I climbed for 15 minutes before trying a cast. Here, in the steep country below Grandfather Mountain, creeks pour off the land in great stair steps of falling water. Thickets of rhododendron crowd the streams, so there’s only one way up. Hand over hand, I scaled boulders veined with moss and lichen, the fly rod clenched in my jaws. The forest pressed close, a meager slice of blue sky overhead. Only rarely did I catch a glimpse of the famed ridge above, its crags like massive thunderheads formed of granite and dark forest.

To be honest, I didn’t even know the name of the stream. It was a small creek, wild and twisty and kinked up like a branch of rhododendron itself, white as granite, thick as mountain fog. There wasn’t much room to park. The gravel Forest Service road hair-pinned at the base of a waterfall, so tight to the woods that I couldn’t even open the truck door, so I leaned against the tailgate to pull on waders, pack a fly vest, and rig the rod. There was a faint fisherman’s path beside the water, obscure as a deer trail. A good sign, in a good place. I began clawing through the rhododendrons.

I passed a half-dozen pools before I found the one that seemed to hold the most promise. In this part of the High Country, you can jump across most creeks with a single bound, except for the pools. The pools can be 20 feet wide. They might be two feet deep or 10. They are as dark as Grendel’s heart. In a mountain stream, a trout stream, the pools are where the magic lies.

I cast the fly into the edge of the bubble line that trailed like ivy from the base of the falls. Nothing happened. Two casts, three, each one farther and deeper into the pool, but not a rise, not a shadow, not an inkling of a trout.

The fourth cast, however, was gold. I placed the fly on the far side of the bubble line, and that did the trick. The fish hit and sounded, ran for the darkest chamber of the pool, then fought all the way to the throat of the riffle where I crouched behind a fallen log. It was a brown trout, a little less than a foot long, its flanks peppered with orange and black spots. In the corner of its jaw was a bright yellow fly — a Yaller Hammer — a pattern whose history and heritage bind it close to North Carolina trout streams. In fact, that fly was the point of my being there, the inspiration for that morning’s quest.

The Yaller Hammer is a traditional Southern Appalachian fly pattern, so old that no one is quite sure when it first appeared. I had heard of the Yaller Hammer for years, but I’d never fished with the fly until I climbed that creek with a singular purpose: to catch a trout on the historic pattern — or catch nothing at all.

I slipped the hook from the fish’s jaw, and held the trout in the water’s flow for a few seconds, feeling the stream move through its gills, feeling it gather strength in my hands. It dashed from my loose grip, back toward the dark pool, a streak of copper lightning. I stood up and stretched my back. I dried off the Yaller Hammer, checked to make sure the threads still held the feathers fast. Then I climbed, plumbing each pool, fishing toward Grandfather Mountain.

Few aspects of sporting culture are more imbued with lore and history — not to mention mystery — than the design and development of flies for trout fishing. Tied to imitate various stages of aquatic insects or various creatures on the menu of trout, there are thousands of patterns, with more being developed all the time. Many of these fly patterns are rooted to very specific areas. The Catskills gave us the Quill Gordon. Michigan birthed the Adams. In the Southern Appalachians, a number of local patterns were developed and went on to various levels of fame in the fly-fishing world. There’s the Jim Charley. Fred Hall’s Thunderhead. The Sheep Fly, devised to imitate the nagging deerflies of a hot summer afternoon. Perhaps the best known and most widely used of the Southern flies is the Tellico Nymph, which I’ve used to fool many a trout, bluegill, crappie, and pond bass.

When it comes to lure and tradition, however, not to mention sheer fish-catching ability, few can touch the Yaller Hammer. The bright yellow fly is known in a number of forms, including a wet fly that is fished below the water’s surface, and a dry fly that floats on top like a hatching insect. Much of the pattern’s allure — to humans, at least — comes from one of the primary materials used to tie the original versions: the bright yellow flight feathers of the yellow-shafted northern flicker. These woodpeckers hammer loudly in the big woods of the mountains, hence their nickname. Protected, like all songbirds, it is illegal to use their feathers for fly-tying these days, so anglers turn to dyed quail and dove feathers as a substitute.

The Yaller Hammer’s deep history has always been a riddle. Was it developed by the Cherokee Indians, who were known to wrap hooks with deer hair and the feathers of native birds? Was it a product of Scots-Irish pioneer ingenuity, devised by some angler well-versed in the trout-fishing traditions of the Catskills and other Northern regions? Its true provenance may never be known, shrouded in mists like the deep vales of the North Carolina mountains that witnessed its birth.

