Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

When You Just Need More Weight

As a fly fishing guide, there are lots of little tips and tricks I get to pass on to my clients. It would be nearly impossible to compile those into one resource unfortunately. Okay, so maybe not impossible, but it would take me a while to think about it while I'm sitting at home writing. Most of these things have a way of coming up during the natural flow of a day on the water. That is what guides should do, offer advice on how to improve, or at least on different ways to do things. A guided trip should be as much a chance to improve as an angler as it is a chance to catch lots of fish. Those two things generally go hand in hand. 

Anyway, these little tips often come up in the natural flow of a guided trip. One that comes up quite often is the idea of getting your flies down to the fish. One of my favorite guiding moments happens when teaching nymphing strategies, either for the Nymphing Class at Little River Outfitters, or just on a regular guided trip. What usually happens is something like this. 

We are fishing nymphs, either under a strike indicator or high sticking (tight lining/euro nymphing) and not catching any fish. At some point, I suggest that we add some split shot. Sometimes there is even already some shot on the line. However, it sometimes just isn't enough. The split shot needs to be heavy enough to get the flies down. Depending on stream flow, depth, flies used, and technique, you might need anywhere from one #8 split shot to a string of #1 or even heavier shot. Sometimes just one addition works. Other times it can take two or three. Either way, the best part happens when the first cast is made after the correct amount of shot is added. Almost invariably, the angler will catch a fish. That is a much more effective lesson than simply telling someone they should add more shot if they aren't catching fish. 

Of course, if you add too much shot, you'll be hanging on the bottom continually. Thus, a good rule of thumb is to add shot until you're constantly hanging the bottom. Then, take one off and you should be about right. You want to be ticking the bottom some but not losing flies.

The funny thing about tips and tricks is that sometimes you have to remind yourself about them. Yesterday, after a morning guided trip, I had a little time to kill before heading back home. Last week, on a guided trip, I had come across a couple of nice brown trout that seemed willing to eat dry flies. In fact, we missed one of them on a dry fly that day. I had been wanting to see those fish up close and had already devoted one quick stop to try and catch one to no avail. Yesterday seemed like a good opportunity. 

I got to the chosen spot and waded right in. Drifting a dry fly through the run produced exactly zero takes, so I changed tactics and tied on a nymph rig involving a small pheasant tail nymph and a small hare's ear nymph on 6x tippet. To this, I added two #4 split shot. For the depth and current, that seemed about right since I had small flies and fine tippet. A New Zealand Indicator finished the rig. 

For the next five minutes, I got many drifts through what I thought was the sweet spot. There were exactly zero strikes. Knowing how many fish this pool typically contains, I was a bit shocked. Surely something would want to eat my nymphs! I was just about to give up when it occurred to me that I might not be as deep as I had assumed. Deciding to get to the bottom of things so to speak, I added a #1 shot and now felt confident of getting down. 

On the very next cast, I had a quick hit from an eight inch rainbow that just as quickly released itself. That was enough, however, to convince me to try another five minutes of casts. In fact, it only took about three more casts before the indicator dove convincingly yet again. This time, I could tell there was some heft to the fish. In fact, it didn't want to move where I wanted it to at all!

Babying the 6x tippet, I took plenty of time fighting this beautiful brown trout. Every time I thought it was about whipped, it surged back into the depths. Finally, after a couple of downstream runs that prompted me to follow, I got it close and with the head up, quickly scooped with my net. 

Large Great Smoky Mountains National Park brown trout


This was probably one of the larger brown trout I will catch this year in the Smokies, possibly even the largest. I've had plenty of years where this would be my best Great Smoky Mountain brown trout. Not bad for fifteen minutes or so of fishing and just about as much time fiddling with my rigging. Sometimes you just need more weight. I shouldn't be surprised anymore, but for some reason this lesson always gets me. Anyway, next time you aren't finding success with nymphs, try adding some weight. You just might be surprised...

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sacred Places

Every angler should have a secret place. The probability that no one else fishes a particular piece of water is low, but hope springs eternal in the minds of anglers and the possibility does technically exist. Maybe, just maybe you can find that one perfect stream or pond that no one else visits. Or, if they do, maybe only a handful of other anglers know about it.

My secret places are scattered across the country. There is that canyon stream in Arizona. While I know it does get fished, the number of anglers is clearly low based on the lack of a stream side fisherman's trail. In Colorado, two of my favorite small streams clearly don't get fished much based on the reception I always receive from their clean finned residents. The fish are generally pushovers and obviously don't see much pressure. In Yellowstone, a favorite section of the Yellowstone River itself always fishes well. It is almost as if no one else wants to walk that far off trail in grizzly infested country. This is precisely a big piece of why it fishes so well and also has a lot to do with why I'm normally a bit jumpy on the hike into this bit of water.

Closer to home, some of my favorite water on the Cumberland Plateau obviously doesn't see much pressure. At least, the fish are about as gullible as smallmouth should be while still reserving just a bit of cunning to make things interesting. This could be explained by the copperheads, rattlesnakes, ticks, and chiggers you have to get past first. Yet, I keep going back if only once or twice a year to one of these streams or another. In a good year I might make half a dozen trips. The overlap between gaps in the guide calendar and good smallmouth fishing just doesn't exist, so these trips are at least a bit intentional and not just a last minute whim. Still, when a cancelation comes in late during the warm months, chances are high that I'll head to a smallmouth stream the next day.

In the Smokies, which are my true home waters if you overlook the hour and a half drive, lightly pressured water is getting more and more difficult to find. Despite the constant barrage of "facts" showing that our sport is declining, I keep seeing more and more anglers on the water. This isn't all bad either. More anglers equates to more people advocating for our fisheries. Of course, it also means that I'm more likely to hike three miles only to find the entire stream saturated with other likeminded optimists.

