Landing nets are designed to enable anglers to land a fish more easily and safely. They are most beneficial when dealing with larger fish that have a tendency to make one last dart or head shake when you try to grab them, often resulting in the tippet breaking. While in the Smokies, I rarely carry a net because the fish are typically not very large and can be landed by hand with very little trouble, and a net is just one more thing to carry. But I use a net regularly when fishing tailwaters and delayed harvest streams.
Traditionally, nets have been made with a wood frame and cotton netting and that style is still common today. However, wooden frames are more and more frequently being replaced by lighter, carbon frames and rubber is replacing cotton for the netting. The rubber netting has a number of advantages over cotton – the most notable being that it is better on the fish. Cotton netting has a tendency to get caught and tangled in the fins, gills and teeth of the fish and with trout, absorbs and removes some of their protective “slime.” Fly hooks also catch and easily tangle in cotton netting. Rubber netting eliminates all of these problems and holds far less odor than cotton.
Other things to consider when looking for a net are the size and shape. Obviously, if you’re expecting to catch bigger fish you’re going to want a bigger net. A 20-pound striper just won’t fit in a 16 ½” trout net. Landing nets are typically sized by the overall length, including handle, as well as the size of the head (the part that holds the netting). The size of the head should be chosen based on the size of fish you’re pursuing while the overall length (or the handle size) should be chosen based on how you will be pursuing them. For instance, if fishing from a boat, a longer handle may be desirable since it’s more difficult to get the fish close to you. If wading, a long handled net might be too cumbersome to carry all day.
If you plan to carry a net with you when wading, there are a number of options that will help keep the net out of the way, yet easy to access when needed. Most every fishing vest or jacket has a D-Ring on the back. The sole purpose of that ring is to clip your net on it. To make it even easier, there are magnetic connectors that include a section of plastic, “pig tail” type cord that allow you to utilize the net while it remains tethered to you. There are also oversized retractors that accomplish the same thing.
Folks who choose to use sling packs or hip packs tend to have trouble finding a suitable location for attaching their net. Attaching it to the pack with a traditional retractor or magnetic connector often leaves it hanging too low or in a location that impedes the casting stroke. I know many who have remedied this by using a type of net “holster” placed on a belt. The net is stored handle down and drawn from the holster when needed.
Like most things in fly fishing, there doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” solution to the type of net you use or the method you use to carry it. It’s a matter of finding something that best fits most of your needs and carrying it in the least obtrusive way possible.
For those with more of a spin fishing or bait fishing background, you may be used to casting a weighted lure or live bait with sinkers. You have a reel of monofilament line and when you cast, you propel the weighted lure forward and it carries all of the monofilament line with it.
In fly fishing, we’re using virtually weightless flies, many designed to float on the surface of the water. Even weighted flies that are designed to sink don’t have enough weight to carry themselves any sort of distance. We use the fly line for that. In essence, the fly line replaces the weight of a lure. When spin fishing, a weighted lure carries a weightless line when cast. In fly fishing, a weighted line carries a weightless lure.
Most fly lines will have a core of come sort and a plastic coating. Saltwater lines usually have a more rigid monofilament core, while freshwater lines usually have a softer, suppler Dacron core. When the plastic coating is applied, it is usually done in such a way to achieve a particular taper. The taper is how and where the weight is placed on the line and how it is designed to behave.
A weight forward taper is the most common. If the fly line is 90’ long, which is typical, the first 50’ or so that attaches to the backing and the reel will be thinner and level. Approximately the front 40’ of line will be thicker except for the last few feet where it attaches to the leader. The intention is for the weight to be in the front part of your line to maximize casting efficiency at your most common distances. For longer casts, the thicker, weighted portion “pulls” the thinner, un-weighted portion behind it with a technique called shooting line.
There are variations on this weight forward design for specialty situations. For instance, a bass line may have a shorter but more dramatic taper, where more weight is placed in a smaller area. The purpose of this is to aide in turning over the heavier, more wind resistant flies commonly used in bass fishing. Some of these variations are referred to as ‘shooting heads.”
A double taper line is becoming less and less popular but is one I still really like for fishing smaller streams like in the Smokies. It has a more gradual taper and it tapers equally from the middle of the line out to each end. This design allows for more delicate, accurate presentations at distances of 40’ and closer, and it roll casts extremely well. It’s also nice because you when you wear out one end of the line, you can turn it around and use the other. It is a disadvantage for distance casting because when you get beyond 40’, you get into the “reverse taper.”
You may also run across level lines, especially at discount type stores. There is no taper to level lines. They can be attractive to the beginner because they are so inexpensive but they cast horribly. Unless you are getting into some specialty techniques, I would avoid level lines altogether.
Most fly lines float. Even when fishing weighted flies in streams, a floating line is most often used because the fly and leader can usually sink enough to get the fly where it needs to be. However, there are sink tip lines available in different weights, where the front part of the fly line will sink to get a fly down deeper and faster. These are more commonly used for streamer fishing in lakes or deep, swift rivers. Full sinking lines are also available but not used very frequently. They allow the entire line to sink but are extremely difficult to cast.
Fly lines are sized by a line weight that is designated by a single number like a 4-weight or 9-weight. This is intended to match the same designation on a fly rod, so you would use a 5-weight line on a 5-weight rod. It takes the amount of weight in a 5-weight line to properly flex or “load” a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best. If you used a 2-weight line on a 5-weight rod, there wouldn’t be enough weight to load it and you’d throw your arm out trying to get the line out. If you used an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod, it would overload it, resulting in a hard, clunky cast that was hard to control. There may be some specialized situations where you may want to over-line or under-line a rod, but 99% of the time, you want to match the line weight to the rod.
You choose what line weight (and rod weight) you need based on what you’re fishing for. For trout, you’re typically casting smaller flies to fish in clear water and trying to achieve delicate presentations. Lighter lines in the 3 to 5-weight range are common. For largemouth bass, you’re probably fishing more stained water and commonly casting bigger, more wind resistant flies. You’ll be able to better accomplish this with 7 to 9-weight lines/rods. In saltwater, you probably want heavier lines not only for heavier flies, but also to contend with heavier winds.
If you’ve ever fished with me or have read more than two articles in this newsletter, you undoubtedly know how much I emphasize the importance of water temperature when fishing for wild trout. Often in the summer, it can be too warm in many places, causing trout to be lethargic or even migrate to cooler water. In winter, it can be too cold, causing changes in metabolism and a shut down in feeding. In early spring, you’re often fishing right on the edge of good water temperatures. Throughout the day, you may encounter totally different feeding behaviors – from hour to hour and from pool to pool.
Though it’s not quite this exact, 50-degrees is kind of the magic number we’re looking for. When we see water temperatures at or above 50-degrees for the better part of the day, we typically start to see actively feeding fish. This is due to not only the change in metabolism, but also the increase in bug activity. It can be deceiving, though, when we start to have these warmer days but the overnight temperatures are still getting pretty cold. It may be late morning or early afternoon before the water has had time to warm to a “stimulating” temperature.
So forget what your granddad told you about getting to the water at dawn. That’s great advice during the heat of summer, but in early spring, it will usually only give you a lot of casting practice until things heat up later in the day. While there are, of course, variables based mostly on weather, your best fishing this time of year will probably be between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, get to the water around 10 so you have some time to gear up, and enjoy your afternoon.
This is also not the best time of year for making that 7-mile hike to a high elevation brook trout stream. With very rare exceptions, your water temperatures are going to be considerably cooler at high elevations. This is the time to focus on lower and mid elevation streams.
Now that you’re at the right place at the right time, there are other things you want to look for. While slower pools often fish poorly later in the year, they can be great places to fish in early spring, mostly because of the abundance of food. The best hatches, at least in the Smokies, occur in the spring and you can target a lot of feeding fish in these pools. Dry fly fishing can be at its best on early spring afternoons and it’s a great opportunity to find a larger brown trout feeding on the surface. Even if there is not an active hatch, there are plenty of bugs preparing to hatch. Drifting nymphs along the bottom, particularly near the heads of these pools can be very productive.
The other advantage to larger pools this time of year is they typically have less tree canopy and the water gets more direct sunlight. Seeking direct sunlight is counterintuitive to many fishermen, but in the early season, it often means warmer water. And even if the sunlight isn’t significantly warming the water, it is likely stimulating more bug activity, which will in turn, stimulate fish. Still, bright sunlight can have a negative impact on fish and their willingness to feed, so I try to seek out and pay particular attention to the “sweet spots” – good holding water that has a nice mix of sun and shadows.
Finally, when choosing days to fish this time of year, really try to pay attention to the overnight lows more than the daytime highs. Warmer overnights will better maintain those water temperatures we’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to get wet. A warm rain can raise water temperatures and turn fish on quicker than anything this time of year!
Understanding How Trout Feed and the Importance of Presentation….
It has been claimed by many, beginner and expert alike, that Smoky Mountain trout are among the most difficult to catch. Talk to a few Smoky Mountain anglers for any length of time and at some point the statement, “If you can catch them here, you can catch them anywhere!” will certainly be heard. That’s not entirely true. Simply driving a little north to the Clinch will teach you that. Employing Smoky Mountain fishing tactics on that big tailwater may reap rewards in a few areas, but the long, slick waters of the Clinch will require different skills to be consistently successful. Almost every fishery has certain characteristics and little quirks that make it uniquely challenging.
But this much is true… If you are catching fish in the Smokies on a consistent basis and understand why and how you’re catching them, applying those skills to other freestone rivers, such as those in the American West, will put you a step ahead of many anglers. But why? What is it about these little mountain streams that is so challenging?
The first thing is simply the fact that you typically have a significant volume of water in a small space. Rather than water flowing through a broad basin, where current speeds are somewhat consistent and concentrated in long, broad channels; in these small streams, the flow breaks and changes speed dramatically with every boulder it hits. So in many situations, in one fishy run, there may be fifteen different current speeds with which to contend. That may not be a big deal if you understand how that phenomenon can impede drift and you can approach those runs properly, but failure to understand this can convince many an angler that there are no fish in these streams!
I’ve seen a number of VERY good fly fishermen come to the Smokies and get skunked. In most cases it is because they are big river fishermen and they approach these streams in the same way they approach the big rivers they normally fish. That usually entails standing erect at the bottom of a run and making a 40-60 foot, up and across cast to the top of the run. The result is 40-60 feet of line being grabbed by fifteen different current speeds, and an attached fly dragging like RuPaul! All but the smallest and dumbest fish in the Smokies will not tolerate a poor drift, and with the exception of the rare slow pools, there is no way you’re going to be able to cast that much line and be able to control your drift. Executing a good drift in the Smokies is going to require getting closer to the fish.
First, it is important to understand where the fish will be and why. You can find fish in the slow pools but these are among the most difficult to target. Without a defined channel to concentrate food, fish in these pools will be very spread out and often cruising, feeding opportunistically. Unless there is a significant hatch coming off to motivate consistent feeding and reveal fish when they break the surface for a meal, catching them in these environments is going to require a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of plain dumb luck. This is certainly not to say you can’t catch fish in slow pools in “hatchless” situations, but the odds are not with you.
For heavier concentrations of actively feeding fish, you’ll want to be in the riffles and runs where there are clearly defined channels. The stream funnels insects and other food items into these channels, and where you find food, you find fish. And in these food abundant areas, fish are typically “holding,” waiting for the meal to come to them. But because there is so much “stuff” coming through these chutes, from aquatic insects to stream debris, the fish instinctively ignore passing items that don’t look like food. Your imitation dragging through the feeding zone faster than the current because another current is pulling on your fly line, qualifies as something fish will ignore. To control the fly you have to control the line. To control the line in a run with multiple currents, you have to get closer.
To get closer, you’ll want to employ the strategies discussed in Part 1 of this article: dress accordingly, stay low, and be stealthy. The idea is to get into a position where you can use the length of your rod to keep the fly line out of any currents other than the one where your fly is. So you’re keeping the rod high, keeping most, if not all, of the line off the water so that there is very little to impede the drift. By following the fly with your rod tip, you can extend your drift through the run. There are going to be a number of these little feeding zones within a run, so you try to hit one, reposition yourself, hit the next, reposition yourself, and so on.
Check out the photo above – a typical stretch of water in the Smokies. You can easily see the numerous changes in current speed and direction in just this small area. Rather than standing at the bottom right of the photo and casting 40-50 feet to the top left of the photo, our angler is intelligently breaking this stretch into defined sections. He has likely already fished the water below, to his left, and right in front of him. Notice he has his rod high, keeping the line off the current directly in front of him, and allowing the fly to drift nicely in the current breaking around the right of the boulder. Next, he will likely step up to the boulder and fish that large pocket above it. Well done!
The angler in this photo is also doing a good job with a little more line out. Notice he is concealing himself behind a boulder and his rod is help upward, keeping the current lip in front of him from grabbing the line. The line that is on the water is all in the same current speed. Again, well done!
He likely fished the current below that boulder before stepping into that position. It’s all about planning your attack. Determine your targets and carefully place yourself in the proper position before casting to them.
Setting the Hook
Fishermen in the Smokies also miss A LOT of strikes. Some of the misses can be attributed to the fact that trout in the Smokies hit and spit a fly with amazing speed. You can just go on and plan on missing some strikes when you fish here – just like you can plan on getting hung in a few trees – it’s all part of it!
But you can greatly increase your number of hook-ups by implementing the above strategies. While many strikes are missed due to the angler just not being ready or reacting to slowly, just as many are the result of too much line on the water. The more line you have out, the more line you have to move and tighten to set the hook. And when that line has a lot of slack in it, there will be even more delay.
It’s a delicate balance. In most cases, you have to have a little bit of slack in your line to allow your nymph or dry fly to drift without drag. Keeping that slack to an absolute minimum will allow the rod tip to lift and tighten the line on the fish much more quickly and will certainly result in more fish to hand.
Understanding a Trout’s Vision and Instincts for a Better Approach…. On numerous occasions guiding clients in the Smoky Mountains, I have been met with a suspicious and doubting eye when I provide certain instruction regarding approaching and presenting the fly to wild mountain trout. The reply is often something like, “Are they really that smart?” No, trout aren’t that smart. They have the brain the size of a pea. But the fact that they aren’t that smart is what allows them to be so good at what they do. Unlike us more “intelligent” humans, trout aren’t distracted by health care reform, college football, paying the mortgage, or who got voted off American Idol last night. Their entire existence is ruled by instinct, and their only real concerns are receiving enough oxygen, eating, and not being eaten! When your life is that simple, it allows you to remain pretty focused.
Think about a simple housefly for a moment. Trying to catch one is difficult. A housefly isn’t smart. It’s not planning out evasive maneuvers in the event of a human attempting to catch it. First I’ll cut right, then I’ll go up, then I’ll get behind the blinds at the window…. It’s pure instinct. Survival. Something we humans have to go through rigorous, repetitive training to achieve.
One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when approaching fish is doing so from upstream. To a trout, a stream is a conveyor belt of food, constantly delivering hatched aquatic insects and terrestrials on the surface and juvenile aquatic insects (nymphs) between the surface and the bottom. Trout aren’t looking down the conveyor belt to see what they’ve missed, they’re looking up the conveyor belt to see what meal is coming next. If the trout see something suspicious at the top of the conveyor belt, like you, they’re going to likely quit feeding until they feel safe again. They may even go hide!
So the trout knows I’m trying to catch him? No! But he’s spooked. Think about a situation you’ve been in where your senses were heightened. Maybe you’re walking alone late at night on a dark street and you hear a strange noise up ahead. Is it the wind? A stray cat? Another person? A serial killer? You don’t know, so what do you do? Do you race up ahead to check it out? Do you ignore it and keep on as if nothing happened? You would probably stop doing what you’re doing and assess the situation. You might even turn around and go the other way. It’s the same thing if something disrupts a trout’s comfort zone while they’re feeding.
Another interesting way to look at it is if you take the dark street scenario described above and insert a thirteen year old rather than an adult. Due to limited life experiences and a feeling of invincibility, the thirteen year old may proceed with less caution, if any at all. Now you know why big (old) fish are harder to catch than small ones!
You’ll be far more successful if you approach the fish from downstream and cast upstream. This puts you behind the feeding fish where you are less likely to be detected. Notice I said less likely. You can still alert fish to your presence by making a lot of commotion through careless wading. When possible, stay out of the water or right on the edge. When you do enter and move through the water, do so quietly and deliberately. Stomping along the stream bottom and/or splashing through the water will produce excessive vibrations, again alerting the fish to possible danger.
You also want to keep a low profile to remain unseen by the fish. So trout have eyes in the back of their heads? No, but they can still see things behind them – to an extent. Trout are predators and prey, and they are blessed with vision that benefits them in both roles. Like humans, they have binocular vision that allows them to see straight ahead underwater. Because of the placement of their eyes, they also have an extended range of peripheral vision, allowing them to see things on either side of them. Since this vision is used to look straight ahead and to each side, there is little distortion and it’s very clear – much like we would see under water.
But trout also have a cone-shaped field of vision above them that allows them to detect predators from above. Because of the distortion caused by light refracting as it hits the surface of the water, trout are unable to clearly make out objects, so this is used to visually detect movement more than anything else, such as a Kingfisher swooping down to get them. It’s the same as if you were to lie down on the bottom of a swimming pool and look up. You would be able to see objects but they would be so distorted it would be difficult to differentiate between a person and a tree – until that person started to move. However, something that is right on the surface, like a mayfly dun, will be clearer to the trout than something above the surface, like a bird – at least the silhouette will be much more distinct – making this ability effective for feeding on adult insects and terrestrials.
As you’ll notice in the poorly illustrated drawing above, that field of vision does extend a little behind the trout – upward and outward. Everything that makes its way into that cone can be detected by the fish. So, when approaching a trout from behind, how close you are determines whether or not you’re in that cone of vision. Notice however, that a short object can be directly behind the trout and unseen while a tall object would be in the field of vision. This is why many successful Smoky Mountain anglers can be seen crouching or squatting when closely approaching fish. The lower profile keeps them out of the fish’s “window.”
The other thing that should be considered is the type of water you’re fishing. The faster and more broken the water is, the more difficult it will be for the trout to detect you, making it easier for you to get closer to the prey. On the other hand, trout in the slower, flatter runs and pools are going to be able to detect you much more easily and may require you to stay back a little more and put a little more distance on that cast.
In any situation, the more you can conceal yourself, the more successful you will be. Stay low. Wade slowly and quietly. Hide behind rocks and boulders when you can. And for God’s sake, leave the bright orange, hot pink, neon yellow clothing at home. You don’t have to be dressed in full camo with twigs and branches in your hat to catch fish here, but simply dressing in earth tones – browns, olives, khakis, and greys – will go a long way toward not scaring every fish before you even make a cast!
Check back soon to see Part 2 of this series about how trout feed and how to effectively present your fly.
One of the most significant factors that determines how, when, or even IF a trout feeds, is water temperature – at least with wild trout. Stocked trout are raised in hatcheries and fed every day, so they are used to eating every day. Water temperature can impact the way they feed but not nearly to the extent it does a wild trout.
An ideal water temperature for a trout is in the upper 50’s to low 60’s. If you show up at the river, dunk your thermometer in the water, and get a reading of 60-degrees, chances are you’re going to have a pretty good day – assuming you do everything else right. On the other hand, if you do everything exactly right but the water temperature is 38-degrees, you may not even get a strike.
On a broader scale, I think of anything between 50 and 68-degrees to be reasonable. But there are variables. 52-degrees and falling due to a cold front may result in tough fishing. 48-degrees and rising due to a warm front may produce excellent fishing. Fish will probably be sluggish if it’s 68-degrees and rising in a summer drought. But 68-degrees and falling because of a summer rain may really turn them on.
With warmer temperatures, it’s more about the oxygen than anything. Trout need oxygenated water and typically, the warmer the water, the less oxygen. If water temperatures hit 75-degrees for more than a few days in a row, trout can’t survive. They’ll either search out more suitable conditions or die.
With excessively cold water, it’s more about metabolism. As a survival mechanism, their metabolism changes when water temperatures get extremely cold and they don’t require as much food. It’s similar to a bear during hibernation. So if you’ve ever tried to get me to take you fishing in the Smokies in January and I talked you out of it, that’s why. I have great gear and am not afraid of getting out in the cold, but the fish just wouldn’t be feeding.
On some extremely fertile rivers, this may not be the case. There may be enough food through the winter to keep the fish feeding. I know I’ve fished some excellent winter hatches in Montana. But the streams of the Smokies are the opposite of fertile. They’re some of the oldest mountains in the world and consequently very acidic and nutrient poor, which means there is just not a lot of food, especially in the winter.
There are a number of things that can influence water temperature, with air temperature being one of the most obvious. In the mountains, air temperature and consequently, water temperature can vary significantly by elevation. For instance, a river at 2000’ elevation may see an air temperature of 85-degrees in July with a water temperature of 68-degrees. But if you go to a stream at 3800’ elevation on that same July day, you may find an air temperature of 75-degrees and a water temperature of 61-degrees. That’s why I typically like to focus on high elevation streams in the middle of the summer.
Of course, the opposite is true early in the season. The high elevation streams may be too cold while the low elevation streams are starting to turn on. I once guided a local gentleman on a high elevation stream in July and we had a very productive day. He called me, frustrated, the following March. He said he’d just been to the same stream I took him to, did everything the same way, but didn’t even get a strike. In July, the water temperature had been 60-degrees on that stream. When he went back in early March, it had been closer to 40-degrees. It matters.
