Flies: Stimulator

When it comes to fishing dry flies in the Smokies, particularly on the smaller streams, I am typically looking for two primary things in a pattern: It needs to be visible and it needs to be buoyant.  Beyond that I can begin focusing on a few more details like color and size.

In general, trout in the Smokies don’t see heavy hatches of individual insects.  Rather, they mostly see small quantities of a lot of different insects.  So, if you can present the fly naturally and without spooking fish, most any all-purpose, “prospecting” fly pattern will do the trick.  As mentioned above, if you can get a little more precise with size and color, your pattern will be that much more effective.

Matching size will require more observation of bugs on the water or simply having general knowledge of what should be hatching.  The same two things can help with matching color but also having broad knowledge of how seasons impact color can put you ahead of the curve. With some exceptions, aquatic insects tend to blend in with their surroundings.  So, in winter months when trees are bare, most of what hatches is dark. As foliage comes in, most of what hatches is brighter.

The Stimulator has long been a favorite fly pattern of Smoky Mountain anglers for all of the reasons mentioned above.  Its buoyancy and light colored wing not only make it easy to see, but make it a perfect “indicator fly” when fishing a dropper.  And if you mix and match sizes and colors, you could nearly fish a Stimulator 12 months out of the year!

The Stimulator was long thought to be the invention of well-known West Coast angler and fly shop owner, Randall Kaufmann.  While Kaufmann is responsible for the modifications that made the fly most of us know today, the fly’s true originator is thought to be Paul Slattery, who tied a stonefly pattern called the Fluttering Stonefly to fish on the Musconetcong River in central New Jersey.  This was in the early 1980’s and he soon renamed the fly after a New York City punk-rock band called The Stimulators.

Golden Stonefly

In any case, the fly seems to have been created to imitate an adult stonefly, but it is also a good suggestion of a caddis and sometimes even a hopper.  I most often fish it in yellow and in sizes #16 – 8.  I think the smaller size makes a great imitation for the prolific Little Yellow Sally Stoneflies, and the larger sizes are good representations of the larger golden stones that hatch on summer evenings in the mountains.  In the fall, I often fish a #10 Stimulator in orange to imitate the large ginger caddis.

Whether it is imitating anything or not, it catches fish and it floats well in heavier pocket water found throughout the mountains.  It is one of the most popular dry flies ever invented for trout and can be found in most every fly shop in the country.

Yellow Stimulator
Hook: Daiichi 1270 #16 – #10
Thread: 8/0 orange
Tail: Stacked elk hair
Abdomen: Yellow floss
Abdomen Hackle: Brown rooster neck – palmered
Wing: Stacked elk hair
Thorax: Bright orange dubbing
Thorax Hackle: Grizzly rooster neck – palmered

Learn more about Southern Appalachian fly patterns and hatches in my Hatch Guide.

Flies: Sulphur Comparadun

In the Smokies, we are mainly fishing faster, choppier water and often choose bushier, more heavily hackled dry fly patterns that float well.  In that kind of water, trout don’t get much time to study the fly and their view tends to be distorted by those choppy currents, so the bushier flies tend to do the trick.  Even when fishing pools in the Smokies, you usually have a defined feeding channel that will have at least a little chop to it.  In those situations, a parachute style fly pattern is usally adequate to provide a slightly more realistic profile.

But in flatter water like you commonly see on tailwaters like the Clinch, particularly weeks into a heavy hatch, an even more realistic profile is necessary.  Trout routinely refuse parachute style flies and probably wouldn’t even consider a vertically hackled Catskill style dry fly.

This problem isn’t new to fly fishers.  In the 1930’s, Fran Betters developed the Haystack to fool trout in slow moving spring creeks.  It consisted of a deer hair wing and tail and no hackle, allowing for a lower riding fly with a much more realistic profile.  Al Caucci and Ed Natasi introduced the Comparadun, a variation of the Haystack, in their 1972 book, Comparahatch.  The pattern is essentially the same but they were able to use more modern microfibbets to create a longer, slimmer, more durable split tail that aided in floatation.

In the mid 1980’s, Craig Matthews and John Juracek took the Comparadun a step further and replaced the split microfibbet tails with a piece of antron or zelon.  It essentially turned the fly into an emerger, with the antron or zelon “tail” suggesting the trailing shuck of an emerging mayfly.  Of course, in any of the patterns described above, the body, wing, and tail/shuck colors can be altered to imitate different insects.

