A popper, or popping bug, is a type of topwater fly commonly
used for warmwater species like bass and bream. Unlike the often delicate and
diminutive dry flies used in trout fishing, poppers are typically bright and
robust. While topwater trout flies are commonly designed to discreetly drift
down a feeding lane, popping bugs are designed to make commotion.
Poppers are most often made with a hard, cork body but more
and more frequently are being constructed of foam. Softer variations are also
made by spinning deer hair on a hook. The hair is tightly packed and trimmed to
shape. Using different colors of deer hair allows for some pretty cool color
and design variations. However, color and design variations can also be
achieved on cork and foam poppers with paint and markers.
What they all have in common is a flat or cupped “face” and a body that usually tapers slightly, getting smaller toward the rear of the hook. When fishing with them, the idea is to pull your line with a short, quick motion that jerks the fly abruptly. As a result, the flat or cupped face of the fly will make a “pop” on the water. A popper could certainly resemble some sort of insect, but most often it is designed to suggest a struggling baitfish.
A diver or slider is frequently lumped into the popper category. However, while made with similar materials, these have more of a bullet shaped face. The body tapers in the opposite direction of a popper. You use similar fishing methods with this style of fly but when the line is pulled toward you, the bullet head causes the fly to dive or erratically slide through the water.
There are few things more exciting than watching a bass follow and explode on a well presented popping bug! Check out this video from the folks at The New Fly Fisher for some great tips on how to fish them.
If you’ve done much fishing in the Smoky Mountains, you have
likely fished with this fly at one time or another. It is definitely a staple
in my fly collection. The main reason is that it provides the three quantities
that you want in a Smoky Mountain dry fly: It floats well, it’s easy to see,
and it catches fish!
Many like to point out that this fly will sink. Of course it will! I don’t know of a dry fly that won’t! But it does float extremely well, and the name “Neversink” doesn’t refer to its buoyancy anyway. Instead, it refers to the Neversink River in New York. Beyond that, the origin and history of this fly are cloudy at best.
The segmented pattern to the far left, captioned (perhaps inaccurately) “Original Neversink,” is claimed to be the original version of this fly, though I didn’t find much evidence to back that up. Additionally, I couldn’t find any information on who originated that pattern. The one next to it is a Neversink Caddis pattern originated by fly tyer, Jason Yeager. However, I couldn’t find anything that led me to believe it is the original. If there are any fly historians reading this, please let me know.
In any case, the pattern pictured at the top of the page is the version that I tie and fish, and it’s the one you’re likely to find in most fly shops. While I tie them in a variety of colors, yellow, tan, orange and chartreuse are among my favorites. I especially like the yellow version as it does a great job passing for the prolific Little Yellow Stonefly in the Smokies. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of yellow bugs that hatch in the Smokies from mid April through early October. Fishing with a yellow dry fly pattern of any kind is a pretty good bet during that timeframe.
While it is an effective representation for a caddis and some stoneflies, I tend to think of it as just a good, generic attractor pattern. And because of its better than average buoyancy and visibility, it makes a great top fly in a dry/dropper rig.
Hook: TMC 100 or equivalent, #16-#12 Thread: 8/0 yellow (or to match foam color) Body: 2mm yellow foam (or other color of your choice) Wing: Natural or bleached elk hair (bleached offers a little better visibility) Hackle: One brown and one grizzly rooster
Hendricksons have long been a favorite springtime hatch for Eastern fly fishermen. In the Smokies, they typically follow the Quill Gordon and Blue Quill hatches by two or three weeks. Most years, that means we don’t see Hendricksons until mid to late April. Because a warm stretch of weather in February triggered an early Quill Gordon hatch, things are a little out of whack and we are beginning to see Hendricksons now. I expect them to be around until about mid April.
