Flies: Egan’s Headstand

From the creative fly tying mind of Lance Egan comes one of my favorite carp flies of all time.  I’m not too sure what it’s supposed to imitate but for me, that’s true of many carp patterns.  Most likely it represents a small crayfish… possibly a dragonfly nymph.

The bead chain eyes give it the perfect amount of weight to get down quickly to carp feeding on a shallow flat without the loud splash of lead.  And when the eyes are positioned correctly, it rides hook up, preventing bottom snags.

Present it by leading the carp slightly and retrieve it very slowly into carp’s path.  The take will be subtle.  Watch for the turn of the carp’s head, set the hook, and hang on!

Egan’s Headstand

Hook: TMC 2457 #8
Thread: 6/0 Black
Tail: Red fox squirrel tail
Body: Medium to dark brown dubbing
Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered
Rib: Fine copper wire
Throat: Peacock sword
Legs: Sili-legs pumpkin – orange – black
Head: Bright orange dubbing
Eyes: Medium silver bead chain, positioned just behind the eye.

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: Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa

Few fly fishermen, if any, possess the knowledge and experience of Joe Humphreys.  Joe is probably best known as a teacher and an author, but over his many decades in the business, he has also created a number of original fly patterns.  By far, my favorite is the Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa.

Natural Caddis Pupa

To be honest though, I’ve always been a little perplexed  by the pattern.  To me it bears little resemblance to a natural caddis pupa and doesn’t look like any imitation that I’ve seen or that I would create.  In his book, “On the Trout Stream,” the only explanation Joe provides is “A good firsthand look at a caddis pupa prompted this tie.”  Apparently Joe saw something in a caddis pupa that nobody else did, because his unique pattern has proven to be one of the most effective I’ve ever fished!

The body color can be varied to match caddis in a specific stream.  I tie them often in olive and cream, but in the Smokies, most frequently find success with tan bodies.  Some species of caddis hatches in the Smokies nearly anytime of year but the heaviest hatches tend to occur in spring.

It works best on any stretch of stream with more of a cobble or even sandy bottom.  I frequently fish it as a dropper off a Neversink Caddis or in a tandem nymph rig below a soft hackle.

Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa

Hook: TMC 3761 or equivalent #18 – 12
Thread: Brown 8/0
Weight: Lead wire to match hook size
Butt: Peacock Herl
Body: Natural Hare’s Ear Dubbing (substitute other colors to match naturals)
Hackle: Dark Brown Saddle
Head: Peacock Herl

Flies: Rob’s Flash Wing Pheasant Tail

Fly Tying is a lot like cooking in many ways.  Of course, in both pursuits, you’re combining a variety of ingredients to create one final product.  And the quality of those ingredients along with the skills of the person putting them together can tremendously impact the end result.  But the issue of originality is also quite comparable.

What constitutes an original recipe rather than simply a variation on an old standard is a very fine line.  If you cook ground beef and put it on a bun with some cheese, it’s a cheeseburger.  If you add sautéed onions, it’s a cheeseburger with sautéed onions.  But if you use a different type of bread, it becomes a Patty Melt.  Fly patterns have the same blurred lines of originality.

The pattern featured here is of my own design but I didn’t give it a very original name because, in my opinion, it’s really just a variation of a classic nymph pattern that the world already knows as a Pheasant Tail Nymph. My version here has a substitution for one material and the addition of two more materials.  Is that enough to be considered totally original and warrant a brand new name?  Maybe, but I didn’t think so.

In any case, it is a nymph I have been tying and fishing for about five years and it has become one of my favorite flies and most consistent nymph patterns.  Like the original Pheasant Tail Nymph, it doesn’t specifically imitate one nymph.  Rather, it’s dark and buggy and is suggestive of many mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae.  The addition of rubber legs gives it a little more movement in the water, and the Ice Dub thorax and Krystal Flash wing provide a little more flash.  I’m always wary of having too much flash on my flies, particularly when fishing for wild trout, but this seems to have just enough to add a little more life to the pattern without sending the fish running for cover.

Rob’s Flash Wing Pheasant Tail

Hook: TMC 2457 or equivalent, #18 – #12
Thread: 8/0 Brown
Weight: Black tungsten bead sized to match hook
Tail: Pheasant tail fibers
Abdomen: Pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire
Wing: 4-6 strands of pearlescent Krystal Flash
Thorax: Peacock Ice Dub
Legs: Black micro rubber legs

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

On the Fly: One Less Tangle

At the end of your fishing day, strip all of the loose coils of fly line from your reel and reel it back on tightly, using your fingers to apply pressure and guide the line evenly on the reel. This will ensure you begin your next fishing day tangle free!

