My friend Walter Babb said that most people’s favorite fly is the fly they happened to have on the first day the fishing was really good. The implication of his statement is that more often than not, it’s the archer, not the arrow. Most of the time, if your fly is presented well and the fish are feeding, it probably doesn’t matter what fly you have on. And if the fish aren’t feeding? It probably doesn’t matter what fly you have on!
But since you happened to have that fly on the first day the fishing was good, you have confidence in it. Now it’s the first fly you put on and you leave it on longer. I have countless fly patterns that I abandoned because they didn’t catch fish the first time I tried them, but often that first time was after I tried everything else. Nothing was working that day!
With all of that said, I have, by far, caught more big brown trout in the Smokies on a Tellico Nymph than any other fly. But, you guessed it… the first big brown trout I caught in the Smokies was on a Tellico Nymph. I have confidence in it. And since most of the big browns I’ve taken over the years were either spotted first or caught during “favorable brown trout conditions,” I’d put a Tellico on in anticipation. So, it’s a bit deceiving. Who is to say I wouldn’t have caught those fish on a Prince Nymph had I chosen to tie one on?
Nevertheless, the Tellico Nymph is a good fly and it’s been around a long time. Its exact origins are unclear, though it was thought to have, obviously, been initially created and fished on the Tellico River in East Tennessee. It has definitely been around since the 1940’s, but some estimate that it may date back to the turn of the 20thcentury. In any case, it has to be the most well known fly from this region and it has accounted for fish all over the world.
In addition to its origin, there seems to be some confusion as to what the fly was originally supposed to imitate. Many contend that it represents a caddis larva. Others are just as certain it is supposed to be a mayfly nymph. To me, there is absolutely no doubt that it was intended to represent a golden stonefly nymph. The coloration and size are consistent with that of a golden stone, and the Tellico River has long been known for its abundance of these nymphs.
As with any popular fly that has been around for this long, there have been a number of variations on the pattern over the years. My personal favorite was devised by East Tennessee fly tyer, Rick Blackburn. I tie most in size #10.
Hook: 3XL nymph hook #12 – 6 Thread: Dark brown 6/0 Weight: .015 to .035 lead wire (depending on hook size) Tail: Mink fibers (I often use moose as a substitute) Rib: Gold wire and 2-3 strands of peacock herl Wing Case: Section of turkey tail – lacquered Body: Wapsi Stonefly Gold Life Cycle dubbing Hackle: Brown Chinese neck hackle, palmered through thorax
From the creative fly tying mind of Lance Egan comes one of my favorite carp flies of all time. I’m not too sure what it’s supposed to imitate but for me, that’s true of many carp patterns. Most likely it represents a small crayfish… possibly a dragonfly nymph.
The bead chain eyes give it the perfect amount of weight to get down quickly to carp feeding on a shallow flat without the loud splash of lead. And when the eyes are positioned correctly, it rides hook up, preventing bottom snags.
Present it by leading the carp slightly and retrieve it very slowly into carp’s path. The take will be subtle. Watch for the turn of the carp’s head, set the hook, and hang on!
Hook: TMC 2457 #8
Thread: 6/0 Black
Tail: Red fox squirrel tail
Body: Medium to dark brown dubbing
Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered
Rib: Fine copper wire
Throat: Peacock sword
Legs: Sili-legs pumpkin – orange – black
Head: Bright orange dubbing
Eyes: Medium silver bead chain, positioned just behind the eye.
Few fly fishermen, if any, possess the knowledge and experience of Joe Humphreys. Joe is probably best known as a teacher and an author, but over his many decades in the business, he has also created a number of original fly patterns. By far, my favorite is the Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa.
To be honest though, I’ve always been a little perplexed by the pattern. To me it bears little resemblance to a natural caddis pupa and doesn’t look like any imitation that I’ve seen or that I would create. In his book, “On the Trout Stream,” the only explanation Joe provides is “A good firsthand look at a caddis pupa prompted this tie.” Apparently Joe saw something in a caddis pupa that nobody else did, because his unique pattern has proven to be one of the most effective I’ve ever fished!
The body color can be varied to match caddis in a specific stream. I tie them often in olive and cream, but in the Smokies, most frequently find success with tan bodies. Some species of caddis hatches in the Smokies nearly anytime of year but the heaviest hatches tend to occur in spring.
It works best on any stretch of stream with more of a cobble or even sandy bottom. I frequently fish it as a dropper off a Neversink Caddis or in a tandem nymph rig below a soft hackle.
Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa
Hook: TMC 3761 or equivalent #18 – 12
Thread: Brown 8/0
Weight: Lead wire to match hook size
Butt: Peacock Herl
Body: Natural Hare’s Ear Dubbing (substitute other colors to match naturals)
Hackle: Dark Brown Saddle
Head: Peacock Herl
Fly Tying is a lot like cooking in many ways. Of course, in both pursuits, you’re combining a variety of ingredients to create one final product. And the quality of those ingredients along with the skills of the person putting them together can tremendously impact the end result. But the issue of originality is also quite comparable.
What constitutes an original recipe rather than simply a variation on an old standard is a very fine line. If you cook ground beef and put it on a bun with some cheese, it’s a cheeseburger. If you add sautéed onions, it’s a cheeseburger with sautéed onions. But if you use a different type of bread, it becomes a Patty Melt. Fly patterns have the same blurred lines of originality.
The pattern featured here is of my own design but I didn’t give it a very original name because, in my opinion, it’s really just a variation of a classic nymph pattern that the world already knows as a Pheasant Tail Nymph. My version here has a substitution for one material and the addition of two more materials. Is that enough to be considered totally original and warrant a brand new name? Maybe, but I didn’t think so.
In any case, it is a nymph I have been tying and fishing for about five years and it has become one of my favorite flies and most consistent nymph patterns. Like the original Pheasant Tail Nymph, it doesn’t specifically imitate one nymph. Rather, it’s dark and buggy and is suggestive of many mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae. The addition of rubber legs gives it a little more movement in the water, and the Ice Dub thorax and Krystal Flash wing provide a little more flash. I’m always wary of having too much flash on my flies, particularly when fishing for wild trout, but this seems to have just enough to add a little more life to the pattern without sending the fish running for cover.
Rob’s Flash Wing Pheasant Tail
Hook: TMC 2457 or equivalent, #18 – #12
Thread: 8/0 Brown
Weight: Black tungsten bead sized to match hook
Tail: Pheasant tail fibers
Abdomen: Pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire
Wing: 4-6 strands of pearlescent Krystal Flash
Thorax: Peacock Ice Dub
Legs: Black micro rubber legs
So, I’m writing about March Browns not because they are necessarily of great significance to the Smoky Mountain fly fisherman, but mainly because they’re just really cool bugs! Like many aquatic insects in the Smokies, this mayfly does not usually hatch abundantly enough to really get the trout keyed in on them, but it is worth keeping a few in your fly box. In other words, you probably don’t need fifteen different March Brown patterns in subtly different colors. Having a few of a basic pattern should do the trick.
March Browns are big, usually a #12 or #10 hook size, and they tend to be the first mayfly of the year with any color. Most of your early spring mayflies are some version of grey, but March Browns usually have a light, reddish brown body with handsomely mottled wings of brown, tan and even yellow hues. Contrary to what their name might imply, these mayflies don’t hatch in March. Rather, they tend to show up, at least in the Smokies, around the third week of April and hang around for the first half of May.
The nymphs are probably the most important stage for Smoky Mountain fishermen. While they have flat clingy bodies with muscular legs, making them very strong crawlers, when they lose their footing, they are terrible swimmers and easy pickins for a waiting trout. The nymphs tend to inhabit moderate to fast riffles and vary in color from tan to reddish brown to dark brown. A Hare’s Ear Nymph or Pheasant Tail Nymph are good generic imitations. I’ve also included one of my favorite patterns designed to specifically imitate a March Brown nymph.
Nymphing these patterns should be fairly effective all day but particularly early in the morning. Expect to see the adults hatching from late morning to early afternoon with a spinner fall near dusk.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
March Brown Dry
Hook: #12 – #10 TMC 100 or equivalent
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail: Brown hackle fibers
Body: Reddish tan dubbing (many companies sell a color called March Brown)
Wing: Wood Duck
Hackle: Brown and Grizzly
March Brown Nymph
Hook: #12 TMC 3761 or equivalent
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail: Moose fibers
Abdomen: Rusty red floss
Rib: Stripped peacock stem
Wincase: Lacquered turkey
Thorax: Peacock herl
Legs: Brown hackle
In the last ten years or so, the term “Euro Nymphing” or “Czech Nymphing” has become more and more common, and is often billed as a revolutionary style of fishing. Basically, it is just nymph fishing without a strike indicator. It’s akin to what many for years have referred to as short-line or straight-line nymphing. Others refer to it as high-sticking. Or the old mountain fishermen around here just call it nymphing, because it’s how they’ve fished for decades and decades.
