Time would also reveal that the other flies I favored all had mountain origins. The Tellico Nymph (almost certainly named for a Tellico Creek—there is one in Macon County, North Carolina and another in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest), Deerhair and Yellarhammar were all standards among high country anglers. Today I seldom see mention of the Deerhair, but the Tellico Nymph remains in common usage. As for the Yellarhammar (it takes its name from the colloquial word given to a flicker, now on the endangered species list, that provided the feathers originally used to produce it), no single pattern is more closely identified with the southern Appalachians. It comes in many variations—dry fly, wet fly and even tied on a long-shank hook to be used as a trailer for a Colorado spinner—but all feature yellow as the predominant color and all catch fish.
The final fly in my quintet of boyhood favorites, the Adams Variant, also features an abundance of yellow. In this case, unlike what is so often the situation with flies of mountain origin, the individual who identified the pattern can be identified. Fred Hall, a resident of Bryson City, North Carolina who produced flies commercially for many years, designed and popularized the pattern. Or at least so he claimed, although truth be told it seems quite possible that it was actually his wife, Allene, who deserves credit for its development. Certainly she was a far better fly-tier than Fred, but he epitomized the old mountain adage that suggests: “He who tooteth not his own horn, his horn shall not be tooted.”
Except for serious students of fly-tying history, the issue of whether the pattern originated with Fred or Allene really doesn’t matter. Furthermore, since both have been deceased for some time, it isn’t a question likely to be resolved. What does matter is that the Adams Variant, a cross between a Male and a Female Adams featuring heavier hackle than either and with the yellow found on the latter having been moved to the middle of the fly, works wonders on mountain streams from early May well into autumn.
The Halls, who had known the hard times of the Great Depression as young adults, always made a point of utilizing offbeat and inexpensive materials in their fly tying. Indeed, that has always been a hallmark of mountain fly-tiers, and their “waste not, want not” approach has produced some interesting, highly innovative approaches. For example, not long after I learned that the Royal Wulff was named for a man rather than a beast, my frequent forays into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park led to an acquaintance with Frank Young. After we passed on the trail half a dozen times, saying “howdy” and continuing on our individual ways, one or the other of us started a conversation.
I learned that this veteran of the Korean War had come home to the high country determined to seek solace and solitude, and for the better part of three decades he averaged 250 days a year astream. He was a splendid fisherman, particularly when it came to dealing with hefty, wily brown trout, but what truly intrigued me was his innovative, inquisitive approach to fishing and fly tying. Frank tied a lot of patterns that he simply characterized as “a little grey fly” or a “big brown fly,” but in every case they came from close observation of hatches and an exceptional willingness to experiment. He used extraordinarily long leaders (16-20 feet), occasionally resorted to huge dry flies (on size 6 or 8 hooks) and figured out how to catch the big rainbows that run out of Lake Santeetlah into Big Snowbird Creek each fall (some call the steelhead, and they certainly have the right appearance and behavior) before anyone else.
Yet the two most memorable of many fascinating things about Frank Young were the way he tied Royal Wulffs and his longtime practice of putting rocks in his creel. He substituted the fur of ‘possum bellies for kip tail when tying the wings of Royal Wulffs, saying it was more pliable, floated just as well and cost nothing—“If you can’t find free ‘possum fur, you sure enough have problems.” As for the rocks, any time an unusual or attractive stone caught his eye he would put it in his wicker creel. Similarly, on those numerous occasions when he caught a big or particularly memorable fish, he picked up a rock from the pool. He carried these home, one or two at a time over the course of many years, placed them in a frame, and when it was full poured in cement. Eventually he had enough cement and rock blocks to build walls for an entire room, and today he can sit in it or work at his vise surrounded by memories literally set in stone.
Young’s use of ‘possum fur, not to mention dozens of other kinds of material taken from free sources such as road kills, closely paralleled the approach used by Marion, North Carolina’s Cato Holler. A devoted hunter, trapper and conservationist as well as a fly-tier and skilled angler, Holler regularly saved the fur and feathers from these activities and turned the material into fine flies. His favorite was one he named the Infallible. It was tied with a badger tail, mink body, wood duck (flank feather) wings and a brown hackle.
In his middle years he went on a successful polar bear hunt, and afterwards Holler discovered the hide made wonderful tying material. The stiff hairs are translucent, much like the wings of various insects, and because they are hollow patterns using the material float wonderfully well. Even today his grandson Chris, who inherited the precious polar bear fur along with a stretch of North Carolina’s Armstrong Creek that Holler bought and lovingly managed, uses the material in many traditional patterns that normally utilize calf or buck tail.
The ultimate master of “make do” when it comes to tying material has to be Waynesville, North Carolina’s Bennie Joe Craig. The son of a noted fly-tier who has been producing deceptions fur and feather for over a half century in his own right, he has always made a practice of using offbeat materials in his flies. No discarded spool of thread, bundle of trimmings from a textile factory or indeed any piece of throw away stuff has ever escaped Craig’s notice. He epitomizes the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” aspect of fly tying, and an example tracing back to his youth offers a case in point. Lucky Strike cigarettes had a pull away red band used to open the pack, and he constantly searched for these, having found that they were ideal for adding “royal” red to Royal Coachmen flies. Similarly, he picked up moth-eaten fur coats at yard sales, figured out substitutes (dyed quail feathers instead of those of the flicker for tying Yellarhammars are a good example) and welcomed the offshoots of success on the part of hunting friends as he added to his supplies.
