A Brief History of Southern Appalachian Fly-Tying

By Nick Roberts, DRO Guide

Widely acknowledged as the birthplace of American fly-fishing, the trout-rich Catskill Mountains of New York were a wellspring of innovative fly-tying in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, giving rise to what became known as the Catskill-style of dry fly. Pioneering anglers of the region, men like Theodore Gordon, Edward R. Hewitt, and George LaBranche, invented at their vises such classics as the Quill Gordon, the Bi-visible, and the Pink Lady, which can all still be found in the fly boxes of countless anglers to this day. Yet as the sport of fly-fishing spread throughout the nation, dramatically rising in popularity during the 1920s, Southern Appalachia developed into a hotbed of fly-tying ingenuity in its own right. In their pursuit of rainbow, brown, and native brook trout, which are genetically distinct from the northern brookie, resourceful anglers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains created an array of fly patterns as imaginative as they are effective.

Fly-fishermen throughout the Southern Highlands were soon adding new favorites, like the Tellico Nymph, purportedly invented by a priest in 1927, and Fred Hall’s Thunderhead, to their fly-box arsenals, which had long included the grandfather of all Southern Appalachian patterns, the Yallar Hammer, believed to have originated with the Cherokee. The fly-tying innovation of the region continued right on through the 1940s and 50s, when a slew of enduring patterns, like the Sheep Fly and the Jim Charlie, came into being. The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a new generation of Southern Appalachian tyers, such as Frank Coffey, Charles Messer, and the late Don Howell, creator of the Hot Creek Special and author of Tying and Fishing Southern Appalachian Trout Flies.

Carrying on the family tradition, Mr. Howell’s son, Kevin Howell, has invented a number of his own patterns and tied commercially for years before becoming the owner of Davidson River Outfitters. Kevin Howell, Roger Lowe, and a handful of other notable tyers throughout the Blue Ridge and the Great Smokies, have ushered the tradition of Southern Appalachian fly-tying into the 21st century. Ever mindful of the region’s rich angling heritage, yet also sharing their predecessors’ sense of innovation, this current generation of tyers is creating highly effective patterns using both traditional and modern materials. And just like the classic flies of the region, the latest patterns coming out of east Tennessee and western North Carolina fool fish not only in the freestone creeks of Southern Appalachia, but throughout streams and rivers across the country, and in many trout-filled waters around the world. So while the Catskills may be the birthplace of American Fly-fishing and have spawned their fair share of legendary patterns, the fly-tyers of the Southern Appalachian Mountains have made their own valuable contributions to the sport and continue to do so to this day.