Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Monday, March 28, 2022

Stealth in Fly Fishing is Inversely Proportional to Water Levels

I'll try to keep this one short and sweet along with a quick illustration of the idea. For the mathematicians, the statement should be fairly obvious. For everyone else who forgot what inverse or proportion means, here is my point: fish are much easier to catch and usually don't act as intelligent when water is higher. In other words, high water means you need less stealth. Low water means spookier fish and the need for more stealth in your fly fishing. 

For anyone who has tried fly fishing in the Smokies during the low water of late summer or fall, you know how cautious those fish can become. I've joked about fish running from their own shadow, and I'm only half kidding. A couple of weeks back, I had a guided trip that perfectly illustrated this point. 

We were fishing on Little River, known for big but hard to catch brown trout, my favorite combination. During the spring hatches, some of the larger fish can lose their caution when big bugs are on the water. We had already caught a quality wild rainbow trout and just caught a very respectable brown trout in the 13-14ish inch range on dry flies. On any normal day in the Smokies, these would be worth a celebration. 

Dry Fly caught brown trout from Little River
Jason with a great dry fly brown trout on Little River. ©2022 David Knapp

Still, I knew there should be a larger fish in those pool. I was carrying a second rod for Jason and suggested that he run the nymph setup through the pool a few times. He had fished the pool rather thoroughly with the dry fly, and I figured something else had to bite. 

He started casting and high sticking the pheasant tail nymph through the pool. On just the third or fourth cast, the sighter in his leader stopped and he set the hook. A big commotion immediately commenced as a large brown trout realized it was hooked. There were several times I was certain that the fish had us whipped. Yet, Jason stayed cool, calm, and collected through the fight and eventually worked the fish back to us for me to slip the net under. This fish taped out at 21 inches and is easily one of the best fish I'll have anyone catch in the Smokies this year if not the best. It was all made possible because of higher water flows.

Big brown trout on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Jason's trophy Little River brown trout in the Smokies. ©2022 David Knapp


The crazy thing about this fish is where it had been sitting. He hooked it one rod length from where we had been standing, casting, splashing around, and even dragging hooked fish over on their way to the waiting net. During the vast majority of the year, any self respecting Great Smoky Mountains brown trout would have spooked long ago. This fish was tolerant, however, because we had much higher than usual water. Flows on this day were between 550 and 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Townsend Little River USGS gauge. Anyone who has fished Little River knows that is considered the high side of good. However, with a little work, we were able to fish just fine and even make some incredible memories for a lucky angler. 

That is why I enjoy fishing higher flows in the Smokies. Those larger brown trout are more likely to come out to play. Low water presents its own opportunities, but they always include spooky and much more challenging trout than the ones we encountered on this March day.