Two Fly Rigs

I almost always fish with two flies when I’m trout fishing. There are just so many advantages to it. Beside the obvious advantage of potentially offering two fly choices to the trout, it provides you the opportunity to simultaneously present a fly in two different feeding columns. Below, I’m going to talk about some of those strategies as well as a few different ways to rig a dropper system. As a bonus, you get to enjoy some of my horrific artwork!

Dry Fly / Dropper
This is the two-fly method with which many fly fishermen are most familiar. It seems that even less experienced fishermen will tell you this is how their guide rigged them up when they were fishing out west during hopper season. When you rig like this, you are typically tying on a larger, or at least more visible, dry fly and attaching a smaller nymph off the back of that dry fly. You’re covering the top of the water with the dry fly and you’re covering usually the middle water column (sometimes the bottom) with the nymph. The dry fly serves as sort of an edible strike indicator for the nymph.

I typically rig this by tying my dry fly directly to the main leader and tippet. I’ll then take probably 18”-24” of tippet material and tie one end to the nymph, and the other to the bend of the hook on the dry fly. There are certainly a lot of variables, such as water depth or where you think the fish might be feeding, that determine how far apart you put the two flies, but the amount mentioned above is a pretty good “default setting.” I like to use a clinch knot to connect to the bend of the hook, but whatever knot you usually use to tie a fly on should work fine.

You want to make sure that the flies you select for this set-up compliment each other and are appropriate for the type of water you’re fishing. For example, a small parachute dry fly may not support the weight of a large, heavily weighted nymph. Parachute type patterns will easily support the weight of smaller, lighter nymphs, particularly in slower water. So, a #14 Parachute Adams with a #18 Zebra Midge dropper would be great for a tailwater or maybe a slower run or pool in the mountains. A #14 Parachute Adams with a #8 weighted Tellico nymph, fished in faster water is going to be trouble. Heavily hackled, bushy dry flies or foam dry flies are better choices when fishing in faster water or with heavier nymphs.

With that in mind, know that this method may not be suitable for every situation. For instance, if you need to get a nymph deep, particularly in a faster run, you’re going to need a lot of weight and using a dry fly–dropper rig is not going to be effective. You’re better off using traditional nymphing techniques for that. But for fishing hatch scenarios where fish are actively feeding on and just below the surface, or for fishing to opportunistic feeders in shallower pocket water, it’s pretty tough to beat.

I also like to fish this same rig with two dry fly flies. On many occasions, I’ve found myself in a situation where I have trouble seeing my dry fly – usually when trying to imitate something small or dark like a midge, Trico, or BWO. In those situations, I’ll often tie on a larger, more visible dry fly with the smaller, darker dry fly tied about 18” off the back. Sometimes, having the more visible fly as reference allows me to actually see the smaller fly. But if I still can’t see the smaller one, I know to set the hook if I see a rise anywhere within 18” of the visible fly.

Two Nymphs or Wet Flies
Just like the dry fly-dropper rig above, fishing with two nymphs or wets allows you to cover two different feeding columns. Only now, you’re typically covering the middle column and the bottom. I think another advantage with a two nymph rig is they tend to balance each other out and drift better.

There are a few different ways to rig for this and there are numerous strategies for fly selection and placement. If I have a nymph pattern that the fish are really after, I will sometimes fish two of the exact same fly. There have even been a few occasions when I’ve caught two fish at once! But usually I’m searching and I’m trying to provide the fish with options, so I’ll most often have two different fly patterns.

Keep in mind that (most of the time) your lowest fly on the rig will be fished near the bottom while the higher fly will be fished more in the middle column. I try to select and position flies with that in mind. For example, it’s far less likely to find a stonefly in the middle of the water column. They’re going to be found near the stream bottom, so logically, I want my stonefly nymph to be the bottom fly of my two fly rig. On the other hand, an emerging mayfly is more likely to be found in the middle feeding column. So, a soft hackle wet fly would probably be most effective as the top fly on my nymph rig.

