Squirmy Worm

Pink Squirmy Worm Fly Pattern

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.

Red San Juan Worm Fly Pattern
Traditional San Juan Worm

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.

Rubber Squeeze Toy Fly Tying Material
Old school squirmy material

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.

Spirit River Squirmy Worm Material
New squirmy material

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!

Squirmy Worm

  • Hook: TMC 2457 #16-1
  • Thread: 8/0 color to match body material
  • Dubbing: Dry fly dubbing to match body color
  • Rib: Fine copper wire
  • Body: Squirmy Worm material

Flies: Pat’s Rubber Legs Micro Jig

Pat's Rubber Legs Micro JigOnce 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.

Flies: Soft Hackle Wired Caddis

Soft Hackle Wired Caddis Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Wired Caddis

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…

Caddis Larva
Caddis Larva

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

Flies: Tellico Nymph

Blackburn Tellico Nymph Fly Pattern
Blackburn Tellico

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.

Blackburn’s Tellico

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

Flies: Egan’s Headstand

Egan's Headstand Fly Pattern
Egan’s Headstand

From the creative fly tying mind of Lance Egan comes one of my favorite carp flies of all time.  I’m not too sure what it’s supposed to imitate but for me, that’s true of many carp patterns.  Most likely it represents a small crayfish… possibly a dragonfly nymph.

The bead chain eyes give it the perfect amount of weight to get down quickly to carp feeding on a shallow flat without the loud splash of lead.  And when the eyes are positioned correctly, it rides hook up, preventing bottom snags.

Present it by leading the carp slightly and retrieve it very slowly into carp’s path.  The take will be subtle.  Watch for the turn of the carp’s head, set the hook, and hang on!

Egan’s Headstand

Hook: TMC 2457 #8
Thread: 6/0 Black
Tail: Red fox squirrel tail
Body: Medium to dark brown dubbing
Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered
Rib: Fine copper wire
Throat: Peacock sword
Legs: Sili-legs pumpkin – orange – black
Head: Bright orange dubbing
Eyes: Medium silver bead chain, positioned just behind the eye.

Flies: Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa

Humphreys Caddis Pupa
Humphreys Caddis Pupa

Few fly fishermen, if any, possess the knowledge and experience of Joe Humphreys.  Joe is probably best known as a teacher and an author, but over his many decades in the business, he has also created a number of original fly patterns.  By far, my favorite is the Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa.

Caddis Pupa
Natural Caddis Pupa

To be honest though, I’ve always been a little perplexed  by the pattern.  To me it bears little resemblance to a natural caddis pupa and doesn’t look like any imitation that I’ve seen or that I would create.  In his book, “On the Trout Stream,” the only explanation Joe provides is “A good firsthand look at a caddis pupa prompted this tie.”  Apparently Joe saw something in a caddis pupa that nobody else did, because his unique pattern has proven to be one of the most effective I’ve ever fished!

The body color can be varied to match caddis in a specific stream.  I tie them often in olive and cream, but in the Smokies, most frequently find success with tan bodies.  Some species of caddis hatches in the Smokies nearly anytime of year but the heaviest hatches tend to occur in spring.

It works best on any stretch of stream with more of a cobble or even sandy bottom.  I frequently fish it as a dropper off a Neversink Caddis or in a tandem nymph rig below a soft hackle.

Humphreys’ Caddis Pupa

Hook: TMC 3761 or equivalent #18 – 12
Thread: Brown 8/0
Weight: Lead wire to match hook size
Butt: Peacock Herl
Body: Natural Hare’s Ear Dubbing (substitute other colors to match naturals)
Hackle: Dark Brown Saddle
Head: Peacock Herl

Flies: Rob’s Blue Collar Pheasant Tail

Rob's Blue Collar Pheasant Tail Fly PatternFly Tying is a lot like cooking in many ways.  Because in both pursuits, you’re combining a variety of ingredients to create one final product.  And the quality of those ingredients along with the skills of the person putting them together can tremendously impact the end result.  But the issue of originality is also quite comparable.

