American Fly Fishing

By Pete Elkins

Bête noire. The French language is rich with textured imagery, and “black beast” connotes all that is hellgrammite. Hellgrammites, the larval stage of the eastern dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus), if transformed by Hollywood magic into monstrous proportions, would be cruel playmates for Sigourney Weaver in a remake of Alien.
   Beyond the literal French translation prowls the stuff of personal nightmares. Decades ago, my first encounter with hellgrammites left an incarnadine mark. I reached into a bait bucket filled with the little beasties. When a ferocious pair locked onto my index finger, my yelp startled an angler in the next pool. He looked up to see me shaking off both beasts and blood. That encounter hastened a path from bait angling to fly fishing. Even common names reflect the fiends’ predatory nature. No lovely Latin etymology like Ephemera for these creatures. An etymological tour of common names for hellgrammites is reason enough to have beastly bug dreams. How about “devil scratchers,” “go-devils,” “toe biters,” and “krampus.” (If you are wondering about that last moniker, which might not sound so scary, well, krampus alludes to a mythical horned creature, so there you go.)
   Nasty public image aside, trout and many warm-water species rate hellgrammites at the top of the fish-food menu. Although adult dobsonflies are the most spectacularly fearsome, the adult phase has little, if any, angling value. The larvae, usually 1 to 3 inches long, represent the filet mignon of fish food, and that phase lasts from two to five years. Only four of the 30 or so dobsonfly species are important to North American game fish. Of those four, the eastern is the most widespread, ranging from southeastern Canada south to Mexico. The three remaining species are found west of the Mississippi.
   Hellgrammites dominate the fish food chain far more in the East than they do in the West. However, hellgrammite patterns produce well for Western trout and smallmouth bass, even when the fish have likely never seen the real thing. Harry Murray, Virginia’s Shenandoah River smallmouth godfather, has long capitalized on the importance of hellgrammites. In Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass, Murray observes that “there are normally more hellgrammites in smallmouth streams than any other large aquatic insect. I have often seen two dozen in one square yard of stream bottom.”
   Mike Mercer, a prolific and innovative California-based fly tier, reports that he has success in California’s low-density hellgrammite waters for both trout in the mountains and smallmouth bass in lowland rivers.
   Hellgrammites prefer rocky, cool, well-oxygenated streams. Indeed, their preference for clean, nonpolluted haunts makes them an indicator species for good water quality. Hellgrammites possess a pair of hooked appendages, or prolegs, at the end of their abdomen that they use to hook onto the bottom to avoid being swept down current.
   Given the hellgrammites’ affinity for bottom feeding on everything from aquatic insects and small fish to amphibians and anything else small enough, fly anglers need to sharpen their nymphing techniques. Learn how to dead-drift, bottom-bounce, and swing a hellgrammite if you want to move to the head of the fish-food line for trout and smallmouth. As a general rule, use smaller hellgrammite patterns for trout and panfish, while saving sizes 4, 6, and larger for bass and walleyes.
   Sometimes, strange things happen—stripers seeking thermal refuges far up tributary streams in summer heat will feed on hellgrammites. It’s a rare event, but one I first experienced while kayaking with a fly rod for stripers in Georgia. I beached the sit-on-top on a gravel bar at the head of a long pool, stepped out, and began swinging a big Whistler with a 9-weight rod. Nothing happened, but I saw some flashes in the current, which materialized as stripers seemingly nymphing. After many futile casts, I finally hooked a 5- or 6-pounder on the big fly at the end of the pool. As I removed the hook, I saw a dark object halfway down the striper’s throat: a hellgrammite!
   After sneaking up to the head of the pool, I grabbed a 5-weight already rigged with a size-6 black Murray’s Hellgrammite, which I had been using for spotted and redeye bass in between striper areas. On the third swing of the hellgrammite, the line stopped, and I came tight to something too exciting for a 5-weight. I finally landed a 10-pound, beautifully marked striper. Before spooking the school, I managed two smaller fish, all taking the hellgrammite just like a bass or trout.
   No matter the target, a hellgrammite pattern must possess built-in movement to truly mimic real fish food. Some hellgrammite flies move like a caddisfly in a case. Don’t waste time with those. No matter how realistic they might appear, unless they have a good dose of motion lotion, don’t expect much action.
   Not surprisingly, Murray designed the first really successful hellgrammite pattern. He dropped hellgrammites into the water and watched how they moved. In his words, “It quickly became apparent why the flies I had been using were so disappointing. They all drifted through the water in a rigid, surfboard posture, which never resembled the action of a real hellgrammite.” 
   After trying many materials to replicate the undulating action of the real beastie, Murray settled on ostrich herl tied as a long tail on a chenille body. The resulting Murray’s Hellgrammite proved effective, and has long been my favorite hellgrammite pattern.
   In an identical search for perfect hellgrammite motion lotion, Mike Mercer and Pat Cohen, both marvelous fly innovators, created productive patterns using newer materials and methods. Mercer’s Tungsten Rag Hellgrammite addresses the twin issues of depth and motion. “I began experimenting with a material called Ezee Bug, unlike anything I’d ever worked with, to create extended bodies,” Mercer says. “… I loved the way it undulated when wet…. Because we do have some hellgrammites here in California, I tied an imitation with Ezee Bug yarn, and it turned out to be a killer.”
   Many fly anglers have since found it to be equally deadly in the hellgrammite-infested East. Eastern tier Cohen’s 3-inch Devil’s Drifter is another perfect pattern, also deriving its appeal from lifelike motion. Cohen couples an Ultrasuede body and custom dubbing material to produce a killer hellgrammite pattern.
   Murray’s, Mercer’s, and Cohen’s patterns set the standard for productive hellgrammite patterns. Yet, even today, decades after my first experience with these insects, I still hesitate for an instant before reaching into my hellgrammite fly box. Once bitten, twice shy.


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