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Callibeatis Mayfly / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

Stillwater Entomology and Fishing Strategy Choices   

Copyright © 2010 Michael Gorman       Reproduction of the text or photos are allowed only by the expressed permission of the author.

            Almost every child knows about the life stages of moths and butterflies --- egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa), adult.  Aquatic insects, too, go through distinct life stages.  With the exception of the miniscule egg stage, it is important that the other life stages of aquatic insects be imitated and fished by lake anglers who want to maximize their fishing success.

            There are two distinct life cycle paths, referred to as complete metamorphosis and incomplete metamorphosis.  Metamorphosis literally means “change in shape or form; transformation.”Adult Caddis / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

                Complete Metamorphosis                               Incomplete Metamorphosis

                        1.      egg                                                        1.  egg

                        2.      larva                                                      2.  nymph

                        3.      pupa                                                      3.  adult

                        4.      adult

Examples: caddisflies, midges                                    Examples: mayflies, damselflies,

                                                                               dragonflies, water boatmen


            In the adult form, caddisflies look like moths at first glance.  They are identified by wings longer than the body, which are held tent-like over the body at rest.  Upon close inspection with a magnifier, it is evident that the wings are covered with tiny hairs.  The caddisfly has no tails, but come equipped with long antennae, sometimes longer than the body. 

            Look for caddisflies to be hatching and most active during the warmer months of the year, April through October.  During a caddis hatch, the adults will be in evidence fluttering and skating on the surface, particularly over water shallow enough for sunlight to penetrate to create abundant vegetation where the pupae have ascended.  For deep lakes, the shallows along the shorelines are where the floating and fluttering adults will be concentrated.  If conditions are windy, look for many of the pupae and adults to be pushed to the downwind end of the lake, a good area, obviously, to focus fishing efforts.

Fishing the Caddisfly Adult
Stimulator / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            When rising trout are feeding on adult caddisflies, cast a Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, or Stimulator in the vicinity of the risers.  Let the fly sit.  Strikes may be triggered if little twitches are imparted to the fly.  If you should encounter caddsflies like the famous Canadian “running caddis”, lift your rod tip high and attempt to skate or skitter the fly across the surface.  A skated fly can create a lot of miscues by the fish.  Try to relax and enjoy the show as they swirl and splash, even when many strikes are missed.  Hook ups will come.


Caddisfly Larva and Case / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Because caddisflies have a four-stage life cycle, the lake angler needs to carry flies that imitate the larval and pupal forms of these insects.  The caddis larvae of main concern in stillwaters build a tube-like case.  The larva lives inside the hollow tube, which it has constructed by cementing items like fir needles, leaf bits, small stones, and/or assorted chunks of vegetation in its environment.  These construction items are bound into a traveling living space by secretions from the insect.  In times of danger, the larva quickly retracts its legs and head into the case, just as a turtle ducks inside its shell.  As caddis larvae crawl and make feeble attempts at swimming as they go about their daily activities along the bottom or amidst the vegetation in lakes and ponds, fish seek them out to eat, case and all.

            To best determine the size and color of the caddis case and the larva inside, I try to capture a live specimen.  I use a contrived tool which has a small aquarium net solidly taped to a broken fly rod.  In shallow water, I can run the net along the bottom and through vegetation to see what I can discover.  Early on, if I can catch a fish, I will pump its stomach to check the contents for clues.  And, I am always on the lookout for pupae and adults in or on the water, or on the shoreline vegetation. 

           As for flies, the Peeking Caddis, Simulator, and a Skinny Wooly in a variety of colors and sizes 12 through 6 will catch fish.

Fishing the Caddisfly Larva
Nickel Bead Caddis Larva / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            To effectively fish an imitation of the caddisfly larva, the angler should cast his fly into likely locations and allow the fly to sink near the bottom.  The specific fly line used will depend on the depth.  A floating line is best casting a slightly weighted pattern into six feet of water or less.  For deeper water, an intermediate or the clear slow sinking lines are my preference.  Once settled on or very near the bottom, a slow had twist retrieve, interspersed with a few slow, short strips and pauses, will do the trick if the fish are interested.  A slow troll will also work.  I cannot emphasize enough that these little creatures move painfully slow.  Your retrieve or troll must be the same.  Creep the fly.

Caddis Pupae / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            In preparation for the transformation into the adult stage, the caddis larvae in lakes seal off the openings of their cases.  Over the next one week to almost two months, depending on the particular caddisfly family, the insects pupate, and major bodily changes occur.  When the transformation is complete, each caddis pupa frees itself from its tube and swims to the surface or crawls out on exposed vegetation or shoreline stones.  When the wings are unfolded and dry, the pupa splits its skin.  Out of the pupal skin emerges the winged adult.  Once its wings are unfolded and dry, the newly hatched adult flies to safety in the nearby vegetation or shoreline.  Over the next one to three weeks, it will seek a mate, do the dance of life, and die.  Finally, the female will drop her fertilized eggs into water, and the cycle begins again.  The eggs will descend through the water of the lake or pond.  Some will find a suitable environment from which the next generation of caddisflies will develop, thrive, and eventually be the vehicles to perpetuate the species.

