Early Spring Fishing – Locating Feeding Trout

Early Spring on Abrams Creek
A Smoky Mountain River in early spring

If you’ve ever fished with me or have read more than two articles in this newsletter, you undoubtedly know how much I emphasize the importance of water temperature when fishing for wild trout. Often in the summer, it can be too warm in many places, causing trout to be lethargic or even migrate to cooler water. In winter, it can be too cold, causing changes in metabolism and a shut down in feeding. In early spring, you’re often fishing right on the edge of good water temperatures. Throughout the day, you may encounter totally different feeding behaviors – from hour to hour and from pool to pool.

Though it’s not quite this exact, 50-degrees is kind of the magic number we’re looking for. When we see water temperatures at or above 50-degrees for the better part of the day, we typically start to see actively feeding fish. This is due to not only the change in metabolism, but also the increase in bug activity. It can be deceiving, though, when we start to have these warmer days but the overnight temperatures are still getting pretty cold. It may be late morning or early afternoon before the water has had time to warm to a “stimulating” temperature.

So forget what your granddad told you about getting to the water at dawn. That’s great advice during the heat of summer. In early spring, it will usually only give you a lot of casting practice. There are always variables based mostly on weather. But your best fishing this time of year will probably be between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, get to the water around 10. You’ll have time to gear up, and enjoy your afternoon.

This is also not the best time of year for making that 7-mile hike to a high elevation brook trout stream. With very rare exceptions, your water temperatures are going to be considerably cooler at high elevations. This is the time to focus on lower and mid elevation streams.

Little River in Spring
The heads of large pools can be great locations for feeding trout

Now that you’re at the right place at the right time, there are other things you want to look for. While slower pools often fish poorly later in the year, they can be great places to fish in early spring, mostly because of the abundance of food. The best hatches, at least in the Smokies, occur in the spring and you can target a lot of feeding fish in these pools. Dry fly fishing can be at its best on early spring afternoons and it’s a great opportunity to find a larger brown trout feeding on the surface. Even if there is not an active hatch, there are plenty of bugs preparing to hatch. Drifting nymphs along the bottom, particularly near the heads of these pools can be very productive.

The other advantage to larger pools this time of year is they typically have less tree canopy. The water gets more direct sunlight. Seeking direct sunlight is counterintuitive to many fishermen. But in the early season, it often means warmer water. And even if the sunlight isn’t significantly warming the water, it is likely stimulating more bug activity. This will in turn, stimulate fish. Still, bright sunlight can have a negative impact on fish and their willingness to feed. I try to seek out and pay particular attention to the “sweet spots.” Sweet spots are good holding water that has a nice mix of sun and shadows.

Finally, when choosing days to fish this time of year, really try to pay attention to the overnight lows more than the daytime highs. Warmer overnights will better maintain those water temperatures we’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to get wet. A warm rain can raise water temperatures and turn fish on quicker than anything this time of year!

Fishing Low Water

In normal years, there are going to be periods that are dryer than others, and in a rainfall driven fishery like the Smoky Mountains, water levels routinely fluctuate and you have to be able to adjust your strategies to match the conditions. While some years can give us low water conditions any time of year, late summer and fall is historically the driest time of year in the Smokies.  We’re fortunate that we’ve had a fairly wet summer this year and have a little more “reserve” going into fall, but September and October will undoubtedly show us drier conditions and fishing low water can be a challenge.

What’s particularly bad is when we have a summer drought with low water AND warm water temperatures. That’s a pretty tough combination. But when you’re dealing with the typical low water we see in September and particularly October, water temperatures are cool and trout are very active. So, there’s one obstacle, warm water temperatures, out of the way. Below are some tips for dealing with the other obstacle.

Using Stealth on a Small Stream
Staying low will help keep you out of the trout’s view

The biggest problem low water creates is it makes already spooky fish spookier. While having less water depth can be an issue, the real challenge is having less water flow. When streams are full, the extra flow of water helps conceal you and your movements. The surface is more broken, making the trout’s view of the outside world more distorted and the extra flow helps to dampen the noise you make when you move in or near the water. In a nutshell, you’re going to have to be a lot stealthier when you fish for low water trout.

