Published May 12. 2018 - 1 month ago
Updated or edited May 13. 2018

Dragons and Damsels

Odonata is the Latin name for the order of dragonflies and damselflies. This article is about them.

Damselfly
Dragonfly
Damselfly and dragonfly
Wussiewussie/Wikimedia Commons - André Karwath/WikiMedia Commons

In some European folklore the dragonfly was called "Witches animal" or "Satan's ambassador", sent to earth to bring chaos and confusion. In Sweden, folklore suggests that dragonflies come around to check for bad souls. They were known as devil's darning needles and horse stingers or finger cutter. They will sew together your lips or creep through your ear into your brain.
The truth is that they are not dangerous at all, unless you're a midge.

Introduction

The distribution of species of Odonata varies. Some inhabit cool streams or rivers, others ponds or still, clear waters, and some tolerate a broad range of conditions.
Odonata, which means "toothed one", is a very old order, which appears for the first time about 325 million years ago. Compare that to us humans. We have been around for just 4-6 million years. Odonata is also a very diverse taxon, comprising of over 6,000 living species.
Odonata consists of three groups:
Anisoptera – Dragonflies
Zygoptera – Damselflies
Anisozygoptera – a relict group with only two species living in Japan and the Himalayas.

All of them go through an incomplete metamorphosis. Their life cycle takes place in three stages:
Egg > Nymph > Adult. There is no pupal stage like in many other aquatic insects.

Eggs are laid in water or on vegetation near water or wet places. Dragonfly eggs are round and about 0.5 mm big, whereas Damselfly eggs are cylindrical and longer, about 1 mm long.

Dragonfly nymph
Dragonfly nymph
Dragonfly nymphs
Jan Hamrský

Nymphs of both groups are ferocious underwater predators. They hunt insect larvae, tadpoles, small fry, and even each other. They live underwater, usually just one year, but some species up to 6 years. They molt up to 17 times during this time, as they grow and get ready to transform into the adult insect.

Adults feed on mosquitoes and other small insects such as flies, bees, ants, wasps and butterflies. They are great hunters. Especially dragonflies catch more than 95 percent of the prey they target – making them some of the world's deadliest hunters, twice as successful as a great white shark, and four times as effective as a lion.
They have elongated bodies, big eyes and two pairs of strong membranous wings. Odonates operate each wing independently, this gives them the interesting abilities to hover, fly backward, and take off vertically, with the kind of aerial agility of which masters of the helicopter can only dream.

White legged damselfly nymph
Spread winged damselfly nymph
White legged damselfly nymph
Damselfly nymphs
Jan Hamrský

Dragonflies are fast fliers, with a top speed of nearly 60 mph (97 km/h), this means about 300 body-lengths per second. Some have great endurance. The species Pantala flavescens for example, flies across an Indian Ocean during migration, a trip of about 11,000 miles.
Dragonflies have larger rear wings than the front pair, damselflies on the other hand have similar shape of both pairs. That's one of the reasons why they are worse fliers than dragonflies. Another key morphological feature, how to distinguish these two groups, is that dragonflies can not fold their wings together when resting as damselflies do.
Even though Odonates possess six legs like any other insect, they are not capable of walking in the adult stage. They have large compound eyes, each composed of nearly 30,000 individual units. Each unit points in a slightly different direction, providing them with an almost 360 degree view of the world. They literally see in all directions at the same time. The visual sensing elements together produce a mosaic of 'images' which are integrated in the creature's brain. Odonates can discern around 300 images per second. Our eyes in comparison can do just about 50. It's not surprise that 80% of their brain is devoted to analyzing visual information.

