Oldies but goodies

Some of the oldest trout flies tied in this part of the country are still some of the best on trout waters in the high country of the Carolinas.

Traditional trout flies in the southern Appalachians still catch plenty of trout, decades after their births

Long before the first European settlers arrived, and long before “gentlemen” fly fishers discovered the fine trout waters of the Southern Appalachians, the Cherokee used hand-made flies to catch trout, not for sport, however, but for food.

According to Jan Davidson, director of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., and an authority on trout fishing in the mountains, the Cherokee were the mountains’ first master fly anglers. They fashioned hooks from chipped stone and the leg bones of deer. They wrapped the shanks of the hooks with deer hair and fished them wet, catching the abundant brook trout that, until the late 1800s, were the only salmonids populating mountain streams.

Early settlers continued the fly-fishing tradition, adapting and modifying the Cherokee deer-hair flies and creating their own. One version of that early fly evolved into a popular fly called the Irresistible, which is still used today.

The Yellowhammer

Other traditional mountain patterns evolved much later, some out of need, some out of opportunity. Probably one of the most famous is the Yellowhammer, or “Yallerhammer,” as it was more commonly called. This fly, according to Roger Lowe, a master fly-tier from Waynesville, N.C., is “a very effective fly, one of the first flies to come to mind when you think about fishing western North Carolina streams,” primarily because many mountain anglers believed a fly with a little “yaller” in it would attract more trout.

No one is certain who originated the Yellowhammer, although Davidson speculates that the Cherokee may have tied the first one, wrapping the bright quills of the yellow-shafted flicker around a hook in reverse-palmer style. After the flicker became an endangered bird, fly tiers switched to other materials, dyeing grizzly hackle and peacock or dove feathers to resemble the bright yellow plumage of the flicker. 

One of the people most often associated with the Yellowhammer was the late Fred Hall of Bryson City. N.C. Hall and his wife, Alleen, turned out thousands of Yellowhammers, along with a variety of other patterns, for local and visiting fly fishers. Some people give Hall credit for originating the Tellico nymph and the Adams variant.

The Yellowhammer was tied as both a wet and dry fly. It also was tied on a straight-eyed hook and fished as a nymph. Another early practice was to attach a willow-leaf spinner to the Yellowhammer and use it as a spinner, a practice favored by old-timers and used long before Rooster Tail and Mepps spinners became available.

Smokies’ favorite

Another Fred Hall original was the Thunderhead, a fly especially designed for the rough-water streams in the Smokies. The fly floats well and is a good attractor pattern. Some fly fishers use this fly year-round, varying the size to fit fishing conditions. The fly is easy to see in the water because of its hair wings.

One fly that traditional fly fishers always kept in their fly boxes is the Gray Hackle, a yellow-bodied fly with grizzly hackle and tail but no wings. Fly fishers often would add a red feather for the tail, and a few enterprising fishers with more ingenuity than money used the red cellophane strip from a cigarette pack for a tail.

The Gray Hackle and the Tellico nymph were two patterns than fit the widest variety of fishing conditions, and if you didn’t have those two flies, you didn’t catch fish.

A starting point

Some patterns evolved from patterns created by other fly-tiers. The Tennessee Wulff, for example, is a variation of Lee Wulff’s famous Royal Wulff. The Appalachian version has a green center instead of a red center.

Other traditional favorites are the pale Yellow Palmer, a fly favored for the streams in the Little Cataloochee area; the Jim-Charley, a local pattern used on the Big East Fork of the Pigeon River and on the Davidson River; the Smoky Mountain Forked-Tail, which has mallard wings, blue dun hackle, orange body, and a forked tail of mallard feathers; the Coffey Stone Nymph, originated by Frank Coffey of Maggie Valley, N.C., utilizing scrap material from the Waynesville Dayco plant; the Secret Weapon, which was used by mountain fly fishers long before the popular Prince fly came into use; and the Horse Hair Nymph, which simulates a hellgrammite.

New patterns come and go, but the traditional patterns are the flies that consistently catch the most trout.

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Robert Satterwhite
About Robert Satterwhite 180 Articles
Bob Satterwhite has been writing about the outdoors, particularly trout fishing, for more than 25 years. A native of Morganton, N.C., he lives in Cullowhee, N.C., close to the Tuckasegee River, Caney Fork, Moses Creek, and several other prime trout streams.

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