There is not a lot written about the history of fly fishing in the Southern Appalachians, and most of the techniques were just handed down generation to generation. I’ve had the pleasure and benefit of learning from many of these “old timers,” so when I first heard about this revolutionary style of fishing, I had to chuckle. There really is nothing new under the sun.
There are a few subtle differences in European nymphing techniques and what I learned to do. But what any trend will bring to the industry, no matter how long the method has been around, is the availability of new and better tools and equipment to perform the new trend. In this method of nymphing, you are really trying to keep your fly right on the stream bottom, which of course results in a lot more snags. Traditional jig hooks are great for this because they ride hook up, but until recently, haven’t been available in appropriate sizes and weights for fly fishermen.
Now there are a number of micro-jig hooks available that accommodate a special slotted tungsten bead. They are perfect for fly tying and I have begun tying a lot of my favorite nymph patterns on them. However, one of the first flies I tied on them, The Frenchie, is a pattern that did come from the “Euro-nymphing scene” and it has proven to be an effective trout pattern on a number of different waters.
It’s basically a Bead Head Pheasant Tail with a “hot spot” of bright dubbing at the head. The original pattern uses a bright pink dubbing for the hot spot, and that seems to work very well for stocked trout and even wild trout at times. In general though, I tend to have more success with wild trout using slightly more natural colors like yellow or green.
Again, it’s greatest value is that it has plenty of weight and rides hook up, so you can get it down deep with far fewer bottom snags. Pick some up and give them a try next time you’re out. And if you’re a fly tyer, I’d recommend trying some other favorite nymphs like Pheasant Tails and Hare’s Ears on these hooks.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
With thousands of patterns available, choosing the perfect fly can prove to be a daunting task for any angler, particularly the beginner. However, unless you’re in a situation where trout are selectively feeding on a specific insect that is abundantly hatching, an assortment of well presented attractor patterns will be all you need to catch fish. Every fisherman has a list of favorite flies and over time you will find particular ones with which you are very confident. And that’s really the bottom line. If you have confidence in a fly, you will fish it better and ultimately have more success.
Below is a compilation of flies that seem to work everywhere and would likely be found on most fly angler’s list of favorites – a perfect place start your fly selection! Whether you call a fly shop in Tennessee, Montana, or New Zealand and ask for recommended flies for the area, somewhere on that list you will likely find most if not all of these patterns. These flies are also available as a packaged selection in the Fightmaster Fly Fishing online store.
1) Parachute Adams: This is an absolute favorite trout fly. It doesn’t look exactly like anything but looks a lot like a lot of things! Carry them in sizes #12-#18 with the smaller versions being ideal for slow water and more finicky trout and the larger being best suited for choppier water where visibility is more important. The traditional grey body is preferred, but a yellow body also does well in the Smokies.
2) Elk Caddis: Another great dry fly, carry this one in sizes #12-#18 and with body colors of olive, tan, and yellow. The down wing on this pattern gives it a little different profile than the Adams and the combination of elk hair and hackle make this fly float like a cork.
3) Griffith’s Gnat: This is a great general purpose small fly. Fished most often in sizes #16-#20, it is a great imitation for adult midges, small mayflies or caddis, and even ants. Many of the most finicky, rising trout that have been caught have been on a Griffith’s Gnat.
4) Pheasant Tail: An incredibly universal pattern that looks like almost every nymph you’ll find under a submerged rock. While you’ll most often fish the bead head version, also carry the traditional version for a more realistic pattern that can more easily be fished in different levels of the water column. Carry both varieties in sizes #12-#18.
5) Hare’s Ear: For the same reasons as the Pheasant Tail, carry bead head and traditional versions of this fly, and in the same sizes. The big difference in the two nymphs is the Hare’s Ear provides an option for a lighter colored nymph and it is a little “buggier” than the Pheasant Tail, providing more movement. Most tend to favor the traditional tan body color but an olive body is also very effective and versatile.
6) Prince Nymph: This fly gives you that all important peacock herl factor which trout seem to dig. The white colored goose biots on the back also seems to grab the attention of fish. I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly what it’s supposed to imitate but the bottom line is it works! A Zug Bug is a close cousin to the Prince and would likely make many anglers’ favorite fly list. The two are similar and you can’t go wrong with either. Carry them in sizes #8-#16.
7) Zebra Midge: This fly will cover most of your small nymph needs. It is a simple pattern but extremely effective. Best fished in tailwaters and slow pools in mountain streams, carry it in sizes #18-#22. Most tend to prefer the tungsten bead head versions with black, red, or olive bodies.
