Matching the Hatch

Tying On A FlyProbably 20 years ago, I was fishing the Clinch River with a buddy during the sulfur hatch. I won’t get into what has happened to that hatch, but back then, it was epic. Sulfurs would come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day for about 3 months. We would drive down from Kentucky to fish it and on most trips, we would both steadily catch fish, many topping 20”.

On this particular trip, the bugs were coming off as good as they ever had, the water was boiling with rises, but we were both getting blanked! We were both going through every type of sulfur dry, emerger, and nymph in the box, all with the same result. Frustration got the best of both of us and we headed to the bank for a smoke, a bad habit we both enjoyed back then. While staring at the river and scratching our heads, it hit us both at the same time as we simultaneously exclaimed, “They’re eating caddis!”

Caddisflies tend to emerge quickly and almost explode off the water. When a trout feeds on one, it will frequently chase it to the top to eat it before it gets away. Sometimes the momentum will cause the fish to come completely out of the water, but at the least, results in a very distinct, splashy rise – not like the delicate sipping rise to a mayfly. Once we stepped away from the river and watched, we both noticed it.

We went back to the water and began looking more closely. Sure enough, there were caddis hatching, too. There was probably one caddis hatching for every 100 sulfurs, but for whatever reason, the trout were keyed in on the caddis. It’s what is referred to as a “masking hatch.” We both switched to the appropriate caddis pattern and were immediately into fish!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened, and each occurrence has trained me to always pay attention and sometimes try to look past the obvious. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you solve a hatch riddle sometime.

First, we have to address the basics. If you see fish rising and have a pretty good idea what they’re eating but you’re fly is being ignored, check to see that your fly is the same size as the naturals. Also be certain that your tippet is not too large and that you’re getting a good drift. Presentation is most often the culprit when your fly is being ignored. Next, make certain that the color is a close match to the natural. If you’re fishing a bushy pattern, you might try a more subtle pattern like a Comparadun. If that’s not working, try an emerger fished just under the surface or in the film.

Rise Ring from a Trout
Fish Rise

Still not catching them? Take a break and watch the water. You may be able to tell something from the rise rings as I described above. If you don’t learn anything from that, try to find a fish that is rising steadily and watch him. He’s probably feeding in rhythm, like every 10 seconds. Watch his spot and try to time his rises. When you have that down pretty close, try to see what he eats. You should be able to tell if it’s the same kind of bug you’re seeing in the air, or at the very least, whether he’s eating something on or just below the surface. It’s almost like detective work. You sometimes have to go through the process of eliminating suspects before you can zero in on your man!

Midges on the Water
Midges on the water

If fish are actively rising but you don’t see any bugs in the air, check the water. Try to position yourself at the bottom of a feeding lane (downstream of where the fish are feeding) and watch the surface of the water (and just beneath) for drifting bugs. Holding a fine mesh net in the current is a great way to collect what’s coming down the channel. If you don’t have one, your eyeballs will do just fine. If you see some insects, capture one and try to match it with a fly pattern.

Hatches are puzzles and that’s one of the things that makes them fun. Sometimes you solve it right away, sometimes it takes awhile. Just remember that while the fly pattern is a big part of the equation, it’s not the only one. As mentioned above, presentation is huge. In addition to your technique, a smaller tippet and/or a longer overall leader may be the solution. Also consider your approach.

I typically like to cast upstream to fish so that I can stay behind them. But they will sometimes shy away from your fly in slow runs if they see your line or leader. I will sometimes try to get above fish in slow runs and cast down to them so they are sure to see the fly first. To do this, you have to land your cast short of them with slack in the line. Continue feeding slack to enable the fly to naturally drift to them. This is a challenging presentation. It’s critical that you carefully position yourself out of the trout’s line of vision.

Again, it’s a puzzle and there’s not one universal solution to every challenge. Pay attention to your technique and everything that you’re doing (or not doing). Most important, pay attention to the fish. They’ll usually tell you what to do!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: Sulphurs

Sulphur Mayfly Adult
Sulphur mayfly adult

If you take East Tennessee as a whole, it’s pretty safe to say one of the most prolific hatches is the sulphur mayfly hatch. Southern tailwaters are generally not known for having significant hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, or stoneflies. When we think of most of these dam-controlled rivers, we typically think of crustaceans like scuds and sow bugs, and midges…. lots and lots of midges. However, one mayfly that hatches on all East Tennessee tailwaters, often in very big numbers, is the sulphur. And that means that your best opportunity to catch a really big fish on a dry fly around these parts is during the sulphur hatch.

