Trout Unlimited
Top Trout Flies Course

Lesson 6 – The Smokejumper

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The Smokejumper

One of the Top 10 Trout Flies Ever Created

This is likely the least known fly on the list and I’m still not sure why.  Ever since I’ve discovered it and how to fish it, I have caught 10x more fish during midge and mayfly hatches.  Though the smokejumper is a pretty imitative pattern for midge and mayfly emergers and dries, it has a unique enough design and profile on the water that the fish will eat it in all kinds of occasions.  It seems that trout can’t tell it’s a fly and let their guard down in a variety of situations to eat and try it.  If you are looking to take your fishing to the next level and haven’t integrated this style and fly into your box, you’re going to want to read the rest of this lesson.  Let’s learn a bit more about the smokejumper and then discuss the secret to its success.


The Details

It was developed for the Bighorn river up in Montana by a man named Mike Hoiness.  The Bighorn river has midge and BWO hatches so thick at times it looks like someone turned on the jets in the hot tub.  So many fish are rising, the water appears to be boiling.  I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a few days like this up on the Bighorn river and with over 10,000 fish per mile, when this river has every fish rising, it’s an incredible experience.  Dry fly fishing up on the horn isn’t always that easy however, as are most places.  Trout eating midges and mayflies are slowly and selectively choosing their food and always seem more wary than when targeting caddis, stoneflies or hoppers.  Midges and mayflies don’t get off the water very quickly, so trout learn they don’t have to race and can play it safe.  For this reason, delicate, imitative patterns have been developed like the smokejumper to fool the trout.  A simple midge body like what you would see on a zebra midge with some peacock herl for the legs and head of the fly finished off with my favorite material, CDC.  CDC if you didn’t know stands for Cul de Canard which are the butt feathers of a duck.  These are particuarly oily and fine.  They do an excellent job of shedding and not retaining moisture until submerged.  For light dry flies like this mean to be delicate and imitative, you really can’t beat CDC for wings and a post.  For anyone fishing to periodically rising trout or selectively feeding trout during midge, mayfly, or small insect of any kind hatch, a smokejumper is a great contender for putting the odds back in your favor.

Let’s spend a few minutes understanding the seasonal adaptations, colors and sizes needed for the prime fishing periods.

Graphs – Seasonality, Size and Color


The Secret to Why This Fly is So Productive

The smokejumper has a lot going for it that makes it so incredibly productive.  First, the CDC.  As mentioned before it truly is an excellent material for a wing because it stays dry, floats well and is the most gentle and imitative material for adult insects.  While a smokejumper is meant to imitate a midge emerger or dry first and then a variety of mayflies as emergers and dries as well, I’ve thrown this succcessfully during a caddis and stonefly hatch and done well.  Fish see it and just think food.  That leads us to the second reason why this fly is so productive.

While the CDC puff floats high in the water, the rest of the fly is just slightly submerged under the water.  Though I’ll likely never be able to prove it, I believe this is the number one reason this fly is so productive.  When insects hatch, a large portion of their body and excess wing casing is below the water.  For the trout, this half in half out look is incredibly accurate to the real insect emerging and trout can’t seem to turn it down.  Any fly that rides this low in the water column while still being easily visible to anglers is a match made in heaven.  That’s always the tradeoff as anglers we have to make.  Is it going to ride high and dry so that fisherman 500 yds upstream of me could see it, or am I going to go for supreme accuracy and let the fly sink just below the water where likely a trout eats it every time, but spits it because I never set the hook because I never saw him eat? The tradeoff of visibility vs accuracy is a tough one, but with the smokejumper you really do get best of both worlds and it is the only pattern of this nature that I have come across.

The third reason this fly is so successful is that it most accurately imitates a midge emerger, midge dry, and small mayfly emerger and dry.  A BWO is the most common mayfly this imitates and what’s great about that is that when BWO are hatching in early spring or late fall, midges are also hatching.  These hatches overlap each other all the time and a black smokejumper up front and an olive smokejumper in the back imitates the whole lot all at once.  Fish are looking for small olive and black bugs during that entire first part of spring and last part of fall and that makes it really powerful to use when you are fishing during those periods.  Though there are other dries that imitate multiple insects, they don’t as closely overlap in their hatch times so it makes it a good bug to fish throughout the year vs really, REALLY good during certain times of year.  The Smokejumper can work anytime, but it really shines during midge and BWO hatches or seasons near or around those hatches.

Those are 3 reasons the smokejumper is so productive, let’s learn a little more now about the entomology behind this fly and how to use some common variations to imitate a large variety insects.


