Choosing the Right Fly:
The following is in response to many questions that we have received in email regarding our
"Hatches Made Easy" articles. Most of these were from anglers who were either confused as
to the importance of the particular fly they should use and/or wondering why it is important to
know and understand the behavior of insects. As much as I appreciate the response, It is
impossible for me to answer all of these. I hope the following article helps.
Why do some anglers contend that the particular fly one uses is of little
importance in catching trout in the Smokies? Why do some contend that a
Parachute Adams or a Hare’s Ear Nymph (just for example) are all the flies you
need? Why do you hear statements such as “by late spring all you need is a
yellow colored fly”. Why do some contend that even the size of the fly isn’t
important because their forefathers only used big flies? One angler even say,
“what difference does the looks of the fly make when the trout will hit the split
shot used to weight the fly”?
It is not always the uninformed, inexperienced anglers that make such
statements. These types of comments and belief also come from some anglers
that have fished the Smokies for a long time. Many of these statements even
come from the same anglers you will hear say “I have been fishing the Smokies
for over forty years”. Of course, in all due respect, most of those that make that
claim have never stopped and thought that maybe they have been fishing
the Smokies for forty years using less than the most productive
methods and techniques.
It is a fact that after forty years of fishing the Smokies many anglers still know
very little about the very thing they are trying to imitate – the aquatic insects the
trout eat. Of course there are always those guys that make the forty-year claim
that only fish a very few days of the year. They could rightly make that claim
even if they fish only once a year.
You will even hear some fly shop salesmen state that knowing and being able to
match the aquatic insects is not important even though they sell hundreds of
different types of flies. Many of them are perfectly willing to offer advice as to
what fly to use and where to fish even though they may have not been on the
water for days and even then, in some cases, maybe as little as once of twice a
There are days that the particular fly you use does seem to make little
difference. This is especially true on days when there are multiple hatches
underway and water conditions such as water level, speed, color, temperature,
oxygen content, etc. are near perfect. During such days, anglers usually get
decent results from a variety of flies. Since there are many different species and
sizes of insects hatching and/or preparing to hatch, the trout are catching
glimpses of a lot of different bugs in the water that are in an exposed situation
that makes it easy for the trout to feed on them. In the fast moving pocket water
typical of the Smokies, the trout only get short, quick glimpses of the naturals or
flies presented by anglers. During these times of prime environmental conditions
(water temperature, flow, levels, etc.), the trout are feeding very aggressively.
The combination of lots of available food and aggressively feeding trout makes it
easy to fool a trout with a fly. Under these conditions, as long as the fly they
are using remotely resembles an aquatic insect, anyone that can make
twenty foot, upstream cast (without getting hung in a tree limb) is going
to get a lot of takes This situation is not just indicative of the Smokies, it is
indicative of any acidic, headwater freestone stream in the nation. It is the
good results under these prime conditions that lead many anglers into
thinking the particular insects the trout feed on and the particular fly
one uses is unimportant.
How do these same anglers (the ones that claim the particular fly is not
important or that having a good knowledge of the aquatic insects is not
important) explain those days when the results are not very good? The answer
to that is simple. They always have an excuse. They are quick to say that the
water was too low or high; the hatches didn’t occur or were sparse; the water
was stained from rain; the water was too cold or too warm; they fished the same
water another angler had fished; they got there too early or too late, the fish
were not feeding, they fished during the dog days of summer; fishing is never
great in the winter months; the brown trout are not moving yet; the tourist
bothered them; the tube floaters drove them nuts; they didn’t bring their favorite
$600 fly rod; they really just did not try very hard; and a million other excuses.
They never stop to think that their lack of knowledge about what the fish eat
and/or that their contentions about the importance of the particular fly they use,
had anything to do with it. After all, they fished the same way they do when they
are successful; the same way their forefathers did; the same way their buddy did
last week; the same way the fly shop salesman said to fish; and even the exact
way their guide showed them how to fish. All that considered, it could not
possibly have been the fly they used, or the way they presented it. They tried
them all – Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, Hares Ear Nymph, Prince Nymph,
etc. Heck, they even tried the Royal Wulff, a fly that the trout thinks is strawberry
short-cake and ice cream. They used every attractor, generic, stimulator and
non-specific imitation there was in their fly box.
