How Stuff Works: Fly Categories

Box of Wet Flies

If you’re new to the sport, sometimes it is difficult to navigate all of the terminology. There is probably no facet of fly fishing where that is more complicated than in the world of flies. I’m not even talking about specific names of flies. That water can definitely get over your head in a hurry. Before you can even begin to make sense of those fly pattern names, you have to get a handle on the more general categories under which they fall. And that’s what we’re going to tackle here.

Let’s start with the term flies. I frequently hear it misused as its own separate category. For instance, someone might ask me if we’re going to be using flies or nymphs. That’s kind of like asking if you have a poodle or a dog. Of course, a poodle is a type of dog. And a nymph is a type of fly. Regardless of what it is supposed to imitate, any lure that we fish with a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly. Flies are then broken into more specific categories.

Dry Flies

Popping Bug
Popping Bug

While it can certainly be broken down to more specific sub-categories, the main category of Dry Flies refers to any fly that is designed to float and be fished on the surface. This would include something like a Parachute Adams that might represent some sort of adult mayfly. It would include a Dave’s Hopper that imitates a land-based grasshopper that has ended up in the water. Or it could even be a large, hard-bodied popping bug used for bass fishing.

One might fall under the sub-category of Trout Flies, another under Terrestrials, and another under Bass Bugs.  But they are all flies because they are fished on a fly rod and they are all dry flies because they float on the surface.

Nymphs

Hare's Ear Nymph
Hare’s Ear Nymph

Nymphs are a category of flies that you typically fish under the surface and more specifically; they imitate the juvenile stage of an aquatic insect. A Tellico Nymph, for instance, represents the juvenile stage of a stonefly. A Pheasant Tail Nymph imitates, most often, the juvenile stage of a mayfly. Most nymphs drift helplessly in the current and we use tactics that allow our imitations to do the same.

To confuse things a little, some flies that don’t imitate juvenile stages of aquatic insects get lumped into the nymph category because they are fished like nymphs. For instance, a Green Weenie is a representation of an inchworm that has fallen into the water. Though an inchworm is obviously not a juvenile stage of an aquatic insect, when it falls in the water, it sinks and drifts helplessly with the current. So, you fish its imitation like a nymph. Sowbugs and scuds are other good examples of this. They are actually crustaceans that will never hatch into an adult that flies from the water. But their imitations are most often fished like other nymphs, so they fall into the nymph category.

Wet Flies

Early Wet Fly
Typical Wet Fly

The category of Wet Flies is a little confusing and could probably be more of a sub-category of Nymphs – or vice versa. Wet flies are usually not tied with materials that allow them to float. They are also not really designed to sink. Rather, they often have a soft hackle that provides a lot of motion and you commonly fish them on a swing rather than a drift. So, you mostly fish them in, or just under, the surface film. A wet fly could imitate a variety of things. Mostly they are suggesting a mayfly or caddisfly as it is emerging to hatch.

Streamers

Clouser Minnow
Streamer: Clouser Minnow

Streamers are also flies that sink but more specifically, imitate things that swim. Again, anything you fish on a fly rod is generically referred to as a fly, but these flies represent things like minnows, crayfish and leeches. So unlike nymphs that you usually fish on a dead drift, or wet flies that you usually fish on a swing, you typically strip and actively retrieve streamers through the water.

Naturals and Attractors

So you can take all of the flies that are out there and lump them into four categories: Dry Flies, Nymphs, Wet Flies and Streamers. Now, you can take all of those and split them into another two broad categories: Naturals and Attractors.

A Natural is a fly that specifically imitates something that exists in nature. A Blue Wing Olive dry fly specifically imitates a Blue Wing Olive mayfly adult. The Hot Flash Minnow Shad is a streamer that specifically imitates a threadfin shad. A Green Weenie imitates an inchworm. They’re all fly patterns intended to represent something specific.