I’d tried my hand at tying Yaller Hammer flies the night before with my buddy Matt Maness, a guide who operates out of Foscoe Fishing Company, below the crest of Grandfather. We’d fished all day from Maness’s hand-built drift boat — a definitely postmodern manner of catching a trout — then hunkered down in his log cabin to tie the historic Yaller Hammer. I had a sandwich baggie of lemon feathers from a wood duck — the heavily barred yellow feathers from the bird’s underwing flanks — but the feather’s barbs proved too long. Instead, Maness wrapped a hook shank with yellow feathers from a rooster cape, added a yellow strip of foam for buoyancy and Day-Glo yellow pop, and carefully wrapped the fly with tiny wire. The result wasn’t far off from the photos of the Yaller Hammer we were consulting on our smartphones.

Fly-tying purists might howl at our unconventional approach, but it occurred to me that what Maness and I were doing up in a tucked-away corner of his old log cabin was a modern variant of what birthed the Yaller Hammer in the first place. We were innovating, using the materials at hand, stirring together what we knew of flies and fish and what we thought might work. Fly patterns have always been a bit malleable. The small little handful of fluff and wire that Matt and I wound up with certainly passed my eye’s inspection. What historians might think, I’m not quite sure. What the trout would think, I’d discover soon enough.

Early the next morning, I found another source for Yaller Hammers, one that hews as closely to the original fly as exists these days. Paul Hughes remembers the first time he ever saw a Yaller Hammer. He was fishing down on Wilson Creek, the great scenic river that gathers Grandfather’s waters in a deep gorge that cuts through 200 feet of granite bedrock. Hughes was 11 years old at the time, which would make the year 1941. A man was fishing with a fly he called “skull crusher,” Hughes recalled. “He said the fish would come out of them stream holes so hard to get at that fly, they’d bash their heads against the boulders.”

Hughes told me this story at Fay’s Store, an old fixture across the street from the Linville Volunteer Fire Department, a store he and his wife, Fay, have run for 45 years. The Hugheses have tied flies for nearly half a century, churning out scores of patterns, and they’re one of the few commercial tiers who still produce Yaller Hammers. He ties them out of dove and quail feathers dyed a deep yellow. It’s as close as he can get to the old woodpecker feathers of yore.

“These old, proven mountain patterns are still good for fishing, oh, yes,” he said. “The Quill Gordon, the Light Cahill, the Hendrickson. All them flies are old, old, old, and they’re still good today.”

But there was something special about the Yaller Hammer, Hughes said. “It’ll twirl when you pull it through the water,” he explained. “That’s its secret. It sort of spins, and it just drives the fish pretty crazy.”

Which was precisely the response I was after.

Climbing higher, the creek gradient steepened, with short, boulder-strewn runs between the tail-outs of pools and the heads of the short falls. I cherry-picked the pocket water, drifting Yaller Hammers of varying pedigree — mine, Maness’s, Hughes’s — through dark arteries of swift runs, and flicking the flies for quick-hit drifts into current seams along boulders and blow-downs. I picked up another small brown trout, missed two strikes, worked higher up the mountain. Once, I had to abandon the stream altogether, break down the rod, and worm through the rhododendrons like a squirrel, on hands and knees. But at the top of each sweaty pitch, another pool awaited.

I’d never fished that way, never focused so intently on working a single fly pattern to the exception of anything else in my arsenal. It was a bit liberating not to ask myself if I should switch flies, try something different, change it up. I slowed down and worked to make each cast so clean and on-target that there was no reason for a fish not to eat a Yaller Hammer. No sloppy line coils, no shadows on the water, no grabbing brush that would shake and spook a trout.

The mountain seemed to draw me into its bedrock. The rhododendrons closed rank. Somewhere far above, Grandfather nodded approvingly. Far below, through a mile of birches and hemlocks, the water flowed into the same Wilson Creek where a young Paul Hughes saw his first Yaller Hammer fly. I remembered the faint trail by the roadside, the feeling that this was a good place, a good, ancient place.

“There he is!” I reared back on the rod to set the hook, startled by my own voice. The fish came halfway out of the water on the strike, a splashy, surface smash that told me it had no hesitation about the old-timey fly, no second-guessing, no turning back. Skull crusher, indeed, I grinned, then went to work. This was not a fish to trifle with, not with a light rod and a light line and a deep, dark pool where the trout wanted badly to be.

I turned the trout twice on its runs to the pool, and twice it responded with leaps clear of the stream. The fish wanted the safety of the pool, the comfort of its underwater ledges, the chance to cut the line on a stone or a snag. No matter how many trout pools I see, I’m always a bit surprised by the depth of that black water, by the fact that such a clean, clear stream can disappear into such inky blackness, as if a wormhole into deep time.

I steered the fish clear as it tired, let it fight, let it wear itself out, then pulled the trout into the tail-out of the pool, into the shallows, into where a wild trout is nearly impossible to see against the cobblestone and sunlight. But there it was, like a yellowed piece of Grandfather’s bone, a 12-inch wild brown trout in my hand, an ancient yellow fly, a good fly, fixed lightly in the corner of its jaw.

This story was published on

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.