Fly Fishing the Smokies

Tips on Fly Fishing the Smokies
By Byron Begley
Little River Outfitters
from The Fishing Wire

Trout Stream

I started fishing in the Smokies in the 1960’s but I used a spinning rod. I fly fished at the time but I didn’t know how to flyfish in moving water. In the early 1980’s I started traveling to Townsend to fly fish. At the time I lived in Nashville, Tennessee. I had been to Yellowstone and other states to fish and had some success but fly fishing in the Smokies was different and I felt it was much harder. Finally, after several trips here I started to catch a few trout. I moved to Townsend in the early 90’s, married my wife Paula and we bought Little River Outfitters. By hanging around with people like Walter Babb, Brian Courtney and Jack Gregory I learned how this is done and I sometimes forget how hard it was at first to catch trout on a fly here in the Smokies.

Trout that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are wild. They were born in these streams. Their parents and grandparents were born in these streams. The National Park Service ceased stocking trout in the early 1970’s. An occasional stocked trout may venture into the park from surrounding stocked streams but for the most part, these fish are wild.

The following tips are for those of you who find yourself in the same situation I was in or it’s for those who have forgotten some of the subtle tricks to succeed. If you can catch trout on a fly here in the Smokies, you can catch them anywhere.

1. If the trout sees you or your shadow he probably can’t be caught. These trout are wild and survived because they are wary. I think a wary fish is that way because of a genetic trait that is passed on by the trout’s parents. If a trout is not wary, it will be eaten by a bird, otter, a larger trout or another predator and will not reach sexual maturity. So, in other words, an un-wary fish does not pass on un-wary traits. The gene pool that is left is made up of trout who are all scared to death of everything, including you. I noticed years ago that these mountain fly fishermen who knew what they were doing all dressed alike. They wore dark clothing (usually green) and many wore camoflage clothing. That seemed odd to me because I never saw anyone wearing camo in the Orvis Catalog. I also noticed a lot of anglers fly fishing on their knees, not standing up in the middle of the stream. I saw them hiding behind rocks and trees and sometimes almost crawling to move up to the next run. I believe that if a trout here in the Smokies sees anything unusual their immediate reaction is to run through the pool or riffle and alert every other trout in their view that something is wrong.

2. If your fly doesn’t move at the same rate as the current it’s in you probably won’t catch a trout. Think about this: A trout usually stays in a small area all day watching things flow past them in the current. It may be sticks, leaves, nymphs, adult aquatic insects, cigarette butts and little bits of everything you can imagine. These things all have one thing in common. They are moving at the same rate of speed as the current. Now, here comes your Parachute Adams but the current next to the current your fish is in is faster and your line and leader are in that current. It will pull your fly, either faster or slower than the current it is in. That is called drag. These trout who are all scared to death of anything unusual are probably not going to eat your Parachute Adams. There are exceptions to this. They may think your fly is a caddis that is jumping around laying eggs or some other movement made by insects. But don’t count on that. Make your fly drift with the speed of the current and you will catch more trout. You are going to get drag all day on many casts but the longer your fly can drift with the current the better your chances are of connecting with a trout. Sometimes in certain spots where you know there is a trout you can be successful if you get a good drift for only a foot or so. So how do you get a good drift?

A. Make short casts. Stay hidden of course and don’t spook the fish but short casts have a much better chance of offering a drag free drift. The reason is, the more line you have on the water the more conflicting currents are there to grab your line and drag your fly. Most trout are caught here in the Smokies by making 15′ to 20′ casts. Many are caught make casts shorter than that.

B. Keep as much fly line off the water or even keep it all off the water. You can make a short cast and lift your rod as the fly floats back toward you keeping the line off the water. You can make casts across a current and by keeping your rod high hold the line and some of the leader off the water allowing your fly to drift in the current it is in. If you look across the creek you will see several different current speeds. Some are slow because they have been in contact with a large boulder. Some are slow because they are moving over a shallow gravel bar. Some are fast because there has been no interuption in their flow for a while. Some are slow because there is a backup in a small pool. These currents are varied throughout the stream. Your job is to keep your fly moving in the current that it’s in at that speed for as long as you can.

C. Mend your line. As you fly is moving down it’s current and you see that it is about to drag because your fly line is in a faster or slower current you can move your line or mend it by moving it into another current or throwing it upstream to give your fly a chance to drift naturally for a few more seconds. This can all be done without moving the fly. This takes practice and the ability to mend you line well makes you a much better fly fisherman.

