Flies: The Hidden Terrestrials

Soft Hackle Ant Fly Pattern
Soft hackle ant

We often hear about the importance of fishing terrestrials in the summer months. Out west, the conversation usually focuses on hoppers. Around here, we talk more about beetles, ants, and inchworms.   Regardless, there are a number of land-based insects from beetles, ants and hoppers to cicadas, bees and black flies that find their way into the water during the summer months.

Just the other day on a guide trip, a customer caught a brook trout that had a mouth full of small beetles. The fish had obviously been very recently gorging on them. But there wasn’t a single beetle visible on the surface of that pool. We didn’t see ants, inchworms, or any other terrestrial, either. However, if you used a bug seine in that same pool, you would get an entirely different picture.

The fact is these land-based insects are not particularly good swimmers. Most of them, particularly ants, beetles and inchworms, briefly attempt to swim on the surface of the water but soon are caught by currents and swept below the surface.   But nearly every fisherman who fishes terrestrials, fishes them on the surface… and for good reason. Nearly every fly shop or fly manufacturer almost exclusively sells topwater terrestrial patterns. And most of these are constructed of foam or some other highly buoyant material to make the fly ride high on the water.

You can certainly catch plenty of trout on these patterns and have a blast doing it. But you are missing out on A LOT of fish. If you are a fly tier, try tying a few ants with a dubbed body and a hen feather rather than foam and hackle from a rooster neck. Tie some beetles without the high-vis sighter on the back. Instead add a few wraps of lead wire. If you don’t tie flies, place a split shot above your favorite terrestrial pattern next time you go fishing.

A great way to fish them in pocket water is with a straight-line nymphing technique. Allow them to swing at the end of the drift. In pools, fish them a few feet under a strike indicator. Or tie on one of those big, buoyant foam hoppers and drop a submerged beetle or ant about 15” off the back. I probably use this method more than any other.

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

Flies: The Great 8 (Must Have Trout Flies)

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams

With thousands of patterns available, choosing the perfect fly can prove to be a daunting task for any angler, particularly the beginner. However, unless you’re in a situation where trout are selectively feeding on a specific insect that is abundantly hatching, an assortment of well presented attractor patterns will be all you need to catch fish. Every fisherman has a list of favorite flies and over time you will find particular ones with which you are very confident. And that’s really the bottom line. If you have confidence in a fly, you will fish it better and ultimately have more success.

Below is a compilation of flies that seem to work everywhere and are on most fly angler’s list of favorites – a perfect place start your fly selection! Whether you call a fly shop in Tennessee, Montana, or New Zealand and ask for recommended flies for the area, somewhere on that list you will likely find most if not all of these patterns. These flies are also available as a packaged selection in the Fightmaster Fly Fishing online store.

Dry Flies

1) Parachute Adams: This is an absolute favorite trout fly. It doesn’t look exactly like anything but looks a lot like a lot of things! Carry them in sizes #12-#18 with the smaller versions being ideal for slow water and more finicky trout and the larger being best suited for choppier water where visibility is more important. The traditional grey body is preferred, but a yellow body also does well in the Smokies.

2) Elk Caddis: Another great dry fly, carry this one in sizes #12-#18 and with body colors of olive, tan, and yellow. The down wing on this pattern gives it a little different profile than the Adams and the combination of elk hair and hackle make this fly float like a cork.

3) Griffith’s Gnat: This is a great general purpose small fly. Fished most often in sizes #16-#20, it is a great imitation for adult midges, small mayflies or caddis, and even ants. Many of the most finicky, rising trout I catch are on a Griffith’s Gnat.

Nymphs

4) Pheasant Tail: An incredibly universal pattern that looks like almost every nymph you’ll find under a submerged rock. You’ll probably fish the bead head version the most. But, the traditional version provides a more realistic pattern that can more easily be fished in different levels of the water column. Carry both varieties in sizes #12-#18.

5) Hare’s Ear:  For the same reasons as the Pheasant Tail, carry bead head and traditional versions of this fly, and in the same sizes. The big difference in the two nymphs is the Hare’s Ear provides an option for a lighter colored nymph and it is a little “buggier” than the Pheasant Tail, providing more movement. Most tend to favor the traditional tan body color but an olive body is also very effective and versatile.

6) Prince Nymph: This fly gives you that all important peacock herl factor which trout seem to dig. The white colored goose biots on the back also seems to grab the attention of fish. I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly what it’s supposed to imitate but the bottom line is it works! A Zug Bug is a close cousin to the Prince and would likely make many anglers’ favorite fly list. The two are similar and you can’t go wrong with either. Carry them in sizes #8-#16.