I routinely fish the split tail and the trailing shuck versions, usually during a sulphur or BWO hatch.  And again, I am usually fishing them on the Clinch or possibly in a slow pool in the mountains.  They just don’t float well enough to fish them in faster riffles and pocket water. But on a slow glide on the Clinch, they can be deadly!

Sulphur Comparadun

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Light dun microfibbets ( or replace microfibbets with small tuft of brown antron for trailing shuck version)
Body: Pale yellow dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coasatal deer hair

Flies: March Browns

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 Brown Dry Fly

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.

March Brown Nymph

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

Flies: The Great 8 (Must have Trout Flies)

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.

Dry Flies

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.

Nymphs

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.

Streamers

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.

Flies: Rob’s Hellbender Dry

As about anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m terrible at self-promotion. The worst. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve never featured one of my own patterns in the newsletter. Usually I opt for more standard or classic patterns. But this is a good fly and it’s good this time of the year, so here you go!

I started tying this one probably 4 or 5 years ago, and if you’ve fished with me in the summertime or fall, you’ve probably fished with it at some point. Heck, you might have even caught a fish on it. It started as most fly patterns do for me, as a modification to an existing pattern. If you’re not a fly tyer or maybe if you’re new to it, you may not realize that fly tying is a lot like cooking. You can make up a recipe totally out of your head. You can follow an existing recipe step by step. Or you can take an existing recipe and modify it to better suit your taste. I’ve done all of the above over the years.

Just before this pattern was born, I was having success with a fly called a Neversink Caddis, a great little foam pattern named for the Neversink River in New York. But I got to thinking about a yellow foam body fly with a little flash. So I tied a Neversink Caddis with a little Krystal Flash under the wing. Then I thought about how great it would be to have a yellow foam body fly with a little flash and some rubber legs. So I tied a Neversink Caddis with a little Krystal Flash under the wing and rubber legs on the side. Then I started thinking about how well it might work if it was still buoyant, but rode a little flatter on the surface. You get the idea.

There comes a point where you change so many things about a chili recipe that it’s no longer chili. And after the fourth or fifth modification on this fly, it was no longer a Neversink Caddis. It was it’s own fly and it was catching fish. A lot of them. I was fairly quiet about it but had more than a few guide clients that started asking for the fly at Little River Outfitters, and it wasn’t long before Daniel asked me to tie some for the shop.

Bottom View

I’ve done some commercial tying in the past and it’s a grind – a whole lot of work for not much money. I remember when I first started fly fishing, I’d go to a fly shop and say, “Seriously? They charge $2 for one of these?!?” After I began tying commercially, tying hundreds of dozens of flies, I remember saying, “Seriously? They only charge $2 for one of these?!?” Needless to say, I wasn’t jumping at the chance to get back into the commercial tying game.

So I went a different route and submitted it and another nymph pattern to a large fly distributor. If accepted, you send samples with tying instructions, they mass-produce them, and you collect a royalty for each dozen sold. Pretty neat. It doesn’t add up to much but I collect a check at the end of each year that’s enough to take my wife to a nice dinner. I have other original patterns that I keep intending to submit but never seem to get around to it. Maybe this winter.

So that’s how the fly came to be. It’s a good fly pretty much anytime between late April and early November, but I like it best in the late summer and early fall when the water is low. In low or flat water, high-riding, bushy flies get refused a lot, and I have trouble keeping more sparsely dressed flies afloat. But Rob’s Hellbender floats great, sits lower and flatter on the surface and seems to produce strikes when its high-riding counterparts fail.

It falls under the attractor category, as it doesn’t really imitate anything in particular. I’m sure it mostly gets taken as a stonefly or hopper. Either way, they eat it and you need some. If you want to tie it, the recipe is below.  Or better yet, buy a bunch at Little River Outfitters so I can take my wife out to dinner.

Rob’s Hellbender Dry
Hook: 2xl dry fly hook #14 – 10
Thread: 8/0 yellow
Underbody and rib: Thread
Body and Head: Yellow 2mm foam (tan, chartreuse, & orange work well, too)
Underwing: Pearl Krystal Flash
Wing: Deer hair
Hackle: Brown rooster
Legs: Tan barred Sili-Legs

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

 

Flies: Quigley Cripple

Okay, so it’s not exactly the most politically correct name for a fly pattern. Maybe the Quigley Emergently Challenged Mayfly would be a better choice? Nevertheless, as teased in the newsletter text, it has been a “hatch buster” for me since probably the early 90’s. The fly has been around a little longer than that, devised by Bob Quigley in the late 1970’s.