How they see
Complex eyes
Complex eyes
Tereza Ščerbová - Břetislav Kašpar

Courtship

Rituals of courtship and sex can at a first appear almost romantic. But take a closer look. It is bizarre mix of cooperation and conflict. Males will seize a flying female, females warming in the sun, will attack mating pairs, or even grab a female in the middle of egg laying.
Females attempt to escape by flipping, submerging in water, fly away at high speed, or fighting back, sometimes to death. Females of some species also play dead to escape ill behaved males.
This war between the sexes can look rough, but judged by their longevity, diversity and worldwide distribution, they are one of nature's great reproductive successes.
Once the male has caught a female, he will grip her by the head or thorax, with claspers at the tip of his abdomen. She will curl her body to bring her sex organs in touch with his penis, working the pair into that heart-like position. Male's testes are located at the tip of abdomen but the penis is situated on the thorax, right behind the legs. Before copulation, he must transfer his sperm from the testes into the penis. A female nearly always mates with more than one male, that's why the male uses his penis not just to transfer sperm, but also to remove sperm from previous matings. The last sperm into the female will be fertilizing her eggs. To secure paternity, males guard or continue grasping the female while she lays her eggs. Egg laying then typically occurs on protruding vegetation around the water's edge, or directly into water. Then the life cycle has come full circle. Adults survive after mating, living through the summer succumbing to the autumn frosts.

Dragonflies

Dragonfly nymphs are very robust and bulky and have gills inside their abdomen You can see how they contract and expand to run water over the gills. Also when they swim, a fast jet of water is shot out the back. That pushes them in short 10-12 cm (4-5") bursts along the bottom. Dragonflies make their home in slower moving pools on rivers and in lakes.
The dragonfly nymph’s aggressive predatory behavior exposes it to fish. These nymphs are a year round staple and very welcomed food source. The larvae are camouflage masters, colors can vary from light olive and shades of green to brown and almost black. They are able to match the coloration of the habitat they live in.
Some nymphs grow up to 5 cm, but common average is about 35 mm. Emergence is usually sporadic, so "hatches" do not have big impact on feeding and fishing.

Dragonfly nymph patterns

Long shank hooks in sizes #4-8 should be used. Use larger patterns in the spring and early summer and smaller in the fall. You can go for floating patterns made from deer hair or foam sheeting or for weighted ones.
The animals have six legs located near the head. Leg materials should be strong and flexible. Use pheasant or turkey tail fibers or silicone/rubber legs. Also ad big eyes. For floating patterns they can be foam, for weighted ones metal dumbbell eyes work well.

Tying a floating dragonfly nymph
Tying a weighted dragonfly nymph

How to fish dragonfly nymph patterns

Dragonfly nymph patterns need to be presented as close to the bottom as possible. Then animals can inhabit depths up to 10 meters! In the majority of situations this requires the use of fast sinking fly lines matched to the depth. Sporadic snagging on a retrieve ensures you that the fly is in the right zone.
Leaders should not be longer than 2,5 meters (8') and floating nymph patterns can be fished on leaders as short as 1 meter or 3' in length. Dragonfly nymphs move slowly. Short and slow 3-8 cm (1.5-4') strips or figure-of-eight retrieves work well in combination with some faster strip twice that distance to imitate some swimming motion.

Dragonfly adults

Dragonflies typically emerge from late spring through mid summer. They migrate into the shallows prior to crawling out of the water and emerging as a winged adult. Many species emerge nocturnally to avoid predators. Adults are very rarely exposed to trout because they are great fliers. Only when a freshly emerged fly end up on the water, as a result of clumsy first flights during the first 24 hours after the emergence, it can draw a single explosive rise
Windy days also sometimes forces adult dragonflies onto the water and they become an easy meal for an opportunistic trout. Once they are trapped in the water surface, they partially sink and their wings are always in a spent position.

Dragonfly adult patterns

The fly has to be big. So use a large dry-fly hook in size #4-6. You do not want to dry these huge flies with false casts, so use floating materials. For the body, closed cell foam is your friend. Ad big eyes made from a foam cylinder. It may appear as a good idea to make the wings from some foil or printed material, but the finished fly will twist your leader terribly and make a very disturbing noise. I also avoid wings from feathers for similar reasons, and because of their fragility. I make dragonfly wings from a bundle of Flashabou in the right color. For legs, use some barred rubber legs.
Tying a foam dragonfly adult

Dragonfly empty shuck
Dragonfly nymph
Emerging dragonflies
Břetislav Kašpar - Jan Hamrský

How to fish dragonfly adult patterns

You will probably only use it in case you see trout feeding on adults, or as an attractor for seen fish. Adult patterns can be presented with a hard landing on the water. These huge flies will always twist your leader, so try to eliminate false casts as much as possible. On the water surface, the adults twitch and flop, trying to escape off the water trap. Do the same with your fly to imitate the distress.

