South African Fishing Flies – The Red-Eyed Damsel

Photo by Tom Sutcliffe

(This post is the third tribute to South African Fishing Flies by Peter Brigg and Ed Herbst; one of the great stillwater patterns published in the book is discussed here)

One of my earliest stillwater fly fishing memories is of catching a quick eight-fish-tally using Hugh Huntley’s Red-Eyed Damsel. Although the original fly was tied with olive body materials, that day I was fishing a rusty brown damsel with the bulky, red chenille eyes. I was one of five people fishing a small dam in the Franschhoek area and no one was catching until, in a desperate attempt to get my hands on a fish, I tied on a Red-Eyed Damsel (the brown being the only colour I had in my box). The fly turned on the feeding switch and the milling school of rainbows that attracted the fisherman could not keep their jaws off that fly.

I then tied the famous olive version and also fished it with great success in the Idas Valley dams near Stellenbosch. This was obviously a long time ago as I don’t think those dams have been stocked since 2010; but interestingly, if I had to prepare for a stillwater trout fishing trip now, the Red-Eyed Damsel would still take up my time at the vice. Below is a detailed article by Tom Sutcliffe on this great fly:

HOW TO TIE AND FISH THE RED-EYED DAMSEL NYMPH

It’s not often you can recall the night a well known pattern was first tied, but with this one I can. It was at Hetherdon, a farm littered with trout lakes in the foothills of Dargle mountains in KZN. It was around 1986. The tier was the late Hugh Huntley and I lost a serious bet that night when I promised to eat raw anything he caught on the fly he was tying. The next day between Hugh and a friend of ours, Mike Harker, they took twelve fish and started something of a craze.

 

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The choice of red chenille for the eyes of the damsel nymph that night was not the product of any great piscatorial vision by the way. It was born out of plain necessity. Hugh had run out of the black chenille he’d been using. Now, thanks to the research of people like Gary La Fontaine and many others, and with the wisdom of hindsight, the red probably added a significant trigger. The rest of the pattern stayed unchanged but it was remarkable how the catch rate improved with red chenille. And I don’t think it was our imagination either, because in no time we’d all got rid of our black chenille and were tying nothing but Red-eyes.

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Stomach content of a large lake trout – damsel nymphs!

(Photo per kind permission of Fred Steynberg)

Damsel nymphs lend themselves to suggestive patterns because they have so many prominent triggers – big eyes, well-defined thorax, long, slender abdomen and a writhing way of swimming someone once said was a lot like as like a belly dancer swimming. In lakes, damsel nymphs mainly confine themselves to weed beds and reeds. In early summer when lake bugs are getting active, I sometimes lean over the front of my float tube to watch the insect traffic. There will be the occasional snail going nowhere, midge shucks floating by (often by the hundred and sometimes as long as your thumb nail), small drab mayfly nymphs, the occasional somewhat ridiculous looking caddis larva in its caravan made from shreds of weed, the odd dragonfly nymph (though we know there lots there, just that you don’t see them that often) and then plenty of elegant-looking, mostly bright green damsel nymphs. You soon get to understand why Stillwater fly fishers like damsel nymph patterns so much – the naturals are abundant, very vulnerable and easy to imitate. You can’t ask more than that of a lake bug.

What you will need to tie this fly

A size 12 nymph hook. (At present I use Grip’s model 13021. It has a 1X long shank on 1 X heavy wire, so its strong enough for big fish, but not too heavy.)

6/0 or 8/0 tan, grey or olive thread

Red chenille (Medium or fine Tuff Chenille or a thin version of standard chenille),or Stretchy Nymph Rib or Vinyl Rib in bright red. The advantages of Nymph Rib and Vinyl Rib are the material transmits light and is easy to work with.

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Fine or medium copper or gold fuse wire

Kristal Flash (or equivalent)

Olive marabou. (In some quarters, brown and even black marabou is more popular than the traditional olive green)

I never add weight to this pattern so you won’t find any lead wire or beads here.

Tying steps

If I had ten bucks for every Red-eye I’ve tied over the years I’d be booking a guided trip through Patagonia. And looking back, I haven’t changed the way we always tied it, though a few refinements have crept in – especially in more recent versions – and one or two efficiency gains.

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Chenille eyes don’t glow as much as the V-Rib eyes below

Dress the front third of the hook then tie in the eyes. Cut a piece of chenille or V-Rib about 6 centimeters long, hold it at an angle against the top of the hook shank and trap it in the middle with a couple of turns of thread. Possible mistakes here are tying the eyes too far from or, worse, too close to the eye of the hook. You want a gap of around 3mm between the hook eye and the V-Rib or chenille.

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Take a few figure of eight turns to anchor the material well. Loop the material back on itself to produce two narrow loops that will form the eyes on your pattern.

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Now dress the hook shank to the bend. Select a marabou plume and tear off a few fibres for the tail. These should be soft fibres, the ones nearer the base of a marabou plume rather than near the tip. Tie in the bunch (not too dense) so that the fibers are a little longer than the hook shank. A long, sparse tail extracts all the movement you want, but it does mean spending a bit of time unraveling tail fibers that wrap around the bend of your hook.

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Tie in the copper wire at the tail and leave it to one side.