What do I mean by hatch buster? Some hatches of aquatic insects can get so heavy and last for such long periods of time that trout become ultra selective on the flies they eat. They just have so many of the naturals available that your fly, no matter how precise an imitation, can kind of get lost in the mix. We have few hatches of that magnitude in this area but when we do, it’s usually going to be a sulphur mayfly. They can come off fairly heavily in the mountains in May, particularly late in the day. We also see significant hatches of them on area tailwaters, particularly the Clinch and South Holston. On the Clinch, it’s usually from late April through early July and on the South Holston, they come off nearly nine months out of the year!

The Quigley Cripple looks a bit of a mess, but that’s kind of what it’s supposed to look like. During the emergence process, there’s a period of time when the adult mayfly is attempting to break free of its nymphal shuck. It usually occurs right in the surface film and it usually only takes a couple of seconds. However, this is a highly vulnerable couple of seconds. You can’t run with your pants down! Sometimes they’ll get stuck in this stage even longer, particularly on damp or even overcast days.

In either case, trout will often key in on the insects that are in this stage as they are such easy targets. In many cases during a heavy hatch, you’ll find trout that feed exclusively on bugs in this stage, ignoring adults and nymphs. Needless to say, if you don’t have a fly that imitates this, you could be missing out on a lot of trout!

There are a number of patterns that are intended to represent this stage of a mayfly’s life, but I have had more success with the Quigley than any other. The brown tail and “abdomen” of the fly suggest the case of the nymph while the yellow “thorax” suggests the adult half out of the case. The deer hair and hackle represent the wings and legs of the struggling adult.

It sits pretty low in the surface film. As a matter of fact, I often apply floatant to only the thorax and wing so that the fly will rest sort of half above and half below the surface film. Because it sits so low, it can be a little difficult to see. My favorite way to fish it is as a dropper, about 18” behind a more visible parachute or comparadun dry fly pattern. Having the higher riding dry fly as reference allows me to better see the cripple. Even when I can’t see it, if I see a trout rise within 18” of my dry fly, I assume he’s hitting the cripple and set the hook. Great fly, give it a try!

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

Quigley Cripple

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Rusty brown antron
Abdomen: Rusty brown antron
Rib: Fine copper wire
Thorax: Sulphur dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coastal deer hair
Hackle: Light to medium dun

Flies: Madame X

A good fly pattern is a good fly pattern. And while many good fly patterns, for one reason or another, may fall from popularity, it’s not because they stop catching fish – they just stop catching fishermen. The Madame X certainly fits that description as it had tremendous popularity twenty years ago but is rarely mentioned today.

I became reacquainted with this fly about a month ago on a rare day off, fishing upper Little River with a couple of old friends. I was fishing a nice stretch of pocket water that had a few pools mixed in and was having moderate success when I noticed a large (about a size #8) golden stonefly in the air. These primarily hatch at night but there are always a few holdovers and they’re such a big meal, I think trout are often still looking for them the next morning. So, sometimes their imitations can still work well, even when they’re not hatching.

When I began searching my box, I came across a few Madame X’s that had probably been in my box, unfished, for about 15 years. They fit the size and color profile I was looking for and sometimes I just enjoy going “retro” and fishing forgotten flies from days gone by. I figured at the very least, a big stonefly imitation would be a great, buoyant dry fly to fish with a nymph dropper. So, I dropped a little Pheasant Tail variation about 15” off the back, expecting it to account for any fish caught.

On the first cast into the first pocket, a fish exploded on the #8 Madame X! It surprised me and I missed the strike. On the second cast, the fish hit it again and I was ready that time – a solid 10” rainbow. This continued in nearly every pocket of water I fished. I caught dozens of chunky rainbows and probably 80% of them came on the big Madame X.

Doug Swisher originated this pattern in the 1980’s as sort of a multi-purpose attractor pattern to be fished on his local waters in Montana. Mostly it was believed to represent a large stonefly adult or hopper. Over the years, it was frequently modified in size and/or color to represent a number of large bugs but somehow seemed to fall off the radar after the mid to late 90’s. Many fly tiers began using foam for large flies around that time and I suspect the Madame X just fell out of style.

Well I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of trout that still think it’s cool and I have been fishing it a little more regularly lately. I don’t know if the trout take it as a stonefly or a hopper, and I honestly don’t care. They take it! I fish it mainly with a yellow body but I’m sure other colors would work. And I fish it mainly in sizes #12 through #8.