Fishing the Caddisfly Pupa

            Since some caddisfly pupae crawl crawl towards safety and adulthood, while others swim up through the water column, you must be prepared to simulate both types of locomotion until you discover the better of the two.  In the case of the crawlers, fish the fly as I described for the larvae.  To simulate pupae ascending vertically to the surface, it all starts with allowing the fly to sink to the bottom.  Then, slowly raise the rod tip, causing the fly to rise.  From its raised position, the rod tip must be lowered to the surface again in preparation for another lift.  While lowering the tip, strip in the slack line that was created by the lift.  Patiently wait for the fly to sink before the rod tip is raised once again to simulate a pupa swimming for the surface.  Slow lift, slow drop & gather the slack.  Slow lift, slow drop & gather the slack.  Floating line for shallow water, and the clear line for deeper.

            Assorted Soft Hackles with silver bead heads and Skinny Woolies are my favorite pupae patterns, sizes 12 through 6.MijCadMay Emerger / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Once a caddis pupa reaches the surface, it may linger for a few seconds, a minute, or forever.  It is here that the swimming pupa will struggle mightily to free itself from its straightjacket skin, emerge and fly away before being eaten.  Some unfortunates will not successfully exit, trapped until they are eaten, or die encased in their pupal skin tombs.  At this point in the emergence, I fish a MijCadMay Emerger of appropriate size and color in the surface, just like a dry fly.  In fact, my ideal two fly set up matches this emerger on the point with a dry fly as the dropper.  Let the flies sit for twenty or thirty seconds, then give them a twitch or short strip.  Also, occasionally lift the rod tip to skitter or skate the flies.


Midges                                                Adult Midge / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            In spite of their small size, midges are one food source available to stillwater fish year-round.  As fish forage for something to eat in the cold months when other insects are inactive and largely unavailable until spring, the hardy midges can be found hatching in any waters that are not ice-bound.  Knowledge of these insects and fishing their imitations is imperative to the success of any serious lake fly angler, no matter the time of year.

            Adult midges can be identified by two wings held in a delta-wing configuration when at rest, and obviously shorter than the body of the fly.  There are no tails, and the antennae of the males look like miniature plumes.  Common colors include tan, grey, black, olive, bright green, and brick. 

            Let’s briefly examine a little taxonomy.  Within the class Insecta (insects, duh), is the order of insects Diptera (two-winged flies).  Within the order Diptera is the family Chironomidae, or midges.  Throughout this text, the terms midge and chironomid will be used interchangeably.    

Midge Larvae / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Like the caddisflies, midges pass through a four-stage life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, adult.  Depending on the environment and water temperature, midges may have one to several generations in a year.  The larvae are simple worm-like creatures living in or on the lake bottom, with some living in the dense jungle of bottom vegetation.  Some chironomid larvae are free roaming wanderers, while others live in tubes or burrows in the mud.  These “skinny worms” may be cream-colored, or shades of brown or green.  A striking red variety has a hemoglobin-like substance in its body enhancing the ability of the insect to extract oxygen from the water where oxygen levels can be extremely low.  Feeding fish readily recognize the “blood worm” as a desirable snack.

Fishing Midge Larvae
Skinny Red Fly / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Midge larvae may be found in water up to thirty or forty feet deep; they can be found in the shallows along the shoreline.  Depending on the depth the angler is exploring for fish, a floating line may be best, or a fast-sinking Type VI may be needed.  Whatever the line, once the fly is on or near the bottom, a very slow retrieve with occasional pauses can fool the fish.  There are times I will suspend a V-Rib Larva pattern under an indicator, letting the fly sit stationary barely off the bottom.  Occasionally, I will lift the rod tip very slowly to move the fly a few inches to a new location.  My V-Rib Larvae are tied in sizes 18 through 12 in red, green, and brown.

Midge Pupae / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide



            Compared to the lengthier transformation times of some stillwater caddisflies, midges pupate in about a week.  Once their moments have arrived, the pupae float and wriggle slowly toward the surface, making them very easy to intercept by hungry fish.  For those lucky enough to reach the surface, the pupae must penetrate the surface tension barrier, sometimes a Herculean task for a tiny bug.  They wriggle just below the surface, held there by this invisible ceiling, at least momentarily.  You might remember the grade school physical science demonstration whereby a needle is dropped horizontally and gently into a container of water.  The surface tension of water offers enough resistance so that the needle floats.  For those pupae able to break through the barrier, the adults can emerge once the pupal skin is split.

Fishing the Pupa

Chironomid Pupa Snack / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide            While the midge pupa fly can be cast and slowly retrieved using a variety of lines, many good anglers will use a floating fly line, an intermediate model, or a slow sinker.  However, the most popular way to fish ascending pupae is suspended underneath an indicator cast with a floating line.  Experimentation is needed to discover the exact depth, even when an electronic depth finder is used.  It is usually best that the flies be situated barely off the bottom.  Fishing two flies allows me to experiment with different sizes and colors.  I may fish a larval pattern on the point and a pupal pattern a couple feet above it on a short dropper line.

            Effective chironomid pupae fly patterns usually have a number of characteristics in common: thin abdomen with a distinctly larger head and thorax region, and obvious segmentation.  There are many different combinations of body color and ribbing color segmentations.  Olive, green, brown, pearl, black, and red bodies, paired with a rib of gold, white, pearl, silver, grey, and red.  Sizes 18 through 10.