Damselfly nymphs

Damselfly nymphs live in weedy areas of lakes and slower pools in rivers. They are smaller than dragonflies, but hatch in far greater numbers. They have long and thin body, six long spidery legs and have three very distinct fin-like gills at the tip of their abdomen.
Damselflies' colors are mostly shades of olive, brown and dirty blacks. They are always present in lakes and can therefore be fished year round. In the absence of a hatch, they can be typically be found along the bottom of the lake, preferring the cover of weed beds. Waters with dense growth of bottom-to-surface vegetation are usually full of them.
The damselfly nymph becomes exposed to predators prior to and during emergence, which is usually around midday from mid spring to mid summer. For several days leading up to their emergence, damselfly nymphs make many false starts beginning to ascend then settling back down to the bottom. They usually emerge in large numbers, swimming slowly upwards with pauses until they reach the surface. Near the surface they level out and swim towards shore.
When mature they grow up to 35 mm in length.

Damselfly nymph patterns

Keep them slender! Long shank nymph hooks in size #8 or #10 are good choices. Fly patterns can vary from being quite simple to very realistic, but all should be very thin in order to mimic the naturals. Similar to dragonfly nymphs, you can use weighted, unweighted or floating patterns, in combination with different lines. Big eyes are also very good. The flowing action of marabou is an excellent choice for damselfly nymphs. Patterns don't have to be realistic during the first few days of the emergence, but as the trout fill their bellies, they can become more selective.
Tying the Living Damsel Nymph

How to fish damselfly nymph patterns

Damselfly nymphs are my favorite stillwater flies when there is no chance fishing a dry fly.
They live in 1 to 8 meters of water. They are are not fast swimmers, and move with a sinusoidal motion. This movement is best imitated with a steady figure-of-eight retrieve coupled with an occasional random side to side twitch of the rod tip.
Intermediate and floating lines are perfect for matching the mature larval movement within the upper meter of water as the larvae make their way to emerge. Use weighted or unweighted (not floating) nymphs, slowly pull about 3-5 cm, from time to time interrupted by two or three second pauses. You can also wait, and let it settle back down to deeper water.
With Sinking line, you can fishing in greater depths. Cast line and let settle to near or on the bottom. Work the fly along slowly (about 3-5 cm per second) with short quick jerks every 20 to 30 seconds. Random pauses through out the retrieve can also help.

Damselfly adults

The adult isn’t a major food source for feeding trout, unless it’s emerging. When is windy, damsels can be blown onto the water and trapped in the surface film. Here they are easy pickings for trout, and a dry fly damselfly can be very productive. The damselfly adult has a very thin body, mostly in blue or green colors.

Blue tailed damselfly
Spread winged damselflies
Damselflies
Břetislav Kašpar - Jan Hamrský

Damselfly adult patterns and how to fish them

Design of the flies will be basically very similar to dragonflies. Just keep in mind that they are far more delicate and slender than the dragonflies.
Cast the flies around the edges of any possible trout lie. In streams you can try to fish them wet as well.
Tying a damselfly adult

Conclusion

Odonata may well be called the "Orchids" of the insect class: elegant, brilliant, subtle.
Even if they are not the member of "Big Four": Mayflies, Caddis, Stoneflies, Midges, they are important for us fly fishers. They are year round residents in the water, are some of the biggest insect morsels for tout, and they are also members of the last major emergence in a stillwater year. Some say the best is saved for last.

Credits

Photos: Břetislav Kašpar, Jan Hamrský
Ilustration: Tereza Ščerbová

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