Every autumn we see a big increase in yellow jacket activity in our area. By early fall these hornets seem to reach their maximum population density, and they are everywhere. I have to dodge them on a regular basis while working in the garden this time of year. My wife and I, kids, dogs even the chickens have a healthy respect for these black and yellow devils. Bluegills, on the other hand, do not fear the sting.
Not only do they have no problem with the stinging end of a yellow jacket, wasp or bee, but they also seem to relish them. A misguided yellow jacket that finds itself struggling on the surface of the water does not linger there for long. These hornets disappear in a slurp, and the only trace of their existence is a vanishing set of concentric rings on the surface of the water. Do bluegills and other fish get stung as they take one of these insects off the water? If they do, it does not affect them, or their tiny brains don’t associate the discomfort with the food source because they seem to key in on these insects when they are available to them. Even my chickens with their reptilian pea brains have learned to avoid these hornets when they are out and about.
Early this week, I had a few free hours in the evening, so I loaded up the kayak and headed off to the nearest pond for a little R&R. The air was warm and the water still as I worked my way over to a shaded bank and started casting a triangle bug up against the shoreline bushes. My fly selection for that evening is usually a hot pattern, but it performed a little sluggishly with only the occasional fish rising to slurp it off the surface. While casting, I felt a tickle on my bare ankle without looking I moved my foot up against the side of the boat and was rewarded with a stabbing pain in my foot. The “tickle” was caused by a yellow jacket that decided to use me as a landing pad on her trip across the lake. The crushed hornet struggled feebly on the deck of the kayak as I gave it a whack and pitched it overboard. As I rubbed my throbbing ankle, I watched the black and yellow insect floating a short distance from the kayak. It quickly disappeared in a swirl.
Taking the hint, I clipped the triangle bug off my tippet and dug through some fly boxes looking for a yellow jacket/bee imitation. Finding a fly that looked good, I tied it onto my tippet and made a cast to the shoreline. It took a chunky bluegill on the first cast. For the next few hours, I fished various bee patterns and caught a solid number of good fish. There was not a fish caught on every cast but was a lot more productive than the earlier probing of the banks with my old standby triangle bugs. I continued to fish with these little black and yellow flies until the lengthening shadows told me it was time to switch rods and throw something larger for bass that were likely beginning to stir.
So back to my original question do fish feel the sting of a bee, wasp or hornet? Some research on the subject revealed that fish do in fact feel something when stung, but apparently, don't react the same way we do to the sensation of a bee sting. In this video a rainbow trout is filmed selectively feeding on yellow jackets and ignoring the mayflies floating nearby. The fish can be seen chomping its jaws after each take, but then reacts violently to the last one, possibly being stung in a more sensitive part of its anatomy.
My experiences tell me that fish do in fact feed on these insects when they present themselves. I have had similar experiences with trout myself. On a late summer trip to Yellowstone National Park, we found the brook trout on Straight Creek eagerly feeding on the abundant yellow jackets that were buzzing around us as we fished our way upstream. I observed these hornets at the water's edge (do hornets and bees drink?), and apparently, some of the insects were finding their way into the water where the fish were finding them. The bookies were keyed in on these hornets and bee patterns out produced everything else that afternoon. We tried other terrestrial patterns that day but nothing produced as many fish as a black and yellow deer hair bee pattern.
One of my favorite bee patterns is Bob Jacklin's deer hair bee (pictured above). Bob is a friend who owns Jacklin's Fly Shop in West Yellowstone, Montana. I always load up on enough bees to last me the year when I stop in and visit him each summer. This fly is my go-to bee pattern for moving water. When properly treated, the deer hair floats like a cork in the rough and tumble water of a fast flowing mountain stream. They will still work well in still waters but I prefer the slimmer body you get with foam when targeting bluegills and other panfish.
Tying a bee/hornet pattern is pretty straightforward if you use pre-made foam bodies. A black and yellow foam body, some black dubbing, black hackle and some feather tip wings make a quick down and dirty bee/hornet imitation. Pre-made bee bodies can be found in the form of black and yellow banded foam cylinders, pre-formed tapered foam shapes or molded hard foam forms. I like the look of the tapered foam, but it's probably not that important I have caught plenty of fish on the foam cylinders. You could trim or melt the ends to a more realistic taper, but I don’t know if it's necessary.
The Yellow Jacket
Hook: Standard Dry Fly Hook size 10-12
Body: Pre-formed black and yellow foam body
Thorax: Black synthetic dubbing mixed with a little yellow
Legs: Black hackle wound around hook shank
Wings: Black or grizzly hackle tips laid back over the body
Don’t fear the sting give bee patterns a try on your local bluegill water!