For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox
Here is an update on the variety of fly fishing opportunities in and around the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The area gets our vote as the most underappreciated trout fishing spot in America. No, not the best trout fishing spot, because that accolade would have to go to the Northern Rockies. If you give the Smokies a try this season, file a report and let the rest of us know if the area is as special as correspondent Jim Casada says in this report.
As a native son of the Great Smokies who has been privileged to fish all over the United States and much of the world, I have retained a special love for the region I’m from, especially the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP). That’s partly due to the natural affection one feels for home waters, but there are additional reasons, and those may be of interest to anglers who travel. The GSMNP offers the greatest ecological diversity of any place in North America, which translates to fishing in a vegetative paradise of wildflowers and soaring trees. Then there’s the “something for everyone” aspect of the hundreds upon hundreds of miles of trout-holding water in the park. You can fish at roadside or take shank’s mare (a mountain term for walking) to get back of beyond. Indeed, those who are fit and adventurous can, with sufficient effort, bushwhack to small headwater streams that see very little angling pressure. At the other extreme, there are also waters here that offer lots of elbow room, the Little River, for example, and the Oconaluftee River and Hazel Creek.
To me, the most appealing of all the many attractive features of fishing for trout in the park is that you are casting exclusively to wild trout—ones born and bred in the waters where they swim. The GSMNP has not done any stocking for many decades. On some streams (Bradley Fork, Straight Fork, and Beech Flats Prong on the North Carolina side of the park are good examples) it is even possible to catch a Smoky Mountain Slam. That involves catching all three species of trout found in park waters, namely, rainbows, browns, and brookies (locals call the latter specks or simply mountain trout), in a single day’s outing.
There are options to backpack in and camp at dozens of designated backcountry sites, stay in drive-to frontcountry campgrounds, or operate out of a motel or hotel in one of several towns adjacent to the park (Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Townsend in Tennessee; Bryson City, Cherokee, Maggie Valley, and Waynesville in North Carolina). Some of these aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, because Cherokee, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge in particular have more than a fair share of the features sometimes equated with “tourist traps.” On the other hand, there are lots of things that appeal to the entire family, and combining a family vacation with some peaceful fishing is a definite possibility.
Two developments in recent years since the GSMNP was covered in these pages are of particular note to fishermen. For decades, the park closed most of its streams that held speckled trout in an effort to protect them. However, recent research has demonstrated that angling pressure has no significant impact on the numbers of this species, so it is once again possible not only to fish for them but to keep a few for the pan, should you be of the persuasion my late mother endearingly described as the “release-to-grease” outlook (she thought a fresh-caught trout dressed up in a cornbread dinner jacket and fried to a golden brown was the ultimate in culinary pleasure).
The other notable change is a byproduct of two years of intense drought in 2008 and 2009. Streams were at historic lows and a lot of stressed trout died. While this was a short-term disaster, it had some good long-term effects. Smokies streams are not particularly fertile and have always had a pronounced tendency toward overpopulation. That translates to lots of small fish. But with the drought and loss of significant numbers, those that survived have had far greater access to food during the last two years than is normally the case. As a result, the trout are running appreciably bigger, on average, than has historically been the case. Speaking of size, for the most part, trout in the Smokies do not grow large (a rainbow a foot in length is a dandy and a speck of 10 inches is a trophy). Brown trout are the exception, because in the streams where they are found (not all park waters are home to browns) they can sometimes grow much larger. Every year, browns well over 20 inches in length and running to several pounds are caught in park waters.
Fishing here isn’t easy. Most streams tend to be tight and put a premium on casting skills and presentation. On the other hand, it’s seldom necessary to cast distances of more than 30 to 40 feet, and it is presentation, rather than pattern, which serves one best in park streams. The fish tend to be eclectic feeders for the simple reason that there are few heavy hatches. Tight-line nymphing is popular, as is my personal technique of choice—using a dry fly and dropper rig. A buoyant, buggy-looking dry (think Parachute Adams, Adams Variant, Royal or Tennessee Wulff, Royal Trude, or a Smokies original, the Thunderhead) doing double duty as a strike indicator for a nymph (Jim Charley, Tellico, Copper John, and Prince patterns with a beadhead are fine options). If the water is a bit murky from late spring and summer thunderstorms, consider going to a streamer pattern such as a Muddler Minnow, Matuka in black or olive, or a Wooly Bugger.
Experienced fishermen with some basic knowledge of the trail and road system in the park can go it on their own without much trouble, especially if they stop by a local fly shop for some advice. Among those I would recommend—and I know all these folks personally—are Little River Outfitters in Townsend, Tennessee (www.littleriveroutfitters
.com), Rivers Edge in Cherokee, North Carolina (www.riversedgeoutfittersnc
.com), and the Smoky Mountain Angler in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (www.smoky
For the first-time visitor, hiring a guide for a day is probably a good idea. Insist that your guide do more than merely take you to good water, however. Ask about his favorite techniques, how to read mountain streams, and maybe even ask the guide to fish a bit as you carefully observe how he goes about the business of catching trout.
There are a number of good guides in the region, and the shops mentioned above can help in that regard. Also, for guides and outfitters, as well as shops, there is an extensive listing in my 448-page book on the park, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion. My book also covers every stream in the park. Among the guides I would particularly recommend, thanks to knowing them personally and/or being familiar with their abilities, are Steve Claxton of Smoky Mountain Adventures (www.steve
claxton.com), Ronnie Parris of Smoky Mountain Outdoors Unlimited (www
.smokymountainoutdoorsunlimited.com), Hugh Hartsell of Smoky Mountain Guide Service www.smokymountainflyguide
.com), and Ian and Charity Rutter of R&R Fly Fishing (www.randrflyfishing.com).
If monstrous trout are your cup of tea, forget the Smokies. But if you enjoy fishing for beautifully hued wild trout in pristine surroundings, the opportunity to have 30 to 40 fish days when things are going well, options aplenty in terms of the kind of water you fish, and the accessibility of a region that lies within a day’s drive of half the country’s population, you’ll find out why a boyhood spent in Bryson City, North Carolina, within walking distance of the park, followed by many more decades of angling pleasure beyond measure, leads me to concur wholeheartedly with a local poet who described the region as the “backside of heaven.”
Postscript: You can get a copy of Jim Casada’s book by going to his Web site: www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.