Like many hatches in the Smokies, Hendricksons rarely come
off in enormous, widespread numbers. But in the right place at the right time,
you can find enough of these bugs to inspire some steady rises from trout. And
while generic, attractor fly patterns will get you through most situations,
having a fly that more closely matches what the fish are seeing never hurts!
Hendricksons hatch sporadically throughout the day in the
Smokies but tend to be most active in sunny areas during the warmest part of
the day. Most days this time of year, that means in the 2pm – 5pm range. They
inhabit all types of water but I tend to see emergence occurring most in slow
to medium currents.
The nymphs are not particularly good swimmers and they have an unusually robust profile. This combination of traits makes them very popular with the trout. Their color varies from reddish tan to dark, reddish brown. Tan and olive Hare’s Ear Nymphs work well for imitations. Whitlock’s Red Fox Squirrel Nymph is another great pattern during this hatch. Pheasant Tail Nymphs provide a nice color match but are pretty slender compared to the beefy naturals. In any case, they range in hook size from #14-12.
The adults also vary a bit in color. Much of that depends on the gender of the bug. The males tend to be darker, varying from grayish olive to grayish brown. However, the females are often a little lighter, sometimes taking on a tan or even pinkish hue.
While there are certainly numerous fly patterns specifically designed to imitate all of the variations of a Hendrickson, you can do pretty well with generic patterns as well. A Parachute Hare’s Ear works well, particularly when you’re seeing more of the lighter colored adults. And there’s always the Parachute Adams, especially when you’re seeing the darker variations. Like the nymphs, you’ll best match the naturals in sizes #14 – 12.
Finally, trout love taking the emerging insects during this hatch, so a wet fly can be an excellent choice. One of my favorites is the Early Season Wet Fly. I often fish it in tandem with another fly. Try it as the top fly of a nymphing rig with a Hare’s Ear or Red Fox Squirrel nymph down below. Or tie it as a dropper off the back of your dry fly of choice.
If you’re new to the sport, sometimes it is difficult to
navigate all of the terminology. There is probably no facet of fly fishing
where that is more complicated than in the world of flies. I’m not even talking
about specific names of flies. That water can definitely get over your head in
a hurry. Before you can even begin to make sense of those fly pattern names,
you have to get a handle on the more general categories under which they fall.
And that’s what we’re going to tackle here.
Let’s start with the term flies. I frequently hear it misused as its own separate category. For instance, someone might ask me if we’re going to be using flies or nymphs. That’s kind of like asking if you have a poodle or a dog. Of course, a poodle is a type of dog. And a nymph is a type of fly. Regardless of what it is supposed to imitate, any lure that we fish with a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly. Flies are then broken into more specific categories.
While it can certainly be broken down to more specific sub-categories, the main category of Dry Flies refers to any fly that is designed to float and be fished on the surface. This would include something like a Parachute Adams that might represent some sort of adult mayfly. It would include a Dave’s Hopper that imitates a land-based grasshopper that has ended up in the water. Or it could even be a large, hard-bodied popping bug used for bass fishing.
One might fall under the sub-category of Trout Flies, another under Terrestrials, and another under Bass Bugs. But they are all flies because they are
fished on a fly rod and they are all dry flies because they float on the
Nymphs are a category of flies that you typically fish under the surface and more specifically; they imitate the juvenile stage of an aquatic insect. A Tellico Nymph, for instance, represents the juvenile stage of a stonefly. A Pheasant Tail Nymph imitates, most often, the juvenile stage of a mayfly. Most nymphs drift helplessly in the current and we use tactics that allow our imitations to do the same.
To confuse things a little, some flies that don’t imitate juvenile stages of aquatic insects get lumped into the nymph category because they are fished like nymphs. For instance, a Green Weenie is a representation of an inchworm that has fallen into the water. Though an inchworm is obviously not a juvenile stage of an aquatic insect, when it falls in the water, it sinks and drifts helplessly with the current. So, you fish its imitation like a nymph. Sowbugs and scuds are other good examples of this. They are actually crustaceans that will never hatch into an adult that flies from the water. But their imitations are most often fished like other nymphs, so they fall into the nymph category.
