Preventing Broken Rods

Broken Rods
Broken Rods

Over approximately 30 years of fly fishing, I have broken one rod. And that was kind of a fluke. About 25 years ago, I was floating extremely high water on the Cumberland River in Kentucky when I hung a streamer on some submerged wood. While trying to dislodge it, the river began pushing the boat toward a “sweeper” that likely would have capsized the boat. Since I was in charge of steering the vessel, I had to act quickly and the rod was an unfortunate casualty in my evasive maneuver.

Some might say I’m lucky to have such a long streak without breaking a rod. And the fact that I’m putting this in writing all but guarantees I’ll break one the next time I go fishing! It is certainly possible as accidents do happen. But in the span of approximately 25 years of guiding, I’ve seen dozens of rods broken by clients. Dozens… and that’s being conservative! With that kind of disparity, I can’t help but think there may be a little more than luck at play.

Yes, accidents are going to happen, but there are a number of things I see anglers repeatedly do with their fly rods that lead to breakage. And there are plenty of other things that may not instantly break the rod but will stress it, leading to a seemingly inexplicable break at a later time. So here we go… Here are the top 10 ways to prevent breaking your fly rod.

1) Store your rod in a tube.

Rod and Tube
Rod and Tube

Many rods get broken or weakened in transit. Folks toss them in the back of a truck or the trunk of a car and then set something on them, a cooler shifts, etc. I’ve never seen a rod break while it was in its tube!

2) Be gentle.

This one should be obvious, but it’s not for many. Set you rod down. Don’t toss it. Few things make me cringe more!  

3) Keep the tip up.

When walking with your rod, be mindful to keep the tip pointing up. I can’t tell you how many times I see people jab the tip into the ground when walking on a trail. Even if it doesn’t break, you’re potentially damaging the rod every time that happens.

4) Keep the rod ahead of you when walking through the brush.

There are many who disagree with this and argue that the rod should be pointing behind you when traveling through the brush. I’m sure I’ll hear from you! Fly line, leaders or rod guides can easily get caught on branches when carrying the rod pointing behind you. Because you don’t see it happen, you continue moving full speed ahead and pull hard against the branch. I’ve seen guides get completely ripped off and I’ve seen rod tips snap. I like to see where the rod is going so I can steer it around obstacles in the woods.

5) Don’t hold the rod by its tip section.

I sometimes see this happen when people are stringing up the rod at the beginning of the day. However, it mostly occurs on the stream when the line gets tangled near the tip. To reach the tangle, the fisherman will hold the rod somewhere between the tip and mid section of the rod while the heavier butt end causes the rod to bend. Your rod is not designed to do this and it stresses the graphite tremendously. You don’t want to hold the rod like this in any circumstance, but it’s even worse in the stream when the reel is attached. To reach a tangle at the tip of the rod, set the butt end of the rod on the bank or a rock to support the weight.

6) Don’t pull against the limb with the rod when trying to pull a fly out of a tree.

If the line is wrapped in the limb, you may end up with a broken rod tip. Instead, point the rod straight at the limb and pull straight back. Or grab the line and pull it with your hand. You’ll not only protect your rod tip, but you’ll be more likely to break the line near the fly.

7) Don’t set the rod flat on the ground (or boat bottom).

When taking a break, lean the rod upward somewhere, like against a tree. Setting the rod flat on the ground is an invitation for you or a buddy to step on it.

8) When fighting a big fish, use the whole rod.

Broken Rod
Don’t Do This!

Many fishermen are taught to put their hand or finger midway up the rod to apply more pressure on a large fish. Instead, you are applying more pressure on your rod. Your fly rod is a precision tool designed to bend in a very specific way. Holding the rod by the handle and not applying pressure farther up the rod will ensure that your rod is bending where it should, protecting your tippet and your rod tip from breakage on a big fish.

9) Use the recommended fly line to match your rod.

If you have a 5-weight rod, use a 5-weight line. Sure it’s okay to fudge up one size if you deem it necessary, but routinely overloading a rod with a significantly heavier line can stress the rod over time.

10) Learn how to fall.

I know, I know. This one sounds harsh, but respect the rod! I learned very early on in my fly fishing career to break my fall with my non rod hand. As a matter of fact, when I stumble in the stream, my rod hand immediately goes up! 