            Once the pupa breaks through the surface film and the skin is split, the adult quickly emerges and flies for the safety of shoreline vegetation. Adult Chironomid / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide On colder days, the emergence takes longer and the adults linger longer before taking flight.  When the air is calm, the males --- characterized by their tiny bottlebrush antennae --- gather in a large mating swarm.  These swarms can be large enough so that the “hum” of thousands of tiny beating wings can be heard.  When their eggs have matured, the females fly into the swarming males and mating takes place.  The fertilized eggs are eventually deposited into the water, and the cycle is complete.

Fishing Chironomid Adults and Emergers

            While fishing a dry fly to specifically imitate the winged midge adult can catch fish, it is often more productive to fish the struggling emerging stage of the insect.  I may tie an adult imitation, such as Parachute Midge or Griffith’s Gnat, on the dropper, and my MijCadMay Emerger or Marabou Cripple as the point fly, always trying to match the size and color of the hatching insects.  Casting the flies into a likely area, let them sit.  Occasionally, the rod tip is slowly lifted, or I pull the line a few inches, then the flies are allowed to remain stationary for another thirty to sixty seconds.  Fly sizes range from 20 to 14.


            If there is a “classic”, prototypical aquatic insect in fly fishing writings, photography, and art, it is the mayfly.  With their delicate wings held high as they sit on the surface of a lake or stream, they appear as little sailboats adrift in a breeze, riding quietly on the currents or the wind. Big Boy Mayfly / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            With eighteen families of mayflies in North America, represented by numerous genera split into hundreds of species and subspecies, mayflies abound in many non-polluted freshwater environments.  For our discussion of stillwater mayflies, four families have members than can be of importance to the fly angler.  And, of these four, the Callibaetis mayfly of the family Baetidae will garner the most attention for fish and anglers, especially in the American West.  

            Mayflies have an incomplete metamorphosis, with three life stages: egg, nymph, and adult.  In the adult stage, they have two phases.  The newly-hatched adult is referred to as the dun, or more technically, the subimago.  A day or two after its emergence, the dun molts into the sexually mature spinner, or imago.  The spinners have wings that are markedly clearer, more transparent than those of the dun stage.  After mating in the next several hours or days, the females deposit their fertilized eggs on the water, dying soon after.  Dead mayfly spinners lay on the water’s surface, wings fallen to the sides of the insect.  Fish will often feed heavily on the “spinner fall”, quietly rising to prey that has no chance --- or need --- to escape.

            Adult mayflies can be identified by wings held upright when the insect is at rest.  A tiny second set of wings may seen at the base of the larger ones.  Look for two or three long, slender tails extending behind a pronouncedly segmented body.  The underside of the insect’s body is often a lighter color than the dorsal side, an important difference for fly tiers and fishermen looking to match the exact color the insect; the fish see the underside of the mayfly adult, not the top of the body that may be darker.


            A single wing pad on the top of the thorax, a bulging area where the wings develop and grow, characterizes mayfly nymphs.  Just as the adult, there are two or three tails on an obviously segmented body, and gills are present on the abdomen of the insect.  With a magnifying lens, you can observe a single little hook or claw at the end of each leg.

            The nymph of the Gray Drake mayfly, genus Siphlonurus of the family Siphlonuridae, is an energetic swimmer.  With three hairy tails that can be interlocked for enhanced swimming capability, this insect darts around in the shallow weedy margins of a lake or pond in search of food.  Because the nymph emerges by crawling out of the water onto exposed structure around and in lakes and ponds, the fish rarely get a chance to feed on the Gray Drake duns.  The spent spinners provide food and are of importance to fly anglers.

            The nymph of the huge Hexagenia mayfly (family Ephemeridae), or Big Yellow May, may measure up to 35 mm, just a little less than 1 ½ inches.  Because they burrow into and live in the silt of the lake bottom, the nymphs are usually not available as fish food.  Just prior toCallibaetis Mayfly Nymphs / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide their transition into the adult phase, the nymphs are exposed for a short time as they crawl from their burrows in preparation for the swim to the surface. 

            Because of their tiny size and the fact that they are usually hidden in the vegetation and silt along the shallow margins of lakes and ponds, the nymphs of Tricorythodes mayflies (family Tricorythodidae) are of little importance to fly fishers.  However, the duns and spinners will get the attention of fish.

            Like the darting, swimming Gray Drake nymphs, the nymphs of the Callibaetis mayfly are excellent swimmers, too, as they make their daily rounds in search of algae patches growing on water plants on which the insects dine.  Besides gills that are a bit less prominent, and tails that are not quite as hairy as those of the Gray Drake nymphs, the Callibaetis can be distinguished by its longer antennae, which are about three to four times the length of the nymph’s head. Because of their abundance, availability as food, and the emergence of several generations over a period of many months, spring into fall, lake anglers must take special note of the Callibaetis nymph; the fish certainly do.

Fishing Mayfly Nymphs

Flashback Hare's Ear Nymph / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide            Because the nymphs of the Gray Drake and the Callibaetis mayflies are the two of most concern, these are the two to emphasize.  To make matters even simpler, the nymphs of both are similar in appearance, inhabit similar habitats, and are both darting swimmers.  Generally, to imitate and fish one is to imitate and fish the other.  To fine tune his fly pattern, it is always best to capture a natural or steal one from a fish’s stomach for examination.  It is then that size, color and shape can be more accurately represented if the fish are being picky.

