Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Smoky Mountain Sallie"

The idea had been in my head for... well... let's just say "a little while."

Outdoor Blogger Network and Montana Fly Company teamed up for a fly designer competition in January 2011, and I decided maybe it was time to try and actually make my idea a reality.

I separately contacted two of my fellow OBN bloggers who regularly fish for trout in southern Appalachia and asked them to test my fly design when I saw the contest announcement. They both agreed to assist with my little experiment.

At the end of January, I mailed the flies to my two independent testers. Since both of them also fly fish for bass, I also sent them a couple of my Giant Woolly Buggers as a bribe bonus for agreeing to help.

They both tested... and both had success... so I thought, "what the heck?... might as well give it a shot, right?"

Well, the package is in the mail... flying First Class... on its way to Rebecca Garlock... no turning back now.

The story of this fly necessitates just a little bit of history about myself... and salamanders. I'll try not to bore you too much. Hopefully, you'll find some of it interesting.

If you've followed The Naturalist's Angle for long, you may have gathered that I'm a big fan of amphibians and reptiles. You might even say I'm a bit of a herpetologist (that's a reptile and amphibian biologist). It never fails when I say "herpetology"... somebody in the room makes a joke about herpes. Well, the two words are both derived from the same Greek root word (herpein- meaning "to creep"), but a herpetologist doesn't study herpes. Sorry to disappoint.

So... I've been chasing snakes, turtles, and frogs ever since I can remember. Salamanders were, for a long time, just the section of the field guide that I skipped over when looking up other amphibians and reptiles. My first serious exposure to salamanders didn't come until I made a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during spring break of 1999. I was participating in a salamander survey being conducted by one of my biology professors, the late Dr. William H. N. Gutzke, on populations of the Junaluska Salamander (Eurycea junaluska). Up to that point, I had only seen three species of salamanders in the wild. All of that would change very quickly as I got a crash course in salamander biodiversity in the matter of just a few days of field work. For a young naturalist, it was a bit of a life changing experience.

In case you didn't know, the southern Appalachians are the world's center for salamander biodiversity. The actual number of species varies depending on what source you consult, and new species are still being identified (many thanks to DNA analysis), but there are somewhere around 45-50 species in the region (30 in GSMNP alone). One of the more interesting facts about salamanders in southern Appalachia is that the biomass of salamanders may exceed that of all other vertebrates combined. That literally means the energy contained in living salamanders may be greater than that of all frogs, fish, birds, snakes, turtles, and mammals combined. Imagine how many tiny little salamanders it would take to equal the biomass of a deer or bear. It's a crazy concept.

Well, knowing how prevalent salamanders are in southern Appalachia, and how important they are in the ecosystem (food chain), and knowing that many of them are highly aquatic, and knowing that trout live in the same streams as the salamanders... led me to believe a salamander fly might be really productive in the natural streams of the region. Although I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee (on the edge of southern Appalachia) for a little over two years from 2001 to 2004, I never attempted to tie up a salamander fly back then. I fly fished the Smokies for trout a number of times, but pretty much stuck to the tried and true classics... Adams dries and Tellico Nymphs... that I bought from the local fly shops. I wasn't much of a fly tyer back then... but that's when the idea really started bouncing around in my head.

So, that's a lot of background information, but it brings us up to the present. I decided maybe I could tie up a salamander fly that would look a bit like some of the most aquatic of the southern Appalachian salamanders- the species of the genus Eurycea. The aforementioned Junaluska Salamander is just one of several species in the region that lives out a large portion of its life in the very same fast flowing waters that are also inhabited by trout. Other closely related species include the Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander (E. wilderae) and the Southern Two-lined Salamander (E. cirrigera).

Male E. cirrigera, Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

Female E. cirrigera with eggs, OMSP, Alabama

The original "Smoky Mountain Sallie" prototypes designed to imitate the highly aquatic Eurycea salamanders are pretty simple. They have a ginger colored marabou tail, vinyl "d-rib" body, and black lead eyes. These are the actual flies I sent to my field testers...

The two bloggers I asked to help me test my fly design were Mike of the blog Mike's Gone Fishin'... Again and Ty of the blog Finewater Fly Fishing. Both of these fine gentlemen seemed happy to help, and both turned out to be excellent field testers.

The results of Ty's experimentation...

In Ty's own words:
"Went to the Smokies this weekend. The bad news is that I lost both of your salamander flies on rocks in very deep holes. The good news is that I caught a nice wild Little River rainbow on this fly before that. Middle Prong of the Little River to be exact. Actually landed one and lost two others. I think the narrow gape on that hook could have been a factor on the lost fish. You might be on to something with this fly. I know that's impossible to say after one trip, but the facts are I caught a wild trout on this fly in winter in 39 degree water, tough conditions for catching mountain trout."

The results of Mike's experimentation...

In Mike's own words:
"I was fishing Wilson Creek near Morganton, NC.  Had luck in the fast water swinging my go-to olive woolly bugger, but not so much in the longer, flatter stretches where pods of rainbows, probably stockers, were cruising around in 3-4 ft of water.  It made sense to me that salamanders would be more common in such slower water, so I put a couple of shot about 8 inches above the fly, tied it on with a loop so it would move freely, and crawled it along in short, halting strips.  Happily, I picked up four fish in the slick."

The slightly improved version of the fly I submitted to MFC for the designer contest:

The hooks I used on the prototypes weren't exactly intended for fly tying... but on short notice they were the best I could find. I knew the small gap might be problematic (as Ty experienced). They were size 8 Carlisle hooks made by Pugh Tackle Company out of New Albany, Mississippi. I bought them at a local outdoor outfitter near Jackson, Mississippi that doesn't exactly specialize in fly fishing. The hook I used in the improved version was a... well... I don't know exactly. It appeared to be around a size 8. It was a hook I salvaged from an old Woolly Bugger that had seen better days. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the perfect hook for my design at my local Bass Pro. Although they do carry a few Montana Fly Company products, hooks are not one of them. I'm pretty sure a 6XL streamer hook in a size 8 would have worked well... an MFC 7030 would have been ideal.