Also see related article: Fly Fishing Gear Maintenance

Royal Wulff

Royal Wulff
Royal Wulff

Truly a dry fly for all seasons, the Royal Wulff is one of the most popular and productive dry flies ever devised. It is a perfect example of an attractor pattern with its bright red band in the middle of the body. But for me, the fly’s two greatest attributes are its buoyancy and visibility. Those are two key characteristics for a Smoky Mountain dry fly. However, while its effectiveness is rarely in question, its origin is.

The pattern dates back to the late 20’s and has long been, for obvious reasons, attributed to well known fly fisherman, Lee Wulff. However, Wulff and fellow New York fly fisherman, L.Q. Quackenbush were independently working on hair wing substitutions for dry flies around the same time. Wulff concocted a number of hair-wing patterns in a variety of colors, referred to as “Wulffs.” Quackenbush had more specifically been working with fly tyer Reuben Cross to modify the popular Royal Coachman dry fly. 

Royal Coachman
Royal Coachman

Many believe that Quackenbush is actually the originator and what we now call a Royal Wulff is actually the Quack Wulff. Personally, I like the name Royal Wulff better, but how nice does the Royal Quackenberry sound? In any case, between Wulff’s extensive work with hair-wing flies and his ultimate celebrity status, history, as it often does, got a little altered. Here’s a little more detailed account from Trout by Ernest Schwiebert, 1978:

“Hair-wing flies had their beginnings on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake before the First World War, when Benjamin Winchell and Carter Harrison first concocted them in honor of Alfred Trude, their host at a large ranch in Idaho. The first hair wings subsequently traveled with one of the party, Colonel Lewis Thompson, to the salmon rivers of the Maritime Provinces. These primitive flies were dressed down-wing over the body, and it was not until shortly before the Depression years that hair-wing dry flies evolved. Ralph Corey lived on the Muskegon in Lower Michigan, and his Corey Calftails were down-wing dries that became widely popular after the First World War. Wings tied upright and divided of hair appeared almost simultaneously on the Beaverkill and the Ausable of New York in about 1929.

“The hair-wing Royal Coachman dry fly was the creation of L.Q. Quackenbush, one of the early stalwarts of the Beaverkill Trout Club above Lew Beach. Quackenbush liked the fan-wing Royal Coachman, except that it was fragile and floated badly, and in 1929 he suggested to Reuben Cross that white hair wings might work better. Cross tied some using upright wings of calftail and tail fibers of natural brown buck. It worked perfectly, and Catskill fishermen soon labeled it the Quack Coachman in honor of its peripatetic inventor.

“Lee Wulff also worked out his famous Gray Wulff and White patterns in the Adirondacks in 1929, in a successful effort to find imitations of the big Isonychia duns and Ephemera spinners that would float well on the tumbling Ausable at Wilmington. These Wulffs have proven themselves superb flies, from Maine to California and British Columbia, and spawned a large family of patterns using different bodies and hackles. Wulffs have so completely dominated the upright hair wings that L.Q. Quackenbush and his hair-wing Coachman are almost forgotten, and his innovation is now commonly called the Royal Wulff.”

Carolina Wulff
Carolina Wulff

In more recent decades, there have been a number of other variations on this pattern. Locally, there’s a Tennessee Wulff that has a lime green band in the middle rather than red. Furthermore, there’s a Carolina Wulff that has a yellow band as an alternative to the original red. Anyone who spends much time fishing the Smokies knows that lime green and yellow are both very effective colors for flies. So, it’s no wonder these variations emerged from local tyers.

On a side note, back in 1998 I devised a version of the Royal Wulff that had a yellow floss band instead of red. I wasn’t aware of a Carolina Wulff at the time and thought I was really doing something clever and original! But it just goes to show how easily the origins of these fly patterns can get confused. I’ve tied countless original fly patterns over the years that I never even named, much less published. So, who is to say that someone else won’t tie one of those patterns 10 years from now? They might publish it, and end up with an iconic fly that was actually originated by me?!?

