The damsel nymph itself.


Side view


Damselfly nymphs have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. As a child I’d catch them with a little aquarium net and put them in a large plastic container where I’d watch them for hours on end. They fascinated me because they looked strange, like anorexic aliens suspended in mid water. I think it’s their eyes that give them that alien look. I’d chase them around the tank to see them move. They weren’t fast movers like minnows or dragon fly nymphs. They’d move by swinging their abdomens from side to side with their legs outstretched to help keep them balanced. For the most part they didn’t move at all and just hung around in the weeds I’d thrown in for them. They blended in quite well. I’d introduce smaller creatures into the tank like bloodworm and mayfly nymphs and these would be eagerly eaten by the damsels. The way they ate them was fascinating, the damsels would lie quietly and ambush the other tiny creatures in the tank using their articulated jaws which would rapidly extend to capture their prey. They reminded me of a chameleon, they blended in well with their environment and hunted in much the same way.

At the time I was reading a lot of British fly-fishing magazines. Most of the damselfly nymph patterns in them were very different from the actual damsels I was studying. For one, most of them had beads on them that sent them plummeting down once cast. The damsels I was looking at had a neutral buoyancy. The British patterns had long bushy marabou tails, were not dainty at all and were mostly finished off with a few wraps of partridge hackle. I fished them and they worked but to my mind, they were jigs, not damsels. They fished erratically like jigs and relied on you actively moving them.

Most people who fish damselfly nymphs actively retrieve them, yet damselfly nymphs spend more time just hanging around waiting for prey to swim within attacking distance. I guess we’ve been influenced by all the literature we’ve read. It’s actually amazing how many people rely on stuff they’ve read as opposed to figuring and experiencing things out for themselves nowadays. The actual swimming action of damselfly nymphs is difficult to imitate efficiently without negatively affecting the overall profile of the pattern. Lots of people have tried to get it right and some occasionally do but I personally feel one loses out on all the other cool aspects of the natural by making the movement your sole focus. To me, triggers like inbuilt movement and profile are enough to sell the imitation in most instances.

One of the most effective ways of fishing damselfly nymphs is to employ a static approach or to just allow them to drift with the wind. At the end of the drift a slow figure of eight retrieve interspersed with pauses is employed. These flies will often be taken in the drift or when just lying there. I’ll typically fish these patterns in areas where I know there will be a lot of naturals and that typically means weed beds. Fish will often just cruise around these areas looking for little things to snack on. I’ll typically, position myself in an area where I know fish will be cruising and ambush them. Fish love weedbeds, inlets and corners of lakes. These are areas of a Stillwater that will just have higher fish densities. I’ll employ a “match the patch” philosophy trying to closely imitate the colour of the weed beds I’m fishing with my imitation.

 I’m a firm believer in the concept of inbuilt mobility in a fly so when I tie damsels, I like using materials that “breathe”. A thin marabou tail and cdc legs help achieve a neutral buoyancy to the fly as they slow the patterns sink rate down due to the resistance they offer, but also help with imparting macro movement to the fly even when it’s static. The cdc legs are nice and dainty too. When I tie these things, my aim is a delicate fly. I’d almost go as far as saying that it’s impossible to tie a damselfly nymph too thin! Most people overdress them. Mind you it’s a common thing across the board and doesn’t just apply to damselfly nymphs!

 For the wing case I like using swiss straw as it is translucent when wet and gives the fly a natural look. I’m a massive fan of contrast in a pattern so I’ll typically let my rib colour contrast the colour of the abdomen. I feel contrast helps fish to see the pattern better. I do the same thing with the wingcase so will typically use swiss straw of a slightly lighter colour than the abdomen of the fly.

I think a lot of tiers would tie better flies by simply being more economical in the way they use thread and materials.

One of my favourite methods of fishing damsels is slap bang in the middle of a mass migration. Like winning the lottery it’s not a common occurrence (well at least not in South Africa where I live) but when it does happen it is life changing. Every now and then thousands of damsel fly nymphs simultaneously decide to forgo their normal activities of just hanging around and swim to shore to hatch on bankside vegetation. They swim just below the surface. Fish go crazy when this happens picking the vulnerable nymphs off at will. All you need in this situation is a suitable pattern on a long leader fished on a floating line. A gentle hand twist/figure of eight retrieve interspersed with the odd pause does the job nicely. You’ll often see the boil of the fish before you feel the resistance on the line. This type of fishing is my favourite method in still waters as it’s visually exciting and filled with anticipation as fish will be feeding all around you.


I’ll occasionally tie damsels with two small red glass beads for the eyes which will just keep the imitation subsurface. The red eyes make for a deadly fly, fish just love them.  I don’t like excessive weight on a damsel fly nymph as it negatively affects the fly’s action in the water. If you need to fish the fly at depth, just use an appropriate line that’ll keep the pattern there.

The skinny damsel is my all-time favourite damselfly nymph pattern as it incorporates all the elements that make for a deadly pattern. It has a fantastic profile, is crammed with triggers and is jam packed with materials that bring the pattern to life. It’s also fun to tie. It is not hard to tie either but does require a bit of planning. It’s one of those rare patterns that not only looks good but works very well too.


Tips to tying deadly damsels

1)     Use thin flat thread, I typically like using Griffith’s sheer14/0. By using thin thread and keeping it flat throughout the tying process you eliminate unnecessary bulk. I also like using a lighter colour thread as materials tend to show up true to colour when wet.

2)     Plan ahead. Laying a thin layer of thread on the hook shank will help you seat materials well, but you can also make markings on the thread base where all the elements of the fly need to be. This way you’ll achieve a consistent result every time. This is a useful trick for less experienced tiers.

3)     Less is more! Be very economical in the way you use materials consciously keep things slim and trim throughout the tying process. You need far less than you think you need! I’ll typically tie the tail and rib in together to reduce the amount of thread used. This might seem excessive but if you apply this principle to everything you do you end up with an extremely thin fly. Taper needs to be premeditated. For the body I’ll typically use marabou fibres that have extreme taper, being very thin at the tips and getting gradually thicker the further down one goes down the fibre. I’ll typically use anything from 4-8 marabou fibres for the body.   I’ll use a bit of spit to keep the tips together and tie them in at the tips. As I wrap them forward the taper is created.

4)     Movement is life. Incorporating materials that give patterns inbuilt mobility are essential.  Materials like cdc, marabou, ostrich herl, owl feathers etc. all have magic life giving properties. Fish eat patterns that look like they’re living more than they do perfect copies of the naturals. This is a fly-tying truth that is as old as time itself.

5)     Spit is essential, when tying in the marabou tail, I’ll typically lick my fingers and roll the butts of the marabou between them before tying them in. This compresses all the fibres and barbules on them and makes tying the tail in easier. I’ll cut the butts square and then neatly tie them in with a pinched wrap on top of the hook shank.

6)     When melting mono eyes ensure that your heat source is NOT constant. A short length of thickish mono held in the middle of the mono in a hackle plier is melted on both sides to create the eyes. Make sure there are no bubbles in the melted mono as this will render the eyes brittle. Hold the mono at a slight angle when melting it.

7)     Do not figure of eight your dubbing around the eyes but rather dub around individual eyes only crossing to dub the opposite eye. This will give the head of your fly a flatter, more natural profile.

8)     A drop of super glue here and there can go a long way in rendering your fly bullet proof. I’ll typically apply a drop at the tie in point of the mono eyes (this will make them stronger) and will also apply a thin layer of super glue to my thread just before whip finishing the fly. This helps you achieve what I like to call an impregnated whip finish. It’s a lot stronger than just covering the thread head with varnish.

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