When I hike any distance anywhere, I mostly expect to find the stream devoid of other anglers and the fish willing to the point of stupidity. Rarely does it work out that both of those things happen, although I can still find water to myself more often than not. The fish just aren't the easy things they were when I started into this sport and the streams were less crowded. Back then, an hour's walk basically guaranteed a phenomenal day of fishing. Now, the day might still turn out rather well, but the fish are more educated and require a few tweaks to the fly selection before becoming agreeable.

Some would say that the fishing is getting more technical. I don't know about that other than to say that some of my best fishing in the mountains lately has been on midges. Is that because I finally tied on a fly that no one else is really fishing? Or is it because there were massive midge emergences both times I've been up there lately? Probably the latter but one never knows for sure. Just in case, I'm still keeping all of my old tried and true flies in their respective boxes in the hopes I can leave the midge box at home again soon. In the meantime, I'll keep tying on a midge more often than not. At least I can get away with 5x instead of the 6x required on my local tailwaters.

Last year, I made a point to fish some new water. That could mean new to me streams, or sections of streams I haven't fished before. More often than not, these adventures ended up taking longer than I intended, but I'm not complaining. At least once, I inadvertently fished a new section of stream when I bushwhacked in at the wrong spot. That was one of my favorite trips of the year.

A healthy hike is required to reach this particular stream. The rainbows have faded out at this elevation, leaving just native southern Appalachian brook trout for anglers willing to work hard to reach them. I've fished this stream off and on for at least 15 years and perhaps longer. What I do know is that this is some of the best brook trout fishing I know of. On its best days, this stream can leave you feeling like you are the only one who ever fishes there. Those days are more common on this stream than not, but I've also had days where only a handful of fish were caught. On those days, one always wonders where the fish have gone.

The trip can be done about as easily as an overnight or longer trip or as a day trip. Lately, I've started to become interested in backpacking more again. Since I don't fish as often as I used to (pro tip: don't start guiding if the goal is to fish more), I've begun planning my trips with more care, aiming for quality instead of quantity. So far it seems to be working. This particular trip started with a casual discussion with a friend who was interested in trying some backpacking. Greg has a strong preference for brook trout in wild places. Since I also have a soft spot for our arguably most beautiful native fish, the decision was easy. Three nights with two hard days of fishing and perhaps some fishing on our arrival and departure days seemed about right.

I described the amazing little creek to him but tried to hold back a little, probably afraid it wouldn't live up to either of our expectations. However, when all was said and done, the stream really outdid itself. Between the two of us, we caught, well, let's just say we caught a lot of brook trout and never mind exactly how many. The real beauty of this stream was the quality of the fish there. Some of them were pushing nine inches which is really nice for a brook trout in the Smokies. The largest was caught by Greg and measured 10.5" exactly. Oh, and most were on dry flies. These native brookies are real gems, almost too beautiful to touch.

Brook Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of my 9" native brook trout from Stream X. ©2019 David Knapp Photography

While I normally gravitate towards the ease associated with nymphs, I prefer dry flies whenever and wherever possible. On this trip, I took just a few basic bead head droppers just in case and then an inordinate number of dry flies. I think I may have used a grand total of 4 or 5 the entire trip. The longevity of each fly had a lot to do with tying them myself and adding a few reinforcements. Yellow dry flies brought fish to the surface just like they should in the Smokies. Orange was starting to work some also with the approach of fall.

The fish were generally where they were supposed to be, but surprises showed up in some not so obvious places as well. The big plunge pool beneath a small waterfall didn't yield many, while some other large pools produced fish after fish. One rather nice brook trout was hiding in a tight little pocket under a dark plunge. I let my fly drift back into the blackness, and no matter how fishy that spot was, I was still shocked when the tip of my fly rod jerked down hard. That was also the day that the fishing seemed a little off.

The first part of the day was decent, but the catching would just start and stop for no apparent reason. We ended up with nearly as many trout as we had caught on the first day, but had to work a little harder for them. Some sections of stream seemed rather barren, and I was left wondering if I had come along behind the Park fisheries crew.

On another backpacking trip, my friends and I had marched miles and miles into the backcountry with expectations of gloriously easy fishing. That was the trip I stepped over a rattlesnake on the trail too many miles from help if things had gone differently. Thankfully the snake was sluggish and downright genial. That same day, our neighbors in camp had found and killed a large rattlesnake on a midstream boulder and seen three others. They were planning on eating the snake that night. My buddy Pat explained to them that, as this was a National Park, all of the wildlife was protected, and if a ranger showed up, they better make the dead snake scarce. I don't know if they got the message or not, but we didn't spend too much time worrying about it beyond a momentary sadness.

That was another trip where we had started with great hopes of walking many miles to find pristine water. When we found another party there with the same ideas, we had to make some adjustments. The funny part about that trip is that the Park fisheries crew had been there just the week prior and the trout were still in a stupor on the creek they had sampled. We caught a few fish, but either the stream didn't have as many or they were still all in shock, pun intended.

Fly anglers are eternal optimists, doggedly pursuing small, surprisingly difficult quarry in tiny creeks and streams, all in the hopes of discovering fly fishing nirvana. On that trip, we didn't find what we were looking for. When the stream started branching into more and more little branches and things got tight, we finally gave up and traipsed back down to camp on the nice trail the fisheries crew had trampled down the week before. That trip seems like a lifetime ago now, but the trip to my favorite brook trout stream is still clear in my mind.

As the last day of fishing on that brookie stream started to wind down, we found ourselves far from the trail. We finished fishing that evening at a big plunge pool high in the mountains with many miles of good brook trout water above us. We were both a little tired I think, Greg and I. Living on backpacking rations works well, but once your metabolism catches up to your increased activity levels, freeze dried food just doesn't satisfy anymore. We were both running strong on the high of adventure but also starting to think about home.

As we walked back to camp for one more night in the mountains, I asked him if that was the best brook trout stream he had ever fished. After thinking about it a while, Greg agreed that it was an incredible stream, but also mentioned his own favorite stream. Every angler should have a sacred place and his was possibly elsewhere. Only more time on both would ultimately determine which was his favorite. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with having several sacred places either.

