Archived Outdoors

Working on the fly

By Michael Beadle

Wintertime may not offer the best opportunities for fly-fishing, but that doesn’t mean fly fishers aren’t busy.


‘Tis the season for tying flies, and David Pless of Clyde has been enjoying the art of tying flies for 35 years.

“I like to tie a lot of mine in the wintertime,” Pless said.

A lifelong native of Haywood County who grew up in Cruso, Pless has fished on scores of streams and rivers in Western North Carolina from the Pigeon River to the Oconaluftee and Tusquittee rivers. When it comes to catching traditional “brookies,” the native brook trout species, or brown and rainbow trout, Pless likes to use his own dry flies when he goes out on afternoon fishing trips — or if he’s luckier, all-day fishing trips. Pless occasionally gives fly-tying demonstrations, but it’s mostly a hobby he’d rather not take the fun out of by turning into a job.

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“I just like to do it when I’m in the mood to do it,” he said.

Over the years, he’s used plenty of homemade flies that are meant to look like the types of real life flies that trout like to eat from the surface of cool mountain streams. Early to mid-spring is the best time for fly-fishing, according to Pless, because that’s when fish are hungriest after enduring the cold winter months and that’s when flies begin to appear.

As a general rule, Pless goes by the mantra “match the hatch,” offering the fish what it enjoys eating depending on the season. That means using darker colors in the early spring and lighter colors — oranges and yellows — in the summer. Some fishers like using nymphs, which look more like thin rubbery larvae that dwell on the bottom of a stream and appeal to the trout’s bottom-feeding tendencies. Others like the fly to rest on top of the water to lure the fish up to the surface.

“I like to see them come to the top,” Pless said.

There are also “attractor flies,” usually a fly that has some yellow or orange in it, which might be comparable to a change-up pitch in baseball — the kind of stuff that comes unexpectedly. For the fish, it’s the kind of fly that attracts fish just because it’s different.

All flies are not created equal. Some can be used multiple times while others might be lost in the trees before they even catch a fish. Pless can recall using one fly to catch 25 to 30 fish — that’s the extreme end of success — while other days one fly might catch five fish.

As a veteran fly fisher, he might carry around 50-75 different flies, and there may be dozens of variations for a single type of fly. The key for the fisherman is to be prepared and bring many kinds of lures.

“Every stream and every part of the season is different,” Pless said.

To make a good fly that rests on the water, you need a good hackle, which is the feather (usually of a rooster) that is tied onto the hook. Some roosters are raised specifically for their feathers that will go onto dry flies.

“The more hackle you put, the better it will float,” Pless said.

As for hooks, size doesn’t always matter. A lot can depend on the fishing rod, Pless explained, and if the rod is too stiff, there might be too much pressure on the hook. This, in turn, can lead to a lost fish, and nobody wants to be trusted with a fish-that-got-away story.

Another part of a traditional fly is the wing material. Pless prefers using calf tail from an unborn cow, but he’s also used polyester yarn. For the head of the fly, he’ll use black thread predominantly but orange or yellow colors might also work.

To start a fly, first put the hook in a vice; then wrap the parallel part of the hook in thread. As an example, Pless explains his method for making a Royal Wolf fly.

“You always want to tie your wings on first,” Pless said.

Then comes the tail, then the body and the hackle. When you’ve secured the end of the hackle with thread, wrap the thread around the eye of the hook about eight to ten times, clip the thread, and put head finish on the end as a kind of glue that keeps the thread from unraveling.

When he gets going at a good pace, Pless can do about 12 in an hour.

So while the spring is still a few months away, the flies are already multiplying.

For more help on the art of fly-tying, Pless recommends checking out local fishing expert Roger Lowe, owner of Lowe Fly Shop & Outfitters in Waynesville and author of Roger Lowe’s Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains.

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