The Fleeing Crayfish was originated by fly fishing legend, Gary Borger in the 1980’s. He noted that while many crayfish pattern with ultra realistic, outstretched claws and the like looked great, most fish would eat them as they were retreating or fleeing. The design of his pattern imitates the crayfish in this moment. It has unbelievable movement and motion in the water and is a killer pattern for smallmouth and large browns.
I’ve included the recipe for my most common version of this pattern, but I tie it in a number of different color combinations. You should substitute colors that best represent crayfish in the waters you fish.
I should mention that this fly’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The loose piece of rabbit hide that provides so much “action” in the fly will inevitable tear off after numerous fish. Since the rest of the fly is so durable, I carry a package of rabbit strips with me so that I can replace that piece when necessary.
Borger’s Fleeing Crayfish
Hook: 3x long streamer #10 – #4
Thread: 6/0 Brown
Eyes: Barbell matched to hook size
Tail: Light green medium marabou
Body: Crayfish orange dubbing
Legs: Pheasant rump feather
Pinchers: Natural rabbit hide strip – medium
Other Materials: Super glue to secure eyes
One of the most frequent questions people ask me is about the trout in the Smokies. What kind are there? Where did they come from? How big do they get? Why don’t they get bigger? Why don’t they stock fish in the park? The list goes on and on. I thought I’d take this opportunity to satisfy some of the curiosity of enquiring minds.
Trout fishing in the Smokies starts with brook trout. They are the native fish of the Smoky Mountains. People don’t always use the terms native and wild correctly when referring to fish. To clarify, a wild trout is a trout that is born in the stream. However, it may have been introduced through stocking at one time. All trout in the Smokies are wild – there has been no stocking since the early 1970’s. A native trout is one that has always been there and was not introduced by humans. Brook trout have been in the Smokies since the last ice age!
It used to be that every stream in the Smokies had brook trout and rainbows and brown trout were non-existent. The intense logging of the area, prior to its designation as a national park, sparked that change. In the early 1900’s, logging practices simply weren’t very responsible and they cut any and every tree they could get to. When trees near mountain streams were removed, critical canopy to provide shade on these waters disappeared and water temperatures climbed to levels in the warmer months that made them uninhabitable for coldwater species like brook trout. Many of the brook trout migrated to high elevations for cooler water. The ones that didn’t died.
Over time, logging operations came to a stop – in some places because there was nothing left to cut, and in others because the national park was formed and the land was protected. In the former, many streams were stocked with trout (mainly rainbow) to appease some of the emerging sporting clubs and camps. Brown trout were also introduced in a handful of rivers. Even after the formation of the park, the National Park Service continued to stock these rivers with trout.
By the time the forest regrew to a level of maturity and much needed canopy returned to cool low and mid elevation streams, the rainbows and browns had established a foothold, and the native brook trout could not compete for the limited food source, forcing their relegation to the high country.
This changed again in the early 1970’s when the NPS began using electroshocking techniques to sample streams for data on fish population and size. Prior to that, they had to rely solely on creel surveys – asking fishermen how many they caught and what size. Well, as you hopefully know, just because you’re not catching fish or seeing fish doesn’t mean there are no fish! The electroshocking proved that, and they learned that they were stocking fish on top of fish. The rainbow and brown trout were all reproducing, and had been for some time.
They ceased the stocking of streams at that time and they have been thriving as wild trout fisheries ever since, boasting park-wide populations of anywhere from 2000 to 6000 fish per square mile. The only two things that seem to make that number fluctuate are flood and drought. They have determined that fishermen have absolutely no impact on the fish numbers. In fact, fisheries biologists agree that it could very well be a healthier fishery, at least when it comes to fish size, if more fishermen kept fish to keep the numbers down.
Brook trout and rainbow trout in the park only live about 4-5 years. Brook trout rarely exceed 10” in size and rainbows rarely exceed 15”. There are no regulations, like catch-and-release or slot limits, that can change this. These mountains are some of the oldest in the world and consequently are more acidic. Streams with low ph levels have less aquatic insect life, which is the primary food source for rainbow and brook trout.
So we simply have too many fish for the available food source. Years with heavy flooding or intense drought often kill a generation of fish, reducing the population significantly. In the year or two following such an event, the fish population may be 1/3 of what it was before. But creel surveys indicate that fishermen still catch the same number of fish they always did. Yet the fish they do catch average 1-2” bigger. More food for fewer fish equals bigger fish.
