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.
Caddis flies have just never been given the same attention
as mayflies by fly fishermen. Pick any mayfly out there and it’s not difficult
to find its Latin name and a separate common name. Likely, you’ll also find
multiple fly patterns imitating every possible stage of just that one
That’s not the case with caddis. They are often just described by their size and color: green caddis, yellow caddis, dun caddis, etc. Sure there are different patterns out there like the Neversink Caddis and the Henryville Special, but they are just different variations of generic patterns, intended to represent a host of different caddis by varying the size and color. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I suppose in a sport where we often overcomplicate things, a little simplicity is refreshing. But don’t confuse simplicity with lack of importance as caddis flies can be found on most every trout stream in the United States.
The most popular and widely used fly pattern for a caddis adult is the Elk Wing Caddis, also called the Elk Hair Caddis. It was created by Pennsylvania fly fishing legend, Al Troth, in 1957. At least that seems to be when it was first written about. I’m sure he was fishing it before then. Since that time, it has become a staple in most every fly angler’s box not only as a caddis imitation, but also as an effective searching pattern when no hatch is present. It’s a great fly in the Smokies almost all year.
In the early spring, I use smaller versions, usually with darker bodies to represent the darker caddis and stoneflies we see that time of year. As we get into late spring and early summer, the patterns get a little bigger and lighter, with tan bodies mostly. From late spring through early fall, a yellow body makes a great imitation for the prolific Little Yellow Sally stonefly. And by fall, I’m back to using tan, olive and even rust colored bodies.
The Elk Wing Caddis is a fairly simple dry fly to tie and again, allows for a lot of variation. By changing the color of the body, the hackle and/or the wing, you can imitate most any down-wing fly on the water. Below is a recipe for the Elk Wing Caddis I fish most often.
Elk Wing Caddis – Tan
Hook: Standard dry fly, size 16-12* Thread: Brown 8/0 Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered Body: Superfine dubbing, tan Wing: Natural elk hair
* This is the common size range in which I tie this tan caddis. General hook size for caddis imitations can range from size 10 down to size 20 (and smaller).
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.
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.”
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?!?
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.
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.
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
Hendricksons have long been a favorite springtime hatch for Eastern fly fishermen. In the Smokies, they typically follow the Quill Gordon and Blue Quill hatches by two or three weeks. Most years, that means we don’t see Hendricksons until mid to late April. Because a warm stretch of weather in February triggered an early Quill Gordon hatch, things are a little out of whack and we are beginning to see Hendricksons now. I expect them to be around until about mid April.
Like many hatches in the Smokies, Hendricksons rarely come
off in enormous, widespread numbers. But in the right place at the right time,
you can find enough of these bugs to inspire some steady rises from trout. And
while generic, attractor fly patterns will get you through most situations,
having a fly that more closely matches what the fish are seeing never hurts!
Hendricksons hatch sporadically throughout the day in the
Smokies but tend to be most active in sunny areas during the warmest part of
the day. Most days this time of year, that means in the 2pm – 5pm range. They
inhabit all types of water but I tend to see emergence occurring most in slow
to medium currents.
The nymphs are not particularly good swimmers and they have an unusually robust profile. This combination of traits makes them very popular with the trout. Their color varies from reddish tan to dark, reddish brown. Tan and olive Hare’s Ear Nymphs work well for imitations. Whitlock’s Red Fox Squirrel Nymph is another great pattern during this hatch. Pheasant Tail Nymphs provide a nice color match but are pretty slender compared to the beefy naturals. In any case, they range in hook size from #14-12.
The adults also vary a bit in color. Much of that depends on the gender of the bug. The males tend to be darker, varying from grayish olive to grayish brown. However, the females are often a little lighter, sometimes taking on a tan or even pinkish hue.
While there are certainly numerous fly patterns specifically designed to imitate all of the variations of a Hendrickson, you can do pretty well with generic patterns as well. A Parachute Hare’s Ear works well, particularly when you’re seeing more of the lighter colored adults. And there’s always the Parachute Adams, especially when you’re seeing the darker variations. Like the nymphs, you’ll best match the naturals in sizes #14 – 12.
