Great Smoky Mountains National Park Fly Fishing
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s busiest, but most anglers who go there never see the best fishing.
The thing about the fog is, you almost always find the mayflies hatching through it. That’s one bit of streamcraft I’ve picked up deep inside the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, chasing closely guarded browns and ancient brook trout. Most blue-liners–anglers who seek out little-known or overlooked fisheries, guided only by the fine blue lines on a topographic map–pursue solitude more than large fish. In the Smokies, you can have both.
With more than 11 million visitors each year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country, and most anglers visiting these woods catch 6- to 9-inch rainbow trout, vestiges of stockings discontinued in the 1970s. What most visitors do not catch (and usually are not aware of) are the Smokies’ large browns and native resident brookies. With abundant hatches and predictable fish behavior, you’d think the fishing would be easy, but it isn’t. Mountain anglers are tacticians of the short rod and the short cast due to the tangled rhododendron forests in Tennessee and North Carolina, which are stapled together by the Smokies. However, these challenges are not without reward. If you start down those cobalt-ink paths, it may well be a long, long while before you shake loose of their grip.
Brookie Ban Lifted
The National Park Service recently discontinued a 30-year experimental moratorium on brook-trout fishing in most zones within the park, providing anglers with the chance to cast to brook trout that have never seen a fly (legally) in almost 150 miles of water. “There just wasn’t any point,” says head park biologist Steve Moore. “There’s up to 70 percent natural mortality anyway, and with the catch-and-release ethic, I sometimes think we’ve created too many people afraid to enjoy this special resource. Heck, we have a five-fish limit up there, and we’d have to kill more than 50 percent of the fish in the river a year to even make a difference.”
Brook trout are a relic south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the last Ice Age, glaciation and lower worldwide temperatures forced brook trout, a member of the char family, to migrate south. When temperatures warmed, the trout found thermal refuge in the mountains, where a combination of elevation and the region’s massive boreal forest kept water temperatures low and the trout safe. When European settlers crossed the Appalachians, the first thing they did was begin cutting this forest, freeing up soil to run into the water and opening patches where sunlight could shine through. By the early 19th century, most of the Eastern boreal forest was gone, including in the Smokies, which were hit hard by logging.
Faded sepia photos taken during this clearing-off period show stringers full of 16- to 20-inch brook trout caught in places where smallmouth are found today. Those fish, which grew large at lower altitudes, disappeared with their habitat, and today the average brookie in the Smokies is 6 to 8 inches. The settlers also introduced rainbow and brown trout, which outcompeted the brookies at lower elevations. Today brook trout are found in the Great Smokies only at high elevations, above natural barriers. “We’ve got an ongoing restoration project,” says park biologist Matt Culp, “and one of our required criteria for restoration is a natural barrier to keep out the nonnative fish.”
To find native brookies, obtain a National Park Service map from 2005 or earlier and look for red-lined streams, which at the time indicated streams closed to fishing. Barring that, check with a local fly shop or simply try your luck on any stream above 3,500 feet. (For suggested day hikes, see the Where to Go sidebar.) One of the best ways to access these areas, and potentially locate some of the best fishing, is to follow the Appalachian Trail (AT) across the spine of the mountains. This legendary trail, which splits Tennessee from North Carolina, runs all the way from Georgia to Maine, coincidentally tracing the hereditary range of the brook trout throughout its length.
Brook trout make their home in steep, narrow creeks with lots of waterfalls. On a typical day, you climb as much as you walk, pausing to cast as you crest each boulder and discover new pools. Because the rhododendron is so thick, and due to the long angling moratorium, many of the best creeks lack fishing trails, so your only option is to proceed directly upstream, casting back over water you’ve already fished. Casts are never more than 10 feet and usually amount to dapping.
Small Stream Tactics
My education in catching Smokies brook trout came, as the best experiences usually do, from happenstance. I had started fishing down Road Prong, a newly opened brookie stream on the slopes of Clingman’s Dome, when I encountered an angler named Hans who was fishing his way back upstream. Hans, of Scandinavian origin, explained to me why I hadn’t caught a trout on my way down. “The fish here, they are spooky, yes? You have to do all those things you laugh at when you read them in magazines to catch them, okay?” He gestured to the tilesetter’s knee pads he was wearing. “Stay low, ya? Take one of these.” He handed me an oversized yellow Stimulator that could have been used in a Western Salmonfly hatch.
“The brookies, they don’t care about the size at all, only the drag. You have to be able to see your fly to keep it clear.” Hans and I then worked our way back up the mountain. He would approach a pool on his knees, squeezing the water out of his fly in pinched fingers, then with “no false casting, no!” he would lay the fly right behind a rock, hovering it for a brief moment with the tip of his rod so it didn’t shoot out from the lie. He managed to score more than a dozen fish in the half mile of water I had just sloshed through. As I gratefully gave him a lift back down the mountain, Hans expanded on his fishing technique: “I look for the high streams, and I fish them tight. No false casts; it spooks them. They are 30 years without people, yes, but still they are spooky. You have to stay low, dry the fly, make sure not to drag. Do that, and you can’t stop catching fish.”
