Flies: Sulphur Comparadun

Sulphur Comparadun Fly Pattern
Sulphur Comparadun

Hatches can sometimes be maddening. Fish feed aggressively and routinely on the surface. But sometimes, every single one of them ignores your fly. There are a number of reasons this can happen. It may be because of the style of fly you’re using.

In the Smokies, we are mainly fishing faster, choppier water and often choose bushier, more heavily hackled dry fly patterns because they float well.  In that kind of water, trout don’t get much time to study the fly and their view tends to be distorted by those choppy currents, so the bushier flies tend to do the trick.  Even when fishing pools in the Smokies, you usually have a defined feeding channel that will have at least a little chop to it.  In those situations, a parachute style fly pattern is usally adequate to provide a slightly more realistic profile.

But in flatter water like you commonly see on tailwaters like the Clinch, particularly weeks into a heavy hatch, an even more realistic profile is necessary.  Trout routinely refuse parachute style flies and probably wouldn’t even consider a vertically hackled Catskill style dry fly.

This problem isn’t new to fly fishers.  In the 1930’s, Fran Betters developed the Haystack to fool trout in slow moving spring creeks.  It consisted of a deer hair wing and tail and no hackle, allowing for a lower riding fly with a much more realistic profile.  Al Caucci and Ed Natasi introduced the Comparadun, a variation of the Haystack, in their 1972 book, Comparahatch.  The pattern is essentially the same but they were able to use more modern microfibbets. They provide a longer, slimmer, more durable split tail that aids in floatation.

Comparadun with Trailing Shuck Fly Pattern
Comparadun with trailing shuck

In the mid 1980’s, Craig Matthews and John Juracek took the Comparadun a step further and replaced the split microfibbet tails with a piece of antron or zelon.  It essentially turned the fly into an emerger with the antron or zelon “tail” suggesting the trailing shuck of an emerging mayfly.  Of course, in any of the patterns described above, the body, wing, and tail/shuck colors can be altered to imitate different insects.

I routinely fish the split tail and the trailing shuck versions, usually during a sulphur or BWO hatch.  And again, I am usually fishing them on the Clinch or possibly in a slow pool in the mountains.  They just don’t float well enough to fish them in faster riffles and pocket water. But on a slow glide on the Clinch, they can be deadly!

Sulphur Comparadun

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Light dun microfibbets ( or replace microfibbets with small tuft of brown antron for trailing shuck version)
Body: Pale yellow dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coasatal deer hair

Flies: March Browns

Adult March Brown Mayfly
March Brown adult

So, I’m writing about March Browns not because they are necessarily of great significance to the Smoky Mountain fly fisherman, but mainly because they’re just really cool bugs! Like many aquatic insects in the Smokies, this mayfly does not usually hatch abundantly enough to really get the trout keyed in on them.  But it is worth keeping a few in your fly box. In other words, you probably don’t need fifteen different March Brown patterns in subtly different colors, but having a few of a basic pattern isn’t a bad idea.

March Brown Dry Fly Pattern
March Brown Dry Fly

Because March Browns are big, they tend to get a little more attention from trout. They are usually a #12 or #10 hook size, and they tend to be the first mayfly of the year with any color. Most of your early spring mayflies are some version of grey, because they need to blend in with the bare trees and vegetation. But March Browns usually have a light, reddish brown body with handsomely mottled wings of brown, tan and even yellow hues. Despite what their name might imply, these mayflies don’t hatch in March. Rather, they tend to show up, at least in the Smokies, around the third week of April and hang around for the first half of May.

March Brown Nymph Fly Pattern
March Brown Nymph

The nymphs are probably the most important stage for Smoky Mountain fishermen. Because they have flat clingy bodies with muscular legs, they are very strong crawlers. But when they lose their footing, they are terrible swimmers and easy pickins for a waiting trout. The nymphs tend to inhabit moderate to fast riffles and vary in color from tan to reddish brown to dark brown. So, a Hare’s Ear Nymph or Pheasant Tail Nymph are both good generic imitations. I’ve also included one of my favorite patterns designed to specifically imitate a March Brown nymph.

Nymphing these patterns should be fairly effective all day but particularly early in the morning. Expect to see the adults hatching from late morning to early afternoon with a spinner fall near dusk.

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

March Brown Dry
Hook: #12 – #10 TMC 100 or equivalent
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail: Brown hackle fibers
Body: Reddish tan dubbing (many companies sell a color called March Brown)
Wing: Wood Duck
Hackle: Brown and Grizzly

March Brown Nymph
Hook: #12 TMC 3761 or equivalent
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail: Moose fibers
Abdomen: Rusty red floss
Rib: Stripped peacock stem
Wincase: Lacquered turkey
Thorax: Peacock herl
Legs: Brown hackle

Matching the Hatch

Tying On A FlyProbably 20 years ago, I was fishing the Clinch River with a buddy during the sulfur hatch. I won’t get into what has happened to that hatch, but back then, it was epic. Sulfurs would come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day for about 3 months. We would drive down from Kentucky to fish it and on most trips, we would both steadily catch fish, many topping 20”.