Most of the places I fish are ones I'm willing to talk about. I do have some sacred places though, and this brook trout stream is one of them. Probably there are many places in the Smokies that still have fishing as good as we experienced in those two days, maybe even better. This one is mine, though, and while I don't mind letting people know that a place like that exists, I won't be drawing maps for anyone anytime soon. In the winter months, I'll be pouring over trail and topographic maps searching for yet another amazing backcountry trout stream. More places like this exist, but it takes determination and lots of effort to track them down.

Lately, my exploring has been done via Google and Google maps. I've been researching for a big trip this summer to Glacier. My wife has graciously agreed for me to pursue bull trout somewhere west of there after we hike in Glacier National Park for a week, and I've honed in on one place in particular. What drew me to that area was a plethora of documentation that shows where the bulls should be. In other words, I've never been there, but feel certain, that I can walk almost to the very spot where I should be able to find some bull trout. That is the danger of the inter webs. Good information used to be the result of lots of research. Now, with the click of a few buttons, I can find where to catch a bull trout to within a hundred yards of a likely spot.

For now, I'm selfishly glad that the information was so accessible. I've never caught bull trout, so this will be a bucket list item checked off if all goes well. On the other hand, once that happens, I might add this stream system to my list of sacred places. In that case, you may get a report, but it will be fuzzy on the details which is as it should be.

Back closer to home, I've been looking for new places to dump my boat in the water close to home for a few hours. Again, Google maps has been a lot of help. There are numerous small lakes in the area, and at least some of them have to have a boat ramp, right? The larger lakes sound interesting too. With Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Watts Bar, and lots of other big reservoirs in middle and east Tennessee within an hour or hour and a half, the appeal of new fishing opportunities draws me in. Yet, for some reason, I haven't gone very far out of my way to try these different options. When I want true adventure, I usually tend to look for moving water. The smaller the better. That's probably because of the difficulty of enjoying your own fishing hole with bass boats jetting past at 60 miles per hour.

One stream that I really like to fish feels a lot like brook trout fishing. It's one of those trickles that you pass on your way to better known water. I don't know of anyone else that fishes there. The beauty of this little stream lies in the resident coosa bass. For some reason they are there, probably a past stocking experiment that everyone has forgotten about. The fish are small but generally aggressive. When I say small, it is truly like brook trout fishing on a tiny Smoky Mountain stream. Lots of 5-7 inch fish but much larger starts getting into the trophy category. Most people would find this boring when there are 3 pound smallmouth just down the road, but knowing that this is my stream keeps me coming back. Eventually, I'll probably find out that someone else is fishing there as well. In the meantime, I'll keep it on my list of sacred places. When I find another fisherman, I'll hope it is one of their sacred places as well.






Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Summer Brown Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read just a few of my blog posts and you will quickly ascertain that brown trout are one of my absolute favorite species to target on the fly rod. Given the opportunity, I would just about rather fish for brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park than any other species anywhere else. That said, you won't find me being picky either. I get a lot of joy out of the little seven inch rainbow trout that are a lot more common in the Smokies and catching native southern Appalachian brook trout might be my next favorite thing to catching big browns. On some days I would probably even say the brook trout are my favorite thing.

Fishing in the summer for big brown trout in the Smokies is probably about the best time to catch one, at least in the course of simply going out and fishing and lucking into one. Fall through spring is a better time to specifically and intentionally target these fish as they are easier to spot during those months, but in the summer they are just as likely if not more so to eat a fly.

This summer has been one of the better ones for fishing the Great Smoky Mountains in recent memory. Normal to often below normal temperatures combined with a wet summer has made the current conditions good to excellent. The effects of the drought of 2016 are finally showing in larger fish sizes now in 2018 as well. Overall, this has been and will continue to be an incredible year for fishing in the Smokies.

I have long said that the most important part of catching big trout, especially in the Smokies, is time put in on the water. The people who catch the most fish and especially the largest fish are the ones who spend the most time out on the water. When it comes to stalking large brown trout in the Smokies, there is no substitute for experience. This year, one of my regular customers and good friend Greg Hall has made it a point to spend a significant amount of time in the Smokies. We have been fishing a day in the Park nearly every month this year except for January and it is really showing with the fish he is catching. The last two trips in particular have been amazing.

I could spend a lot of time talking about how hard we worked for these fish, but in all honesty both of them were relatively easy to catch. Both came in the course of simply covering water which is probably the best strategy this time of year.

summer big brown trout Great Smoky Mountains National Park

big brown trout in summer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The last trip in particular was special because I was able to get in on the action as well. I asked Greg if he had anywhere to be or if he wanted to fish late. I was thinking about fishing for an hour or so for myself and told him we would just extend our trip time and I would start fishing at the conclusion of the usual "guide" portion of the trip. He readily agreed to more time on the water which set the stage for me to get in on the good brown trout fishing in the Smokies this summer.

When he landed his brute, it was already late in the day. I guided him for a bit longer, but soon it was time for both of us to fish. Leap frogging up the river, we started nailing fish through the fast pocket water. By the time we reached the top of the first section of fast pocket water, I was already to double digits for numbers and was hoping the nice pools at the top would produce a good fish for me.

The first good pool was surprisingly slow. The second and third proved much better. I took the top pool and left the bottom one for Greg who started pulling out nice big wild rainbow trout one after another. I got one rainbow and then had an extended drought. Knowing how good the water was, I continued to slowly dissect the pool, fishing every inch thoroughly. Finally, right at the very top in some faster current, it happened. The indicator shot down and I was hooked up with what felt like a freight train on the 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon, perhaps one of the finest rods for fishing in the Smokies I might add. Up and down the pool we went before the fish finally allowed me to guide it into the shallows and my waiting net.


This was probably the only time this summer that I'll really be able to target big brown trout in the Smokies. The next time I can get away and fish will be in the fall. Winter will allow a lot more time on the water for me hopefully.

