Dragonfly and damsel time

Words by:
Barry Grantham
Featured in:
August 2022

The damselfly is a beautiful, brightly coloured insect and along with the mayfly is one of my favourite flies. Long, slim and a bright blue, what a sight they make as they flit and dart over the water on a nice summer’s day hunting their prey…

There are about 40 species in the British Isles and worldwide 4,500. There is fossil evidence going back to the Jurassic period; this fossil had a wingspan over a yard long – what a sight that would have been, flying across the water’s surface. And what about the nymph of this enormous creature? It must have been at least 2ft long.

Most of the damsel and dragonflies in the British Isles today are common insects but their habitat is progressively under threat due to pollution, water abstraction and neglect of rural ponds.

They are unique in the insect kingdom. Their flight is totally different to other species – some can fly as fast as 60mph. In Japan the dragonfly is the symbol of victory and l have read that there is a magazine devoted solely to the subject. Also in that part of the world, the adult and the nymph are a source of food – a version of our scampi and crayfish.

They have been called many slang names: Devil’s Darning Needles, Darners, Horse Stingers. Many think that the insect stings. Not at all, but if you put your fingertip between its jaws it will definitely give you a nip.

The dragonfly and damselfly cannot be mistaken for other insects. They have long bodies that are made up of ten segments and are the longest in the insect world. They can move their heads in a swivel-like way far more than other insects. One of the outstanding features of the flies is their head and eyes. They have two large, all seeing eyes that contain up to 30,000 separate lenses. As well as these two eyes, they have a group of three simple eyes.

The fly has four wings, these are heavily veined and both pairs are very similar in appearance. The wings are very powerful and the fly is capable of flying hundreds of miles on migratory flights. The mouth of the adult consists of powerful mandibles (jaws) and is adapted so it can trap prey. The legs of the insect are adapted to seizing and holding their prey, but are useless for walking.

The colour of the damselfly is a beauty to behold, a shining bright blue. It is made up of four different elements. First a colour pigment under the skin, secondly a refraction of light shines on this pigment giving it a metallic finish. Thirdly other colours come from pigmentation in the outer cells. The fourth colour is referred to as simply a bloom.

Dragonflies and damselflies Odanata are divided into two groups: the Dragonfly Anisoptera and the Damselfly Zygoptera. This is important as there are distinct differences in the nymphal stages.
In the dragonfly there is no pupal stage; it goes from Egg to Nymph to Adult.

The mating act is rather unique. They do not fly tail-to-tail during mating. The male’s reproductive organs are underneath the ninth abdominal segment on the body but just to confuse even more, the male stores its sperm in a pouch called a pairing pouch under the third body segment before the mating begins.

When in flight, the male seizes the female with its anal appendages, more commonly known as claspers, behind the female’s neck. Now linked they fly around and often you will see another male trying to join the duo.

The female dips her abdomen into the water to lay her eggs. The male will often circle the area while she does so, to keep other marauding males away.

When the eggs hatch, the nymph is covered in a thin membrane and is called a pronymph. It is not long before it breaks free from this skin and feeds as a predator for up to two years.

The dragonfly nymph moves slowly along the bottom of the water but can swim at speed if disturbed. The damsel nymph breathes through flat leaf-like tail appendages and the dragon nymph through skin in its rectal area.

When it is time to hatch, the nymph crawls out of the water onto land or up reeds. The skin of the nymph splits and the adult emerges. On the lake I fish, you see the adult emerging way out in the lake as well as close in. With the lake being chalk based, we get a lot of weed during the summer months coming up to just below the surface.

The lake is located on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. It is a well established lake and the water is gin clear. During the summer months there is prolific weed growth, which does cause disgruntled remarks from some of its members but we do get plenty of insect life – damsels among them.

If we clear weed from the water, damsel nymphs are found in abundance. This is proof of the quality of the water and the fish in the lake.

Damsel nymph imitations come into their own here. During the summer a damsel nymph that is not weighted is best for the job. If there is a breeze blowing across the lake and you have calm water going into a ripple, cast the nymph out, landing in the ripple. A slow retrieve is made, or leave the nymph to just move with the ripple on the water’s surface. When the damsels are hatching, the trout go crazy for the emerging nymphs. At times you can see trout leaping out of the water – I still am not sure if the trout are leaping to catch the hovering fly.

Many times I have tried an imitation damselfly on the surface without success. All my catches have come on damsel nymph. Members who fish the lake during the winter months get very good results by fishing a weighted damsel nymph. With the weed now gone, a nymph is cast out and allowed to sink to the bottom. A slow retrieve is made, making the nymph move along the bottom of the lake.

During the winter months the nymph fishing can be spectacular and allows the use of finer tackle. A 4lb leader would be okay, unlike during the summer when, due to the weed, a leader strength of 8lb is needed.

There are many dressings for a damsel nymph. The one I use to get down deep is a very easy fly to tie and ideal for those who have just started tying their own flies.

Hook: Long shank size 10
Tying silk: Olive
Tail: Olive marabou with two strands of blue holographic tinsel
Body: Olive seals fur dubbing ribbed with blue tinsel
Hackle: Olive hen hackle
Head: Gold bead

Firstly a gold bead is threaded onto the hook so it butts up to the hook eye. The hook is placed in the vice, silk is wound on at the eye behind the bead securing it, and then wrapped in close turns down to just before the bend, marabou is tied in for the tail as are two strands of tinsel. Blue tinsel ribbing is tied in and olive seal fur is dubbed to the thread. The seals fur is wound down to just behind the gold bead. The blue rib is then wound down. A soft olive hen hackle is tied in and wound.

To turn this into a fly that sits high in the water, the bead is omitted or a foam ball can be substituted coloured with a marker pen. I have seen patterns of this type with eyes drawn on with a marker pen.

Yes, it is an exciting and rewarding time to be fishing during the summer months when the damselflies start to show.

Words and photographs: Barry Grantham

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