Creepy Crawlers: How to Catch and Fish with Hellgrammites

Creepy Crawlers: How to Catch and Fish with Hellgrammites

There are a lot of unpleasant things that anglers will use for bait. Whether it’s a handful of nightcrawlers dug from a manure pile, a jar of sun-ripened chicken livers, a bucket full of blood-sucking leeches, or squirming maggots, there aren’t a lot of things we get squeamish about throwing on a hook. However, if there is one bait out there guaranteed to give even the most steely-eyed and hardened anglers a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, it’s the hellgrammite.

What is a Hellgrammite?

Hellgrammites are the four-inch-long larvae of the dobsonfly. The monstrous brown and black nymphs have six clawed legs on their thorax, dozens of fluttering branchial filaments along their abdomen, and a giant set of Viking-horn pinchers sticking out of their head. In short, they look like something that devoured a bunch of scientists and then escaped the lab in a B-rated horror movie. Occupying the bottom of fast-moving creeks and rivers across the country, these satanic centipedes hide beneath rocks, logs, and other debris, waiting to snatch up unsuspecting aquatic insects, tiny crustaceans, and even small minnows with their vicious jaws.

Most anglers only happen upon hellgrammites when they’re turning over rocks looking for crayfish or other insect nymphs. That, or in the repeated nightmares you’ll have after having a hellgrammite run up your leg when wading across a stream. Despite their terrifying appearance though, hellgrammites are one of the best fishing baits on the planet, with everything from panfish and perch to pickerel, channel catfish, and especially bass and trout, gobbling them down without hesitation. So, if you’re having a slow day on the water, using a couple hellgrammites for bait is almost guaranteed to change your luck… so long you’re brave enough to catch them.

How to Catch and Fish with Live Hellgrammites

Admittedly, catching hellgrammites for bait does have its risks. The insect’s strong jaws can deliver a bite, though contrary to popular belief, hellgrammites aren’t venomous, and their bite isn’t any worse than being pinched by a crayfish or sticking yourself with the point of a hook. Catching hellgrammites usually requires buying either a D-frame or square-frame dip net with a fine mesh or an aquatic insect seine. If you’re a DIY kind of angler, you can make your own seines by wrapping and then stapling the edges of a 3x3 foot section of window screening around a pair of 2-inch dowl rods.

Concentrate your hellgrammite hunting efforts on shallow, fast-flowing streams, especially those that flow into larger rivers. Wade into the water and then face downstream with your net at arm’s length and on the bottom in front of you or with your seine positioned 10 to 20 feet directly downstream. As you move downstream, start kicking or rolling over rocks so that any debris and, hopefully, a few hellgrammites will get washed downstream into the net or screen. Be careful to only make one or two passes in each spot before moving on, as greatly disturbing the stream bottom is bad for the ecosystem. Once you’ve got a good number of hellgrammites, put them in a bucket of fresh stream water, and then it's time to go fishing.

There are a couple ways to rig hellgrammites, depending on the speed of the current. However, as hellgrammites are delicate insects that can easily be cast or torn off the hook, you always want your presentation to be subtle and gentle as possible. Your best bet for this is by fishing with an ultra-light or a light-action rod, rigged with 4- to 8-pound test line.

On slower-flowing rivers, you can rig your hellgrammites beneath a pencil float so that they can freely drift in the current. Do this by clipping the float to your line at approximately the same depth as the water you’re fishing. Attach 2 to 4 small split-shot to your line directly beneath the float at about two-inch intervals so that the presentation will drift vertically in the water. Cast your rig into any long pools that are flowing at about walking speed and let it drift for as long as you are able, setting the hook anytime the bobber vanishes, flutters, or hesitates.

In faster-flowing water, your best bet is a bottom-bouncing rig. Set this up by clipping a heavy split shot to your line about 12 to 18 inches below your hook. In extremely fast water, you can also use a 1/4 ounce drop weight. Flip the rig into the water and then reel in the slack and hold your rod at a roughly 45-degree angle on a tight line so you can feel the weight ticking along the rocks on the bottom as it drifts. Anytime the bait suddenly stops, or you feel a distinct jerk or pull—set the hook!

Whether you’re fishing with a bottom-bouncing rig or a float, your hellgrammite should be rigged in the same way. Hooking the insects through the thorax will allow them to flip around and clamp onto the line with their jaws, making the rig look extremely awkward in the water. Instead, hook your hellgrammite through the collar of the exoskeleton just behind its head on a size 8 to size 4 light wire hook. This will allow the hellgrammite to swim and struggle in the current, drawing the attention of any hungry fish in the area.

Hellgrammite Lures and Flies

The idea of catching and hooking a live hellgrammite to their line can send many anglers into hysterics. Many fishermen and fisherwomen simply prefer to use artificial lures over live bait. If you’re the type who likes synthetics over the real thing, there are a lot of great options for both hellgrammite lures and flies that honestly offer a bit more versatility than the real McCoy.

Soft-plastic hellgrammites like the Lunkerhunt Hive and the Great Lakes Finesse are fantastic for fishing in rivers and streams, as well as lakes and ponds. You can rig them on a jig head or, better yet, shakey head hooks and then twitch and crawl them across the bottom. This is a great setup for targeting bass, trout, and panfish in still and rocky shallows. If you’re fishing in deeper water or around a lot of structures like logs and tree roots, large boulders, or boat docks, a soft-plastic hellgrammite on a Texas Rig is hard to beat.

Similar to a dropshot rig but easier to set up, the Texas rig is completely weedless and nearly un-snaggable, making it perfect for flipping into thick cover and jigging in places where slab crappie, bass, and even big brown trout like to hide. To make a Texas rig, slip a bullet weight onto your line and then tie on a size 2 to 1/0 worm hook. Poke the hook all the way through the head of the soft-plastic hellgrammite and then slide the bait down to the notch of the hook near the eye, and then thread it over the knot connecting the line to the hook. Then, turn the bait around and poke the hook back through the center of the soft plastic body so that the hook point is barely exposed.

Fly anglers can catch a lot of fish with hellgrammites as well. Patterns like Cohen’s Hellgrammite, Wilson’s Turbomite, or Josh’s Wiggle are all fantastic for targeting big trout, smallmouth, and even carp on the fly. You can rig these patterns under a strike indicator and dead drift them like you would any other nymph, but my favorite way to fish them is by drifting and twitching.

To do this, tie an unweighted or lightly weighted hellgrammite pattern directly to your leader and then add a couple small split shot 8 to 10 inches above the fly. Cast the fly upstream of any mid-river rocks, undercut banks, or other fishy-looking spots, make an upstream mend so that the fly can sink, and then follow the drifting fly with the tip of your rod on as straight a line as possible. As the fly drifts, casually twitch the fly and then let it sink so that it imitates an errant hellgrammite that’s been swept up in the current. Strikes can come hard and fast when fishing this way, so keep your rod tip low and be prepared to set the hook as soon as your line goes tight.

Put on a Brave Face

We do a lot of semi-crazy things just to catch a fish. From walking out over frozen lakes to ice fish to hiking miles into the backcountry to fish untouched waters, going fishing is always more fun when you have to be a little daring.

So, no matter how creepy or disturbing you may find hellgrammites, the weird thing is that catching them and using them for bait almost adds a bit of extra thrill to every angling adventure. When you combine this with the fact that the creepy bugs are one of the best baits for almost every fish species on the planet—the cold sweats and nightmares you might have become totally worth it.

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