7) Zebra Midge: This fly will cover most of your small nymph needs. It is a simple pattern but extremely effective. Best fished in tailwaters and slow pools in mountain streams, carry it in sizes #18-#22. Most tend to prefer the tungsten bead head versions with black, red, or olive bodies.

Streamers

8) Wooly Bugger: While there are numerous great streamers out there, only one made this list as a must have, probably because of its incredible versatility. The Wooly Bugger, carried in a variety of colors, can facilitate almost any streamer need. Carry them in black, olive, tan, and white in sizes #4-#10 and you have an effective imitation for small baitfish, leeches, and crayfish. In a pinch, you can even dead drift a Wooly Bugger as a pretty effective imitation for a stonefly nymph or hellgramite. Whether you choose bead or no bead, flash or no flash, you have a fly capable of catching most any kind of fish in any kind of water.

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

Flies: Rob’s Hellbender Dry

Rob's Hellbender Dry Fly Pattern
Rob’s Hellbender dry fly

As about anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m terrible at self-promotion. The worst. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve never featured one of my own patterns in the newsletter. Usually I opt for more standard or classic patterns. But this is a good fly and it’s good this time of the year, so here you go!

I started tying this one probably 4 or 5 years ago, and if you’ve fished with me in the summertime or fall, you’ve probably fished with it at some point. Heck, you might have even caught a fish on it. It started as most fly patterns do for me, as a modification to an existing pattern. If you’re not a fly tyer or maybe if you’re new to it, you may not realize that fly tying is a lot like cooking. You can make up a recipe totally out of your head. You can follow an existing recipe step by step. Or you can take an existing recipe and modify it to better suit your taste. I’ve done all of the above over the years.

Just before this pattern was born, I was having success with a fly called a Neversink Caddis, a great little foam pattern named for the Neversink River in New York. But I got to thinking about a yellow foam body fly with a little flash. So I tied a Neversink Caddis with a little Krystal Flash under the wing. Then I thought about how great it would be to have a yellow foam body fly with a little flash and some rubber legs. So I tied a Neversink Caddis with a little Krystal Flash under the wing and rubber legs on the side. Then I started thinking about how well it might work if it was still buoyant, but rode a little flatter on the surface. You get the idea.

There comes a point where you change so many things about a chili recipe that it’s no longer chili. And after the fourth or fifth modification on this fly, it was no longer a Neversink Caddis. It was it’s own fly and it was catching fish. A lot of them. I was fairly quiet about it but had more than a few guide clients that started asking for the fly at Little River Outfitters, and it wasn’t long before Daniel asked me to tie some for the shop.

Rob's Hellbender Dry Fly Pattern
Bottom View

I’ve done some commercial tying in the past and it’s a grind – a whole lot of work for not much money. I remember when I first started fly fishing, I’d go to a fly shop and say, “Seriously? They charge $2 for one of these?!?” After I began tying commercially, tying hundreds of dozens of flies, I remember saying, “Seriously? They onlycharge $2 for one of these?!?” Needless to say, I wasn’t jumping at the chance to get back into the commercial tying game.

So I went a different route and submitted it and another nymph pattern to a large fly distributor. If accepted, you send samples with tying instructions, they mass-produce them, and you collect a royalty for each dozen sold. Pretty neat. It doesn’t add up to much but I collect a check at the end of each year that’s enough to take my wife to a nice dinner. I have other original patterns that I keep intending to submit but never seem to get around to it. Maybe this winter.

So that’s how the fly came to be. It’s a good fly pretty much anytime between late April and early November, but I like it best in the late summer and early fall when the water is low. In low or flat water, high-riding, bushy flies get refused a lot, and I have trouble keeping more sparsely dressed flies afloat. But Rob’s Hellbender floats great, sits lower and flatter on the surface and seems to produce strikes when its high-riding counterparts fail.

It falls under the attractor category, as it doesn’t really imitate anything in particular. I’m sure it mostly gets taken as a stonefly or hopper. Either way, they eat it and you need some. If you want to tie it, the recipe is below.  Or better yet, buy a bunch at Little River Outfitters so I can take my wife out to dinner.

Rob’s Hellbender Dry
Hook: 2xl dry fly hook #14 – 10
Thread: 8/0 yellow
Underbody and rib: Thread
Body and Head: Yellow 2mm foam (tan, chartreuse, & orange work well, too)
Underwing: Pearl Krystal Flash
Wing: Deer hair
Hackle: Brown rooster
Legs: Tan barred Sili-Legs

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.

