I brought four Yallerhammer flies—three in a pill bottle and one tied to the trout leader on my four-weight rod. Not a lot to choose from, and that was the point. The Yallerhammer is so old-school and old-timey that few have heard of the trout fly and fewer still have fished it. But you can still find them in old fly shops in the deep hollers of Tennessee and North Carolina, and I’ve made a habit of catching my first trout of spring on a Yallerhammer, one of the most storied of the old Southern Appalachian flies.
When it comes to trout fly development, the Southern Appalachians might not have been as fertile as, say, the Catskills. But Southern anglers were inventive and progressive and just as passionate about catching fish, and there’s a host of local fly patterns that made a splash in the region.
Part of the mystical Yallerhammer’s allure is that it was tied with the feathers of the yellow-shafted northern flicker. That bird, like all songbirds, is protected, so these days, dyed quail and chicken feathers will have to suffice. I loaded up on Yallerhammers at Fay’s Store, an ancient shop across the street from the fire department in Linville, North Carolina, and headed north and up and up and up into the folds of Grandfather Mountain and the headwaters of famed Wilson Creek.
Yallerhammers can be fished as both a wet fly and a dry, but I was fishing wet, the most traditional pattern. I hiked high and cast short into tiny pools that stair stepped down through the mountains. At Fay’s, the man behind the counter, Hugh Palmer, told me that he’d first seen the Yallerhammer in 1941. He was 11 years old and came across another fellow casting the fly, which he called a “skull crusher.” “He said the fish would come out of them stream holes so hard to get at that fly,” Palmer recalled, “they’d bash their heads against the boulders.”
It took but four casts to close the circle on my annual spring ritual. The brown trout streaked from under a ledge to smack a Yallerhammer deep in the foam. Skull crusher, indeed. I backed the fly gently from its jaws, released the fish, and for a moment contemplated hiking downstream to the truck for my other boxes stuffed with more modern flies. But the next pool up was just a short twenty steps away. Why mess with tradition? I thought, and turned uphill.
These days are as good as any, and better than most, for paying homage to what is enduring of our passions afield. If you find yourself in Southern trout country, here are four more heritage trout flies to try.
Pinning down the provenance of old Southern flies is always tricky. Some say Northerners coming south to fish Appalachian trout waters brought down an old wet fly, the McGinty, that morphed into this pattern. Others hold that the Tellico nymph was developed by a priest-angler along the Tellico River around the mid-1920s. One thing is for sure: The Tellico nymph catches fish like the devil. In trout waters, its size and coloration suggest a golden stonefly nymph, but put this yellow-barred and (often) mink-hair-tailed nymph in front of a farm pond bluegill, and you might as well break out the tartar sauce.
Beloved as a brook trout smasher, the Thunderhead dry fly floats like a cork through bubbly pocket water in the high-elevation streams required by the South’s only native trout. Developed by a legendary Great Smoky Mountains tyer named Fred Hall, the Thunderhead looks a bit like an overstuffed Adams Wulff fly, with a gray, brown, and white body that serves as a general mayfly attractor pattern. Its buoyancy makes it a great choice for a dry fly with an added nymph dropper.
This vintage pattern was developed to mimic a small gray fly that pestered Southern Appalachian sheep herds. Designed by an angler named Newland Saunders of Lenoir, North Carolina, the Sheep Fly could also imitate a large emerging mayfly or a crane fly larva. It was a favorite of George “Cap” Wiese, the first president of Trout Unlimited North Carolina.
The origin of the Jim Charley dry fly seems as difficult to pin down as a Smoky Mountain mist. “Really old,” is how one local fly-tying history puts it, with an oblique reference to a possible origination on the East and West Forks of the Pigeon River in Tennessee and North Carolina prior to World War II. The fly is tied with a signature barred ginger hackle, but what isn’t a mystery is why it has been so successful: Like the Yallerhammer, it’s as bright as can be.
Images provided by the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians, located in Bryson City, North Carolina.
Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens