory ways make them interesting, there are other facts about damselflies that are far more relevant to the angler. Damsels have a relatively simple, 3-stage life history (egg, larva/nymph, and adult), lacking the pupal phase that stillwater anglers focus so heavily on with caddis and chironomids. Damsels hatch in the late spring and early summer generally, but the timing is more dependent on water temperature and weather than a date on the calendar. So, on higher elevation lakes such as Henry’s and Hebgen, damsel hatch conditions typically occur from late June through the month of July. Damsel nymphs hatch by swimming from their home among the submerged vegetation towards shore or emergent vegetation, boats, docks, etc, where they crawl out of the water, and their shuck splits open to revel the winded adult. They do not emerge on the surface of the water like Callibeatis mayflies. Adults spend time both near water and away from it feeding, and both females and males return to water to lay eggs on/in vegetation and guard egg laying females respectively.
As such, it is the nymphal phase rather than the adult phase of the damselfly which is most relevant to the stillwater angler (more on the adults later). With the aforementioned 36 species of damselflies in Montana, imitation might seem like a daunting task, but fortunately, only a subset of them overlap with prime trout water, and then, basically all of those fall into the same description in terms of shape, size, and color. Damsel nymphs have an unmistakable shape. Their bulbous eyes and wide head carry over from nymph to adult and are a key feature of many imitations. Their bodies are slender and wiggly, with feathery gills at the end of the abdomen. Legs are sparse but prominent, extending to both sides of the thorax. Nymphs vary in size over their lifetimes, but those which are nearing adulthood are most exposed to the trout, when they swim from their weedy homes towards shore to hatch, or when they are moving about and hunting. These creatures are typically ¾ of an inch to 1 ½ inch long. I hesitate to refer to a hook size, as the tail makes up the length of most damsel nymph patterns, but I tie mine on hooks ranging from 10 to 14 typically. In my experience damsel nymphs vary in color depending on the color of the substrate or vegetation they live in. That means a lot of olive tones, with occasional instances of brighter, almost chartreuse green, subdued tans, and even dark browns.
Damselfly nymphs swim by undulating their body not-unlike a fish, with their 3 feathery gills functioning like a tail. Their movement patterns typically include slow wiggles, quick darts, and prolonged resting pauses. On any given day, one or more of these may act as the trigger to hungry trout, so be prepared to vary your nymph retrieve with a mix of hand twists, rod tip twitches, short but quick pulls, and extended pauses. Damsel nymphs do not swim with an up and down motion like leeches, and do not sink quickly when resting, so weighted patterns may not be the ideal choice in some instances where pronounced pauses are included in your retrieve. Damsel nymphs also swim towards things to crawl out on to hatch, so theoretically that means mostly towards shore. But damsel nymphs also crawl onto a boat or float tube to emerge, so that is great news. Interestingly, I have not found casting direction to make as much a difference as the presence of feeding fish.
The easiest way to recognize an active damsel hatch event is by observing the nymphs crawling onto shore, vegetation, or your boat to hatch in significant numbers. Increased bird activity in the shallows is another sign. So are violent swirling rises of fish feeding on nymphs just below the surface. Massive damsel emergences can provoke epic feeding binges from every trout in a lake, including the giants. They can also provoke epic frustration among anglers, maybe due to the sheer competition between your one fly and the thousands of naturals. I have encountered some instances where the trout really want a realistic imitation. This typically occurs in clearer water and calmer conditions. In other cases, where there is a tint to the lake, a chop on the water, and a thick hatch, a more suggestive fly pattern seems to stand out and get chomped well. Be ready with both options, and both floating and slow sinking intermediate lines to cover your depth range. Lastly, because damsel nymphs are a nice sized treat, they seem to work well as general searching patterns whenever damsels are active on a lake. In other words, an actual hatch even is not required to catch fish on damsel nymph patterns.
So what about those adult damsels? They are so beautiful, and are so busy on the lake in summer. Fish must eat them, right? They do, but in my experience not all that regularly. They have a habit of hunkering down in the reeds or willows when the wind blows, and occasionally a big gust will knock a few into the water on the margins and creating a fleeting angling opportunity for those willing to brave the big winds. Still, adult damsel dry flies are so fun to tie and so cool looking that I always have a few collecting dust in my box to imitate the usual blue, tan, and also the gaudy red adult species. With all that said, two of the most memorable stillwater fishing experiences I know of involved adult damsels.
Once, long ago, on a small pond here in Montana, when I was really just beginning my stillwater angling life, I tied on a floating damsel adult. I hucked it out in the middle of the pond and after about 30 seconds, an actual living adult damsel flew over and landed on my fly. I started to think, “Oh, that’s pretty cool” when a giant trout came up and sucked both my fake and the real hitch hiker damsels down in a huge swirl. Fish on!
The second experience was shared with me by a friend who lives in Oregon. He actually experienced big rainbows selectively feeding on adult damsels that were perched on the reeds 2 to 5 inches ABOVE the water’s surface. The bows were literally leaping out of the lake to eat them off the reeds. One fish ate a floating adult pattern cast near the reeds, but the sight of those leapers, watching them ignore a fly on the water, and their selectivity for the natural insects that were not even on the water is what made the event so memorable (and frustrating).
Lastly, damsels are primarily a stillwater insect, but they also inhabit slower moving and vegetated streams and rivers. In our area, this is an overlooked fact, and perhaps something worth exploring more during periods of minimal hatch activity that coincide with favorable water conditions!
Notes: It’s a beadhead soft-hackle micro woolly bugger on a super sharp, barbless jig hook. About the only way you can’t fish this, is as a dry fly, other than that, you can’t go wrong. Rigged as a dropper under a Chubby? Yes. Rigged in a team of nymphs under an indicator, in either moving or still water? Yes. Euro nymphed. Yes. Swung like a soft hackle? Yes. Slow retrieved on an intermediate line just above the weeds on a lake during the damsel hatch. Oh, yes. Stripped on a small stream for trout? Yeah, that too. Another really fun and effective all around pattern to have in your box. Once you start using it, you’ll find more and more times to fish it.