Green Weenie

Green Weenie Fly Pattern
Green Weenie

In June, hatches start to thin out. We still see a fair number of Yellow Sallies and a smattering of caddis and mayflies, but the heavier, attention getting hatches of spring have mostly come to an end. But when summer eases its way into the mountains, trout turn their attention to terrestrials, and so should you. We’ll talk about several varieties of terrestrials over the coming months but we’ll start with the granddaddy of all mountain terrestrials: the Green Weenie.

If you’ve spent much time around Smoky Mountain fly shops or researched recommended fly patterns for the area, you’ve no doubt run across this fly. Chances are you’ve fished one at some point. While incredibly simplistic, this is one of the most popular and most productive fly patterns in the Smoky Mountains. My good friend Brian Courtney ties this fly for Little River Outfitters in Townsend. To date, he’s tied them 25,000!

Inchworm
Inchworm
Caddis Larva
Caddis Larva

There is a little bit of debate about what the fly actually imitates. Many claim it imitates a caddis pupa. Most believe it imitates a green inchworm. Since I am including it in a conversation about terrestrials (land based insects), you can guess which side of the debate I fall. A lot of those little green inchworms end up in the water and trout love them! But the truth is, many caddis pupae look very similar to green inchworms. The Green Weenie is a pretty effective imitation for both. However, one of the reasons I tend to put it more in the terrestrial family is that it works best in terrestrial season. While you can certainly catch fish on it other times of the year, it always seems to be at its best from mid May through early October.

The Green Weenie is different than most terrestrials like hoppers, beetles, and ants. You typically fish it like a nymph rather than on the surface. There are other floating fly patterns intended to imitate inchworms but I don’t find them nearly as effective. Inchworms are poor swimmers and once they hit the water, it’s not long before they are submerged. So mostly I tie my Green Weenies to sink, and fish them on a dead drift. But I do tie a number of variations for different water types and situations.

Beadhead Green Weenie Fly Pattern
Beadhead Green Weenie

When the stream is running fuller or when I’m fishing deeper pools and runs, I tend to fish more heavily weighted patterns. These are sometimes tied with a bead head or with several turns of lead wire under the body. You can use an indicator or straight-line tactics. In these situations, I often fish the Green Weenie in tandem with a second fly. One of my favorite combinations is a Green Weenie for the top nymph and a smaller, more subdued nymph, like a Pheasant Tail, about 15” below it. Trout often take the Green Weenie. I believe just as often, its bright color gets attention and trout take the more subdued fly. When nymphing shallower runs or pockets, I’ll often replaced the weighted trailer nymph with an un-weighted nymph or soft hackle pattern.

Another favorite technique for fishing shallow runs and pockets is to put the Green Weenie off the back of a dry fly. In these instances, I prefer an un-weighted Green Weenie. The weight of the hook is enough to get it down in this kind of water and the dry fly floats better and longer in choppy currents without the extra weight. I do sometimes like to add a glass bead to the fly for these occasions.

Barbie Bug Fly Pattern
Barbie Bug

I most often fish this fly in a bright lime green to chartreuse color. Drab olive and insect green shades do well, too. Others have reported a lot of success with white, beige, and tan colors. And for whatever reason, pink seems to work well. You will sometimes see the pink version referred to as a Barbie Bug. Regardless of color, I tend to fish them in sizes #10 through #14. The smaller sizes, sometimes down to a #16, are reserved mostly late summer and early fall when the water is lower.

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

Foam Beetle

Foam Beetle Fly Pattern
Black foam beetle

In general, I mostly look forward to spring and fall fishing the most in the mountains. Temperatures are mild and fish are typically at their most active. However, there is one particular thing that makes me excited for the warm weather of summer to arrive: Beetle fishing!

With mayflies, it’s different. Sure it’s cool seeing a trout casually come up and sip your mayfly imitation out of a foam line, but I’ve seen trout cross from one side of a pool to another to eat a foam beetle. And it’s not a sip; it’s a GULP!

Common Black Beetle
Common Black Beetle

Terrestrial fishing is a big deal in the mountains in the summer. Hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies are fewer and land based insects like inchworms, ants, and hoppers fill the void. Beetles are one of the most prolific terrestrial “hatches” in the park and there are about as many different types of actual beetles as there are beetle patterns to imitate them. I used to tie a fly called a Java Bug that was a beetle imitation made with a painted coffee bean epoxied to a body of peacock herl. The coffee bean not only provided a perfect profile, but would land on the water with an enticing “plop,” much like a real beetle might.

My favorite beetle imitation for a beetle, as the title not so discreetly suggests, is a foam beetle. With foam, you can still get the desired “plop,” but in a much more durable body. Many patterns, including some I tie, will have a peacock herl or even a sparkle dub body to capture that iridescence found on most beetles. They look great and fish great, but I’ve found that a simple thread body does about as well. For legs, I’ve seen everything from hackle to thread, but in my book, it’s hard to beat thin rubber for the movement.

