RIVER SMALLMOUTH CAN’T RESIST HELGRAMITES
By Mike Faulk
Superman was drawn to kryptonite - the very substance that rendered him weak and powerless. So it is with river smallmouth bass and helgramites – sometimes called “grampus”.
From an Order of insect known as “Neuroptera”, helgramites are the immature forms of Dobson flies and are found in well oxygenated sections of rivers and streams. Helgramites are aggressive predators which attack other aquatic insects and other organisms in the water. They are hidden among rocks found in flowing rivers and streams. Immatures can be collected in riffle areas of streams where they hide.
Grampuses are found by lifting or dislodging rocks where there is some current preferably in low, clear water. With a seine net and a buddy, you can set the net in shallow current and have your buddy rake or just kick up the gravel and stones a few feet upstream. When seining alone, use a long-handled garden hoe or hard-tined leaf rake and sweep stones and gravel just in front of the seine.
Adding a few golf ball-sized rocks and maybe a trig or two from the stream to a metal minnow bucket for storing and transporting the bait will prolong the life of this bait. River or creek water should be changed frequently before using this most durable live lure.
Gary Grills has fished the Holston River for over fifty years. His success on this smallmouth Mecca is legendary in northeast Tennessee. Grills has caught as many as ten fish on one helgramite when taking care not to shake off the fish and avoiding snags. The durability of this live natural bait makes the number necessary for a morning of fishing for hard-fighting river smallmouth minimal.
Ideal conditions for using helgramites in pursuing river smallies include partly cloudy to slightly overcast days. Slightly turbid water on sunny days or clear water on overcast days work best. Success is more elusive in murky water no matter what sky condition exists.
Care must be taken in baiting #4 sized hooks with helgramite. I prefer to pin the grampus against something solid with its underside down. These aquatic insects curl and writhe when handled and always seem to be able to get to your fingers. This bronzeback-attracting bait has a set of pinchers on its head that, when sunk into a fisherman, will make fingers hurt for days much like a paper-cut.
A band of shell rings the upper-third of the body of the helgramite. Simply thread the sharp point of the hook between the body and this collar from top to bottom and through a couple of segments of the body so the point of the hook will emerge from the bottom of the collar and protrude from the back of the bait leaving the point exposed.
Using a four or six pound test line, locate a light-weight split shot four to six inches up line from the hook. I vary the distance depending on the size rock lining the stream bottom. The bait will need to stay off the bottom and the length of line from the weight to the hook impacts the frequency of snags on debris in the river.
I fish helgramites the same way I drift fish all types of bait on the Holston River. The set-up consists of a thin-wire (so you can pull off snags) Aberdeen-style hooks suitable for the bait you are fishing tied on an eighteen-inch leader with a barrel swivel attaching the leader to main line. The swivel is very important if you fish your bait down current. As you retrieve your bait in current, it will spin and twist your line. Twisted four pound line is no match for some of the lunkers lying in wait along the craggy banks and eddies of the Holston or “Hogoheegee” as Native Americans called it.
A bobber is attached above the set so the bait is just floating over the bottom or dragging over the boulders. I prefer to use a balsa wood pencil-type float that attaches at the bottom of the float. I like this type float because it doesn't pull the bait off the bottom when you mend line (pull slack out) like a slip bobber does. You also have a better idea whether you are snagging bottom as the float tends to first lay back and then go under as it is being pulled by the current.
I prefer a larger float and balance it with more or larger weight. This allows me to cast farther and not beat up the bait, especially when casting into the wind. I fish upstream or down, as far as the current will allow me to keep slack out of my line. Fishing upstream is usually easier, tangling less. Knowing the depth of the water you are fishing is necessary to set your bobber. Otherwise you will be constantly getting snagged. This technique will work for float fishing any kind of bait for fish in the Holston River.
Grills is more old-school in his technique. He prefers fishing upstream, uses no bobber at all, and uses the least weight possible that will enable him to cast upstream as the boat floats with the current downstream. Watching the line for sudden decreases in slack, he tends to move his rod toward the fish taking the tension off his line before setting the hook. I have to admit his technique leads to fewer snags. And I can’t argue with his lifetime of success.
Smallmouth tactics on the Holston are dictated by the season. During spawning, helgramites are not to be found. Nesting areas exist in quiet, deeper pools found between shoals. Minnows weighted to reach near the bottom of these pools have to suffice until helgramites are readily available – usually May in northeast Tennessee. When available there is no better lure for river bronzebacks. Helgramites are plentiful and require minimal effort to locate.
Grills adds a cautionary note to those using a seine in late April and early May to collect helgramites. “Until the water warms up, grampuses are scarce. You’ll spend more time looking for them early in the year. The temperature of water coming out of the mountains will fool you. An hour or so in a flowing steam can be dangerous if you’re not prepared for the cold. Use insulted waders and warm socks until the water temperatures come up to safe levels.”
Because of the varying depths and numerous shoals in the Holston which has its headwaters in the high country of southwest Virginia, a premium is placed on a light-weight, stable, maneuverable boat. While not a necessity, a trolling motor is helpful – especially for freeing snagged lines.
An outboard motor is useless. If the water is high enough to motor over shoals to the point of original embarkation, it is too turbid to effectively fish for smallmouth with helgramites. The North Fork of the Holston is uncontrolled by dams contrary to the south fork which clears up within hours of cessation of generating hydroelectric plants. Spotting a vehicle downstream at the anticipated point of portage is my usual practice. I count on covering a couple of river miles per hour.
A creel limit of five smallmouth bass is easily obtained on a float trip down the Holston River in a couple of hours when fishing with grampuses. Invest another hour in obtaining a few helgramites and you’ll have a great half day fishing trip.
First published May 2007
Tennessee Valley Outdoors