The category of Wet Flies is a little confusing and could probably be more of a sub-category of Nymphs – or vice versa. Wet flies are usually not tied with materials that allow them to float. They are also not really designed to sink. Rather, they often have a soft hackle that provides a lot of motion and you commonly fish them on a swing rather than a drift. So, you mostly fish them in, or just under, the surface film. A wet fly could imitate a variety of things. Mostly they are suggesting a mayfly or caddisfly as it is emerging to hatch.
Streamers are also flies that sink but more specifically, imitate things that swim. Again, anything you fish on a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly, but these flies represent things like minnows, crayfish and leeches. So unlike nymphs that you usually fish on a dead drift, or wet flies that you usually fish on a swing, you typically strip and actively retrieve streamers through the water.
Naturals and Attractors
So you can take all of the flies that are out there and lump
them into four categories: Dry Flies, Nymphs, Wet Flies and Streamers. Now, you
can take all of those and split them into another two broad categories:
Naturals and Attractors.
A Natural is a fly that specifically imitates something that exists in nature. A Blue Wing Olive dry fly specifically imitates a Blue Wing Olive mayfly adult. The Hot Flash Minnow Shad is a streamer that specifically imitates a threadfin shad. A Green Weenie imitates an inchworm. They’re all fly patterns intended to represent something specific.
You most often fish naturals when fish are keyed in on a specific food source and you know what it is. If there is a big hatch of Blue Wing Olives, trout may not eat anything that doesn’t look like a Blue Wing Olive. Or because stripers are working a school of threadfin shad, they may not consider anything that doesn’t look like a threadfin shad.
flies that don’t look like anything in particular. They are also sometimes
called Generals or Prospecting Flies. They might just be
something very generic that looks like a lot of things. Or they might be
something that doesn’t look like anything at all. They may just have a certain
color or other trigger that generates a feeding response from a fish.
Most of the time, you are fishing with attractors, especially in places like the Smokies where fish are more opportunistic. There are rarely big enough hatches in the Smokies to allow a fish to efficiently key on one particular bug. You fish things like a Parachute Adams because it resembles a lot of things fish might see on the surface. Or you fish a Prince Nymph because it has characteristics that trigger a feeding response from a fish.
If you’re fishing for smallmouth and you’re not sure what they’re feeding on, you might tie on a Wooly Bugger. Depending on its color scheme and how you fish it, it could pass for a minnow, leech or even a crayfish. Essentially, it just looks like something to eat.
Yes, flies and the vocabulary that describes them can be
confusing. Hopefully this article has helped a little. Don’t get frustrated.
Embrace and enjoy the chaos. It’s all part of the fun!
Whether describing a nymph, dry fly or streamer, an “attractor pattern” refers to a fly that doesn’t really imitate anything in particular. It could be that the fly is relatively generic and looks like a lot of different things. An Adams dry fly, a Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Wooly Bugger would all match that description. An attractor could also be a fly pattern that really doesn’t look like anything at all.
I think the Prince Nymph definitely matches that second description. Its body, hackle and general color scheme might suggest some sort of mayfly nymph or caddis larva. Though it’s thick, split tail is more reminiscent of a stonefly nymph. But those white “horns” on the back? While I don’t know of any aquatic insect that has anything like that, perhaps it is suggestive of the white back on an Isonychia nymph. But there certainly don’t need to be Isonychia nymphs present for this fly to work.
That’s because this fly works well nearly all of the time and in most any environment. In mountain streams and tailwaters, this fly catches trout. In spring, summer, fall and winter, this fly catches trout. It’s no wonder this is one of the most popular nymphs of all time and why it would be on nearly every trout fisherman’s must-have list. Nobody seems to care what it imitates or if it makes sense. Because it makes sense to the trout and that’s all that matters.