I’ve talked about this first piece in the article Dress for Success, but it all starts with what you wear. When you are fishing in the Smoky Mountains, your backdrop consists mostly of trees and bushes. When you wear bright colors, your silhouette against that woody backdrop is much more pronounced, and the trout more easily detects your movements. Dress in dull, earth-tone colors like brown, tan, olive, or grey. And stay low. Crouching, squatting, kneeling and/or staying behind boulders will help eliminate your silhouette altogether.

Without the benefit of faster currents, you have to stay farther away from the fish. Simply staying back farther and casting farther can cause drag issues when you’re working across currents, as more line will be on the water. Use the longest rod you can get away with to allow for extra reach across those currents. With shorter rods, take extra measures to position yourself as much downstream from the fish as possible. This will put your line/leader more in the same speed current as the fly and provide a better drift.

Speaking of lines… Heavier fly lines will make more commotion on the water and will drag more. Try using lighter lines, 4-weight and smaller, and keep them off the water as much as you can by keeping the rod tip up. Longer leaders with longer and finer tippet will also help with less drag and less commotion on the water. For small to mid size streams, I usually fish 9’ leaders in low water, and often 12’ leaders on larger rivers.

Griffith's Gnat
Griffith’s Gnat

Lower, slower moving water also gives the fish a better, longer look at your fly. Larger, bushier flies will often produce “short strikes,” where the fish merely bumps or noses it, or stops just short of taking it. Smaller flies and low profile flies like parachutes or comparaduns, will often solve that. A Griffith’s Gnat in a size #18 is a favorite late season, low water pattern. A Parachute Adams in size #18 is another favorite. Terrestrials are still abundant this time of year and a small parachute ant or a soft hackle ant dropper can be very effective in these conditions.

You may also try to seek out choppier water. Fish will often position themselves more in choppy water during these conditions to remain less visible to predators.

Mostly, success in low water is going to boil down to movement. Keep your false casting to an absolute minimum, like, not at all if you can. Don’t go rushing into each new spot. First, assess the pocket, pool, or run from afar, then keep a low profile and approach it slowly.

After doing all of this, as simple as it sounds, be ready! Your strike is most often going to come on the first cast and you don’t get many second chances.

Trout Behavior (Part 2)

Understanding How Trout Feed and the Importance of Presentation….

There is a belief held by many that Smoky Mountain trout are among the most difficult to catch. Talk to a few Smoky Mountain anglers for any length of time and at some point, someone will say, “If you can catch them here, you can catch them anywhere!” That’s not entirely true. Simply driving a little north to the Clinch will teach you that. Employing Smoky Mountain fishing tactics on that big tailwater may reap rewards in a few areas, but the long, slick waters of the Clinch will require different skills to be consistently successful. Almost every fishery has certain characteristics and little quirks that make it uniquely challenging.

But this much is true. If you are catching fish in the Smokies on a consistent basis and understand why and how you’re catching them, applying those skills to other freestone rivers, such as those in the American West, will put you a step ahead of many anglers. But why? What is it about these little mountain streams that is so challenging?

First, you typically have a significant volume of water in a small space. Rather than water flowing through a broad basin, where current speeds are somewhat consistent and concentrated in long, broad channels; in these small streams, the flow breaks and changes speed dramatically with every boulder it hits. So in many situations, in one fishy run, there may be fifteen different current speeds with which to contend. That may not be a big deal if you understand how that phenomenon can impede drift and you can approach those runs properly. Failure to understand this can convince many an angler that there are no fish in these streams!

I’ve seen a number of VERY good fly fishermen come to the Smokies and get skunked. In most cases it is because they are big river fishermen and they approach these streams in the same way they approach the big rivers they normally fish. That usually entails standing erect at the bottom of a run and making a 40-60 foot, up and across cast to the top of the run. The result is 40-60 feet of line being grabbed by fifteen different current speeds, and an attached fly dragging like RuPaul!

All but the smallest and dumbest fish in the Smokies will not tolerate a poor drift, and with the exception of the rare slow pools, there is no way you’re going to be able to cast that much line and be able to control your drift. Executing a good drift in the Smokies is going to require getting closer to the fish.