You can rig like this with totally different flies or you may decide to stay in the same “family.” If you’re in the middle of or expecting, say, a caddis hatch, you may rig with a caddis emerger as your top fly and a caddis larva as your bottom fly. I’ve also had a lot of success choosing one nymph to act purely as an attractor. I may tie on a larger or brighter nymph as my top fly and a smaller or subtler nymph as my bottom one. I think that very often, the brighter or bigger nymph gets their attention, but they eat the subtler nymph below it. I tend to fish the nymphs a little closer together in these situations.

You can rig a pair of nymphs the same way we mentioned above, by tying one directly off the hook bend of the other – referred to as the in-line method. This is probably the easiest way to rig and fish two nymphs. But some don’t like this method because they don’t think it allows the top fly to drift freely.

A common way to rig two nymphs that will allow the top fly to drift more freely, is to use a blood knot to attach a section of tippet to the end of your leader. When tying the knot, take care to leave one long tag end, to which you will tie the top fly. The bottom fly will be attached to the end of the new tippet section. This definitely allows the top fly to have more movement and it puts you in more direct contact with both nymphs. Though for me, this method results in a lot more tangles so I only use it for specific scenarios.

You can also rig quite similarly using a tippet ring (discussed in another article in this newsletter). With a tippet ring attached to the end of your leader, you tie one shorter piece of tippet to the ring, to which you will tie your top fly. And you tie a separate, longer piece of tippet to the ring, to which you’ll tie your bottom fly. This is a pretty simple way to do things but will also likely result in a few more tangles than the in-line method.

These are just examples of a few of the more common methods for fishing and rigging multiple flies. Play around with it and find what combos and techniques work best for you. Never be afraid to experiment!

Matching the Hatch

Probably 20 years ago, I was fishing the Clinch River with a buddy during the sulfur hatch. I won’t get into what has happened to that hatch, but back then, it was epic. Sulfurs would come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day for about 3 months. We would drive down from Kentucky to fish it and on most trips, we would both steadily catch fish, many topping 20”.

On this particular trip, the bugs were coming off as good as they ever had, the water was boiling with rises, but we were both getting blanked! We were both going through every type of sulfur dry, emerger, and nymph in the box, all with the same result. Frustration got the best of both of us and we headed to the bank for a smoke, a bad habit we both enjoyed back then. While staring at the river and scratching our heads, it hit us both at the same time as we simultaneously exclaimed, “They’re eating caddis!”

Caddisflies tend to emerge quickly and almost explode off the water. When a trout feeds on one, it will frequently chase it to the top to eat it before it gets away. Sometimes the momentum will cause the fish to come completely out of the water, but at the least, results in a very distinct, splashy rise – not like the delicate sipping rise to a mayfly. Once we stepped away from the river and watched, we both noticed it.

We went back to the water and began looking more closely. Sure enough, there were caddis hatching, too. There was probably one caddis hatching for every 100 sulfurs, but for whatever reason, the trout were keyed in on the caddis. It’s what is referred to as a “masking hatch.” We both switched to the appropriate caddis pattern and were immediately into fish!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened, and each occurrence has trained me to always pay attention and sometimes try to look past the obvious. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you solve a hatch riddle sometime.

First, we have to address the basics. If you see fish rising and have a pretty good idea what they’re eating but you’re fly is being ignored, check to see that your fly is the same size as the naturals. Also be certain that your tippet is not too large and that you’re getting a good drift. Presentation is most often the culprit when your fly is being ignored. Next, make certain that the color is a close match to the natural. If you’re fishing a bushy pattern, you might try a more subtle pattern like a Comparadun. If that’s not working, try an emerger fished just under the surface or in the film.

Fish Rise

Still not catching them? Take a break and watch the water. You may be able to tell something from the rise rings as I described above. If you don’t learn anything from that, try to find a fish that is rising steadily and watch him. He’s probably feeding in rhythm, like every 10 seconds. Watch his spot and try to time his rises. When you have that down pretty close, try to see what he eats. You should be able to tell if it’s the same kind of bug you’re seeing in the air, or at the very least, whether he’s eating something on or just below the surface. It’s almost like detective work. You sometimes have to go through the process of eliminating suspects before you can zero in on your man!

If fish are actively rising but you don’t see any bugs in the air, check the water. Try to position yourself at the bottom of a feeding lane (downstream of where the fish are feeding) and watch the surface of the water (and just beneath) for drifting bugs. Holding a fine mesh net in the current is a great way to collect what’s coming down the channel, but if you don’t have one, your eyeballs will do just fine. If you see some insects, capture one and try to match it with a fly pattern.

Hatches are puzzles and that’s one of the things that makes them fun. Sometimes you solve it right away, sometimes it takes awhile. Just remember that while the fly pattern is a big part of the equation, it’s not the only one. As mentioned above, presentation is huge. In addition to your technique, a smaller tippet and/or a longer overall leader may be the solution. Also consider your approach.

While I typically like to cast upstream to fish so that I can stay behind them, they will sometimes shy away from your fly in slow runs if they see your line or leader. I will sometimes try to get above fish in slow runs and cast down to them so they are sure to see the fly first. You have to land your cast short of them with slack in the line, and feed slack to enable the fly to naturally drift to them. This is a challenging presentation and it is critical that you carefully position yourself out of the trout’s line of vision.
Again, it’s a puzzle and there’s not one universal solution to every challenge.

Pay attention to your technique and everything what you’re doing (or not doing). Most important, pay attention to the fish. They’ll usually tell you what to do!

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

Setting the Hook

If you’ve ever spent anytime fishing in the Smokies, you have missed plenty of strikes. And if you’ve ever been fishing with me in the Smokies, you’ve no doubt heard me say that no matter how good you are and how often you fish, you’re going to miss strikes from these fish. I’d say that’s true most anywhere, but in the Smokies, it’s a guarantee. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing for trout all over the United States and I am yet to find trout anywhere that hit and spit a fly quicker than they do in the Smokies! But while nobody is going to hook them all, there are plenty of things you can do to increase the number of fish you hook.

Before we get into those things, let’s first talk about what exactly is going on when a trout hits your fly. I once guided a gentleman who was having an excellent day as far as activity goes, but he was missing A LOT of strikes. I was giving him plenty of tips along the way but midway through the day, I realized we just weren’t on the same page when, after missing another strike, he commented, “I don’t know how trout even survive.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

He replied, “It seems like it would be hard for them to survive when they miss their food so often.”

I asked more emphatically this time, “What are you talking about?!?”

He said, “As often as they miss the fly, you know they’ve got to be missing the real food, too.”

I exclaimed, “They’re not missing. You are!”

Don’t get me wrong. I have missed plenty of strikes in my years of fly fishing. Like I said, we all do, but it’s always been my fault, not the trout’s! Sure, every now and then a fish will “short strike” the fly or bump it with his nose, but for most anglers, that is very much the exception.  Even when that is the case, it’s probably still your fault. If you’re getting short strikes, it’s probably because your fly is too big, or your tippet is too big, or you have drag… Again, all of those things happen to everyone, but blaming the fish will never fix any of them!

So, what actually happens when a fish hits your fly? It depends on the kind of fly you’re fishing. When you are fishing a streamer (a fly that imitates a baitfish or something else that swims), you are usually stripping it and keeping a tight line. Typically, the trout will chase and/or ambush something they think is a wounded or fleeing baitfish. The strike will usually be rather aggressive and because you have a tight line, you will feel the strike. When you’re swinging wet flies or straight-line nymphing, you usually feel the strike as well, but it’s usually more subtle than the often violent strike that comes on a streamer.

But most of the time on a trout stream, most fly fishermen are imitating aquatic insects that are drifting in the water column. Whether adults on the surface or nymphs below the surface, these bugs are drifting helplessly in the current. When trout feed on these natural insects, it’s not necessary or efficient for them to swim around ambushing them. Rather, a trout will position facing a current, where the insects will drift down his feeding lane. All he has to do is maneuver slightly up, down, or to the side to pick them off.   When a trout feeds in this manner, he’s more or less just moving in front of the bug and opening his mouth.

But there are a lot of things coming down the current and some of them, like small twigs or leaves, may look like an insect to a trout. When he takes one of these foreign objects by mistake, he immediately spits it back out. It’s what a trout does all day. Real bug = swallow, stream junk that looks like a bug = spit it out. When you drift an artificial fly down the current and the trout hits it, he immediately spits it out because it’s not real. So you have that split second between when he eats it and when he spits it to set the hook.

Wild trout, like in the Smokies, are highly instinctive and tend to make this decision pretty quickly. Stocked trout were raised in hatcheries where they were fed daily. They tend to “trust” food a little more and consequently, will hold on to a foreign object (like your fly) a little longer before spitting it out. For that reason, fishermen tend to have a better strike to hook-up ratio on stocked trout vs. wild trout.

In either case, you are rarely going to feel the strike in these scenarios. To avoid drag and present the fly naturally, you will have to have some slack in your line and the fish doesn’t have the fly long enough to tighten your line enough for you to feel it. You will need to visually recognize the strike to tell you when to set the hook. With a dry fly, it’s fairly obvious because the fish will have to break the surface to eat your fly. As soon as you see that, set the hook. It is incredibly difficult in most situations to see a fish eat your nymph, so we often use a strike indicator positioned on the leader. When the fish eats the nymph, it will move the indicator, providing your visual cue to set the hook.

Now, with all of this in mind, here are some tips that may help you connect on a few more fish, particularly when dead-drifting dry flies and nymphs.

 

  • Know that you will probably not feel the strike and trust the visual indication of the strike. Even when streamer fishing when you DO normally feel the strike, there are times when the fish hits between strips when the line is slack. You may not feel it but you’ll see the fly line dart forward. Trust what you see!
  • Expect a strike every time the fly is on the water and be ready. As silly as it sounds, many strikes are missed because the fisherman just isn’t paying attention. Stay focused on what you’re doing. Don’t look at the bird overhead. Don’t look at the next pool up the river. Don’t stand there with your hand on your hip. Be ready!
  • Similar to #2, pay attention to your slack. The cast isn’t when your job ends – it’s when it starts. Particularly when fishing upstream, be prepared to immediately begin collecting excess slack as it drifts back to you. Many fishermen think that they’re missing strikes because they’re too slow when, in fact, their reaction time is fine but they have too much slack to pick up to tighten on the fish. Leave just enough slack to achieve a good drift but no more.
  • Keep your casts as short as possible. Not only will you be more accurate and probably get more strikes, but you’ll have less line to move when setting the hook. In some situations, like slow pools, we are forced to make long casts, but fish from better, closer positions when possible.
  • Move the line. Your hook set should be like making a quick backcast. In other words, if you miss the strike, the line should go in the air behind you like a backcast. If you miss a strike and all of your line is still on the water in front of you, you didn’t move enough line to set the hook.
  • Your hook set should be quick but smooth, and when possible, in an upward motion. A snappy or jerky hook set is a good way to break a tippet. A downward hook setting motion has a tendency to pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth, rather than up through the lip.

Setting the hook is also very much a timing thing. The more time you spend on the water, the better your timing will be and you may find that you sometimes even anticipate the strike just before it happens. And you may find that you have to adjust the timing of your hook set on different rivers. For instance, you may need to slow down a little when fishing for stockers or you may have to speed up a little when fishing for wild trout.

In either case, you’re still going to miss some and that’s okay. As far as fishing problems go, missing strikes is a pretty good one. To miss strikes you have to get strikes. And if you’re getting strikes, you’re doing something right!

Active Nymphing – Rethinking the Dead Drift

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.

Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

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.

Girdle Bug

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.

What Trout Eat – A Quick Glance at Aquatic Insects

When many people think of fishing with flies, images of more familiar insects such as houseflies and mosquitoes are typically conjured. While some of these familiar terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers are a source of food for trout, especially in the summer, it is aquatic insects that are most abundant to fish throughout the year and what most artificial flies are intended to resemble.

There are a number of aquatic insects in streams and rivers with mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges being the most common. They are defined as aquatic because most of their life is spent in various stages in or on the water. The four groups listed above vary respectively in their life cycles, but are similar in that they begin in one form under the water, emerge and transform to another stage, and ultimately return to the water to lay eggs and start the process again. Let’s use a mayfly as an example.

Mayfly Adult

First of all, the term mayfly is as general as the term flower. Just as there are many different flowers such as roses, daisies, and tulips, there are also many different mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, and Sulfurs. And just as certain flowers bloom at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year, certain mayflies hatch at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year. Around here for example, you’ll usually see Quill Gordons in mid March, Sulfurs in May, etc.

The mayfly hatch that you hear about is technically the second time they hatch. A mayfly will first hatch underwater from a tiny egg into a nymph. The nymph is the juvenile stage of a mayfly’s life and it takes place entirely underwater. As a nymph, the mayfly has a very flat, streamline profile and typically lives beneath rocks on the stream bottom where it feeds on algae and such.

Mayfly Nymph

A typical mayfly nymph will live for about a year in this stage until it reaches maturity. At that time, the nymph will emerge to the surface of the water, a shuck splits open, and an adult mayfly (often called a dun) crawls out. The adult will be on the surface anywhere from seconds to minutes while it dries its newly formed wings before flying off to nearby vegetation.

With no mouthparts in this stage, the adult will usually not live for much more than a day so its sole purpose is to mate. After this occurs, the females will return to the water to lay their eggs until they finally lay spent on the water. So a mayfly’s only role in nature seems to be to feed trout.

But it’s not just trout that eat aquatic insects.  Birds probably get the lion’s share and most aquatic insects are naturally camouflaged with this in mind.  Understanding this can give you a leg up when it comes to fly selection, even when you don’t know what’s hatching.

In the very early and very late seasons when there is no foliage on stream side trees, aquatic insects need to blend in with the actual branches.  Consequently, most everything that hatches during that timeframe will be dark in color (Gray, black, etc.).  In the late spring and summer when foliage is full and vegetation is thick, most everything that hatches will be lighter in color (yellows, greens, etc.).  And in the fall – you guessed it – most of the bugs that hatch will be drab, rusty colors.

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

Winter Fishing in the Mountains

We’ve talked a lot about water temperature in many of these articles and for good reason. Things like approach, presentation, and fly selection can determine whether or not a fish will take your offering, but water temperature can determine whether or not a fish will take any offering! You can read in more detail about water temperature in A Matter of Degrees, but to keep it simple here, wild trout in the Smokies just don’t do a lot of feeding when the water temperature is in the 30’s and low 40’s.

Tailwaters are different because the water comes from the deep, insulated layer of a lake, and the water temperature remains relatively constant, regardless of air temperature. Stocked trout in a freestone stream are different because, well, they just don’t know any better. They were raised in hatcheries and were fed the same amount of food every day, regardless of temperature. But wild trout in freestone streams have never had that luxury, and in order to survive, their metabolism changes and they become nearly dormant. This doesn’t mean that they won’t feed at all but if you’re going to fish the Smokies in the winter, come prepared with a great deal of patience.

I spend more time looking this time of year than I do actually fishing. Blind fishing a run in the spring can be very productive because all or most of the fish should be feeding and they’ll often move up and down and side to side for food. In the winter they typically won’t move much for food and you need to put the fly right on their nose. To do this most effectively, you really need to see the fish. Take your time and watch the water, paying particular attention to the slower currents on the edges and lower parts of a run. Ideally, you want to locate fish that are up in the water column rather than hugging the bottom. Fish that are up a little in the column are more likely to be feeding.