 

Now tear off another bunch of the more spiky marabou fibres as close to the stem as possible. Choose a section where the fibres are longest. You don’t want much. Hold the bunch by the butts and moisten the tips with saliva so that they clump together.

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Tie in the tip end of the bunch just where the tail of the fly begins, then take your tying thread to the thorax area.

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Grab the end of the marabou in hackle pliers and twist the marabou, but give it no more than one or two turns. Wind this ‘marabou rope’ to the thorax. Holding the marabou butts in hackle pliers makes the ‘rope’ go further as you wind up the shank because your fingers are out of the way. And it makes tying off a lot easier and more precise too. The aim is to get the abdomen done with one bunch of marabou.

 

Now rib the body with the gold wire, tie off and trim. (Optional is to use Kristal Flash (or equivalent) for the rib, but then you sacrifice the added strength wire lends the soft-fibred marabou body. Or you can use both, but if you do, twist them together).

 

As a rule, the abdomen on the Red-eye should end as far behind the eyes as the eyes are behind the eye of the hook. If it sounds Irish, just read it again slowly.

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At this point, hold a 5 centimeter piece of Kristal Flash at an angle to the hook shank and tie it in at its midpoint right behind the eyes. Now lift both ends, pull them backwards (towards the tail) and using your tying thread, trap them so they are permanently fixed facing backwards down the body by wrapping tying thread over them moving backwards towards the tail. Trim each strand to about 1.5 to 2 centimeters long.

 

Wax your thread well. Take a fresh marabou plume and hold it over a sheet of plain white paper. Begin shredding it into tiny pieces with your fingers. When you have a small pile of shreds, lift a pinch in your fingertips and dub them to the thread until you have covered around 4 centimeters. Now begin wrapping this around the hook shank, covering the chenille eyes with repeated figure of eight wraps to build up this area. But don’t overdo it. End about 1.5 mm behind the eye of the hook.

 

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Wax the thread again. Break off five of six spiky marabou fibres roughly at their midpoint. Dub these onto the thread, using the usual finger-rolling movements, but dub the butt ends to the thread. The result is a centimeter of ‘dubbed’ thread with long, trailing, pointed ends!

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Just wrap the dubbed thread once or twice around the hook shank as near to the eye as you can and suddenly ‘legs’ appear. If any are facing forward, hold them back and secure them in place with one or two more wraps of thread. Now add more marabou dubbing to the thread and finish the thorax.

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Tie off and add a drop of head cement.

 

Fishing the Red-Eyed Damsel

Here’s a subject you could write a book about. It’s hard to know where to begin, other than to say both floating and intermediate lines work, but that the floater is probably more fun if slightly less effective. Use a long leader and a long tippet and vary the sink time you allow. Always fish this pattern dead slow and remember if you aren’t picking up the odd bit of weed you are probably not fishing in the right place or at the right depth!

Because you are fishing so proximal to weeds you don’t want lead in this fly. Apart from ruining the fly’s action in the water, you are going to have to retrieve it too fast to keep it from snagging weeds. And the last thing you want with a damsel nymph imitation is a fast retrieve.

 

This is largely a summer pattern and you will get best results from around 10:00 in the morning once the sun has warmed the water.

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Note where I am standing – in weed – and the fish is jumping in the clear water just off the weed bed where it was hooked

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Again, Ed Gerber is perfectly positioned to fish a Red-eye. Tiffendell Lake, Eastern Cape

It’s a great pattern to fish from the bank standing in weeds and casting over them into open water because (1) you are retrieving your fly towards the edge of the weeds where the fish patrol and (2) standing waist deep in weed beds offers you some cover. Often all you need to present into the clear water is the leader. Of course you can set up much the same position from float tubes.

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The point to remember, though is that in lakes weeds and damsel nymphs are almost synonymous.

 

The Red-eye is also a marvelous fly to intercept cruising fish during the day no matter whether there are weeds nearby or not. In fact, unless a fish is rising, this is my pattern of choice for cruising fish in shallow to mid-depth water. If you can lead the fish and give the fly time to sink, they will even work on fish in deep water.

 

There are days when I notice someone hooks a fish using a damsel nymph imitation on a quick retrieve. Mainly they will be fishing in deep, structureless water, using a fly that’s too bulky to imitate a true damsel nymph. I find many commercial Red-eyed damsels are way too bulky. What these fish are more likely doing is taking the fly for a fleeing minnow.

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This newly hatched damsel crawled onto my rod

At rare times you will be lucky enough to find yourself in a damsel fly hatch. It’s happened to me on a few occasions and it’s electric! Most hatches take place off platforms of floating weed in shallow water in warm weather. The insects hang around drying their wings for a good ten minutes, safe other than for hawking swallows. But when they are swimming out to hatch they are highly vulnerable because it seems that just prior to hatching they are less agile. The incidence of cripples is also high and the occasional cripple will get blown off the weeds into the deep water where trout take them with the same slow, head and shoulders rise you commonly see when they are taking hatching midges.

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All the materials featured in the tying of the Red-eye are available from:

Frontier Fly Fishing in Johannesburg (www.frontierflyfishing.co.za) or from StreamX in Cape Town (www.streamx.co.za)  

Related posts:

Book review – South African Fishing Flies by Peter Brigg and Ed Herbst

South African Fishing Flies – The DDD and RAB

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