was early October, and it was one of those bad news-good news things.
The bad news was that the yellow jackets were out in force. They were
everywhere, searching for food for those precious grubs carefully
stashed in nests underground. One footfall in the wrong spot brings
the highly protective and purely vindictive adults swarming in defense
of the little ones. Those of us who have inadvertently triggered such
a firestorm know it is the kind of excitement that will ruin your
The good news was--well, that the yellow jackets were out in force.
Their quest for grub chow took them anywhere the aroma of decay--vegetable
or animal--guided them. Their search pattern extended to the water's
edge and beyond. Overhanging bushes provided resting spots and mud
and other goodies along the bank produced a smorgasbord for the yellow-orange
and black beasties. Occasionally, just often enough, they dropped,
fell, stumbled or crash-landed in water. Water, in this instance,
meant the tumbling, surging Nantahala River. Once in the water they
would be swept away to become part of the food chain.
The Nantahala River was appropriately named "place of the noon-day
sun" by the native Cherokee because of the sheer rock
walls that soar for hundreds of feet above the river blocking the
sun's rays except for an hour or so before and after high noon. Located
in northwest North Carolina, the river has its genesis high in the
Nantahala Mountains at Rainbow Springs between Rattlesnake and Doe
Knobs at an altitude of nearly four-thousand feet. It then flows ice-cold
and clear over garnet studded rocks to Nantahala Lake. The Nantahala
Tunnel draws water from the lake bottom to a generating plant near
Beechertown, over six miles distant. There, through an agreement between
the power company and a dozen score of white-water rafting companies,
the Nantahala flows at several thousand cubic feet per second, to
provide a white-water experience for rafters and kayakers for most
of the daylight hours. It is here, when the water is off, when the
discharge tubes are silent, that there are trout to be caught: browns,
rainbows and brookies, some large, and a few, leviathans of the trout
world. They are not easy, but they are there.
I stood quietly on the swinging bridge above the river, content to
watch the water upstream. Like always, I hoped the fish would be "looking
up"--rising to take an emerging dun--or struggling terrestrial
off the surface. As it is most of the time. the rise was not to be;
but a flash in a two foot by four foot pocket told me that the trout
were there, feeding.
I strung up my rod, a 7 1/2 foot Winston graphite of an early generation.
A three weight, its action was almost as soft as a bamboo, perfect
for fishing nymphs and drowned terrestrial mimics. I pulled a nine-foot
compound tapered leader with a 5x tippet off my reel and strung it
through the guides. Following the leader was a double-taper two-weight
silk line, ungreased. I prefer silk to synthetics because of its much
smaller diameter for any given weight line, and because of its neutral
buoyancy if left untreated. My rod strung, I again turned my attention
upstream and waited. Another flash, this time at the head of a small
pool almost directly beneath the bridge. I could actually see the
fish and identify it as a brookie by its black, red and white caudal
fins. At that moment, it finned backward a foot and either spotted
me or sensed my presence and disappeared in a nanosecond. About that
time a yellow jacket introduced himself to my nose, and I recoiled,
forgetting temporarily about trout as I fought to stay upright on
the now violently swaying bridge. O.K., I thought, why not tie on
a plausible facsimile of the bug that had just buzzed me--a kind of
revenge by proxy. I would fish a yellow hammer wet, drowned as it
were. Actually, I would fish two of them, tied on in tandem, both
yellow hammer is both a traditional Smoky Mountain fly pattern and
a bird. The flying version of the yellow hammer, pronounced "yaller
hammer" by local mountaineers, is actually the yellow shafted
flicker, a member of the woodpecker family adorned with primary wing
feathers that sport golden yellow fibers lined with black. Imminently
practical, the local fishermen seized upon the yellow and black of
the yellow-hammer feather as an excellent way to imitate the noisome
yellow jacket as well as a variety of hornets and wasps. The origin
of the yellow-hammer fly is unknown. Even the older local fishermen
with whom I've spoken about the yellow hammer say only that the fly
has been in existence for as long as they can remember.
The true yellow-hammer fly is tied with one side of a carefully stripped
wing primary. The barbules are carefully levered loose from the shaft
with a razor blade or a finely tuned pair of fingernails leaving a
windable one-sided hackle. There are two basic yellow hammer ties,
both fished wet, and often fished as a pair. The first is tied with
a weighted, peacock body with the hackle secured at the head and wound
backwards, resulting in a fly that resembles the classic gray hackle
only with a striking yellow and black hackle at the neck of the fly.