The poor results that particular day could not possible have been anything they
did or could it? It could not have possibly have been that they didn’t know the
particular species of mayfly that was hatching or that they didn’t as much as
know the family it belonged to. It could have not possibly have been that they
didn’t know that mayfly hatched on the bottom of the stream rather than in the
surface skim. It could not possibly have been that they didn’t as much as know
what a spinner is, much less when, where and how spinners occur; or how a
particular species of mayfly spinner deposits its eggs, etc. It could not have
possibly been that the caddisflies they thought they were imitating, dive to
deposit their eggs on the bottom of the stream. None of the above had anything
to do with their poor results. The fact they don’t know a caddisfly pupa from a
midge larva, from a swimming mayfly nymph or a burrower didn’t have anything
to do with it. The fact that in four hours any ten-year old kid could learn all
they know about the things trout eat, including the ways and means the
trout eat them, didn’t have anything to do with their lack of success. In
their minds, the reason was simple. The fish didn’t bite due to such and
Most days of the year, conditions are not optimum. Conditions are not
always the same as they usually are in April or May and even if they were, April
and May don’t always provide great conditions. Heavy rains, blackberry winters,
and even an occasional early April snowstorm may occur. All in all, you will find
those near perfect days to be few and far between.
Trout don't just feed when conditions are great. They feed throughout the
year. There are a very few days when the water temperature may be below forty
degrees when the trout feed very little but that is the only time. Furthermore, the
trout do not have to be feeding aggressively in order for you to catch them.
Although it is easier some days than others, they can be caught any time.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides year-round fly-fishing for
trout. This is one feature that distinguishes it from most other fly-fishing
destinations. However, there are probably less than 45 days out of the year
that conditions are optimum for catching trout. There are many days
during the prime months of the season that cold fronts move through; it rains; or
there is high wind; just to name a few things that can affect even the best fishing
times of the year.
It is during the times that fishing conditions are not optimum that having
a good knowledge of the aquatic insects and being able to imitate their
appearance and behavior can make a big difference.
I learned years ago when I first started fishing the professional bass or BASS
tournaments that the difference in the typical above average bass angler and
the pros, meaning those few that actually made their living on the BASS circuit,
was that they could consistently catch bass when conditions were not perfect.
Given excellent conditions for three straight consecutive days, the typical above
average bass angler could compete fairly well with the pros whom almost always
ranked high in the standings. When the catch was limited to only 5 or 7 fish per
day, the total weight for the three day tournament of the bulk of the anglers in
the field of 300 were not separated that much. The pros would still beat them but
the margins were much less. When conditions were not near perfect, and that
was most tournament days, the pros always excelled. When conditions were
horrible, they really excelled.
I found that same thing was true of professional saltwater anglers. I fished the
SKA or Southern Kingfish Tournament circuit for six years. Those that were
successful (which included myself) knew more about a ribbonfish, blue runners,
menhaden, round scad, etc than they knew about their mothers. In other words
they key to catching the large king mackerel was knowing when, where and what
the fish were eating; and either knowing how to rig and present that bait or
knowing how to imitate the particular food the fish were feeding on with an
In the many marlin fishing tournament circuits and many national and world-wide
big game fishing tournaments I participated in, I found that the winning captains,
anglers and mates didn’t just select their lures or natural baits because they
heard someone else caught a fish on such and such, they went to an extensive
amount of effort and trouble to find out what the marlin were most likely feeding
on. When they did find out, they learned how, when and where to either imitate
that bait, or to catch and actually present that particular bait in a manner similar
to the naturals. Hundreds of hours were spent learning how to get various sets
of lures or natural live and dead baits to run from flat lines, outriggers, and tag
lines in a manner that closely imitated the behavior of the natural bait under
various types of sea conditions. It was standard in many cases to pay several
hundred dollars for someone to fly over the fishing area the day before a
tournament looking for rip currents and baitfish of various types. I have flown
over the offshore waters the day prior to fishing a big game tournament many
times, saving the positions of bait activity. It always turned out the same. Those
that claimed the particular lure or bait did not matter ended up furnishing the
money that was won by those who knew what they were doing.
The key to any type of fishing is always the food the fish eat. In the case
of trout, the options are usually many. There are a lot of different types of
insects that look and behave differently. In some tailwaters the options are
relatively few but in most freestone streams, there is a wide variety of food
available for the trout to eat. Understanding that food, consisting mainly of
aquatic insects; knowing its behavior and when, where and how the trout
consume it; and being able to imitate that food with a fly is the key to catching
trout consistently. Trout do not have to be feeding selectively for this to make a
difference. Although they have a tiny brains and in layman's terms, a short
memory, they survive primarily by eating real insects they are very familiar with.
Even when they are feeding opportunistically, which is most always, they are far
more likely to eat something they commonly see and are familiar with
than something they rarely encounter.
The Mediocre Angler:
The bottom line is whether or not someone is satisfied with being a mediocre
angler and having mediocre success. If one is perfectly content with just
being able to catch trout when it is easy to do so or under optimum conditions,
then there is nothing wrong with it. Many rewards of trout fishing have nothing to
do with the size and number of fish caught. There is nothing wrong with any
angler being perfectly satisfied with catching a few trout during the times fishing
is termed “good or excellent” fishing conditions. That same angler could
probably care less if the fish was wild or stocked.
