Long shadows stretched across the rain-swollen river as the towering ridge above
glowed in fading golden light. A thumping strike bounced the five-weight’s tip before
arching the rod as the fifteen-inch smallmouth bore into the murky current. Three
memorable leaps and a strong run later a hellgrammite imitation was extracted from its
jaw and in a defiant flash of bronze returned to its rocky home downstream from the
Spring showers raise the water level causing it to turn cloudy, but smallmouth bass
are on the move. The warm influx of water stirs their instinct to prepare for the spawn, and their first stop will be protective current breaks within and immediately downstream from a riffle at the head of a pool. The bass will feed opportunistically on whatever morsels the river provides but in pale evening light the swift water of the riffle offers a dietary staple, hellgrammites. This larval stage of the Dobson Fly, especially the Eastern species (Corydalis cornuta) are mean looking critters with heavy mandibles capable of pinching an angler’s finger. They have a testy disposition to match which causes them to use those powerful pincers at the slightest provocation. West coast members of the Corydalis family lack the enlarged mandibles.
Hellgrammites, known to some as “toe biters,” are most commonly found among
the large gravel and chunk rock in swifter sections of streams where they take refuge
from the sunlight. There, although omnivorous, they mainly feed on other nymphs
including mayflies, caddis flies, and stone flies. They are most active at dusk and on into
the night, a fact which must not be over-looked when fishing hellgrammite patterns.
Their three-year life cycle enables growth to four inches in waters containing an
abundance of nymphs and larva on which to feed. In healthy streams, there is a wide
range of sizes of this mean-spirited, ugly bug from tiny wigglers to gigantic old timers.
Those most available to the smallmouth population are between one and a half and three
inches in length and imitations should replicate that range of sizes.
Even knowledgeable anglers often fail to recognize the importance of
hellgrammites because they seldom see adult Dobson Flies along the stream and their
rock turning forays fail to uncover true representations of the numbers that are available.
This may be because the fastest section of the river is the hardest place to obtain samples.
We shouldn’t assume their numbers are low and fail to imitate these brownish-black
nymphs so highly prized by the smallmouth bass population.
Fly fishing catalogs display an array of hellgrammite patterns, but few capture the
flattened body, a realistic simulation of the menacing mandibles or the flexible body of
the live version. Recently deceased fly tying icon George Grant, 1973 Buz Buszek Award
recipient, used aluminum finish nails on either side of the hook shank to create a flat
foundation for his weighted nymphs. Substituting 50-pound test monofilament for
Grant’s nails and borrowing the mandible material choice of another great fly tier, the
late Michael Verduin, and in providing a jointed body for maximum action, we’ve
fashioned our own hellgrammite imitation that we call “Wilson’s Jointed Hellgrammite.”
The jointed body is activated by the current, and any rod manipulation mimics attempts
by the natural to escape. The pattern has consistently given us good evening smallmouth
action. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s the recipe and tying instructions:
Abdomen and Tail Hook
Hook: Mustad 3366, size 4
Thread: Black 6/0
Tail: Black saddle hackle, size 12. Tie in the hackle at the hook bend and make 3 to 4
wraps. Pull them toward the rear and wrap thread at the base to slant the hackle back.
Body: 50-pound monofilament tied at both sides of the hook shank to make a flattened
body. Soak in head cement. Tie in fine black wire to provide segmentation and dub the
abdomen with Whitlock’s SLF dubbing, hellgrammite. Wrap to the hook eye, spiral the
wire forward and whip finish. Remove hook from the vise and, using wire cutters, clip the
hook at the hook bend behind the tail.
Thorax and Head Hook
Hook: Mustad 3366, size 4
Weed Guard: 16-lb Mason hard mono. Secure to the hook shank and leave to trail behind
the end of the hook bend.
Connecting Loop: 10-lb Mason hard mono. Secure along the hook shank and through the
eye of the completed abdomen and tail hook. Provide enough loop to allow freedom of
movement and secure the unattached end of the mono to the thorax/head hook shank.
