I consider myself a fly fisherman. I’ve been fly fishing for roughly 15 years, my dad and uncle taught me in the cold clear water of upper Lake Taneycomo, just below Table Rock Dam. I don’t consider myself a great fly caster, but I’m a really good fisherman. Like my dad, I can cast just good enough to be an extremely successful fisherman. We can usually go anywhere in Missouri or Arkansas and catch a ton of trout. We normally fish in tailwaters or trout parks. I know… trout parks are not REAL trout fishing but that’s the trout fishing we have available in our area. Here in our tailwaters and in our parks I’m a really good fly fisherman. I know where to go, what to use and how to fish. I research and study techniques and equipment, 90% of the time, I’m successful at catching trout. I’ve taught several others how to fly fish. I tie nearly all of the flies I use. Even the guys I fish with use the flies I tie and they catch a ton of fish. In my world, I can hang with the best of them. I make it look easy. I feel like I’ve mastered my craft. That is until our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Like any fly fisherman worth their salt, I did my research. I put Google through its paces, I looked up non-residence licensing requirements, I searched for where to go, what flies to use and how to fish them. I poured over online fishing reports and where to find local resources all in close proximity to where we were going to be staying in Townsend, TN. My online searches lead me to the following conclusion:
There are 1,001 places in or around Townsend, Tennessee to fish.
Armed with that knowledge, I moved onto Plan B; wait until we got to Townsend and talk to the natives. From where we set up camp at Big Meadows Campground, the local fly show was less than a mile away. At my first possible opportunity, I headed to the Little River Fly Shop.
I walked in and was immediately greeted by a couple of the guys working in the shop. This is a tourist town, so I didn’t really even have to explain my situation; they talk to 50 guys a day just like me. The first question they asked me was if I was planning on fishing inside or outside the national park. As they explained, fishing outside the park in the Little River in July was a challenge because of the tubers floating down the river, plus it required an additional $30 for a Tennessee trout stamp. A trout stamp isn’t required when fishing within the national park. They also explained to me that the trout in the Little River were stocked Rainbow Trout and most of the fish within the boundaries of the park were Appalachian Brook Trout. So, that made my decision easy, I can catch stocked fish at home, I wanted to go after the native species, so I told them I’d fish inside the park.
Now that we determined that, he focused in on where inside the park I should go. He brought out a map, and being totally unfamiliar with the area, it took me some time to get my bearings. He started marking up my map with some yellow highlighter and telling me everything I needed to know. I was on information overload! I walked away from that conversation with a few simple guidelines: first; the higher you go the better the fishing is. Second, wild fish spook easily so presentation is everything. Third and finally, keep moving, cast a few times and move upstream. Armed with my new guidelines, I bought some flies, a Tennessee fishing license and I walked out feeling ready to go.
My first venture fishing in the Park was on a hike with the family. I brought along the fly rod and we started hiking up the Middle Prong Trail and fishing the Little River. This trail has a steady rise in elevation and for the most part, the Little River runs right along the trail. Although there were numerous places that had very easy access to the river finding a good spot to fish proved to be difficult. Due to the heavy rains the night before, the water was rushing through this narrow river. I stopped in a few places but the water just seem to be running too hard to get a drift going and forget wading; the rushing water and extremely slick rocks made it difficult to keep any sort of footing at all. After nearly falling in the rushing water more than a few times I gave up. I was done. I did enjoy the trail and the hike very much. The Little River is a beautiful stream and full of little water falls.
I did realize that fishing in the mountain streams were a whole lot different than where I usually fish. I fish in wide, deep, slower moving tailwaters and streams. These require a long casts and a good long drift. Usually, you can stand and fish in the same spot for a long time. The river beds where I’m from are often sandy, gravel or rocky bottoms that are fairly easy to stand and move traverse. In contrast, the mountain streams are narrow, shallow, and fast moving. The rocks in the river bed range from pebble sized to boulders. Most have been rounded smooth by thousands of years of erosion and they are slick. I know rocks in water are usually slick, but these are crazy slick. Round rocks and river slim make walking in the river downright dangerous! Or, you could be walking along on some rocks and all of a sudden you can step into a crack that can swallow your entire leg. I learn rather quickly that mountain stream fishing is totally opposite of fishing the way I fish.
Casting in a narrow mountain river requires extremely short casts. The guide at the Little River fly shop said to make about 3 casts in a spot then move upstream. In this fast narrow river, that takes approximately 30 seconds. The features in the river that hold fish are short and with the fast moving water a drift is over in seconds. So you are constantly casting and moving. The problem is, if you are not used to moving over that type of terrain, it can be extremely difficult.
I gotta tell you I was kind of surprised at the difficulty I experienced in fishing in the Smoky Mountains.