I use the word “termed” good because I personally don’t think that good
fishing conditions should necessarily mean the fish are easy to catch. I
have been in situations where I could catch a fish every cast. I have done that
fishing for red snapper, small amberjack, catfish, bedding bream, bluefish,
bonita, yellowtail snapper, ladyfish, speckeled trout, skipjack tuna, vermilion
snapper, chicken dolphin and other species of fish. On those occasions, I did
not especially enjoy the fishing but for a short period of time. It soon became
boring and simply put, just too easy to do. When you can catch a stocked trout
about every five minutes, do you consider that “good fishing”? When I can catch
ten to fifteen trout an hour fishing in the Smokies (and I have done that on many
occasions), except for maybe the first hour or so, I didn’t especially enjoy it.
Anyone has the perfect right to disagree and I don’t disrespect those that do. It
is the challenge of catching fish that makes fishing interesting to me.
I am never satisfied with knowing enough about fly-fishing. It is the endless quest
for more knowledge and experience that keeps me interested. I have been that
way since I was a kid and regarding every species of fish that I have fished for. I
am not one to be satisfied with mediocre fishing.
Have you ever noticed that it is always the anglers that don’t know one aquatic
insect from another that contend it is not necessary to know much about the
insects the trout eat? You won’t find many anglers that are highly knowledgeable
about the insects that hold that contention. I don’t know the first one. It is
always those ignorant about the insects that contend that it is not
important for one to know much about the aquatic insects.
I know one man that guides for his living (or survival I should call it) that admitted
that he did not know what a mayfly spinner was. He knew what a mayfly was but
that was and probably still is, about the extent of his knowledge of aquatic
insects. He probably still thinks that dun is a color and a spinner is a fly pattern.
Would you want him to guide you?
Like many anglers, in a fast moving freestone stream, under prime conditions,he
and his clients can catch opportunistically feeding trout by simply tying on
various flies or in other words, using the trial and error method. Under optimum
conditions, when the trout are feeding aggressively, anyone that can cast
reasonably well can do that. If his clients fail to catch trout, he always has an
excuse. It is usually that the water was too cold, the water was too hot, the water
was too low or the water was too high but there are many more. It is never that
he just was not aware of what was happening or what the trout were feeding on.
I suggest you ask yourself these questions. From the first of December until the
first of March ( a three month period), how many trout did you catch in the
Smokies? How many did you catch during the three months period from the first
of July to the first of October (not counting last year during the drought) or on
second thought, how many did you catch during the drought?
Of course many of you probably just didn’t go during that six months period of
time. How many days during the so called prime six months period did you
encounter a day of fishing where you caught only a few trout or less than you
would prefer? How many days during that prime six months period did you
consider conditions less than optimal (high water, low water, etc.) and as a
result, you did you not fish? How many days did you fish when the water
temperature was near perfect, say between 50 and 65 degrees, the
water levels were good, a few insects were hatching and you only
managed to catch a few trout?
Do you want to only be able to consistently catch trout on the fly the few days of
the year when conditions are near perfect or had you rather be able to
consistently catch them irrespective of the conditions? Would you like to catch
trout because you knew what they were primarily feeding on and you imitated
that food source to successfully fool the trout into taking your fly, In other words,
had you rather catch a trout because you knew what you were doing or
just because you were either lucky or happened to be fishing when
anyone could hit them over the head with their fly line and still manage
to catch them?
Obviously, many anglers could care less how they catch them. Again, there is
absolutely nothing wrong with that. Some people are happy and content to sit on
a bank with a cane pole waiting on a bite. Some are happy just changing flies
until they get a take from a trout. Some are content to go fishing a few days of
the year under optimal conditions. Some are even happy to go even if they
catch nothing. There is nothing wrong with any of that with this one exception.
That exception is, when those same anglers start telling others that “the
fly makes no difference” or that “knowing the aquatic insects and other
food sources that trout feed on is not that important”, and other such
statements that I mentioned above, they are making stupid statements that
are out of line. Yes, I said “stupid” statements. Just because they have
managed to catch trout without knowing much of anything about the food trout
eat, does not qualify them to make such statements.
They are entitled to their opinion but just because they can catch trout on a
couple of flies under optimum conditions, they should not mislead others into
thinking that a knowledge of what the trout eat is not important.
In an article coming soon, I will explain my opinion based on my observations,
studies and test as to why the trout will sometimes hit just about any fly and at
other times reject most anything you throw at them. We will get into the details of
how the fly and its presentation can make a big difference. Meantime, I will
continue with the "Hatches Made Simple" articles.
Copyright 2008 James Marsh