As far as techniques and tactics for chasing these big brown trout in the Smokies, I high stick with nymphs and sunken terrestrials more than anything in the warm months. In the water, I just drop the terrestrials and maybe add some streamers as well. Learning the subtle nuances of high sticking (Euro nymphing for you modern anglers) is an art form with over 100 years of history here in the Southern Appalachians. There is simply no substitute for time on the water in gaining these skills and a fly fishing guide will shorten the learning curve immensely. That said, get out and practice if you want to catch these beauties and most of all, have fun!!!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Busy Is Good: Looking Back on 2016

In any normal year, a low number of posts would be a bad sign for my time on the water. For 2016, the lack of posts has actually been the result of more time on the water. Busy is good if you ask me. Busy is better when it involves setting a new personal record for days on the water in one year. My goal for next year is to pass 200 days on the water. That includes fishing and guiding just to be clear.

While 2016 was a phenomenal year for me as far as guiding goes, the focus of this post is on my own fishing adventures. While I'll throw in a tease or two from my work, check out Trout Zone Anglers and the blog there for a complete year end summary of the guiding for the year. That post should be up in a day or two.

My own fishing for the year started off in early January. One of my favorite days on the water that month was spent in the Smokies. No big surprise there I know. The day was particularly memorable because of the nice brown trout I found. Late in the month, I would spend some time fishing for brook trout with the idea of trying to catch one each month of the year. That worthy goal would sadly not be met, but hopefully I'll have plenty more years to try it.


February was an unusually slow month for me. I didn't get out much although the local farm ponds did keep me from going crazy, and the chance to solve an interesting fishing riddle was as much fun as anything. Being a leap year, we had an extra day available and I made the most of it to keep my brook trout streak going. Ironically, I kept the streak going for the two toughest months of the year before it fell by the wayside.


March was more or less a normal month and included the beginning of my spring trips down to the Hiwassee that I try to squeeze in every year. The change of pace this year included my increasing trips down to the Clinch River. Some nice fish were caught and I began to appreciate this unique tailwater more and more.



April saw the fishing action pick up significantly. In addition to trout, smallmouth bass were becoming quite active. A new favorite trip was born that featured stocked trout in the upper reaches (that we never actually caught) and smallmouth and musky throughout the rest of the trip. I was fishing with my buddy David Perry. With both of us spending so much time guiding, trips together have been fewer as of late, but this is a spring trip that I hope to do again many times.


I hit the jackpot in May when I was able to fish one of those cloudy days that threatens rain. The bugs poured off. The trout rose. The angler was happy. In prior years, I tended to hit these great days when I was guiding, and that is a good time to guide. I'm always super happy when I can show someone a legitimate hatch in the Smokies, but I like to fish it myself as well on occasion.


Somewhere in late spring or early summer, I found myself the owner of a smartphone due to the generosity of a friend. If that hadn't of happened, I'm sure I would still be enjoying my old flip phone. however, since I did have a smartphone finally, I decided to embrace everything about it and started using Instagram. If you haven't been there yet, there are a lot more pictures there then you will find here including a lot from my guide trips as well as my own fishing excursions. Be sure to follow me there as well as on Facebook!

June found me chasing smallmouth harder than ever. In between guiding a lot, I also found some time to float the Caney Fork River with friends Jayson and Pat for Jayson's bachelor party. That turned into one of the best trips of the whole year. We caught and landed both good numbers and some really nice fish in terms of size. I got my first big brown trout of the year on that float. Here is the groom Jayson with one of his twenty inchers and net man Pat...


July was hot, but the river continued to fish very well. In fact, it just kept getting better as the summer wore on. Smallmouth bass were also active and I made a trip I've been thinking about for years. My friend Mark Brown from Chota and I met up for a truly epic adventure. I saw my first live rattlesnake on the Cumberland Plateau ever on that trip and was so surprised I forgot to get a picture. In between bee stings, rattlesnakes, and copperheads, we did manage to find some great smallmouth.


In August, I started things out with more big backcountry smallmouth bass. By this point, the Caney Fork was fishing so obviously well that it was hard to keep me away. I was spending more time on the river than anyone really deserves to spend fishing. It began to pay off finally with some great brown trout, culminating in my personal best brown trout from the Caney Fork River. I caught the fish while sight fishing with a midge and after locating it a couple of days prior on a guide trip. There are some perks to guiding other than just spending time outside every day and one of those is locating great fish!


In September, I did another summer trip I've been considering for a few years. It turns out that it was as scary as I had anticipated and then some, but it was nice to do it once in my life at least. From now on, that will be a winter only trip.


October and November were both great months, but the high points of the year had already passed from a fishing perspective. The one exception to that was a trip with my cousins to camp in the Smokies that was one of the best of the year. We fished all over, caught some nice brook trout, and relaxed. I still caught plenty of big fish and that continued into December with a special brown trout on the Clinch River.




Friday, May 13, 2016

A Good Hatch

Smoky Mountain Rainbow Trout


Fly fishing is a science or an art form depending on who you talk to. Many, including myself, will even gladly label it as both. The true pinnacle of both the science and the art is found in match the hatch dry fly fishing. Most good fly anglers have a favorite hatch, especially those who are blessed to reside in a region with rich trout waters supporting a variety of quality hatches to fish.

Many anglers here in east Tennessee have a favorite hatch, but just as many don't want to hem themselves in. This is a product of our relatively infertile mountain streams where a truly memorable blanket hatch is rare although not impossible. Local anglers often gravitate towards generic patterns that resemble of variety of currently hatching bugs. Our hatches tend to be sparse but complex, with sometimes as many as 5 species of mayflies hatching, not to mention the caddis and stoneflies that the fish also love to eat.

I'll never forget the first time I got on a real hatch. Back in 2005 I was blessed to spend time fly fishing in Yellowstone for the first time. I arrived in early June for a week or two of exploring and fishing. My timing could not have been better. The Firehole was just about perfect while the Gibbon was still a tad high but readily fishable.