Thorax: Secure two strips of 50-lb mono to either side of the hook shank and soak all the
monofilament attachments with head cement. Tie in fine black wire and tie in hen hackle
(black). Dub to the position of the head (approximately ¾ of the hook shank) with
Whitlock’s SLF dubbing, hellgrammite.
Legs: Wrap the black hen hackle to the head position then wrap the black wire forward so
as to secure both the dubbing and the hackle. Be careful not to trap the legs under the
Eyes: Extra small barbell eyes (black).
Head: Whitlock’s SLF dubbing, hellgrammite
Weedguard: Bring the weedguard mono forward and secure under the eye. Clip the mono
and adjust the weedguard position. Burn the mono end to prevent slippage.
Mandibles: Black rubber 3/8-inch O-ring. Cut 1/4 of the ring away. Cut at a 45-degree
angle to represent the sharp mandible points. The overall length of the fly should
be 1 ¾ to 2 inches from the end of the tail to the tip of the mandibles.
Your own choice of rods for stream smallmouths will deliver the fly effectively,
but we prefer a 9-foot 5- or 6-weight. The rod length will allow for “high sticking” where
that’s perceived to be an efficient presentation. The rod weights also accommodate the
sinking line we sometimes prefer because they enable the fly to be retrieved parallel to
the bottom as opposed to being stripped toward the surface. Fished on floating line with
at least a nine-foot leader facilitates the high-sticking presentation, whereas leaders on
sinking line should be short (3 ½ to 6 feet) to prevent the fly from bowing toward the
surface, thereby negating the purpose of the sinking line. The leader is best when tapered
to aid in turning over the fly, but under swift water conditions, tippet size isn’t a big issue.
Ours tend toward 3X to 4X, but slightly heavier tippets won’t cause rejection.
Presentation depends, to a large extent, upon current speed. If the riffle being
fished is slow enough to allow slack line recovery casting up and across insures the
longest drag-free drift. Intermittent action can be imparted even with sinking line by
lifting then dropping the rod tip and stripping only to remove slack. This lift, drop, strip
retrieve is equally valuable in swift currents which require a down and across cast as it
can be employed either at intervals or the end of the dead drift. Especially if casting
downstream it is advantageous to find positions from which to cast that involve as little
wading as possible. Any silt, sand, or gravel that is dislodged will be washed downstream
through potentially productive water. If a dead drift is preferred, a reach cast, that is to
say pointing the rod tip upstream as the fly is landing, will extend the length of the drift.
High-sticking can be very successful and involves landing the fly close enough to
the caster’s position to allow the angler to hold the line off the water by utilizing the rod’s
length then follow the drift causing direct line contact with the fly. The result is a drag-free
drift that enables targeting very specific seams in the current or specific current
breaks. The tactic also transmits fish contact immediately to the angler, thus reducing
missed strikes. Long leaders are necessary for high-sticking, and sometimes it’s helpful to
extend the length of the leader if the fish holding water is deep.
Another very successful presentation involves pocket water (sections of water that
look bumpy because the submerged rocks reach close to the water’s surface) which is
swift enough to harbor hellgrammites. Casting down and across allows the fly to tumble
among the rocks, then strip to intentionally bring the fly into contact with the rocks. This
creates a clicking sound that causes nearby bass to investigate. This “rock-banging” tactic
is particularly successful when the water is so turbid that smallmouths are having
difficulty locating their meal by sight. Barbell eyes, cone heads or bead heads will do a
good job of clicking against submerged rocks and attracting bass.
Fishing a hellgrammite pattern may well provide great smallmouth fishing, but it’s
important to remember the nature of this ugly bug. It shuns the light, waits until near
darkness to become active, and prefers the fast, well-oxygenated portions of the stream.
Success with hellgrammite imitations is best near dusk in and near riffles at the heads of
pools. Long rods and two spools for the reel, one with floating and the other with sinking
line, will serve every situation. And remember, within weeks of your first spring
smallmouth trip these same bass will be spawning. Return them safely to the water so
they can replenish the river.
Flyfisher. Spring-Summer 2009. Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc. Sandpoint, Idaho