8) Wooly Bugger: While there are numerous great streamers out there, only one made this list as a must have, probably because of its incredible versatility. The Wooly Bugger, carried in a variety of colors, can facilitate almost any streamer need. Carry them in black, olive, tan, and white in sizes #4-#10 and you have an effective imitation for small baitfish, leeches, and crayfish. In a pinch, you can even dead drift a Wooly Bugger as a pretty effective imitation for a stonefly nymph or hellgramite. Whether you choose bead or no bead, flash or no flash, you have a fly capable of catching most any kind of fish in any kind of water.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
Ask any fly fisherman with any experience at all to name his top ten, “must have” flies and I guarantee that 9 out of 10, at least, will include a Wooly Bugger. And the handful who don’t mention it are likely just contrarians. But why? Why is this such a popular fly that is a staple in nearly every angler’s fly box?
I suppose everyone might have their own answer to that question, but for me, the short answer is versatility. The Wooly Bugger was one of the first flies I ever learned about and with it, over my many years of fly fishing, I’ve caught rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white bass, rock bass, mooneye, carp, catfish, crappie, bluegill, striper, gar, walleye, and salmon. And I’ve caught fish with it in lakes, ponds, deep rivers, shallow mountain streams, and tailwaters. I suspect the only reason I’ve never caught fish on it in saltwater is that I’ve never tried.
What’s it supposed to be? That’s the beauty of it. Depending on how you tie it and how you fish it, it can represent a number of food items. For instance, tied in black and retrieved slowly, it probably represents a leech. Tied in lighter colors and stripped more quickly and erratically, it looks like a baitfish. Tied in a combination of olive and/or rusty colors, it resembles a crayfish. Tied in darker colors and fished on a dead drift, it could imitate a stonefly or hellgrammite nymph. Tie it in bright colors, maybe with an egg on the front, and you have a fly for salmon, steelhead, or many stocked trout.
Because of its versatility, it could be mentioned as a recommended fly for any month of the year. I selected it for November for a couple of reasons. One, there are just not many hatches or any unusual flies to single out in November. Two, this is one of the big months to fish for large browns in the park. Post spawn brown trout are hungry and winter is coming soon. While you can certainly catch them on smaller flies, why not show them a little bigger meal? Wooly Buggers are big fish flies. At the end of the day, that’s probably the real reason it’s such a successful fly – because it looks like a big meal.
Next time you’re not sure what the fish are biting on, tie on a Bugger. Dead drift it in a riffle. Strip it through a deep flat. Play with it. You may be surprised what you find!
I could write thousands and thousands of tortured words on how to nymph fish. There are countless methods and variables that can be determined by anything from water conditions to the type of nymph you are trying to imitate. Needless to say, it’s a little more than we can chew in a newsletter article but consider this an introduction to what I like to call active nymphing.
I differentiate it with the word “active” because mostly, we are taught to fish our nymph(s) on a dead drift. In other words, we try to get our nymph to drift at the same speed as the current, usually under a strike indicator, with no motion or “action” at all. In many situations, this is a highly effective method for catching trout and one that definitely shouldn’t be abandoned. But there are some situations when putting a little movement in the fly, “little” being the key word, may produce a few more fish.
If you’ve spent much time fishing nymphs, this has probably happened to you at some point. You dead-drift your nymph(s) under a strike indicator multiple times through a great run with no results. When you quit paying attention to do something else (probably change flies), the line and nymph(s) straightens downstream, dragging in the current, and a fish hits it.
Nymphs will sometimes deliberately “drift” to other parts of the stream in a sort of migration. Other times, nymphs may unintentionally become dislodged from a rock and find themselves drifting down the stream. In either case, they are most often not particularly good swimmers, and are basically at the mercy of the current. Your dead-drift nymphing technique is primarily designed to replicate common scenarios like this. However, some nymphs, like the Isonychias mentioned in the other article in this newsletter, ARE good swimmers, and they don’t drift helplessly with the current. Caddis especially tend to be good swimmers.
And at certain times, such as when it’s time to hatch, even poor swimming nymphs will uses gases to “propel” themselves through the water column to reach the surface. These nymphs are often referred to as emergers, and during these times, that upward, emerging motion of the nymph is often what triggers the fish to strike. So, that fish you caught “by accident” when you let your line get tight and drag behind you may not have been such a fluke. When your drift ended and the line straightened, your nymph “swung” from the stream bottom to the surface, likely resembling an emerging nymph. The trick now, is to replicate that how and when you want to, rather than by accident when you’re not paying attention.
