Little Yellow Sally stoneflies are one of the most prolific hatches in the Smoky Mountains. Most years, we begin seeing the first ones around mid April and they tend to hang around until sometime in July. They’re small, dainty and bright, usually a bright yellow to sometimes chartreuse color.
For years I tied and fished very exact imitations of these
bugs, and I still do on more heavily fished rivers where fish seem to be a
little pickier. But those smaller, more
delicate versions are harder to see on the water and they have a tendency to
sink in faster currents. Both of those features can spell trouble, or at least
frustration, when guiding a beginner angler.
As a fisherman and especially as a guide, I like simplicity
and versatility. The more variables I can remove from a situation (like a
sinking dry fly), the better I can put clients in a position for success.
Additionally, in many of the backcountry streams in the Smokies, the fish are
not overly particular on fly patterns. Not spooking them and getting a good
drift will usually produce strikes more than fly pattern. But if you can have a
fly that is at least in the same ballpark of color, profile and/or size as the
naturals, you’ll stack the deck even more in your favor.
So a few years ago, I began creating a fly that would be highly visible, extremely buoyant, durable and at least vaguely suggesting a Yellow Sally. I ended up with a beefy foam bug about two sizes bigger than a typical Yellow Sally – hence the name “Steroid Sally.” And if I’m being totally honest, I designed it more as something to support a dropper nymph than a dry fly to cast to rising trout. It would basically be an edible strike indicator. But you guessed it… the trout loved it.
Though no dry fly is totally unsinkable, this one is
probably the closest I’ve found, at least in the smaller, trout fly category. It
has become a go-to dry fly for me from late spring through early fall. And
while yellow is still my favorite color, variations in orange, tan and lime
green have also been very productive.
It has quickly become the most frequently requested fly for the custom tying orders I do in the winter. Give me a shout if you want some or check out the recipe below if you want to tie some for yourself.
It all finally came together. You made a good cast to the right spot and your fly is drifting down the current for mere seconds before a trout intercepts it. You react quickly with a smooth lift of the rod and the fish is hooked. Maintaining steady pressure, you resist against the trout’s evasive maneuvers and inch him closer to you. Now what?
For many, this is when a panic party ensues in an attempt to
wrangle the trout and remove the hook from his mouth. You end up dropping your
rod in the water and filling the reel with sand all while tying yourself up in
a web of fly line and leader. For others, this may be when they begin a long,
slow process of torturing the fish in an attempt for that perfect photo.
Catching a fish should be a fun experience and it should be
quick and painless for you and the fish! Here are a few tips to show you how:
Playing the Fish
The first rule here is you want to make the fight as quick
as possible. Don’t try to keep the fish on longer than necessary in order to
feel it more or hope he jumps. Put solid, steady pressure on the fish with the
rod and get him in as soon as you can. This is a stressful experience for a
fish. Trying to extend the fight only exhausts the fish and can reduce his
chance of survival.
This is especially true with bigger fish. Certainly it will
take longer to bring in a large fish, but it shouldn’t be an all day affair.
Don’t be afraid to use that flexible lever called a fly rod to put pressure on
the fish. You always want to have a bend in that rod and try to do the opposite
of what the fish does. If the fish runs to the left, drop your rod to the right
and put side pressure on him. If he goes to the right, drop your rod to the
left. If he runs straight away, hold the rod straight up.
Try to always have a bend in the rod and never point the rod
tip toward the fish. If he pulls so hard that the rod tip is being pulled
forward, let him take some line while still maintaining that steady pressure.
If you find yourself at a standstill with the fish where he’s not really
running or coming to, try to bring his head to the surface. This will usually
accomplish one of two things. He’ll either submit and slide right to you, or
he’ll make another run and hopefully burn off one last bit of energy so you can
land him. Remember that you want to be the one in control – as much as
possible! All of this will not only help ensure that the fish will stay on the
line, but it will shorten the fight, which benefits you and the fish.
