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Tying and Fishing Fire Breathing Dragons

Dragon fly nymphs are a large prey item few trout pass by.
It was as though a great battle had taken place.  Vacant homes of cased caddis were strewn about the bottom of my 30-gallon aquarium.  Severed scuds lay scattered amongst the carnage.  Nothing moved.  A great storm had passed over the aquarium killing all within its path.  There, perched on one of its victim’s cases stood the eye of the storm, a mature climbing nymph or darner from the species Aeshnidae, fully 2 1/2 inches long.


Two months earlier I had placed the immature nymph within my aquarium to study.  It was about 1 inch long and darted among the weeds appearing almost shy.  How naive.  The population in my aquarium began to dwindle.  Scuds, damsels and cased caddis were a scarce commodity as the growing nymph became bold in its quest for food.  Stalking openly the dragon’s large eyes scanned for signs of movement.  Any motion caused the dragon nymph to cock its’ head like the RCA dog.  Cased caddis was a favored prey.  Picking up the nomadic grazing of the caddis the dragon would stalk its target with the stealth of a commando.  Creeping within inches of the intended victim the dragon paused.  Using water expelled through its rectum the dragon then burst upon its’ prey.  In a matter of seconds the dragon devoured the larva, piece by piece, often still alive.  Not all caddis larvae fell to this bull rush approach.  Occasionally the larva picked up the attack and darted back into the security of its’ cased home.  The dragon nymph now showed guise and cunning.  Patiently, the nymph waited outside the caddis case.  Eventually curiosity or some other foolish instinct got the better of the larvae and out popped its’ head.  In a flash the dragons hinged jaw fired out, grasped the larvae and ripped it from its case.  This feeding pattern continued unabated.  Scuds, damsels even another dragon nymph from the spider-like Sympetrum species was no match for this hunter.  Within two months the dragon nymph had eaten everything and doubled its’ size, only a couple of leeches remained.


This overt and aggressive behavior plays out in lakes, ponds and slow moving stretches of rivers every day.  Dragon fly nymphs are a large, calorie rich food source that few trout or bass pass up.  When fishing lakes, dragon nymphs are a preferred trump card when fishing is slow or inconsistent.  It is easy to figure out why dragons are important owing to their distinct look and size.  Anything that big and bold had to stumble into places it shouldn’t.  What isn’t always common knowledge is how, when or what to use to fish dragon fly nymphs successfully.


It is simple to sum when to fish dragon nymphs.  In a word, anytime.  The dragon nymphs’ prolonged three to four year life cycle makes them a year round food source.  Scouring the shoreline for signs of these large nymphs is a great beginning.  Turn over logs and rocks as dragons love these sheltered hiding spots.  Lakes with abundant sources of subordinate food items such as scuds harbor large populations of dragon fly nymphs.


Look for cast dragon husks along the margins from late spring through mid summer.
The first prime time of the season is early spring.  Trout spot these big nymphs easily amongst the early season weed growth.  It is not uncommon to look down the gullet of a trout and see a couple nymphs lined up for digestion.  Early season stillwater fly fishing is often a shallow water affair with fish trapped in the shallow waters prior to turnover.  The oxygen stratification of the winter does not permit them to spread out.  After the early spring summer is the next opportune time. In the Pacific Northwest dragon flies emerge in July and August.  Many species emerge at night to avoid predation.  During the day the nymphs migrate towards shore and mass in the shallows.  This lumbering journey towards shore is full of hazards.  Foraging trout pluck many nymphs off the bottom during this migration.  The shoreline march is no piece of cake either.  Birds such as robins feast upon the creeping nymphs.  Watching for this activity is a great clue of a hatch taking place.  Search the shoreline for signs of the large husks on shoreline structures, vegetation, bushes and trees to determine if the hatch is in progress.


Summer sees the end of the major hatches in stillwaters.  Fish return to those staple food sources that are available year round.  Dragon fly nymphs fit into this category.  During the summer doldrums crawling a dragon nymph along the bottom is a great method to dredge up fish.  Fall is another prime time for dragon nymphs, as temperatures drop trout again forage actively.  Along with scuds and leeches' trout use dragon fly nymphs to fatten up for the long cold winter ahead.  Fish return to the shallows to hunt down food.  For the fall season try smaller dragon patterns as the large, mature nymphs have emerged during the summer, a size 8 dragon nymph is a good basis point.


Fishing dragon fly nymphs properly is an important skill and presentation is more important than pattern selection.  Done right it is possible to be successful all season.  Dragon fly nymphs are creatures of the bottom dictating sinking lines.  Water depth is the key to line selection.  As a rule, the deeper the water, the greater the density of the sinking line.  This is especially true when using buoyant dragon nymph patterns.  In some cases my full sinking line is right on the bottom while the nymph pattern bobs along the weed tops, in these situations use density compensated lines up to type 6.  For traditional non buoyant patterns try intermediate and stillwater lines.  The retarded sink rates of these lines make it possible to crawl my patterns along at the right depth.  It’s no good if a pattern is constantly hanging up because the sink rate of the fly line overpowers the presentation or retrieve.  Sinking line leaders range from 6 to 12 feet.  Water clarity and the sink rate of the fly line determines overall leader length.  The slower the sink rate the longer the leader.  For intermediate and stillwater lines try leaders from 9 to 12 feet long.


Using their internal propulsion system dragons scoot along the bottom in 4 to 6 inch bursts.  The majority of the time sees them stalking amongst the vegetation and slow retrieves work best.  For the spider-like Sympetrum nymphs a slow, methodical handtwist best imitates the trundling nature of these ambush feeders.  I call it my “creepy crawly” retrieve.  For the weed dwelling Darner nymphs use a handtwist coupled with a 3 to 4 inch strips.  Takes on the Darner nymph are often savage,while takes on sprawler nymphs are soft, as though the pattern is caught up in the weeds. 