            Cast the fly into weedy domains, allowing it to settle near the bottom, using the type of fly line appropriate for the depth.  Strip the fly with short, quick bursts, interspersed with pauses.  Experiment with the speed and length of the strips.

            For flies, I like Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, and the Epoxy Back Callibaetis nymphs, sizes 12 through 18.  Successive generations of Callibaetis nymphs within a single year get successively smaller due to a shorter growing time before subsequent hatches occur.

Mayfly Adults

            The duns of the Callibaetis (Speckle-Wing Quill), Hexagenia (Big Yellow May), and the small Tricorythodes (Trico) are fed upon byCallibaetis Mayfly / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide stillwater fish.  Noting the exact timing of the Big Yellow May emergence is important.  Whereas the Callibaetis and Tricos typically emerge during reasonable daylight hours, the Hex hatch begins just as night begins to fall.  To find the lake fish seeking to feed on these large insects, anglers need to be ready to fish very late in the day, and plan to stay until they can no longer see.  The fish may dine equally on both the partially hatched emerger and the fully-upright dun.

            The Trico genders hatch separately.  The males emerge at night or early morning, while the females dutifully follow early morning through late morning.  The male duns typically have dark brown bodies, and the female’s olive.  Fish can dine on the emerging and resting duns, and get a second shot at the females when they return to lay their eggs.  Trico spinner falls can blanket the water making fishing difficult, as an artificial fly must be selected by a feeding fish from among thousands of real insects.

            During a hatch of Callibaetis, the struggling emergence of the wet and wrinkled adult as it escapes its nymphal skin is prime food, and important for the fly angler to specifically imitate.  Though they certainly eat the duns too, smart fish learn that it is much easier to capture a relatively stationary and helpless insect than one with wings that might fly away just before being eaten.  And, like the other lake and pond mayflies, the spinners of the speckled-wing quills can cause a feeding frenzy when the females return to the water for egg laying, and die on the surface.

            The nymph of the Gray Drake crawls ashore to emerge and hatch, so the emergent form and duns of this bug are not available to the fish. There is little need to dedicate room in the fly box to these.  It is the egg-laying female spinners of this insect that are of concern to fish and fishermen.

Fishing Mayfly Duns, Emergers, and Spinners
Tan Sparkle Dun / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            A floating line is the only type needed when fishing all three surface stages of the mayflies.  Though different fly patterns are used, it’s generally a matter of casting the flies to rising fish, and allowing the flies to sit stationary.  An occasional slow pull on the flies, or a slight lift of the rod tip, may draw a fish’s attention to them.

            The fly selection should include imitations of the emerging adult, the dun, and the spinner for Tricos, Callibaetis, and the Hex’s, but only the spinner for the Gray Drake.  For the Tricos, consider a Trico Parachute, Trico Comparadun, and Trico Poly Wing Spinner, sizes 18 – 22.  Top choices for the Big Yellow May would be the Parachute Hex, Yellow Extended-Body Comparadun, and a Crippled Hex, sizes 6 and 8.  A Parachute Adams, Tan Sparkle Dun, Parachute Hare’s Ear, Crippled Callibaetis, and MijCadMay Emerger in sizes 12 through 16 all have a place in my fly box.  Flies for the Gray Dun would be a Grey Poly Wing Spinner and a Grey Comparadun with the top of the wing cut flat, sizes 8 – 12.


Damselflies and Dragonflies 

            Of all the aquatic insects of interest to the fly angler, damselflies and dragonflies may rank at the top of the list of “Most Intriguing”.  First, they are ferocious predators, both as nymphs and as adults.  They are of the insect order Odonata, a word of Greek origin meaning “toothed one”.  This is a reference to the serrated teeth located on the insect’s chewing mouthparts, the mandibles.  How can you help not being a little fascinated with an insect that has serrated teeth!  Nasty.  As adults, they do us an excellent service with those teeth --- among other tasty items, damsels and dragons eat mosquitoes.Damsel Face Grrrrrr! / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            As nymphs, damselflies and dragonflies are outfitted with a nifty structure that covers the mouth called a labial mask.  The mask is actually a grasping tool that rests on the bug’s face.  If a snack disguised as a swimming insect or little fish swims near, the “mask” is extended on an arm attached under the damselfly or dragonfly’s head.  This movement is faster than you can blink, grabbing the prey and bringing it back to meet those chewing serrated teeth.  Visions of Hannibal Lecter. 

            Dragonflies are among the world’s fastest flying insects.  In short bursts, they can exceed thirty miles an hour.  Combine this speed and serrated teeth with the excellent vision provided by compound eyes that can almost see in every direction at once, you have an airborne killing machine.  I suspect that some readers may now view dragonflies a little less benignly.

