Rob’s Steroid Sally

Rob's Steroid Sally
Steroid Sally Top

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.

Yellow Sally
Little Yellow Sally

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.

Rob's Steroid Sally
Steroid Sally Profile

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.

Rob’s Steroid Sally

  • Hook: 3XL Dry Fly #12
  • Thread: 8/0 Yellow
  • Lower Body & Head: 2mm yellow foam
  • Top Body: 2mm lime green foam
  • Wing: Yellow floating poly-yarn
  • Legs: Small round rubber, yellow

The Wonderful World of Worms

The thought of fishing with a worm pattern makes many fly fishing purists cringe. I have to admit, I sometimes feel a little dirty about it but I’m not sure why. I think it’s kind of like the disdain some fly fishers have for strike indicators, probably due to their similarity to bobbers. Bobbers and worms are the tools of bait fishermen and fly fishers don’t like the thought of doing ANYTHING akin to bait fishing!

The thing is, fish eat worms – even the sophisticated trout. When we choose most fly patterns, we are doing so because they resemble something we think the fish is eating. Therefore, why should fly patterns that imitate worms be any different? Maybe it’s just because the patterns for worms just don’t have the same elegance and beauty as say, a traditional wet fly pattern.

Maybe it would help to verbally justify it when you tie on a worm pattern. That’s what I do. In much the same way I acknowledge eating that piece of pie as a bad decision right before I eat the piece of pie, I always declare that I’m going to fish junk before I put on a worm. There’s just something about that self-awareness that allows us to forgive ourselves and sleep at night. And when it comes to fishing the worm, it doesn’t hurt that they flat out catch fish!

San Juan Worm

Just like any fly pattern, a worm imitation isn’t magic. You’re not going to instantly catch a bunch of fish because you’re using a worm. You still have to do all of the other things right like approach and presentation. And sometimes, even when everything is done correctly, the fish may just not be feeding and/or they may not be feeding on worms.

Fish that live in streams with rock bottoms and banks are simply not going to see as many worms as fish in streams with silt bottoms because it’s not their habitat. In the mountains, I have the best success with worms after a good rain. But that’s probably true about anywhere. We’ve all seen an abundance of worms on our sidewalk or driveway after a good rain because they are flooded out of their “holes.” The same thing happens on a stream bank and many of those worms end up in the stream where fish are looking for them.

Under normal conditions, I don’t have as much success with worm patterns, at least with wild trout, or even holdover stocked trout. But freshly stocked trout will often eat a worm pattern with reckless abandon simply because it’s colorful. Fresh stockers tend to be suckers for anything bright or shiny. However, with wild trout, even when they don’t eat the worm, I think it gets their attention.

I will routinely fish a pink or red worm as the top fly of a double nymph rig and for the bottom fly, I’ll use a more subtle, maybe smaller pattern like a Pheasant Tail. Over the years, it’s happened way too many times to be coincidence.  I’ll fish a fly like a Pheasant Tail by itself or in tandem with another nymph with no success. When I re-rig and use that same Pheasant Tail below a worm, it suddenly begins catching fish! I don’t think that’s necessarily unique to worm patterns, though. I’ve had similar results using various bigger, brighter flies above smaller, subtler ones.

Squirmy Worm

There are a lot of different worm patterns out there, but there’s only so much artistic interpretation a fly tyer can have when it comes to worms! The San Juan Worm has long been the gold standard, but more recently, the Squirmy Worm has won favor with many anglers. They are essentially the same pattern but with different body materials. The traditional San Juan Worm has a body made of vernille or micro-chenille, which has less movement but is more durable. The Squirmy Worm uses a stretchy, silicone material, which offers a lot of movement but can come apart after several fish. Pick your poison.

In any case, there are a number of different colors available. Pink and red are the two best colors for me. However, colors like purple, orange and brown have all had their moments.

Green Weenie

And it has certainly been well documented that a Green Weenie is a killer fly in the Smokies. While it fits a little more loosely in the worm category, it still very much fits. Most commonly thought of as an inchworm imitation, it has a smaller, more robust profile than most worms and is most productive in a chartreuse color.

Rob’s PT Tellico

Rob’s PT Tellico

This is one of those flies I usually keep to myself but you caught me in a moment of weakness this month. There’s nothing too special about it. However, it catches fish almost anytime of the year, it’s durable and it’s simple to tie. I suppose those traits make it special, at least to me. Guides go through a lot of flies and consequently, want something that consistently produces and can be mass-produced in a short amount of time.

Like most of my original fly patterns, this one is a variation of another pattern. Actually, this variation is a hybrid of two well-known fly patterns. The “PT” in its name stands for “Pheasant Tail.” So, it’s essentially a combination of a Tellico Nymph and a Pheasant Tail Nymph, stripped down to its bare, fish catching essentials. I tie it sparse so that it sinks quickly. Also, I use a micro jig hook to ride hook up, and reduce bottom snags.

I suppose it could imitate a number of different nymphs but I had the smaller stonefly nymphs in mind when I designed it. These Southern Appalachian streams are full of small and large stonefly nymphs but it seems that most stonefly patterns are designed to imitate the big ones. With the Little Yellow Sally stonefly hatch being one of the most prolific of the year, I was always surprised that there were so few patterns available to imitate the nymphs.

