Three Keys to Effective Damselfly Nymphs

By Jeff Morgan

Henry's Lake, Hebgen Lake, Crane Prairie, Davis, Duck Lake, Lenice Lake. What do all of these lakes have in common? Big trout and plenty of anglers?

True, but what to most of those trout grow big on? Damselfly nymphs!

While anglers often tie imitations of damselfly nymphs, their patterns are usually based on faulty principles. Most fall into the "impressionistic" camp, which yields flies that are usually too bulky and thick for a wise trout to confuse with the emaciated proportions of the natural.

On the other hand, tiers from the "imitative" camp create highly realistic patterns with extended bodies and tiny plastic legs. If you put one in a vial with alcohol, they could probably fool a few undergraduate entomologists. Unfortunately, most these patterns have the action (and appearance) of a wax statue when underwater.

There must be a happy medium.

Sparseness--the First Key Characteristic

I believe there are three key characteristics of effective damselfly nymph patterns: sparseness, motion, and eyes--in that order.

Consider the first characteristic, sparseness. The natural insect is terribly thin, a problem that requires constant attention lest your fly blow up like Marlon Brando. Thicker patterns will pick up an occasional opportunistic fish, but when you're targeting trout that are focused on damselfly nymphs, the sparse patterns will outfish the chunky ones five-to-one.

Dubbing is a great material for the body of damsel nymphs. Try to avoid chenille, Estaz, and other bulky materials except when tying larger patterns. Just try to make sure your body girth is no more than two and a half times the gauge of wire of the hook you are tying it on.

Motion--the Second Key

Motion, while not as vital as sparseness, is also crucial. Damselfly nymphs swims with a side-to-side motion of the abdomen, something anglers have tried to imitate for years (with minimal success) by changing materials and retrieves. That's why I tie all my patterns short, but with an extended marabou tail. When combined with a lightly weighted body, this creates a lot of motion.

Many nymph styles have nothing but a small tuft of marabou or filoplume at the tail, and this does nothing to create an illusion of motion in your fly.

Eyes--the Third Key

Many people will debate the importance of eyes in damselfly nymph imitations. I side with the great Cascades Lakes tier Jim Cope, who uses eyes on almost all of his damselfly nymphs. Eyes are very prominent on the natural insect. When imitating damselfly nymphs, I recommend green mono eyes. You can buy them pre-formed or you can make your own. By using mono eyes you give your nymph a large flat head. The head of a natural damselfly nymph can often be as much as two times the width of the rest of the body.

Other Tying Tips

I like to keep my nymphs a pale olive hue. The naturals are often an opaque olive or tan, which is tough to imitate with most dubbing materials. Try to avoid the phosphorescent bright green "damsel" or "insect" dubbing blends, as well as very dark olive. It's not that they won't work; it's just that it takes no more effort to dub an accurate color than an inaccurate color, so why not do it right?

Beadheads are rarely a good idea for damselfly nymphs. They cause your fly to sink head first, which the natural insect never does. I use beadheads on some of my patterns, particularly those which I plan on using in shallow water or with quick retrieves, where the fly is not pausing (and revealing its flaws) for long.

"Live for the Grab"

All this ento-gibberish about the technical aspects of imitating damsels has no relevance to why anglers actually like to fish the imitations. It's the strikes. Trout hit damsel patterns like Mark McGuire smacks a baseball. There are few light takes or gentle taps; a damsel nymph could escape at any moment, and no right-minded fish will afford the nymph even a second to escape. So always up your tippet an X-size from what you normally fish to absorb these thundering hits.

Few things are as fun or as productive as fishing damselfly nymphs during the early summer months. Just don't waste time with them in the late summer and fall, when next year's population of damsel nymphs is maxing out in the 4 mm range!

Here are two patterns that illustrate the key characteristics of effective damselfly nymphs discussed above. They will help round out your stillwater fly box.

Approximate Damsel
Euro Damsel

Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing.