Flies: Quill Gordon Hatch

March is the month when trout fishing in the Smokies officially kicks off. Days are getting a little longer, temperatures are getting a little warmer and water temperatures are on the rise. It’s also the month when we begin to see our first good hatches of the year.

Aquatic insects from Early Black Stones to Blue Wing Olives to a variety of midges will hatch all winter, but trout rarely pay much attention to them as water temperatures are typically too cold for active feeding (read Understanding Water Temeratures for more info). But in March, that begins to change. And if you pay attention to water temperature, you just might catch one of the best hatches of the year.

Quill Gordon Fly Pattern
Traditional Quill Gordon

Quill Gordons are fairly large mayflies, between a #14-10 hook size, that begin to hatch when the water temperature reaches 50-degrees for a significant part of the day, for a few days in a row. In unusually warm years, they’ve hatched as early as mid February. In particularly cool years, they may not hatch until April. But most years on the lower elevation streams in the Smokies, this occurs about the third week of March.

In any case, it’s a tricky hatch to catch and really just a tricky month to fish if you don’t live here where you can pick your days. Weather can change in the blink of an eye in March and one major cold front or one big, river blowing rain can make all the difference in your success. I’ve had some of my absolute best days in March and I’ve had some of my worst.

So, why even fool with it? Why not just wait until April when things are more stable? Because some of those “best days” were really, really good! The Quill Gordon hatch is not just worthwhile because of the number of bugs or the size of the bugs. It tends to happen at the exact same time wild mountain trout begin actively feeding. Many of these trout, including the large browns, have had very little to eat in the last 2-3 months and they tend to be a little less cautious. And when a size #12 Quill Gordon comes drifting down the lane, well, it’s pretty hard to resist!

Brown trout exceeding 20” don’t get caught very often in the Smokies, period. Even fewer are caught on dry flies. I’ve been fortunate to catch a fair number of large browns on dry flies in the Smokies, and probably 99% of them have come during the Quill Gordon hatch. Though it’s certainly a gamble, THAT is why it’s worth coming in March!

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon nymph

The good thing about the hatch is once it starts, it usually doesn’t stop. So, if the hatch gets started on say, 3/21, they’ll keep hatching every day even if you get a significant cold front on 3/25. While such a cold front may not impact the hatch, it still might impact the way the trout feed. They may be more reluctant to come to the surface. What many people forget, is that for all the bug activity on the surface during a hatch, there is just as much, if not more, activity under the surface with nymphs preparing to hatch. Drifting a greyish olive nymph below the surface can also be very productive during this hatch, especially in colder water

Most years the hatch lasts 2-3 weeks. It’s usually at its best during the warmest part of the day. In March, that’s typically about 11am to 4pm so rearranging your lunch plans is not a bad idea.

The best place to be during the hatch is in a larger pool near the head and middle of the run. Contrary to most scenarios in the Smokies, these large pools may require longer casts and more mending. The fish may be more aggressive but they still won’t tolerate a bad drift!

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

Flies: Madame X

Madame X Fly Pattern
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. 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. I was fishing upper Little River with a couple of old friends. There was a nice stretch of pocket water that had a few pools mixed in and I 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. 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. I enjoy 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 for his local waters in Montana. Most believe it represents 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. Somehow it fell off the radar after the mid to late 90’s. Many fly tiers began using foam for large flies around that time. I suspect the Madame X just fell out of style.

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

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

Flies: Lime Trude

Lime Trude Fly Pattern
Lime Trude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Griffith’s Gnat

Griffith's Gnat Fly Pattern
Griffith’s Gnat

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

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

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

Adult Midge
Adult Midge

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

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

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

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

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

Flies: Blue Wing Olive

Blue Wing Olive Mayfly Adult
Blue Wing Olive mayfly

Winter seasons are not typically known to produce large hatches of aquatic insects, particularly in our part of the country. However, if you’re going to run into a hatch worthy of bringing fish to the surface during the cold winter months, it’s likely to be a hatch of Blue Wing Olive mayflies. Blue Wing Olives, or BWO’s as they’re commonly called, are one of the most erratic hatches that I know of. While most aquatic insects hatch at fairly predictable times of the year, BWO’s are likely to come off anytime of the year, typically on the crappiest day imaginable.