Apparently, it also made sense to Doug Prince, the originator of the pattern. Doug was an innovative fly tyer who didn’t get a lot of recognition because he mostly tied for himself, rather than producing fly patterns for shops and catalogs. It is believed that he created the Prince Nymph sometime in the early 1940’s. He called it a Brown Forked Tail Nymph and fished it primarily on the King’s River in California.
One of Doug’s fishing buddies was Buz Buszek, a fly shop owner in California. Apparently Buz was in a rush one year to put out a catalog and wanted to include a peacock body nymph pattern. He decided to use Doug’s pattern but couldn’t remember that it was called a Brown Fork Tailed Nymph. He did, however, remember that it was Doug Prince’s pattern, so he put it in the catalog as the Prince Nymph. The name stuck.
Because of its popularity, there have been countless variations of this fly over the years. Everyone seems to think they can take a great fly and make it better. While some are made with wire bodies and some have rubber legs, others use a flashy dubbed body or have a flashy, reflective material on top, in place of the traditional white goose biots. One of the earliest and probably most popular variations was the addition of a bead head.
Over the years, I’ve had success on most all of the
variations. But in my opinion, nothing beats the old standard for catching fish
in the Smokies. I tie and fish them in sizes #16 – #8, but most often use a
#14. And I have success with them all year, but seem to do best with them in the
“fringe months,” when the water temperature is a little colder than ideal. In
fact, the Prince Nymph is one of my most productive winter patterns, fished
deep and slow.
So, if you’ve done much fly fishing, you likely know this pattern already. If not, definitely add some to your fly arsenal. The pattern for the traditional version is included below.
Hook: 2XL nymph hook, sizes 16-8
Thread: 8/0 claret
Weight: Non-lead wire to match hook size (typically .015 or .020)
Rib: Small to medium gold oval tinsel
Tail: Two brown goose biots, divided
Body: 2-4 strands of peacock herl (more on larger hook sizes)
Many fly fishing purists cringe at the idea of fishing a worm pattern. I’m not sure why since a major part of fly fishing is matching the food source of the fish. And worms are a major food source for fish everywhere.
I think it’s the same hangup that many traditionalists have with strike indicators. They just don’t want to participate in any sort of activity that resembles bait fishing. I suppose that fishing a worm pattern under a strike indicator is about as close to bait fishing as you can get. However, when you really think about it, it’s no closer to bait fishing than using a Prince or a Pheasant Tail. It’s not as if the worm is real, or even scented. In either situation, you’re using an artificial imitation of a food source to fool a fish.
The San Juan Worm has been the main target of ridicule for many years. It gets its name from the San Juan River in New Mexico, where it imitated the many aquatic worms in this river. But worms are not isolated to the San Juan River. They are abundant in nearly every body of water, even more so where softer, muddy banks exist.
Worms tend to burrow in muddy banks and when water rises, it floods worms out of those burrows. We see the same thing at our homes. After a good rain, you see an abundance of worms found on the pavement. They were flooded out of their homes. Worms that live in a river bank don’t end up on the driveway when their burrows are flooded. They end up in the river and fish seek them out.
Worm patterns can be intermittently effective anytime. But the best time to fish them is during, or just after, a good rain when the water level rises. In essence, you’re matching the hatch in these situations. Again, isn’t that the idea? So, in freestone streams like the Smokies, these changes in water levels are periodic. But on tailwaters like the San Juan, changes in water levels are daily.
The Squirmy Worm is not exactly a ground breaking fly pattern. You use the exact same technique as a San Juan Worm with a different material. Traditional SJW’s used vernille or micro chenille for the body. The Squirmy Worm uses a rubbery material which makes it more lifelike.
I’ve tied them for years, long before Squirmy Worm was in the fly fishing vocabulary. Many fly tyers have. But what is now mass marketed as Squirmy Worm material didn’t exist. We used things like rubber tentacles off of children’s toys. They worked great, but the new material is made for fly tying and allows for longer, more uniform bodies.