Hot Flash Minnow Shad
Hot Flash Minnow Shad

You most often fish naturals when fish are keyed in on a specific food source and you know what it is. If there is a big hatch of Blue Wing Olives, trout may not eat anything that doesn’t look like a Blue Wing Olive. Or because stripers are working a school of threadfin shad, they may not consider anything that doesn’t look like a threadfin shad.

Attractors are flies that don’t look like anything in particular. They are also sometimes called Generals or Prospecting Flies. They might just be something very generic that looks like a lot of things. Or they might be something that doesn’t look like anything at all. They may just have a certain color or other trigger that generates a feeding response from a fish.

Most of the time, you are fishing with attractors, especially in places like the Smokies where fish are more opportunistic. There are rarely big enough hatches in the Smokies to allow a fish to efficiently key on one particular bug. You fish things like a Parachute Adams because it resembles a lot of things fish might see on the surface. Or you fish a Prince Nymph because it has characteristics that trigger a feeding response from a fish.

Wooly Bugger
Wooly Bugger

If you’re fishing for smallmouth and you’re not sure what they’re feeding on, you might tie on a Wooly Bugger. Depending on its color scheme and how you fish it, it could pass for a minnow, leech or even a crayfish. Essentially, it just looks like something to eat.

Yes, flies and the vocabulary that describes them can be confusing. Hopefully this article has helped a little. Don’t get frustrated. Embrace and enjoy the chaos. It’s all part of the fun!

Flies: Parachute Adams

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams

I was shocked when I realized that I had never included an article about the Parachute Adams in this newsletter.  Not only is it one of the best dry flies in the Smoky Mountains, it is arguably the best dry fly for trout in the world.  It doesn’t imitate anything in particular but just has a buggy look. Therefore, it serves as a great “generic” mayfly imitation.  In a pinch, it could also pass for a number of caddis and midges.

Adams Dry Fly Pattern
Traditional “Catskill style” Adams dry fly

It is derived from the original Adams dry fly.  A parachute pattern is merely a method of tying a dry fly.  While traditional mayfly patterns had two upright and divided wings, with a hackle wound around the hook vertically; a parachute pattern has a single post with the hackle wound horizontally around that post.  Because the post is typically white or some other bright color like pink or orange, the angler can better see the fly on the water.  Additionally, with a hackle wound horizontally around the post, the fly rides flatter on the water with a more realistic profile.

The original fly has been around for nearly 100 years.  In 1922, Leonard Halladay, a Michigan fly tyer conceived the Adams as a general mayfly imitation. It was first fished by an Ohio attorney and friend of Halladay, Charles F. Adams on the Boardman River near Traverse City, Michigan. Charles Adams reported his success with the fly to Halladay who decided to name the fly after his friend.  While it is unclear exactly when the Adams got the “parachute treatment,” parachute style flies began gaining popularity in the U.S. in 1971 when Swisher and Richards published the book, Selective Trout, and advocated the advantage of dry flies that rode flush on the water.  One would assume that the parachute version of the Adams was born somewhere in that timeframe.

Since then, it has seen numerous  variations in the body color, post material, post color and more.  While many of these variations have been highly successful, it’s still tough to beat the traditional pattern.  Below is the recipe for the traditional version.

Parachute Adams

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) sizes #10 – #26
Thread: 8/0 black
Tail: Even mix of brown and grizzly hackle fibers
Body: Natural muskrat fur (or and modern dry fly dubbing in Adams Grey)
Post: White calf hair (synthetics such as floating poly yarn also work well)
Hackle: One grizzly and one brown rooster hackle, sized to match hook

Flies: Stimulator

Yellow Stimulator Fly Pattern
Yellow Stimulator

Most people like fishing dry flies because they can see the fish take it. But fishing dry flies in the Smokies can be a challenge, especially in pocket water. Besides being difficult to keep afloat, they can be difficult to see in fast water. But the good thing is trout aren’t often selective in this kind of water. Therefore, you’re choice of dry flies usually doesn’t have to be so “precise.”