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

Flies: Lime Trude

Summer is creeping slowly into the Smokies and fly patterns are beginning to shift again. In late spring and summer, nearly everything that hatches is brighter in color. Most of the aquatic insects you see are some shade of yellow or bright green, so it certainly makes sense to fish fly patterns in the same color profile.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times, fly patterns are hardly the most important piece of the puzzle when trout fishing in the Smokies. Approach and presentation is the name of the game here. The wrong fly presented well will always catch more fish than the right fly dragging across the surface. But if your presentation is solid, it stands to reason that showing the trout a fly that looks a little more like the naturals they are seeing will produce far more strikes.

Since hatches in the Smokies are rarely heavy enough to make the trout key in on specific insects, color and size are really the most important components of fly selection. And since we tend to fish a lot of riffles and pocket water in the summer months, buoyancy and visibility can be extremely beneficial as well. While there are a number of fly patterns that meet all of those needs, one of my favorites is the Lime Trude.

The Lime Trude is just one of many variations of what was originally a wet fly designed by Carter Harrison. In the early 1900’s, on a trip to the A.S. Trude Ranch near Big Springs, ID, the fly was apparently created as a joke, using red yarn from a cabin rug as the body and reddish dog hair for a wing. The fly was an instant success and eventually got “dressed up” with more common fly tying materials, including a tail and hackle, converting it to more of a dry fly dressing.

The fly became a staple in the Rocky Mountains and evolved, as most patterns do, with the increased availability of more diverse fly tying materials. It seems a number of great fly tiers, including Dan Bailey, had a hand in the evolution of the fly we know today. While there are a number of variations still available, the Royal Trude is probably the best known. Essentially, it is just a hair wing version of the classic Royal Coachman. The Lime Trude, which gained notoriety after winning the Jackson Hole One-Fly Contest (I believe in the late 80’s or early 90’s), is probably a close second in popularity.

Much of the fly fishing history in the Smoky Mountains was not recorded so it is difficult to say just when the fly first made an appearance on our streams. But it has certainly been catching trout for many decades. For the purposes mentioned above, it has everything you need. The bright, greenish-yellow body looks like a lot of what the trout see this time of year. The hackle and calf wing make it a fairly buoyant fly. And the white hair wing also makes it highly visible.

It is certainly an attractor fly that might pass for a variety of caddisflies, stoneflies, and even mayflies. Fish it in sizes #16 – #12 on your favorite Smoky Mountain stream and let me know what you think!

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

Flies: Griffith’s Gnat

Griffith’s Gnat

Colder months don’t allow for much in the way of dry fly fishing in East Tennessee. As a matter of fact, when the water temperatures are down in the 30’s, it can be tough enough catch fish on nymphs. But in early March, and during occasional warm stretches in January and February, water temperatures can climb just enough to produce a hatch.

Sometimes in these conditions, particularly on sunny days, bugs may start hatching but fish still opt not to expend the energy to feed on the surface. But there are often isolated areas, mostly slower pools, where they do feed rather methodically on the surface and I just can’t pass up the opportunity to catch a fish up top!

There are a variety of insects that are likely to hatch at these times. The most common are black caddis, black stoneflies, black midges, grey midges, and Blue Wing Olive mayflies. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to what exactly might be hatching, or which bug the fish might be keying in on. And with the dry fly fishing being so sporadic and unreliable at that time of year, for most, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy/tie a bunch of these patterns and carry them on the stream. Most will likely just end up rusting in your box!

Adult Midge

However, what these insects all have in common is they’re dark in color and small in size – mostly #18 and smaller. The Griffith’s Gnat is a small, dark dry fly originally designed to imitate a midge, but it is generic enough to effectively imitate all of the above insects in most situations. So, rather than carrying four different sizes of six different fly patterns, I tend to carry Griffith’s Gnats in sizes #18 – #22 and am able to fool all but the most selective of trout (and a few of them, too). As a matter of fact, I once fished a heavy Blue Wing Olive hatch where the fish were actively feeding on the surface. There were many fish that were refusing the actual Blue Wing Olive imitations but were eating the Griffith’s Gnat!

It’s just one of those “must-have” flies that I always have in my box, and not just in the winter. It makes for a pretty effective ant imitation during the summer and is a great year round dry fly on tailwaters where midges hatch almost daily. Pretty much, if the fish are feeding on something small and dark, you’ve got more than a fighting chance with this fly.

There are always exceptions, but mostly I fish this fly on a dead drift, typically with a longer leader and smaller tippet, usually 6X. For a small, dark fly, it’s pretty visible so I often fish it by itself. But in choppier water, in tougher light conditions, or when I just want to give fish options, I will tie it as a dropper off the back of a slightly larger and more visible dry fly. If I tie it 18” off the back of a Parachute Adams, and I see a rise anywhere within 2’ of that Adams, I set the hook.

