Smoky Mountain Trout Flies
If you plan on fly fishing for trout in Great Smoky Mountains National Park you better get used to the term “Smoky Mountain trout
flies“. Although the name infers there’s something unique to the Smokies about the flies you need to fish the streams in the
park, "you’ns don’t need no highfalutin Smoky Mountain trout flies to catch specs or bows from the branches runin thru our
The purpose of the fly is to fool the trout into taking it for one of the insects or other items of food the trout are eating at the
time. If the fly does a good job of that, there won’t be anything unique to the Smoky Mountains about it. The insects and other
trout foods that exist in the streams of the park are found in the freestone streams of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia
to Maine. Several species of aquatic and terrestrial insects found in the Smoky Mountains exist in trout streams throughout the
nation. The same thing is true of most of the baitfish, minnows, sculpin, and crustaceans that are in the streams of the park.
I’m sure one of the reasons this isn’t well known is very little information is available about the aquatic insects and other trout
foods that exist in the Smoky Mountains. While there are dozens of books that have been written specifically about the aquatic
and terrestrial insects and other food the trout rely on in other specific areas of the country, you’ll be hard pressed to find over a
page or two of worthwhile information about it in the few books that have been written about fly fishing in the Smoky Mountains.
A couple of the books completely ignore the food and focus on what they call Smoky Mountain trout flies to the point it appears
the authors want to leave you with the impression the trout survive on hair and feathers.
The various foods the trout eat are not unique to the streams of the Great Smoky Mountains and neither are the flies you need
to catch the trout. The only thing that should be unique about the flies is they should imitate the specific insects and other foods
the trout eat in the streams of the Smokies. The more your fly resembles the appearance and behavior of the most plentiful and
available food the trout are eating at the time you are fishing, the easier it will be for you to fool the trout into taking your fly for
the real thing.
You’ll probably read and hear that the presentation of the fly is far more important than the fly itself. It’s a talking point some
anglers frequently use as a cover up for their lack of knowledge about the aquatic insects in the streams of the Smoky
Mountains. To say the presentation of a fly is more important than the fly itself is like saying the engines of an airplane are more
important than its wings.
The trout in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are wild, stream-bred trout. They are not stocked trout that were raised in a
hatchery on fish food pellets. One reason they survive as well as they do is they are extremely skillful at avoiding predators. The
trout are as nervous as a long tail cat in a nursing home room full of rocking chairs. They survive their entire life by eating the
food that’s in the streams they live in but only when their pea size brains signal they are safe from being eaten by one of their
If you want to be successful in catching them, you better make certain your fly is the only thing they see. If they see you, your
shiny fly reel, or even the shadow of your fly rod waving through the air, you can forget about catching them. Just the sight or
sound of your fly line hitting the water is enough to send them fleeing for the nearest cover.
Since the fly represents what the trout are trying to eat and since it’s the only thing the trout should be able to see to avoid
spooking them before they are hooked, don’t you think it’s rather important? Furthermore, don't you think it makes sense the fly
should resemble the same thing the trout are eating?
Get used to hearing that trout in the Smoky Mountains feed opportunistically, a tongue twisting statement often used by bug
challenged anglers to lessen the importance of the fly. It is a true statement because it can be said that trout feed
opportunistically everywhere they exist. In a technical sense, all fish are opportunistic feeders. That simply means if it's
available, they may eat more than one single item of food. This particular one word oversimplification of how trout feed can
create big problems for those that misunderstand it. The fact trout feed opportunistically is often misinterpreted to mean the
trout will eat whatever happens to come along and that the particular fly you use isn't important.
Selective feeding is another little understood fly fishing term that’s often interpreted to mean just the opposite of opportunistic
feeding. A trout is said to be feeding selectively when it's preferring one insect over another. In a pure technical sense, if a trout
ate a hundred Little Yellow stonefly nymphs and just one Light Cahill mayfly nymph, it could be said the trout was feeding
opportunistically. From the same technical standpoint, the trout would not be feeding entirely selectively because it ate more
than one insect. If selective feeding is used in a more meaningful sense it would imply that even though trout may not focus
entirely on one insect, the great majority of what they eat is always the one that’s most plentiful and easiest for them to acquire.