First, it is important to understand where the fish will be and why. You can find fish in the slow pools but these are among the most difficult to target. Without a defined channel to concentrate food, fish in these pools are very spread out and often cruising, feeding opportunistically. Unless there is a significant hatch coming off to motivate consistent feeding and reveal fish when they break the surface for a meal, catching them in these environments is going to require a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of plain dumb luck. This is certainly not to say you can’t catch fish in slow pools in “hatchless” situations, but the odds are not with you.

For heavier concentrations of actively feeding fish, you should be in the riffles and runs where there are clearly defined channels. The stream funnels insects and other food items into these channels, and where you find food, you find fish. And in these food abundant areas, fish are typically “holding,” waiting for the meal to come to them. But because there is so much “stuff” coming through these chutes, from aquatic insects to stream debris, the fish instinctively ignore passing items that don’t look like food. Your imitation dragging through the feeding zone faster than the current because another current is pulling on your fly line, qualifies as something fish will ignore. To control the fly you have to control the line. In order to control the line in a run with multiple currents, you have to get closer.

To get closer, you’ll want to employ the strategies discussed in Part 1 of this article. Dress accordingly, stay low, and be stealthy. The idea is to get into a position where you can use the length of your rod to keep the fly line out of any currents other than the one where your fly is. So you’re keeping the rod high, keeping most, if not all, of the line off the water so that there is very little to impede the drift. By following the fly with your rod tip, you can extend your drift through the run. There are going to be a number of these little feeding zones within a run. Hit the first one, reposition yourself, hit the second one, reposition yourself, and so on.

High Sticking a Mountain StreamCheck out the photo above – a typical stretch of water in the Smokies. You can easily see the numerous changes in current speed and direction in just this small area. Rather than standing at the bottom right of the photo and casting 40-50 feet to the top left of the photo, our angler is intelligently breaking this stretch into defined sections. He has likely already fished the water below, to his left, and right in front of him. Notice his rod is high, keeping the line off the current directly in front of him. The fly should drift nicely in the current breaking around the right of the boulder. Next, he will likely step up to the boulder and fish that large pocket above it. Well done!

Smoky Mountain FishermanThe angler in this photo is also doing a good job with a little more line out. Notice he is concealing himself behind a boulder. He’s holding his rod upward, keeping the current lip in front of him from grabbing the line. The line that is on the water is all in the same current speed. Again, well done!

He likely fished the current below that boulder before stepping into that position. It’s all about planning your attack. Determine your targets and carefully place yourself in the proper position before casting to them.

Setting the Hook

Fishermen in the Smokies also miss A LOT of strikes. Some of the misses can be attributed to the fact that trout in the Smokies are fast! They hit and spit a fly with amazing speed. You can just go on and plan on missing some strikes when you fish here. And you can plan on getting hung in a few trees. It’s all part of it!

But you can greatly increase your number of hook-ups by implementing the above strategies. Many anglers miss strikes because they’re not ready or they react too slowly. Just as many anglers miss strikes because they have too much line on the water. The more line you have out, the more line you have to move and tighten to set the hook. And when that line has a lot of slack in it, there will be even more delay.

It’s a delicate balance. In most cases, you have to have a little bit of slack in your line to allow your nymph or dry fly to drift without drag. Keeping that slack to an absolute minimum will allow the rod tip to lift and tighten the line on the fish much more quickly and will certainly result in more fish to hand.

Trout Behavior (Part 1)

Understanding a Trout’s Vision and Instincts for a Better Approach….

On numerous occasions guiding clients in the Smoky Mountains, I have been met with a suspicious and doubting eye when I provide certain instruction regarding approaching and presenting the fly to wild mountain trout. The reply is often something like, “Are they really that smart?” No, trout aren’t that smart. They have the brain the size of a pea. But the fact that they aren’t that smart is what allows them to be so good at what they do. Unlike us more “intelligent” humans, trout aren’t distracted by health care reform. They don’t watch college football or pay the mortgage. And they don’t care who got voted off American Idol last night. Their entire existence is ruled by instinct. Their only real concerns are receiving enough oxygen, eating, and not being eaten! When your life is that simple, it allows you to remain pretty focused.

Think about a simple housefly for a moment. Trying to catch one is difficult. A housefly isn’t smart. It’s not planning out evasive maneuvers in the event of a human attempting to catch it. First I’ll cut right, then I’ll go up, then I’ll get behind the blinds at the window…. It’s pure instinct. Survival. Something we humans have to go through rigorous, repetitive training to achieve.