When it comes to fishing dry flies in the Smokies, I am typically looking for two primary things in a pattern. It needs to be visible and it needs to be buoyant.  Beyond that I can begin focusing on a few more details like color and size.

In general, trout in the Smokies don’t see heavy hatches of individual insects.  Sure, there are exceptions. But they mostly see small quantities of a lot of different insects.  So, if you can present the fly naturally and without spooking fish, most any all-purpose, “prospecting” fly pattern will do the trick.  As mentioned above, if you can get a little more precise with size and color, your pattern will be that much more effective.

Matching size will require more observation of bugs on the water or simply having general knowledge of what should be hatching.  The same two things can help with matching color. Having a broad knowledge of how seasons impact color will also help. With some exceptions, aquatic insects tend to blend in with their surroundings.  So, in winter months when trees are bare, most of what hatches is dark because the bugs need to blend in with the darker branches. As foliage comes in, most of what hatches is brighter.  Because the bugs need to blend in with the leaves. It’s nature taking care of itself.

The Stimulator is a long time favorite fly pattern of Smoky Mountain anglers for all of the above reasons.  Its buoyancy and light colored wing not only make it easy to see, but make it a perfect “indicator fly” when fishing a dropper.  And if you mix and match sizes and colors, you could nearly fish a Stimulator 12 months out of the year!

Stimulators Punk Rock Band
Punk rock shaping the fly fishing world

The Stimulator was long thought to be the invention of well-known West Coast angler and fly shop owner, Randall Kaufmann.  While Kaufmann is responsible for the modifications that made the fly most of us know today, the fly’s true originator is thought to be Paul Slattery, who tied a stonefly pattern called the Fluttering Stonefly to fish on the Musconetcong River in central New Jersey.  This was in the early 1980’s and he soon renamed the fly after a New York City punk-rock band called The Stimulators.

Golden Stonefly Adult
Golden Stonefly

In any case, the fly seems to have been created to imitate an adult stonefly, but it is also a good suggestion of a caddis and sometimes even a hopper.  I most often fish it in yellow and in sizes #16 – 8.  I think the smaller size makes a great imitation for the prolific Little Yellow Sally Stoneflies. The larger sizes are good representations of the larger golden stones. They tend to hatch on summer evenings in the mountains.  In the fall, I often fish a #10 Stimulator in orange to imitate the large ginger caddis.

Whether it imitates anything or not, it catches fish and it floats well in heavier pocket water found throughout the mountains.  As one of the most popular dry flies of all time, it is available in most every fly shop in the country.

Yellow Stimulator
Hook: Daiichi 1270 #16 – #10
Thread: 8/0 orange
Tail: Stacked elk hair
Abdomen: Yellow floss
Abdomen Hackle: Brown rooster neck – palmered
Wing: Stacked elk hair
Thorax: Bright orange dubbing
Thorax Hackle: Grizzly rooster neck – palmered

Learn more about Southern Appalachian fly patterns and hatches in my Hatch Guide.

Flies: The Frenchie

Frenchie Fly Pattern
Frenchie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Wooly Bugger

If you ask any fly fisherman with any experience at all to name his top ten, “must have” flies, I guarantee that 9 out of 10, at least, will include a Wooly Bugger. And the handful who don’t mention it are likely just contrarians. But why? Why is this such a popular fly that is a staple in nearly every angler’s fly box?

I suppose everyone might have their own answer to that question, but for me, the short answer is versatility. The Wooly Bugger was one of the first flies I ever learned about and with it, over my many years of fly fishing, I’ve caught rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white bass, rock bass, mooneye, carp, catfish, crappie, bluegill, striper, gar, walleye, and salmon. And I’ve caught fish with it in lakes, ponds, deep rivers, shallow mountain streams, and tailwaters. I suspect the only reason I’ve never caught fish on it in saltwater is because I’ve never tried.

