Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Yaller Hammer; Yallerhammer; or Yellow Hammer

The origins of the Yallerhammer are so obscure they will likely never be known, yet few flies exemplify the heritage of Southern angling more. The Southern angler will insist that the Yallerhammer sprang from the rustic fly boxes of Appalachia sui generis or, as the argument usually goes, that it developed in a geographical vacuum, cut off from a larger angling culture. Armed only with conjecture and pride, Southern anglers have declared the singularity of the Yallerhammer so long that it has become more than a fly in the vise. It's a proof, the faint, lingering trace of the longstanding tradition of Southern fly dressing. And it's all there can be - where the written record is lacking, memory must suffice.

"Art is no part of southern life," William Faulkner asserted: "We need to talk, to tell, since oratory is our heritage." Thus the annals of Southern Appalachian fly fishing are in the mouths of its anglers or on the ends of their lines. And, thus, the Yallerhammer. The art of any author is lasting. A book of fly dressings as old as the fifteenth century or the nineteenth-century manuscript record of a gentleman's angling club endures intact. But the art of the fly tier must always have dissolution as its goal. If they are well-tied and serve their purpose, the best flies will ravel eventually in a trout's jaw. 

It is unlikely that the angler who first lashed a yallerhammer’s primary to the shank of a hook and wound it to the eye died proudly for having left behind an icon of Southern fly tying. It was probably a simpler satisfaction - in having substituted the hackles of a mountain woodpecker for the shorebird hackles of the golden plover, that fly tier had brought the memory of a dressing from the North Country to North America and made it Southern Appalachia's own. "It's fine to think that you will leave something behind you when you die," Faulkner noted, "but it's better to have made something you can die with." It's the right sort of pride for a Southern angler and a very pleasant conjecture on the whole.

Dressed as a palmer, the Yallerhammer is not without precedent—perhaps the Scots-Irish settlers of these mountains applied the hackles from local game birds to their fly dressing traditions. In his Practical Fly-Fisher (1854), John Jackson recommended flies with dark bodies accented by a palmered, dingy-yellowish hackle: one is "A good Palmer for Spring," tied with a "body, green herl of Peacock, gold tinsel, green silk, with a greenish stained or grizzled Cock’s hackle over all." Such "greenish stained" hackle would likely take on a deep-yellow cast in a swift run. Jackson also notes that another “good general fly is a mottled hackle, from a Hen Grouse’s neck, wrapped in a body of brown Peacock’s herl and yellow silk," but its variant is more like the modern Yallerhammer: "N. B. Our local Anglers use a Golden Plover’s Hackle, and Tom Tit’s tail for the same purpose." Jackson's North Country contemporaries clearly had no qualms about substituting hackles - our Southern Highlanders were likely as quick to substitute the dingy-yellow primaries of their local yallerhammer for the dark ash-and-yellow hackles of the ocean-distant golden plover.

The tradition of Southern fly fishing, however old it may be, has been best documented recently, in books that include Don Howell and his son Kevin’s Tying and Fishing Southern Appalachian Trout Flies (1999), L. J. DeCuir’s Southeastern   Flies (1999), and Roger Lowe’s Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains (2001). For all of these anglers, the Yaller Hammer, Yallarhammer Nymph, or Yellow Hammer, respectively, is a palmered nymph dressed on a standard nymph hook: a down eye, 2X long, 2X heavy hook with a perfect bend. 

This dressing of the Howell's “Yaller” Hammer uses yellow dyed bobwhite quail undercoverts rather than the primaries more typical of the dressing and does not use a clipped palmer hackle. As a concession to the size and type of hook and in keeping with the established patterns of the blog, I have used a size 14 dry fly hook rather than the heavier nymph hook these fly tier prescribe




Golden pheasant

Black floss or wool

Imitation “Yallar” Hammer feather palmered

Much like the North Country’s Dotterell soft hackle, the Southern Appalachian Yallarhammer is now almost impossible to tie authentically. Its namesake hackle comes from the primaries of a protected bird, the yellow-shafted flicker. Don and Kevin Howell give an extensive treatment of the fly and the hackle in Tying and Fishing Southern Appalachian Trout Flies (1999), which is available from the Davidson River Outfitters. They note that the plumage of the yellow-shafted flicker has a “yellowish/black cast," so that local anglers know it alternately as a “Flicker, Yellow-Shafted Flicker, Golden-Winged Woodpecker, High-holer, Yellow Hammer, or ‘Yallar’ Hammer (the local pronunciation).” Don Howell suggested substituting yellow-dyed bobwhite quail or mourning dove primaries to simulate the distinctive "yellowish/black cast." The traditional dressing for the “Yallar” Hammer is the one he calls the “Yaller” Hammer Wooly Worm.

“THREAD: Black uni-thread
WIRE: .010 - .020
TAIL: Gold Pheasant
BODY: Black floss or wool
HACKLE: Imitation “Yallar” Hammer feather palmered through body.”

Mr. Howell notes that the black-bodied dressing was the only dressing he knew, though he “did see some variations in color, including white, yellow and black. All versions seem to produce well, but the black one has always been my favorite.” He describes having had some success dressing the “Yaller” Hammer like a Woolly Bugger: “Instead of using Golden Pheasant for the tail, I’ve substituted maribou to match the color of the body. Also, at times, I add four to six strands of Crystal Flash to the tail.”

Mr. DeCuir notes that the “most common substitute for the original feather now is the Yellow Dyed Grizzly Hackle,” a much easier hackle to obtain already-dyed. It is reminiscent of Jackson's dressings. This fly is also dressed on a size 14 dry fly hook.

L. J. DeCuir nods to the tradition of Southern Appalachian fly tying in his Southeastern Flies (1999). While some anglers suggest the Yallerhammer is a child of Cherokee angling tradition, no record exists to support the supposition. DeCuir, on the other hand, suggests that the pioneers who settled Southern Appalachia in the western migration, beginning as early as the eighteenth century, “were not English gentlemen” who were “carrying with them the traditions of the dry fly developed on the Test and the Itchen.” Those dry fly traditions would not be codified in Great Britain until the mid-nineteenth century, and the settlers of the American Southeast were more often Scots-Irish than English anyway, more given to recollections of North Country and Highland fly dressing than chalk stream tactics. Mr. DeCuir notes his “suspicion that the nymph/wet fly pattern is closest to the original,” a suspicion that recalls a fly dressed hacklewise with a yellow-shafted flicker's hackle, much like a traditional soft hackle. DeCuir dresses his Yallerhammer on a hook from 4-14 with

Thread: Black
Weight: “Lead” wire or substitute
Palmered Ribbing: Yellow Dyed Grizzly Hackle
Body: 2-5 strands of Peacock Herl depending upon size of the hook”

In addition to this dressing, Mr. DeCuir includes five others, traditional (including yellow-shafted flicker hackle) and modern. As a “Classic Wet Fly Pattern,” he dresses the Yallerhammer on a wet fly hook:

Thread: Black
Body: Peacock Herl
Hackle: Split feather of Yellow Shafted Woodpecker (Flicker) tied on as a wet-fly collar”

This “Classic Wet-Fly Pattern” that Mr. DeCuir lists uses yellow dyed bobwhite quail as a substitute, like the Howells suggest, and is dressed on a size 14 dry fly hook.

In his Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains (2001), Roger Lowe offers a similar dressing to those of the Howells and Mr. DeCuir, but he recommends grouse dyed yellow as a substitute for the split primaries of the traditional dressing, like Jackson's recommendation to use hen grouse on the palmers he recommended. Lowe lists two dressings. The first, the Yellow Hammer Nymph, is the more traditional and dressed thus, with black thread as Lowe illustrates it:

“Tail: Long side of Grouse feather
Body: Peacock herl
Hackle: Dyed yellow Grouse feather”

And the second:

“Thread: Yellow silk
Tail: Wood duck
Hackle: Dyed yellow Grouse feather
Body: Golden yellow floss

The most common way of tying the popular Yellow Hammer pattern, can be fished wet or dry.”

This size 14 dressing of Mr. Lowe’s Yellow Hammer substitutes a yellow dyed bobwhite quail hackle for the yellow-shafted flicker hackle, rather than the yellow dyed grouse that Mr. Lowe suggests. 


  1. Thanks for posting. I've heard about this fly but not much more. Your information and pictures were very informative.

  2. Neil
    I have been off the blogging trail for a while and have missed your expertise in fly tying. As usual these are exceptional patterns. I only wish I had the skill you have at the bench. Thanks for sharing

  3. Neil, the research that I have done shows that American Indians, specifically Cherokee, were the authors of the Yellerhammer nymph. It was merely a Yellow edged primary flight fthr from the yellow flicker, palmered on the hook. Again, as you said, there are many, many stories out there. But I personally, would like to believe that our native Americans came up with this on theor own. The Europeans always think they invented everything! Cheers, I am enjoying your blog.

    1. Joel - If you'd be willing to share, I'd love to see what you found in your research, just out of personal interest and maybe to make additions to this long post. All that I've ever been able to turn up about historical Cherokee fishing points to weirs (like the huge one at Hiwassee) and paralyzing agents dunked in deep pools. The fish weren't fished so much as trapped. I've also found that later flies primarily used deer skin and hair wrapped like a leech pattern up the hook, but that's Mary Marbury Orvis writing much later. Do you have access to any of the old flies?

  4. Neil, I missed this a few years back and it is wonderful. Great piece. What are we going to do when the Grouse and Bobwhite become protected? Not too many of them left in Western NC/East TN/Northwest SC any longer!

    1. I'm sure we'll find something to take the place. I still want to run into a yellow hammer skin on the ground. To be honest, though, it would be hard to be without quail for a lot of soft-hackle fly tying.