One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when approaching fish is doing so from upstream. To a trout, a stream is a conveyor belt of food. It constantly delivers hatched aquatic insects and terrestrials on the surface and juvenile aquatic insects (nymphs) between the surface and the bottom. Trout aren’t looking down the conveyor belt to see what they’ve missed. They’re looking up the conveyor belt to see what meal is coming next. If the trout see something suspicious at the top of the conveyor belt, like you, they’re going to likely quit feeding until they feel safe again. They may even go hide!

So the trout knows I’m trying to catch him? No! But you spooked him. Think about a situation when your senses were heightened. Maybe you’re walking alone late at night on a dark street and you hear a strange noise up ahead. Is it the wind? A stray cat? Another person? A serial killer? You don’t know, so what do you do? Do you race up ahead to check it out? Do you ignore it and keep on as if nothing happened? You would probably stop doing what you’re doing and assess the situation. You might even turn around and go the other way. It’s the same thing if something disrupts a trout’s comfort zone while they’re feeding.

Another interesting way to look at it is if you take the dark street scenario described above and insert a thirteen year old rather than an adult. Due to limited life experiences and a feeling of invincibility, the thirteen year old may proceed with less caution, if any at all. Now you know why big (old) fish are harder to catch than small ones!

You’ll be far more successful if you approach the fish from downstream and cast upstream. This puts you behind the feeding fish where you are less likely to be detected. Notice I said less likely. You can still alert fish to your presence by making a lot of commotion through careless wading. When possible, stay out of the water or right on the edge. When you do enter and move through the water, do so quietly and deliberately. Stomping along the stream bottom and/or splashing through the water will produce excessive vibrations, again alerting the fish to possible danger.

You also want to keep a low profile to remain unseen by the fish. So trout have eyes in the back of their heads? No, but to an extent, they can see things behind them. Trout are predators and prey, and their vision benefits them in both roles. Like humans, they have binocular vision that allows them to see straight ahead underwater. Because of the placement of their eyes, they also have an extended range of peripheral vision, allowing them to see things on either side of them. They use this vision to look straight ahead and to each side. Consequently, there is little distortion and it’s very clear. It’s similar to how we see under water.

Trout Cone of Vision
The cone

But trout also have a cone-shaped field of vision above them that allows them to detect predators from above. Because of the distortion caused by light refracting as it hits the surface of the water, trout are unable to clearly make out objects, so this is used to visually detect movement more than anything else, such as a Kingfisher swooping down to get them.

It’s the same as if you were to lie down on the bottom of a swimming pool and look up. You can see objects but the distortion makes it difficult to differentiate between a person and a tree. But you can pick up movement. However, something that is right on the surface, like a mayfly dun, is clearer to the trout than something above the surface, like a bird. At least the silhouette is much more distinct. This ability is highly effective for feeding on adult insects and terrestrials.

As you’ll notice in the poorly illustrated drawing above, that field of vision does extend a little behind the trout – upward and outward. The fish can detect everything that makes its way into the cone. So, when approaching a trout from behind, how close you are determines whether or not you’re in that cone of vision. Notice however, that a short object can be directly behind the trout and unseen while a tall object would be in the field of vision. This is why many successful Smoky Mountain anglers crouch or squat when closely approaching fish. The lower profile keeps them out of the fish’s “window.”

The other thing you should consider is the type of water you’re fishing. The faster and more broken the water is, the more difficult it will be for the trout to detect you, making it easier for you to get closer to the prey. On the other hand, trout in the slower, flatter runs and pools are going to be able to detect you much more easily and may require you to stay back a little more and put a little more distance on that cast.

In any situation, the more you can conceal yourself, the more successful you will be. Stay low. Wade slowly and quietly. Hide behind rocks and boulders when you can. And for God’s sake, leave the bright orange, hot pink, neon yellow clothing at home. Don’t worry about dressing in full camo with twigs and branches in your hat to catch fish here. Just dress in earth tones. Wearing browns, olives, khakis, and greys will go a long way toward not scaring every fish before you even make a cast!

Check back soon to see Part 2 of this series about how trout feed and how to effectively present your fly.