It takes a long time and a lot of luck to catch a large Smokies brown trout. These fish require blue-lining tactics despite their relative accessibility, and the normal learning curve amounts to years on the ridgebacks before an angler can meet these fish on a level playing field. The typical newcomer wets a line over these fish for an hour or so, and gives up in frustration.
A limited number of low-elevation streams in the park reach depths and flow levels suitable for big browns. These areas are within a short walk of the roads, particularly on the north side of the park, but fishing them extensively requires all the planning and patience of a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received complaints about a lack of fish down there,” Moore says, “and at times I’ve had to resort to shocking them up a 5- or 6-pounder to prove it.”
In the fall, colder temperatures trigger the browns’ natural spawning impulses, drawing them out of the depths and into the open water where they can be seen. As they begin to venture onto the shoals, they feed actively to store reserves for their upcoming activities; this can make for exciting fishing, if you can find them. But if you miss this window and are tempted to fish to active spawners, don’t–not only is the fishing less productive, it’s also hard on the fish. Byron Begley of Little River Outfitters in Townsend, Tennessee, explains: “In the fall the browns congregate to spawn in the deeper rivers . . . We tend to get our biggest rains starting in November, which means the spawn can be hit or miss. Some years a whole age class will be wiped out, and that means you never know which year the big browns are coming up the river.” Browns move onto and off of the shoals throughout the winter as temperatures and water levels suit them. During this period, which can last for several weeks, the fish still must eat, and they do so vigorously during a limited time, often during the day (because they spawn mostly at night). Learn to recognize the redds (they resemble bathtub-size, clean spots in the rocks) so you can tell the difference between a spawner and a forager.
Big fish of all kinds tend to move the most during rain and after cold snaps. The U.S. Geological Survey provides real-time stream flow charts on the Internet (www.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis), so you can track the river from home. If the water begins to rise, it’s time to go. This is sight-fishing, so bring polarized glasses. Work upriver, scanning ahead of you before each step. Staging browns hold in channels and tailouts below gravel beds, and they also feed during this period.
The best technique for landing a big Smokies brown is to cast to a visible fish using a tandem nymph rig and 6X fluorocarbon tippet. Stay low and out of sight behind the brown, and rig your flies so a larger nymph (like a Bitch Creek) can act as both weight and indicator to take your smaller Pheasant Tail or egg pattern down to the trout. Cast upstream of the fish and watch the big fly (white rubber legs help) as it passes the trout–if the fly hesitates, set the hook. You can use an indicator to float the rig at the desired depth, but stay away from bright colors–these fish are spooky.
Where to Go
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a big place, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, rainbow trout are abundant in almost every stream. Larger waters such as Abrams Creek, Little River, and Middle Prong are both widely known and accessible. You won’t find much solitude, but these rivers can take the pressure of more than a few anglers, and are dependable spots for rainbows.
Each region of the park has its own character. From Knoxville, the most accessible areas are on the northwest side, known locally as the Townsend area (for the little border town); the Gatlinburg area (for the bloated tourist trap); and the Interstate 40 corridor. The Townsend region offers the best chance for big browns in the northern part of the park, primarily in the deeper water found near the main roads around the northwest entrance. Lower gradients and elevations create surging pools in this region, and the roads tend to parallel the riverbeds. Cades Cove, a tourist area in danger of being loved to death, provides access to the park’s southwest drainages, in which smallmouth and trout mix. Abrams Creek, probably the most popular fishing destination due to its larger-than-average rainbows, drains this region. Though Abrams is slick and overrun with tourists, the Abrams Falls Trail is a pleasant day hike. Lynn Camp Prong Trail at the headwaters of Middle Prong above the Tremont Institute offers an elegant waterfall, abundant rainbows, and the possibility of brookies in the headwaters of all adjacent watersheds. (Some are still closed to fishing.)
The south side of the park has the interesting distinction of draining into Fontana Lake, a major impoundment. The Appalachian Trail crosses Fontana Dam, and it is at the dam that most AT anglers pick up the trail. Three major drainages and a myriad of smaller trickles flow down this face of the Smokies. Eagle Creek Trail, Hazel Creek Trail, and Forney Creek Trail offer access to the entire southern face of the park from Fontana Lake. A shuttle from the marina takes you to the start of a day hike, or you can explore Noland Creek Trail from the Road to Nowhere out of Bryson City. (Officially Lakeview Drive, this highway dead-ends at a small tunnel; it has never been completed.) Experimental stockings (long since discontinued) of lake trout, steelhead-strain rainbows, and browns in Fontana Lake result in spotty, somewhat unpredictable fall runs of fish in these areas, which tend to be even more hit or miss than the big browns up in the mountains. Lakeshore Trail, which runs along the north edge of Fontana, is particularly well suited for a multiday blue-lining camp and fish, and at higher elevations this region gets some of the lightest pressure in the park.
