Fly Fishing in the Summer: The Best of Times & The Worst of Times

The main focus of this article deals with fly fishing streams in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, but the information is just as applicable to streams in other parts of the country.

It’s August and the temperatures back in town are forecast to be in the mid-90’s. It hasn’t rained in a couple of weeks and the streams are just a trickle. That riffle where you nailed fish back in the spring now has the slick complexion of a mirror. You zing a cast out to where they always rose to your dry fly in April, but now all you see is the quick darts of trout clearing the area. Fly fishing in the dog days of summer is widely considered to be among the most difficult times of year to find success. However, if you keep several concepts in mind, you can hook plenty of trout.

The most important thing you need to do is get where the water is coolest. Some of the highest points in the Smoky Mountains haven’t reached 80 degrees in recorded history, even when the mercury is well over 90 in Knoxville, Asheville, and Chattanooga. This goes for other areas of the country, even the Rocky Mountains where low elevation rivers will be warm and de-watered for irrigation. However, up in the high country you’ll usually find more water and cooler weather. Not only will the fish be happier, but you will be too.

There are more advantages to moving up in elevation than just cooler temperatures. Streams in higher elevations also have a steeper gradient. Most of the water is composed of plunge pools or turbulent pockets. Not only is the water cool because of its location, but the nature of the water makes it highly oxygenated. Furthermore, all the current and turbulence prevents fish from noticing anglers. Trout in a long, calm pool will often see a fisherman approaching before he’s even in range to cast, so rough water certainly has its advantages in the summer months.

Hatch activity is at a seasonal low in the late summer here in the freestones of the Southeast. While there are always some insects hatching, it’s nothing like spring and even the fall months have more activity. Trout may not be watching the surface as diligently as they do in the spring or fall, but they are also far less likely to be selective. Bushy attractor patterns are always favorites for trout in the high country.

Humpies, Wulffs, and Stimulators will all work just fine. Furthermore, their bushy profile is easy for the angler to see and it casts a broad shadow which makes them highly visible to the trout as well. If you can’t entice fish to rise to the surface you should always be ready to fish a nymph. Basic nymph patterns will be at least as effective as any dry fly, and are often more effective. Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, Prince, and Tellico Nymphs are all highly effective and are usually best in #14-16.

While aquatic insect activity is at a seasonal low point, terrestrial insect activity is at its peak. Hoppers are the “go to” bug in the West, but here in the forested streams of the East the best patterns are often ants, beetles, and inchworms. These may all be fished dry, but remember none of these real bugs last long on the water before drowning so a sub-surface pattern may be in order.

None of these fly patterns light on the water with the delicacy of a small, hackled mayfly imitation but that’s okay. Terrestrials only find themselves in the water by accident. This usually involves falling out of a tree or off of streamside bushes. The real bugs hit the water with a bit of a plop so it’s fine if yours does as well. Just remember to keep it within reason. It’s fine when your beetle plop the water, but it’s not good when your fly, your leader, and six feet of fly line smack the water.

Also learn to read the water a bit differently than you do when fishing aquatic imitations. Aquatics are funneled by the current into very well defined feeding lanes. Terrestrials may end up in these feeding lanes, but are more likely to hit the water under tree limbs and close to vegetated zones along the banks. These are ideal spots to drop your fly. Chances are good that a fish will travel some distance to snatch the fly out of frog water.

A beetle is far less likely to hit the water in a beautiful riffle if it’s completely in the open far from vegetation. However, somewhat unattractive water that might even have a stagnant appearance at first glance might be the place where all the beetles hit the water if it’s under an infested tree or bush. In this instance fish are far more likely to take the fly in water that has a far less “trouty” appearance. Strikes will be aggressive in these conditions since fish will be hitting the fly on the run. Trout may also be working under the assumption that several other fish may have heard the plop and may also be closing in. This is the perfect set=up, a trout that wants to eat the fly without even giving it much of a glance, in spite of the fact that the fly is in calm water.

Dry fly and dropper combos are popular in the summer, but proceed with caution. Many of these smaller streams have tighter casting conditions than larger streams further down the valley. As a result you might find yourself losing flies to the brush twice as fast as you would if you only fished one. Also consider using a bushy, buoyant dry fly in tandem with a lightly weighted nymph. This will ensure that the nymph doesn’t drag the dry fly under in heavy water. If your dry fly sinks on a regular basis because the nymph is too heavy you are likely to become complacent and not really recognize when a fish eats your nymph.

Waders are unnecessary in the heat of the summer and that’s a good thing. Some of the best streams require a hike so it’s nice not to have to carry a pair of waders along with your water bottles and lunch. Be sure your shorts or wading pants are made of a quick drying material like polyester or a poly-blend. Wet cotton won’t dry and will chafe over the course of a long day. Pants are often a better choice than shorts. Stinging nettles are common along creeks and you’ll know it when your bare legs brush against them.