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: Little Yellow Sallies

Yellow Sally Adult

April is one of the busiest months of the year for hatches and provides a smorgasbord of bugs for our finned friends. It’s also when we begin to see the change in color schemes on adult aquatic insects.

Aquatic insect adults are not only great sources of food for fish but also for birds. As a matter of fact, when you begin to see large numbers of swallows gather above the water and swooping down to the surface, it’s a sign for you to get ready because the hatch is beginning. Once the bugs have safely made it off the water, nature helps take care of them with appropriate camouflage to blend in with streamside trees and vegetation.

In the winter and early spring, most of your aquatic insect adults are black, grey, or some other dark color to better blend in with the dark, bare branches around the water. As we get later into spring and things begin to bloom, you begin to see more light- colored insects, such as tan and yellow. By the time summer rolls around, almost all of the adult insects are brighter yellows and greens to blend in with the abundant vegetation. And in the fall, you see more bugs with reds and oranges. There are of course plenty of exceptions to this but it’s a good guideline to follow with fly selection if you don’t know exactly what’s hatching.

So, April is a transitional month for color. Early in the month, we’re seeing the tail end of some of the darker bugs like Quill Gordons and Blue Quills, and by the end of the month we’re starting to see yellow bugs like Sulphurs and Little Yellow Sallies.

Egg Laying Imitation

Most of the hatches in the early part of the month are sparse and can be covered with generic flies like a Parachute Adams. The first hatch of significance in April is the Little Yellow Sally stonefly. It is one of the most prolific hatches in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, beginning usually around the third week of April and lasting well into July.

Unlike mayflies and caddisflies, stoneflies do not hatch in the water. Rather, the nymph will crawl out of the water onto a rock before hatching. Pay attention when you are on the water, and you’ll probably notice empty stonefly cases on exposed stream rocks. This means that the adult stonefly is not nearly as important to the fly fisherman because the adults are not nearly as available to the trout. We focus more on imitating stonefly nymphs, and for dry flies, focus more on the adult when it returns to the stream to lay eggs. You’ll notice that many of the adult Little Yellow Sally imitations are tied with a red butt for that very reason – to imitate the egg layer.

Little Yellow Sally Nymph

Stoneflies are often large bugs but that isn’t the case with the Little Yellow Sally, as suggested by the name. These are commonly found in size #16 and are typically a very bright yellow, and sometimes chartreuse. They tend to hatch sporadically through the day and return to the water in the evening to lay eggs. Typically, the later in the hatch it is, the later in the day they will return to the water. So, in April, you may see them dive bombing the water to lay eggs in the early evening, while in late June, that’s probably not going to happen until almost dark.

Neversink Caddis

There are a number of good imitations for the adult Yellow Sally. A yellow Neversink Caddis is one of my favorite “searching patterns.” For the nymph, you’ll want something tan to yellow in color. A small Tellico nymph or even a Hare’s Ear nymph should do the trick. And again, if you’re fishing when they’re laying eggs, something with a red butt can be very effective. Just plan to stay out late!

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

Flies: Yallarhammer

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

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

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

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

Pattern:

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

Rob’s Hellbender Nymph

Since we’re talking about big browns this month, I thought it only fitting to feature one of my favorite flies for big brown trout. While I have caught a number of big browns on small flies over the years, most of the big guys in the mountains have come on larger stonefly nymphs. This is a little bit misleading as most of the large browns I’ve caught in the Smokies I spotted before I fished for them. And when I spot a big brown trout, I almost always tie some sort of stonefly nymph imitation to my line. Who is to say I wouldn’t have caught those same fish on a #20 Zebra Midge had I chosen that fly?

I’ve always said that fly selection is 45% scientific, 45% experience, and 10% dumb luck. The scientific aspect comes in when you choose a fly to specifically imitate something that the fish are known to be feeding on. For example, if you see sulfur mayflies hatching, you see fish feeding on them, and you choose a sulfur mayfly imitation, you’ve more or less made a scientific decision. If you go to the stream and tie on a Royal Wulff for no other reason than you’ve always done pretty well on a Royal Wulff, you’ve made your decision based on experience. And of course, if you choose to fish the purple and green fly for no other reason than it looks neat, you’re pretty much depending on dumb luck!

All three methods have been successful over the years but the first two are usually more reliable because you have something at least somewhat logical and reliable to base the decision on. Even when your logic may be incorrect, such as choosing a sulfur to imitate a perceived sulfur hatch when the fish are actually eating caddis, you tend to have more success because you have confidence in your fly. When you have confidence in your fly pattern, you tend to fish it longer and better.

My tendency to select a stonefly nymph when I fish to a big brown trout comes from scientific reasoning and experience. I’ve studied the aquatic entomology of the Smokies and know that there are a lot of stonefly nymphs in the streams. I also reason that a larger morsel of food, like a stonefly nymph, would be more enticing to a larger fish. And I’m also relying on experience – I’ve caught a lot of big brown trout on stonefly nymphs over the years.

Golden Stonefly Nymph

Some of my favorite “go-to” stonefly patterns over the years have been old standards like a Tellico Nymph, a Bitch Creek Nymph, and a Girdle Bug. I always liked the coloring of the Tellico because I thought it best represented a golden stone, which seems to be the most prolific big stonefly in most Smoky Mountain streams. I liked the flat, two-tone profile of the Bitch Creek Nymph. It seems to produce a nice rocking motion on the drift. And while the Bitch Creek Nymph does incorporate rubber legs in the design, the additional rubber legs on a Girdle Bug always seemed to give it a much more lifelike appearance.

So what did I do? I took what I thought were the best features from each of my favorite stonefly nymph patterns and blended them into one fly. The result is Rob’s Hellbender Nymph. It has the flat, elongated, two-tone profile of a Bitch Creek, the multiple rubber legs of a Girdle Bug, and a color similar to the Tellico.

I weight these flies with lead wire that is flattened to provide that rocking motion in the water. I not only tie them in different sizes, usually #10 – #4, but I tie them in different weights. To get down fast in deep, fast runs, I like a lot of weight, but I prefer a lightly weighted one when casting to a brown trout in the shallows.

For whatever reason, offering flies in different weights tends to be too confusing to customers at a fly shop so commercially tied patterns like this one are typically made available in one uniform weight. So the ones you find in a shop like Little River Outfitters are going to be lightly weighted so the fly can be fished in slower, shallower water. To get them down quickly in deeper, faster runs, just add the appropriate amount of split shot.

While I may choose something like a large streamer when searching for big browns, this fly has become my “go-to” for a large brown that I have spotted first. Of course, every situation is different and there will be countless circumstances that suggest otherwise. But next time you’re in the Smokies with a big brown in your sights, see what he thinks about this bug!

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: 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.