The Squirmy Worm is available in a number of different colors. Pink and red are my two favorites. And you can get them with or without beads. In either case, note that the rubbery material of this pattern can give it sort of a neutral buoyancy when using minimal weight. If you really want to get it down, you may have to use a little more weight than normal.
For you fly tyers, it’s not a complicated pattern to tie. However, the Squirmy Worm material can be a little awkward to work with, as it rolls on the hook. It’s also easy to cut through the material with fly tying thread. There are a few ways to deal with that. My preferred method is to apply a small amount of dubbing to the thread before wrapping around the rubber material.
It’s ugly and it’s trashy, and it very well may be one step away from bait fishing. But it sure does catch fish!
Once again, this is my variation of an existing pattern. Pat’s Rubber Legs is a stonefly pattern created by Idaho guide, Pat Bennett. But keeping it real, Pat’s pattern is really just a variation of an older pattern called a Girdle Bug. I talked about this before, but what constitutes an original fly pattern and what is simply a variation on an old standard is a REALLY fine line!
The Girdle Bug also originated out west and is a very effective imitation for stoneflies, hellgrammites and any other big meaty nymph. Found most commonly in size #8 and bigger, it consists of lead wire, a black chenille body, and white rubber legs on the rear, front, and sides of the fly. Pat’s Rubber Legs is the exact same thing but has variegated chenille rather than solid black, and uses a material called Spanflex rather than traditional round rubber legs.
Both are great patterns. I personally don’t see any added value to the Spanflex material, but I do think the variegation provides a great and simple color contrast. Other stonefly patterns like the Bitch Creek Nymph and even my own pattern, Rob’s Hellbender Nymph, have used a weave to achieve this contrast. But I sure like simple. And using the variegated chenille is way simpler than weaving!
While I have had a lot of success with the traditional Pat’s Rubber Legs, it, like many big stonefly patterns, has a real tendency to hang the bottom. All heavy nymphs do. Many fly tyers, including me, have tried to strategically weight flies to reduce bottom snags with varying degrees of success. Of course, fly tying, like most anything else, has evolved over the years. And in recent years, the evolution of European Nymphing has given us the micro jig hook.
Spin fishermen regularly use traditionally jig hooks. But they are just too heavy to cast effectively with a fly rod. However, the newer micro jig hooks come in much smaller sizes. They use a specially cut tungsten bead to fit on the uniquely shaped hook. The result is a hook and bead combo that allows the fly to ride hook up – most of the time. Certainly with the faster and generally varied currents found on most trout streams, you’re going to get some rotation on the fly.
To accommodate for this, I, and many other fly tyers, tie flies on these style hooks “in the round.” This means the fly essentially looks the same from any angle. Flies tied with a very distinct top and bottom can look strange when the fly isn’t oriented properly. Tying the fly in the round insures the fish will get the proper view of the fly no matter how the hook is oriented.
I saw Pat’s Rubber Legs, with its simple, variegated body, as a perfect candidate for a micro jig style fly. The result is a heavy fly that you can fish deep and slow with minimal bottom snags. In addition, I frequently like to incorporate just a little flash to my nymphs for a subtle suggestion of movement. For my variation of this pattern, I added a small amount of Ice Dubbing behind the head. It’s a great fly anytime of the year. I particularly like it in the colder months of winter when deep and slow is the name of the game. Give it a try!
Pat’s Rubber Legs Micro Jig
Hook: Orvis 1P2A Tactical Jig Hook #8
Bead: Black 1/8” slotted tungsten
Thread: Brown 6/0
Body: Brown and yellow variegated chenille
Thorax: Pheasant Tail Ice Dubbing
Legs: Wapsi pumpkin barred Sili-Legs
Note: This recipe is for the golden stonefly nymphs common throughout the Smokies. You can alter colors to better imitate stoneflies or even hellgrammites in your local trout or smallmouth streams.