            Adult damselflies can be identified by their long slender abdomens and four membranous wings of identical shape and length that are held back and parallel over the abdomen, unlike the dragonfly which has two pairs of wings that are not identical which are held out to the side of the insect, perpendicular to the body.  In fact, the wing differences distinguishing damsel adults from dragonflies is noted in the taxonomical names for these insects.  While both are members of the same order, Odonata, the damselflies are of the suborder Zygoptera, meaning literally “paired wings”.  Anisoptera, the suborder of Odonata to which the dragonflies belong, means “not equal wings” in Greek.  The rear pair of wings of the dragonfly is broader than the forewings.  (Note: This last paragraph will give you much to talk about at your next party when the conversation stalls.)Resting Dragon / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            More fascinating facts.  While dragonflies and damselflies are excellent fliers, the dragonflies are very clumsy when attempting to walk, and damselflies cannot or will not walk.  The next time one of these lands on the picnic table, just watch.  They land and take off from the same spot.  In addition, with those see-everywhere-at-once eyes, these insects are difficult to catch.  The eyes of the damsel are separated, while those on most dragonflies touch. 

            There are a couple of other distinguishing features that enable the observer to tell the difference between these two insect groups.  The dragonfly abdomen is usually much stouter than the slender abdomen of the damselfly.  Sky blue banded by black is a very popular color scheme for many of the damselflies, particularly here in the West.  The abdomen of the damselflies may also be brown, green, olive, red, or yellow.  Worldwide, dragonflies can be found in just about any color imaginable.


            Damselflies and dragonflies undergo incomplete metamorphosis: egg, nymph, adult.  Damsels have a life cycle that can range from one to three years, while a dragonfly’s can extend to four years.  Flock of Damsel Nymphs / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Damselfly nymphs have pronounced thoraxes, slender abdomens, and three caudal lamellae extending out the rear of the abdomen.  The lamellae look like three brushy tails, but are actually gills.  As the nymph swims, it also “breathing”, as dissolved oxygen is extracted from the water by the gills.

            It is among the stillwater vegetation that damselfly nymphs prefer to hunt and hide.  With their extendable lower jaw, they will eat aquatic insect nymphs, larvae, and pupae, small crustaceans, and tiny fish.

            The dragonfly nymph body --- depending on the taxonomic family --- ranges from short & rounded to elongated & stout, not easily confused with the sleeker damselfly.  Some dragonfly nymphs will exceed two inches in length.

            Dragonfly nymphs can be classified by their hunting activities and hunting locations.  There are crawlers, sprawlers, and burrowers.  The crawlers patrol the vegetation and debris onDragonfly Nymph / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide the pond or lake bottom hunting for prey.  When needed, they can swim in short, fast bursts to apprehend their food.  Whereas the crawlers can be 2 1/2” long, the sprawlers may be half this length.  Sprawlers are experts at ambushing their prey, as they hide on the mud and debris of the bottom, camouflaged by their environment.  They are covered with tiny hairs that cause bits of their surroundings to cling to their bodies, making it difficult for unsuspecting wandering or swimming insects, crustaceans, and fish to escape before the labial mask extends to grab them.  (Hannibal says such meals are best consumed with fava beans and a fine bottle of chianti.)  Lastly, burrowers dig themselves into the mud and silt to wait in ambush, and to stay out of sight of predators that might eat them.  They are the smallest of the dragonfly lot, barely an inch long at nymphal maturity.

            Dragonfly nymphs have rectal gills situated within the rear portion of their abdomens.  At the extreme rear of the abdomen is an opening where water can be taken in and the abdomen swelled.  When the abdomen is squeezed, the water is expelled forcefully, propelling the nymph forward.  Think jet propulsion.  As the insect “swims”, it also breathes, as oxygenated water flows over the internal gills.  At rest, the dragonfly nymph can respire by gently pumping its abdomen to force oxygen-laden water over the gills.

Fishing Dragonfly and Damselfly Nymphs

            With multi-year life cycles possible, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs of assorted sizes and stages of maturity can be available to stillwater fish year-round, and always important additions to any lake angler’s fly box.  However, optimal time for fishing the nymphs will be during their migrations as they make their way to exposed structure to transition into the adult form.  The timing will vary from location to location, depending on seasons and water temperature.  Be on the lookout for the presence of adults spring through early fall.  If adults are present, there’s an excellent chance the fish will be seeking out the migrating nymphs.Red Carey Fly / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            During their hatching migrations, damselflies will usually travel in the upper three feet of the water column.  They have a very distinctive side-to-side undulation of the abdomen as they swim.  Swimming bursts are separated by pauses, short periods of rest before resuming the swim.  If the angler can simulate this recognizable swimming movement with his retrieve methods and the materials incorporated into the fly tying design of the fly, he could be well on the way some epic fishing during this hatch.

            Because the migrating nymphs tend to swim high in the water column, a floating line is often the best choice.  If the wind comes up, use a slow sinking or intermediate line.  Though the lateral movement of the swimming nymph is difficult to emulate with a line length of more than a six to eight feet beyond the rod tip, the fish can often be fooled when the fly fisherman alternates three or four short strips of line with a pause of three or four counts.  If you remember my Crane Prairie stories, sometimes it can be effective to cast the fly and wait for it to sink and sink and sink . . .  Or, let a damselfly pattern sit motionless underneath an indicator.

            Because nymphs that blend with their surroundings have a better chance of survival, the color choice of your damselfly and dragonfly nymph patterns can be extremely important.  For my damsels I carry them in shades and blends of tan, brown, gold, and olive.  Because the mature nymphs may be from 1” to almost 1 ½” long, I must carry multiple sizes, too.  The Goat Damsel and marabou Damsel are my mainstays, sizes 8 through 12.  If you tie your own flies, keep the abdomens thin.  Color can be absolutely critical.  Do whatever it takes to capture a natural.