On this particular trip, the bugs were coming off as good as they ever had, the water was boiling with rises, but we were both getting blanked! We were both going through every type of sulfur dry, emerger, and nymph in the box, all with the same result. Frustration got the best of both of us and we headed to the bank for a smoke, a bad habit we both enjoyed back then. While staring at the river and scratching our heads, it hit us both at the same time as we simultaneously exclaimed, “They’re eating caddis!”

Caddisflies tend to emerge quickly and almost explode off the water. When a trout feeds on one, it will frequently chase it to the top to eat it before it gets away. Sometimes the momentum will cause the fish to come completely out of the water, but at the least, results in a very distinct, splashy rise – not like the delicate sipping rise to a mayfly. Once we stepped away from the river and watched, we both noticed it.

We went back to the water and began looking more closely. Sure enough, there were caddis hatching, too. There was probably one caddis hatching for every 100 sulfurs, but for whatever reason, the trout were keyed in on the caddis. It’s what is referred to as a “masking hatch.” We both switched to the appropriate caddis pattern and were immediately into fish!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened, and each occurrence has trained me to always pay attention and sometimes try to look past the obvious. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you solve a hatch riddle sometime.

First, we have to address the basics. If you see fish rising and have a pretty good idea what they’re eating but you’re fly is being ignored, check to see that your fly is the same size as the naturals. Also be certain that your tippet is not too large and that you’re getting a good drift. Presentation is most often the culprit when your fly is being ignored. Next, make certain that the color is a close match to the natural. If you’re fishing a bushy pattern, you might try a more subtle pattern like a Comparadun. If that’s not working, try an emerger fished just under the surface or in the film.

Rise Ring from a Trout
Fish Rise

Still not catching them? Take a break and watch the water. You may be able to tell something from the rise rings as I described above. If you don’t learn anything from that, try to find a fish that is rising steadily and watch him. He’s probably feeding in rhythm, like every 10 seconds. Watch his spot and try to time his rises. When you have that down pretty close, try to see what he eats. You should be able to tell if it’s the same kind of bug you’re seeing in the air, or at the very least, whether he’s eating something on or just below the surface. It’s almost like detective work. You sometimes have to go through the process of eliminating suspects before you can zero in on your man!

Midges on the Water
Midges on the water

If fish are actively rising but you don’t see any bugs in the air, check the water. Try to position yourself at the bottom of a feeding lane (downstream of where the fish are feeding) and watch the surface of the water (and just beneath) for drifting bugs. Holding a fine mesh net in the current is a great way to collect what’s coming down the channel. If you don’t have one, your eyeballs will do just fine. If you see some insects, capture one and try to match it with a fly pattern.

Hatches are puzzles and that’s one of the things that makes them fun. Sometimes you solve it right away, sometimes it takes awhile. Just remember that while the fly pattern is a big part of the equation, it’s not the only one. As mentioned above, presentation is huge. In addition to your technique, a smaller tippet and/or a longer overall leader may be the solution. Also consider your approach.

I typically like to cast upstream to fish so that I can stay behind them. But they will sometimes shy away from your fly in slow runs if they see your line or leader. I will sometimes try to get above fish in slow runs and cast down to them so they are sure to see the fly first. To do this, you have to land your cast short of them with slack in the line. Continue feeding slack to enable the fly to naturally drift to them. This is a challenging presentation. It’s critical that you carefully position yourself out of the trout’s line of vision.

Again, it’s a puzzle and there’s not one universal solution to every challenge. Pay attention to your technique and everything that you’re doing (or not doing). Most important, pay attention to the fish. They’ll usually tell you what to do!

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

Flies: Sulphurs

Sulphur Mayfly Adult
Sulphur mayfly adult

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

On the South Holston, they hatch in huge numbers for nearly nine months of the year. They hatch on the Holston, Hiwassee, Watauga and Caney Fork, too. But when I think of the sulphur hatch, I think of the Clinch River. This is probably because it was the first really BIG hatch I ever fished. It’s not quite as epic as it was 20-30 years ago. I won’t get into the reasons why. But it is most definitely still a hatch worth making time for.

Parachute Sulphur Fly Pattern
Parachute Sulphur

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

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

Beadhead Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
Beadhead Pheasant Tail

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

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

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

Flies: Little Yellow Sallies

Little Yellow Sally Adult
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, get ready. 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. They can 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.