If you tie your own, it’s a really easy fly to tie. It was always one of the first flies I’d teach when I was teaching beginner fly tying classes. Or if you buy your flies, you can find them almost anywhere. Give it a try!

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

Fly Selection Part 2 – Dry Flies vs. Nymphs

Last month, I talked about ways to simplify your fly selection and offered tips on how to choose flies based on season and what was hatching. Based on the number of questions I had, however, I left out an important part of the process. Many folks said they are often uncertain when to fish a dry fly vs. a nymph.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of variables and there is not a simple answer like fish nymphs before noon and dries after. The truth is, in places like the Smoky Mountains, when conditions like water temperature and water level are ideal, it often doesn’t matter. There have been plenty of days when I’ve fished with my buddy Brian, going up the stream together and taking turns fishing. He was fishing nymphs or wet flies and I was fishing dries, and we caught about the same number of fish. When conditions are right and the trout are actively feeding, they’ll typically feed on both.

So when the conditions are great and you could fish either, how do you decide? Sometimes it just boils down to personal preference. I happen to think fishing with dry flies is more fun, so I’m often going to choose a dry fly in those instances. But it also depends where I’m fishing. If it’s purely a rainbow or brook trout stream, I’m highly likely to fish dries. But brown trout are more reluctant to feed on the surface, so if there’s a chance of catching a bigger brown, I’m more likely to fish nymphs.

Some people choose to fish dry flies because they think it’s easier. Nymphing requires you to read the water three dimensionally, meaning you have to factor in the depth as well as the surface currents. And there is more stuff, like split shot and sometimes strike indicators, that can lead to more tangles for less experienced anglers. On the other hand, one of the most experienced fly fishermen I know chooses to fish nymphs in smaller, pocket water streams for a similar reason. He says he can cover more water and catch more fish because he’s not spending so much time drying and redressing his dry fly after every fish. It’s a great point. Keeping a dry fly floating in smaller mountain streams, especially when you’re catching a lot of fish, can require a lot of time and effort.

So when the conditions are great and you could fish either, it’s really just going to come down to your personal preference and fishing style. But what about when conditions are not ideal? What are some “less than ideal” conditions that might dictate the use of one fly category over another?

The first one that jumps to mind is water temperature. If you’re fishing early or late in the year when the water temperature is in the 40’s (or colder), there will be fewer insects hatching and the fish are going be more lethargic and less willing to come to the surface to feed. While you can sometimes coax fish to the surface in these conditions, you’ll likely have far greater success fishing nymphs near the bottom where the fish is already seeing most of its natural food and where it doesn’t have to expend as much energy.

High water is another one. When water is high, many of the channels are moving too fast at the surface. In pocket water, the water that normally goes around the rocks is going over them and eliminating the holding pocket. Fish will not only have a tougher time seeing food on the surface, they will have to work too hard to get it. While there can sometimes be fish surface feeding in back eddies, etc. in high water, you’ll likely be far more successful drifting nymphs closer to the bottom.

Low water can be the opposite. Fish don’t quit feeding on nymphs when the water gets too low, but it gets very difficult to fish with nymphs in these conditions because you’re frequently hanging the bottom. Can it be done? Absolutely. But you’ll have a much easier time fishing dry flies in these conditions.

The other situation worth mentioning is fishing for trout in tailwaters. While there are exceptions, most tailwaters are not known for their diversity in aquatic insects. Rather they’ll usually get one good mayfly hatch and/or one good caddis hatch and that’s it. The Clinch River is a perfect example. It gets a great sulfur (mayfly) hatch in May and June and that’s it. During that timeframe, the dry fly fishing can be pretty darn good. The rest of the year their diet mostly consists of midge larvae, scuds, and sulfur nymphs.

Even when tailwater trout can be observed surface feeding on adult midges, you can usually catch fifteen trout below the surface for every one you can catch on top. Tailwaters almost always lend themselves better to nymph fishing.

Finally, if you want to get scientific about the whole thing, it is estimated that anywhere from 65-90% of a trout’s diet comes from below the surface. And it makes sense, particularly when you consider that the typical aquatic insect spends one to four years as a nymph and one day to two weeks as an adult. So really, we fish dry flies because it’s fun and sometimes easier. If your primary goal is catching big fish and/or more fish, learn how to fish nymphs.

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