The second type, dubbed a twist , calls for a peacock or yarn body
with a yellow hammer hackle tied in at the head, palmered backwards
and secured near the bend of the hook. This results in the barbules
slanting back toward the bend of the hook. The feather is secured
at the back of the hook with a few turns of thread. To me, it looks
a little messy but as they said in Tobacco Road, "It don't
hurt the runnin' of it none." The effectiveness of the yellow
hammer, to my mind, is unquestionable. Is it because the comparatively
wide barbules more closely resemble insect legs than do chicken hackle?
Or could it be because in stripping the quill, some organic material
remains to dispense scent into the water when fished? I just don't
know. I do know they work.
Now, remember earlier when I mentioned tying on an artificial artificial?
Nope. Not a typo. While the feathers used on the yellow hammer are
unquestionably beautiful, they come from a bird that is enjoys protected
status in virtually every state where it can be found. Consequently,
fishing with a real yellow hammer can generate not only controversy,
but potential legal problems. I have heard of fishermen who have lost
their supply to Great Smoky Mountain National Park rangers. The good
news is that largely as a result of the generally accepted belief
that using body parts from an endangered species is a no-no, a local
guide and fly tyer came up with an acceptable substitute-starling
wings dyed yellow. The dun gray of the starling primaries accepts
the yellow dye well and the result is kind of a smoky yellow color.
These work nearly as well as the originals--without the guilt.
Wading into the river, I began working pockets, wading upstream as
I cast. I would cast once or twice to each pocket and then move on.
There is little value in casting more than twice. If there is a fish
finning in a pot of pocket water and it is on the feed, it will nail
anything resembling a morsel that is on the menu for that given day.
The trout will spit it almost instantaneously if it detects that what
it has taken is not as advertised. I am not exaggerating when I use
the word "instantaneous". A pocket-water dwelling trout
must accept or reject an apparent edible as it rushes by him. There
is no decision made in a trout's rudimentary brain; instinct dictates
that something that is of the proper form, size and color be ingested.
The take, evaluation, and subsequent rejection of anything bogus occurs
so fast that a fisherman using a strike indicator will miss most strikes.
Most of the time, when a mountain trout takes and spits, the strike
indicator will not even move. If it does, it is extremely difficult
to detect in a surging mountain river, because the fly and the indicator
are almost always in different currents even though they are only
a few feet apart. This results in an unnatural drift of both the fly
and the indicator. I don't use indicators. I rely on a rod-high position,
a short line and the sensitivity of ungreased silk line. Many local
fishermen use braided twenty pound test backing dyed green or gray
as a substitute fly line. It performs every bit as well as my silk
line when it comes to detecting the take of a trout and casts nearly
as well. I use tapered silk fly line, I guess, because I like conventional
fly tackle and because I'm set in my ways. Believe me, the alternative
to silk is a lot cheaper and requires a lot less maintenance.
Four pockets after I waded into the river, a twelve-inch rainbow
smacked the fly and I smacked him back. Nothing subtle here. Setting
the hook quickly is critical in scoring hook-ups in mountain stream
angling. The fish put two or three rocks and twenty feet between us
before I turned him and led him to my net. I released him and went
back to work. At the end of the day, I was tired. Wading the Nantahala
is hard work. The combination of rushing water and rocks which resisted
the sticking power of my felt shoes takes a toll. I'd taken some very
nice fish. The largest was a nineteen-inch hen rainbow, with two more
nearly that long to go with her, along with a mixed bag of 'bows,
browns, and brookies numbering almost two score to top things off.
The faux 'hammer had done its work. Obviously, yellow jackets were
on the menu.
I've had the opportunity to fish a multitude of streams and rivers
in my thirty-odd years of pursuing trout, including the spring creeks
and limestones of Pennsylvania; the Henry's Fork, Yellowstone, and
Big Born of the American West; chalk streams in Wales and the crystalline
waters of New Zealand's North and South Islands. If I were forced,
for some reason, to choose only one to fish for the rest of my days,
it would be none of these. If I could choose just one, it would be
the one the Cherokees called "The place of the noon-day sun".
And I would fish a yellow-hammer.
Comments or questions? We are always interested to hear your experiences--this
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