Tree canopy can also have a big impact on water temperature. A bigger, more open river may not be very productive on a late June afternoon. But a smaller, more heavily canopied stream at the exact same elevation might be very productive. It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but the more direct sunlight that reaches a stream, the warmer the water is going to get.
Time of day is another big factor. A lot of people think you have to be on the water at the crack of dawn to catch fish, which is only sometimes true when you’re talking about stream trout. In the heat of the summer, very early and very late in the day are probably the times when you’ll find the most active fish, because you’re getting slightly cooler water temperatures. However, if you’re fishing in early March or late November, you’ll likely find more active fish in the middle of the day, when water temperatures are slightly warmer. That’s one of the reasons why our peak fishing seasons are in months like May or October. The temperatures are mild pretty much all day, and the fish are active pretty much all day.
This is all very specific to free flowing streams. Tailwaters are totally different animals all together. When a river is dammed to form a lake, they release water from the dam every day to control flooding and to generate electricity. The river that is formed below the dam from these releases is referred to as a tailwater.
The water that they pull from the lake to form the tailwater comes from near the bottom of the lake. Because that water is so deep, it receives no sunlight and is basically insulated by all the water above it. So, the water that comes out of the dam is approximately 50-degrees, regardless of time of day, time of year, or air temperature, which is why that big, wide-open river can support trout. Spring Creeks are very similar because the water source is deep underground, insulated by earth.
How deep the lake is determines how much cold water “storage” it has. That and the volume and frequency of water releases determine how far down river the water stays cold. Your typical East Tennessee tailwater will maintain these temperatures, and support trout, for about 25 miles. So when it comes to tailwaters, you’re always going to have about the same water temperature, making them year round fisheries. With tailwaters, it’s mostly the timing and duration of the water releases that determine when, or even if you can go and how much success you’ll have.
Back to the mountains, water temperature is one of the things that I pay the most attention to when deciding when and where to fish. I’ve been doing this a long time so I just kind of know based on all of the conditions. Until you “just know,” a stream thermometer can be one the most valuable pieces of gear in your bag.
In freshwater or salt, one of the best baitfish patterns around…. I recently went to Perdido Key, FL on vacation. Once a year, my wife and I take a beach vacation somewhere, usually with another couple. And while these trips are more about relaxation and socializing, I always try to work in at least a little fishing, sometimes with a guide. I didn’t know much about this area and never really even took time to research, so I just packed some gear and planned to figure it out when I got there.
On our first day, while kicked back on the beach enjoying an adult beverage, I observed a tremendous amount of feeding activity in the surf. Schools of bigger fish were ripping through schools of smaller fish, and it was happening up and down the coast as far as I could see. Looks like I wouldn’t have to do any scouting after all. All the activity I needed was right outside my back door!
My big problem was that I didn’t know what kind of fish were getting eaten and what kind of fish were doing the eating. Don’t you just love beach problems? My saltwater experience is just as limited as my saltwater gear, so I approached it in the exact same way I would approach an unfamiliar freshwater situation. When in doubt, go generic. It was apparent that they were feeding on some kind of baitfish. And what is the most generic, universal fly for imitating a baitfish? A Clouser Minnow.
The fly was originated by Bob Clouser in 1987. Bob was a fly shop owner and guide in Pennsylvania and developed the fly for smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River. I first learned of the fly in the early 90’s and fished it regularly on the smallmouth streams of Central Kentucky. Over the decades, it has been varied in color and style, and has accounted for nearly every species of fish known. Whether freshwater or salt, the diet of nearly every big fish includes small fish. And whether freshwater or salt, most baitfish have some very common characteristics. Most have a long, slender profile, a darker back and a lighter belly, and pronounced eyes that often act as a trigger for predators.
While there are various color combinations to better match specific baitfish, all Clouser Minnows have the above-mentioned characteristics. They also have lead eyes positioned in such a way as to allow the fly to ride hook up. And with their bucktail bodies, they retain very little water, making them feel lighter and easier to cast than most other flies their size.
While I most often use this fly for warmwater species, I’ve taken a number of tailwater trout and even the occasional large brown in the park on it. You can bet I’ll fish it more than once in late fall in the park when those big browns begin moving before and after spawn. I tie them on traditional streamer hooks for trout, on larger gape hooks for bass, and on stainless hooks for saltwater species. I’ve had success with a number of different color combinations but my “go to” colors are white and black and white and olive.
