March Fishing Forecast

East Bradley Fork, NC
Nymphing a riffle in early spring

Smoky Mountains

Fishing will likely be hit and miss in the Smokies this month. Of course, we’re starting the month off with very high water. Additional large amounts of rainfall in March could really shut things down. Hopefully, we can “regroup” with a stretch of dry weather.

Water temperatures are the other issue this month. They tend to rise and fall significantly in March, creating wild swings in fish activity. We’re looking for water temps to get in the 50’s for the better part of the day, for at least a few days in a row. More than likely, that will begin to happen at the mid to late part of the month.

When that does occur, not only will you find more active fish, you’ll begin to encounter some of the better hatches of the year. Small black caddis and stoneflies will hatch sporadically through the month and you should begin seeing better hatches of Quill Gordon and Blue Quill mayflies toward the end of the month.

Clinch River

Spilling at Norris Dam, TN
Spilling at Norris Dam

I honestly just can’t imagine much happening on the Clinch or other Tennessee tailwaters this month. After all of the flooding, most dams are currently spilling. That will likely be followed by weeks of heavy generation. Let’s look at the Clinch again next month!

Flies: March Browns

Adult March Brown Mayfly
March Brown adult

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.

March Brown Dry Fly Pattern
March Brown Dry Fly

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.

March Brown Nymph Fly Pattern
March Brown Nymph

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

Flies: Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

Red Fox Squirrel Nymph Fly Pattern
Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

Even with all the newfangled fly patterns and fly tying materials available today, I usually find myself sticking more with the old staples, or at least pretty similar variations. And I stick with them for one main reason: They work! Created by fly tying guru, Dave Whitlock in the 1960’s, this fly definitely falls under the “old staple” category.

As disappointing as this may be to some, the fly was not named for Redd Foxx of Sanford and Son. You big dummy! Rather, it got its name for the simple reason that it is tied mostly from the fur and hair of a red fox squirrel. We consider this an impressionistic fly. That means it’s designed to look alive or “buggy” more than imitating a specific food source. We also lump these sorts of flies in the categories of attractors or generals. Or Orvis likes to call them prospecting flies.

So really, it’s a pretty good fly to fish anytime in the Smokies. I think it is at it’s best in the early spring. I attribute that to the abundance of Quill Gordon nymphs in the water at that time. This impressionistic fly imitates that nymph as well as any other I’ve fished. I’ve had a lot of success with the traditional, light red version of this fly, but tie them in a few other colors as well. Different colors might better imitate other food sources in the water, but may also better imitate the color of Quill Gordon nymphs found in a specific river, or even a specific stretch of river.

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon Nymph

It’s hard to say just how selective these trout can get and how important it is to match the color of the nymph, but I’ve personally found Quill Gordon nymphs in Little River that range from a light reddish color, to tan, to grey, to dark reddish brown, to olive. You can see that the Quill Gordon nymph in the picture has more of a dark reddish brown color. Though it’s probably more of a confidence thing, it seems that some years a certain color just works better than another.  I like to fish double nymph rigs with two different colored nymphs until I zero in on their preference.

In any case, these Quill Gordon nymphs are pretty robust, and the beefy body on the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph seems to suggest that better than, say, the slender profile of a Pheasant Tail Nymph. And the picked-out fur body and soft hackle provide a lot of subtle, life-like movement.

Hare's Ear Nymph Fly Pattern
Hare’s Ear Nymph

A close cousin to the RFSN, is the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph. This is another one of those staple flies that is really simple to tie and you can be find it in most any fly shop.   I will sometimes fish these in a tan or olive color as an alternative to the RFSN or even in tandem in a two nymph rig.

In all cases, I’m usually fishing these flies in fairly large sizes – typically in the #14 – #10 range. As the season progresses, I’m more likely to fish them in smaller sizes and lighter colors. You can purchase or tie them in beadhead or non beadhead versions. The non beadhead will typically have lead wire wrapped around the hook under the materials. I personally like the look and profile of the beadless version better. But that’s just one man’s opinion. Try them both and tell me what you think!

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

Below is Dave Whitlock’s original recipe for the nymph.  I fish the beadhead version most, and I tend to substitute commercial dubbing for the mixes he describes below.

DAVE WHITLOCK’S RED FOX SQUIRREL-HAIR NYMPH

HOOK:Tiemco 5262
THREAD:Black or orange 70 Wapsi Ultra Thread
HOOK WEIGHTING:lead wire, diameter of hook wire, 8 to 12 wraps
ABDOMEN:Belly fur from red fox squirrel skin mixed 50/50 with sienna or fox tan Antron dubbing OR Dave Whitlock SLF Dubbing – #1 (blended to my specs). Abdomen should be 1/2 to 2/3 of the overall body length
THORAX:Back fur from red fox squirrel skin mixed 50/50 with charcoal Antron dubbing OR Dave Whitlock SLF Dubbing – #2
RIB:Oval gold tinsel or orange-pearlescent Flashabou
TAIL:Small tuft of back fur from red fox squirrel skin
LEGS:(On sizes 10 and larger) Metz dark ginger back-hackle or back-hackle of Partridge, one turn

Flies: Quill Gordon Hatch

March is the month when trout fishing in the Smokies officially kicks off. Days are getting a little longer, temperatures are getting a little warmer and water temperatures are on the rise. It’s also the month when we begin to see our first good hatches of the year.

