Fly Fishing Terrestrials in the Smoky Mountains

This article about fishing terrestrial fly patterns in the Smoky Mountains originally ran in the Summer 2006 issue of Fish & Fly magazine although it was originally scheduled to run several summers earlier. In any case this has been of the most popular articles we’ve ever had published. We’ve received comments about it ever since its publication date and have decided to feature it now since the information is particularly relevant at this time of year.

I should have been acutely aware that I was about to be sold on something when the fly box opened. Tim Doyle, a former carnival barker, was my trout fishing companion. He opened up his fly box of late night fly tying creations, born of imagination and a bottle of beer. Inside was a menagerie of feather and fur, rubber legs and foam. Tim withdrew a fly with a body of alternating black and yellow foam topped by a wispy wing of white antron yarn. A couple of turns of grizzly hackle made it look like a trout fly’s first cousin.

It had been two weeks since the last rain and the creeks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park were shrinking in the August heat. The fishing was less than stellar in the midday sun. We took advantage of the low water and good light to spy on the shallow pools rather than cast into them. It was the perfect opportunity to discover the layout of the bottom of the deepest holes including the most pressured pool on the river. The pool is only a short distance from the popular Elkmont campground and is an oasis for swimmers and fishermen alike. This late in the season the trout refused to spook after the constant parade of swimmers and inept fishermen. Over the years the eldest brown in the pool had probably seen everything from baloney rinds to blasting caps.

“The first time I saw this fly was out in Yellowstone,” Tim said. “Didn’t even know they had yellowjackets out there.” A cocked eyebrow betrayed my skepticism. The carnie in him jumped at the opportunity. “They called it…” dramatic pause,”… the Killer Bee.” Tim did an admirable job of casting the Killer Bee into some calm water in the shade of some rhododendron bushes. The fly had barely settled with a soft plop when it disappeared in a swirl. A few moments later he released a beautiful 17” brown that I

Preferring dry flies, I had long steered away from many terrestrial patterns like beetles or inchworms, fished wet in riffles and plunges. I tried to reserve nymph and wet fly fishing for winter and early spring. Most beetle and inchworm patterns don’t float very long, just like their real life counterparts. The assumption that terrestrial fishing didn’t mean dry fly fishing caused me to ignore the possibilities, like foam yellowjacket patterns that look more appropriate for bluegill than trout.

This somewhat unconventional trout fly is a shining example of what summertime fly fishing is about. The low, clear flows of mid and late summer have always challenged fishermen to use unconventional techniques. Pride keeps many fly fishermen from trying unusual looking flies or even proven ones like inchworms. After all, it is an inch worm. Even worse, it is often fished wet, not appealing to those fishermen eager to see a trout rise to a dry fly. This spirit of fly fishing purism is a relatively new development, though.

Many fly fishermen used to abandon artificial flies all together in the summer. In Ernest Hemingway’s classic story Big Two Hearted River Nick Adams, the fisherman in the story, was far from the purist often seen today. Rather than tie flies, he started his fishing trip by collecting grasshoppers in the cool of the morning. He later threaded these live hoppers onto a fine wire hook. This was a common practice. These large insects were far easier to get on a hook and fish live than the delicate mayflies that probably first inspired the art of fly tying. Also, fishing in that bygone era was more about how many trout were in the creel at the end of the day. Undoubtedly, few methods can match it for consistent summer time success.

Predictable hatches are just a spring memory during the hot summer months on Eastern freestone streams. Early morning and late evening are generally considered to be the most productive hours since water temperatures are cooler than midday. However, that leaves precious little time for fishing. Most aquatic insects are active in the cool of early morning and late evening during the warmest months. However, terrestrials are the most active in the middle of the day. Trout activity decreases when temperatures rise because their metabolism increases with water temperature. Once their metabolism reaches a certain point they become relatively inactive since foraging for food uses more energy than it can provide. Remaining inactive is the best way to conserve energy since few, if any, nymphs will be emerging. Eastern mountain trout are eager opportunists, though. If a juicy inchworm or meaty beetle falls within easy reach, it will more than make up for the effort required to gulp it.

Always keeping my ear to the ground for the next killer pattern or new spot, I heard about research done on the importance of terrestrial insects as a food source for trout. The study was conducted by the fisheries department at Tennessee Tech University on the Gulf Prong of Big Creek just north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A mid summer sampling of insects adrift in the stream was compared to the contents found in trout stomachs. Aquatic insects made up the majority of trout food found in the stream sampling. However, the number of aquatics in the seines was proportionally greater than what was found in the trouts’ stomachs. The number of terrestrial insects sampled correlated almost precisely with those found in the trout. The study found that nearly every terrestrial insect that fell into the stream was consumed by a trout.

