Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Guide to Fly Fishing the Park
For those of you making your first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), a little background on our ecosystem will help you better understand this unique “wild trout” fishery.
Freestone Mountain Streams
For starters, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park harbors over 800 miles of fishable water. The majority of these watersheds are comprised of small to medium sized freestone streams. Our loan dissenter is Abrams Creek, which unlike all other streams of the park, is an even flowing limestone based river. More will be said of this unique watershed later.
The single most definitive characteristic of the Smokies watersheds is their morphology or physical make-up and or appearance. Aside from Abrams Creek, the parks’ streams are a very homogeneous group (i.e. they all look similar). Basically, the watersheds of the Smokies tumble and fall right down the sides of the mountains which cradle them. It is this drastic change in elevation which produces the “pocket water” characteristic of most Southern Appalachian trout streams.
Ironically, the underlying granite substrate which comprises the vast majority of our streambeds and produces the spectacular pool formations is in fact responsible for holding these streams back from reaching their full potential (biologically speaking).The hindrance is twofold.
First and foremost is the problem of chemical deposition from these rock forms.
Secondly, the physical make-up of our streams lend themselves to frequent flash floods, which in turn scour the stream bottoms making it difficult for any form of life to take a foothold. More specifically, the geological formations know as Thunderhead and Anakeesta leach harmful sulfates into the watersheds which in turn react with water, sunlight, (et. al.) to form acidic compounds which greatly alter the pH levels of these streams.
The lower pH levels (acidic) seen in most of the parks’ watersheds seriously hinder the ability of aquatic insects to reproduce and survive. This diminished ability of aquatic insect reproduction and survival is at the center of our streams carrying capacity for trout. It is quite simply a numbers game. The more food available for trout , the number and size of fish increases. Inversely, the less food available for trout to eat, the number and size of fish decreases.
The watersheds of the Smokies are in fact quite sterile as compared to their “tailwater” cousins which reside below the dams of several of East Tennessee’s (TVA) impoundments. It should be noted that the word “sterile” is used loosely in describing the conditions present in our park waters. To be precise, the watersheds of the Smokies are full of life and very robust in their own unique way. The next time you fish the Smokies, take the time to turn over a rock or inspect a piece of submerged timber. Take notice of the numerous little clinger nymphs (mayflies) or the larger case worms (caddis) attached to the underside. The presence of these larva (nymphs) represents the next generation of adult flies (hatches) to be observed above the waters surface in the coming months.
In summary, the wild trout of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park live in a very harsh environment. The fact that they are able to survive and reproduce in these watersheds speaks volumes as to the species ability to adapt and survive under less than desirable conditions. Yes, the streams of the Smokies have an incredible diversity of aquatic insect life. The problem from the flyfishers’ perspective is that few of the hundreds of insect species present are in significant enough numbers to represent a “major” hatch. In other words, our streams have numerous Caddis and Stonefly hatches, even hundreds of differing Mayfly hatches, only a couple of which are large enough or long enough in duration to be considered a “major” event (hatch). That is one in which the trout key on a particular bug because it is available in such numbers as to render all other food forms meaningless.
The trout of the Smokies have adapted to this biological diversity by understanding that they must eat while the eating is good. In other words, rarely does a trout of the Smokies allow a food to go past without an attempt at eating it. Fish that may be sipping small Mayfly emergers must react quickly at the presence of an ovipositing Stonefly when the opportunity presents itself. Opportunity is the key word here, the “wild trout” of the Smokies are very opportunistic when it comes to feeding. No self respecting fish of the Park will ever let a meal go past unnoticed regardless of the bugs scientific classification. Food is food in this environment and if a fish is to make it another season, he or she must make the most out of every opportunity to gain nutrition while expending the least amount of energy. To the fish it basically boils down to a basic equation of energy dynamics. Will the energy required to capture and eat a specific food be equal to or less than the energy gained from the food? More will be said of this phenomenon later during our discussion of “Fooling a Trout with a Fly” a.k.a. “presentation”.
Hatch Chart / Calendar
|Month||Flies Hatching||Imitation Flies|
|January to April||
Little Black Stone Flies
ParaDrake & Coffin Fly #10
|June to July||
Suggested Attractor Patterns
- Olive Wooly Buggers 6-12
- Gray Ghosts 6-10
- Gray Wullfs 10-14
- Adams 10-14
- Black Stone Nymph 8-12
FLY SELECTION INDEX
This fly hatch index is intended to be used as a guide in choosing productive patterns for trout within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and vicinity. It is a calendar or timetable, giving the most frequently seen or available insects for any given time of year on our mountain streams. Ecosystems are dynamic and change from season to season. Hatches do not occur like clockwork and are sometimes absent altogether. It is for these reasons that the angler must know a little something about the environment he or she is fishing in to gain confidence and be successful.