Aquatic insects from Early Black Stones to Blue Wing Olives to a variety of midges will hatch all winter, but trout rarely pay much attention to them as water temperatures are typically too cold for active feeding (read Understanding Water Temeratures for more info). But in March, that begins to change. And if you pay attention to water temperature, you just might catch one of the best hatches of the year.

Quill Gordon Fly Pattern
Traditional Quill Gordon

Quill Gordons are fairly large mayflies, between a #14-10 hook size, that begin to hatch when the water temperature reaches 50-degrees for a significant part of the day, for a few days in a row. In unusually warm years, they’ve hatched as early as mid February. In particularly cool years, they may not hatch until April. But most years on the lower elevation streams in the Smokies, this occurs about the third week of March.

In any case, it’s a tricky hatch to catch and really just a tricky month to fish if you don’t live here where you can pick your days. Weather can change in the blink of an eye in March and one major cold front or one big, river blowing rain can make all the difference in your success. I’ve had some of my absolute best days in March and I’ve had some of my worst.

So, why even fool with it? Why not just wait until April when things are more stable? Because some of those “best days” were really, really good! The Quill Gordon hatch is not just worthwhile because of the number of bugs or the size of the bugs. It tends to happen at the exact same time wild mountain trout begin actively feeding. Many of these trout, including the large browns, have had very little to eat in the last 2-3 months and they tend to be a little less cautious. And when a size #12 Quill Gordon comes drifting down the lane, well, it’s pretty hard to resist!

Brown trout exceeding 20” don’t get caught very often in the Smokies, period. Even fewer are caught on dry flies. I’ve been fortunate to catch a fair number of large browns on dry flies in the Smokies, and probably 99% of them have come during the Quill Gordon hatch. Though it’s certainly a gamble, THAT is why it’s worth coming in March!

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon nymph

The good thing about the hatch is once it starts, it usually doesn’t stop. So, if the hatch gets started on say, 3/21, they’ll keep hatching every day even if you get a significant cold front on 3/25. While such a cold front may not impact the hatch, it still might impact the way the trout feed. They may be more reluctant to come to the surface. What many people forget, is that for all the bug activity on the surface during a hatch, there is just as much, if not more, activity under the surface with nymphs preparing to hatch. Drifting a greyish olive nymph below the surface can also be very productive during this hatch, especially in colder water

Most years the hatch lasts 2-3 weeks. It’s usually at its best during the warmest part of the day. In March, that’s typically about 11am to 4pm so rearranging your lunch plans is not a bad idea.

The best place to be during the hatch is in a larger pool near the head and middle of the run. Contrary to most scenarios in the Smokies, these large pools may require longer casts and more mending. The fish may be more aggressive but they still won’t tolerate a bad drift!

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

Flies: Blue Quills

Adult Blue Quill Mayfly
Blue Quill mayfly

Blue Quills represent one of the first good mayfly hatches of the year in the Smokies. By “good,” I mean they can come off in big enough numbers and with enough consistency for trout to really take notice. Water temperature determines when they hatch. As an early season bug, there can be as much as a three week variation from year to year.

Blue Quill Dry Fly
Blue Quill Dry Fly

They tend to start hatching in the Smokies in late March and continue through the third or fourth week of April. With a warmer than average February, they can get started a little earlier or they may get going a little later in a cold spring.

They hatch sporadically through the day with the heaviest activity occurring between noon and 4:00pm. Water is often higher and faster this time of year.  Pay close attention to soft current edges, eddies, and slow pockets for trout feeding on them. Water temperatures also tend to be chillier this time of year, which can retard emergence. An unweighted nymph fished in the surface film or just below can be very effective, particularly on cooler, damp, or overcast days.

Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph
Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph

The nymph is a reddish brown color and typically a size #16 or #18. The bugs tend to get smaller as the hatch progresses. So while we’ve mostly been seeing #16’s, expect #18’s to be more common in the coming weeks. There are specific Blue Quill nymph patterns but a standard Pheasant Tail Nymph works as well as anything.

The adults also have a reddish brown body with a light to medium dun wing and are also found in sizes #16 and #18. Again, very specific Blue Quill dry fly patterns are available but a Parachute Adams serves as a worthy imitation.

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

Early Spring Fishing – Locating Feeding Trout

Early Spring on Abrams Creek
A Smoky Mountain River in early spring

If you’ve ever fished with me or have read more than two articles in this newsletter, you undoubtedly know how much I emphasize the importance of water temperature when fishing for wild trout. Often in the summer, it can be too warm in many places, causing trout to be lethargic or even migrate to cooler water. In winter, it can be too cold, causing changes in metabolism and a shut down in feeding. In early spring, you’re often fishing right on the edge of good water temperatures. Throughout the day, you may encounter totally different feeding behaviors – from hour to hour and from pool to pool.