Caddis have always seemed to be one of the most overlooked and under-imitated aquatic insects in the fly fishing world. Maybe it’s because they haven’t written about caddis as much as their sexier mayfly cousins over the years. I mean, they gave mayflies names like Pale Morning Dun, Quill Gordon, and Gray Fox… just to name a few. They gave caddis names like Green Caddis, Brown Caddis, Black Caddis…
Regardless of the lack of respect given to caddis over the years, they have always been and continue to be abundant in nearly every body of freshwater and a staple in the diet of trout everywhere. I have numerous caddis patterns that I fish seasonally in the Smokies, but one that finds its way into the line-up more than any other is the Soft Hackle Wired Caddis.
There have been a number of wire body caddis patterns over the years and this is simply my variation on similar recipes. I sometimes tie it without a bead, but most often with a black tungsten bead at the head. It fishes well on a dead drift under a strike indicator but, especially when caddis are emerging, can be very effective fished with a drift and swing method. Learn more about this method and other similar techniques in this article on Active Nymphing.
Soft Hackle Wired Caddis
Hook:#18 – 12 TMC 2457 (or equivalent) Bead:Black tungsten to match hook size Body:Small chartreuse wire* Back:Peacock herl woven between wire wraps Thorax:Black or brown Wapsi Life Cycle dubbing* Hackle:Black or brown hen*
*You can substitute other colors to match specific caddis species
My friend Walter Babb said that most people’s favorite fly is the fly they happened to have on the first day the fishing was really good. The implication of his statement is that more often than not, it’s the archer, not the arrow. When you present it well and the fish are feeding, it probably doesn’t matter what your fly is. And if the fish aren’t feeding? It probably doesn’t matter what fly you have on!
But you had that fly on the first day the fishing was good. Now you have confidence in it. Now you tie it on first and leave it on longer. I have countless fly patterns that I abandoned because they didn’t catch fish the first time I tried them. All too often, that first time was after I tried everything else. Nothing was working that day!
With all of that said, I have, by far, caught more big brown trout in the Smokies on a Tellico Nymph than any other fly. But, you guessed it… the first big brown trout I caught in the Smokies was on a Tellico Nymph. I have confidence in it. And since most of the big browns I caught over the years were either spotted first or caught during “favorable brown trout conditions,” I put a Tellico on in anticipation. So, it’s a bit deceiving. Who is to say I wouldn’t have caught those fish on a Prince Nymph had I chosen to tie one on?
Nevertheless, the Tellico Nymph is a good fly and it’s been around a long time. Its exact origins are unclear, though most think it was obviously created and first fished on the Tellico River in East Tennessee. It has definitely been around since the 1940’s, but some estimate that it may date back to the turn of the 20thcentury. In any case, the Tellico Nymph is the most famous fly from this region. It still accounts for fish in the Smokies and all over the world.
In addition to its origin, there is some confusion as to what the fly imitates. Many contend that it represents a caddis larva. Others are just as certain it imitates a mayfly nymph. To me, there is absolutely no doubt that it represents a golden stonefly nymph. The coloration and size are consistent with that of a golden stone, and the Tellico River is known for its abundance of these nymphs.
As with any popular fly that has been around for this long, there have been a number of variations on the pattern over the years. Rick Blackburn devised personal favorite. I tie most in size #10.
Hook:3XL nymph hook #12 – 6 Thread:Dark brown 6/0 Weight:.015 to .035 lead wire (depending on hook size) Tail:Mink fibers (I often use moose as a substitute) Rib:Gold wire and 2-3 strands of peacock herl Wing Case:Section of turkey tail – lacquered Body:Wapsi Stonefly Gold Life Cycle dubbing Hackle:Brown Chinese neck hackle, palmered through thorax