I mostly use a size range of #10 – #14. I lean more toward the smaller sizes later in the summer when the water is lower. Most of mine are tied in black or brown, and I like to put a small strip of yellow or orange foam on the top to make it easier to see.

Foam Beetle Fly Pattern
Foam Beetle

Trout seem to be looking for them more in the afternoons, but certainly try them anytime of day. Beetles seem to be more active in the afternoon and evening so I think they’re more available to fish at those times. Windy days can be great beetle days (or any kind of terrestrial) as more of them end up in the water. And as you might expect, fishing them under overhanging tree limbs can be very productive.

Most of the time, I fish them like I would any dry fly. I drift them from the top of a current down to the fish. But I sometimes alter my tactics in slower pools. Beetle imitations do hit the water a little harder, which can be good and bad. If you spot a nice fish in a slow pool and plop that beetle in front of him, he’ll often spook. But if you plop it down a foot or so behind him, he’ll often turn around for it. This is one of my favorite kind of takes!

Tie some for yourself or give me a shout and I’ll tie some for you. They are included in my Boys of Summer fly selection. Whatever you do, just make sure you have some with you on any summertime trip to the Smokies!

Simple Foam Beetle

Hook: TMC 100 #16 – #10
Thread: Black 8/0
Back/Shell: Black 2mm craft foam, tied in rearward and folded over
Body: Black thread
Legs: Black rubber legs, small to micro depending on hook size
Sighter: Orange (or other bright color) 2mm craft foam

Note: Numerous other colors of foam and thread can be used but black and brown are my best producers

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

Flies: The Ants Go Marching…

Black Ant“When all else fails, try an ant.”

“Trout love ants.”

I have repeatedly heard these two statements throughout my fly fishing life, and I’d have to say, I agree with both. Ants are not only abundant in nearly every stream where trout live, they’re pretty easy pickin’s once they make their way into the water. And for Smoky Mountain trout, they’re one of the few meals available in the summer months.

From a fishing perspective, I love ants for their versatility. Whether it’s topwater in heavier current, topwater in low, slow runs, or below the surface… There’s an ant for that!

Chernobyl Ant Fly Pattern
Chernobyl Ant

Made popular in the American West, a Chernobyl Ant is an oversized ant pattern, often tied on a size #6 hook or even bigger! While they are considerably larger than most natural ants, the trout don’t seem to mind. Trout may actually take them more for a beetle or some other type of terrestrial, but who cares? They eat them. I typically find the traditional Chernobyl Ants too big for slower water, though I have had a number of nice fish eat them on slow, shady edges of summertime pools. The Chernobyl is best suited for heavier water with a little more chop and because of its buoyancy, is a great dry fly to support a dropper nymph.

Mini Chernobyl Ant Fly Pattern
Mini-Chernobyl Ant

Most of the time, however, I scale the fly size down to a #12 or #14, making it more of a “mini-Chernobyl.” At this size, it makes a great generic searching pattern from late spring through early fall. It rides a little lower in the water, sometimes making it difficult to see in choppy water or where there is excessive glare. But with a brighter piece of foam on top of the fly, you can pick it up most of the time.

Parachute Ant Fly Pattern
Parachute Ant

In late summer and early fall, or anytime when the water is low, fish are spookier and big foam flies (even the mini-Chernobyl) can send the fish running for cover. A parachute ant pattern can be more effective during these times. It lands softer and provides a little more natural silhouette. I typically fish these in smaller sizes like #16 and # 18. Tying these with a white or orange post makes them visible in most conditions.

Soft Hackle Ant Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Ant

One of the most underutilized methods for fishing an ant is to fish it below the surface. Ants are not particularly strong swimmers and often find themselves drowning when they’re in the water. Fishing an ant between the surface and the middle of the water column can be highly productive. Hard bodied ants or, my favorite, soft hackle ants, in a size #14 or #16 are great for this. I’ll often fish one as the top fly of a two-fly nymph/wet fly rig, especially when streams are running full. When streams are low, I like to put a soft hackle ant as a dropper off a dry fly. It hangs in, or just below the surface film and will often fool the most finicky of trout.

Most of the ants I fish are black but can be effective in brown, tan, or cinnamon as well. You can fish them almost anytime of year but they will be most productive during the summer. Ants also tend to be most active through the middle of the day. So that is when trout are most likely to see them.

In any case, you should have at least one ant pattern in your fly selection, preferably two or three variations. You can find the mini-Chernobyl and the Soft Hackle Ant in the Boys of Summer fly selection on my web site.

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