Little Yellow Sally Fly Pattern
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. The adults aren’t as available to the trout. You should focus more on imitating stonefly nymphs. For dry flies, focus more on the stage when it returns to the stream to lay eggs. You’ll notice that many of the adult Sally imitations are tied with a red butt for that very reason. It imitates the egg laying stage.

Little Yellow Sally Nymph
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. In April, you may see them dive bombing the water to lay eggs in the early evening. In late June, that’s probably not going to happen until almost dark.

Neversink Caddis Fly Pattern
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.

What Trout Eat – A Look at Aquatic Insects

Golden Stonefly Nymph
Golden stonefly nymph

When many people think of fishing with flies, images of more familiar insects like houseflies and mosquitoes often come to mind. Many familiar terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers are a source of food for trout. Those are especially important in the summer.  But aquatic insects are most abundant to fish throughout the year. And most artificial flies imitate these water-born bugs.

There are a number of aquatic insects in streams and rivers. Mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges are the most common. They are defined as aquatic because most of their life is spent in various stages in or on the water. The four groups listed above vary respectively in their life cycles.  But they are similar in that they begin in one form under the water. They all emerge and transform to another stage. And they all ultimately return to the water to lay eggs and start the process again. Let’s use a mayfly as an example.

Quill Gordon Mayfly
Mayfly Adult

First of all, the term mayfly is as general as the term flower. Just as there are many different flowers such as roses, daisies, and tulips, there are also many different mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, and Sulfurs. And just as certain flowers bloom at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year, certain mayflies hatch at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year. Around here for example, you’ll usually see Quill Gordons in mid March, Sulfurs in May, etc.

The mayfly hatch that you hear about is technically the second time they hatch. A mayfly will first hatch underwater from a tiny egg into a nymph. The nymph is the juvenile stage of a mayfly’s life and it takes place entirely underwater. As a nymph, the mayfly has a very flat, streamline profile and typically lives beneath rocks on the stream bottom where it feeds on algae and such.

Quill Gordon Mayfly Nymph
Mayfly Nymph

A typical mayfly nymph will live for about a year in this stage until it reaches maturity. At that time, the nymph will emerge to the surface of the water, a shuck splits open, and an adult mayfly (often called a dun) crawls out. The adult will be on the surface anywhere from seconds to minutes while it dries its newly formed wings before flying off to nearby vegetation.

With no mouthparts in this stage, the adult will usually not live for much more than a day. Its sole purpose is to mate. After this occurs, females will return to the water to lay their eggs. Upon completion, they finally lay spent on the water. So a mayfly’s only role in nature seems to be to feed trout.

But it’s not just trout that eat aquatic insects.  Birds will get the lion’s share and most aquatic insects are naturally camouflaged with this in mind.  Understanding this can give you a leg up when it comes to fly selection, even when you don’t know what’s hatching.

In the very early and very late seasons when there is no foliage on stream side trees, aquatic insects need to blend in with the actual branches.  Consequently, most everything that hatches during that timeframe will be dark in color (Gray, black, etc.).  In the late spring and summer when foliage is full and vegetation is thick, most everything that hatches will be lighter in color (yellows, greens, etc.).  And in the fall – you guessed it – most of the bugs that hatch will be drab, rusty colors.

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

Flies: Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

Red Fox Squirrel Nymph Fly Pattern
Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

Even with all the newfangled fly patterns and fly tying materials available today, I usually find myself sticking more with the old staples, or at least pretty similar variations. And I stick with them for one main reason: They work! Created by fly tying guru, Dave Whitlock in the 1960’s, this fly definitely falls under the “old staple” category.

As disappointing as this may be to some, the fly was not named for Redd Foxx of Sanford and Son. You big dummy! Rather, it got its name for the simple reason that it is tied mostly from the fur and hair of a red fox squirrel. We consider this an impressionistic fly. That means it’s designed to look alive or “buggy” more than imitating a specific food source. We also lump these sorts of flies in the categories of attractors or generals. Or Orvis likes to call them prospecting flies.

So really, it’s a pretty good fly to fish anytime in the Smokies. I think it is at it’s best in the early spring. I attribute that to the abundance of Quill Gordon nymphs in the water at that time. This impressionistic fly imitates that nymph as well as any other I’ve fished. I’ve had a lot of success with the traditional, light red version of this fly, but tie them in a few other colors as well. Different colors might better imitate other food sources in the water, but may also better imitate the color of Quill Gordon nymphs found in a specific river, or even a specific stretch of river.

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon Nymph

It’s hard to say just how selective these trout can get and how important it is to match the color of the nymph, but I’ve personally found Quill Gordon nymphs in Little River that range from a light reddish color, to tan, to grey, to dark reddish brown, to olive. You can see that the Quill Gordon nymph in the picture has more of a dark reddish brown color. Though it’s probably more of a confidence thing, it seems that some years a certain color just works better than another.  I like to fish double nymph rigs with two different colored nymphs until I zero in on their preference.

