Flies: The Hidden Terrestrials

We often hear about the importance of fishing terrestrials in the summer months. Out west, the conversation usually focuses on hoppers. Around here, we talk more about beetles, ants, and inchworms.   Regardless, there are a number of land-based insects from beetles, ants and hoppers to cicadas, bees and black flies that find their way into the water during the summer months.

Just the other day on a guide trip, a customer caught a brook trout that had a mouth full of small beetles. The fish had obviously been very recently gorging on them, but if you studied the surface of the water in that pool, you’d have a tough time finding a single beetle on the water. You would also be challenged to see ants, inchworms, or any other terrestrial. However, if you used a bug seine in that same pool, you would get an entirely different picture.

The fact is these land-based insects are not particularly good swimmers. Most of them, particularly ants, beetles and inchworms, briefly attempt to swim on the surface of the water but soon are caught by currents and swept below the surface.   But nearly every fisherman who fishes terrestrials, fishes them on the surface… and for good reason. Nearly every fly shop or fly manufacturer almost exclusively sells topwater terrestrial patterns. And most of these are constructed of foam or some other highly buoyant material to make the fly ride high on the water.

While you can certainly catch plenty of trout on these patterns and have a blast doing it, you are missing out on A LOT of fish. If you are a fly tier, try tying a few ants with a dubbed body and a hen feather rather than foam and hackle from a rooster neck. Tie some beetles without the high-vis sighter on the back and instead add a few wraps of lead wire. If you don’t tie flies, place a split shot above your favorite terrestrial pattern next time you go fishing.

A great way to fish them in pocket water is with a straight-line nymphing technique, allowing them to swing at the end of the drift. In pools, fish them a few feet under a strike indicator. Or tie on one of those big, buoyant foam hoppers and drop a submerged beetle or ant about 15” off the back. I probably use this method more than any other.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: Yallarhammer

No fly holds near the lore among East Tennessee fly anglers as the Yallarhammer. It has long been known that the native brook trout that reside in Southern Appalachian mountain streams have a weakness for brightly colored flies, particularly if that bright color happens to be yellow. But before endless varieties of fly tying materials were so easily available from local fly shops, mail order catalogs, and the Internet, early fly tyers had to use feathers from local birds that they could shoot themselves.

A woodpecker known as a yellow hammer because of its bright yellow feathers and hammering beak was quite abundant in the area and provided a perfect source for fly tying materials. Over the years, numerous variations of the Yallarhammer (taken from the local pronunciation) trout fly emerged but the photo above is thought to closely (and legally) resemble the original. It was fished as a ‘wet’ fly, most often drifted and swung through pockets, riffles, and plunges.

The Yallarhammer also has strong ties to the state of Alabama. Their state bird, the Yallarhammer is most often associated with a confederate regiment based in Alabama that wore Yallarhammer feathers in their hats. Tennessee Volunteer fans may even be familiar with a Crimson Tide cheer that uses the term: “Rammer, Jammer, Yallarhammer…”

As a trout fly, the Yallarhammer was so popular that locals nearly shot the poor bird to extinction. It is currently a protected bird and the possession of its feathers will likely land you a citation before landing you a trout! But the Yallarhammer fly still lives on as modern fly tyers now substitute dyed dove and quail feathers for the original flicker feathers.

Pattern:

Hook: #10 TMC 5262 (or equivalent)
Thread: Brown 6/0
Tail: Golden Pheasant
Body: Yellow Floss
Feather: Primary dove wing feather, dyed yellow

Fly Selection – Making Sense of It All

If you are new to fly fishing, particularly for trout, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of fly patterns available. Which ones do I need? What colors? What sizes? Do I need all of them? First of all, if you tried to carry every trout fly with you, you’d need a wheelbarrow to go fly fishing! While there is no way to make it immediately simple, there are ways to simplify the process. As with many things in fly fishing, you try to find a good starting point and learn as you go from there.

