Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Crossing the Ridge

Fishing trips are often planned, and of course those are generally the most successful. Poring over maps, imagining every possible eventuality and planning for it, tying lots of flies to match whatever you expect to hatch, all of these add up to create the perfect trip. Then there are those other trips, the spur of the moment "decide as you go" type trips. Flexibility may not always generate the best fishing, but sometimes it can. Of course, since you cannot pursue both options simultaneously and independently, it is impossible to know which course of action would have give you a better trip, but if you ask me, spontaneity is good for the soul at least occasionally.

Last week, a planned two-day fishing trip to sample the spring fishing for myself was cut short. That was all fine and good since the reason was morning guide trip the first day. Seeing an opportunity to pay a few bills and pay for the trip as well, I reasoned that giving up a morning of my own fishing trip was not a bad price. As a guide, I have to take trips when I can get them.

The original plan was to camp at Elkmont, and with the guide trip in the morning that seemed like an even better idea. I didn't account for the spring break crowd though. Driving through the campground in mid afternoon, I discovered that all sites were full except for one or two handicap accessible sites. Technically those are first come first served for anyone once the rest of the campground fills up, but I don't like crowds and decided to go with the flow.

My backup plan became Smokemont on the other side of the Park. Crossing the ridge into North Carolina, I enjoyed the excellent views from the top before rolling down the hill to the campground. The campground was probably only half full which, while still not perfect, is a lot better than what I saw on the Tennessee side.

The tent was put up in short order, and I got organized with my gear. Guide rods were disassembled and or the rigging modified to suit my fishing needs for the next 24 hours. When the pack of 1x leaders turned up missing because they were sitting safely back home, I simply cut back a leader and then extended it with 1x tippet to make a suitable streamer leader. The nine foot four weight rod was outfitted with a dry/dropper consisting of a #12 Parachute Adams and a bead head caddis pupa of my own design in size 14.

Carrying both rods, I strolled down through the campground with the plan of fishing back up to camp. The light was only going to last so long and I wasn't wasting any of it by hiking or driving to fish.

In an hour or so of fishing, I had two good tugs on the Olive Sculpin that was on the streamer rod and caught a couple of little fish on the four weight. The water was a tad lower than ideal for streamer fishing so I focused more on the lighter rod after the first good pool. Back near camp, a kind gentleman offered a bit of advice and told me that a dropper would probably help my fishing. I smiled and thanked him for his generosity and advice.

A sudden craving reminded me why camping at Smokemont is so nice: Cherokee, North Carolina has a Taco Bell a short distance away! Normally, once I immerse myself in the calm of nature, I won't return to "civilization" until absolutely necessary, but on this occasion, it seemed like the thing to do. Flexibility tasted delicious.

Awakening early the next day, I was on the water well before the sun came up over the ridge. One good fish that I've been chasing for a while gave a half hearted tap on the streamer and was gone. A switch to white in the form of a PB&J produced better results. Shortly after switching, I nailed one of the fish I missed the previous evening. Further down I was chased by a goose and missed another trout. Talk about high adventure! Since the goose didn't quite catch up with me, I soon realized that I was still alive and vowed to keep a close on the large birds in the future.

Getting hungry, I found my way back to camp and discovered that the camp stove that I had "packed" wasn't actually there. Never assume that your camp stove is in a bag just because you glance in and see canisters of fuel. Another quick trip into town for breakfast soon had me fueled up, and shortly thereafter I found myself at the chosen North Carolina trailhead ready to hike in for the day's fishing in the Smokies.

Determined to fish new-to-me water, I set a good pace until the wildflowers distracted me. Stopping for a while with my camera, I enjoyed the show. Flexibility was gorgeous I must say.

About the time I was finishing with the pictures, a couple of guys came down the trail. Having talked to them in camp the evening before, I knew they had fished up above that morning. They reported slow fishing with the high water levels of spring making the catching tough. Wondering if I had made the right decision, sticking with the plan seemed like the thing to do although I had misgivings. Not too far upstream, a perfect pocket called for my dry fly so I decided to try and pick off a fish.

After a few drifts, I hooked what turned out to be a very solid rainbow and the theme of the day would begin to establish itself: decent numbers of fish with the nicer fish generally (though not always) taking the dry fly and coming from the obvious prime lies. After a quick picture, the rainbow swam away to be caught on my next trip hopefully.