On the South Holston, they hatch in huge numbers for nearly nine months of the year. They hatch on the Holston, Hiwassee, Watauga and Caney Fork, too. But when I think of the sulphur hatch, I think of the Clinch River. This is probably because it was the first really BIG hatch I ever fished. It’s not quite as epic as it was 20-30 years ago. I won’t get into the reasons why. But it is most definitely still a hatch worth making time for.

Parachute Sulphur Fly Pattern
Parachute Sulphur

The hatch usually starts in late April on the Clinch and often lasts well into July. May is the best time to fish it. In April, the bugs are usually just starting to trickle off fairly inconsistently.  By mid June, trout have been seeing these things come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day, for 6+ weeks. To say that they become selective is an understatement. But in May, bugs are coming off steadily and the trout haven’t yet learned to count the hackles on your fly before choosing to eat it. They don’t seem to care if it’s on the surface, in the film, or 2” below the surface. In July, that stuff matters! In May, pretty much any pale yellow, size #16 dry fly will do the trick if it’s presented on a dead drift.

Parachutes and Comparaduns tend to be the best choices for dry flies. And there are a host of more sophisticated emergers and cripples to fool the wary, late-hatch fish. Pheasant Tails in brown and olive are usually the best option for nymphs.

Beadhead Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
Beadhead Pheasant Tail

While exact time and duration varies, the sulphur hatch on the Clinch typically starts in late morning and lasts for 4-6 hours a day, taking you right up to happy hour. Drifting Pheasant Tails will pass the time in the morning while you’re waiting for the main event to start.

Sulphurs are a big deal in the mountains, too. While they won’t come off in the obscene numbers found on the tailwaters, they are still one of the better hatches of the year. In the mountains, the hatch usually lasts 3-4 weeks and tends to be more of an evening event. Many nights, the sulphur hatch will correspond with the Little Yellow Sallies’ return to the water to lay eggs. This makes for a fast and furious end to the day for those willing to fish through supper.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: The Great 8 (Must Have Trout Flies)

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams

With thousands of patterns available, choosing the perfect fly can prove to be a daunting task for any angler, particularly the beginner. However, unless you’re in a situation where trout are selectively feeding on a specific insect that is abundantly hatching, an assortment of well presented attractor patterns will be all you need to catch fish. Every fisherman has a list of favorite flies and over time you will find particular ones with which you are very confident. And that’s really the bottom line. If you have confidence in a fly, you will fish it better and ultimately have more success.

Below is a compilation of flies that seem to work everywhere and are on most fly angler’s list of favorites – a perfect place start your fly selection! Whether you call a fly shop in Tennessee, Montana, or New Zealand and ask for recommended flies for the area, somewhere on that list you will likely find most if not all of these patterns. These flies are also available as a packaged selection in the Fightmaster Fly Fishing online store.

Dry Flies

1) Parachute Adams: This is an absolute favorite trout fly. It doesn’t look exactly like anything but looks a lot like a lot of things! Carry them in sizes #12-#18 with the smaller versions being ideal for slow water and more finicky trout and the larger being best suited for choppier water where visibility is more important. The traditional grey body is preferred, but a yellow body also does well in the Smokies.

2) Elk Caddis: Another great dry fly, carry this one in sizes #12-#18 and with body colors of olive, tan, and yellow. The down wing on this pattern gives it a little different profile than the Adams and the combination of elk hair and hackle make this fly float like a cork.

3) Griffith’s Gnat: This is a great general purpose small fly. Fished most often in sizes #16-#20, it is a great imitation for adult midges, small mayflies or caddis, and even ants. Many of the most finicky, rising trout I catch are on a Griffith’s Gnat.

Nymphs

4) Pheasant Tail: An incredibly universal pattern that looks like almost every nymph you’ll find under a submerged rock. You’ll probably fish the bead head version the most. But, the traditional version provides a more realistic pattern that can more easily be fished in different levels of the water column. Carry both varieties in sizes #12-#18.