Parachute Blue Wing Olive Fly Pattern
Parachute Blue Wing Olive

I can remember guiding someone in the park several years ago in early May, a time when we’re usually seeing good sulphur hatches (and about anything else yellow). We had an unusual and harsh cold front come in where highs were hitting 50-degrees at best. It was cold, windy, and raining and the fish had more or less shut down. We’d had a tough morning to say the least and while shivering through lunch, we were considering calling it in.

I suggested hitting one more nearby pool and to our surprise, it had fish rising in it… a lot of them. Without giving it much thought, I tied a sulfur on his line since that’s what had been hatching… Every. Single. Day. But when he began fishing to them, the sulfur imitation repeatedly drifted through rising trout, untouched. So I switched him to a different, smaller sulphur pattern. Same result. Then, I switched him to a sulphur emerger. Nothing.

Blue Wing Olive Comparadun Fly Pattern
Blue Wing Olive Comparadun

I was making a mistake that a lot of fishermen make. My decisions were based on what the fish had been or should be doing rather than  what they were doing. Eventually, I waded out to the channel in the very back of the pool where I wouldn’t disturb the fish and focused closely on the surface of the water. What I found was not the size #16 sulfurs that had been hatching for the last week. Instead, I saw dozens and dozens of size #20 BWO’s. Fly selection is 45% experience, 45% science, and 10% dumb luck, and I had been relying 100% on experience! We made the appropriate fly change and were into fish for a solid four hours before the hatch ended and the fish went cold again.

Olive Bead Head Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
Beadhead Olive Pheasant Tail Nymph

There are a lot of morals to this story but the one most relevant to the topic of this article is that BWO’s can hatch anytime. And they usually like to hatch on the foulest of days. With that said, don’t rush out to the Smokies in February because Rob Fightmaster said there would be a great BWO hatch. But if you’re on the water in less that ideal conditions and fish are rising, look for BWO’s. If you don’t see anything but just want to try something on the top, try a #18 or #20 BWO. I ALWAYS have at least a few BWO’s in my fly box in these sizes. I carry different versions but prefer something with a dark olive body and medium dun hackle in a parachute or comparadun style pattern.

Again, a hatch can occur at most anytime but you’re most likely to encounter them between late fall and early spring, at least in this part of the country. And you’re just as likely to see them hatching on a tailwater as you are in the mountains.

Of course, for every fishing eating a BWO on the surface, there are probably five eating a BWO nymph. The nymphs are also usually dark olive in color and can typically be imitated with an olive Pheasant Tail or olive Pheasant Tail nymph. Both are good choices during a hatch or just blind “nymphing” in the winter months.

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

Flies: Blue Quills

Adult Blue Quill Mayfly
Blue Quill mayfly

Blue Quills represent one of the first good mayfly hatches of the year in the Smokies. By “good,” I mean they can come off in big enough numbers and with enough consistency for trout to really take notice. Water temperature determines when they hatch. As an early season bug, there can be as much as a three week variation from year to year.

Blue Quill Dry Fly
Blue Quill Dry Fly

They tend to start hatching in the Smokies in late March and continue through the third or fourth week of April. With a warmer than average February, they can get started a little earlier or they may get going a little later in a cold spring.

They hatch sporadically through the day with the heaviest activity occurring between noon and 4:00pm. Water is often higher and faster this time of year.  Pay close attention to soft current edges, eddies, and slow pockets for trout feeding on them. Water temperatures also tend to be chillier this time of year, which can retard emergence. An unweighted nymph fished in the surface film or just below can be very effective, particularly on cooler, damp, or overcast days.

Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph
Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph

The nymph is a reddish brown color and typically a size #16 or #18. The bugs tend to get smaller as the hatch progresses. So while we’ve mostly been seeing #16’s, expect #18’s to be more common in the coming weeks. There are specific Blue Quill nymph patterns but a standard Pheasant Tail Nymph works as well as anything.

The adults also have a reddish brown body with a light to medium dun wing and are also found in sizes #16 and #18. Again, very specific Blue Quill dry fly patterns are available but a Parachute Adams serves as a worthy imitation.

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