A successful method for fishing to sighted fish I stumbled on by accident.  Fishing was slow.  Standing up in my pram for a stretch I noticed pods of cruising fish in the shallows.  I sat down quickly so as not to spook the fish and cast the dragon nymph pattern I was using.  I tried my creepy crawly retrieve at first but it was not working as the large size 6 pattern kept getting hung up.  Deciding to change flies I began stripping the fly quickly back to the boat.  On about the third strip I had the rod almost ripped from my hands.  A brisk, choppy retrieve proved to be the answer.  This quick strip method into the shallows has worked well on more than one occasion since that day.  Another method to try to sighted fish in the shallows is to cast to an open section of the weeds and allow the fly to sink to the bottom.  As a fish comes within range, give a quick strip or pop the rod upwards to lift the fly off the bottom.  Do it only once to cause a small cloud.  I have seen trout cruise by the pattern almost pretending not to see it only to wheel about and snatch the fly off the bottom.  This is an exciting way to fish especially with sprawler patterns.  Sprawler nymphs are ambush feeders that prefer to bury themselves in the bottom debris and wait for dinner to come to them.


Another method a veteran angler first showed to me.  It is similar to my shallow water method.  Make a long cast with a stillwater or type 1 slow sinking line.  Allow the pattern to sink to the bottom.  Begin the retrieve by lifting the rod sharply to pop the pattern off the bottom.  Lower the rod tip to the waters’ surface and begin a series of 3 to 4 inch strips.  Strip the line about 4 to 5 times then allow the pattern to sink softly to the bottom.  Repeat this process until the retrieve is complete.  Takes often occur as the fly settles back down to the bottom.

Successful dragon nymph imitators certainly use other types of retrieves.  The key is using varied combinations until something works.  Changing the retrieve before changing the pattern is best.


The Draggin is a bouyant Darner imitation.
Dragon fly patterns are to the stillwater fly tyer what the stone fly is to the stream or river tyer, a source of constant imitation.  Owing to their large size dragon fly nymphs offer lots to imitate.  Try not to get to carried away and keep the goals of size, shape color and behavior in mind.  Incorporate behavior into both the retrieve and material choice.


Depending upon the species and time of year dragon nymphs range from 2 1/2 inches to 1/2 and inch.  My dragon patterns run from a size #10 2xl to #6 3xl and some tiers fish patterns to size 4.  Patterns should be larger in the spring and early summer and smaller in the fall. 


Dragon nymphs adopt the color of their surroundings. Mottled combinations of green, brown and olive are common.  Become a sleuth as local colors vary from one body of water to the next.  One color to keep the fly box is bright green.  Dragon fly nymphs go through a number of molts as they mature.  Immediately after a molt their coloration is a bright watery green.  This neon nymph sticks out like a sore thumb.  Trout relish these “fresh” nymphs much like Smallmouth enjoy immature crayfish.


Shape is where the creative fly tyer has fun with dragon fly nymph patterns.  The Darner nymphs have a distinct hour glass look to them while the squat sprawler nymphs resemble a spider.  Both species have long stout legs, large heads and compound eyes.  Personally I have run the entire gambit with my pattern design.  From woven bodies to simple dubbed affairs I have tried them all.  As a result of this experimentation I have settled on the following traits:


  • Don’t weight the pattern.  In order to creep the pattern over the bottom incorporate buoyant materials into the fly’s construction.  Spun deer hair bodies, furry foam over bodies, foam under bodies and eyes all help to crawl the pattern along. 
  • Use dubbing to simulate the semi translucent body.  My two favorites are seals' fur or Stillwater Solutions Sparkle Blend dubbing.  Blend different colors together to create your own magic mixes.  Keep in mind that suggestive patterns work better than exact replicas.
  • Use a dubbing loop to create a fuzzy durable fly.  For added highlights try spinning a length of sparkle chenille within the dubbing loop.  The net result is a scruffy body complete with attractive highlights throughout.
  • For imitating the sprawler nymphs use a body of spun deer hair with furry foam pulled over the top.  This combination enables me to creep the fly over the bottom to imitate the plodding nymphs.  Aftershaft feathers work well to imitate the soft hairy bodies of sprawlers.  Plump preformed bodies are another excellent sprawler option.  Once secured in place mottle to suit using a variety of permanent markers.
  • For imitating the eyes I like to use Booby Body or Rainy’s Float Foam.  A concept I borrowed from the English Booby.  The Booby has round ethafoam eyes giving it a look reminiscent of a swimsuit calendar, hence the fly’s name.  The foam eyes provide floatation.  Other suitable materials for eyes include knotted vernille, mono, peacock herl and glass beads.
  • Leg material needs to be stiff yet pliable.  Ideally the legs should tuck along the sides helping to imitate a nymph bolting for cover.  For natural materials try pheasant rump or pheasant tail (both hen and cock).  Knotted pheasant tail legs are a successful variation.  Recently I have added rubber, Super Stretch Floss or Sili legs to my dragon patterns.  These leg materials are durable and wiggle in a manner that imitates the crawling motion of the nymphs.


There are many excellent patterns available for the non tyer to try.  Patterns such as Whitlock’s Dragon, Gierach’s Dragon, or Kaufmann’s Lake Dragon are a good starting point.  An appropriately sized Woolly Worm is all many anglers use when imitating dragon nymphs.


Dragon fly nymphs are a great lead off hitter when exploring any new stillwater.  Their large size and year round availability make them a familiar sight all season long.  Whether made to dive and dart through a variety of retrieves or dragged lazily behind a float tube, dragon nymphs can consistently call up fish, giving further proof to the old adage, “big fly, big fish”.

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