May 22, 2014

Larry Case: Hellgrammites display nasty attitudes but are exceptional bait

— Unless you live under a rock like a hellgrammite, if 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 trout, you know what an important bait this denizen of the underwater world is.

Most of you know that the hellgrammite is the larval stage of an incredibly ugly bug called the dobsonfly. These insects are found all over the world, and I sometimes wonder if there are fisherman in Australia, South America and 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. Although the adult stage of this critter is the dobsonfly, the insect lives most of its life (3 to 5 years) in the larval stage as a hellgrammite. The hellgrammite lives 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 — the bugs may crawl by the thousands out of the river and onto the banks to go into their next stage of development, the pupae. Scientists say they never travel more than 50 yards from the water’s edge. If you are like me, you wonder how the biologists studying these creatures determined this. I can only assume that they did it by radio telemetry. 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 dobsonfly 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 dobsonfly has huge front pinchers that are weak and can cause you no harm. The female dobsonfly, 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 humankind on this.

The female lays eggs on rocks, leaves or anything else hanging over 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 $6 to $8 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 and 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 insects. As usual, check your local regulations before doing this.

My favorite way to fish using hellgrammites is au naturel by simply inserting 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 and bring plenty. I’ll probably be out.

Larry Case has been a devoted outdoorsman for all of his life and is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. He lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at