Sulfur mayflies can come off in bunches on the Clinch in May, and you better have a good imitation

First, it is important to realize that there are many fly patterns that are designed to imitate a very specific bug when it is hatching and may only be relevant on certain rivers at a specific time of year. Some are even designed to imitate certain stages of that hatching insect’s emergence. Some of these hatches may involve hundreds of bugs coming off for hours out of the day, and maybe over the course of several weeks. When that is the case, the fish can get highly selective and may ignore anything that doesn’t look like what is actually hatching. You need to “match the hatch.” The heavier the hatch is, the more selective the fish can become, and they may even focus on one stage of the emergence. For instance, they may opt to ignore the nymphs and adults, and purely key in on emergers just under the surface film.

This kind of situation can be exciting and frustrating at the same time while you try to unlock the puzzle. But these situations are rare. Most of the time, particularly in smaller mountain streams like the Smokies, you’re not going to see many heavy hatches. Rather, there will be sporadic small hatches of a few different types of bugs. And the fish rarely key in on one specific bug. They can’t afford to. Often, there won’t be anything hatching at all.   So, a good starting point with trout flies is with a basic selection of attractor patterns in their most common size(s).

The Parachute Adams is one of the most universal topwater trout flies in the world

Attractor fly patterns, also referred to as generals, generics, or prospecting flies, are not designed to imitate anything in particular. They will either be rather drab looking flies, like a Parachute Adams, that look similar to a lot of food items. Or they may be something with some color that doesn’t look like anything at all, like a Royal Wulff, intended to trigger a feeding response from a trout. In most situations, if you have a basic selection of attractors and you present them well, you can catch trout anywhere in the world.

Many of you may have seen, or even purchased, the Great 8 fly selection from my online store. That’s exactly what it is – a collection of eight dry, nymph, and streamer fly patterns that will work on trout most anywhere in the world.   Now if you ask ten different fishermen their eight must-have fly patterns, you won’t get the exact same answer. But I guarantee you’ll see a lot of similarity and crossover. A simple selection of these types of flies is a great place to start your fly collection. From there, you just gradually add fly patterns based on multiple sources and scenarios.

Maybe your buddy told you he did really well at Tremont on a size #12 Yellow Humpy. Pick up a couple and give them a try. Or maybe the guy at the fly shop said people have been doing well on #16 Copper Johns. Pick up a few of those. Or maybe you purchased my hatch guide for the Smokies and it indicated there should be good hatches of Light Cahills when you were coming. Better have a couple of Light Cahill patterns with you. There are hatch guides and charts for most every popular trout fishery in the country and they can be very helpful. And the folks at the local fly shops are great sources for information. When they’re not fishing, they’re in the shop talking to people who have been fishing, so they almost always have the most up to date information. After doing that for a while, you start to accumulate a lot of fly patterns. And through the process, you start to find your own personal favorites.

So, now that you have all of these patterns, how do you know what fly to fish when? Fly selection is about 1/3 experience, 1/3 scientific, and 1/3 dumb luck. If you fish an area a lot, you will begin to draw from past experiences to choose your fly. If I am fishing the Smokies in June, I don’t have to actually see a beetle get eaten by a trout to make me decide to tie on a beetle pattern. For decades, I’ve done well on beetles in June. It will probably be one of the first flies I tie on.

Are you seeing a lot of these?
Try something like this

I might use a more scientific approach on water that is less familiar, or even on familiar water when something unusual is happening. The scientific approach could be reading something like a hatch guide and choosing a fly accordingly to match the flies that should be hatching. Or you could be on the water and see fish feeding on the surface. If you see an abundance of natural insects on the water or coming off the water, catch a couple in your hand and try to find an imitation in your box that is close in size, color, and profile. You can do the same thing with nymphs by turning over a couple of rocks and choosing a fly that resembles what you see.