The southeast and east portions of the park are accessible from Waynesville, North Carolina, or by driving across Highway 441 from Gatlinburg into the little town of Cherokee. The Oconaluftee and Smokemont regions along this road are popular tourist destinations that receive somewhat less pressure than Cades Cove. At Oconaluftee Visitor Center, you can pick up the new Mountains-to-Sea Trail and fish one of the most starkly mountainous areas in the park. Highway 441 goes right over the crest of the park, near Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the region. On the North Carolina side, you can fish right by the road at elevations high enough to hold brook trout, if you don’t mind the traffic. For a purer experience, set off on the AT or its side trails, like Road Prong Trail from Clingman’s Dome Road. This challenging hiking provides some of the closest brook trout access in the park.
The northeast and east-central portions of the park are the farthest from any major jumping-off point, although you can view much of the area from I-40. A multiday hike on the AT provides the best access to this area. This region also includes the Cataloochee area, the site of an ongoing elk relocation and preservation program. You can reach the entire Cataloochee Creek watershed from the Cataloochee Valley historic area. Two anglers from Knoxville reported nearly stumbling over a sleeping elk while momentarily lost here, so use caution–and bring your camera.
The Best Times To Go
The Smokies’ biggest problem is crowds of tourists, which can clog the roads and trails, especially during summer vacation season. Avoid peak times at all costs. The park is open to fishing year-round. For the best shot at big browns, book a guide out of Townsend in late October, during the week (the leaf watchers choke the highways on weekends). Townsend and Gatlinburg both offer accommodations. For brook trout, fishing is fantastic from April through June, but shuts down all winter. Brookie fishing doesn’t require a guide, just a 2- or 3-weight rod and some time. For the most complete experience, through-hike the AT, sleeping in the camp shelters along the trail (be sure to book in advance through the Backcountry Reservation Office). Although you can bag brookies and big browns in the same vacation, cold weather in fall in the high areas tends to make brookies sluggish, and they feed actively only on the warmest days.
Blue-lining involves a lot of hiking, some of which requires an overnight stay or two. Begin your trip by setting aside anything you do not absolutely need. The first thing to go should be waders; they are irrelevant in the mountains and are suffocating in all but the coldest months. You can also make do with a backpack instead of a vest, especially a new fishing-oriented pack. The heaviest thing you have to carry is water, but for a small investment you can buy a filtration pump and cut your load. After that, it’s the bare essentials: a 2- or 3-weight rod no more than 8 feet long, a reel (double-taper lines are nice in case one end gets chewed up), some tippet down to 6X in case the fish are jittery, a box of bushy flies, a snack, a map, and a light rain jacket. The rain jacket is not optional–in the Smokies it rains more than it doesn’t–and neither is the map. People die in the Smokies, and usually they are found without a map. For overnight trips, bring a warm sleeping bag, a tent, and a partner. Camping alone in the mountains can be dangerous and, let’s face it, a bit lonely.
My personal experience provides the unstartling conclusion that the most important pieces of gear are your boots. To prevent blisters, select a pair of waterproof hiking boots or wading shoes that fit snugly. Wading shoes have the advantage of felt, but hiking boots support you better on the trail. I use perforated neoprene socks, which squish, to avoid a lot of blistering.
Before you go, buy a National Geographic/Trails Illustrated map of the Smokies and look at the area you plan to fish (nationalgeographic.com/maps). The closer together the topographic lines are, the steeper the climb. Climbing is a part of Smokies fishing, but try to start out where the lines don’t bleed together.
The Smokies are one of the last uninterrupted green spaces left in the East. The best way to experience their grandeur is on foot, high in the mountains, when unexpected bends or steep falls create surprising–and sometimes breathtaking–portals out of the forest. While blue-lining will never supplant tailwater or freestone fishing for most anglers, it is an undertaking that repays you for your efforts. It’s about more than the fishing, but the fishing is pretty darn good too. Whether you’re salivating over the idea of monster browns lurking unobserved next to millions of marching feet a year, or you just want to experience the thrill of holding a brook trout in its own millennia-old home water, your best bet is to strap on a pack, grab a map, and start walking.
Local Fly Shops
Smoky Mountain Fly Fishing Cherokee, North Carolina
Little River Outfitters
The Orvis Store
Smoky Mountain Angler
Lowe Fly Shop
Waynesville, North Carolina
Hunter Banks Company
Asheville, North Carolina
National Park Service
Maps: www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/maps.htm Phone: (865) 436-1200
(for road closures in late fall and winter)
Backcountry Reservation Office: (865) 436-1231
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Angler’s Companion, by Ian Rutter (Frank Amato Publications, 2002).
Fly-Fishing Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, by Don Kirk (Menasha Ridge Press, 1997).
The Fly Fisherman’s Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by H. Lea Lawrence (Cumberland House Publishing, 1998)