Finally, trout love taking the emerging insects during this hatch, so a wet fly can be an excellent choice. One of my favorites is the Early Season Wet Fly. I often fish it in tandem with another fly. Try it as the top fly of a nymphing rig with a Hare’s Ear or Red Fox Squirrel nymph down below. Or tie it as a dropper off the back of your dry fly of choice.
One of the worst things you can do to a dry fly is catch a fish on it! They slime it and submerge it and swim it around… Just in general, keeping a dry fly floating better and longer seems to be an ongoing quest for many fly tyers and fishers.
There are a number of factors that can go into how well and how long a dry fly continues to float high. Certainly the materials from which the fly is tied will play a big role, as will the skill of the angler. The more you allow your fly to drag across currents, rather than drift on them, the more waterlogged your fly will become. Where you are fishing will make a difference, too. It’s easier to keep a fly floating high in big, open rivers where false casting is an option than it is in a small, tight mountain stream. In any case, an endless number of products exist for this task. We lump them all into the category of “floatants.”
As with many products in the fly fishing world, if you ask ten different anglers which one is the best, it’s entirely possible that you will get ten different answers. Sometimes those answers will come in the form of a specific brand of floatant. Others will come in the form of a specific style. When it comes to brand, I believe that is a matter of personal preference and you’ll just have to try a few different ones to see if one in particular earns your loyalty. But when it comes to different styles of floatant, the specific task at hand may determine which will be best. In fact, you may want to have more than one style of floatant to perform different tasks. Listed below are a few different common styles of floatant and a description of how and when they might best be applied.
While many anglers use them in different ways, liquid floatants are probably most useful before you ever get to the stream. Whether dry flies that you tie yourself or buy from a shop, you can use a liquid style floatant to “pre-treat” new flies in much the same way as you might “Scotchgard” your sofa. Exact application may vary. Read the recommendations for the specific brand you purchase. You typically soak the flies in the liquid for five minutes or so and dry them overnight. In theory, after application of the product, water will better bead and roll of the fly material rather than absorb into it.
Gel floatants are probably the most common and popular style of floatant. They come in a small, very portable bottle and, like the liquid floatants, are designed to be a pre-treatment to an already dry fly. The big difference is gel floatants are designed to be used streamside, immediately before fishing the fly.
It is important that you don’t “over apply” the gel. Rub a small amount into the fly and any remove any excess. Gels are also frequently mis-applied – after a fly has already become waterlogged. If a fly is already saturated, applying a gel floatant will essentially trap moisture into the fly and make it worse.
Also normally applied while the fly is still dry, spray floatants are basically just a variation on a gel floatant. Spray floatants come in a bottle with a pump top and apply much like you would spray an eyeglass cleaner. They are not as messy as the gel but are sometimes more challenging to completey coat the fly.
These are basically just a thicker version of a gel floatant. They really create a mess on smaller dry flies. Use paste for larger dries like hoppers and stoneflies. A lot of people prefer a paste floatant to apply to yarn strike indicators or even on a leader to keep it floating better.
Use these less as a pre-treatment and more as a means to revive a saturated fly. As mentioned above, when a dry fly becomes oversaturated and begins to sink, applying a gel or spray can often make it worse by trapping moisture in. Powder floatants absorb and remove that moisture from a fly.
Typically they will come in a bottle with a wide, flip-top lid. Keep the fly, on the tippet, put it in the bottle and close the lid. Shake the bottle a few times to remove moisture from the fly.
At this point, there is a lot of debate on whether to re-apply a gel or spray type floatant. You’ll just have to find what works best for you. I usually don’t re-apply another floatant unless I’m using a synthetic (like foam) dry fly.
Brush floatants are essentially another version of a powder floatant. Rather than shaking the fly inside the bottle, use a small brush to apply the powder to the fly. Again, it’s personal preference but with brush floatants, expect a little frustration on windy days!
There are countless styles and floatants on the market today and all have their place. And unlike the homemade lighter fluid and paraffin concoctions of days gone by, they are typically odorless and environmentally friendly. You just need to find a system that suits your needs.
Personally, I carry a gel floatant for pre-treating dry flies and a “shake style” powder for reviving them and get by just fine. But I offer the disclaimer that I often offer in these newsletter articles… This is just one man’s opinion!
