Tiny Flies for Big Browns on the South Holston

Written by: Trey Oliver, Fishing Manager Orvis Charlotte

Mary Griffin shows off her 22-inch South Holsten brown, caught on a size 22 midge imitation.
All photos by Trey Oliver

It seems that streamers are all the rage these days—and let me preface this by saying I love fishing meaty flies—especially with all the cool patterns out there now! What’s not to love about tossing a 6-inch fly into the unknown with the anticipation that a monster brown will take a predacious swipe? But if I’m being honest, I’ve never really been all that successful with this strategy. Sure I’ve caught some nice fish with streamers, but they have been few and far between. However, some of my biggest trout have all consistently come on flies size 18 or smaller, with my personal-best fish caught on a size 22 Brassie.

A few days ago, Orvis Charlotte Store Manager Mary Griffin and I floated the South Holston River in Tennessee with guide Brown Hobson of Brown Trout Fly Fishing, a former Trout Bum of the Week. I went into this float with the mindset that it was going to be a good day to throw meat. The water was up, slightly stained, and we had a steady rain in the forecast: by most standards, the perfect conditions to fish streamers

The fight was long, and Mary was careful to protect her light tippet.

I decided to start the day with a basic tandem-nymph rig, just so I could get a few fish under my belt before switching to the big stuff. Once I got my fix, and caught a few fish, I was ready to serve up the meat. So I grabbed my 8-weight with a 350-grain full-sinking line and began pounding the banks with my streamer. Meanwhile, Mary was in the front of the boat catching fish after fish with her nymph rig!

“That’s okay,” I thought, “She might win the numbers game today, but I’m going to be the one that brings the fish of the day to the boat.” A few minutes after this thought crossed my mind, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mary cast her tiny nymph rig into a bubbly seam. Before she could even throw a mend into the line, her indicator vanished, and a large boil disrupted the calm surface. Mary set the hook, and all we saw was a yellow flash, followed by a massive, two-foot brown trout leaping two feet out of the water. This the kind of fish I though I’d catch with my streamer. After a long and careful battle by Mary, the fish was in the boat, and I stared at my “meat eater,” a beautiful, 22-inch male brown with a size 20 midge stuck in his mouth.

Guide Brown Hobson

It was humbling, to say the least, but this was not the first time this had appened to me on the South Holston River. More than once I’ve watched fellow anglers on the boat stick big fish with tiny flies, while I’ve stubbornly stuck to my guns with streamers.

Sure, nice fish are taken on the Soho with streamers, but my experience has been that fish are likely just as inclined to move on your streamer—simply to escort them out of their lies, without ever actually looking to eat it—only to return to gulping down midge after midge after midge. I’m sure I’ve ruffled the feathers of many die-hard streamer fisherman with this article, and I’ll admit big flies catch big fish. But on tailwaters such as the Soho, where the angling pressure is high, and the biomass of insect life is extraordinary, tiny flies catch big fish!

That is a healthy wild fish, feeding off the river’s productive food web.

7 thoughts on “Tiny Flies for Big Browns on the South Holston”

  1. Great post. I love tossing big streamers, too, but I am growing increasingly skeptical of the simplistic biological reasoning that people use to justify it. My biggest fish have all been on small flies, especially browns, which are supposed to be almost exclusively piscivorous after a certain size. Did that 22-incher “make a mistake” when it ate that midge? Of course not. It eats midges all the time. As for the territorial response that streamer guys like to talk about (including me), it’s clearly an issue. But it’s also an issue when fish keep flashing and slamming your streamer without positive hook-ups. Are you telling me those same fish won’t open their mouths when a size 18 pheasant tail floats by their face? The main reason to throw six-inch flies is that it’s fun, not because it’s more logical.

  2. What was her leader set up? Tippett size? Looking for tips for throwing streamers with a midge dropper, how best to use a heaver leader of the streamer and a light tippett for the midge. It this simply an approach that’s not practical?

    1. Not to take anything away from Mary or Brown, great work by both, but that third photo down is one of the best grip and grin shots I’ve seen in a very long time. Nicely done Trey.

    2. She was probably fishing 5x for the first nymph with a dropper midge on 6x or 7x. For a size 20 midge, your not going to be able to use tippet large than a 6x. Also, unless your consistently dead-drifting a streamer, there is no reason to have a dropper midge. If you dead drift a streamer (usually a wooly buggar), you would likely be doing it with a 4x or 5x, 9 ft tippet and add a dropper nymph on 6x or 7x. This can be very effective at times.

  3. Way to go Mary!
    It’s good to see you now in the 20/20 Club (20″ fish on a fly #20 or under)
    I’m just as happy as can be for you and it’s pretty easy to see that made you happy too!
    Be well,

  4. Pingback: Tiny Flies for Big Browns (Repost From the ORVIS Blog) - Brown Trout Fly Fishing

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