Beadhead Wooly Bugger Fly Pattern
This one could easily pass for a crayfish

What’s it supposed to be? That’s the beauty of it. Depending on how you tie it and how you fish it, it can represent a number of food items. For instance, in black and retrieved slowly, it probably represents a leech. In lighter colors and stripped more quickly and erratically, it looks like a baitfish. With a combination of olive and/or rusty colors, it resembles a crayfish. In darker colors and fished on a dead drift, it could imitate a stonefly or hellgrammite nymph. In bright colors, maybe with an egg on the front, you have a fly for salmon, steelhead, or many stocked trout.

Purple Wooly Bugger Fly Pattern
Try this purple and pink Bugger for winter stockers

Because of its versatility, it is a recommended fly for any month of the year, but I selected it for November for a couple of reasons. One, there are just not many hatches or any unusual flies to single out in November. Two, this is one of the big months to fish for large browns in the park. Post spawn brown trout are hungry and winter is coming soon, so while you can certainly catch them on smaller flies, why not show them a little bigger meal? Wooly Buggers are big fish flies.  Because it looks like a big meal is probably the main reason it’s such a successful fly.

Next time you’re not sure what the fish are biting on, tie on a Bugger. Dead drift it in a riffle or strip it through a deep flat. Slowly creep it along the bottom or quickly skim it across the surface. Play with it. What you find may surprise you!

Flies: Zug Bug

Zug Bug Fly Pattern
Zug Bug

If you haven’t noticed by now, there are not a lot of “Hot New Flies” that I feature here. Most of the flies I fish with, particularly in the Smokies, are older, traditional patterns, or possibly an old staple that I’ve put a modern spin on. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon. I don’t know. But until the old staples quit catching fish…

This month’s fly is no exception. Cliff Zug created the Zug Bug in Pennsylvania in the 1930’s. It originally imitated a cased caddis or caddis larvae but over the years has proven to be a highly successful generic or searching pattern. It’s popularity quickly spread through the Catskills and eventually to the American West. Today it is widely known around the world and is on the “must have” list of patterns for many fly fishermen.

While I have success with this fly throughout the year, it has been, for whatever reason, particularly productive for me in the late winter and early spring. During that time of year, I like to fish it deep and slow through slower pools, typically under a strike indicator. However, it also fishes well later in the year on a swing through pocket water.

It’s relatively easy to tie and is available almost anywhere that sells flies. Bead head versions are also available but I tend to stick with the original, mostly in sizes #16-12. If you don’t know this fly, you should! Play around with a few different sizes and variations and see what you think.

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

Flies: Yallarhammer

Yallarhammer Fly Pattern
Yallarhammer

No fly holds near the lore among East Tennessee fly anglers as the Yallarhammer. It has long been known that the native brook trout that reside in Southern Appalachian mountain streams have a weakness for brightly colored flies, particularly if that bright color happens to be yellow. But before endless varieties of fly tying materials were so easily available from local fly shops, mail order catalogs, and the Internet, early fly tyers had to use feathers from local birds that they could shoot themselves.

A woodpecker known as a yellow hammer because of its bright yellow feathers and hammering beak was quite abundant in the area and provided a perfect source for fly tying materials. Over the years, numerous variations of the Yallarhammer (taken from the local pronunciation) trout fly emerged. The photo above most closely resembles the original. Locals fish it as a ‘wet’ fly, most often drifting and swinging it through pockets, riffles, and plunges.

The Yallarhammer also has strong ties to the state of Alabama. It is their state bird and is most often associated with a confederate regiment based in Alabama that wore Yallarhammer feathers in their hats. Tennessee Volunteer fans may even be familiar with a Crimson Tide cheer that uses the term: “Rammer, Jammer, Yallarhammer…”

As a trout fly, the Yallarhammer was so popular that locals nearly shot the poor bird to extinction. It is currently a protected bird and the possession of its feathers will likely land you a citation before landing you a trout! But the Yallarhammer fly still lives on. Many modern fly tyers now substitute dyed dove and quail feathers for the original flicker feathers.