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
Hatches can sometimes be maddening. Fish feed aggressively and routinely on the surface. But sometimes, every single one of them ignores your fly. There are a number of reasons this can happen. It may be because of the style of fly you’re using.
In the Smokies, we are mainly fishing faster, choppier water and often choose bushier, more heavily hackled dry fly patterns because they float well. In that kind of water, trout don’t get much time to study the fly and their view tends to be distorted by those choppy currents, so the bushier flies tend to do the trick. Even when fishing pools in the Smokies, you usually have a defined feeding channel that will have at least a little chop to it. In those situations, a parachute style fly pattern is usally adequate to provide a slightly more realistic profile.
But in flatter water like you commonly see on tailwaters like the Clinch, particularly weeks into a heavy hatch, an even more realistic profile is necessary. Trout routinely refuse parachute style flies and probably wouldn’t even consider a vertically hackled Catskill style dry fly.
This problem isn’t new to fly fishers. In the 1930’s, Fran Betters developed the Haystack to fool trout in slow moving spring creeks. It consisted of a deer hair wing and tail and no hackle, allowing for a lower riding fly with a much more realistic profile. Al Caucci and Ed Natasi introduced the Comparadun, a variation of the Haystack, in their 1972 book, Comparahatch. The pattern is essentially the same but they were able to use more modern microfibbets. They provide a longer, slimmer, more durable split tail that aids in floatation.
In the mid 1980’s, Craig Matthews and John Juracek took the Comparadun a step further and replaced the split microfibbet tails with a piece of antron or zelon. It essentially turned the fly into an emerger with the antron or zelon “tail” suggesting the trailing shuck of an emerging mayfly. Of course, in any of the patterns described above, the body, wing, and tail/shuck colors can be altered to imitate different insects.
I routinely fish the split tail and the trailing shuck versions, usually during a sulphur or BWO hatch. And again, I am usually fishing them on the Clinch or possibly in a slow pool in the mountains. They just don’t float well enough to fish them in faster riffles and pocket water. But on a slow glide on the Clinch, they can be deadly!
Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Light dun microfibbets ( or replace microfibbets with small tuft of brown antron for trailing shuck version)
Body: Pale yellow dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coasatal deer hair
So, I’m writing about March Browns not because they are necessarily of great significance to the Smoky Mountain fly fisherman, but mainly because they’re just really cool bugs! Like many aquatic insects in the Smokies, this mayfly does not usually hatch abundantly enough to really get the trout keyed in on them. But it is worth keeping a few in your fly box. In other words, you probably don’t need fifteen different March Brown patterns in subtly different colors, but having a few of a basic pattern isn’t a bad idea.
Because March Browns are big, they tend to get a little more attention from trout. They are usually a #12 or #10 hook size, and they tend to be the first mayfly of the year with any color. Most of your early spring mayflies are some version of grey, because they need to blend in with the bare trees and vegetation. But March Browns usually have a light, reddish brown body with handsomely mottled wings of brown, tan and even yellow hues. Despite what their name might imply, these mayflies don’t hatch in March. Rather, they tend to show up, at least in the Smokies, around the third week of April and hang around for the first half of May.
The nymphs are probably the most important stage for Smoky Mountain fishermen. Because they have flat clingy bodies with muscular legs, they are very strong crawlers. But when they lose their footing, they are terrible swimmers and easy pickins for a waiting trout. The nymphs tend to inhabit moderate to fast riffles and vary in color from tan to reddish brown to dark brown. So, a Hare’s Ear Nymph or Pheasant Tail Nymph are both good generic imitations. I’ve also included one of my favorite patterns designed to specifically imitate a March Brown nymph.
Nymphing these patterns should be fairly effective all day but particularly early in the morning. Expect to see the adults hatching from late morning to early afternoon with a spinner fall near dusk.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
March Brown Dry
Hook: #12 – #10 TMC 100 or equivalent
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail: Brown hackle fibers
Body: Reddish tan dubbing (many companies sell a color called March Brown)
Wing: Wood Duck
Hackle: Brown and Grizzly
March Brown Nymph
Hook: #12 TMC 3761 or equivalent
Thread: Brown 8/0
Tail: Moose fibers
Abdomen: Rusty red floss
Rib: Stripped peacock stem
Wincase: Lacquered turkey
Thorax: Peacock herl
Legs: Brown hackle