If a trout is feeding near or on the surface in a certain area, feeding lane or zone of water, and both a Light Cahill dun and a
Blue-winged Olive dun happened to be drift downstream, side-by-side within that zone, the trout may very well eat either one of
the insects. If it could react quickly enough it may even eat both of them. It may not feed selectively in the sense it would choose
one insect over the other. The problem with this hypothetical scenario is that it's unrealistic. Such a scenario rarely exist in the
pocket water streams of the Smoky Mountains. During the times trout are lined up in a particular lane, line or zone of water
feeding on the surface in a fast water riffle or run, they are there because of a concentration of food. This food almost always
consists of one and only one insect. It’s rare that two or more different aquatic insects are hatching at the same time and are
getting caught up in the fast water current seams together.
Light Cahills are clinger nymphs that prefer fast water and Blue-winged Olives are swimming nymphs that prefer slow to
moderate flows. They neither live nor hatch in the same areas of the streams. They rarely get caught in the same currents and
almost never at the same time.
Even though much of the water in the high gradient streams of the park is fast flowing water, less than a third of all aquatic
insects that exist in the streams of Great Smoky Mountains National Park hatch in areas where they can easily get caught in the
fast water. Most of them are able to emerge and fly away from slow or moderate areas of flow.
About a third of the aquatic insects, including some mayflies, several caddisflies and all stoneflies, don’t hatch in the water. They
crawl out on the banks to hatch. Trout focus on eating them when they crawl out of their normal hiding spots beneath the rocks
to the banks. Those hatching insects that do get caught in fast water are almost always clinger mayflies. Although they move
from their normal fast water habitat to the nearest slower flowing water to emerge, many get caught in the seams between the
slow and fast water and channeled downstream in the fast water.
This feeding zone, area or lane I'm referring to, whether it is in fast, moderate or slow areas of water, also relates to depth. It
includes the surface and the column of water from the surface to the bottom as well as the bottom itself. Although you may
envision various nymphs, larvae and other food drifting downstream at random, whether accidentally or in a behavioral drift,
such a situation very rarely exist. Aquatic insect nymphs and larvae don't survive drifting freely downstream. On numerous
occasions, during the two year period we had a special permit to catch and photograph insects, we placed special designed
aquatic insect drift nets in several different streams of the park for hours at a time only to discover an empty net. If you sit on the
bank of a fast water stream in the Smokies staring into the water looking for insects drifting downstream, get ready to fall asleep
before you spot the first one.
Except during a hatch, there's almost never enough free drifting nymphs, larvae, terrestrial insects ,or any other form of food in
the fast water at any one time to warrant trout holding in the faster currents to feed. When trout are feeding in certain areas,
zones or lanes, they are almost always feeding on one particular insect that’s hatching in quantities sufficient enough to warrant
the trout being there holding in the fast water feeding on them. Anytime there’s lots of food drifting downstream in fast water
current, you can bet you last dollar there's a hatch underway. Trout won't hold in fast current waiting on random bits of food to
drift downstream. If they did, they will expend more energy than they could replenish.
The exact location of whatever is most available and most plentiful for the trout to eat in a stream at any given time varies
greatly. The different aquatic insects live, feed, hatch, mate and fall dead in different sections and depths of the streams
depending on the particular species of aquatic insect.
Even if the trout aren’t being one-hundred percent selective as to the particular food they are eating, they are certainly being
selective as to exactly where in the stream they are looking for food. Selective feeding is nature's way of letting the trout feed
efficiently. This allows them to use less energy and take in more food. The trout are feeding in similar areas of the stream,
focusing on eating what’s most plentiful and available for them to eat using a minimum amount of effort. It’s necessary for their
survival. If trout expend more energy than the food they take in can replenish, they will soon die.
Trout will only get into a certain fast water feeding zone, line or lane and hold there only when there's a substantial amount of
food coming their way. As long as there's an adequate amount of food coming down the same feeding lane, the trout won't move
to another area of water, or seek another depth to feed. Again, in such cases, it's almost always one and only one insect.