Pattern:

Hook: #10 TMC 5262 (or equivalent)
Thread: Brown 6/0
Tail: Golden Pheasant
Body: Yellow Floss
Feather: Primary dove wing feather, dyed yellow

Flies: Rob’s Hellbender Nymph

Rob's Hellbender Nymph Fly Pattern
Rob’s Hellbender nymph

Since we’re talking about big browns this month, I thought it only fitting to feature one of my favorite flies for big brown trout. I’ve caught a number of big browns on small flies over the years. But most of the big guys in the mountains have come on larger stonefly nymphs. This is a little bit misleading, however. I spotted most of those big browns first. And when I spot a big brown trout, I almost always tie a stonefly nymph to my line. Who is to say I wouldn’t have caught those same fish on a #20 Zebra Midge? I never gave them a chance.

I’ve always said that fly selection is 45% scientific, 45% experience, and 10% dumb luck. The scientific aspect comes in when you choose a fly to specifically imitate something that you know the fish are feeding on. For example, if you see sulfur mayflies hatching, you see fish feeding on them, and you choose a sulfur mayfly imitation, you’ve more or less made a scientific decision. If you go to the stream and tie on a Royal Wulff for no other reason than you’ve always done pretty well on a Royal Wulff, you’ve made your decision based on experience. And of course, if you choose to fish the purple and green fly for no other reason than it looks neat, you’re pretty much depending on dumb luck!

All three methods have been successful over the years. The first two are usually more reliable because you have something logical and reliable to base the decision on. Even when your logic may be incorrect, such as choosing a sulfur to imitate a perceived sulfur hatch when the fish are actually eating caddis, you tend to have more success. You have confidence in your fly. When you have confidence in your fly pattern, you tend to fish it longer and better.

My tendency to select a stonefly nymph when I fish to a big brown trout comes from scientific reasoning and experience. I’ve studied the aquatic entomology of the Smokies. I know there are a lot of stonefly nymphs in the streams. I also reason that a larger morsel of food, like a stonefly nymph, is more enticing to a larger fish. I’m also relying on experience. I’ve caught a lot of big brown trout on stonefly nymphs over the years.

Golden Stonefly Nymph
Golden Stonefly Nymph

Some of my favorite go-to stonefly patterns are old standards like a Tellico Nymph, a Bitch Creek Nymph, or a Girdle Bug. I always liked the coloring of the Tellico. I think it best represents a golden stone, which is the most prolific big stonefly in most Smoky Mountain streams. The flat, two-tone profile of the Bitch Creek Nymph is appealing. It produces a nice rocking motion on the drift. And while the Bitch Creek Nymph does incorporate rubber legs in the design, the additional rubber legs on a Girdle Bug always seemed to give it a much more lifelike appearance.

So what did I do? I took what I thought were the best features from each of my favorite stonefly nymph patterns. Then I blended them into one fly. The result is Rob’s Hellbender Nymph. It has the flat, elongated, two-tone profile of a Bitch Creek, the multiple rubber legs of a Girdle Bug, and a color similar to the Tellico.

I weight these flies with lead wire that is flattened to provide that rocking motion in the water. I not only tie them in different sizes, usually #10 – #4, but I tie them in different weights. To get down fast in deep, fast runs, I like a lot of weight. I prefer a lightly weighted one when casting to a brown trout in the shallows.

For whatever reason, offering flies in different weights tends to be too confusing to customers at a fly shop. Commercially tied patterns like this one are typically made available in one uniform weight. So, the ones you find in a shop like Little River Outfitters are lightly weighted so the fly can be fished in slower, shallower water. To get them down quickly in deeper, faster runs, just add the appropriate amount of split shot.

I may choose something like a large streamer when searching for big browns. But this fly has become my go-to for a large brown that I spotted first. Of course, every situation is different. There will be countless circumstances that suggest otherwise. But next time you’re in the Smokies with a big brown in your sights, see what he thinks about this bug!

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.