Landing the Fish
I see a lot of people, beginners mostly, bring in line to where the fish is just inches from the tip of the rod. This habit probably comes from fishing with a shorter spin or bait rod. But your average fly rod is 8-9′ long and if you reel or strip your fly line and leader all the way into the rod guides you’re going to encounter three problems.
First, if it’s a large fish that decides to make one last run, the knot connection between the leader and fly line can easily get hung in the guides resulting in a break off. Second, if you pull that much line in, it leaves the fish close to your rod tip and you can’t reach him without sticking your rod in the water or trying to set it on a bank. Not only does that increase risk of damage to your rod and reel, it’s just really awkward. Third, if and when you do get hold of the fish, you don’t have any slack line, which makes it extremely difficult to remove the hook.
Always try to leave at least a little bit of fly line past the tip. To land the fish, reach your rod up and behind you and grab the fish or the end of the leader with your other hand. Once you have it, bring your rod back down and forward and you’ll have slack line for easier hook removal. A landing net makes this process easier, where you just scoop the fish in the net rather than grabbing it. I don’t usually fool with a net in the mountains because your average fish isn’t very big and can be easily managed by hand. I always try to have a net in places like tailwaters where I’m more apt to catch bigger average fish.
Handling the Fish
There’s a reason we don’t see fish walking around in our
yard. They can’t live out of water. And the longer we keep them out of water
when landing them, the more harm we are causing them. Try to make this process
as quick as possible.
I will often not remove the fish from the water at all. I land them as described above but rather than grabbing the line or fish, I will simply clamp the fly with my hemostats. With a little twist of the wrist, the hook usually comes right out and the fish swims away happy and unharmed without ever coming out of the water. You can do the same with a fish that has been netted. Just put the hemostats on the fly while the fish is in the net. This works even better (as does any hook removal) with barbless hooks. I almost always crimp the barbs on my hooks and encourage you to do the same.
The only reason I can think of that you would need to remove
the fish from the water is if you’re going to take a picture of it. Actually,
you can get some pretty cool pictures of the fish in the water, but if you want
to be in it too, than the fish will need to come out of the water – or you’ll
need to go in!
If you are going to handle trout, it is important to first
wet your hands. They have skin, rather than scales, that contains a “slimy”
protective coating. Dry hands can remove or damage that coating making them
more susceptible to disease. Now back to the obvious statement above, fish
don’t live out of the water, so try to do this as quickly as possible.
Don’t hold the fish in one hand while you fumble around to
pack or vest looking for your camera. And most definitely don’t walk downstream
with the fish so your buddy can take a picture. Preparation is the key here.
For starters, keep your camera in a place that’s easy to get
to, not tucked away in your backpack. Try to keep the fish in the water until
the camera is out, on and ready. Then grab the fish gently (with wet hands),
take your picture and get him right back in the water. Remember you’re not
shooting the cover of Vogue. You don’t need ten different poses from the fish.
Get one or two quick shots then get him back in the water.
I can’t resist a brief rant here. You don’t need a picture of every fish you catch! I definitely understand getting a couple of photographic memories from the day. I certainly do the same. Maybe get a shot of the two or three bigger ones, or maybe that one that was just a little more colorful. But your Instagram followers don’t need to see fifteen pictures of what looks like the exact same fish. I know. It’s the world in which we live.
Tips for Better Photos
While we’re on the subject of photographing fish, there are a few things to keep in mind that will be better on the fish and will result in a better photo. The first thing is to show the fish to the camera, not your hands. Don’t grip the fish like it’s a baseball bat. The fish won’t love it and you’ll be disappointed in your picture. Instead, gently cup the fish from behind so that you can see as much of it as possible. I recommend one hand for smaller fish and two hands for bigger fish – assuming you have someone else to take the picture.
Try to avoid putting pressure on his fins and certainly try to keep your fingers away from his gills. Hold him right-side up (yes, a lot of people hold them upside down) and try to extend him away from your body a little, rather than pinning him against your body like a guitar.