A Matter of Degrees – Water Temperature

Understanding Water Temperature

Checking Water Temperature
Checking water temperture

One of the most significant factors that determines how, when, or even IF a trout feeds, is water temperature – at least with wild trout. Stocked trout are raised in hatcheries and fed every day, so they are used to eating every day. Water temperature can impact the way they feed but not nearly to the extent it does a wild trout.

Cold Weather Fishing
A cold weather stocker

An ideal water temperature for a trout is in the upper 50’s to low 60’s. If you show up at the river, dunk your thermometer in the water, and get a reading of 60-degrees, chances are you’re going to have a pretty good day – assuming you do everything else right. On the other hand, if you do everything exactly right but the water temperature is 38-degrees, you may not even get a strike.

On a broader scale, I think of anything between 50 and 68-degrees to be reasonable. But there are variables. 52-degrees and falling due to a cold front may result in tough fishing. 48-degrees and rising due to a warm front may produce excellent fishing. Fish will probably be sluggish if it’s 68-degrees and rising in a summer drought. But 68-degrees and falling because of a summer rain may really turn them on.

With warmer temperatures, it’s more about the oxygen than anything. Trout need oxygenated water and typically, the warmer the water, the less oxygen. If water temperatures hit 75-degrees for more than a few days in a row, trout can’t survive. They’ll either search out more suitable conditions or die.

Stream Thermometers
A stream thermometer can be a valuable tool when searching for active trout

With excessively cold water, it’s more about metabolism. As a survival mechanism, their metabolism changes when water temperatures get extremely cold and they don’t require as much food. It’s similar to a bear during hibernation. So if you’ve ever tried to get me to take you fishing in the Smokies in January and I talked you out of it, that’s why. I have great gear and am not afraid of getting out in the cold, but the fish just wouldn’t be feeding.

On some extremely fertile rivers, this may not be the case. There may be enough food through the winter to keep the fish feeding. I know I’ve fished some excellent winter hatches in Montana. But the streams of the Smokies are the opposite of fertile. They’re some of the oldest mountains in the world and consequently very acidic and nutrient poor, which means there is just not a lot of food, especially in the winter.

There are a number of things that can influence water temperature, with air temperature being one of the most obvious. In the mountains, air temperature and consequently, water temperature can vary significantly by elevation. For instance, a river at 2000’ elevation may see an air temperature of 85-degrees in July with a water temperature of 68-degrees. But if you go to a stream at 3800’ elevation on that same July day, you may find an air temperature of 75-degrees and a water temperature of 61-degrees. That’s why I typically like to focus on high elevation streams in the middle of the summer.

Of course, the opposite is true early in the season. The high elevation streams may be too cold while the low elevation streams are starting to turn on. I once guided a local gentleman on a high elevation stream in July and we had a very productive day. He called me, frustrated, the following March. He said he’d just been to the same stream I took him to, did everything the same way, but didn’t even get a strike. In July, the water temperature had been 60-degrees on that stream. When he went back in early March, it had been closer to 40-degrees. It matters.

Tree canopy can also have a big impact on water temperature. A bigger, more open river may not be very productive on a late June afternoon. But a smaller, more heavily canopied stream at the exact same elevation might be very productive. It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but the more direct sunlight that reaches a stream, the warmer the water is going to get.

Time of day is another big factor. A lot of people think you have to be on the water at the crack of dawn to catch fish. This is only sometimes true when you’re talking about stream trout. In the heat of the summer, very early and very late in the day are probably the times when you’ll find the most active fish, because you’re getting slightly cooler water temperatures. However, if you’re fishing in early March or late November, you’ll likely find more active fish in the middle of the day, when water temperatures are slightly warmer. That’s one of the reasons why our peak fishing seasons are in months like May or October. The temperatures are mild pretty much all day, and the fish are active pretty much all day.

This is all very specific to free flowing streams. Tailwaters are totally different animals all together. When a river is dammed to form a lake, they release water from the dam every day to control flooding and to generate electricity. The river that is formed below the dam from these releases is referred to as a tailwater.