The next evening, the whole crew went for ice cream. I was standing in line behind a guy that I could tell, just by looking at him, he was a fisherman. So, I struck up a conversation with him and sure I was right, he was a fisherman! He said he’d grown up in a town near by and had been fishing the Smokies all his life. While we ate our cones, we talked about: fishing, fish, and trout. By the time the cones were gone, we had plans to meet up the next morning and go fishing. His name is Brandon Carr, he’s a softball coach with a passion for fly fishing and the Smoky Mountains. Some of you might find it odd that I made plans with a relative stranger to go fishing but my gut told me Brandon was good people. My gut is seldom wrong and it was not wrong about Brandon.
In the morning I met with Brandon and we took the short drive to the Middle Prog Trail head, exactly the same trail that we had hiked and “fished” a couple of days before. (By the way, there is nothing cooler than riding into the mountains in a Jeep!) We parked the Jeep and started hiking up the trail along the stream. Now, I’m not the fittest guy in the world but I’m no couch potato either. I try to stay active by doing a little jogging, bicycling and we like to hike. But trying to keep up with Brandon took serious effort. What was cool about hiking with him, was that it was like having a person tour guy for the Smokies. I learned a lot of history about the logging company and how they used the stream and other resources available to them to move giant logs from the top of the mountain to the bottom. We even paused a few times to look at different artifacts left behind by the loggers such as an old Cadillac and some rigging that helped anchor cables for moving logs. Most of which I would have missed if he had not pointed them out. As Brandon effortlessly bounded up this trail, I was happy he was doing all the talking and so I could just concentrate on keeping up. I’m not exactly sure how far we hiked, but I’m pretty sure it was close to three miles before he even suggested we wet a fly. Just like the guy the fly shop said, the high you go, the better the fishing. We also talked about what flies to fish, how to rig the flies and how to fish them. Pretty much exactly what the guys at the fly shop said. I was surprised to see how different the stream looked compared to the just two days before. The water was much clearer and the stream had slowed considerably. With the water not moving as fast, I thought that traversing the stream would be easier, boy was I wrong.
I started to cast and move, like I was supposed to… and wham, I caught a snag on the other side of a large pool and lost my flies. I survey the damage and discover I needed to retie my tippet as well as the flies. As I go to snip my 6x tippet off the spool, I realize that I can’t see it. Now I know I’m getting a little long in the tooth and it won’t be long before I’ll be needing to carry around reading glasses with me everywhere but that time has had not yet come for me. Well, not until THAT day. By this point the sun was up, it was a bright sunny day, or as far as I could tell it was… The thick forest canopy was filtering out some of the sun light. I don’t know a lot about the spectrum of light that the sun emits, but I can tell you that the forest filters out the light that allows a human to see 100% fluorocarbon tippet. As I went to tie on my tippet, I could see the leader, but the tippet just wasn’t there. I could feel it but I couldn’t see it. It was like it was under some sort of evil spell of invisibility. I guess it was pretty obvious that I was struggling, because eventually Brandon came over and help my tie my flies on.
With my rig finally being good to go, I was ready to get back to fishing! I got back in the water, because that’s is how I knew to do it (and how we do it back home…in the water. I struggled to keep my footing on the rocks, making my casts and moving. Pretty soon, I began to realize that between the hiking and wading I was exhausted. Every time I’d look up to see Brandon, he’d be way up stream. Which is good, because I didn’t want to slow him down and I didn’t really want him to see just how badly I was struggling at just standing! I decided to rest a little and just watch Brandon fish. I was amazed at how he moved along the stream and fished. Not in the water like I was attempting to do but on the rocks, pausing to cast in the shallowest of features and moving quickly. Brandon’s not a small guy, but he leapt from rock to rock with the grace of a mountain goat. I was amazed at how quickly he could cover the stream and moved onto the next feature to find fish in places that I thought couldn’t possibly hold anything. I also having trouble keeping my leader from being sucked back through my eyelets. In my tailwater world, we use long leaders 7 1/2 to 9 feet to get the fly deep into the water column. As I watched Brandon fish, I noticed that the leader he was using was much shorter and his dropper was not nearly as dropped as mine was. I also watch how he was moving along the stream, not in the stream but on top of the rocks and along the banks, not in the water like I was trying to traverse the stream.
I decided that I had to just stop and reassess what I was doing and how I was doing it. Against my better judgment I cut the flies off my line. I completely retied, fortunately for me, the sun was a little higher in the sky and I was able to see my fluorocarbon tippet well enough to tie my knots. I also tried to move on top of the stream and not in the stream. I fished features, that I thought couldn’t possibly hold fish… and then it happened, I got a strike. And another. And another. Finally I hooked up! I caught a wild native Appalachian Brook Trout. It was one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen. It was small, only about 5 inches long, but to me it was a prize worthy of mounting! I’ve never worked so hard to catch a fish in my life. It was well worth it!
I’d also like to say thanks again to my new friend Brandon Carr for letting me tag along with him. He’ll never know how much he taught me about the Smoky Mountains and catching wild native fish in mountains streams.