In any case, these Quill Gordon nymphs are pretty robust, and the beefy body on the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph seems to suggest that better than, say, the slender profile of a Pheasant Tail Nymph. And the picked-out fur body and soft hackle provide a lot of subtle, life-like movement.

Hare's Ear Nymph Fly Pattern
Hare’s Ear Nymph

A close cousin to the RFSN, is the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph. This is another one of those staple flies that is really simple to tie and you can be find it in most any fly shop.   I will sometimes fish these in a tan or olive color as an alternative to the RFSN or even in tandem in a two nymph rig.

In all cases, I’m usually fishing these flies in fairly large sizes – typically in the #14 – #10 range. As the season progresses, I’m more likely to fish them in smaller sizes and lighter colors. You can purchase or tie them in beadhead or non beadhead versions. The non beadhead will typically have lead wire wrapped around the hook under the materials. I personally like the look and profile of the beadless version better. But that’s just one man’s opinion. Try them both and tell me what you think!

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

Below is Dave Whitlock’s original recipe for the nymph.  I fish the beadhead version most, and I tend to substitute commercial dubbing for the mixes he describes below.

DAVE WHITLOCK’S RED FOX SQUIRREL-HAIR NYMPH

HOOK:Tiemco 5262
THREAD:Black or orange 70 Wapsi Ultra Thread
HOOK WEIGHTING:lead wire, diameter of hook wire, 8 to 12 wraps
ABDOMEN:Belly fur from red fox squirrel skin mixed 50/50 with sienna or fox tan Antron dubbing OR Dave Whitlock SLF Dubbing – #1 (blended to my specs). Abdomen should be 1/2 to 2/3 of the overall body length
THORAX:Back fur from red fox squirrel skin mixed 50/50 with charcoal Antron dubbing OR Dave Whitlock SLF Dubbing – #2
RIB:Oval gold tinsel or orange-pearlescent Flashabou
TAIL:Small tuft of back fur from red fox squirrel skin
LEGS:(On sizes 10 and larger) Metz dark ginger back-hackle or back-hackle of Partridge, one turn

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: Quigley Cripple

Quigley Cripple Fly Pattern
Quigley Cripple

Okay, so it’s not exactly the most politically correct name for a fly pattern. Maybe the Quigley Emergently Challenged Mayfly would be a better choice? Nevertheless, as teased in the newsletter text, it has been a “hatch buster” for me since probably the early 90’s. The fly has been around a little longer than that, devised by Bob Quigley in the late 1970’s.

What do I mean by hatch buster? Some hatches of aquatic insects can get so heavy and last for such long periods of time that trout become ultra selective on the flies they eat. They just have so many of the naturals available. Your fly, no matter how precise an imitation, can get lost in the mix. We have few hatches of that magnitude in this area. When we do, it’s usually a sulphur mayfly. They can come off fairly heavily in the mountains in May, particularly late in the day. We also see significant hatches of them on area tailwaters, particularly the Clinch and South Holston. On the Clinch, it’s usually from late April through early July. On the South Holston, they come off nearly nine months out of the year!

The Quigley Cripple looks a bit of a mess, but that’s kind of what it’s supposed to look like. During the emergence process, there’s a period of time when the adult mayfly is attempting to break free of its nymphal shuck. It usually occurs right in the surface film and it usually only takes a couple of seconds. However, this is a highly vulnerable couple of seconds. You can’t run with your pants down! Sometimes they’ll get stuck in this stage even longer, particularly on damp or even overcast days.

In either case, trout will often key in on the insects that are in this stage as they are such easy targets. In many cases during a heavy hatch, you’ll find trout that feed exclusively on bugs in this stage, ignoring adults and nymphs. Needless to say, if you don’t have a fly that imitates this, you could be missing out on a lot of trout!

There are a number of patterns that are intended to represent this stage of a mayfly’s life, but I have had more success with the Quigley than any other. The brown tail and “abdomen” of the fly suggest the case of the nymph while the yellow “thorax” suggests the adult half out of the case. The deer hair and hackle represent the wings and legs of the struggling adult.

It sits pretty low in the surface film. As a matter of fact, I often apply floatant to only the thorax and wing so that the fly will rest sort of half above and half below the surface film. Because it sits so low, it can be a little difficult to see. My favorite way to fish it is as a dropper, about 18” behind a more visible parachute or comparadun dry fly pattern. Having the higher riding dry fly as reference allows me to better see the cripple. Even when I can’t see it, if I see a trout rise within 18” of my dry fly, I assume he’s hitting the cripple and set the hook. Great fly, give it a try!

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

Quigley Cripple

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Rusty brown antron
Abdomen: Rusty brown antron
Rib: Fine copper wire
Thorax: Sulphur dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coastal deer hair
Hackle: Light to medium dun

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.