The first day I headed to the Firehole, I did not really know what to expect. The week or so prior to my trip had been spent tying Blue-winged Olive and Pale Morning Dun Sparkle Duns, two simply elegant flies that still find an honored place in my boxes. I wasn't sure if the hatch would come off, but all of the guide books recommended being prepared for these hatches and the Sparkle Duns were high on the list of accepted patterns for matching the hatches. The Firehole had rising trout in the first place I stopped, somewhere in the first 2-3 miles above the canyon stretch. I quickly tied on a PMD Sparkle Dun and began targeting risers. As it turned out, catching the fish proved relatively easy so long as I could make an accurate cast and prevent drag. That last item was not as easy.

I caught more quality brown trout than is probably fair for anyone to enjoy. At the time, I was thrilled to be catching 8-14 inch browns all day. For that matter, I would still take that kind of fishing now. That trip to Yellowstone quickly fell into an easy routine. Breakfast every morning would be attended by a family of ground squirrels who were hoping for some of the Honey Nut Cheerios I enjoyed. Then it was off for fishing, mostly on the Firehole or Gibbon, but I also explored some of the hike in lakes. Getting spoiled without knowing it, I eventually found it necessary to head for home. Although a piece of me would have preferred to stay in Yellowstone indefinitely, duty called, and I had to get a summer job to help pay for college in the fall.

Arriving back in Tennessee, I soon found myself missing the daily hatches and rising trout on the Firehole. It wasn't until several years later, perhaps four or five, that I enjoyed a great hatch on my home waters in the Smokies. That is not to say that I never experienced hatches or rising trout because I enjoyed both, but a heavy hatch is somewhat unusual around here.

Despite my appreciation for heavy blanket hatches of mayflies, I think I've come to prefer those that are sparse instead of those rare events where the water is covered in bugs. The fish seem to be much more willing to rise to most anything during these hatches we normally experience here in southern Appalachia. That is part of the charm. Each year, my favorite dry fly seems to vary a bit. Some years it will be a Yellow Stimulator in size #14 or #16. Other years it may be a Parachute Adams. This year, I've been on a yellow Parachute Adams kick.


Early on, of course, I stayed with the darker colors of a standard Parachute Adams, sometime switching out for a Spundun or even a tiny Blue-winged Olive Parachute for particularly picky trout. Yes, difficult fish do exist here, but they tend to be easier to figure out than the fish on streams like the Paradise Valley Spring Creeks where anglers have been known to reach madness or the next thing to it while trying to figure out a difficult trout.

Lately, with the transition to the lighter colored bugs of late spring and summer, I kept it a bit more simple than I sometimes do. Instead of elaborate bugs with perfect hair wings and shucks of Zelon, I've kept the Parachute Adams theme going but changed the body color to yellow. The fish approve heartily, but have also rose just as convincingly to a Parachute Sulfur and a Parachute Light Cahill. Like I said, the general idea is more important than the exact bug.

The best days for bugs happen to be the same days that most anglers prefer to not go fishing. Rain or high water keeps the streams open, and if you are adventurous like me, expect some great fishing. Last week, I enjoyed one evening after work where I stood in one spot and caught 8 or 10 fine trout before deciding that it was time to quit. Most were rainbows, but a few of the fish that got away flashed golden brown. One little brown couldn't quite throw the hook before I landed it, but otherwise all the fish were feisty rainbows from 8-11 inches in length. There were just enough natural bugs on the water to get the fish looking up, but not so many that they would miss my imitation as it bobbed downstream in the choppy current. That is a good hatch if you ask me.





Saturday, April 02, 2016

Light and Trout

As you probably already know just from a quick glance at the Trout Zone, I enjoy photography almost as much as I enjoy fly fishing which happens to be quite a lot. Finding that perfect shot where light and subject combine to create magic is nearly as fun as catching a nice trout. Sometimes, though, the two combine.

That is what happened the other day and I didn't even know what I had until I got home and looked at the pictures on my computer. Most pictures end up not quite as good as you remember the scene in real life. This time, however, I was definitely pleased with the result. When I snapped this picture I was just in the middle of taking several and had no idea what I had captured.

Rainbow Trout from Tremont

I love the mix of light in this picture. The below-water portion of the little rainbow trout blends in so well with the rocks that it is no wonder we have such a difficult time spotting fish in these rocky streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While I would love to take full credit for the way this picture turned out, sometimes the beauty produced by the camera is largely luck and this image definitely falls into that category. Either way, I'll enjoy remembering the smile on the angler's face during our guided fly fishing trip in the Smokies as he landed this beautiful wild rainbow trout.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Using the Extra Day


Starting a new personal challenge can be difficult, especially if you virtually quit before starting. Back in January, I announced my goal to catch a brook trout each month of the year. Then I proceeded to quit fishing for several weeks or at least something close to that.

My trip to California probably had something to do with that, but also there were extenuating circumstances. Here on the Cumberland Plateau, high water dominated through February. In the Smokies, frequent bouts of cold weather gave the trout a severe case of lock jaw. Not that I'm opposed to fishing in tough conditions, mind you, but I had gotten a little soft. Beyond that, I spent much more time hiking here close to home than I normally do. Hiking and exploring just for the joy of getting outside is a great way to stay in shape for the upcoming fishing season. Unfortunately it doesn't help me catch fish.

And so I woke up one morning and noticed the calendar barreling towards March at an alarming rate. My brook trout challenge was about to die, almost before starting. Thankfully, Fate had already intervened ahead of time by designating this as a leap year. When I saw that extra day on the calendar for February, I knew it meant I had to get out and catch a brook trout. That is how I found myself headed towards the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this past Monday. The goal was to catch brook trout on Monday and then look for spring hatches on Tuesday.

Responsibilities closer to home kept my in Crossville until 11:00 a.m. or so, but then I was heading towards the mountains. A new 2016 fishing license was in hand (yes, it is that time again). My usual quick stop by Little River Outfitters was nearly skipped because of the late hour and the fact that my brook trout challenge was facing failure. In the end, I decided to stop by to say hello to the guys working there. This quick stop helped me to relax a bit and not take the brook trout challenge too seriously, important stuff when you only have a handful of hours left to keep the streak alive. Fishing relaxed will always turn out better than fishing stressed.

