Friday, June 10, 2011

Fly Profiles | Damselfly Nymph

This is the first in a series of my favorite patterns to fish with, be it on the end of a client's rod or my own. I'll make a podcast out of it too.

It was back in 1999 when I started working for Orvis. There was a fly we sold called the 'Orvis Living Damsel' and it was a rarely sold pattern. I don't think any of the shop employees had touched one. The dozen or so flies sat there in the bin covered in dust from fall into winter then spring. At some point I picked one up and put it in my fly box where it sat for several another month in the dark.

I shop regular hired me to guide him for shad down in Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. It was early May of 2000. We wet waded and the shad fishing was off. The water was low and swimming pool clear. I had a V shaped tan on my chest from where my shirt had been open all day-which lasted well into fall. After an hour or so of no shad I changed plans and we started moving up above the fall line to fish the rock drop offs for smallies. I tied on a foam popper and we got into sunfish and small smallmouth bass right away. 

We moved our way up the river and ended up on top of a steep drop off with a 3-4 foot waterfall with a deep and clear plunge pool below. We could see all sorts of fish holding in the water. Shad, bass, sunfish etc. We threw the popper down there with no luck. I don't remember what made me decide to put on the damsel but I clearly remember sitting on a rock on the left edge of the pool, cutting off the popper, and tying on the damsel.

Adam tossed the fly in and the line went tight and the rod bend. He set the hook and pulled out a nice schoolie striper in the 10 inch range. The fly worked, who knew. He tossed it in again and wham, another schoolie. This went on for half an hour or so of constant action on this extremely neglected fly. It was soon lunch time and Adam was hungry and needed a break from catching fish. I still had my Mary Washington College school ID on me. We went up to Papa Johns just off the river and used my ID to get a $5 large pizza. We ate the 'za on the hood of the car and then drove up to the Plank Road section of the river. I climbed up on some rocks above the 'hot tub' (someone took rocks and made a pool against the line of rocks going across the river, when its hot the water in it heats up and people hang out and drink beer). I was sighting the fish from above and he cast the damsel and caught a handful more sunfish and smallies. We went home.

So this fly worked. I was also working at this lousy consulting firm in Reston at the time I worked at Orvis. I had a co-worker from Scotland who wanted to go fishing. He wanted to spin fish. I met him and my roomate Gary in the office parking lot on a Saturday morning in July of 2000 and we headed to Lock 5 on the Potomac. Gary was using a crank bait or beetle spin or something and Andy had an ultralight rod with a damsel nymph and a split shot. I fished the same pattern on my 9'5wt. Andy caught fish left and right. He outfished Gary who was a proud redneck and proud of his heritage fishing skills.

Later that year was the Orvis warehouse sale. Some of the shop employees got to set up this sale and pick out merchandise before the crowds arrived. I loaded up a cardboard box of gear, clothing, shoes, and flies. Back then the guys running the show would sell me a box of flies for $1-$3 no matter what pattern or how many I could stuff into the box. One of the patterns was the damsel nymph. I loaded about 70 of those flies into the box (I still have about 2 dozen hidden away for emergency purposes). I assume since our shop didn't sell any that maybe others didn't and thus they were getting rid of them.

Anyway, since July I had been praising that fly and selling it to anyone who would bite. I used it on Lake Audubon from my float tube and caught sunfish that would pull my boat. I loved to fish it on my 3wt Superfine 'Tiippet' rod. I used it on the Potomac, Shenandoah, and Rappahannock rivers. Small streams and ponds. It was awesome. If I was taking someone fishing I put that fly on as my go-to pattern. The first time I took my wife fishing back in April of 2001 (at my brothers farm pond before a DMB show) she was hooking fish left and right. If she isn't catching fish she won't fish. She stayed with it.

Around 2001 Orvis stopped selling the pattern. It was only available on the UK site. I was starting to get low on my stash. This was the one fly that I would go out of my way to get out of trees and snags. One that I could not afford to loose, it was that good.

One night I asked Tom if he could figure out how to tie the pattern. If we could not get it from the stores anymore we had to make it ourselves. Tom came through and made them up to 4" for bigger fish. His replication was spot on with the braided tail, duck thorax, ribbing, and eyes. That was too much work for me. We had to figure out how to tie this fly out of necessity and we came up with a terrific if not better pattern.

I sat down and started to play around with marabou and dumbell eyes and after a month or so I figured out how to tie the pattern. By the way, I'm not going to tell you ;)

I use one olive marabou plume and a medium sized bead chain for eyes. The fly can be tied relatively quickly and a handfull can be cranked out in an hour. Out of all the patterns that I tie, this is by far, arguably, hands down THE MOST PRODUCTIVE FLY FISHING PATTERN I  HAVE EVER USED!

I'm not sure if all fish caught think it is a damselfly larvae or possibly a tiny baitfish. Heck, stripers don't eat damsels do they? I have even tied the pattern on saltwater hooks and taken fish in Hawaii. Maybe they looked like shrimps? Whatever it looks like to the fish I thank the undulating tail for the action. Fish suck it in or pounce on it. Some of the largest bass taken in the past two years by clients have been on this pattern.

This is a list of the fish species caught on this pattern:
  • largemouth bass
  • smallmouth bass
  • striped bass
  • bluefish
  • american shad
  • gizzazrd shad
  • hickroy shad
  • white perch
  • yellow perch
  • needlefish
  • channel catfish
  • bluegill and other sunfish
  • crappie
  • grass carp
  • brook trout
  • rainbow trout
  • fallfish 
  • lizard fish
  • and more I can't think of
This fly is most productive when fished in a tandem rig. I used a terrestrial all summer with a damsel dropper. In the spring and fall I use a baitfish pattern with a damsel off the bend of the lead fly. This pattern is so effective that I carry a box of just this pattern.

At some point I realized my original pattern was taking too much time to tie. The fact that we lost so many during the shad run made it worse. I started to tie them in a simple pattern (chartreuse on right side) and that has proven just as effective.  The brighter color allows me to see the fly easier in the water off the boat which enables me to shout 'set the hook' when I see the fish inhale the fly.

I carry a case of Orvis fly fishing catalogs in the back of my car to hand out to clients. They often ask me what flies they should purchase and I flip to the page with the damsel (they started carrying it 2 years ago) and circle the pattern with my sharpie. I tell them that is the only patten they need to fish the D.C. metro area.

I hope I have inspired you to go out and get one today. If you want to order one of mine, please specify original (marabou) or simple (another bird). I sell each for $2 compared to Orvis at just under $3.

My site for custom flies is


great article, this is one of my favorite patterns for sure. I like your version. thanks.

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