If you can’t actually see the fish, look for flashes on the bottom. Any fish that is feeding will likely be picking nymphs off the bottom. When a trout eats a nymph off the bottom, they usually “tilt” their bodies sideways and you’ll see the flash of their lighter colored bellies. You may have to scope out several pools or runs before you see fish or fish activity. Experience will teach you the kind of water to focus on, but deeper, slower runs will usually produce better than fast riffles and pocket water this time of year. And try to pick the warmest part of the day, probably late morning to late afternoon.

Once you think you’ve located feeding fish, it’s time to think about fly selection. On warmer winter days, you may actually see some insects hatching. If you do, they’re likely to be small and dark: Blue Wing Olive mayflies, small black stoneflies or caddis, dark olive or black midges… Rarely anything bigger than a #18. On rare occasions, you may see fish feeding on the surface during one of these hatches. Small Parachute Adams or Griffith’s Gnats are a pretty good bet in those instances. Mostly though, they’re going to feed more on the nymphs, so black Zebra Midges, small Pheasant Tails, and small black or olive Hare’s Ears will be pretty good bets.

If I don’t see any kind of hatch, I may still try one of the above mentioned nymphs, but more likely I’m going with something big, like a stonefly nymph. It may be more psychological, but I feel like I’m more likely get that lethargic fish to eat if I show him a bigger mouthful. Girdle Bugs, black Wooly Buggers, Yuk Bugs, and Bitch Creek Nymphs in sizes #10 – # 4 are personal favorites.

Girdle Bugs

Regardless of your nymph selection, you’re going to want it to drift as slowly and as near the bottom as possible. I like to use heavy flies and I like to use split shot. Take your time and adjust your weight regularly as you move to areas with different depths and current speeds. If you’re not hanging up on the bottom from time to time, you’re not deep enough. If you’re hanging the bottom every time, you’re too deep. Take the time to get it right. That fly needs to be right in their nose!

Adjusting your strike indicator (if you’re using one) can help too, but usually the answer is more weight. Most fishermen just don’t have their nymphs deep enough in the winter. A great way to learn about the effects of different current speeds vs. the amount of weight on your line is to spend some time fishing a fly you can see under water.  For instance, tie on a bright pink egg and watch how deep it sinks, how fast it sinks, and how it drifts with no weight, then 1 spit shot, then 2 split shot, etc. Try it with a strike indicator and without to learn how the indicator can impact the drift, too. This is just a great way in general to better understand nymphing, and sometimes you’ll even catch a fish on that trashy pink egg!

Again, don’t expect near the number of strikes that you might in spring. But if you’re just itching to get out of the house and are willing to be patient, you might just be surprised at what you find.

Legends of the Fall – Hunting Brown Trout

It’s the time of year when certain folks seem to be whispering more at the fly shop. They’re isolated in corners and peeking over their shoulders before saying too much. They’re talking about brown trout. Big ones. Somebody mentioned seeing a decent one around Metcalf Bottoms – about 18-inches. A younger guy innocently asked, “Since when did we start referring to 18-inch browns as ‘decent’?” The older guy replied with a grin, “October.”

The Smoky Mountains is largely thought of as a fly fishing destination where the appeal is to catch wild trout in a beautiful place. But as a whole, you don’t expect to catch particularly big trout. After all, rainbows rarely exceed 15-inches and brook trout rarely get any bigger than 10-inches in the Smokies. They’re both almost exclusively bug eaters, and after 3-5 years, they simply can’t support their weight with the bugs available, and they die. But when brown trout reach about 8 or 9-inches, they begin eating minnows, and crayfish, and mice, and birds, and small rainbows. They live 10-15 years and reach lengths of 30-inches in the Smokies!