Norris Dam
Many rivers below large dams maintain nearly constant water temperature all year

The water that they pull from the lake to form the tailwater comes from near the bottom of the lake. Because that water is so deep, it receives no sunlight and is basically insulated by all the water above it. So, the water that comes out of the dam is approximately 50-degrees, regardless of time of day, time of year, or air temperature. That’s why that big, wide-open river can support trout. Spring Creeks are very similar because the water source is deep underground, insulated by earth.

How deep the lake is determines how much cold water “storage” it has. That and the volume and frequency of water releases determine how far down river the water stays cold. Your typical East Tennessee tailwater will maintain these temperatures, and support trout, for about 25 miles. So when it comes to tailwaters, you’re always going to have about the same water temperature, making them year round fisheries. With tailwaters, it’s mostly the timing and duration of the water releases that determine when, or even if you can go and how much success you’ll have.

Back to the mountains, water temperature is one of the things that I pay the most attention to when deciding when and where to fish. I’ve been doing this a long time so I just kind of know based on all of the conditions. Until you “just know,” a stream thermometer can be one the most valuable pieces of gear in your bag.

Clouser Minnow

Clouser Minnow
Clouser Minnow

In freshwater or salt, one of the best baitfish patterns around…. I recently went to Perdido Key, FL on vacation. Once a year, my wife and I take a beach vacation somewhere, usually with another couple. And while these trips are more about relaxation and socializing, I always try to work in at least a little fishing, sometimes with a guide. I didn’t know much about this area and never really even took time to research. I just packed some gear and planned to figure it out when I got there.

On our first day, while kicked back on the beach enjoying an adult beverage, I observed a tremendous amount of feeding activity in the surf. Schools of bigger fish were ripping through schools of smaller fish. It was happening up and down the coast as far as I could see. I wouldn’t have to do any scouting after all. All the activity I needed was right outside my back door!

My big problem was that I didn’t know what kind of fish were getting eaten and what kind of fish were doing the eating. Don’t you just love beach problems? My saltwater experience is just as limited as my saltwater gear, so I approached it in the exact same way I would approach an unfamiliar freshwater situation. When in doubt, go generic. It was apparent that they were feeding on some kind of baitfish. And what is the most generic, universal fly for imitating a baitfish? A Clouser Minnow.

The fly was originated by Bob Clouser in 1987. Bob was a fly shop owner and guide in Pennsylvania. He developed the fly for smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River. I first learned of the fly in the early 90’s and fished it regularly on the smallmouth streams of Central Kentucky. Over the decades, it has been varied in color and style, and has accounted for nearly every species of fish known. Whether freshwater or salt, the diet of nearly every big fish includes small fish. And whether freshwater or salt, most baitfish have some very common characteristics. Most have a long, slender profile, a darker back and a lighter belly, and pronounced eyes that often act as a trigger for predators.

Clouser Minnow Colors
Clousers are tied in almost every color combo

While there are various color combinations to better match specific baitfish, all Clouser Minnows have the above-mentioned characteristics. They also have lead eyes positioned in such a way as to allow the fly to ride hook up. And with their bucktail bodies, they retain very little water. This makes them feel lighter and easier to cast than most other flies their size.

While I most often use this fly for warmwater species, I’ve taken a number of trout on it. It works in tailwaters and even the occasional large brown in the park will eat it. You can bet I’ll fish it more than once in late fall in the park. It’s great when those big browns begin moving before and after spawn. I tie them on traditional streamer hooks for trout, on larger gape hooks for bass, and on stainless hooks for saltwater species. I’ve had success with a number of different color combinations but my “go to” colors are white and black and white and olive.

So the first morning I was at the beach, I got to the water at sunrise with a black and white Clouser tied to my leader. On the second cast into the first school of feeding fish, I hooked up. The ol’ Clouser did it again. Add a couple of speckled sea trout and a whole lot of ladyfish to its list of victims!

Early Season Wet Fly

Early Season Wet Fly

In the Smokies, we typically see some of our best hatches of the year in spring. So, it’s no wonder that once March rolls around, most Smoky Mountain fly fishermen have dry flies on the brain. Count me in that group. I love fishing dry flies, especially to steady feeders during a hatch. But just because there’s a hatch, doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a lot of success with dry flies.