Royal Wulff Fly Pattern

  • Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #18 – 10
  • Thread: Black 8/0
  • Tail: Moose body hair
  • Wing: Calf body hair
  • Body: Peacock herl
  • Band: Red floss
  • Hackle: Brown rooster neck

Pond Fishing

People are telling me all the time that they don’t fly fish very often because they don’t have anyplace to go. I know as well as anyone that there are an endless number of things that keep us from fishing as often as we’d like, but not having a place to go should never be one. While you may not have a world-class trout stream in your backyard, or even in your state, there are plenty of other alternatives. You may just have to get a little creative.

bluegill
Bluegill

For instance, almost every city has some sort of park or green space with a pond. These can be productive little fisheries, typically containing bass, carp, catfish and some sort of variation(s) of sunfish. They are a lot of fun to fish and at the very least, they will keep your casting skills and fishing instincts sharp between fly fishing vacations.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a friend who has a farm pond. These provide all of the same benefits as those city ponds but without all of the people. I had access to one when I lived in Kentucky that I fished three or four times a week. Sunfish like bluegill will readily take a fly and fight as hard as any fish I know. And a big bass boiling on your surface bug at dusk is a tough thing to beat.

sneaky pete
Sneaky Pete

It helps to know what fish are in the pond when deciding what gear to use. You can effectively fish for bluegill with the same outfit you use for trout. A number of small to medium topwater terrestrials will work well. Small popping bugs are a good choice, too. They’ll eat trout flies but they’ll tear them up in a hurry. Therefore, I’d recommend more durable foam or hard-body flies.

As exciting as it is to catch those bluegill up top, I often catch the biggest ones below the surface. Wooly Buggers are productive, as are a large variety of rubber-leg nymphs. However, if you want to get a little more specific about imitating their food source, try crayfish patterns and damsel and dragonfly nymphs. They tend to be attracted to brighter colors. An old fashion Green Weenie has been one of my favorite subsurface flies for bluegill. As a matter of fact, fishing a Green Weenie as a dropper off a popping bug can be very productive.

whitlocks fruit cocktail
Whitlock’s Fruit Cocktail

Bass will eat many of the same flies as mentioned above, but big bass are often looking for a little more of a mouthful. A variety of streamer patterns can take bass in ponds and are always a good choice. But I love getting them on the surface when I can. Large hard-body poppers and sliders and spun deer hair bugs are a blast to fish with. However, these larger flies are very difficult to cast with a light trout outfit. If you do much of this type of fly fishing, I’d recommend picking up an 8-weight.

When fishing ponds, look for structure like rock piles and tree stumps. Also, these fish like the edges of things. Cast to shadow edges and the edges of shallow and deep water. In addition, during summer months, expect better fishing early and late in the day.

Poppers

Fly Fishing Popper
Hard Body Popper

A popper, or popping bug, is a type of topwater fly commonly used for warmwater species like bass and bream. Unlike the often delicate and diminutive dry flies used in trout fishing, poppers are typically bright and robust. While topwater trout flies are commonly designed to discreetly drift down a feeding lane, popping bugs are designed to make commotion.

Deer Hair Popper
Deer Hair Popper

Poppers are most often made with a hard, cork body but more and more frequently are being constructed of foam. Softer variations are also made by spinning deer hair on a hook. The hair is tightly packed and trimmed to shape. Using different colors of deer hair allows for some pretty cool color and design variations. However, color and design variations can also be achieved on cork and foam poppers with paint and markers.

What they all have in common is a flat or cupped “face” and a body that usually tapers slightly, getting smaller toward the rear of the hook. When fishing with them, the idea is to pull your line with a short, quick motion that jerks the fly abruptly. As a result, the flat or cupped face of the fly will make a “pop” on the water.  A popper could certainly resemble some sort of insect, but most often it is designed to suggest a struggling baitfish.

Sneaky Pete Slider
Hard Body Slider

A diver or slider is frequently lumped into the popper category. However, while made with similar materials, these have more of a bullet shaped face. The body tapers in the opposite direction of a popper. You use similar fishing methods with this style of fly but when the line is pulled toward you, the bullet head causes the fly to dive or erratically slide through the water.

July Fishing Forecast

Smoky Mountain Trail
Highcountry Trail

Smoky Mountains

The Smokies fished great through most of June. As a matter of fact, we had an amazing four or five days with highs in the low 70’s and almost no humidity. It felt like fall! There were some significant rain systems but most only skirted the mountains, keeping water levels full but very manageable. So we’re heading into July with a surplus of water but, as you would expect this time of year, water temperatures are starting to climb.

On lower elevation rivers and streams, you’ll really want to focus on early morning and late evening when things are cooler. The best bet this time of year is getting to mid and high elevation streams where water temps can be significantly lower. In general, smaller backcountry streams will be better because they have more tree canopy and see less sunlight.

We should continue to see sporadic hatches of Little Yellow Sallies, Light Cahills, Sulphurs and tan caddis. Larger golden stones are still hatching at night but fish are sometimes still looking for them in the early morning. Isonychia nymphs are active, making a Prince Nymph or George Nymph a great choice. But terrestrials are the main course from now until fall with trout looking for beetles, ants, inchworms and the like.