Aquatic insects are most available during the period they ascend to the surface and hatch. While vulnerable, they are only available until they leave the water. Terrestrials, on the other hand, usually drown if they fall into a stream and tumble with the currents until they are eventually eaten by a trout. Most terrestrials are also larger than most summer time aquatics and provide more calories.

Several years ago most of the fishermen in the southern mountains were biding their time during the late summer doldrums. Successful fishing in mid August requires setting the alarm for a predawn wake up or taking a long hike into the high country to find cool water and small but frisky trout. A rumor had spread faster than the brush fires plaguing the mountains that a big brown trout had been caught on Tellico River, in the middle of the day no less. Fish stories are nothing new in the Tellico Basin. The state has been stocking Tellico River with rainbow trout in the Cherokee National Forest as long as anyone can remember in spite of the notable wild trout population. Some locals say the big browns lie in wait for the easy pickings when the stocking truck pulls up every Friday afternoon. The aggressive stocking schedule attracts fishermen from all walks of life. Every Saturday morning the usual stocker bloodbath takes place amid worm buckets and corn cans, leaving the wild trout population virtually untouched. Only on rare occasions are large browns caught with run of the mill baits on Tellico River.

Growing up amid the weekly hazards, few trout with a taste for nightcrawlers, salmon eggs, or niblet corn attain any size. The typical Tellico fish story boasts full stringers and possibly the big one that got away. Only the best fishermen have photographs to prove a big brown. None of my usual Tellico contacts had any information on the rumor better than what I had already heard. Curiosity coupled with the idea that large browns might frolic in the tepid mid day waters of Tellico River drove me to see for myself.

Fishing was slow as I might have expected, only a few half hearted strikes at a Parachute Adams. I stopped in at the small store at Green Cove that specialized in bait, trout flies, beer, beanie weenies, Vienna sausages, crackers, sardines – typical fishing fare. I washed back the pasty remnants of a peanut butter cracker with a swig of cola. “Any good browns caught lately?”

“Gawd yes!” was the store owner’s reply. “One of them Cocke county boys caught a good ‘un right behind the store.” He rounded

“What’d he catch him on?”

“The silliest lookin’ green worm you ever saw. Said he tied that fly with green furry foam. I was standin’ behind the store eatin’ my lunch and watchin’ ‘im cast. He dropped that fly under a limb on the other side and the water boiled the instant the fly hit the water.”

“Know who it was that caught ‘im?” The store owner shrugged. “Naah. Just said he only fishes inchworms in the summer.” A-Ha!

George Harvey, the Dean of American fly fishing may have been the first to devise an inchworm pattern, and it was even a dry fly. In his book Memories, Patterns, Tactics he describes how he originally tied his inchworm pattern. It was made of green cork and proven at the immensely popular Fisherman’s Paradise section of Spring Creek in Centre County, Pennsylvania in the late 1940’s. Harvey has always been described as an outgoing and generous man, often sharing flies with anyone who asked.

One day he took his four year old daughter Susie fishing at the Paradise. The youngster drew a crowd, hooking fish after fish on a green cork worm while her father helped her land them. The commissioner came by to see what fly had caught so many fish and to ask Harvey if he might get a few. Harvey had given several of the cork worms to the commissioner on several previous occasions. He reminded the commissioner of that and explained that he only had a couple left which were intended for Susie. The next week there was a sign at the gate of the Fisherman’s Paradise that said cork flies were banned. The rule change was supposed to get the last word in on Harvey. The ever inventive George Harvey switched from green cork to green spun deer hair and enjoyed identical success, much to the chagrin of the commissioner. He later tied an inchworm out of fluorescent green chenille to fish in deep runs. He has speculated that this fly may also imitate something else like a caddis larva since its effectiveness knows no season.

Inchworm patterns are probably the dream of commercial fly tyers around the world. Any ten thumbed tyer can produce a box full in a short period of time. Chenille or vernille are the most popular and easiest materials to use. However, furry foam makes a juicy looking imitation that also sinks. Closed cell foam is probably the easiest material to use for a floating inchworm. While no more effective than cork or spun deer hair, it’s easier to work with.

Many Appalachian fishermen employ one of several patterns as a dropper under a grasshopper or cricket pattern. Chenille inchworms and ants tied as wet flies are among the best patterns to fish under a large dry. The Little River Ant is a pattern indigenous to the Great Smoky Mountains. This soft hackled ant is tied backwards. A yellow patch is dubbed at the rear of the hook to represent an ant carrying an egg. Soft hackle gives the impression of struggling legs.

Beetles also fish well as a dropper since the naturals rarely float for very long. One simple Appalachian beetle pattern that is highly effective fished alone or as a dropper is the Hot Creek Special devised by Kevin Howell in Brevard, North Carolina. The Hot Creek is a constant summertime producer in the highly pressured waters of North Carolina’s Davidson River, an excellent laboratory to test a fly’s effectiveness.

Many terrestrial fly patterns perform beyond the streams where they were developed. There are a number of Western imports that are no less effective than their Eastern counterparts. Schroeder’s Parachute Hopper may be the hopper I see in more fly boxes, but the classic Dave’s Hopper is in the running for the title. Craig Matthew’s Chaos Hopper may be the best hopper to come along for the fisherman who ties his own flies. This simple pattern incorporates a foam body, knotted rubber legs, antron yarn, and a couple of turns of hackle. The Chaos Hopper is an easy to tie hopper that is an exceptional fish fooler. The Killer Bee, a fly I had never heard of just a couple of years ago, may be the most effective pattern I’ve witnessed on hot, sunny days. Fished in the oxygen rich riffles and pockets, it can be a trout magnet.

The Chernobyl Ant is another Western innovation that has headed East. Scaled down to the Eastern freestone size of #10, this rubber and foam conglomeration has been known to move substantial sized trout. However, if not fished properly most of the trout go the wrong way! This pattern is best fished around cover that provides an ambush point. Cut banks, logs, and boulders are likely places to get a strike on a Chernobyl. Fished in open riffles it tends to spook more skittish mountain trout than it attracts.

Freestone trout are sluggish yet nervous in the skinny water that they have left in August and September. The slightest disturbance on the water will send them sprinting for shelter. There are no predictable hatches that will place fish in reliable feeding lies. The disadvantages can seem to outweigh any advantages. These are the times that try fishermen’s souls. Desperate times often call for desperate measures. Fishing in such challenging conditions brings out the best in fishermen and fly tyers alike. The key to making the breakthrough on tough stream conditions is to take the disadvantages and turn them into advantages.

The most disheartening thing that can happen in low, clear water is to constantly see trout flushing before you can position yourself for a cast. Dressing yourself in earth tone clothing can help dramatically. Many Appalachian fishermen wear camouflage shirts, vest, and caps to hide themselves as much as possible. Olive and gray fly lines are also becoming more popular for wary fish. Spooking trout can be an advantage if played properly, though. Try to remember where the trout were when they spooked. Move back, take a break, and rest the pool. Those fish that ran will often return to their lie within a few minutes if nothing happens. When you return, approach the pool from the best angle that won’t spook fish and try again. If you see a good one, be sure to come back and try again. If you still don’t succeed, remember that spot during more optimal water conditions. It is also important to note where the trout ran. This can often reveal a hiding spot that you may have overlooked. It can be surprising just how small a crack can hide just so big a fish.

Few things will alight on the water without a ripple in low, slick water. This telegraphs a message through the water to the fish. It can mean, “DANGER! Fly line and leader slapping the water!” Sometimes it can mean, “I’m a helpless and tasty cricket that just hopped into the stream.” Use fly imitations that are more likely to telegraph the latter. Also, cast those flies into the most likely spot for that to happen. Beetles and inchworms regularly fall from overhanging limbs like manna from heaven.

Several dry Septembers ago I was on a mountain stream with a minimum of water. That summer had been particularly dry. No fronts were making their way across the Great Plains and no hurricanes were churning in the Gulf of Mexico so the outlook for rain was bleak. Only the most careful presentations to the most riffled water would bring trout to a fly. However, most would refuse my Adams or Elk Caddis. Leaves on the trees were beginning to shrivel and stunted acorns were beginning to fall from withering oaks. As I approached one particularly glassy pool an acorn fell into the water, rippling outward like a tiny tsunami.

I was cursing my luck as a brown emerged from under a rock and intercepted the sinking acorn. The disappointed trout mouthed the acorn but dropped it as he returned to his lie. That shriveled acorn has since sprouted a low water fishing strategy. Any terrestrial pattern looks more realistic than an acorn. I have since abandoned fishing riffles during the low water of summer and fall. Beetle, hopper, and cricket imitations plopped near hideouts often entice far better trout than those cast into riffles and pockets. Extra care must be taken, though, since the surface isn’t broken to hide your presence.

My friend Tim, the reformed carnival huckster, knows exactly how to scan the waters for a willing trout the same way he called in “marks” to a carnival game they couldn’t win. He watches a good pool carefully before betraying his presence with a cast or tell tale ripples from wading. The same way he canvassed only the most likely people to a carnival game, he casts the most likely fly to the most appropriate spot. A pool with mossy banks will probably be fished with an ant. Undercut boulders or logs in the river will probably be the target of a Chernobyl Ant. Water beneath overhanging limbs will be fished with an inchworm, beetle, or Killer Bee. Tim’s advice to a trout or someone walking the midway is the same, if it looks too good to be true, you can bet it is.