The dumb luck method is just what it sounds like. The biggest brook trout I ever caught in the park came on a day when the fishing was tough. None of my usual patterns were producing and I wasn’t having much luck matching naturals. I finally dug through my box and saw a fly that I hadn’t even thought of, much less fished, in the last ten years. I figured I couldn’t do much worse so thought I would try it and ended up catching several fish on it, including that big brookie. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Probably the most import thing to remember is that it is more often the archer, not the arrow. Too many fishermen blame their fly for a lack of success. With the exception of super big, technical hatches, specific fly patterns are probably not as important as most people make them. Approaching the fish without spooking them and putting a good drift over them with a “reasonable” fly pattern will catch fish most of the time.

Someone smarter than me once said that most people’s favorite fly is the fly they happened to have on the first time the fishing was good. In other words, the fish were feeding well that day and probably would have hit most anything. But from that day forward you have confidence in that fly. It’s often the first fly you tie on and it’s the one you leave on the longest. There’s a lot to be said for confidence.

Most of the big brown trout, probably 75%, I’ve caught in the Smokies have come on a Tellico Nymph, which might lead some people to believe there is something extra special about that fly. The truth is I spotted most of those big brown trout before fishing for them, and I usually tie on a Tellico Nymph when I fish to a big brown. Know why? It’s the fly I happened to have on the first time I caught a big brown in the Smokies. There’s a lot to be said for confidence.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

In the Smokies, we typically see some of our best hatches of the year in spring. So, it’s no wonder that once March rolls around, most Smoky Mountain fly fishermen have dry flies on the brain. Count me in that group. I love fishing dry flies, especially to steady feeders during a hatch. But just because there’s a hatch, doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a lot of success with dry flies.

First of all, there are always an abundance of nymphs and emergers available to trout in any hatch, and trout can often feed on them more easily and without exposing themselves to potential predators. And there are certain situations that may make them even more reluctant to feed on the surface, such as marginal water temperatures. We see that a lot around here in the winter, where bugs are hatching, sometimes heavily, and you don’t see a single rise. Another scenario that many don’t consider is a dry, sunny day.

During a hatch, many aquatic insects linger on the surface while their wings dry before they can fly away, making them easy pickings for a waiting trout. Damp, overcast conditions are great days for dry fly fishing for this reason. The bugs are on the surface longer and the trout are looking for them there. But on dry, sunny days, they are able to get off the water almost immediately, making them a tough target for a trout. In those situations, trout often key in on the nymphs and emergers.

This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fish dry flies on sunny days or when the water temperature is less than perfect. But when things aren’t going your way during a hatch, you may want to consider changing your tactics. For me, that often means fishing a wet fly, and the Early Season Wet Fly is a great one for, you guessed it, early in the season.

Most of the aquatic insects that hatch around here in the early season, until around mid April, are dark in color. So this fly, with its darker body and wing, does a great job mimicking the majority of bugs that a trout might see. Past April, I might fish a similar fly in a lighter tan or yellow color.

I honestly don’t know where this pattern originated. I’m sure there are many traditional wet fly patterns that are very similar. But I believe this particular version originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, I learned about it from the same source that I’ve learned most things about fishing in the Smokies: Walter Babb.

I fish it a number of different ways. On days when I’m expecting a hatch in the afternoon, I might fish it in the morning in tandem with a dark nymph – maybe a Pheasant Tail or olive Hare’s Ear. In this situation, I’m usually fishing it with a dead drift. At the very beginning of a hatch, or throughout a hatch with little surface activity, I might fish two of these flies and allow them to swing in the current. And even during a hatch when fish are actively feeding on the surface, I often fish this fly as a dropper off the back of my dry fly.

In any case, it’s a go-to fly for me in the month of March and a good one to have in your stash. I doubt that it’s available anywhere commercially but if you’re a fly tyer, I’ve included the recipe below. Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

Hook: TMC 3769 (or equivalent) #14 – 12
Thread: Tan or brown 8/0
Tail: Dun hen hackle fibers
Rib: Copper wire
Body: Mix of grey and tan hare’s ear dubbing
Hackle: Dun hen
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed grey