5) Hare’s Ear:  For the same reasons as the Pheasant Tail, carry bead head and traditional versions of this fly, and in the same sizes. The big difference in the two nymphs is the Hare’s Ear provides an option for a lighter colored nymph and it is a little “buggier” than the Pheasant Tail, providing more movement. Most tend to favor the traditional tan body color but an olive body is also very effective and versatile.

6) Prince Nymph: This fly gives you that all important peacock herl factor which trout seem to dig. The white colored goose biots on the back also seems to grab the attention of fish. I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly what it’s supposed to imitate but the bottom line is it works! A Zug Bug is a close cousin to the Prince and would likely make many anglers’ favorite fly list. The two are similar and you can’t go wrong with either. Carry them in sizes #8-#16.

7) Zebra Midge: This fly will cover most of your small nymph needs. It is a simple pattern but extremely effective. Best fished in tailwaters and slow pools in mountain streams, carry it in sizes #18-#22. Most tend to prefer the tungsten bead head versions with black, red, or olive bodies.

Streamers

8) Wooly Bugger: While there are numerous great streamers out there, only one made this list as a must have, probably because of its incredible versatility. The Wooly Bugger, carried in a variety of colors, can facilitate almost any streamer need. Carry them in black, olive, tan, and white in sizes #4-#10 and you have an effective imitation for small baitfish, leeches, and crayfish. In a pinch, you can even dead drift a Wooly Bugger as a pretty effective imitation for a stonefly nymph or hellgramite. Whether you choose bead or no bead, flash or no flash, you have a fly capable of catching most any kind of fish in any kind of water.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

What Trout Eat – A Look at Aquatic Insects

Golden Stonefly Nymph
Golden stonefly nymph

When many people think of fishing with flies, images of more familiar insects like houseflies and mosquitoes often come to mind. Many familiar terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers are a source of food for trout. Those are especially important in the summer.  But aquatic insects are most abundant to fish throughout the year. And most artificial flies imitate these water-born bugs.

There are a number of aquatic insects in streams and rivers. Mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges are the most common. They are defined as aquatic because most of their life is spent in various stages in or on the water. The four groups listed above vary respectively in their life cycles.  But they are similar in that they begin in one form under the water. They all emerge and transform to another stage. And they all ultimately return to the water to lay eggs and start the process again. Let’s use a mayfly as an example.

Quill Gordon Mayfly
Mayfly Adult

First of all, the term mayfly is as general as the term flower. Just as there are many different flowers such as roses, daisies, and tulips, there are also many different mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, and Sulfurs. And just as certain flowers bloom at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year, certain mayflies hatch at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year. Around here for example, you’ll usually see Quill Gordons in mid March, Sulfurs in May, etc.

The mayfly hatch that you hear about is technically the second time they hatch. A mayfly will first hatch underwater from a tiny egg into a nymph. The nymph is the juvenile stage of a mayfly’s life and it takes place entirely underwater. As a nymph, the mayfly has a very flat, streamline profile and typically lives beneath rocks on the stream bottom where it feeds on algae and such.

Quill Gordon Mayfly Nymph
Mayfly Nymph

A typical mayfly nymph will live for about a year in this stage until it reaches maturity. At that time, the nymph will emerge to the surface of the water, a shuck splits open, and an adult mayfly (often called a dun) crawls out. The adult will be on the surface anywhere from seconds to minutes while it dries its newly formed wings before flying off to nearby vegetation.

With no mouthparts in this stage, the adult will usually not live for much more than a day. Its sole purpose is to mate. After this occurs, females will return to the water to lay their eggs. Upon completion, they finally lay spent on the water. So a mayfly’s only role in nature seems to be to feed trout.

But it’s not just trout that eat aquatic insects.  Birds will get the lion’s share and most aquatic insects are naturally camouflaged with this in mind.  Understanding this can give you a leg up when it comes to fly selection, even when you don’t know what’s hatching.

In the very early and very late seasons when there is no foliage on stream side trees, aquatic insects need to blend in with the actual branches.  Consequently, most everything that hatches during that timeframe will be dark in color (Gray, black, etc.).  In the late spring and summer when foliage is full and vegetation is thick, most everything that hatches will be lighter in color (yellows, greens, etc.).  And in the fall – you guessed it – most of the bugs that hatch will be drab, rusty colors.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Winter Fishing in the Mountains

Little River in the Snow
Little River in the snow

We’ve talked a lot about water temperature in many of these articles and for good reason. Things like approach, presentation, and fly selection can determine whether or not a fish will take your offering. Water temperature can determine whether or not a fish will take any offering! You can read in more detail about water temperature in A Matter of Degrees. To keep it simple here, wild trout in the Smokies just don’t do a lot of feeding when the water temperature is in the 30’s and low 40’s.

Tailwaters are different because the water comes from the deep, insulated layer of a lake. The water temperature remains relatively constant, regardless of air temperature. Stocked trout in a freestone stream are different because, well, they just don’t know any better. They were raised in hatcheries and were fed the same amount of food every day, regardless of temperature. But wild trout in freestone streams have never had that luxury. In order to survive, their metabolism changes and they become nearly dormant. This doesn’t mean that they won’t feed at all but if you’re going to fish the Smokies in the winter, come prepared with a great deal of patience.

I spend more time looking this time of year than I do actually fishing. Blind fishing a run in the spring can be very productive because all or most of the fish should be feeding. They’ll often move up and down and side to side for food. In the winter they typically won’t move much for food and you need to put the fly right on their nose. To do this most effectively, you really need to see the fish. Take your time and watch the water. Pay particular attention to the slower currents on the edges and lower parts of a run. Ideally, you want to locate fish that are up in the water column rather than hugging the bottom. Fish that are up a little in the column are more likely to be feeding.

If you can’t actually see the fish, look for flashes on the bottom. Any fish that is feeding will likely be picking nymphs off the bottom. When a trout eats a nymph off the bottom, they usually tilt their bodies sideways. When they do, you’ll see the flash of their lighter colored bellies. You may have to scope out several pools or runs before you see fish or fish activity. Experience will teach you the kind of water to focus on. But deeper, slower runs will usually produce better than fast riffles and pocket water this time of year. And try to pick the warmest part of the day, probably late morning to late afternoon.

Little River Brown Trout Smoky Mountains
Cold weather brown

Once you think you’ve located feeding fish, it’s time to think about fly selection. On warmer winter days, you may actually see some insects hatching. If you do, they’re likely to be small and dark: Blue Wing Olive mayflies, small black stoneflies or caddis, dark olive or black midges… Rarely anything bigger than a #18. On rare occasions, you may see fish feeding on the surface during one of these hatches. Small Parachute Adams or Griffith’s Gnats are a pretty good bet in those instances. Mostly though, they’re going to feed more on the nymphs, so black Zebra Midges, small Pheasant Tails, and small black or olive Hare’s Ears will be pretty good bets.

If I don’t see any kind of hatch, I may still try one of the above mentioned nymphs, but more likely I’m going with something big, like a stonefly nymph. It may be more psychological, but I feel like I’m more likely get that lethargic fish to eat if I show him a bigger mouthful. Girdle Bugs, black Wooly Buggers, Yuk Bugs, and Bitch Creek Nymphs in sizes #10 – # 4 are personal favorites.

Girdle Bug Fly Pattern
Girdle Bugs

Regardless of your nymph selection, you’re going to want it to drift as slowly and as near the bottom as possible. I like to use heavy flies and I like to use split shot. Take your time and adjust your weight regularly as you move to areas with different depths and current speeds. If you’re not hanging up on the bottom from time to time, you’re not deep enough. If you’re hanging the bottom every time, you’re too deep. Take the time to get it right. That fly needs to be right in their nose!

Adjusting your strike indicator (if you’re using one) can help too, but usually the answer is more weight. Most fishermen just don’t have their nymphs deep enough in the winter. A great way to learn about the effects of different current speeds vs. the amount of weight on your line is to spend some time fishing a fly you can see under water.  For instance, tie on a bright pink egg and watch how deep it sinks, how fast it sinks, and how it drifts with no weight, then 1 spit shot, then 2 split shot, etc. Try it with a strike indicator and without to learn how the indicator can impact the drift, too. This is just a great way in general to better understand nymphing, and sometimes you’ll even catch a fish on that trashy pink egg!

Again, don’t expect near the number of strikes that you might in spring. But if you’re just itching to get out of the house and are willing to be patient, you might just be surprised what you find.