Clinch River

It’s been a tough year on the Clinch with water flows. June started out great but those rain systems that skirted the Smokies hit the Norris Lake area pretty hard. They have been constantly releasing water from the dam for the last few weeks.

I’m expecting those water releases to relax pretty soon. We should soon see the standard summer release schedules of low water in the morning and increased generation in the afternoons when power demand is at its highest.

When water releases do relax, you may still see some Sulphurs hatching in the late morning and afternoon, but we’ve mostly missed that hatch this year. Of course, midges are abundant 365 days a year and will be the fly choice most of the time in July. There are many patterns that will work, but it’s tough to beat a standard black Zebra Midge.

Jakes Creek

Location: GSMNP East Tennessee                                                              

Nearest Town: Townsend, TN / Gatlinburg, TN

Species: Rainbow trout (occasional brown)                                                             

Average Size: 6”

Stream Size: Tight                                                              

Pressure: Light

Type of Water: Freestone, Mountain                                                          

Boat Access: None

Best Times: Spring through late fall, after a good rain                                                         

Favorite Flies: Attractor dries

Nearest Fly Shop:    Little River Outfitters – Townsend                           

Camping:       Elkmont Campground

                        Backcountry Campsite #27

Directions:

From Townsend, travel southeast on 73 to GSMNP entrance.  At the “Y” in the road, turn left toward Gatlinburg on Little River Road.  Follow approximately twelve and a half miles and turn right toward Elkmont Campground.  Or, from Townsend, turn on Wears Valley road at the only traffic light in town.  At about six and a half miles, turn right on Lyon Springs Road.  This road will eventually end at Little River Road at Metcalf Bottoms picnic area.  Turn left and follow for about four and a half miles and turn right toward Elkmont Campground.  Upon reaching the campground entrance, turn left toward Little River Trailhead and follow past the Little River Trailhead. You’ll enter a short, one lane loop that will take you to the parking area for the Elkmont Historic District. You can access the lower part of the creek here, or walk up the gated gravel road that leads to the Jakes Creek Trailhead. This small piece of road will provide access to another portion of Jakes Creek and the trail will provide access to another three miles of stream, as well as Backcountry Campsite # 27.  Be aware, however, that much of this trail is high above the streambed with only a few locations allowing reasonable access to the stream.  The best bet is to identify these locations and fish from access point to access point.

From Gatlinburg, travel southwest on 73/321 and merge south onto 441/71 toward Cherokee, NC.  Just past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn right toward Townsend on Little River Road and follow approximately four and a half miles.  Soon after passing Laurel Falls trailhead, turn left toward Elkmont Campground. Upon reaching the campground entrance, turn left toward Little River Trailhead and follow past the Little River Trailhead. You’ll enter a short, one lane loop that will take you to the parking area for the Elkmont Historic District. You can access the lower part of the creek here, or walk up the gated gravel road that leads to the Jakes Creek Trailhead. This small piece of road will provide access to another portion of Jakes Creek and the trail will provide access to another three miles of stream, as well as Backcountry Campsite # 27.  Be aware, however, that much of this trail is high above the streambed with only a few locations allowing reasonable access to the stream.  The best bet is to identify these locations and fish from access point to access point.

East Prong Little River – Backcountry

Little River Backcountry GSMNP Tennessee
Little River Backcountry

Location: GSMNP East Tennessee                          

Nearest Town: Townsend, TN / Gatlinburg, TN

Species: Rainbow & brown trout                             

Average Size: 8-10”

Stream Size: Open to moderate                              

Pressure: Moderate to light

Type of Water: Freestone, Mountain

Boat Access: None

Best Times: Late spring through late fall

Favorite Flies: Attractor dries, beadhead nymphs, stonefly nymphs

Nearest Fly Shop:    Little River Outfitters – Townsend

Lodging:         Talley Ho

                        Docks                                                 

Camping:       Elkmont Campground

                        Little River Campground

                        Backcountry Campsites #24 & #30

Directions: 

From Townsend, travel southeast on 73 to GSMNP entrance.  At the “Y” in the road, turn left toward Gatlinburg on Little River Road.  Follow approximately twelve and a half miles and turn right toward Elkmont Campground.  Or, from Townsend, turn on Wears Valley road at the only traffic light in town.  At about six and a half miles, turn right on Lyon Springs Road.  This road will eventually end at Little River Road at Metcalf Bottoms picnic area.  Turn left and follow for about four and a half miles and turn right toward Elkmont Campground.  Upon reaching the campground entrance, turn left toward Little River Trailhead and follow to the parking area at the end of the road.