Decades of producing fine flies, with an emphasis on traditional mountain patterns, make him a man deserving of the title “master.” Nor should his influence on others, such as one of the finest fly-tiers among the next generation, Roger Lowe, be overlooked. Like Fred and Allene Hall, Craig has long made a practice of modifying established patterns, either through use of substitute materials or in changes of color or design. He has a variation on the Thunderhead, a longtime favorite, he styles a Chocolate Thunderhead; a Stickbait Nymph similar to the Tellico Nymph; and any number of variants of the Adams.
Most of Craig’s willingness to vary from standard tying practice has derived from experiences astream, and certainly that is the case with an individual who may well be the most effective fly fisherman with whom I have ever shared time astream, Marty Maxwell. This Robbinsville, North Carolina native grew up following in his grandfather’s footsteps on the grand streams found near his home, and at an early age he began producing flies, many of them without a name, that imitated insects he noticed trout eating.
A prime example is a ‘hopper pattern (I call it the MarMac Hopper, using a portion of his first name and that of one of his fishing buddies, Mack Bridges, because they developed it together). It offers a far finer imitation of a small green-and-grey ‘hopper commonly found in the mountains from mid-July on into autumn than you will find in any catalog or fly shop. Similarly, after some missteps and misadventures dealing with huge steelhead (at least that’s what the locals call them, and since such fish were stocked in Lake Santeetlah years ago they may be right) that enter Big Snowbird Creek come the Indian Summer days of a high country fall, he solved that devilishly difficult equation. The answer was a miniscule, midge-like Adams fashioned to resemble to tiny insects he found the bruiser trout sipping day after day.
Individuals such as Maxwell, Roger Lowe and Chris Holler attest to the legacy of mountain fly-tiers continuing to thrive. Whether you look back to the Grey Hackle legendary Mark Cathey favored, the Sheep Fly tied by Cap Weese, the Smoky Mountain Forked Tail, the Orange Palmer and Yellow Palmer, the Jim Charley or any of the patterns mentioned above, all remind us of a mountain characteristic so deeply ingrained as to deserve identification as a folkway—adaptability.
Horace Kephart may have found, as he suggests in his regional classic, Our Southern Highlanders, a people living “back of beyond.” Then, as now, they were an ingenious lot who lived close to the earth and worked wonders with their hands. The mountain fly-tying tradition offers a fine, enduring example of that ingenuity.
Perhaps a suitable way to close comes from an experience I enjoyed a decade or more ago while doing a spate of guiding in Montana. One of the guests was a highly accomplished fly fisherman who had extensive experience in the Carolinas and Virginia. During a period when things were far tougher than normal, he caught big trout on a Tellico Nymph with such consistency that within the course of a single week he had outfitters coming to visit the lodge at night to learn his secret. On one such occasion he turned to me and said: “I reckon an old mountain boy can teach these upstarts a thing or two about tying flies that catch fish.” All I could do was grin, nod my head, and utter a heartfelt “Amen.”
THE LITERATURE OF SOUTHERN APPALACHIAN FLY-TIERS
Literary guidance to fly tying as practiced by mountain folks is surprisingly abundant. The subject has garnered periodic attention in magazines, but for in-depth information books offer the best guidance. Cato Oliver Holler’s little work, Adventures of a Lifetime: The Autobiography of an American Sportsman makes an excellent starting place, provided you can locate a copy of this obscure, though recently published (1998) book. It isn’t a book of fly tying as such, but you’ll find a great deal of insight on the subject. He knew and fished with folks like the legendary Cap Weese. Portions of Don Kirk’s Fly-Fishing Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains offer useful insight on patterns and tiers, with a chapter on Waynesville’s Bennie Joe Craig being of particular note. Much of the rest of his historical information comes from articles I have written over the years. Similar in nature, though less satisfactory, is H. Lea Lawrence’s The Fly Fisherman’s Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You will find considerable coverage of history, including the enduring nature of mountain fly tying, in my book, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion
The two most important books on the subject are L. J. De Cuir’s Southeastern Flies (excellent on patterns; weak on their origins) and Don Howell’s Tying & Fishing Southern Appalachian Trout Flies. Don and his brother, Dwight, were two skilled mountain tiers who also knew how to catch fish, and Kevin Howell has carried this legacy down another generation. Finally, Roger Lowe’s little booklet, Smoky Mountain Fly Patterns, is invaluable in terms of covering, on a month-by-month basis, flies that are proven producers.
THE MAGIC OF YELLOW
Without any question, the single most productive color when it comes to catching trout in the southern Appalachians is yellow. It figures prominently in traditional patterns such as the Tellico Nymph, Yellarhammar and Adams Variant. Or, to look at matters from a different perspective, among the most common hatches in the region are little golden stoneflies, caddis with cream color (and the larval stage of “stickbait” and “rockbait,” as old-timers describe caddis is yellowish-white), and yellow mayflies. Indeed, if you look at Roger Lowe’s Smoky Mountain Fly Patterns, it soon becomes obvious that a great many hatches and patterns feature some hue of yellow. The message is an obvious one—include a number of patterns featuring the color in your fly box.