            Since dragonfly nymphs migrate along the bottom, sometimes out of water twenty to thirty feet deep, an array of sinking lines is necessary.  Flying or resting adults are your clue that the migration is underway, especially if you discover the first adults of the season.  This would usually be in early to mid summer for most locations.  Use a countdown of the fly to calculate when you have reached the bottom in any given location.  Strip the fly in short quick bursts, interspersed with pauses, to imitate swimmers.  Use a slow hand-twist retrieve with pauses to mimic crawling nymphs.  Make note of when in the retrieve the strike comes.

            Dragonfly nymphs can be black, dark brown and shades of olive.  Choose fly colors accordingly.  The fly pattern should be fairly stout, with fly sizes ranging from 6 to 10.  Flies like the O'Keefe Carey, Randall’s Lake Dragon, and Red & Purple Carey are good.

            This might seem like a little detail, but consider casting away from the shoreline to retrieve your fly toward the shoreline, the same direction most of the damsel and dragon nymphs are headed.  Sometimes it can be good to be a rebel, a contrarian.  Sometimes not.       

Freshly Hatched Damsel / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

         Because they are strong fliers not prone to being blown into the water, and the egg laying females deposit their eggs in the water and on surface plants in such ways that do not expose the adult to hungry fish, artificial imitations of the adult dragonfly should not take much, if any , room in your fly box.  Adult damsels are a different matter.

            In the adult stage, damsels and dragons live from several weeks to several months.  This is a good length of time in the aquatic insect world for accidents to happen, especially for the damselfly.  Unlike their stronger cousins, damselflies can be blown off lakeside vegetation and into the water.  Also, it is not unusual to see a low flying damsel hit the water where it may burble and splash before regaining the air.  If a fish is nearby, it may be apprehend the luckless damsel before it flies off. 


Fishing the Adult Damselfly

            There isn’t much sophistication in fishing an imitation of the damselfly adult.  On a breezy day when the damselflies are in evidence in the air or on the exposed vegetation, cast the fly near cruising or rising trout and let it sit.  Do not hesitate to slap the fly onto the water, like the real thing doing a crash landing.  Give the fly a quick twitch like it's trying to fly away.  Hold on tight.  This can be very exciting fishing.

            There are some good damselfly patterns out there.  The vast, vast majority have bodies of blue, and two pairs of wings perpendicular to the body of the fly.  Though it makes little sense for the damsel imitation to have the wing configuration of a dragonfly, the fish don’t seem to care.  Such wings assist the fly in floating on the surface.  Size:  the body of the fly should be about two inches long.  Patterns: Foam Body Parachute Damsel, Pearl Wing Blue Damsel, and Poly Wing Damsel.

Water Boatmen Water Boatman / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            There’s an interesting little bug that is found in many of the nutrient-rich lakes of North America that propels itself through the water by means of tiny “oars”.  The hind legs of the water boatman are elongated, stout, and densely covered with hairs that provide significant surface area and “rowing power” to move the insect through the water just like an oarsman in a boat.  They are fun to watch and effective to imitate when fishing lakes and ponds at certain times of the year.

            Water boatmen and their close cousins the backswimmers are members of the Hemiptera order of Insects.  “Hemiptera” is literally translated as “half wing” in Greek.  The bases of the forewings of these insects are hardened and leathery at the base, while the rest of the wing has a membranous appearance.  Backswimmers can be distinguished from water boatmen by their larger size (1/2” or slightly larger, while water boatmen rarely exceed 1/2”) and by their orientation while swimming on their backs.  Both insects have piercing mouth parts, with the backswimmers likely to inflict a painful bite on any human who handles it (Bad bug!), while the boatmen are gentler little spirits, not inclined to bite your finger.  While backswimmers can be dining fare for stillwater fish, the boatmen are more important more of the time, in my experience.

            The lifecycle of a water boatman is the incomplete type.  After its final instar, or molting, during its growth, the nymph becomes a winged adult.  The adult looks almost exactly like the nymph, and continues to live underwater just as it always has.  This transformation usually takes place in late summer or early fall.Be patient! / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Unlike other aquatic insects that have gills to extract dissolved oxygen from the water, boatmen breathe air.  They do this by swimming to the surface to capture and hold an air bubble, or plastron, along their body or under the wings.  When the air bubble is used up, boatmen must return to the surface to grasp another.  Because of this, these insects stay in the shallow periphery of deeper lakes, or on shallow shoals.  It is in these locations where fish will seek water boatmen, and the angler should concentrate his efforts.

            Each pair of boatman legs performs specific functions.  The short forelegs are designed for sifting and sorting bottom debris when searching for food.  Also, they are rubbed on the insect’s head and antennae to produce a stridulation or chirping sound, warning competitors to stay clear, or attract a mate.  The middle pair of legs grasps the substrate or vegetation to hold the boatman in place, preventing it from drifting to the surface because of the buoyancy of the air bubble attached to the body for breathing.  And, the rear legs are the oars for swimming.

            Mating and egg laying usually occurs in late spring, late summer or fall, depending on the species.  Late summer and fall timings seem to be more common.  The female boatmen dive into the water to deposit the eggs on plant stems, on the bottom, or attach them to submerged wood.  It is during these egg-depositing flights when thousands of insects rain down on the water, when fish will key on the water boatmen as a food source.  It’s easy and abundant pickings for the fish as they intercept the diving, swimming females. 