There are always an abundance of nymphs and emergers available to trout in any hatch. Trout can often feed on them more easily and without exposing themselves to potential predators. And there are certain situations that may make them even more reluctant to feed on the surface, such as marginal water temperatures. We see that a lot around here in the winter. Bugs are hatching, sometimes heavily, but you don’t see a single rise. Another scenario that many don’t consider is a dry, sunny day.

During a hatch, many aquatic insects linger on the surface while their wings dry before they can fly away. This makes them easy pickings for a waiting trout. Damp, overcast conditions are great days for dry fly fishing for this reason. The bugs are on the surface longer and the trout are looking for them there. But on dry, sunny days, they are able to get off the water almost immediately, making them a tough target for a trout. In those situations, trout often key in on the nymphs and emergers.

This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fish dry flies on sunny days or when the water temperature is less than perfect. But when things aren’t going your way during a hatch, you may want to consider changing your tactics. For me, that often means fishing a wet fly. The Early Season Wet Fly is a great one for, you guessed it, early in the season.

Most of the aquatic insects that hatch around here in the early season, until around mid April, are dark in color. So this fly, with its darker body and wing, does a great job mimicking the majority of bugs that a trout might see. Past April, I might fish a similar fly in a lighter tan or yellow color.

I honestly don’t know where this pattern originated. I’m sure there are many traditional wet fly patterns that are very similar. But I believe this particular version originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, I learned about it from the same source that I’ve learned most things about fishing in the Smokies: Walter Babb.

I fish it a number of different ways. On days when I’m expecting a hatch in the afternoon, I might fish it in the morning in tandem with a dark nymph – maybe a Pheasant Tail or olive Hare’s Ear. In this situation, I’m usually fishing it with a dead drift. At the very beginning of a hatch, or throughout a hatch with little surface activity, I might fish two of these flies and allow them to swing in the current. And even during a hatch when fish are actively feeding on the surface, I often fish this fly as a dropper off the back of my dry fly.

In any case, it’s a go-to fly for me in the month of March and a good one to have in your stash. I doubt that it’s available anywhere commercially but if you’re a fly tyer, I’ve included the recipe below. Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

Hook: TMC 3769 (or equivalent) #14 – 12
Thread: Tan or brown 8/0
Tail: Dun hen hackle fibers
Rib: Copper wire
Body: Mix of grey and tan hare’s ear dubbing
Hackle: Dun hen
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed grey

Dressing For Success

One of the Easiest Ways to Catch More Trout in the Smokies….

I recently guided a husband and wife on a small brook trout stream in the Smokies. The stream, like most in the Smokies, consisted of a lot of pocket water. That meant getting closer to the fish. Both were novice fly fishers and their skills improved steadily as the day went on. As a matter of fact, their skills were about equal, but as the day progressed the wife was getting 5 or 6 strikes for every 1 strike the husband got.

We were moving up the stream together and they were taking turns fishing. They were fishing the same fly. And as mentioned before, their casting ability, approach, and presentation was nearly identical. What was different, you ask? The wife was wearing a drab green shirt and the husband’s shirt was bright red. Simple as that.

Bright Colors in the Smokies
Look how this white shirt stands out

Casting can be challenging. Getting good drifts can be challenging. Figuring out what the fish are eating can be challenging. But dressing appropriately is one of the easiest things to control and can greatly improve your success on the stream.

Blending in on a Smoky Mountain Stream
Now look how well this fisherman blends in

Years ago, three seasoned fishermen from Montana walked into Little River Outfitters frustrated that they had fished two days without catching a fish. One was wearing a bright blue shirt, another was wearing a white shirt, and the other’s shirt was bright coral color. My good friend, Walter Babb, was sitting in the shop and without pulling any punches, said, “Well, those fish saw you guys get out of the car!”

When the fishermen pointed out that they wore the same clothing in Montana and caught plenty of fish, Walter went on to explain that in big western rivers, your background is the sky. Here it’s the trees and bushes.

Camouflage
This is a bit extreme!

You don’t have to be a fly fishing commando decked out in camouflage and twigs in your hat to catch fish in small mountain streams, but dressing in earth-tone colors does make a huge difference. Think drab greens, browns, tans, and greys when you dress for a day on the water. While bright white t-shirts and orange Tennessee ball caps may be appropriate for game day at Neyland Stadium, they are doing you no favors on the trout stream.