Fly Selection Part 2 – Dry Flies vs. Nymphs

Fisherman on Little River Smoky MountainsLast month, I talked about ways to simplify your fly selection and offered tips on how to choose flies based on season and what was hatching. Based on the number of questions I had, however, I left out an important part of the process. Many folks said they are often uncertain when to fish a dry fly vs. a nymph.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of variables. There is not a simple answer like fish nymphs before noon and dries after. The truth is, in places like the Smoky Mountains, when conditions like water temperature and water level are ideal, it often doesn’t matter. There have been plenty of days when I’ve fished with my buddy Brian, going up the stream together and taking turns fishing. He was fishing nymphs or wet flies and I was fishing dries. We caught about the same number of fish. When conditions are right and the trout are actively feeding, they’ll typically feed on both.

So when the conditions are great and you could fish either, how do you decide? Sometimes it just boils down to personal preference. I happen to think fishing with dry flies is more fun. I’m often going to choose a dry fly in those instances. But it also depends where I’m fishing. If it’s purely a rainbow or brook trout stream, I’m highly likely to fish dries. But brown trout are more reluctant to feed on the surface. If there’s a chance of catching a bigger brown, I’m more likely to fish nymphs.

Some people choose to fish dry flies because they think it’s easier. Nymphing requires you to read the water three dimensionally. You have to factor in the depth as well as the surface currents. And there is more stuff, like split shot and sometimes strike indicators, that can lead to more tangles for less experienced anglers. On the other hand, one of the most experienced fly fishermen I know chooses to fish nymphs in smaller, pocket water streams for a similar reason. He says he can cover more water and catch more fish because he’s not spending so much time drying and redressing his dry fly after every fish. It’s a great point. Keeping a dry fly floating in smaller mountain streams, especially when you’re catching a lot of fish, can require a lot of time and effort.

So when the conditions are great and you could fish either, it’s really just going to come down to your personal preference and fishing style. But what about when conditions are not ideal? What are some “less than ideal” conditions that might dictate the use of one fly category over another?

The first one that jumps to mind is water temperature. If you’re fishing early or late in the year when the water temperature is in the 40’s (or colder), there will be fewer insects hatching and the fish are going be more lethargic and less willing to come to the surface to feed. While you can sometimes coax fish to the surface in these conditions, you’ll likely have far greater success fishing nymphs near the bottom where the fish is already seeing most of its natural food and where it doesn’t have to expend as much energy.

High water is another one. When water is high, many of the channels are moving too fast at the surface. In pocket water, the water that normally goes around the rocks is going over them and eliminating the holding pocket. Fish will not only have a tougher time seeing food on the surface, they will have to work too hard to get it. While there can sometimes be fish surface feeding in back eddies, etc. in high water, you’ll likely be far more successful drifting nymphs closer to the bottom.

Low water can be the opposite. Fish don’t quit feeding on nymphs when the water gets too low. But it gets very difficult to fish with nymphs in these conditions because you’re frequently hanging the bottom. Can it be done? Absolutely. But you’ll have a much easier time fishing dry flies in these conditions.

The other situation worth mentioning is fishing for trout in tailwaters. While there are exceptions, most tailwaters are not known for their diversity in aquatic insects. Rather they’ll usually get one good mayfly hatch and/or one good caddis hatch and that’s it. The Clinch River is a perfect example. It gets a great sulfur (mayfly) hatch in May and June and that’s it. During that timeframe, the dry fly fishing can be pretty darn good. The rest of the year their diet mostly consists of midge larvae, scuds, and sulfur nymphs.

Even when tailwater trout can be observed surface feeding on adult midges, you can usually catch fifteen trout below the surface for every one you can catch on top. Tailwaters almost always lend themselves better to nymph fishing.

Finally, if you want to get scientific about the whole thing, it is estimated that anywhere from 65-90% of a trout’s diet comes from below the surface. It makes sense. The typical aquatic insect spends one to four years as a nymph. It only spends one day to two weeks as an adult. So really, we fish dry flies because it’s fun. And sometimes it’s easier. If your primary goal is catching big fish and/or more fish, learn how to fish nymphs.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Fly Selection – Making Sense of It All

Fly Bins at a Fly Shop
Too many choices?