Fishing Water Boatmen
Keep the rod tip low / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Some key things to remember when fishing artificial imitations of water boatmen include their distinctive swimming movement, size, color, the presence of the air bubble clinging to the body, and the fact that they inhabit shallow water. 

            The back or dorsal surface of water boatmen oval-shaped bodies are typically shades of brown and black, often mottled.  The underbody can be shades of olive and yellow.  The rear legs are long and prominent physical features that need to be part of the fly design.  Because the air bubble clinging to the body is easily observed by fish, this too should be mimicked in effective fly patterns.

            Because water boatmen are usually in ten feet of water or less, a floating line or a slow sinker are the logical choices.  If the wind is reasonably light, the easy casting and pick up of the floating line is preferred.  Quick short strips of the line, mixed with pauses, imitate the swimming and resting of the insect.  If you need a rest from casting, a slow troll along the shoreline, enhanced with short strips and releases of the line, can be very productive.  ExperimeBiot Boatman / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishing Guident with the line length, a longer line required when trolling during windless conditions.  Because water boatmen must frequently return to the surface to replenish the air bubble, fish are accustomed to finding them at any part of the water column, surface to bottom.

            My favorite patterns include the Rubber-Leg Boatman and Biot Boatman, sizes 12 – 16.  If a bead is incorporated into the fly, I use silver or glass ones to best approximate the silvery gas bubble clinging to the insect.  Bead head patterns are particularly useful when the boatmen are “raining” down on the water during their dispersal flights or egg laying.  Splat the fly onto the water to simulate a crash landing.  The bead helps the fly sink and dive, just as the real bugs do.  This is a fun technique, different from the mainstream presentations of most lake and pond flies.

Ready For Takeoff / Michael Gorman / Mckenzie River Fishing Guide

Terrestrial Insects


                Under the right conditions, land-based insects can be of occasional importance to stillwater fish.  Beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers, among others, can become piscatorial snacks, especially for shoreline cruisers.  However, one terrestrial insect group that distributes itself over the broad reaches of a lake are ants.  I find it difficult to predict when ants will quietly shower down on my fishing waters, but I am never unprepared when they show.  Though they may be small and their numbers sparse, ants helplessly drifting on the surface will cause fish to actively seek them out.

Fishing Ants

            Ants are poor swimmers.  Their skinny legs may move frantically for a bit, but they make very little headway.  So fishing an ant imitation is a straightforward affair: heave it and leave it.  Patience is required.  For the the ADD - afflicted, this can be torturous fishing.  If you can locate an area with fish rising consistently, get ready for some fun action.  Ants obviously taste good to the fish.  In a survival situation, my friend Joe Uffelman has told me ants are one of the more desirable food items for a starving human in the wild.  He's eaten ants and says they aren't too bad.  Pop them onto a hot pan over a fire, and serve 'em up.

            The fly patterns are simple concoctions of a fur or foam head/thorax and abdomen separated by a hackle feather.  Black and cinnamon, sizes 10 through 16.


Important Non-Insect Stillwater FoodsScud Herd / Michael Gorman / Mckenzie River Fishing Guide


            Commonly referred to as freshwater shrimp, scuds are very important food items for lake fish.  How important?  In lakes where they occur --- and there are many --- scuds can be second in importance only to chironomids as a food source.  In the fall of the year, it can be a dead heat between these two groups as to which will top the list of preferred dining fare.  Fly fishers must have scuds in their fly boxes.  Though scuds may be relegated to a secondary food source when insects are active and hatching, they will increase in importance to foraging fish during quiet times.  On those days when fishing is tough and nothing seems to entice the fish, think scud.

            With two pairs of antennae, many pairs of leg-like appendages on the underside, and a semi-transparent, obviously segmented exoskeleton, scuds have a very distinctive appearance.  Though they can live among the rocks and detritus of the lake or pond bottom, jungles of vegetation are common habitats for the freshwater shrimp.  Thus, they tend to concentrate along the shallow margins of lakes where sunlight can penetrate, producing abundant plant growth.  Experts at camouflage, they blend well with their surroundings, typically dressed in shades of olive, grey, and brown.  As it outgrows its old exoskeleton, a newly molted scud will have a bluish pearl appearance for a short time.  Two families are of particular importance: Gammaridae and Taletraide (or family Hyalellidae, depending on the taxonomical source).  Within these are the scuds of the genera Gammarus and Hyalella, which look and behave identically, except for their fully grown sizes; the Gammarus scud can be twice as large as their smaller cousins, exceeding ¾ inches at full maturity.  Hyalellas top out at about 5 mm, less than ¼ inch.  Hyallelas are more widespread than the Gammarus, having a broader tolerance of water chemistry. 

            Scuds will produce multiple broods of young in a year.  The pregnant females can be identified by a bright orange egg mass situated under the thorax.  The young scuds are carried in a pouch, or marsupium, until they are eventually released to fend for themselves.

            Being light sensitive, scuds tend to be most active during low light times of day, early morning and evening, or on overcast days.  They swim slowly in short bursts, and then pause to rest.  As they pause, they sink a bit before resuming their travels. The fly fisher must be cognizant of mimicking this alternating movement and rest rhythm as he retrieves his scud patterns.