From Gatlinburg, travel southwest on 73/321 and merge south onto 441/71 toward Cherokee, NC.  Just past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn right toward Townsend on Little River Road and follow approximately four and a half miles.  Soon after passing Laurel Falls trailhead, turn left toward Elkmont Campground.  Upon reaching the campground entrance, turn left toward Little River Trailhead and follow to the parking area at the end of the road.

The trail follows Little River for about six miles providing frequent river access along the way.  The further up the trail you go, the smaller the stream will become and the fewer people you will see.  Backcountry Campsite #24 is about four miles up the trail, and Backcountry Campsite #30 is located near the trail’s end at six miles.  A visit to Backcountry Campsite will also put you in close proximity to Rough Creek and Fish Camp Prong.

June Fishing Forecast

Little River GSMNP Tennessee
Little River

Smoky Mountains

The Smokies have been fishing great and that should continue into June. The biggest concern right now is water levels. After a wet and wild spring, we haven’t seen rain in the mountains for over two weeks and the streams are starting to show it. However, the weather forecast for the first week of June shows a little better chance for precipitation so hopefully we can get back on track.

Lower elevations will likely fish pretty well through the first half of the month, but as water temperatures continue to warm, expect the best fishing conditions in the mid to higher elevations, particularly by the latter part of the month.

We should continue to see sporadic hatches of Little Yellow Sallies, Light Cahills, Sulphurs and tan caddis. Larger golden stones are still hatching at night but fish are sometimes still looking for them in the early morning. Also start looking for Isonychia nymphs to start moving around toward the end of the month. But terrestrials will be the main course from now until fall with trout looking for beetles, ants, inchworms and the like.

Clinch River

May is often my favorite month on the Clinch but heavy water releases left it largely unfishable for most of the month. Water releases have started to relax now and it’s looking like June could be a good month.

We’ll hopefully still see some Sulphurs hatching in the late morning and afternoon through most of the month. Of course, midges are abundant 365 days a year and will be the fly choice most of the time in June. There are many patterns that will work, but it’s tough to beat a standard black Zebra Midge.

Neversink Caddis

Neversink Caddis
Yellow Neversink Caddis

If you’ve done much fishing in the Smoky Mountains, you have likely fished with this fly at one time or another. It is definitely a staple in my fly collection. The main reason is that it provides the three quantities that you want in a Smoky Mountain dry fly: It floats well, it’s easy to see, and it catches fish!

Many like to point out that this fly will sink. Of course it will! I don’t know of a dry fly that won’t! But it does float extremely well, and the name “Neversink” doesn’t refer to its buoyancy anyway. Instead, it refers to the Neversink River in New York. Beyond that, the origin and history of this fly are cloudy at best.

Original Neversink Caddis?
Yeager's Neversink Caddis
Yeager’s Neversink Caddis

The segmented pattern to the far left, captioned (perhaps inaccurately) “Original Neversink,” is claimed to be the original version of this fly, though I didn’t find much evidence to back that up. Additionally, I couldn’t find any information on who originated that pattern. The one next to it is a Neversink Caddis pattern originated by fly tyer, Jason Yeager. However, I couldn’t find anything that led me to believe it is the original. If there are any fly historians reading this, please let me know.

In any case, the pattern pictured at the top of the page is the version that I tie and fish, and it’s the one you’re likely to find in most fly shops. While I tie them in a variety of colors, yellow, tan, orange and chartreuse are among my favorites. I especially like the yellow version as it does a great job passing for the prolific Little Yellow Stonefly in the Smokies. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of yellow bugs that hatch in the Smokies from mid April through early October. Fishing with a yellow dry fly pattern of any kind is a pretty good bet during that timeframe.

While it is an effective representation for a caddis and some stoneflies, I tend to think of it as just a good, generic attractor pattern. And because of its better than average buoyancy and visibility, it makes a great top fly in a dry/dropper rig.

Neversink Caddis

Hook: TMC 100 or equivalent, #16-#12
Thread: 8/0 yellow (or to match foam color)
Body: 2mm yellow foam (or other color of your choice)
Wing: Natural or bleached elk hair (bleached offers a little better visibility)
Hackle: One brown and one grizzly rooster