The best way to get started with this technique is by finding a good stretch of pocket water or a nice riffle with some deeper seams and cuts. With faster current, you’ll be able to get closer to the fish and employ a high-sticking method. Use a longer rod, probably 8-9’, and use a leader approximately the same length as the rod. Tie on a generic, all-purpose soft-hackle pattern, like a soft-hackle Pheasant Tail or Hares Ear, and put a small split shot about 8” above it. Forget the strike indicator.
In a smaller pocket, keep just a couple of feet of fly line out past the rod tip, and make a short cast up and across to the top of the pocket. You should be slightly more than a rod length away from your target, preferably with a faster current between you and the target (this will help to conceal you from the fish). Keep your rod tip up and out by extending your arm, and try to maintain an approximately 90-degree angle between the line and rod. By keeping your rod tip up, you can keep most of the leader off the water. If you want the nymph to go a little deeper, drop your rod a little lower. It depends on the depth of the water.
Move the rod with the drift at the pace of the current to maintain the 90-degree angle, and allow the drift to continue in front of and slightly below you. You may get a strike during this portion of the drift. If so, you’ll probably feel it since you have most of the slack out of your line, but keep a close eye on your leader. It will tighten if a fish strikes and be another cue for you to set the hook. When you reach the end of the drift (bottom of the pocket), quit moving the rod with the drift. This will force the fly to swing from the bottom to the surface. If the fish hits during this portion of the drift, you will likely feel a very hard tug.
You can use this same method when fishing a bigger pocket or a longer seam in a riffle. You may just be using slightly more line and have a little longer drift. You may also choose to try one more technique on these longer drifts. Do everything as described above, but when the fly and line are passing in front of you, give your wrist 3 or 4 intermittent, slight upward twitches. This will allow the fly to “jump” or “pulse” in the current. Keep in mind that you want those wrist twitches to be very slight. Quickly and aggressively “pulling” the fly from the bottom to top will not look natural.
I suggested using a soft-hackle fly for this technique, mainly because the design of the fly lends itself well to the motion-based presentation, but I fish a variety of nymphs in this fashion. Definitely give it a try with your favorite caddis nymphs and emergers. And next time that water is a little high and stained from rain, give this a try with a dark Wooly Bugger or a dark, rubber-legged nymph like a Girdle Bug. You might be surprised at what you find!
More visible leaders with colored butt and mid sections can make this method of fishing much easier. They help a little with strike detection but mostly, they help you see and track the leader and better gauge the depth of the fly. I make leaders specifically for these short-line techniques and they are available for purchase here.
This is one of those flies that when you show it to an inexperienced angler (and many experienced ones too), the reaction will often be, “What size fish can you catch on that?!?” Whatever size fish is feeding on it. While there is sometimes a little truth to the big fly, big fish theory, fish are going to feed most on the most available food source.
In nearly every tailwater in the world, and certainly in every East Tennessee tailwater, midges are by far the most available food source. They are available to fish nearly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And while they may be small, they are abundant and big fish will eat them because they’re such an easy and available meal. More often than not, the first fly I tie on when fishing any tailwater, is some sort of midge.
In freestone streams like you find in the Smokies, we don’t fish midges as much because they’re not as prolific and they are often outnumbered by a variety of mayflies, caddis flies, and stoneflies. So it’s one of those weird ironies that we go to the mountains and fish larger flies for smaller fish and in the tailwaters, we fish smaller flies for larger fish! But they do have seasonal importance in the mountains. They are far more abundant in the late fall and winter than any other time of year.
Midges do hatch into adults but the larval stage is of the most significance to the fly fisherman. You will regularly see trout in the Clinch River tailwater surface feeding on adult midges. However, my experience has been that for every one hit you can get on a topwater midge imitation, you can get about twenty on a nymph. And for me, the number one nymph imitation for a midge is the Zebra Midge.
Midges are rarely bigger than a size #18 and can get a whole lot smaller. I usually fish a size #18 Zebra Midge but will and have gone as small as a #24. You can go as small as you’d like but for me, if catching trout necessitates fishing size #28 flies… It’s time to go to the bar! The smaller the fly, the smaller the tippet you need. And at 45 years of age, I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to thread a #28 hook with 9X tippet and then land a 20”+ fish on that tiny hook and 9X tippet ceases to be fun. Most of the time, a #18 hook on 6X tippet is adequate.
Midges come in a variety of colors and that can vary on a daily basis. I mostly tie Zebra Midges in red, brown, grey, olive, and black. I fish black more than any color and in the mountains, almost exclusively – maybe olive. I typically tie them with a tungsten bead to get them down quickly but like to have a few un-weighted ones on hand to fish in the film.
This fly is as simple as it gets – just a bead, thread, and wire, but is incredibly effective and a must have in any trout fly selection. Try it!
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.