“On the Fly” is a feature in my monthly newsletter offering quick fly fishing tips to make your life on the water a little easier…

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.

Flies: Sulphurs

If you take East Tennessee as a whole, it’s pretty safe to say one of the most prolific hatches is the sulphur mayfly hatch. Southern tailwaters are generally not known for having significant hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, or stoneflies. When we think of most of these dam-controlled rivers, we typically think of crustaceans like scuds and sow bugs, and midges…. lots and lots of midges. However, one mayfly that hatches on all East Tennessee tailwaters, often in very big numbers, is the sulphur. And that means that your best opportunity to catch a really big fish on a dry fly around these parts is during the sulphur hatch.

On the South Holston, they hatch in huge numbers for nearly nine months of the year. They hatch on the Holston, Hiwassee, Watauga and Caney Fork, too. But when I think of the sulphur hatch, I think of the Clinch River, probably because it was the first really BIG hatch I ever fished as a fly fisherman.  And while it may not be quite as epic as it was 20-30 years ago, it is most definitely still a hatch worth making time for.

Parachute Sulphur

The hatch usually gets started in late April on the Clinch and often lasts well into July. May is the best time to fish it. In April, the bugs are usually just starting to trickle off fairly inconsistently.  By mid June, trout have been seeing these things come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day, for 6+ weeks. To say that they become selective is an understatement. But in May, bugs are coming off steadily and the trout haven’t yet learned to count the hackles on your fly before choosing to eat it. They don’t seem to care if it’s on the surface, in the film, or 2” below the surface. In July, that stuff matters! In May, pretty much any pale yellow, size #16 dry fly will do the trick if it’s presented on a dead drift.

Parachutes and Comparaduns tend to be the best choices for dry flies. And there are a host of more sophisticated emergers and cripples to fool the wary, late-hatch fish. Pheasant Tails in brown and olive are usually the best option for nymphs.

Beadhead Pheasant Tail

While exact time and duration varies, the sulphur hatch on the Clinch typically starts in late morning and lasts for 4-6 hours a day, taking you right up to happy hour. Drifting Pheasant Tails will pass the time in the morning while you’re waiting for the main event to start.

Sulphurs are a big deal in the mountains, too. While they won’t come off in the obscene numbers found on the tailwaters, they are still one of the better hatches of the year. In the mountains, the hatch usually lasts 3-4 weeks and tends to be more of an evening event. Many nights, the sulphur hatch will correspond with the Little Yellow Sallies’ return to the water to lay eggs, making for a fast and furious end to the day for those willing to fish through supper.

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

Flies: The Frenchie

In the last ten years or so, the term “Euro Nymphing” or “Czech Nymphing” has become more and more common, and is often billed as a revolutionary style of fishing. Basically, it is just nymph fishing without a strike indicator. It’s akin to what many for years have referred to as short-line or straight-line nymphing. Others refer to it as high-sticking. Or the old mountain fishermen around here just call it nymphing, because it’s how they’ve fished for decades and decades.

There is not a lot written about the history of fly fishing in the Southern Appalachians, and most of the techniques were just handed down generation to generation. I’ve had the pleasure and benefit of learning from many of these “old timers,” so when I first heard about this revolutionary style of fishing, I had to chuckle. There really is nothing new under the sun.

There are a few subtle differences in European nymphing techniques and what I learned to do. But what any trend will bring to the industry, no matter how long the method has been around, is the availability of new and better tools and equipment to perform the new trend. In this method of nymphing, you are really trying to keep your fly right on the stream bottom, which of course results in a lot more snags. Traditional jig hooks are great for this because they ride hook up, but until recently, haven’t been available in appropriate sizes and weights for fly fishermen.

Now there are a number of micro-jig hooks available that accommodate a special slotted tungsten bead. They are perfect for fly tying and I have begun tying a lot of my favorite nymph patterns on them. However, one of the first flies I tied on them, The Frenchie, is a pattern that did come from the “Euro-nymphing scene” and it has proven to be an effective trout pattern on a number of different waters.

It’s basically a Bead Head Pheasant Tail with a “hot spot” of bright dubbing at the head. The original pattern uses a bright pink dubbing for the hot spot, and that seems to work very well for stocked trout and even wild trout at times. In general though, I tend to have more success with wild trout using slightly more natural colors like yellow or green.

Again, it’s greatest value is that it has plenty of weight and rides hook up, so you can get it down deep with far fewer bottom snags. Pick some up and give them a try next time you’re out. And if you’re a fly tyer, I’d recommend trying some other favorite nymphs like Pheasant Tails and Hare’s Ears on these hooks.

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