Fish that size don’t get caught often. Brown trout only live in a handful of rivers in the Smokies to begin with. They’re extremely cagey and for much of the year, they do most of their feeding at night – it’s illegal to fish the park at night. So, outside of the occasional big brown caught at dusk, or dawn, or after a good rain, we don’t get a lot of good shots at these guys. Until late fall.

Brown trout tend to make their spawning runs after the fall foliage has turned colors but before the last leaves have fallen. In the Smokies, that’s usually late October or early November. They typically move to shallower, more visible areas of the stream and are spotted by far more fishermen then. When they’re actually on the nest (or redd), we leave them alone. Not only is it just bad ethics, but they have other things on their mind than food at that time. But in the weeks leading up to the spawn and in the weeks to follow, their appetites are enormous!

In the weeks leading up to the spawn, they’re on the move searching for suitable nesting areas, often where they were originally hatched. This is when many fishermen are hoping to get their shot at a trophy. A number of folks have booked me during this time, thinking a seasoned fly fishing guide will be their ticket to success. While I can certainly help locate the fish, there is a whole lot that has to go right to catch him. It’s not just having the right fly at some secret honey hole!

Most people aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to catch one of these fish. Unless you’re just going to depend on luck, you have to trade fishing time for looking time. You may not spot one at the first place, or second or third… And once you do spot one, you’re not done looking. You have to watch him for a while to figure out his pattern: how he’s feeding, where he’s feeding, when he’s feeding, IF he’s feeding. You then may have to spend a pain-staking amount of time sneaking into a position where you can cast to him without spooking him.

Assuming everything has gone your way up to this point, you may only have one shot at him and a bad cast will kill the deal. And if he does eat and you do hook him, you’re problems have just begun. Now you have to fight a 25-inch trout in the fast, rocky waters of the Smokies! But it’s all worth it when it does come together and you become one of the lucky few. It’s the stuff legends are made of.

Skills: Fishing High Water

The Smoky Mountains are known for receiving large amounts of rain in a season and when it comes in bunches, the result can be swollen, rough, intimidating, and dangerous streams and rivers. Good and bad things occur when the water rises in mountain streams. On the down side, the streams become much more dangerous and sometimes impossible to wade. The faster current also makes it more difficult to control your drift. On the up side, a lot of food gets churned up in the stream, and that factor, combined with a level of comfort and security in stained water, often results in more reckless feeding by some of the bigger trout on the block. There are brown trout exceeding 20” in many mountain streams that don’t get caught often, but when they do, it’s usually when the water is up and off color.

The stream is going to look completely different under these conditions and it will help if you have intimate familiarity with the stream under normal flows. Regardless of how well you know the water, always use extreme caution under these conditions and don’t try any heroic stream crossings. One wrong step can quickly get you in big trouble! In fact, it’s not a bad idea to wear a life vest when fishing under these conditions. Better safe than sorry!

Forget about finesse. You’re not going to coax rainbows to #16 dry flies with delicate casts. Bring a long rod for a heavier line – maybe a 9’ 6 weight – and plan on chucking large, heavy nymphs with a rosary of split shot and no strike indicator. Casting is going to simply involve one flip behind you, wait for the tug on the rod tip, and chuck it forward with an open loop. Long casts are not necessary and will be less effective.

Instead, wade the edges and look for slower seams on the edge of fast currents and eddies behind rocks. Position yourself as close to the feeding zone as you safely can and use the length of the rod to reach and hold your flies in position. Keep the rod tip up and try to keep as much of the fly line off the water as possible, allowing for a much slower, more controlled drift. Follow the flies with the rod tip as they drift through the feeding lane and keep an eye on the fly line between the rod tip and water. You may feel a strike since you’re working with such a short line but most likely you’ll determine the strike when you see the fly line pull down or hesitate. If anything suspicious like this occurs, set the hook! With practice you’ll soon be able to differentiate between fish and rocks.

Don’t expect to catch large quantities of fish under these circumstances. It will be tough fishing to say the least. But if you stick with it, the rewards can be enormous!

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.

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.