The Entomology Knowledge on This Fly

Midge Emergers and Dry Flies
Sizes: #18 – #24 | Colors: Gray, Black, Olive, Red | Seasons: Year Round (Late Fall to Early Spring is Most Important)

You don’t have to do a single thing to a smokejumper to imitate a midge dry fly or emerger.  The pattern was intentionally crafted to imitate both the emerger and dry fly stages of a midge so just tie them standard and you’ll be able to catch fish very consistently.  The CDC rides above the water and looks like the adult and the body looks like the emerging insect.  Depending on what the fish wants, it sees the emerger or dry and takes a gulp.

During mid to late spring when caddis start showing up, you will often get what I call a midgezilla hatch.  These are just the same midges you saw earlier in the year, but they get very big for midges, all the way to a size #14 – #16 range.  For these, I like to tie a small variation and do a post of CDC out towards the eye and another back towards the rear of the hook.  This double CDC clusters together and makes a larger midge imitation or a cluster of midges, which is also common on the river to see.  It’s a good variation if you find that your patterns are too small with what is on the water.  Rarely can you go too small, but if you are experiencing larger bugs, it is worth the shot.

Refer to our section below on how to fish a smokejumper for more tips on presentation.


BWO – Baetis – Blue Wing Olive | Mayfly Dry
Sizes: #16 – #24 | Colors: Olive, Dark Olive, Brown, Purple | Seasons: Year Round (Late Fall to Early Spring)

There are two options you have to imitate a BWO with a smokejumper.  The first is simply tie it in olive or dark olive on the body and make the CDC white or dun colored.  They have BWO wing color CDC as well in the CDC puffs used to tie this fly.  The second option is to add some krystal flash to the side of the bug and create 4 legs by bringing in an X leg formation with small krystal flash wings.  This extends the profile out a bit to imitate a BWO sitting on the water and helps it look just a bit more like a BWO.  Both options are great and I often just use an olive smokejumper to imitate the Baetis I find because it is just easier than having an additional pattern, but some will want to have exact imitations or a couple of each in their box to cover their bases.  Try out both and see which one builds more confidence for you.


Callibaetis | Mayfly Dry
Sizes: #16 – #22 | Colors: Gray, Brown, Tan | Seasons: Mid Summer to Fall

Tied in gray, the smokejumper is downright deadly on lakes for callibaetis.  It’s a near perfect look and requires no changes other than matching a good color to the callibaetis on the lake you fish.  I’ve found black, white, and gray are the top producing colors.  It can be hard to see during an active hatch, so often I like to fish a larger parachute adams as the first fly, then tie the smokejumper off behind.  The smokejumper usually catches the fish, but the parachute adams tells me when to set the hook and does it’s fair share of hook ups as well.


PMD – PME – Pale Morning Dun – Sulphur | Mayfly Dry
Sizes: #14 – #20 | Colors: Yellow, Tan | Seasons: Summer

All you need to do here is tie it in yellow or tan to imitate a PMD adult.  If you’re going for the emerger, tie the body in a rusty brown and then the head of the fly with yellow dubbing instead of peacock herl.  This is perfect for those fickle fish rising on a summer evening.  In addition to this, there are some bugs out there called pseudocleons and we call them pseudos for short (sew-doughs) that look like super small PMD’s.  Though different in species, they are the same for us as anglers, just much smaller.  A big one would be a size #20 and a #28 is likely the size needed.  While that’s a tough tie, a #22 or #24 yellow smokejumper can make the fish eat on tough pseudo hatch days.  Keep a few really small yellow smokejumpers in your box if you fish rivers with small PMD’s or pseudos.


Tricos | Mayfly Dry
Sizes: #18 – #26| Colors: Black, White, Gray | Seasons: Summer to Fall

Tricos are small…really small.  For this reason small smokejumpers are a great fit.  While most people fish the spinner fall more than a dry fly hatch of tricos, they function for both purposes and when you are seeing tricos falling and trout feeding, this is a great pattern to use as the first fly and then trail a traditional trico spinner behind it.  This will cover the bases well and help you see the strikes without spooking the fish.  Hard to go wrong using a smokejumper during a trico hatch.