Though it’s not quite this exact, 50-degrees is kind of the magic number we’re looking for. When we see water temperatures at or above 50-degrees for the better part of the day, we typically start to see actively feeding fish. This is due to not only the change in metabolism, but also the increase in bug activity. It can be deceiving, though, when we start to have these warmer days but the overnight temperatures are still getting pretty cold. It may be late morning or early afternoon before the water has had time to warm to a “stimulating” temperature.

So forget what your granddad told you about getting to the water at dawn. That’s great advice during the heat of summer. In early spring, it will usually only give you a lot of casting practice. There are always variables based mostly on weather. But your best fishing this time of year will probably be between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, get to the water around 10. You’ll have time to gear up, and enjoy your afternoon.

This is also not the best time of year for making that 7-mile hike to a high elevation brook trout stream. With very rare exceptions, your water temperatures are going to be considerably cooler at high elevations. This is the time to focus on lower and mid elevation streams.

Little River in Spring
The heads of large pools can be great locations for feeding trout

Now that you’re at the right place at the right time, there are other things you want to look for. While slower pools often fish poorly later in the year, they can be great places to fish in early spring, mostly because of the abundance of food. The best hatches, at least in the Smokies, occur in the spring and you can target a lot of feeding fish in these pools. Dry fly fishing can be at its best on early spring afternoons and it’s a great opportunity to find a larger brown trout feeding on the surface. Even if there is not an active hatch, there are plenty of bugs preparing to hatch. Drifting nymphs along the bottom, particularly near the heads of these pools can be very productive.

The other advantage to larger pools this time of year is they typically have less tree canopy. The water gets more direct sunlight. Seeking direct sunlight is counterintuitive to many fishermen. But in the early season, it often means warmer water. And even if the sunlight isn’t significantly warming the water, it is likely stimulating more bug activity. This will in turn, stimulate fish. Still, bright sunlight can have a negative impact on fish and their willingness to feed. I try to seek out and pay particular attention to the “sweet spots.” Sweet spots are good holding water that has a nice mix of sun and shadows.

Finally, when choosing days to fish this time of year, really try to pay attention to the overnight lows more than the daytime highs. Warmer overnights will better maintain those water temperatures we’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to get wet. A warm rain can raise water temperatures and turn fish on quicker than anything this time of year!

Early Season Wet Fly

Early Season Wet Fly

In the Smokies, we typically see some of our best hatches of the year in spring. So, it’s no wonder that once March rolls around, most Smoky Mountain fly fishermen have dry flies on the brain. Count me in that group. I love fishing dry flies, especially to steady feeders during a hatch. But just because there’s a hatch, doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a lot of success with dry flies.

There are always an abundance of nymphs and emergers available to trout in any hatch. Trout can often feed on them more easily and without exposing themselves to potential predators. And there are certain situations that may make them even more reluctant to feed on the surface, such as marginal water temperatures. We see that a lot around here in the winter. Bugs are hatching, sometimes heavily, but you don’t see a single rise. Another scenario that many don’t consider is a dry, sunny day.

During a hatch, many aquatic insects linger on the surface while their wings dry before they can fly away. This makes them easy pickings for a waiting trout. Damp, overcast conditions are great days for dry fly fishing for this reason. The bugs are on the surface longer and the trout are looking for them there. But on dry, sunny days, they are able to get off the water almost immediately, making them a tough target for a trout. In those situations, trout often key in on the nymphs and emergers.

This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fish dry flies on sunny days or when the water temperature is less than perfect. But when things aren’t going your way during a hatch, you may want to consider changing your tactics. For me, that often means fishing a wet fly. The Early Season Wet Fly is a great one for, you guessed it, early in the season.

Most of the aquatic insects that hatch around here in the early season, until around mid April, are dark in color. So this fly, with its darker body and wing, does a great job mimicking the majority of bugs that a trout might see. Past April, I might fish a similar fly in a lighter tan or yellow color.

I honestly don’t know where this pattern originated. I’m sure there are many traditional wet fly patterns that are very similar. But I believe this particular version originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, I learned about it from the same source that I’ve learned most things about fishing in the Smokies: Walter Babb.

I fish it a number of different ways. On days when I’m expecting a hatch in the afternoon, I might fish it in the morning in tandem with a dark nymph – maybe a Pheasant Tail or olive Hare’s Ear. In this situation, I’m usually fishing it with a dead drift. At the very beginning of a hatch, or throughout a hatch with little surface activity, I might fish two of these flies and allow them to swing in the current. And even during a hatch when fish are actively feeding on the surface, I often fish this fly as a dropper off the back of my dry fly.

In any case, it’s a go-to fly for me in the month of March and a good one to have in your stash. I doubt that it’s available anywhere commercially but if you’re a fly tyer, I’ve included the recipe below. Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

Hook: TMC 3769 (or equivalent) #14 – 12
Thread: Tan or brown 8/0
Tail: Dun hen hackle fibers
Rib: Copper wire
Body: Mix of grey and tan hare’s ear dubbing
Hackle: Dun hen
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed grey