Swift Water, Fading Light and Ugly Bugs

Swift Water, Fading Light and Ugly Bugs

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

riffle.

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

wire.

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

Leave a Reply