Hellgrammites don’t look very appealing, but to smallmouth bass, they’re river candy. Those anglers of the Southern Tier who have seen or even used hellgrammites for bait know they have a nasty disposition. Armed with pinchers, these aquatic nymphs eat anything from other nymphs to very small baitfish! They also have a reputation for not taking kindly to handling by humans. Their bite can draw blood.
Nasty to humans, but smallmouth love them. Smallmouth bass just love hellgrammites. These aquatic nymphs – actually the larva of the dobsonfly – are very good at hiding and normally live in and around rocks in riffles and runs where water oxygenation is good. For this reason, they are also an indicator species; they typically can only be found in healthy streams and rivers. When moving around however, they may be swept away in the current, and this makes the hellgrammite easy prey.
Nothing beats the real thing. Hellgrammites make excellent smallmouth bait, typically rigged so as to drift along with the current. But fly anglers can imitate this bait and do very well for themselves. While general purpose flies in black or olive, such as a wooly bugger, can be used, there are more accurate imitations that may do even better. Murray’s Hellgrammite is one such pattern that uses peacock herl in the tail section. Peacock herl, unlike marabou, will not fold back on itself in the water, and imparts a better undulating motion in the water.
Nymph the riffles. The best place to fish your hellgrammite nymph is in the very water they call home. Fish your fly just off the bottom, dead drift. Let it tumble along the bottom as if it has been swept into the current. Set the hook swiftly on any hesitation of the fly, just like in trout fishing. Remember the fly should be ticking off the bottom and occasionally hang up.
The old standby. Many fly anglers pursue smallmouth using poppers or streamer patterns as they often produce quite reliably. But wise fly anglers, those who know how effective nymphing for bass can be, are never found on the river without hellgrammite patterns. When all else fails, hellgrammites always come through.