Fly of the Month 09.13 Hellgrammite (larva)
This “fly of the month” represents the latest in the Alen Baker/Tom Adams series.
The first recorded incidences of mankind using a fly dates back to Roman times when a piece of red wool was tied to a hook to attract fish. The use of a fly by the Cherokee Indian nation may well date back thousands of years earlier when a very narrow strip of deer skin with the hair still attached was wound and tied on a stone hook. The Cherokee also tied the yellow feather of a flicker woodpecker to stone hooks. It is believed that the Spanish explorers in the 1500s introduced metal
hooks to the Cherokee which greatly improved the effectiveness of these early fly patterns. Thus, the deer hair fly and the yellowhammer are considered some of the first local fly patterns.
Fly patterns evolved beginning with wet fly patterns primarily. Hackle from domestic chickens from two centuries ago or earlier were not stiff enough to float well, so a wet fly pattern was greased to keep a fly on the surface. Many wet fly patterns are simply a color combination of materials each of tied with similar design named after someone who created it or used it. As hackle in the last half-century has been bred to be stiff and even very long for use in tying multiple flies, dry fly patterns may have evolved the most. From the fanwing and catskill designs; to thorax, cut-wing and burnt wing designs; to parachute, extended body, and spinner designs; to no hackles, comparadun and CDC biots designs; all evolving as improvements for different situations or to utilize new materials and techniques. Streamers for Atlantic salmon, steelhead and even trout began with wet fly color combinations as well as some basic colors that imitated small forage fish. Wet flies at some point began to be replaced in every fly box with newer more impressionistic nymph patterns and softhackle designs of wet flies. Dry flies patterns expanded to include terrestrials which have evolved to Chernobyl’s and other foam patterns. Nymphs and dry flies have now evolved to include emergers and parasols. Today even stillborn, crippled and crumpled fly patterns are used to imitate the insects that fail to hatch or get into trouble due to damaging winds. Fly tying and fly patterns have a rich history and continue to evolve as we discover new materials and better techniques to fool fish. The ole patterns still catch fish, so there are an overwhelming number of fly patterns to consider, but it is part of the fun. We continue to develop new fly patterns that exploit new materials and the many food sources available to trout.
As a beginner of fly fishing over thirty years ago, I was instructed from day one that there were primarily four major aquatic insects in a trout’s diet. The mayfly, the caddisfly, the stonefly and the midge have dozens to hundreds of fly patterns literally for each phase of their life cycle and then some. These four insects exist as many, many species in a variety of sizes and colors. Since their entire life cycle is in and above water they are considered fully aquatic and prime trout food to imitate. With all the variations of these four insects mentioned above, one would think that’s all we need to know. But there are many more food choices for trout. What comes to mind are terrestrials that are available for most of the summer. But what is one of the most important available year-round beyond the basic four that we encounter in the southern Appalachians?
The hellgrammite is the larval stage of the dobsonfly. It is also known locally as a “grampus”, “go-devil” or “bottomcrawler” by anglers that use the larva as bait. The dobsonfly in the adult stage is not a viable food source for trout since it spends the entire adult life up to several miles away from water finding and mating with another dobsonfly. Males have very long, harmless pincers and live about three days. Females have short, pain inflicting, defensive pincers and live about ten days. Males use their pincers for positioning and mating only. The dobsonfly is not venomous, but possesses an irritating, foul-smelling anal spray as a last-ditch defense. The females return to lay their white, circular egg masses on streamside rock ledges or overhanging branches. The larvae hatch from eggs that have been deposited on streamside rocks and crawl or drop into the stream where they live for years underwater and grow up to 2 inches to 3 inches in length. They live under and around large rocks with the less fortunate hellgrammites serving as a high protein, superior food source for trout. Trout love hellgrammites!