What constitutes an original recipe rather than simply a variation on an old standard is a very fine line.  If you cook ground beef and put it on a bun with some cheese, it’s a cheeseburger.  If you add sautéed onions, it’s a cheeseburger with sautéed onions.  But if you use a different type of bread, it becomes a Patty Melt.  Fly patterns have the same blurred lines of originality.

The pattern featured here is of my own design but I didn’t give it a very original name because, in my opinion, it’s really just a variation of a classic nymph pattern that the world already knows as a Pheasant Tail Nymph. My version here has a substitution for one material and the addition of two more materials.  Is that enough to be considered totally original and warrant a brand new name?  Maybe, but I didn’t think so.

In any case, it is a nymph I have been tying and fishing for about five years and it has become one of my favorite flies and most consistent nymph patterns.  Like the original Pheasant Tail Nymph, it doesn’t specifically imitate one nymph.  Rather, it’s dark and buggy and is suggestive of many mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae.  The addition of rubber legs gives it a little more movement in the water, and the Ice Dub thorax and Krystal Flash wing provide a little more flash.  I’m always wary of having too much flash on my flies, particularly when fishing for wild trout, but this seems to have just enough to add a little more life to the pattern without sending the fish running for cover.

Rob’s Flash Wing Pheasant Tail

Hook: TMC 2457 or equivalent, #18 – #12
Thread: 8/0 Brown
Weight: Black tungsten bead sized to match hook
Tail: Pheasant tail fibers
Abdomen: Pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire
Wing: 4-6 strands of blue Krystal Flash
Thorax: Peacock Ice Dub
Legs: Black micro rubber legs

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

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: The Frenchie

Frenchie Fly Pattern
Frenchie

In the last ten years or so, the term “Euro Nymphing” or “Czech Nymphing” has become very common. It’s often billed as a revolutionary style of fishing. Basically, it is just nymph fishing without a strike indicator. It’s akin to what many for years have referred to as short-line or straight-line nymphing. Others refer to it as high-sticking. Or the old mountain fishermen around here just call it nymphing, because it’s how they’ve fished for decades and decades.

There is not a lot written about the history of fly fishing in the Southern Appalachians. Most of the techniques were just handed down generation to generation. I’ve had the pleasure and benefit of learning from many of these “old timers,” so when I first heard about this revolutionary style of fishing, I had to chuckle. There really is nothing new under the sun.

There are a few subtle differences in European nymphing techniques and what I learned to do. But what any trend will bring to the industry, no matter how long the method has been around, is the availability of new and better tools and equipment to perform the new trend. In this method of nymphing, you are really trying to keep your fly right on the stream bottom, which of course results in a lot more snags. Traditional jig hooks are great for this because they ride hook up, but until recently, haven’t been available in appropriate sizes and weights for fly fishermen.

Now there are a number of micro-jig hooks available that accommodate a special slotted tungsten bead. They are perfect for fly tying and I have begun tying a lot of my favorite nymph patterns on them. However, one of the first flies I tied on them was The Frenchie. It’s a pattern that did come from the “Euro-nymphing scene” and it has proven to be an effective trout pattern on a number of different waters.

It’s basically a Bead Head Pheasant Tail with a “hot spot” of bright dubbing at the head. The original pattern uses a bright pink dubbing for the hot spot. That seems to work very well for stocked trout and even wild trout at times. In general though, I tend to have more success with wild trout using slightly more natural colors like yellow or green.

Again, it’s greatest value is that it has plenty of weight and rides hook up. You can get it down deep with far fewer bottom snags. Pick some up and give them a try next time you’re out. And if you’re a fly tyer, I’d recommend trying some other favorite nymphs like Pheasant Tails and Hare’s Ears on these hooks.

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