Moving up the stream was a challenge. The water was a bit higher than I often like to wade. Wet wading kept me from doing anything stupid since the water was cold enough that I wouldn't get in too deep. Still, if I could find a good pocket or slick, I was generally rewarded with a fat trout.

An interesting pattern began to develop when I hooked my 10th trout of the day, a nice brown, on a dry fly. Significant numerical milestones for fish caught were also turning out to be nicer than average trout. Fish number 20, 25, and 30 continued that pattern before finally being broken at trout number 35.

While I was catching a lot of fish, the actual catch rate was not what I would call excellent. Good perhaps but not excellent. Having experienced days in the Smokies where 20-25 fish an hour are legitimately possible, averaging 7-10 fish an hour is probably a bit more realistic for normal conditions on a backcountry stream. Putting in a long day on the water was the recipe for a lot of fish on this trip. The fish I was catching were beautiful. Here are a couple of the prettier fish I caught during the day. Look at the blue dot on the cheek of that brown and the bright colors on the rainbow.

In between catching fish, I also paused and took time to enjoy the scenery. Admittedly, I generally remembered to relax after catching a nice trout, but at least I was relaxing!

By the time I was getting close to 40 trout, the clouds were looking darker and an occasional rumble of thunder sent me back down the trail. After a quick dose of rain, I stopped and caught a few more trout to bring me up to 40 fish exactly for the day. Rarely do I ever keep track of numbers, but occasionally I like to see how many I'm actually catching. On this trip where flexibility ruled, I was somehow able to keep track of the numbers. Normally I forget after fish number five or six and just give up. Possibly that is a sign of getting older. My brain is apparently not high powered enough anymore to keep track of the details of a well-planned trip and the number of fish I'm catching. 

Back at the car, a quick check of the time told me there was still hours of daylight left to fish. The morning and early afternoon had featured rainbow and brown trout so a quick stop for brook trout seemed like the logical next step in my fishing adventure. Crossing back over the ridge, I settled for some roadside water that gets a fair amount of pressure and lucked into a stretch that had obviously not been fished that day or for a while. Both rainbows and brook trout rose willingly to the dry fly although the dropper was getting more action at this higher altitude.

Frustration flared briefly when I snagged a couple of hungry tree branches, but thankfully I was able to retrieve my flies. Finally, realizing that I had been fishing for 12+ hours, it dawned on my why I was getting tired. Whenever I start to lose my edge on the stream, I know that I'm getting tired. In this instance, I didn't have to fall on my butt to realize I was getting tired so I guess tangling some flies in the tree is not so bad after all. Quitting is always the smart thing at this point, either temporarily to refuel and rehydrate or for the day. With another 30 trout caught on this stream, I was ready to call it a day. The walk back to my car was a splendid last dose of fresh mountain air before the drive home. 

Relaxed from my trip, I realized I was not in the same rush as the day before. Instead of passing the slow cars, I found myself pulling off to let the faster people pass me on the curvy roads. Eventually, as the sky was getting dark, I was driving out of the foothills. When I got home, I was soon in bed and fell asleep almost instantly.

My next trip to the mountains will probably be planned with the meticulous detail that accompanies the majority of my excursions. Then again, I had so much fun on my spontaneous trip that I just might have to do it again.

If you are interested in a guided fly fishing trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee or North Carolina, please call or text me (David Knapp) at (931) 261-1884 or email me at TroutZoneAnglers@gmail.com. I can also be reached through the Contact Me page at Trout Zone Anglers. I offer both front country and backcountry fishing trips. Backcountry trips are generally only full day trips but offer anglers the chance to fish less pressured water like I did on this trip. The results are often more and sometimes even larger trout.


  1. Nice! Good trout slam. Those are some gorgeous streams.

    1. Thanks. It doesn't get much better than these streams if you ask me.

  2. Some browns,brooks and rainbows David Many of them with an Adams parachute in their mouth!

    1. That Parachute Adams has now accounted for probably 30-40 trout and is still going strong! One of these trips it will either get chewed to pieces or stuck in a tree and I'll have to tie a new one on haha.