3. If the trout sees your fly line or leader you probably won’t catch the trout. Don’t cast your fly line over a good looking spot. If you think you see a place where a trout should be don’t let your fly line float over that spot. In fact, don’t let your fly line go over that spot while false casting in the air. Get your fly and leader in that spot first. If after a couple of casts you don’t get a strike, cast further to another promising spot. If you make long casts you might be spooking trout that you would otherwise catch if you were sneaky and could make a short cast to them. If you see a lot of good holding spots for trout start casting to the closer ones first. If you don’t connect, cast to the spots you see that are further away. Move a little closer if you can, stay low, hide behind a boulder and just let them see your fly and tippet.

4. If you are wading where the fish are and casting where they are not, you probably won’t catch a trout. Before you wade into a stream look at the water and think about it first. Where would the trout be? How can I get a drift to them? Where can I hide from them? Maybe I don’t have to wade at all. That would be better. All of these decisions can cause success or failure. In any riffle, run or pool there are good spots for fish to hide and there are places where no wild trout would venture. Remember, these guys are afraid of everything. Try to wade as little as possible. Of course you need to wade from one side of the stream to the other every once in a while. But the less time you spend in the water the more trout you will catch. You will also need to learn to cast side arm to your right side and your left side. It takes practice for a right handed caster to make a side arm cast over your left side but that’s something you’ll need to learn to do. That way you can spend more time on one side of the stream without moving over to the other side and spooking the trout you are trying to catch.

5. If the water temperature is too cold or too warm you probably won’t catch a trout. Trout love temperatures in the 50 degree to 60 degree range. If the temperature is 40 degrees they don’t feed as much because their metabolism slows down. The same is true if the water reaches say, 70 degrees. Also, the warmer the water is the lower the disolved oxygen content is. When the water warms and the oxygen is low the trout become sluggish or even die. So, what can you do about the water temperature? Well, nothing. But you can move to an area where the water is more trout tolerant. In the winter or early spring the water is warmer in the lower elevation streams. The air temperature is colder high in the mountains and warmer in the valleys. If you are fishing at Elkmont and the water is 40 degrees and you aren’t catching anything, move to the West Prong, Lower East Prong or the Middle Prong where the water is warmer. You can also fish the sunny spots where the water is somewhat warmer. During the cold months you will probably have better luck in the middle of the day when the water is warmer. It’s all different in the summer. The water is cooler in the mornings and evenings. During midday when the water warms the trout will turn off. So fish early and late. You can also fish in the higher elevation streams during the warm months or find a stream that has a lot of springs feeding them. A good example is Abrams Creek in Cades Cove. There are some large springs there that keep the stream cooler than some other streams in the area.

6. Which fly you use is not nearly as important as the above five reasons for success or failure. In the spring our first mayfly hatches are Quill Gordons and Blue Quills. Blue Wing Olives are usually hatching at that time also. Because the trout are not used to feeding on the surface as much during the winter they begin to look up when these flies start hatching. Having a fly that looks somewhat like these insects can be important. During a large hatch the trout can become selective and concentrate their efforts on that source of food. As we move further into Spring there is a more diverse selection of insects to feed on. The colors of the mayflies become lighter. Hendricksons and March Browns hatch, then later we get the very light mayflies – Light Cahills. In the summer we get a lot of small yellow stoneflies. We call them Yellow Sallies. Terrestrial insects such as ants, beetles and inchworms become a reliable source of food for trout in the summer. You should have a selection of dry flies and nymphs that are available to the trout at the time of year you are fishing in the Smokies. You can always check our fishing report to find out the latest hatches and recommended flies.

7. If another angler has been wading in the area where you are fishing the trout will be harder to catch for a while. There are over 700 miles of fishable trout streams in this National Park. When trout are spooked by an angler they won’t feed for a while. Some people think it takes a few minutes to get over an unusual encounter and some people think it takes hours. If you see wet footprints where you are fishing and you aren’t catching or getting strikes maybe you should move to another spot. Also, as a courtesy to anglers, if you see one in the stream don’t drop in up stream from him or her. Go up a few hundred yards and get in. Most anglers start at a spot and work their way up stream and you will probably do the same. Some anglers walk along the trail and drop in at places that look good, fish for a few minutes then get out and find another.

8. Don’t stand in the same spot and fish. In some places I’ve fished and Pennsylvania comes to mind you can stand in the same spot and fish for hours. Here, it’s different. After you have made a few casts in an area move upstream. These trout will see your line, leader and maybe you and they won’t eat after that. Keep moving and you will have better success.

For more on fishing trout in the Smokies, including daily fishing reports, visit

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