If you are new to fly fishing, particularly for trout, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of fly patterns available. Which ones do I need? What colors? What sizes? Do I need all of them? First of all, if you carry every trout fly with you, you need a wheelbarrow to go fly fishing! While there is no way to make it immediately simple, there are ways to simplify the process. As with many things in fly fishing, find a good starting point. Learn as you go from there.

Sulfur Mayfly Adult
Sulfur mayflies can come off in bunches on the Clinch in May, and you better have a good imitation

First, There are many fly patterns that imitate a very specific bug when it is hatching. These may only be relevant on certain rivers at a specific time of year. Some only imitate certain stages of that hatching insect’s emergence. These hatches may involve hundreds of bugs coming off for hours out of the day, and maybe over the course of several weeks.

When that’s the case, fish can get highly selective. They may ignore anything that doesn’t look like what is actually hatching. You need to match the hatch. The heavier the hatch is, the more selective the fish can become. They may only focus on one stage of the emergence. For instance, they may opt to ignore the nymphs and adults, and purely key in on emergers just under the surface film.

This kind of situation can be exciting and frustrating at the same time while you try to unlock the puzzle. But these situations are rare. Most of the time, particularly in smaller mountain streams like the Smokies, you’re not going to see many heavy hatches. Rather, there will be sporadic small hatches of a few different types of bugs. And the fish rarely key in on one specific bug. They can’t afford to. Often, there won’t be anything hatching at all.   So, a good starting point with trout flies is with a basic selection of attractor patterns in their most common size(s).

Parachute Adams Dry Fly
The Parachute Adams is one of the most universal topwater trout flies in the world

Attractor fly patterns, also referred to as generals, generics, or prospecting flies, are not designed to imitate anything in particular. They will either be rather drab looking flies, like a Parachute Adams, that look similar to a lot of food items. Or they may be something with some color that doesn’t look like anything at all, like a Royal Wulff, intended to trigger a feeding response from a trout. In most situations, if you have a basic selection of attractors and you present them well, you can catch trout anywhere in the world.

Many of you may have seen, or even purchased, the Great 8 fly selectionfrom my online store. That’s exactly what it is – a collection of eight dry, nymph, and streamer fly patterns that will work on trout most anywhere in the world.   Now if you ask ten different fishermen their eight must-have fly patterns, you won’t get the exact same answer. But I guarantee you’ll see a lot of similarity and crossover. A simple selection of these types of flies is a great place to start your fly collection. From there, you just gradually add fly patterns based on multiple sources and scenarios.

Maybe your buddy told you he did really well at Tremont on a size #12 Yellow Humpy. Pick up a couple and give them a try. Or maybe the guy at the fly shop said people have been doing well on #16 Copper Johns. Pick up a few of those. Or maybe you purchased my hatch guide for the Smokies and it indicated there should be good hatches of Light Cahills when you were coming. Better have a couple of Light Cahill patterns with you.

There are hatch guides and charts for most every popular trout fishery in the country and they can be very helpful. And the folks at the local fly shops are great sources for information. When they’re not fishing, they’re in the shop talking to people who have been fishing. They almost always have the most up to date information. After doing that for a while, you start to accumulate a lot of fly patterns. And through the process, you start to find your own personal favorites.

So, now that you have all of these patterns, how do you know what fly to fish when? Fly selection is about 1/3 experience, 1/3 scientific, and 1/3 dumb luck. If you fish an area a lot, you will begin to draw from past experiences to choose your fly. If I am fishing the Smokies in June, I don’t have to actually see a beetle get eaten by a trout to make me decide to tie on a beetle pattern. For decades, I’ve done well on beetles in June. It will probably be one of the first flies I tie on.

Little Yellow Sally Stonefly Adult
Are you seeing a lot of these?
Little Yellow Sally Dry Fly
Try something like this

I might use a more scientific approach on water that is less familiar, or even on familiar water when something unusual is happening. The scientific approach could be reading something like a hatch guide and choosing a fly accordingly to match the flies that should be hatching. Or you could be on the water and see fish feeding on the surface. If you see an abundance of natural insects on the water or coming off the water, catch a couple in your hand and try to find an imitation in your box that is close in size, color, and profile. You can do the same thing with nymphs by turning over a couple of rocks and choosing a fly that resembles what you see.