So the first morning I was at the beach, I got to the water at sunrise with a black and white Clouser tied to my leader. On the second cast into the first school of feeding fish, I was hooked up. The ol’ Clouser does it again and I can now add a couple of speckled sea trout and a whole lot of ladyfish to its list of victims!
In the Smokies, we typically see some of our best hatches of the year in spring. So, it’s no wonder that once March rolls around, most Smoky Mountain fly fishermen have dry flies on the brain. Count me in that group. I love fishing dry flies, especially to steady feeders during a hatch. But just because there’s a hatch, doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a lot of success with dry flies.
First of all, there are always an abundance of nymphs and emergers available to trout in any hatch, and trout can often feed on them more easily and without exposing themselves to potential predators. And there are certain situations that may make them even more reluctant to feed on the surface, such as marginal water temperatures. We see that a lot around here in the winter, where bugs are hatching, sometimes heavily, and you don’t see a single rise. Another scenario that many don’t consider is a dry, sunny day.
During a hatch, many aquatic insects linger on the surface while their wings dry before they can fly away, making them easy pickings for a waiting trout. Damp, overcast conditions are great days for dry fly fishing for this reason. The bugs are on the surface longer and the trout are looking for them there. But on dry, sunny days, they are able to get off the water almost immediately, making them a tough target for a trout. In those situations, trout often key in on the nymphs and emergers.
This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fish dry flies on sunny days or when the water temperature is less than perfect. But when things aren’t going your way during a hatch, you may want to consider changing your tactics. For me, that often means fishing a wet fly, and the Early Season Wet Fly is a great one for, you guessed it, early in the season.
Most of the aquatic insects that hatch around here in the early season, until around mid April, are dark in color. So this fly, with its darker body and wing, does a great job mimicking the majority of bugs that a trout might see. Past April, I might fish a similar fly in a lighter tan or yellow color.
I honestly don’t know where this pattern originated. I’m sure there are many traditional wet fly patterns that are very similar. But I believe this particular version originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, I learned about it from the same source that I’ve learned most things about fishing in the Smokies: Walter Babb.
I fish it a number of different ways. On days when I’m expecting a hatch in the afternoon, I might fish it in the morning in tandem with a dark nymph – maybe a Pheasant Tail or olive Hare’s Ear. In this situation, I’m usually fishing it with a dead drift. At the very beginning of a hatch, or throughout a hatch with little surface activity, I might fish two of these flies and allow them to swing in the current. And even during a hatch when fish are actively feeding on the surface, I often fish this fly as a dropper off the back of my dry fly.
In any case, it’s a go-to fly for me in the month of March and a good one to have in your stash. I doubt that it’s available anywhere commercially but if you’re a fly tyer, I’ve included the recipe below. Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
Early Season Wet Fly
Hook: TMC 3769 (or equivalent) #14 – 12
Thread: Tan or brown 8/0
Tail: Dun hen hackle fibers
Rib: Copper wire
Body: Mix of grey and tan hare’s ear dubbing
Hackle: Dun hen
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed grey
One of the Easiest Ways to Catch More Trout in the Smokies….
I recently guided a husband and wife on a small brook trout stream in the Smokies. The stream, like most in the Smokies, consisted of a lot of pocket water, which meant getting closer to the fish. Both were novice fly fishers and their skills improved steadily as the day went on. As a matter of fact, their skills were about equal, but as the day progressed the wife was getting 5 or 6 strikes for every 1 strike the husband got.
We were moving up the stream together and they were taking turns fishing. They were fishing the same fly. And as mentioned before, their casting ability, approach, and presentation was nearly identical. What was different, you ask? The wife was wearing a drab green shirt and the husband’s shirt was bright red. Simple as that.
Casting can be challenging. Getting good drifts can be challenging. Figuring out what the fish are eating can be challenging. But dressing appropriately is one of the easiest things to control and can greatly improve your success on the stream.
Years ago, three seasoned fishermen from Montana walked into Little River Outfitters frustrated that they had fished two days without catching a fish. One was wearing a bright blue shirt, another was wearing a white shirt, and the other’s shirt was bright coral color. My good friend, Walter Babb, was sitting in the shop and without pulling any punches, said, “Well, those fish saw you guys get out of the car!”
When the fishermen pointed out that they wore the same clothing in Montana and caught plenty of fish, Walter went on to explain that in big western rivers, your background is the sky. Here it’s the trees and bushes.