The wild trout of the Smokies can be very selective creatures , however this is normally not the case. The freestone streams of the Smokies are rather sterile compared to some of their tailwater cousins. Don’t get me wrong. The streams of the Smokies have all the right bugs, just not in the same concentrations as some more fertile waters would produce. Our hatches , for the most part, are sporadic and often are over as soon as they begin. Compared to some of the more prolific hatches of a western river or a southern tailwater, the mountain hatches are of the ‘flash in the pan’ variety. The reasons for our diminished aquatic insect life is simply a matter of geology and water chemistry. For the most part, the streams of the Smokies are acidic. This simply means that the pH of our waters is not conducive to promoting massive populations of aquatic insects. Where does the acid come from? There are two sources, the primary culprit is the earth itself. The weathered peaks of the mountains consist mainly of a substrate formation called anakesta. Anakesta is thought to leach its acidic properties into the streams on a continuous basis. It is also thought that certain high altitude watersheds are becoming increasingly acidic due to slides of anakesta formation choking the life out of a stream. The second most probable contributor to our lower pH levels would be from man. Namely sulfuric and nitric acid deposited throughout our mountains as ‘acid rain’.
As for the geology of the park contributing towards a diminished aquatic insect population it is simply a matter of fact. Geology in large part determines the character of a trout stream. In other words, the rocks that make up the streambeds of our mountain watersheds are comprised mainly of silica. Rocks such as quartzite and granite, which do nothing to promote the richness of trout streams. For starters, their chemical make-up, namely silica, does nothing to produce a buffering effect in response to the low pH levels (acidic conditions) which are present. Also, their morphology (shape) contributes to the flash floods which take place every winter and spring in the southern highlands. These floods do nothing but rob a stream of its nutrients by scouring the bottom making it difficult for nymphs and larva to find a hiding place to ride out the flood. Floods also deplete a stream of its microorganisms, algaes and diatoms, on which aquatic insects depend for food. Flood after flood, season after season, our aquatic insect population is kept in check by a variety of mother natures influences.
Now that we better understand why we have the insect populations that we do it will be easier to discuss choosing the proper fly pattern for a given time of year. Let’s get one thing clear, just because our streams are acidic in nature does not mean that we have a doomed ecosystem. Rather we have an environment whose tenants have learned to cope with the parameters placed on them by nature. It is this resilient attitude which makes our ‘wild trout’ populations so dynamic and unpredictable.
When fishing within the GSMNP you can oftentimes take the ‘match the hatch’ theory and disregard it. That is not to say that the wild fish of the park are never selective but rather a well presented fly is my choice over a well selected fly. Our watersheds are tumbling , cascading streams which for the most part are coming right off the slopes of the mountains. Fast moving pocket water connected by runs and riffles. For the trout, his window of opportunity is very small. What he sees now will surely be rushed past him in an instance. Therefor our fish do not have time to discern and be as selective as say a spring creek or tailwater fish which can spend time looking at and calculating his next bite. Wild trout of the Smokies ‘eat while the eating is good’ so to speak. First and foremost is the presentation of your fly rather than the selection of the fly. It no doubt helps to have the right shade or silhouette of pattern but if you cannot present it properly even the right fly will fail you.
As a rule of thumb, fish dark patterns early in the year. Those with gray and black bodies such as Adams, Black Stones and Caddis. As the weather warms you will notice the shades of insects becoming lighter. Mid to late spring ushers in our most prolific hatches , many of which take on lighter body colors such as the Little Yellow Stone , Light Cahills, and the Eastern Green Drake. The heat of summer brings with it some vibrant colored insects along with your standard terrestrials. Here again, fish seem to respond well to those big attractors such as Wulffs, Humpies, Stimulators and the like. Once fall arrives we notice a trend back towards the darker bodied flies along with a reduction in size. Remember first and foremost that the ‘wild fish’ of the GSMNP are hungry residents. Their entire existence involves the search for food. Any fly in your flybox is capable of producing a strike if presented properly. Only with time spent on the water can one fully appreciate the importance of learning to read the water and perfect the presentation of a fly.
About the Rivers
All the rivers in the Park are freestone streams with good populations wild trout and insects. Some of the major insects are caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies. Fishing access is never a problem with many of the rivers flowing along roads or within easy hiking range. Rivers range in size from the large fast flowing runs and pools of the Little River to small tumbling brooks like Roaring Fork.
Tackle and Tactics
Rods and Reels: 7′ – 8′ rods for 3 – 5 wt line with a sturdy reel.
Leaders and Tippet:7’6″ – 9′ leaders tapered to 4x – 6x and 4x, 5x, or 6x tippet.
Flies: (Dries) Caddis, Adams, Royal Wulff, Stimulator, Humpys, and Terrestrials (Nymphs) Hares Ear, Pheasant Tail, and Stoneflies.
Camping and Lodging
There are many great campgrounds in the Park including Elkmont (on Little River), Smokemont (on Oconaluftee), Abrams (on Abrams Creek), and Cades Cove (on Abrams Creek) the most crowded in the Park. There are also motels and hotels in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Cherokee.