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Damsels and Nymphs

July 16, 2010 | by Diane Tipton

Damselflies light up summer evenings near still waters with flashes of their electric red or blue bodies propelled by transparent, delicately-veined wings.

These invertebrates bring a lot of pleasure to our summer. In their various stages of metamorphosis they are an enchanting watchable wildlife species, a year round, nutritious food for fish, and a challenge for fly fishermen who like to "match the hatch."

Among those who enjoy viewing and photographing damselflies is Nate Kohler of Deer Lodge. Kohler, working with Coburn Currier of the Montana Natural Heritage Program, recently produced the first published checklist of damsel and dragonflies in the state. It is on the Montana Natural Heritage Program's website under Publications. Bob Martinka, a retired Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks manager in Helena, is assisting with ongoing field work and public education.

Kohler's work nearly tripled the state's records for the insect order Odonata that in Montana includes 53 dragonfly species and 29 damselflies. In North America there are more than 450 species of Odonata, and more than 5,000 species worldwide.

Damsel and dragon flies are easily mistaken for each other. To tell them apart remember a damselfly is more delicately built than a dragonfly and closes its wings over its back parallel to its body. A dragonfly is more robust and rests with its wings out from its body. The eyes of a damselfly are apart, while a dragonfly's eyes are so big they usually touch. Neither sting nor bite. For photo identification, visit the insect section of the Animal Field Guide on FWP's website.

Though damselflies are a fascinating watchable wildlife species, these winged creatures are in the adult stage—the other two stages are the egg and the damsel nymph.

Nymphs, or larvae, are aquatic and appeal to a different set of outdoor lovers—fly fishermen. A nymph looks like a bug--big, juicy, carnivorous bug with a ravenous appetite for other species of nymphs and larvae. It has prominent eyes and six sturdy legs it uses to swim while also moving its abdomen in a snake-like way. Three leaf-like gills are at the rear of the abdomen. After a series of molts, a damselfly nymph is about an inch long or more and ready to emerge as an adult.

This is where "match the hatch" fly fishermen take an interest. Mature nymphs migrate from their aquatic environment to the shore area from mid-June to early July en masse, triggering a feeding frenzy among the local trout. Nymphs that don't become fish food climb up out of the water to cling on whatever they encounter until their outer skins split and the adult emerges. The newly minted adults soon mate and lay eggs, restarting the process.

These adult damselfly nymphs can sometimes be found in large numbers on the water's surface.

"Lakes, ponds and some spring creeks are the places I've seen heavy damselfly hatches. Slow-to-still water is the key," said Adam Brooks, an FWP employee in Helena and avid fly fisherman.

"Sight casting a hand-tied nymph in front of a cruising trout during the nymph migration can be very productive," he said.

Damsel nymphs are slow swimmers with frequent rests. Brooks said that to match the motion of the real nymphs, a fly fisherman may have to retrieve the fly at only about an inch every four to five seconds.

"Anglers I know who are successful at this have tons of patience," he said.

"Damselfly nymphs are big eaters themselves and they make a good food for fish. If you see damselfly nymphs in the water, you can expect to find some large trout there," Brooks said.

Creating a Damsel Fly Pattern

by Adam Brooks, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks of Helena
  • Use a regular nymph hook, size #14 to #16, which is heavy enough to sink the fly below the surface. Take heavy monofilament (150 lb test) and cut it into tiny, 1/4 inch sections.
  • Hold the sections in the center with tweezers, and then heat the ends over a candle until they melt into a bulb. This makes a very realistic set of eyes.
  • Tie the eyes on at the front (head) of the hook, then dub a light body along the hook shank in the color of local nymphs you want to mimic.
  • Tie-in a wire rib at the back and a small plume of marabou with maybe 3/8" of the tip protruding from the back(also in the desired color).
  • Use the remaining marabou up front to wrap into the body, and then the wire rib is wound forward to secure everything. The marabou "tail" has a nice action that mimics the natural nymphs tail.