The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


May 24, 2014

Hellgrammites are ugly and mean, but superb bait

The trail less traveled

Unless you live under a rock, like a hellgrammite, and you are a fisherman, you have heard of this insect and know of its importance in the fishing world. If you fish a river in North America, especially for smallmouth bass, or maybe trout, you know what an important bait this denizen of the underwater world is.

Most of you out there know that the hellgrammite is the larval stage of an incredibly ugly bug called the Dobson fly. These insects are found all over the world and I sometimes wonder if there are fishermen in Australia, South America, and maybe Northern Africa picking up rocks on some riverbank trying to get enough bait for the day. If they are not doing that, maybe they are pulling into the local version of Sam’s Gas, Grub, and Bait store, hoping and praying that Sam is not out of hellgrammites.

Because your humble outdoor scribe feels he has a duty to inform, I will bestow to you some of the life history of this nasty little bug with a bad attitude. Again, although the adult stage of this critter is the Dobson fly, the insect lives most of its life (3 to 5 years) in the larval stage as a hellgrammite, as Henry noted in his study in 1982. The hellgrammite lives most of its life under rocks, logs or other debris, on the bottom of a river, this may account for some of its nasty temperament.

At a signal known only by the hellgrammites, some say it can be triggered by thunder, (Wilson 1953); hellgrammites may crawl by the thousands out of the river and onto the banks to go into their next stage of development, the pupae. Typically the hellgrammite does not travel very far from the water’s edge, but Pennack reported in his study in 1978 that they may travel as far as 50 meters. If like me you wonder how the biologists studying these creatures determined this, I can only assume that they did it by radio telemetry. That’s right. They put radio collars on the hellgrammites to see how far they traveled. I can’t help but think that there had to be a scene with three biologists on a river bank somewhere that went something like this;

Simonsen: Do we still have contact with number 397?

Pennack: No, we think that 702 ate him.

Simonsen: Dang! Not another one!

Wilson: Are we out of beer?

It had to be an arduous task to track all those hellgrammites. Anyway, the hellgrammite spends about 2-4 weeks in the pupae stage and is a much lighter color. This is the stage that some fishermen covet, the “yellow hellgrammite.” At the end of the pupae stage the adult Dobson fly crawls out of this hiding place and only lives about two weeks. At this stage the bug is even more grotesque than in the larval stage, it is several inches long with an even larger wing spread, the male Dobson fly has huge front pinchers that are weak and can cause you no harm. The female Dobson fly however, is a little different. The female has pinchers that can inflict a painful bite; I will leave it to you to draw any comparisons to human kind on this.

The female lays eggs on rocks, leaves or anything else overhanging the water. This is the white, irregular casings that you see near the river. The tiny hellgrammites hatch and fall into the river and the whole cycle starts again.

If you don’t want to go to some bait stores and pay as much as six to eight dollars a dozen, you can catch your own, but be warned, there is a reason for the hellgrammites bad reputation. He can bite the heck out of you! Just grab him behind the head, on that first collar section and he can’t harm you. In the spring you can find them on the riverbank under rocks and logs, sometimes by the dozens. Later in the summer you can hold a seine net in small riffles while your buddy turns over rocks above the seine to free the hellgrammites. As usual, check your local regulations before doing this.

My favorite way to fish hellgrammites is au naturale; simply insert about a number six bait hook under the collar behind the hellgrammites head. Put one or two small split shot about 10 inches above the hook. Drift fish this rig in shallow riffles and shoals. If you are not catching anything on this set up, you might want to have the EPA come look at your river.

If you just want to wade fish on a summer day and feel something pull on the line, you can do a lot worse than slinging some hellgrammites. Hope to see you there. Bring plenty. I’ll probably be out.

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