Driving up the mountain, I intended to fish road side. Smokemont was the destination for the night's camping, and I knew where a few brookies were on my way there. Normally I'll head up high before starting, but on this day I didn't go quite as far as normal. Last December, on a guide trip, I had an angler miss what I was certain was a colorful brook trout from a plunge pool with a big back eddy. That fish was the one I was hoping for.

Before I knew it I had my waders on and looked at the rods I had brought with me. Which one to use? The tube containing my Orvis Superfine Glass rod (7'6" 4 weight) jumped out at me so I put it together and attached a Hydros reel loaded with 4 weight line. To this I added a black Elk Hair Caddis on the end of a 5x leader in size #16 and dropped a small bead head nymph off the bend of the dry fly hook using 6x tippet. With my fishing pack in tow along with a camera, I finally had everything together and headed to my spot. The sun was still on the water. This time of year that is generally a good thing.


I warmed up by fishing a couple of pools below the place I had pinned my hopes on. By the time I slid into position just across from the back eddy, my casts were going approximately where they should, and I felt as confident as one could when fishing against the clock. Two drifts around the back eddy resulted in absolutely nothing, but then the fish helped me by betraying its presence. Rising to some minuscule hatch just behind the large boulder that created the safe haven, it didn't eat fast enough to avoid detection. A glimpse of bright orange fins told me this was indeed the fish I was looking for. My next cast was perfect, about 10 inches above the fish. It turned and followed. I saw its mouth open and close and knew it had taken the dropper. All that was left was to not screw up and lose this pretty brook trout. Mission accomplished.


After enjoying the elation of keeping my streak intact, I went looking for a few more trout before heading over the ridge to camp. Over the next hour, I was surprised by another six or seven trout, about 50/50 rainbow to brook trout. My surprise was not because of the beautiful and unseasonably warm day, but because the water was frigid like snow melt. Turns out it was snow melt, but the fish were still ready to eat after a cold winter. Some of them even ate dry flies!





Most of the fish involved some form of spotting before catching and most were spotted because I saw them rise first. Spring is definitely coming, but as the afternoon wore on it was hard to remember that. The temperature started dropping as cold air came down from the snowpack just above, and I decided to head on to camp with enough daylight to fish some in the lower elevations.

Using the extra day helped keep my short brook trout streak alive. Going into the warm months should help extend the streak now. I have two of the toughest months out of the way and improving conditions ahead.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

January Brook Trout


As the calendar turned from 2015 to 2016, I began to think about fishing goals for the new year. I'm not a resolution kind of a guy because why wait until the calendar changes to get things on track? However, from a fishing perspective, it is easy to get stuck in a rut and keep doing the same thing each time I get out on the water. With that in mind, I've set a goal to catch a brook trout each month of the year. Originally I even contemplated doing it using dry flies only or maybe Tenkara, but for now those ideas are on hold.

Still, when I decided to head up to the mountains this past Sunday, I knew the early morning hours would be spent chasing brown trout. After having such a good day the previous Sunday, I figured it was too good an opportunity to ignore. I still had that monster to track down and land. For some reason that fish was nowhere to be seen. After doing a lot of scouting and a little bit of casting, all I had to show for it was 3-4 half hearted chases and one fired up fish that couldn't find the hook. The time had come to move on to plan B.

Before heading to one of my favorite brook trout streams, I rolled into Townsend to warm up and chat with the guys at Little River Outfitters. A short stop turned into a longer one as the nice warm shop was hard to leave. I knew that I might not get back to the mountains much again in January though so I eventually forced myself back out into the cold to go find those brook trout.

When I lived in Colorado, winter time streamer fishing on Boulder Creek right in the middle of the town of Boulder was one of my favorite things to do. I could get out for an hour or two, walk the ice along the banks, and maybe even catch a trout or two. Often I would be surprised by nice brook trout that hammered the streamer so I knew that they loved streamers. If you know me this is probably shocking information, but I actually have not fished streamers for brook trout in the Smokies, until this past Sunday that is.

As it turns out, the native brook trout of the Smokies like streamers as well although water temperatures in 30s meant that the hits were few and far between. I did get this beautiful fish on just the second or third cast which meant I could relax the rest of the time and not worry as much about catching trout.


Able to enjoy myself, I spent more time looking around than fishing after catching that trout. My camera provided another avenue of enjoyment. Here are a few of the stream shots. Notice the dusting of snow on this cold January day.




Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Quality Smoky Mountain Brown Trout

My first fly fishing experience of 2016 got things started off right, but wasn't to my favorite place, the Great Smoky Mountains. Needing to correct that situation, I headed out early on Sunday morning to get in a full day. Water temperatures had been rising for the last two days, peaking at around 48 degrees which is very good for this time of year. With more surges of arctic air in the forecast, I knew that I had better get out while the opportunity was there.

Not wanting to waste any time, and surprisingly not in need of anything for the day's fishing, I skipped my usual stop at Little River Outfitters and headed straight into the Park. The high and low point of the day happened quickly and all with the same fish.

I had already stopped to prospect a couple of pools before I found what I was looking for: a large brown trout sitting out feeding in a very good spot to cast to. In fact, this was almost a gimme trout. Somewhere between 22 and 26 inches in length and sitting in a place where the approach was very simple, the fish was moving back and forth as it obviously fed on something small under the surface.

Wading across the rapids downstream put me into the perfect position to fish for the brown trout. My first cast was too far to the side and short, but the next cast was perfect and the fish turned to follow my flies. For what happened next I can only blame myself. The fish had already followed the flies a couple of feet, and something in my brain made me think that it had ate. Running the replay in my head (as I've done many times already) fails to help me remember exactly what made me think that fish ate, but regardless, my failed hook set caused the fish to drift off into the depths of the run nearby. The trout was not so much scared silly as just concerned about food that levitated out of the stream in an unnatural manner. Just like that, my best shot of the day at catch a big brown vanished.