The hellgrammite prey on other insect larvae with the short sharp pincers on their head which also can inflict painful bites on humans and draw blood. They have only six legs – the rest of the “legs” are actually gills. Hellgrammites leave the water by crawling out and burrowing into the muddy stream bank. The larvae then find refuge and stay in under large rocks or logs on land in the pupal stage for several weeks before molting and emerging to find a mate. Note, the pupa form is not a viable food source for trout either. The dobsonfly is nocturnal. They are attracted to a night light and are often seen around a lantern while camping streamside. They may be up to 3 to 5 inches in length and fold their fours wings flat, two to each side.
The mating occurs on land and the egg laying occurs at streamside during the night. In this regard, the dobsonfly will behave like some species of stonefly. For example, the eastern salmon (stone) fly and the golden stone fly adults are nocturnal. We would probably be imitating the adult lifecycle stage of both the dobsonfly and these stonefly species if we did much night fly fishing. (Night fishing for trout is illegal in North Carolina except for the lower Nantahala River where an exception allows anglers to fish without a raft coming down on top of them.). Large adult stonefly patterns have been developed and are utilized out west as similar species of these stoneflies are not nocturnal and create daytime opportunities for anglers. However, here in the east, we rely heavily on stonefly nymph patterns and the same is true to imitate the dobsonfly larvae, the hellgrammite.
An angler may experience fly fishing a hellgrammite larva and not even be aware of the occurrence. So how is this possible? At some point we all have fly fished with a black, brown or dark olive woolly bugger. The woolly bugger is considered a general attractor fly pattern or at best a leech imitation. Frankly, I have never seen a leech in our clear, cascading mountain streams. I have seen an occasional leech in still water and they are more likely in a cold mountain pond with trout and in our northern states rather than in our streams.
My point is that in general a dark woolly bugger is large, bulky and very much imitates a hellgrammite. Particularly when fished like a nymph (larva) rather than a streamer. Most hellgrammite larvae that I have found while turning over rocks have been dark brown or dark olive to almost black in color. I know that there is a smaller specie of hellgrammite in the Ozarks that is light olive. The hellgrammite is such an important food source for trout that we present to you one of many hellgrammite fly patterns.
- Alen Baker
Fly of the Month 09.13 Hellgrammite
Hook: Tiemco 5262 or equivalent, Size: 4, 6, 8, 10
Thread: 6/0 Uni or equivalent in Black
Tail: Black Ostritch
Body: Black Chennille
Hackle: Black Rooster Saddle
Eyes: Bar Bell lead or equivalent
Antenna: Round Black Rubber legs
This is the heavy pattern, due to the eyes. A lighter pattern is the same but uses lead wraps in the abdomen/thorax for weight. The one illustrated will fish not unlike a Clouser pattern and offers less chance for snagging.
1) Make several thread wraps starting at the hook eye to about half way and bring back to about one third away from the hook eye. Position the eyes in front of the thread and make two or three “x” wraps to hold the eye in place. Make two or three turns around the thread holding the eye above the shank where the eye contacts the shank. Make several more “x” wraps and take the thread, in tight wraps, to above the hook bend. Let the bobbin hang. Apply one or two drops of zap a gap or equivalent on the thread wraps holding the eye.
2) Select a very generous portion of black herl and tie in, on top of the hook shank. Trim length in a straight cut to the same as the shank.
3) Select a section of black chenille and prepare by stripping one end to the thread. Scissors, with gentle pressure will pull the chenille material off. Tie in the thread so that the first wrap of chenille will be at the tail tie off.
4) Advance the thread to the halfway point and let the bobbin hang.
5) Wrap the chenille forward to the thread position using one light wrap of thread, if necessary, let the chenille hang.
6) Select a black rooster saddle feather. The barbs should be slightly longer than the hook gape. Tie in by the tip, immediately in front of the chenille and advance the thread to the behind the eye.
7) Wrap the chenille forward to the eye and secure with one wrap of thread.
8) Palmer the rooster forward to the eye and secure firmly with thread. Take the thread to the hook eye and let the bobbin hang.
9) Advance the chenille making one “x” wrap over the eye and one tight turn in front of the eye. Secure with thread wraps and trim the waist of rooster and chenille.
10) Tie in the rubber legs. Whip finish and trim the legs to a short length.
- Tom Adams, Alen Baker