Beyond what is mentioned above, the smokejumper, from an entomology level, doesn’t imitate anything else.  With that said, we wanted to take a moment and let you know that there isn’t a bad time to fish these.  They can bring fish to the surface all the time and I’ve found they work well as a second dry fly when you throw larger, more buoyant patterns like an elk hair caddis or stimulator as the first fly.  They will sometimes refuse the larger fly only to grab the smaller smokejumper while they are up there.  when fishing shallow waters where a dropper nymph doesn’t work, this is a great option or really anytime you are throwing a larger, more visible dry and want something highly imitative on your line as well.

Identify the Signals the River Provides to Learn When to Fish It

Small Delicate Sips on the Surface Often Means Mayflies or Midges

When you are seeing trout rise delicately in rhythm it’s pretty common that they are eating midges or mayflies. This can be a great indication to throw on a smokejumper. Find what is drifting in the water that they are eating and tie an imitative pattern on the front and this on the back and they’ll very likely eat one or the other

Slackwater or stillwater, this fly out produces most patterns

It can be incredibly frustrating to see trout feed in slack water because the moment you cast or your fly drifts over them, it puts them down. While you’ll need a good presentation for this and soft landing, the smokejumper as a pattern selection, is perfect for this kind of water. Trout have inspected this fly very well in slow water and still decided to eat it. It just looks right to them vs some other insect profiles that we commonly fish with. It’s why this fly out performs so many others and has earned a place in my box.

Active midge hatches or mayfly hatches

midge adults

As you learned in the entomology section, midges or small mayflies means it’s time to throw on a smokejumper. Try a couple different colors and sizes until you hone in on what is working best.

When fish are rising, but you can’t get them to eat your fly or figure out what they are eating

Sometimes fish just don’t like what you are throwing at them, even if it matches the hatch. In times like this I’ve found a small smokejumper can often get them to eat, even if they were eating pink caddis or something crazy, they will always give this a look if near the surface and actively feeding. Match size and color to what you see in the water, but this fly is different from most in your box and can make the difference to the trout.

Cloudy Days and Storm Fronts

When cloudy days or storm fronts are coming in, this often triggers a hatch. Storms and mixed weather happens most in spring and fall and I’ve found BWO enjoy clouds and even some wind in order to hatch. I’ve fish BWO hatches in 40 mph head winds (not very fun, but I did catch a couple!) and found that transitional weather brings actively hatching midges and BWO. Watch for these signs and maybe stick on the river and tough out the storm (providing it’s safe to do so) and you may find a great hatch and a perfect time to throw a smokejumper.

Stable Streamflows

the other tip I’ve learned about midges, is they don’t like big swings in flows. They aren’t strong swimmers and they like predictable conditions to make their emergence, given they have a decent chance of being eaten every time they emerge. Stable flows means good dry fly fishing for most rivers and is a good sign the river gives us to throw a smokejumper.

Presentation Tips on the Fly

Many people get a little confused on the smokejumper.  Do I fish it like a dry or like an emerger or even a nymph?  The answer that you can fish is as both an emerger and a dry fly.  Let’s go over a few different tips on presenting the fly well in a few different kinds of water as both dries and emergers.

Tips on Keeping it Up

I would say the smokejumper functions primarily as a dry fly and secondary as an emerger. The CDC floats naturally on the surface and is suited for dry flies. The strategy is to get a nice, delicate cast with the smokejumper as a sloppy slap on the water will spook fish and drown the fly. We’ll discuss below how to get a more delicate presentation, but for now let’s talk about maintenance on the fly. The CDC will float for maybe 2 or 3 casts before it starts to sink. If you haven’t caught a fish or really let it drown, you can make 3 or 4 false casts in between presentations and that will dry out the fly very well. A single or double haul will help speed up the line, drying it out even faster if you know how to do them. When false casting isn’t working and the fly is just sinking too much, it’s time to bring it in and use a fly duster material. DO NOT USE GINK or liquid floatants of any kind on CDC it just makes it sink and hold in more water. You have to use a fly duster like docs dry dust or frogs fanny. This will dry it out quickly and bring it back to brand new. A few false casts after and you’re ready to go for at least several more casts. This fly does have a bit of maintenance to it like all small dry flies, but if presented well to rising trout it usually doesn’t take more than 3 drifts to get an eat.

Tips on Fishing as an Emerger

If you’re going to fish it as an emerger, all you’ll need to do is let it sink after it gets water logged. If you want it it to sink a little faster, you can add a little liquid floatant to the cdc after it is wet and it will lock in the water and ruin most of the buoyancy of the fly making it a good emerger, but I personally just drown it in the water for about 10 seconds running my fingers gently over it getting it good and wet, then wet it a bit in my mouth as well and that seems to keep it under the water but near the surface and trout really enjoy that. I will fish a NZ strike indicator in front of the fly by about 36 inches or I’ll use a more visible foam fly to help me see my takes which is important with fishing emergers, cause they can be really hard to detect and often no visual signs are given. It’s a lot like fishing a nymph at the end of the day.