While I do recommend handling the fish as little as possible, I do suggest holding the fish for a good photo, even if it’s in the net. Many anglers try to hold the line with the fish suspended. This results in a rotating fish and a “Hail Mary” for the photographer, attempting to snap the shot at just the right time in the rotation.
The million dollar question is what to do with the rod. The trendy thing for a while was for anglers to put the rod in their teeth. More recently, folks have taken to resting the rod behind their head on their shoulders. Y’all are stuck with my opinion here, but my opinion is that both of these things look stupid. If you’re near the bank, you can set the rod down. If you’re not, just stick it under your shoulder. But it’s your picture and if you want to stick your rod in your mouth like a dog with a bone, have at it!
Releasing the Fish
Smaller fish tend to be a bit more resilient. Typically, you just set them back in the water and they dart away. Bigger fish, however, tend to need a little more time. They are often tired from the fight and will sometimes want to float on you if you just toss them back in the water. This doesn’t mean that you need to do some weird version of fish CPR that I’ve seen many anglers attempt.
Just find a little slower patch of water out of the main
current and set the fish in it. Before you let him go, simply keep a hand on
him underwater, gently supporting him and keeping him upright. The fish will
soon begin to wiggle his tail and eventually swim away on his own power.
My goal is always to get the newsletter out on the first of the month and of course, this forecast goes in the newsletter. With the park waiting until the absolute last second to announce whether or not they will be reopening on May 1st, I’m just writing this with the assumption that they will. Even if they don’t, the stuff below will still be going on… we just won’t see any of it!
We had a really good April around here. Weather was pretty mild and other than a couple of high water events, water levels were pretty good. It makes sense that we would see one of the best Aprils in a while when the national park is closed and nobody could travel here to fish! Hopefully we can make up for lost time this month.
If you’ve spent any time fishing with me or reading these newsletters, it’s probably no secret that I consider May to be one of the best months of the year for fishing. Most of the bigger spring rains have blown through and temperatures are usually very mild. It’s typically cool enough for the lower elevations to fish well and warm enough to get things going up high. You nearly always have almost every fishing option available.
I have no reason to think this May will be any different. We should see good hatches throughout the month. Hendricksons will likely still be hanging around early in the month with March Browns showing up soon after. Yellow Sallies will be abundant and so will sulphurs, particularly by mid month. And most streams will see sporadic good hatches of tan caddis.
These hatches will pop off sporadically through the day and even when you don’t SEE a hatch, the fish have seen enough stuff where they’re usually looking up. Sometimes the main event, usually a heavy mixed bag of sulphurs, Light Cahills and Sallies, won’t get going until near dark.
In any case, we’re entering the “yellow season,” when most of what hatches is yellow or at least lighter in color. Yellow Stimulators, Neversinks, yellow Parachute Adams, etc. will be good dry fly choices for a while.
Ahh, the Clinch. The river that seems to just perpetually have two generators going. They’ve been going non-stop this spring and probably will continue until we can get a dry spell.
When we do, you’ll see the normal daily hatches of midges. Play around with some weird patterns or go with the ol’ staple black Zebra Midge. A Pheasant Tail Nymph is also a good bet this time of year.
May is usually when we start seeing sulphurs on the Clinch. It’s been really sporadic in recent years but some days will show pretty heavy hatches. Sometimes it just depends what part of the river you’re on. In any case, it’s always a good idea to have at least a small assortment of sulphur patterns with you this time of year.
As information and news with the current pandemic seems to change week to week and sometimes day to day, we will be updating this post accordingly. These are strange times for everyone and we will be conducting business a little differently for the time being. Fortunately, I am just one person so I have the ability to be flexible not only in adapting policies to the changing conditions, but to your specific needs should you decide to book a guided trip during this time. Listed below is the most current information I have to share. Scroll to the bottom for current social distancing guidelines for guide trips.
