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

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!

Keeping Your Dry Fly Floating High

Yellow Humpy Fly Pattern
A buoyant Humpy dry fly

In April, dry fly fishing really starts to turn on in the Smokies. Not only are there a significant number of hatches, but water temperatures are getting ideal and fish are just looking up, even when no hatches are present. Presenting a dry fly that rides high on the water, not only tends to produce more strikes, it is much easier for you to see. Here are a few tips to keep your fly floating high in the fast moving currents of the Smoky Mountains.

First off, if you don’t tie your own flies, be sure buy high quality dry flies. It can be tempting to find Internet companies or box stores that offer really cheap prices on flies. They are cheap for a reason. These dry flies often have less hackle and/or use a very low-grade hackle. They are simply not going to float as well. Bushy, heavily hackled flies will float the best, as will flies that utilize foam and/or deer hair. These are all great for most of the riffles and pocket water you encounter in the Smokies. However, if you’re fishing to slow water risers in a slick pool, you may want to use a more slender, low profile fly like a parachute or comparadun pattern.

Treat your flies before you fish them. There are a number of great products on the market that accomplish this and are generically referred to as fly floatant. The most common are silicone based and have a gel consistency. Just squeeze a drop on your finger and rub it into your fly. Orvis, Aquel, Loon and Gink are probably the most common brands. They’re all probably about the same but everyone seems to have their favorite. I use Orvis Hy-Flote.

Orvis Hy-Float Fly Foatant
Fly Floatant

Once you’ve selected your high quality dry fly and gooped it up with fly floatant, the worst thing you can do to it is catch a fish! They take it under water and slime it up to the point where it doesn’t want to float as well, especially after you catch 2 or 3 fish. When this happens, a mistake a lot of anglers make is to re-apply the same gel floatant they used to pre-treat the fly. However, you’re often just trapping moisture in to the fly at this point. You need to remove as much of the moisture from the fly as possible.

On bigger rivers such as tailwaters, your false cast can keep a lot of moisture out of the fly, even after several fish. But in places like the Smokies, frequent false casting is often not an option due to the tighter quarters. It’s also not advised because of the increased risk of spooking fish. There are a number of methods I use to dry a saturated fly in these environments.

Shimazaki Dry Shake
Dry Shake

One is to press the fly against an absorbent material. Amadou is a material sold at many fly shops that works great for this. You can carry a patch on your vest or pack and just squeeze the fly in it. Chamois cloth is another good option. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have either, just press the fly against your shirt. After employing this method, blow on your fly. Finally, consider carrying a second, powder based floatation product. These are desiccants, similar to what’s found in the small, “do not eat” pouches packaged with some clothing and electronics. Again, there are numerous brands. Frog’s Fanny is a favorite of many anglers. My favorite is Shimazaki Dry-Shake. It has a large-mouthed bottle that allows you to drop the fly in while still attached to the tippet. Close the lid, shake vigorously and remove. It will be floating like new.

The final tip for keeping that fly floating high is technique. What causes flies to get waterlogged more than anything else, especially with novice anglers, is drag. When your fly doesn’t drift naturally, and pulls against the current, you have drag. When you have drag, you won’t catch many fish. And your fly will become more waterlogged, requiring far more maintenance to keep it floating.

Think about what you’re doing. Instead of dragging the fly through the run 2 or 3 times before making a good drift, read the water. Identify the varied currents that will pull your line at a different speed than the fly and try to position yourself where you can eliminate them. If you can’t eliminate them through position, think about how, when, and which direction you’ll need to mend BEFORE you make the first cast. And pick your fly up when it reaches the end of the target area, rather than letting it drift (drag) into the fast shallow riffle at the bottom of the run.

Fishing a Smoky Mountain Brook Trout Stream
Keeping the line off the current lip at the rear of the pool provides a drag free drift through the sweet spot

Experienced anglers often do most of this instinctively, so it looks like they’re just casually moving around casting. The good ones always make it looks easy! If you’re newer to fly fishing or even if you’ve done it awhile but only get out a few times a year, it won’t be instinctive and you’ll have to think about it. This is just good advice, period. If you execute a good cast and drift in the right place the first time, you’ll not only keep your fly floating better, you’ll catch more fish!

Finally, on a similar note, carry your fly in your hand when you move from spot to spot. I see a lot of people who will let their fly drag behind them in the water as they wade up to the next pocket or run. If you do this, the best-case scenario is that you’re going to waterlog your dry fly. More often than not, you’re also going to hang your fly up on every rock and stick in the river!