If anglers were to give up in the face of adversity along the lines of what I had just experienced, fishing trips would generally be short. With the whole day still to go, I stuck with the game plan. Instead of spotting fish, I decided that I would probably be better off just covering a lot of water, so that is what I did.

Brown trout from Little River in the Smokies

The final tally does not sound very impressive when I say I caught three fish, but I should probably add that all were between 12 and 16 inches, and I lost one between 18 and 20. In other words, it was a very good day for fishing in the winter. I got my first brown trout of 2016 and then a couple more for good measure. Sometime soon I'll go back to look for that big fish that I messed up, maybe even in the next few days...


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Successful Smokies Fly Fishing Tips: Temperature Trends

A couple of weeks ago, I addressed the current El Nino as well as what effects it might have on winter fishing in the Smokies and across our region. One of the points I emphasized was the idea of temperature trends. Just last week, on one of my guide trips, I experienced a new example that just confirmed, at least in my mind, the importance of the general temperature trend.

We had been fishing several different sections of the Park. I did not expect particularly good fishing, especially early in the day, because water temperatures were between 39 and 41 degrees. Generally that signals poor fishing in the mountains. However, the cold snap was about done and the trend in water temperature was up. Our day was pleasant with plenty of sun early and the water temperature rose accordingly. Not only did we catch fish early, but we caught a good number of fish.

Late in the day, the guy that I had out fishing wanted to see some different places to fish. This is normal on days when I have anglers who want to be introduced to fishing in the Smokies. I explained that I could show him some brook trout water but that we shouldn't have our expectations set too high. Ice on the rocks did not give us any extra hope, but this was more about learning how to fish so he could come back under better conditions.

Brook trout stream in winter in the Smokies

Surprisingly, we missed some nice fish including a colorful brook trout and got a decent rainbow trout on a dry fly. The water was 39.5 degrees when I checked.

A Smokies rainbow trout caught in the winter on a dry fly

It is very important to remember that trout across the mountainous areas of the western US are routinely caught in very cold water during the winter. I'm talking about water full of slush and ice floes cold. Here in the southeast we are spoiled to be able to fish year round and generally do so on ice free streams, but remember that even when it is cold, the fish still have to eat.

You can do at least a little to stack the odds in your favor. Pick that first warm day after it has been cold, or even better the 3rd or 4th warm day after it has been cold. You might just be surprised at how good winter fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be when the water temperatures start to creep upwards. Sometimes you'll even catch fish on dry flies...

Monday, December 28, 2015

December in the Smokies


Fishing Little River in the Smokies

Instead of cold temperatures, this December has brought warmth approaching or surpassing recored levels at times. While it is easy to get caught up in wishing for winter, the warm weather has been a great thing for anglers in pursuit of trout on the freestone streams of the Great Smoky Mountains. December fly fishing has never been better unless you want to target large trout. While the overall numbers of larger fish are down, there are still some to be caught.

Winter fly fishing often loses the social element of warmer months because it is simply too cold to sit around and B.S. about past fishing glory. This year has been the exact opposite. In fact, the other day, a buddy and I sat happily by Little River watching yet another friend slowly work his way through a nice hole. I wasn't even wearing a jacket over my short sleeves. The waders weren't even necessary although somehow I would have felt foolish to skip them. In short, while locations across the west are over 100% of average of snowpack for this time of year, places here in the east of been simmering, but the fishing has been accordingly great.

My favorite personal fishing story from this December happened just the other day. I had already attempted to cast to one rather large brown trout but had failed in my endeavors by spooking the fish. That pool rewarded me with a consolation brown whose colors almost made up for the blown larger fish.

Beautifully colored Little River brown trout

Further up river, another pool offered a shot at another quality fish. Definitely a lot smaller than the spooked fish, it was nevertheless a nice trout. Based on its location in the pool, I was confident that I had located a slightly better than average brown trout.

My buddy Jayson agreed to maintain his vantage point while I slipped below the rock wall for a try at the fish. Having just fished through a section with a trout in seemingly every spot where I expected one, my confidence was flying high. So confident that I was a little surprised when the first perfect cast did not catch the trout. With nicer fish, your first cast counts for a lot, so I was concerned that somehow the fish had spooked.

Thankfully, I could call the Instant Replay official upstairs my buddy Jayson who confirmed that the dark shadow was still a fish. Several subsequent casts convinced me that I wasn't getting deep enough and needed to adjust my drift. There was already enough split shot on my flies to sink a battleship and the fish wasn't sitting too deep. Reaching back with the nine foot five weight Helios for a little extra, I dropped the next cast another three feet further upstream and started yet another drift.

The flies drifted into the trout's window and it ate just like it was supposed to. Textbook sight casting. Merry Christmas to me. You see, sight casting is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fly fishing. Sure, I love streamer fishing as much or more than the next angler. The tip top of that pinnacle, of course, is sight casting with dry flies, but a good angler adapts to the conditions at hand and that trout had no interest in surface offerings. The fly that fooled this nice fish was a #10 Tellico nymph, the same fly that 95% of my fish for the day came on. I've gotten away from fishing this pattern over the last year or two and that is unfortunate. It really is a great fly.

Did I mind that it wasn't a 20 inch brown trout? Of course not. You take what the stream offers and would be a bad sport if you asked for more. This rainbow trout was somewhere around a foot long, making it a very nice fish indeed. Rainbows over ten inches don't come around particularly often. In any given year I'll catch at best a handful of 12 inch plus rainbows in the Smokies, so this was a good fish for what may be my last day on the water for 2015. The fish came to hand after a glorious aerial display making it all the more memorable.

Rainbow Trout from Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains

The rest of the day was anticlimactic. Both Jayson and I caught some trout, but the best action had already passed. Finally, we ended what was a long day with the agreement to get out again sometime soon on another piece of local water that we have talked about for a while. If the weather holds, that will hopefully happen in the first week or so of January. Just like that, we move from December in the Smokies to January in the Smokies...and February, and March...and the first spring hatches. Just like that.