You don’t have to be a fly fishing commando decked out in camouflage and twigs in your hat to catch fish in small mountain streams, but dressing in earth-tone colors does make a huge difference. Think drab greens, browns, tans, and greys when you dress for a day on the water. While bright white t-shirts and orange Tennessee ball caps may be appropriate for game day at Neyland Stadium, they are doing you no favors on the trout stream.
What about strike indicators? They’re bright and colorful. Don’t they spook fish? Sometimes they do, but usually for different reasons. It’s not really the bright color that spooks fish; it’s movement. These are wild trout in the Smokies and they’re right in the middle of the food chain. Any kind of movement, particularly above them, often means a kingfisher or heron is about to swoop down and eat them! The less you blend in to your background, the more pronounced your silhouette is, and the more noticeable your movements are.
All of this becomes more and more important the closer you have to get to the fish, even when you’re behind them. Trout actually have a “cone of vision” above them that even extends a little bit behind them. The closer you get and the higher up you are, the more you will be detected in that cone. So in addition to what you wear, think about how you move through the water to reduce the chances of spooking fish. Move slowly and quietly. Stay low, particularly when fishing in close quarters. See that big boulder in the stream? Don’t fish from on top of it. Stand behind it.
Finally, keep your false casting to a minimum. Fly lines are often brighter colors so that you can see them in order to mend and achieve good drifts. Remember, it’s not the color so much as the movement. Repeatedly false casting a fly line over a trout’s head is excessive movement in that cone of vision and will send him under a rock.
Welcome to the wonderful world of nippers! It’s probably pretty easy to figure out that the primary function of nippers (aka clippers, cutters, snips, etc.) is to cut your line. They are mostly used to trim the tag ends of monofilament after tying a knot or to cut a new piece of tippet from a spool. But as you’ll see, the right pair of nippers can perform a number of other tasks as well.
As I have described before, my beginnings in this sport were humble at best and my funds were rather limited. There was a lot I could do with $10 back then and I certainly didn’t want to waste it on nippers – not when I could just use fingernail clippers. That strategy served me well for a time, until I figured out what a lot of fishermen eventually figure out. First, fingernail clippers are made of very cheap, soft metal, and after repeatedly clipping monofilament line, they begin forming a series of nicks in the blade. It’s not long before they become completely useless. Second, when regularly exposed to water (such as every time you go fishing), they rust – quickly.
So you can constantly replace in expensive fingernail clippers or you can do what I ultimately did – drop $10 on a decent pair of nippers. They’re rustproof and will last years before the blades begin wearing out. The other benefit to a good pair of nippers is they are designed to cut line, not fingernails. What does that mean?
When working with smaller trout flies, particularly dry flies, it can be difficult to prevent the large, curved head of generic fingernail clippers from also clipping away some of the hackle. The straight, somewhat recessed blades on fly fishing nippers are designed work and cut in tight spaces. Most nippers designed for fly fishing also include another simple but highly useful feature – a small needle.
When a fly tyer finishes a fly, thread is knotted near the hook eye and coated with a thin, invisible cement. Well, in the world of fly tying, time is money and production fly tyers apply that cement quickly, often leaving an invisible layer in the hook eye. When it comes time for you to tie that fly on your line, you can’t get the tippet through the hook eye because it’s coated in glue. This happens even more frequently with hard-bodied poppers that might be dipped in paint, only it’s the paint that is coating the hook eye. The little needle on your
nippers is designed to clear that layer of cement or paint and preserve your sanity when attempting to attach a fly.
As with most any fly fishing product these days, there are seemingly endless nipper styles and features to suit your needs and tastes. Some are just shaped differently, boasting a better ergonomic design. Others are equipped with additional tools for tasks such as tying knots or sharpening hooks. And if you want to take it to the next level, check out this description of Abel’s nippers:
Designed, manufactured and assembled in the USA
Anodized 6061-T6 aluminum body construction
Replaceable jaws – machined out of premium grade Crucible CPM S35VN stainlesssteel, then heat treated to 58-60rc
Engineered to cut 7X – 100 lb mono and braid
Two Year limited warranty on the jaws after initial purchase
Pin – 316 stainless steelAnd they can be yours in black for a mere $85. For custom colors, they’re just $105. And with a cool fish print… a steal at $165. Yep, $165 for line cutters. All of a sudden, $10 for a pair of nippers doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As with anything else, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $165 of it on nippers, go ahead. I won’t judge you.