What about strike indicators? They’re bright and colorful. Don’t they spook fish? Sometimes they do, but usually for different reasons. It’s not really the bright color that spooks fish; it’s movement. These are wild trout in the Smokies and they’re right in the middle of the food chain. Any kind of movement, particularly above them, often means a kingfisher or heron is about to swoop down and eat them! The less you blend in to your background, the more pronounced your silhouette is, and the more noticeable your movements are.

Trout Cone of Vision
The cone

All of this becomes more and more important the closer you have to get to the fish, even when you’re behind them. Trout actually have a “cone of vision” above them that even extends a little bit behind them. The closer you get and the higher up you are, the more you will be detected in that cone. So in addition to what you wear, think about how you move through the water to reduce the chances of spooking fish. Move slowly and quietly. Stay low, particularly when fishing in close quarters. See that big boulder in the stream? Don’t fish from on top of it. Stand behind it.

Finally, keep your false casting to a minimum. Fly lines are often brighter colors so that you can see them in order to mend and achieve good drifts. Remember, it’s not the color so much as the movement. Repeatedly false casting a fly line over a trout’s head is excessive movement in that cone of vision and will send him under a rock.

Nippers

Fly Fishing Nippers

It’s Time to Quit Using Your Teeth….

Welcome to the wonderful world of nippers! It’s probably pretty easy to figure out that the primary function of nippers (aka clippers, cutters, snips, etc.) is to cut your line. They are mostly used to trim the tag ends of monofilament after tying a knot or to cut a new piece of tippet from a spool. But as you’ll see, the right pair of nippers can perform a number of other tasks as well.

As I described before, my beginnings in this sport were humble at best and my funds were rather limited. There was a lot I could do with $10 back then and I certainly didn’t want to waste it on nippers – not when I could just use fingernail clippers. That strategy served me well for a time, until I figured out what a lot of fishermen eventually figure out. First, they make fingernail clippers out of very cheap, soft metal. After you repeatedly clip monofilament line, they form a series of nicks in the blade. It’s not long before they become completely useless. Second, when regularly exposed to water (such as every time you go fishing), they rust – quickly.

So you can constantly replace in expensive fingernail clippers or you can do what I ultimately did – drop $10 on a decent pair of nippers. They’re rustproof and will last years before the blades begin wearing out. The other benefit to a good pair of nippers is they are designed to cut line, not fingernails. What does that mean?

When working with smaller trout flies, particularly dry flies, it can be difficult to prevent the large, curved head of generic fingernail clippers from also clipping away some of the hackle. The straight, somewhat recessed blades on fly fishing nippers work and cut in tight spaces. Most nippers designed for fly fishing also include another simple but highly useful feature – a small needle.

When a fly tyer finishes a fly, he knots the thread at the hook eye and coats it with a thin, invisible cement. Well, in the world of fly tying, time is money and production fly tyers apply that cement quickly, often leaving an invisible layer in the hook eye. When you need to tie that fly on your line, you can’t get the tippet through the hook eye because it’s coated in glue. This happens even more frequently with painted, hard-bodied poppers, only the paint coats the hook eye. The little needle on your nippers will clear that layer of cement or paint and preserve your sanity when attempting to attach a fly.

Multi Tool Nippers
Multi-tool nipper

As with most any fly fishing product these days, there are seemingly endless nipper styles and features to suit your needs and tastes. Some have a different shape, boasting a better ergonomic design. Others come with additional tools for tasks such as tying knots or sharpening hooks. Want to take it to the next level? Check out this description of Abel’s nippers:

  • Designed, manufactured and assembled in the USA
  • Anodized 6061-T6 aluminum body construction
  • Replaceable jaws – machined out of premium grade Crucible CPM S35VN stainlesssteel, then heat treated to 58-60rc
  • Engineered to cut 7X – 100 lb mono and braid
  • Two Year limited warranty on the jaws after initial purchase
  • Pin – 316 stainless steel
    Abel Nippers
    Trout print nippers

    And they can be yours in black for a mere $85. For custom colors, they’re just $105. And with a cool fish print… a steal at $165. Yep, $165 for line cutters. All of a sudden, $10 for a pair of nippers doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As with anything else, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $165 of it on nippers, go ahead. I won’t judge you.