Little River flows beneath rhododendron

A brilliantly colored rainbow trout from Little River

Pocket water nymphing on Little River in the Smokies

Little River rainbow trout that fell for a Tellico nymph

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The El Nino Effect



Fly fishing in the Smokies during the winter months us generally a hit or miss proposition. Some years are better than others for winter fishing while others are downright tough. Last winter, for example, and the winter before were both cold with warm weather a rarity. This year is shaping up to possibly be the exact opposite. Most likely we have El Nino to thank for it.

Generally, El Nino years result in more warm stretches which helps to keep overall water temperatures elevated compared to winter norms. The quality of fishing is directly correlated to water temperatures. That is not to say that fish cannot be caught in cold water. On the contrary, the fish still need to eat but their instinct to feed is triggered by environmental conditions, especially abundant food. When it is very cold, most fish will not move far to seek out food. In cold months this equates to a flurry of activity in the warmest part of the day when a few midges, winter stoneflies, and perhaps some caddis flies all make an appearance.

Another important factor involving water temperature is the temperature trends. Last week, we saw an excellent example of this. The water temperatures were running between 42 and 44 degrees. Conventional wisdom would suggest that fishing would be slow under such conditions, but on the contrary we had a fairly good day for winter with one lucky angler catching a trophy brown trout by Smoky Mountain standards and everyone, including a first time fly fisherman, catching at least some fish. Why was the fishing good on this particular day? The temperature trend.

You see, the previous day saw the water temperature get up to around 43 degrees (as recorded on Little River at the Park boundary just outside Townsend). However, warm overnight temperatures kept the water temperature from falling. That meant that the next morning, instead of starting at 39-41 degrees after the expected night time temperature drop, we were already starting at the previous day's high temperature. The fish responded enthusiastically both to the improving conditions and to our flies.

This winter should see good fishing more often than not. El Nino will bring more warm weather to the region than we saw the last two winters. One of the best parts about winter fishing is having the water to yourself. Sure, beautiful and unseasonably warm weekends are going to have some people out enjoying nature, but for the most part you can find your own piece of water even on the weekends. Can you fish on a weekday? If so then expect to have it more or less to yourself.

The only possibly fly in the ointment is the potential for high water. We will probably have to deal with high water on several occasions over the next few months, but then that is part of winter fishing anyways, at least in these parts.



I plan on taking full advantage of the El Nino Effect this year and get out throughout January and February even on some small streams if possible.  Today would have been a great day to be on the water if I hadn't of been busy. Water temperatures on Little River are in the mid 50s which is more like you would expect in October. I'll most likely get out a day or two this upcoming week. Also, I'm hoping to fish for brook trout a little more this upcoming year. Okay, maybe a lot more.

My goal for the next year is to catch a brook trout a month. I'm hoping to accomplish this on a dry fly to make it even better but will not be above using a dropper if the fish aren't looking up. I might even do it on one of my new Tenkara rods to add another level of novelty. Don't worry though. I'll still be out chasing the big browns on occasion as well!

So, in summary, I expect good fishing to happen more often than not in the Smokies this winter. There will definitely be some cold snaps and probably even some frozen precipitation, but there will be some great fishing on occasion as well. We also probably have a better than average chance of starting the spring hatches early this year so stay tuned for more on that.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Big Brown Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains

Catching large brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains is never guaranteed. Far from it in fact as large brown trout are definitely around but rarely hooked. For most anglers, catching one is the highlight of their year at minimum and sometimes even for their life. Yesterday, one lucky angler was fortunate enough to land one of the highly sought after big brown trout on Little River in the Smokies.

I had some guys from up north down to fish. For their first full day on the water, they hired me as a guide to help show them around and get them oriented to how we fish here in the Great Smoky Mountains. The morning started off quickly and it was not too long before each of them had caught their first Smoky Mountain trout including one who was fly fishing for the first time. This time of year, that is about as good as you can hope for so I was already quite happy as the guide.

We took a good lunch break and after getting fueled up for an afternoon of fishing, we hit the water again heading straight for a nice long pool that has room for more than one angler to fish. I got one angler started in the bottom of the pool after pointing out a few specific features with the instructions to fish thoroughly around those areas. Then I took the other angler upstream to fish the head of the run where I hoped we would find some trout feeding in the slightly faster water.

Before we had even really gotten into a rhythm fishing, the first guy yelled, "I think I have a good one!" Indeed he did and when I saw that golden flank flash in the sun I was all out sprinting down the bank with my net at the ready. Luckily all of the knots and 5x tippet held as they were supposed to and he did a fantastic job fighting the fish on his 8' 6" 4 weight rod. Before we even really had time to process what was happening, 22 inches of buttery brown trout was in the big net. Great job Steve and congrats on a memorable wild Smoky Mountain brown trout!

Little River Big Brown Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Of course, a few pictures were necessary after which I tried to impress upon him how special of a fish this was for the Smoky Mountains. These fish don't come around every day and often not even every year, especially for most anglers. Applying good techniques and the ability to read water will go a long ways though towards eventually achieving the goal of catching one of these beauties!

If you are interested in a guided fly fishing trip in the Smokies, please contact me at TroutZoneAnglers@gmail.com or call/text at (931) 261-1884. 

Monday, November 09, 2015

Goodbye Fall

Just like that, fall is nearly over. The majority of the leaves have already fallen. Today's high water in the Smokies is going to clean the streams out. The early spawning brown trout's efforts were most likely in vain, although time will tell how high the water does get. We still do not have any true winter weather in the immediate future although certainly by Thanksgiving we'll experience much colder temperatures.

The thing I will miss the most about fall is the brilliant fall foliage we enjoyed this year. Of course I will not miss all of the leaf viewers that came with them. Winter is a very close second in the running for my favorite season and a big piece of that is the solitude that can be found during the cold months.

To celebrate the beautiful fall season we experienced, here are a few of my favorite fall color shots. Some I have already shared here while others are showing up for the first time on this blog. I'll be sharing some more over the next days and weeks.