The dumb luck method is just what it sounds like. The biggest brook trout I ever caught in the park came on a day when the fishing was tough. None of my usual patterns were producing and I wasn’t having much luck matching naturals. I finally dug through my box and saw a fly I hadn’t thought of, much less fished, in the last ten years. I figured I couldn’t do much worse. So, I tried it and ended up catching several fish on it, including that big brookie. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Probably the most import thing to remember is that it is more often the archer, not the arrow. Too many fishermen blame their fly for a lack of success. With the exception of super big, technical hatches, specific fly patterns are probably not as important as most people make them. Approaching the fish without spooking them and putting a good drift over them with a “reasonable” fly pattern will catch fish most of the time.

Someone smarter than me once said that most people’s favorite fly is the fly they happened to have on the first time the fishing was good. In other words, the fish were feeding well that day and probably would have hit most anything. But from that day forward you have confidence in that fly. It’s often the first fly you tie on and it’s the one you leave on the longest. There’s a lot to be said for confidence.

Most of the big brown trout, probably 75%, I’ve caught in the Smokies have come on a Tellico Nymph. That may lead some people to believe there is something extra special about that fly. The truth is I spotted most of those big brown trout before fishing for them. And I usually tie on a Tellico Nymph when I fish to a big brown. Know why? It’s the fly I happened to have on the first time I caught a big brown in the Smokies. There’s a lot to be said for confidence.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: The Ants Go Marching…

Black Ant“When all else fails, try an ant.”

“Trout love ants.”

I have repeatedly heard these two statements throughout my fly fishing life, and I’d have to say, I agree with both. Ants are not only abundant in nearly every stream where trout live, they’re pretty easy pickin’s once they make their way into the water. And for Smoky Mountain trout, they’re one of the few meals available in the summer months.

From a fishing perspective, I love ants for their versatility. Whether it’s topwater in heavier current, topwater in low, slow runs, or below the surface… There’s an ant for that!

Chernobyl Ant Fly Pattern
Chernobyl Ant

Made popular in the American West, a Chernobyl Ant is an oversized ant pattern, often tied on a size #6 hook or even bigger! While they are considerably larger than most natural ants, the trout don’t seem to mind. Trout may actually take them more for a beetle or some other type of terrestrial, but who cares? They eat them. I typically find the traditional Chernobyl Ants too big for slower water, though I have had a number of nice fish eat them on slow, shady edges of summertime pools. The Chernobyl is best suited for heavier water with a little more chop and because of its buoyancy, is a great dry fly to support a dropper nymph.

Mini Chernobyl Ant Fly Pattern
Mini-Chernobyl Ant

Most of the time, however, I scale the fly size down to a #12 or #14, making it more of a “mini-Chernobyl.” At this size, it makes a great generic searching pattern from late spring through early fall. It rides a little lower in the water, sometimes making it difficult to see in choppy water or where there is excessive glare. But with a brighter piece of foam on top of the fly, you can pick it up most of the time.

Parachute Ant Fly Pattern
Parachute Ant

In late summer and early fall, or anytime when the water is low, fish are spookier and big foam flies (even the mini-Chernobyl) can send the fish running for cover. A parachute ant pattern can be more effective during these times. It lands softer and provides a little more natural silhouette. I typically fish these in smaller sizes like #16 and # 18. Tying these with a white or orange post makes them visible in most conditions.

Soft Hackle Ant Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Ant

One of the most underutilized methods for fishing an ant is to fish it below the surface. Ants are not particularly strong swimmers and often find themselves drowning when they’re in the water. Fishing an ant between the surface and the middle of the water column can be highly productive. Hard bodied ants or, my favorite, soft hackle ants, in a size #14 or #16 are great for this. I’ll often fish one as the top fly of a two-fly nymph/wet fly rig, especially when streams are running full. When streams are low, I like to put a soft hackle ant as a dropper off a dry fly. It hangs in, or just below the surface film and will often fool the most finicky of trout.

Most of the ants I fish are black but can be effective in brown, tan, or cinnamon as well. You can fish them almost anytime of year but they will be most productive during the summer. Ants also tend to be most active through the middle of the day. So that is when trout are most likely to see them.

In any case, you should have at least one ant pattern in your fly selection, preferably two or three variations. You can find the mini-Chernobyl and the Soft Hackle Ant in the Boys of Summer fly selection on my web site.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.