It was late morning on a sunny, calm, late-summer day. I’d been wade-fishing for a couple of hours along the Colorado River, a few miles downstream from my home in Carbondale. The only visible insects were a few tiny mayflies and midges hovering about twenty feet above the center of the river. There’d been no sign of feeding trout other than two small browns fooled by the little nymph on my dry-dropper rig.
As the day warmed, I decided to walk along the bank and look for fresh stonefly cases on the rocks. But I ended up looking harder for the beer I’d left cooling somewhere along the river. Nevertheless, I spotted a large dragonfly nymph crawling onto a dry, sun-covered rock about five feet from the water. A closer look revealed that its nymphal casing was just beginning to split open. I retrieved the beer, broke out my sandwich, and decided to take a seat on a convenient log beside the rock to watch the emergence. Never having seen a dragonfly hatch, I had no idea how long it might take, but soon became so engrossed in the spectacle that I knew I couldn’t leave until the transformation was complete.
The casing, shaped like a small taco shell, continued to open wider and wider like the cover of a book. And as it did, a long, glistening, colorful tail slowly unfurled and began quivering as it dried. At the same time, four tightly folded wings, two on each side of the body, began to leisurely unfold in stages, straightening out and drying in the warmth of the sun and the rock’s radiant heat. I lost all track of time, but believe the metamorphosis took less than an hour and a half, from the time the nymph crawled out of the river until an entirely different insect was ready to take flight.
The newly formed adult dragonfly launched off the rock, flew toward me and landed momentarily on my shoulder. It then flew directly out over the river and immediately began executing intricate maneuvers, hovering, accelerating, diving, darting, and changing direction while it captured and made meals of the small mayflies and midges. The light was such that I could watch these aerobatics for several minutes. Still, it took me a while to comprehend that I was watching: A creature whose entire life had been spent underwater was suddenly breathing through gills, crawling and swimming to scavenge food and hiding to avoid predators. It had no previous experience in the environment it had now so immediately and effortlessly mastered. No parents had patiently and painstakingly taught it how to fly, or how to identify and capture unfamiliar sources of food. This all occurred in a span of less than two hours.
As I contemplated the magical phenomenon I’d just witnessed, it didn’t matter that my beer had gotten warm or that the bread of my sandwich was now dry and stale. I also didn’t care whether the trout were about to embark on a wild feeding-frenzy. I broke down my rod and headed to the car, wondering if the flask of single malt in my cooler would help lend perspective to my novel thoughts and considerations.
Along the rivers where I live and fish, two pairs of bald eagles have nested and raised young for several years. I’ve watched these juvenile eagles clumsily learning to fly, running into and falling off branches, always under the scrutiny of their parents, who remain nearby educating them and continuing to provide them with food for several days after they’ve left the nest. The young complain loudly and beg for a few days when their parents finally abandon them to their own devices. But, eventually, most learn to provide for themselves and survive. Many people understandably consider bald eagles to be our most magnificent and skillful winged predators. But I wonder if they’ve ever watched a dragonfly emerge?