The yellow body combined with the pheasant tail accents seemed the perfect color combination, and it has just enough added flash to suggest movement. It works great as a dropper off a buoyant dry fly, yet, is equally effective drifted under a strike indicator or straight lined with what the kids today call Euro-nymphing. Whip a few up for yourself or feel free to contact me for a custom order.

Rob’s PT Tellico Nymph

  • Hook: Orvis 1P2A (or equivalent) #18 – 14
  • Bead: Black slotted tungsten, sized to match hook
  • Bead Stabilizer: 8 turns of .010 non-toxic fly wire
  • Thread: 8/0 brown
  • Tail and Rib: 4-6 pheasant tail fibers
  • Counter Rib: Small yellow copper wire
  • Body: Yellow floss
  • Thorax: Pheasant Tail Ice Dub

Elk Wing Caddis

Elk Wing Caddis
Elk Wing Caddis

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 particular species.

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.

Seasonal Variations

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).

Gold Ribbed Hares Ear

Gold Ribbed Hares Ear
Gold Ribbed Hares Ear

The Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, commonly just referred to as a Hare’s Ear, is one of the oldest nymph patterns known. However, the history on the fly is shaky at best. If I’m being honest, the history of this fly is so vague and cumbersome that I just got tired of looking! But there are numerous references in many of the old English fishing journals to a similar fly that, at the time, was more of a wet fly. The more current nymph version of the fly appears to have been around since at least the 1880’s. There are two unrelated tyers, James Ogden and Frederick Halford, who both frequently receive credit for its origin.

When I write my comprehensive history on American trout flies, I’ll dig a little deeper. But for purposes of this newsletter article, let’s just say that it has been catching trout for a LONG time!

The Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear gets its name from the materials that are used to tie it. It seems they weren’t quite as creative with fly names back in the day. Should we call it the Sex Dungeon?!?! No. It’s tied with materials from a hare’s mask and a piece of gold tinsel for a rib. Let’s call it a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear.

What the fly lacks in name creativity, it more than makes up for in productivity. It is easily one of the most popular and effective nymph patterns of all time. Most agree that it is intended to imitate a mayfly nymph, but it is also an excellent representation of a caddis nymph and many crustaceans. And while the original natural rabbit color is still quite productive, there are countless color variations. Personally, in addition to the natural color, I love a black Hare’s Ear in the winter and an olive in the early spring to imitate Quill Gordon nymphs.

in addition to color variations, there are countless other variations. Many will have some kind of sparkle rib or sparkly back. Some might have a wingcase made of peacock herl. Of course, there are beadhead versions and micro jig versions. Like many great flies, its versatility is a big part of its effectiveness.

If you’ve been trout fishing for a while, you undoubtedly already know this fly. If you’re new to trout fishing, you need to know it. Since this is originally appearing in a winter newsletter, included one of my favorite winter variations of a Hare’s Ear below.

black beadhead flashback hares ear
Beadhead Flashback Hares Ear – Black

Hook: #18 – 12 2x long nymph hook
Thread: 8/0 Black
Bead: Gold tungsten to match hook size
Rib: Gold wire
Tail: Guard hairs from hares mask. Dyed black.
Wing Case: Pearlescent Flashabou
Abdomen: Black hares ear dubbing
Thorax: Black hares ear dubbing (picked out)

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

Poppers

Fly Fishing Popper
Hard Body Popper

A popper, or popping bug, is a type of topwater fly commonly used for warmwater species like bass and bream. Unlike the often delicate and diminutive dry flies used in trout fishing, poppers are typically bright and robust. While topwater trout flies are commonly designed to discreetly drift down a feeding lane, popping bugs are designed to make commotion.

Deer Hair Popper
Deer Hair Popper

Poppers are most often made with a hard, cork body but more and more frequently are being constructed of foam. Softer variations are also made by spinning deer hair on a hook. The hair is tightly packed and trimmed to shape. Using different colors of deer hair allows for some pretty cool color and design variations. However, color and design variations can also be achieved on cork and foam poppers with paint and markers.

What they all have in common is a flat or cupped “face” and a body that usually tapers slightly, getting smaller toward the rear of the hook. When fishing with them, the idea is to pull your line with a short, quick motion that jerks the fly abruptly. As a result, the flat or cupped face of the fly will make a “pop” on the water.  A popper could certainly resemble some sort of insect, but most often it is designed to suggest a struggling baitfish.

Sneaky Pete Slider
Hard Body Slider

A diver or slider is frequently lumped into the popper category. However, while made with similar materials, these have more of a bullet shaped face. The body tapers in the opposite direction of a popper. You use similar fishing methods with this style of fly but when the line is pulled toward you, the bullet head causes the fly to dive or erratically slide through the water.

Neversink Caddis

Neversink Caddis
Yellow Neversink Caddis

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.

Original Neversink Caddis?
Yeager's Neversink Caddis
Yeager’s Neversink Caddis

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.

Neversink Caddis

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

Hendrickson Hatch

Hendrickson Dun
Adult Hendrickson Mayfly

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.

Hendrickson Nymph
Hendrickson Nymph

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.

Parachute Hendrickson
Parachute Hendrickson

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.

Early Wet Fly
Early Season Wet Fly

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.