A midsummer's meal for a largemouth bass

Old wives and young children have told extraordinary tales about dragonflies. Now an amateur flytier tells the real story, and he suggests that these interesting insects may turn out to be more fun than fishing itself
May 07, 1967

Dragonflies are the eagles of the insect world, rapaciously hunting down mosquitoes, midges, deerflies and moths. They also are among the most beautiful of insects, with delicate wings that are sometimes suffused with amber or dappled with cream and brown, and the glistening, shell-like skins give a dazzling glow that is the very spark of life.

To fish lurking below, a dragonfly that ventures too close to the water is an inviting feast. Bass will wallop one with a satisfactory thunk, particularly on those drowsy, drone-filled days when the fish are supposed to be sulking in the deeper holes waiting for the cool of evening.

Even though trout have been known to feed avidly upon dragonflies, the insect is all but ignored in angling literature. Fly-tying books dwell on mayflies, caddis flies and stone flies, the trinity of aquatic entomology, but it appears to be heresy to mention dragonflies, and author after author either skips over them completely or briefly suggests crude imitations made from balsa wood or kapok.

For the past several years I have been tying imitations that do very well with bass. I am far from the best fly caster, and I try to make up with science what I lack in technique.

Dragonflies spend the greater part of their lives underwater as nymphs, stout-bodied, ugly creatures that move by jet propulsion, expelling water from their backsides. Some dragonfly nymphs camouflage themselves in weeds, others bury themselves in muck. All the nymphs feed by ambushing lesser insects, crustaceans and sometimes small fish, grabbing them with a pinching lower lip that can shoot out faster than the eye can see. Adult dragonflies, despite their glowering faces and threatening gestures, are of no harm to man, but some of the nymphs, which may grow to an inch or more, have a fierce bite that can break the skin. Commercial bait dealers often collect the nymphs to sell as "perch bugs." They are an excellent bait, especially for panfish, and they are easy to gather by running an old window screen along the bottom of a pond. Tied imitations of the nymphs are not too successful, however: it is difficult for the angler to impart a natural action.

Depending upon the species—and there are some 300 in the U.S.—a dragonfly spends from several months to three or four years underwater as a nymph. When the time for transformation into the adult form is at hand the nymph heads toward shore and climbs up a reed or a rock, where it splits its skin down the back. With pulsing, sometimes convulsive movements, the winged adult gradually emerges. The nymphal casing is abandoned, and the young adult, weak and woozy, totters into the first state of aerial existence. As blood surges through the intricate network of veins, the compacted wings start to unfold and harden in the sunlight. In a couple of hours the dragonfly is ready to embark on its second life, which may last only a month. In this time it will mate, lay eggs and start the cycle anew. Along with the cockroach, the dragonfly is one of the oldest insects extant. Dragonflies go back to the Carboniferous period of 250 million years ago, when the great Pennsylvania coal beds were laid down. Fossils have been unearthed showing two-foot wingspreads.

Among the more common species which have wide distribution over the U.S. are Libellula pulchella, a brownish dragonfly nicknamed the "ten-spot" because of the splotches on its wings; Plathemis lydia, which has a chalky-white body and black barred wings; Perithemis tenera, a small (3/4 inch) weak flyer with a reddish, sturdy body and amber wings; Sympetrum rubicundulum, the bright-red dragonfly of the early autumn; and Anax Junius, the big, blue-green darner. Anax Junius is ordinarily the largest dragonfly to be found soaring around a pond. Its wingspan measures from four to five inches, and this dragonfly is a very strong flyer with keen sight. Anax Junius is one of several dragonflies that apparently migrate south in the fall. Swarms have been seen moving along the Connecticut and New Jersey coasts, following the same migratory track as swallows and monarch butterflies. Last year the Federation of Ontario Naturalists began catching flights of Anax in bird traps on the shore of Lake Erie, and small labels were glued on a fore wing with the hope that recapture would reveal their winter destination. Ordinarily Anax is difficult to catch with a hand net, and oldtime collectors used to obtain specimens by using a small gauge shotgun loaded with fine dust. By accident I have discovered that I can lure Anax within reach by dangling an imitation of it from the end of my fly rod. Like a number of dragonflies, the male Anax has his own territory around a pond, and he patrols it regularly like a cop on a beat. The sight of my bogus creation, jiggled up and down in the air, is sufficient to compel the live male into making a slashing attack on the interloper.

There are several ways of tying artificial dragonflies. The abdomen, thorax and head can be made of deer body hair tied on a streamer hook and clipped to shape. Clear lacquer is applied to the body, and after it has almost dried I compress the deer hair with my fingers and apply another coat of lacquer. After this has dried, fine tying thread is looped on to mark the abdominal segments. The wings are stiffish gamecock feathers, and the legs are stripped stems of feathers bent to shape with hackle pliers. The compound eyes on the head are put on with colored lacquer. Contrary to what one might expect, the artificial dragonfly casts easily, far more easily, in fact, than the regular puffy deer-hair bug, and it floats forever.

I was proud of this fly until Ted Niemeyer, the gifted flytier of the realistic, hackleless mayfly (SI, Jan. 23), offered a couple of suggestions, and I am now making an even more realistic fly using the end stubs of turkey, goose, peacock and other bird quills for the abdomen. I color these quills with dyes put out by Veniard, the English dealers in fly-tying materials. After the translucent quill stubs have dried, I use a fine pen and India ink to draw the abdominal segments and other body markings. The thorax and head are made of clipped deer hair lacquered the appropriate colors. Pig bristle or horse hair crimped to shape do well for the wings, and ostrich herl simulates the thoracic hair. A drop of clear lacquer poured into the quill body at the start will catch the sunlight and give the dragonfly an enticing movement.

If your finished dragonfly seems too beautiful to use on fish, you can always use it as a lure to attract a real dragonfly within swatting distance of an insect net. I often find this to be even more fun than fishing, so much so that a friend has suggested that someone might throw a net over me.