3 Ways to Get a Super Delicate Presentation

I have 3 tips that will really help you get a good presentation on a smokejumper, but these tips will work for any flies that require a delicate presentation. Typically small dry flies require a soft presentation or they end up getting drowned and just being a pain to fish. When done correctly though and using a few of these tips, you’ll catch a ton of fish. I probably catch 75% of my fish on dries smaller than a size #18. Check out these tips and apply them to your next outing:

Use a Pile Cast When Possible

Here is a quick video I found on youtube on how to do a pile cast if you haven’t seen it yet from Swift Fly Fishings channel – 


The idea is to stop early on your cast allowing all the power of the cast to dwindle so it doesn’t power onto the water and slap the water. It also gives you substantially more slack to work with during your casts. This helps when fishing technical drifts of many kinds. Commonly I find that when you’re approaching a run or a hole in the water, you are walking through the riffle to get there. When the riffle starts, the water is moving much faster than up at the run or hole and if you can’t get past that fast water, then some of your fly line will be on this faster water and will drag your fly when you make your cast much faster than you want often spooking and putting down the fish. To remedy this, either move upstream without spooking the fish so your line avoids this area, or if that isn’t possible given the situation, try a pile cast. A pile cast will compensate for that dragging enough to give the fish a chance to eat the fly. It takes a little practice and is worthless in the wind, but a good technique to have in your bag when you need it.

Under Power Your Leader and Tippet

Most people use a 5x or 6x leader when fishing small dry flies. These are tapered and allow for a good transfer of energy from your cast to your fly and if fishing a size #16 elk hair caddis, this is exactly what you want. However, sometimes and quite easily you can overpower your cast with small dry flies and they slap the water and sink. Not what you want. So instead what I’ll do is take another 18 – 36 inches of tippet and tie it to the end of the leader before tying on the fly. Use the same strength line as the leader or one size smaller. What this does is takes all the power out of the cast but just right at the end. It’s like building in a pile cast to the end of your cast and on waters with lots of mixed currents or when you just need a little extra time on the drift, this is a simple way to set yourself up for success up front.

Follow the Fly as it Falls

Using a standard cast, the best way to ensure you get a delicate landing is to stop your rod at the end of your cast around 10 o’clock as your line straightens out heading to its destination, then as the fly and line falls to the surface, follow it with your rod and drop your rod to 9 o’clock. This keeps any excess power from moving to then end of the line and your fly landing less gentle than desired. While a good cast and timing are still necessary, this is just one extra tip I can give to get a softer presentation. It helps the line, leader and fly fall gently to the water and in slack water solutions this is very helpful.


Common Variations and Ways to Modify the Pattern for Success

There are a few modifications or similar flies out there that are popular and a good choice to use if you are trying to imitate different insects or are short on certain materials, but they all require CDC.  Here are a few modifications you can make to the smokejumper to help to perform the way you want it to on the water.

  1. Modify the Body – You can do just a thread body, thread wrapped with wire for segmentation or add small dry fly dubbing to create a taper.  The Mole fly is a popular imitation that is very similar to a smokejumper and was made by Charlie Craven.
  2. Adjust the CDC colors: CDC puffs, used in all smokejumpers come in a wide variety of awesome colors.  Most very natural like slate gray, BWO olive, tan and black.  These can make the fly harder to see, but can be deadly when the white CDC is spooking the fish.  Only on really tricky tailwaters have I seen white CDC make the fish refuse.
  3. Add some small legs: You can add some small legs near the thorax (head) of the fly to make it look more like a mayfly.  Krystal flash, or a similar synthetic is recommended over rubber legs as it is too much to tie in rubber legs to a fly this small.  If you want to adjust it a bit and do a size #14 or #16, then rubberlegs can work to imitate larger bugs, but often several CDC puffs are required at this point to keep it afloat and it still can struggle.

Check out our image gallery below of some additional variations, colors and ideas to get your creative juices flowing.  We hope you enjoyed the lesson and the course so far, let’s get into the next lesson, my all time favorite confidence fly.

Image Gallery of Variations and Colors of the Fly

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Lesson 1
Lesson 6
Lesson 2
Lesson 7
Lesson 3
Lesson 8
Lesson 4
Lesson 9
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