Brown trout in the Smokies seem to be the exception to all of this. While they are only in a limited number of streams, they can live 15 years and reach lengths of 30”! Biologists believe one of the main reasons for this is their tendency to add bigger fare to their diet. Rainbows and brookies pretty much stay bug eaters in the park. While brown trout also eat bugs, when they reach a size of 8 or 9”, they also begin eating crayfish, mice, leeches, and smaller fish – including smaller trout!
Brown trout like low light, do a lot of their feeding at night, and are just generally reclusive. This makes them very difficult to catch. You simply don’t go to the Smokies expecting to catch 20” brown trout on every trip. But in the right rivers, it’s always a possibility. In general, if you catch a trout in the Smokies bigger than 7” you’ve caught a pretty good fish. If your goal is purely to catch big trout, go to a tailwater, the Smokies isn’t for you.
Releasing water from a dam is what creates a tailwater, and there are several in East Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks these rivers regularly. Most of the trout they stock in these rivers are 7” or bigger and grow quickly thanks to the ample food supply found in these fertile waters.
When it comes to fish size, the bottom line is it’s relative to where you are fishing. A 12” native brook trout in the Smokies is a rare thing and surely qualifies as a “trophy.” A 12” stocked rainbow in the Clinch River is a dime a dozen.
It’s the time of year when certain folks seem to be whispering more at the fly shop. They huddle in corners and peek over their shoulders before saying too much. They’re talking about brown trout. Big ones. Somebody mentioned seeing a decent one around Metcalf Bottoms – about 18-inches. A younger guy innocently asked, “Since when did we start referring to 18-inch browns as just ‘decent’?” The older guy replied with a grin, “October.”
Many anglers purely think of the Smokies as a place where you catch wild trout in a pretty place. But as a whole, you don’t expect to catch particularly big trout. After all, rainbows rarely exceed 15-inches and brook trout rarely get any bigger than 10-inches in the Smokies. They’re both almost exclusively bug eaters, and after 3-5 years, they simply can’t support their weight with the bugs available, and they die. But when brown trout reach about 8 or 9-inches, they begin eating minnows, and crayfish, and mice, and birds, and small rainbows. They live 10-15 years and reach lengths of 30-inches in the Smokies!
Fish that size don’t get caught often. Brown trout only live in a handful of rivers in the Smokies to begin with. They’re extremely cagey and for much of the year, they do most of their feeding at night – it’s illegal to fish the park at night. So, outside of the occasional big brown caught at dusk, or dawn, or after a good rain, we don’t get a lot of good shots at these guys. Until late fall.
Brown trout tend to make their spawning runs after the fall foliage has turned colors but before the last leaves have fallen. In the Smokies, that’s usually late October or early November. They typically move to shallower, more visible areas of the stream and are spotted by far more fishermen then. When they’re actually on the nest (or redd), we leave them alone. Not only is it just bad ethics, but they have other things on their mind than food at that time. But in the weeks leading up to the spawn and in the weeks to follow, their appetites are enormous!
In the weeks leading up to the spawn, they’re on the move searching for suitable nesting areas, often. This is when many fishermen are hoping to get their shot at a trophy. A number of folks have booked me during this time, thinking a seasoned fly fishing guide will be their ticket to success. While I can certainly help locate the fish, there is a whole lot that has to go right to catch him. It’s not just having the right fly at some secret honey hole!
Most people aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to catch one of these fish. Unless you’re just going to depend on luck, you have to trade fishing time for looking time. You may not spot one at the first place, or second or third… And once you do spot one, you’re not done looking. You have to watch him for a while to figure out his pattern: how he’s feeding, where he’s feeding, when he’s feeding, IF he’s feeding. You then may have to spend a pain-staking amount of time sneaking into a position where you can cast to him without spooking him.
Assuming everything has gone your way up to this point, you may only have one shot at him. A bad cast will kill the deal. And if he does eat and you do hook him, you’re problems have just begun. Now you have to fight a 25-inch trout in the fast, rocky waters of the Smokies! But it’s all worth it when it does come together and you become one of the lucky few. It’s the stuff legends are made of.
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.
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.