Fly-fishing, at its most basic, is the art of tricking trout or salmon. It’s done using small artificial flies, artfully tied from feather and bits of fur. The flies are cast using a fly rod and reel, and the line is specially weighted. Flies are made to look like a wide-range of naturally occurring critters, like insects, invertebrates, and eggs. The idea is to convince the fish that your fly is alive and delicious.
This process, however, isn’t as straightforward as a non-angler might expect. People have been perfecting the art since the second century BC, when Claudius Aelianus described the fishermen he saw creating artificial flies:
“They fasten red wool. . . round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.”
People have been fishing the streams of Appalachia for our entire history here. By the late 1800s, Banner Elk was known around the world as an ideal, yet remote, fishing destination, and over the years the industry has grown quite large.
In fact, the most recent economic impact study showed that almost 150,000 people fish our streams each year. We have over 3,000 miles of trout streams in North Carolina, and over 1 million trout are stocked each year. Fishermen and women create 3,500+ jobs per year, bringing $383 million to our economy. It’s big business here, and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Fly fishing’s popularity could be attributed to many things, but we think it’s popular because fly fishing is angling elevated to an art form. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the concerted effort that has been made to support the industry. Many groups have been involved in the effort, but at the forefront is the Division of Inland Fisheries, a division of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. They have developed a plan for sustainable fishing in our waters that has many branches, including trout management, habitat protection, research, angler access, education and communication. They keep watch over the health of the fish and the water to protect this natural resource. You can read the comprehensive plan using a QR reader to scan the code on the resources page you’ll find at the end of this article.
There are three kinds of trout that make up most of our populations. They include the endemic Brook Trout, the Rainbow Trout and the Brown Trout. Each has different habits and tastes. All three of these types of fish are stocked in North Carolina, and efforts are made to protect the genetic integrity of the Brook Trout.
To catch trout, you need to have a good idea of where to look for them. Fortunately, we have ample available land and trout are a bit predictable and have some favorite spots.
With 3,000 miles of trout streams, you may be overwhelmed picking a spot. You could start with any of the spots along the Western North Carolina Trout Trail, or use the “Online Resources” page.
Once you’ve picked your stream, you’ll want to choose the perfect spot to cast your first fly.
When it’s feeding time, you’ll want to look in “riffles”. These are shallow spots of water where the water moves quickly. Minnows and other feeder fish spend their time here, so hungry trouts do too, although you’ll need to be stealthy, because they are on high alert.
Fly fishing guide Dave Hise says, “This is where a majority of the aquatic species are found. The fish are more spooky in these areas because the water is often shallower so the fish’s ‘vision window’ is much larger than in deep water. During a trout’s lifecycle, they spend roughly 90% of the time feeding on aquatic creatures, like midges, mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, craneflies, scuds, sowbugs, annelids, and damsel and dragonflies, to name a few. The other 10% of the time they spend feeding on the surface of the water on the adults of aquatic and terrestrial insects. It is best to play the odds. Many anglers only enjoy fishing on the surface so they don’t often catch as many fish as the “nymph” fisherman.”
A “run” is an area that’s slightly deeper, and not as fast-moving. Trout like this area, and they aren’t as wary of your presence as they would be in a riffle.
A “pool” is an area of deep, still water. This is where trout are happiest, and there will be an abundance of fish here, but they aren’t there to feed, so convincing them to go for your fly takes a bit more finesse.
You can also find trout in undercuts and around rocks. These spots protect the trout from the current and provide a nice resting spot.
You also have to know how to pick your fly. This changes from day to day, season to season, and from species to species. The most important tip in selecting your fly is “MATCH THE HATCH.” Since you’re trying to trick the trout into thinking your fly is something they want to eat, it’s a good idea to consider what they are naturally eating at that time. On our resources page, you’ll find a link to a hatch chart that is very helpful.
Trout eat Midges, Mayflies, Caddis, Stoneflies, Scuds, Sowbugs, Hoppers, Ants, Beetles, Annelids, Damselflies, Dragonflies and Water Boatman. Your fly box should reflect this, as well as the current season.
The art of tying flies is an old one, and at right you can see what is regarded as the ultimate guide for fly fishers in the late 19th-century. It’s called Favorite Flies and Their Histories by Mary Orvis Marbury, published in 1892. The images were created using chromolithography and are quite beautiful.
We asked fisherman Alex Cardwell what he loves about tying flies. He said, “I love how it all comes full circle. You make something that catches the fish you catch. It’s really satisfying.” You can see his flies on page 23.
Today you can purchase premade flies or make them yourself. Fly shops generally sell both premade flies and supplies for tying them. You may find that you really enjoy the craft.
After you’ve selected your location and your flies, you’ll have to consider your presentation. This means making sure that your fly rod is properly tied and has the right amount of tension. A basic fly line uses five kinds of knots: arbor knot to attach the backing to the reel; nail knot to attach the fly line to the backing; nail knot or loop to loop to attach the tapered leader to the fly line; double surgeons knot or blood knot to attach the tippet to the leader; improved clinch knot to attach the flies. Use our resources page to find directions for this.
Good presentation also means perfecting your cast and your drift. People spend their whole life perfecting these things, so don’t feel bad if it takes you some time to get it right.
Casting is the motion that gets your fly in the water. There are three basic casts you should learn first: overhead cast, roll cast and reach cast. After that, you’ll want to learn to pitch, flip and skip. Our resources page has helpful links for learning casts.
After you cast, the current of the water and your motions will create drift. This movement is vital to convincing a trout to bite. You want the movement of your fly in the water to mimic the movement of living prey. You, as an angler, can control some of this, but some of it comes down to the weather and the current, so reading and understanding both of those things becomes integral to good fly fishing.
Good presentation also means you’ll avoid splashing around or speaking loudly. Remember you want to sneak up on the fish.
After you’ve covered all your bases, relax. Breathe. Enjoy the beauty all around you. Hear the quiet. Settle your mind. Then you’ll be ready to catch your fish.
People have been fly fishing for centuries, and as long as there are streams with trout in them, people will fish them.
We do hope we’ve convinced you to try your hand at fly fishing. Following this article you’ll find an “Online Resource” page. There you’ll find QR codes and links for many valuable resources. These include the rules and regulations as well as links for buying a license. Enjoy, and happy fishing!