May 19th, 2020 Update: Phase 2 of Park Opening to Begin This Weekend
Today, the park reopened Clingman’s Dome Road and this Saturday, the 23rd, they will begin Phase 2 of the reopening process. This will include all trails and many of the secondary roads. So now, anglers will have realistic access to places like Tremont, Big Creek, Greenbrier, etc. Some picnic facilities will open but campgrounds and visitor centers will remain closed. Those are projected to open no earlier than June 7th.
Probably the biggest thorn still remaining in the side of fishermen is the road to Elkmont. Until that road opens, which apparently won’t happen before June 7th, it will be very difficult to access the upper portions of Little River and Jakes Creek. But we have access to WAY more water than we did!
May 1st, 2020 Update: New Park Info and Recommendations for Guide Trips
I’ve received a little more clarification on what roads will and will not be open. Pretty much none of the secondary roads will open on May 9th which means there are a lot of spots, particularly trailheads for backcountry locations, we’re not going to be able to get to. It also means that few spots we can get to will likely be pretty crowded.
If you are currently booked for a trip in the mid to latter part of May or considering a booking for that time, I would still recommend a destination like Cherokee National Forest if it works for you. Of course, I can take you to the park after May 9th, but I think it will be first of June before things really get back to normal there. Please feel free to call or email to discuss.
April 30th, 2020 – 2nd Update
Great Smoky Mountains National Park just announced that they will begin a phased reopening of the park beginning May 9th. Phase 1 will include the opening of major roads and restrooms but not campgrounds, visitor centers or secondary roads. They hope to begin opening those facilities, secondary roads, etc. approximately two week later.
At this time, I am still unclear which “secondary” roads will open during the initial phase and which will not. But it appears that we will be able to access at least most of the places we normally fish.
April 30th, 2020
While there has still been no official word from the park service on a reopening date for GSMNP, it seems highly unlikely that we will see a May 1st reopening. This is purely speculation on my part, but I think we’ll see some sort of limited, phased in type of opening when it does happen. Exactly what that would look like I don’t know and exactly when that will happen I don’t know – hopefully in the next couple of weeks. I will update this post as soon as I receive any official word.
April 27th, 2020
As of the week of 4/27/20, the state of Tennessee is phasing in business openings while still requiring social distancing practices. This means out of town customers wanting to come fish the area should be seeing more lodging availability in the coming days and weeks.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I conduct most of my guide operations is currently closed. The last official correspondence I received from the park said the park would be closed until 4/30/20. On the park’s website, it states only that the park is closed until further notice. Hopefully we will receive and update this week – I will post it here as soon as I know more.
In the meantime, I will be conducting guided trips to other destinations on a limited basis. If you’re interested in one of these trips, I recommend calling at 865-607-2886 or emailing me directly to discuss. Social distancing guidelines will be adhered to on all trips and are pretty easy to follow on the stream. But there will be a few changes to the logistical side of the trip that we will be following from now until further notice.
While we may still meet at a convenient location, clients will need to follow in their own vehicle to the stream or trailhead.
Clients are encouraged to bring their own rods and wading gear. If needed, you may still use mine at your own risk. I will be cleaning any loaner rods and wading gear before and after each use.
I am still happy to provide lunches for full day trips and assure you that the prep and packaging process will strictly follow all necessary guidelines. However, I realize this may make many uncomfortable and you are more than welcome to bring your own food without fear of offending me! Just please let me know with as much notice as possible.
I will be practicing social distancing guidelines on the stream and washing my hands throughout the day. I would ask all clients to please do the same.
You are encouraged to bring hand sanitizer along to regularly wash hands. I will try to provide it but it’s a little hard to come by right now!
Health and safety take precedence over service and profit right now. If I do not feel healthy and well, for your safety, I will cancel the trip. I expect all clients to to the same.
The bottom line is we still want to go fishing, right?! But we want to be safe and responsible in the process. If there is anything else I can do to accommodate or make your trip more comfortable, please let me know.