Fishing Scud Flies

            Scud and Fake / Michael Gorman / Mckenzie River Fishing GuideBecause scuds are commonly found along the shoreline and weedy shoals of lakes, floating, slow sinking, and intermediate fly lines are best.  After casting, allow the fly to settle near the bottom.  Retrieve the scud with slow, short (half inch) strips, alternating with pauses of three or four seconds.  I have sometimes found it effective to speed up the strips, but still keeping them short.  A scud fly tied with a shellback of buoyant deer or elk hair may help to keep the fly from impaling debris and vegetation on the bottom when fished on a sinking line.

            There are times when suspending the scud just off the bottom under an indicator can be effective.  After allowing the fly to rest motionless for twenty or thirty seconds, slowly strip six inches of line, then allow the fly to rest again.  Periodically, check for vegetation on the hook as a sign that the fly is a bit too deep.  Move the indicator a little closer to the fly.

            The Tied-Down Caddis Shrimp, Plastic-Back Scud, and Bead Head Hare Scud are all good flies, sizes 10 through 18, all tied in shades of olive, olive grey, and brown.  A dot of orange dubbing fur to imitate the egg mass carried by female scuds can add a bit of realism to the fly.   

            In my fly box I also carry a few scud patterns tied in pearly light blue color to imitate those shrimp that have just molted.  In addition, I have a few scuds tied with a predominantly orange body.  It is not only the pregnant females who exhibit some orange coloration; there are a few other factors that produce la crevette l'orange, orange shrimp.   At certain times of year, scuds may build up fat reserves, inducing an orangish tinge to its body.  An orange spot may form on a scud’s back because of a parasite whereby the scud also exhibits a behavior that actually exposes the hapless crustacean to foraging fish.  The fish become accustomed to seeing and eating “crazy” orange shrimp.  Lastly, dead scuds turn orange, and fish will utilize these as food, too.  So when it comes to blue and orange scuds, it never hurts to throw the fish a change up.

Leech Eater / Michael Gorman / Mckenzie River Fishing Guide

            Repulsive.  Ugly.  Creepy.  Icky.  Blood-sucking.  These are a few of the commonly used adjectives used to preface the word “leech”.  They are every freshwater swimmer’s secret nightmare.  However, there is something very endearing about leeches: fish love to eat them.  When there are no hatching or swimming insects, or scud activity, fish look to leeches for food.

            Leeches are segmented, and flattened when stretched out.  Common colors include black, brown, maroon, and shades of green.  Some are concolorous, while others are mottled.    They swim in an undulating, wavelike movement, usually near the bottom where they scavange on decaying or dead plant and animal remains.  They will also feed on insects, scuds, and snails.  They prefer dim light, usually hiding out during the bright part of the day.  

Fishing Leeches

            Any angler, whether beginner or veteran, knows to have an abundance of leech patterns at hand when fishing lakes and ponds.  Leeches are everywhere, or so it seems.  I am sure that even in waters that contain few leeches, lively fly patterns meant to imitate leeches may be taken by fish that are opportunistically looking to consume anything that looks alive.  Many of the fly-tying materials like marabou, fur, soft feathers, and mohair contribute to add “life” to the flies in which these materials are used. 

            Leech flies can be fished on all types of fly lines, from floating to Type VI full sinking types, and everything in between.  All manner of retrieves will prove effective at one time or another, from short & slow strips of the line to long & fast.  You can cast, troll, or a combination.  Experimentation is key to discovering what the fish want today.Leech L'Orange / Michael Gorman / Mckenzie River Fishing Guide

            One key part of every leech pattern design I want includes weight on or near the head of the fly.  Because real leeches swim in an undulating fashion, this movement is emulated in an artificial fly when the weighted front of the fly drops forward and dives a bit in between line strips as I swim it through the water.  I either secure a metal bead to the front of the fly as I tie it, or I wrap lead wire along the forward 1/3 of the hook shank before dressing it with fur, yarn, and feathers.

            A bizarre but effective method for fishing leeches, especially Micro Leeches, is suspending them under an indicator.  It is incredible to me that fish will intercept a leech pattern hanging just off the bottom with little or no movement.  After a minute or so, I will strip the indicator a foot or two, then, let the fly sit for another minute.  The fish catching results with this method can be mysteriously excellent.

             My favorite leech patterns include New Age Wooly Buggers and Dubbed Buggers in size 8, and Micro Leeches size 12.  Colors: black, brown, olive, maroon, and combinations of these predominate.  Whereas most of my stillwater patterns are tied in a range of sizes, for my leeches I have settled on sizes 8 and 12 to keep it simple.  I don’t perceive this restriction has hurt my fishing effectiveness, no longer carrying many different hook sizes.  I can vary the length and silhouette of any leech pattern by adjusting the length and amount of materials I put on the hook.  When I utilize metal beads on the front of the fly, I tend to use silver and copper on the vast majority of my leeches.         

Copyright © 2010 Michael Gorman       Reproduction of the text or photos are allowed only by the expressed permission of the author.

But Does It Bite? / Michael Gorman / McKenzie River Fishiing Guide






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Mckenzie River fishing guides & Rogue River fishing guides specialists

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