How To Fish Stillwaters

August 9th, 2004

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher


By Philip Rowley

If Hollywood directors and screenwriters are looking for a creature to base a future horror movie on they need look no further than the dragonfly. Fearsome predators, dragonflies date back to prehistoric times. Archeologists have found fossilized remains dating back over 300 million years. During this time dragonflies have changed little except for their size. Thankfully they have shrunk since their early beginnings.

All species of dragonflies have an incomplete life cycle or metamorphosis. Upon hatching, the nymphs grow and feed at a feverish pace. No creature is safe. Using their keen eyesight, dragons hunt mayflies, damsels, Chironomid larvae, tadpoles, even small fish. I can remember a two-inch dragon nymph attacking an equally sized leech. The dragon latched onto one end of the leech chomping away the whole time. The leech wriggled and writhed in an attempt to flee its attacker. After a furious struggle the leech finally broke free, its back end tattered and chewed. The dragon nymph dusted itself off, regained its composure and then carried on its merciless trek.

Depending upon the species and location, dragonfly nymphs can take up to 4 years to mature. Owing to their year-round availability, dragon nymphs are a stillwater staple. Growing through a series of instars, dragon nymphs reach large sizes. A typical dragonfly nymph will molt some 10 to 15 times and with each molt the nymph increases in size and overall development. For instance, wing pads only become a prominent feature in the later instars. Some species attain lengths of close to 3 inches at maturity. Many fly-fishers confidently tie dragon patterns onto their leaders owing to the availability and overall size of the nymphs. All dragonfly nymphs are capable of absorbing water into their internal gill chamber and expelling it out of their rectal orifice. This natural jet-propulsion system enables the nymph to scoot along in 3- to 5-inch bursts.

Mature nymphs lumber along the bottom in preparation for emergence. Depending upon temperature and elevation, dragonflies emerge from June through August. Crawling out of the water, the nymph clambers up weeds, fallen debris and rocks. It is not uncommon to see nymphs crawl 10 to 20 feet from shore and emerge 6 feet up the backside of a tree. Tough customers, wet or dry. Warmed by the sun, a split forms along the back of the nymph and the adult dragonfly crawls out. This is a long and tedious process often taking an hour or more. Sensing their vulnerability, most dragonfly species prefer to hatch under low light conditions or darkness. Of course there are exceptions. The newly transformed adult is at the mercy of birds, frogs, mice, and even other dragonflies. I stumbled upon a hatch one day after noticing unusually large concentrations of robins hopping about the shoreline. Closer examination of the shoreline and tulles revealed numerous nymphs crawling from the water struggling to emerge.

With the emergence process complete the adult flies off to continue the ravenous feeding habits it developed as a nymph. Adults are strong fliers and often travel miles from any known bodies of water. Clipping along at speeds in excess of 30 miles an hour these aerial hunters easily chase down any meal. The adult seizes its prey in its basket-like legs and devours its prey on the fly. Favorite foods include mosquitoes and Chironomids. Gaggles of adults patrol the shoreline margins like helicopter gunships, diving and darting in their relentless hunt for food. It is easy to distinguish dragonflies from their damselfly cousins by their large size and the outstretched manner in which they hold their wings when at rest. After feeding for a couple of weeks, the adults pair up and mate. The fertilized females dip and skim the water's surface depositing their eggs, unleashing new generations to terrorize the underwater jungle. Some species even crawl beneath the surface, depositing their eggs directly onto the submerged vegetation and debris. From time to time adult dragonflies end up on the water's surface. One would think a food source of this magnitude would draw trout for miles. Instead, if unable to regain their freedom, the adults struggle until they drown. I have talked to many experienced anglers and none recall ever seeing an adult dragonfly taken or found in any stomach sample. Other species such as bass don't share the trout's prejudice towards the adults.

For the stillwater fly-fisher there are two families of dragon flies we need to be aware of, the climbing nymphs from the family Aeshnidae and the sprawling nymphs from the family Libellulidae. As adults these families resemble each other somewhat. But as nymphs they differ markedly both body structure and habits. It is important to be aware these differences both at the vise and in the boat. ~ PR

More on dragonflies for lakes from Phil Rowley's excellent book, Fly Patterns for Stillwaters next time.

Credits: Excerpt from Fly Patterns for Stillwaters By Philip Rowley, published by Frank Amato Publications. We appreciate use permission.

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