The "Smoky Mountain Sallie" may not be a winner, but it's certainly unique, and I certainly had fun working with my fellow OBN bloggers on this little experiment. A huge "Thank You" to Ty and Mike for playing along. I know it was a real chore for them to have to go fly fishing, but they were real troopers.

(By the way guys, thanks for making this thing look like it might actually work.)

If you're interested in keeping up with all things MFC, check out the Montana Fly Company Facebook page. Be sure to "like" them while you're there and you may be randomly drawn to win some MFC swag.


  1. It reminds me of the plastic lizards people use around here to annoy spawning bass until they bite. Maybe it's too early in the season for this question, but have you tried it on bass yet? I bet it would be stellar.

  2. That is one hell of a cool fly! That fly will be sure to get someone at MFC's attention. It's very original. My Dad always wanted to use red-spotted newt eft's to catch fish and I always had to tell him they would never work. They are bright orange for a reason! They are distasteful. Have you thought about doing different color variations in reds, browns or olives?

  3. Clif, I'm sure it might catch a bass. It is just a bit smaller than those big plastic lizards the hardware fisherman use to annoy the bass. I use to annoy them that way too. Now I mostly annoy them with BoogleBugs and the like.

    Kiwi, thank you for the kind words. I actually tied it in the color scheme I did so it wouldn't look too toxic. I don't know if the trout have any experience with toxic red efts, but it might be safe to avoid red based on that principle. Some of the other "edible" species are olive and brown so I'm sure those colors would be good too.

  4. I like it. Looks similar to a salamander with the properties of the rubber legs and marabou tail doesn't surprise me that it worked. Way to go and good luck in the contest.

    Passinthru Outdoors Blog - Sharing the Passion

  5. Passinthru, thanks for stopping by. I imagine with the properties of the rubber legs and marabou it could be used as an attractor pattern in many places where salamanders may not be that common.

  6. Yes, it was a TERRIBLE chore, having to go fishing. Thanks for sending your fly my way and GOOD LUCK in the contest!!! It was a winner in my eyes.

  7. It's a very good salamander look a like.
    Lots of bass potential.
    Very nice.

  8. Jay you're amazing! I forced myself to look at the salamanders in order to see what you created. Looks like a winner to me. Good luck with the contest.

  9. Mike, thanks again. Couldn't have done it as well without you.

    Alan, thank you. I imagine you've probably seen a few salamanders in the small streams you fish.

    Cofisher, sorry to have tricked you into looking at salamanders again. Thanks for the kind words and trudging through all the salamander stuff just to see what it was all about.

  10. Jay - I like this quite a bit. I think you have a winner there no matter how you fare in the contest.

  11. Mike, glad you like it. I imagine it would probably serve its purpose on the fringes of Appalachia in PA too.

  12. Another "like" here. Trying to figure out where I might empoloy it in California.

  13. Ooh, CA has lots of salamanders too. Not quite as many as Appalachia, but the Sierras have their fair share. There aren't as many aquatic species, but I imagine it might still have a little value in your neck of the woods.

  14. Jay, if you're not an honorary herpetoligist, then I don't know who is. Love to see that you are combining your love of fly fishing with your lifelong passion for reptiles and amphibians:). I'll keep my fingers crossed that you win!

  15. "Honorary"?... It's more like "non-practicing" or "unemployed."
    It's always nice when two things you love merge into one... and a river runs through them.
    Thanks for stopping by, Jen.

  16. Thanks for letting me take part in the "Research and Development" phase of your fly design, Jay! I'll have a few Sallies in my box from now on for sure. Good luck in the contest.

  17. Thanks again, Ty. I couldn't have done the R & D very well without a trip to the Smokies myself or the help of a couple strategically located fly fishers. You and Mike really came through for me.

  18. I'd bet those would work on browns up here- they'll eat anything that fits in their mouths. I don't know how we're stocked up here on salamanders though. We have those big foot long jobs in the lakes, you'll occasionally get one ice fishing.

  19. FR, thanks for the comment. MI is a little dry on aquatic salamander biodiversity. I think those "foot long jobs" you speak of are probably Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus). Those would take a real big streamer to imitate, but I imagine anything big enough to eat one would be well worth the effort. It might take a 10 wt to cast a streamer that big, but I'll keep that in mind when I visit this summer.

  20. The biomass statement floored me; that is a lot of salamanders! A lot is not even the appropriate word. I don't like the herps, well mainly just the snakes, but salamanders are cool as heck. Great fly, and just as cool of backstory.

  21. Jay--a cool looking fly. I'm getting on order of Montanta flies in next week for the Spring River Fly Shop. Maybe they will start carrying them. I think the smallies and walleyes on the Spring would like that fly! Try it out and send me a report!
    Dale Sorrell

  22. S & D, I can understand that most people don't like snakes... but salamanders are definitely "cool as heck." They're cute in their own way, although not exactly cuddly... and their biology is absolutely fascinating. The bit about biomass came from a book entitled: "Community Ecology and Salamander Guilds" by Nelson Hairston. It's one of the more interesting salamander references ever written.

    Dale, I very briefly tried one of the "Sallies" on the Spring for trout, but it was a very slow day for me. I wasn't catching on anything else so I gave it a try with no luck... but it was a slow day all around. I'll try it out on the Smallies soon and get back to you.