Why do certain generic flies that mimic several insects of the same size and general shade of color sometimes work quite well in
the fast water and why do attractor flies that don't necessarily match anything often work in the fast water? For example, trout
will sometimes take a gray body Parachute Adams dry fly when yellow Light Cahills are hatching. The answer lies in timing. First
of all, a trout has only a fraction of a second to examine a fly in fast water. Secondly, the trout has only a small window of vision
when it is feeding near the surface. The trout is only able to see a distorted image of part of the fly that's above the surface and
only for a split second. Even then you will often see flashes where trout detect something that’s unnatural and rejected the fly at
the last split second.
Even when an insect is hatching and becoming caught up in the fast water runs and riffles and trout are feeding on them, which
had you rather have tied on - a fly that imitated the hatching insect, or one that imitated something that wasn't even present? Or
had you rather have a generic fly that imitates a little of everything as opposed to a fly that’s imitating the insect that’s hatching.
Even in fast water situations such as I just described, you will find better, more realistic imitations of the naturals results in a
higher percentage of hookups.
What about those other two-thirds of the insects that either emerge or crawl out of the water to hatch from the slow to moderate
sections of the pocket water streams? In those cases the trout are able to get a very good look at your fly. In those situations I
think you will find that an imitation that closely resembles the appearance and behavior of the natural will greatly increase your
odds of success.
Please don’t refer to this solely as “matching the hatch”. It involves much more than that. It’s also matching the 99.9 percent of
the aquatic life in the streams that hasn‘t yet hatched. It should also mean “matching the egg layers”. It should even include
“matching the dead”, or the mayfly spinners and other aquatic and terrestrial insects that fall into the streams and die. Don’t
forget the other trout foods. Call that “matching the sculpin and minnows” if you like. Instead of improperly calling everything
“matching the hatch“, just call it “matching the naturals“. Even better, just think of it as matching the food the trout eat with a fly
that closely resembles that particular food‘s appearance and behavior.
Don’t think I’m attempting to undermine the importance of presentation, or that I’m even contending that the fly is more important
than the way it’s presented. That’s not my intension at all but do keep this in mind. The first and foremost important key to
presentation is knowing "where" in the streams the insects live and hatch. Remember, although the trout may not be feeding
selectively, eating one and only one insect, they are always selective in exactly where they feed. They feed where the insects
are most plentiful and easiest to acquire and that often isn't in the fast water where the trout are easier to fool.
If your not satisfied with mediocre success, or you do okay and you want to improve to the point you will be able to consistently
catch trout from the streams of the Smokies, I suggest you start by learning all you can about the food they eat to survive on. If
you have been fishing in the Smokies using the traditional generic and attractor flies like the Royal Wulffs, Parachute Adams,
Hares Ear nymphs and other generic and attractor flies, and your not achieving the success that you desire, you may want to
consider switching to more realistic imitations of the insects and other foods the trout eat.
Copyright 2012 James Marsh
..Owner, Perfect Fly Company
About the Author:
Teaching others to fish has been a
rewarding, lifetime devotion for
Marsh. *1975 to 1980, fished
national B.A.S.S. pro circuit . Since
1980, fishing, boating and other
related outdoor activities have been
the sole source of his livelihood.
*1980 to 1985, hosted and produced
the first ever nationally syndicated TV
series on saltwater fishing *1985 to
Current, hosted and produced 48
saltwater instructional fishing
videos/DVD (more have been sold
than anyone’s). *Hosted and
produced hundreds of other
instructional boating and outdoor
recreational videos *Concurrent with
the above, fished over a hundred
saltwater fishing tournaments
*Written numerous magazine articles
for several national fishing
magazines such as Sport Fishing,
Marlin and others *1998 to present,
in conjunction with his wife Angela,
host and produced 18 instructional
fly fishing DVD, including “Fly
Fishing Great Smoky Mountain
National Park“ *Webmaster of four
websites on fishing.
An article by James Marsh in the 2012 Troutfest Journal posted with permission of
Troutfest Journal publisher and the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited.