Top 10 Winter Flies for Western North Carolina and East Tennessee

Written by: Brown Hobson, Brown Trout Fly Fishing

This winter rainbow came from the Wautauga River.
Photo courtesy Brown Hobson

Winter fishing in the Southeast isn’t what it is in the rest of the country. We are blessed with average lows in the high 20s and average highs in the upper 40s. That still puts average water temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s, unless you are close enough to a dam to enjoy temps in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are warm enough to allow enjoyable fishing all winter, but do put trout in feeding modes that are different from those of spring, summer, fall. I fish all over Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, and these are flies that I have found work all over during the winter months on both freestones and tailwaters.

[Click the name of each fly to be taken to a place to buy, a recipe, or a video.]

1. Squirmy Worm a.k.a. The Worm
This worm pattern has significantly more action than its little cousin, the San Juan Worm. In the winter, I fish this fly pretty large, like a size 8 or 10. We get more rain during the winter, so terrestrial worms are washed into the river systems and because of its size, fish often will move to it even when they aren’t actively searching for food.

2. The Brain – a.k.a. Micro Spawn
This fly is a monster, size 12, at least in terms of egg patterns used for trout. We find that fish eat this fly more because of its shock value than because it simulates fish roe. As with many of the large flies on this list, winter fish aren’t feeding as actively as they do when water temps are warmer, but this big meal is one that they often can’t pass on.

3. Girdle Bug

Most of our streams have stonefly populations, and trout seem to be looking for these big meals periodically throughout the year. Even our tailwaters have big stones, and it seems like the fish only need to see a few before keying in on them. This is also a great big fly that will get fish moving during cold weather.

4. Rainbow Warrior

Lance Egan really hit a homerun when he designed this fly. It is super effective on almost every stream I fish, and I prefer sizes 16-22 during the winter. We don’t have nearly as many bugs crawling around during the winter, but the few that do are usually in the smaller sizes. The flashy nature of this bug seems to really attract fish well when standard looking flies aren’t.

5. Pheasant Tail

This fly is pretty standard and doesn’t need more publicity, but it is so effective that I couldn’t leave it off. I have an entire box dedicated to variations of this fly in sizes 8-24. I find that during the winter this fly—with a copper bead in sizes 18-24—is a go-to pattern every day.

6. Walt’s Worm

I’ve seen a lot of tutorials going around the Internet about how to tie this fly and its cousin, the sexy Walt’s worm. Caddisfly larvae in the South this time of year are only two or three months away from hatching and are usually becoming quite large. I have caught fish on this fly in the really large sizes, such as 8 and 10, as well as in sizes 14 and 16. I usually put a bright, colored bead or bright dubbing behind a metallic bead for this fly during the winter.

7. Soft Hackle Surveyor

This fly works great in deep, slow pools where trout are resting. The dubbing color has just enough flash to get fish’s attention, and the big, billowy partridge feathers are tantalizing in the slower moving water. I mostly have this fly in sizes 10 and 12.

8. Brown’s UV Soft Hackle

This is a fly I was hesitant to put my name on because it is so simple and many guides fish flies just like it. I felt it needed a name to be on a list, so there it is. I fish this in size 18 during the winter. I will fish a 16 at times during the rest of the year, but during the winter it’s always 18 because that’s the right size to match the bugs present in cold weather. The UV dubbing seems to really trigger strikes and while I’ve tried many bead colors, copper is the best. I either fish this fly behind a larger bug or as a dropper off a dry fly.

9. Zebra Midge

The Zebra midge and the many variations are probably already in your box. Midges are the bugs I see hatch most during the winter, and like the Pheasant Tail and UV Soft Hackle, I always try at least a couple of these behind a worm or stonefly. They are also small enough that you can fish them below a small parachute or even a Comparadun if you see fish midging in slow water.

10. Puff Daddy

This is one you may not have heard of unless you are on the Watauga or South Holston Tailwaters. The Puff Daddy was created by Blake Boyd for the super-picky fish in the slow flat water. It is small and sparse and takes a good helping of Frog’s Fanny to keep it afloat, but is very effective. I mostly fish dark colors, such as black and olive, during the winter and match the CDC to the thread body. I use it in sizes 18-22.

Brown Hobson is owner and head guide for Brown Trout Fly Fishing, in Asheville, North Carolina. He’s also a former Trout Bum of the Week.

16 thoughts on “Top 10 Winter Flies for Western North Carolina and East Tennessee”

  1. I have 4 of 10 of those patterns in my box. Will update with the rest. Good stuff! BTW – They work in Virginia too!

  2. Great article and so appropriate for us. I am editor of the Hickory NC TU chapter. Would it be possible for me to include this article in our December newsletter with of course all the proper references?

    Thanks so much

  3. Great information thank you. I have never fly fished NC but I am going to at the end of the month. I will order several of the flys you have mentioned here. Thanks again sir!

  4. Great read! I’m fishing both the S Holston and Watauga tailwaters this upcoming weekend. Finding this article is great!

  5. Very informative for an old time Northeasterner recently relocated to Western North Carolina and getting back to sweet water trouting basics.

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  7. What about the old standby – a brown, olive or black Wooly Bugger. Size 8-12 with plenty of weight to get it deep in pools. Fantastic luch with Brown trout that just nail them!

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