Nearest Fly Shop: Little River Outfitters – Townsend
Little River Campground Cades Cove Campground Backcountry Campsite #17
From Townsend, travel southeast on 73 to GSMNP
entrance. At the “Y” in the road, turn
right on Laurel Creek Road (toward Cades Cove).
You will immediately pick up the stream on the right and find a few
pull-offs where you can access the stream.
At approximately two miles, the road ceases to follow the stream. There is a parking area at this point where
you can access the backcountry portion of West Prong, but there is no trail so
you will have to return through the stream.
A trail does intersect
the stream approximately two miles up from the road. This is the West Prong Trail and can be
accessed directly across the road from the Tremont Institute. Again, the trail does not follow the stream
at any point but will grant you access to the upper reaches of West Prong at
their intersection at Backcountry Campsite #17.
To reach the trailhead, travel southeast from Townsend on 73 and turn
right at the “Y” on Laurel Creek Road.
Take your first left toward the Tremont Institute. The Tremont Institute is approximately two
miles back on your left, and the trailhead is at the parking area on the right,
across the road from Tremont.
May is traditionally a great month to fish in the Smokies and this year should be no different. With the mild temperatures seen in May, you have pretty much every option on the table, from low elevation roadside rivers to high elevation backcountry streams.
Hatches are usually at their best this time of year, too. During the day, you should see mayflies like March Browns and Light Cahills, a number of different caddis species, and the most prolific hatch in the Smokies, the Little Yellow Sally shtonefly. Toward the end of the month, you should also see some of the larger golden stones hatching. They are often seen in sizes #8-#6 but mostly hatch at night. However, trout are often still looking for them after sunrise, so a big dry fly like a Madame X can be a good bet in the mornings.
Speaking of nighttime hatches. The month of May often showcases some of the most consistent hatches of the year right before dark. From about 7pm until dark, look for hatches of sulphur mayflies coinciding with egg-laying Little Yellow Sallies.
As usual, the Clinch River is anyone’s guess as far as water releases. We had some very favorable generation schedules through much of April and the fish was great. In recent days, they’ve been pushing quite a bit more water, leaving a much smaller window for the wade fisherman.
Typically, May is the month when the sulphur hatch really gets underway on the Clinch. We’ve seen a few popping off in recent weeks. When this hatch is in full swing, it’s really something to see. Hopefully the water releases will cooperate!
Otherwise, it’s the usual suspects on the Clinch. Beadhead Pheasant Tails and a variety of colors of Zebra Midges should do the trick.
Hendricksons have long been a favorite springtime hatch for Eastern fly fishermen. In the Smokies, they typically follow the Quill Gordon and Blue Quill hatches by two or three weeks. Most years, that means we don’t see Hendricksons until mid to late April. Because a warm stretch of weather in February triggered an early Quill Gordon hatch, things are a little out of whack and we are beginning to see Hendricksons now. I expect them to be around until about mid April.
Like many hatches in the Smokies, Hendricksons rarely come
off in enormous, widespread numbers. But in the right place at the right time,
you can find enough of these bugs to inspire some steady rises from trout. And
while generic, attractor fly patterns will get you through most situations,
having a fly that more closely matches what the fish are seeing never hurts!
Hendricksons hatch sporadically throughout the day in the
Smokies but tend to be most active in sunny areas during the warmest part of
the day. Most days this time of year, that means in the 2pm – 5pm range. They
inhabit all types of water but I tend to see emergence occurring most in slow
to medium currents.
The nymphs are not particularly good swimmers and they have an unusually robust profile. This combination of traits makes them very popular with the trout. Their color varies from reddish tan to dark, reddish brown. Tan and olive Hare’s Ear Nymphs work well for imitations. Whitlock’s Red Fox Squirrel Nymph is another great pattern during this hatch. Pheasant Tail Nymphs provide a nice color match but are pretty slender compared to the beefy naturals. In any case, they range in hook size from #14-12.
The adults also vary a bit in color. Much of that depends on the gender of the bug. The males tend to be darker, varying from grayish olive to grayish brown. However, the females are often a little lighter, sometimes taking on a tan or even pinkish hue.
While there are certainly numerous fly patterns specifically designed to imitate all of the variations of a Hendrickson, you can do pretty well with generic patterns as well. A Parachute Hare’s Ear works well, particularly when you’re seeing more of the lighter colored adults. And there’s always the Parachute Adams, especially when you’re seeing the darker variations. Like the nymphs, you’ll best match the naturals in sizes #14 – 12.
Finally, trout love taking the emerging insects during this hatch, so a wet fly can be an excellent choice. One of my favorites is the Early Season Wet Fly. I often fish it in tandem with another fly. Try it as the top fly of a nymphing rig with a Hare’s Ear or Red Fox Squirrel nymph down below. Or tie it as a dropper off the back of your dry fly of choice.
Most of the time when trout fishing with dry flies or nymphs, you try to achieve a drag-free drift. This is also known as a dead drift. Essentially, what this means is you try to make your fly drift at the same speed as the current. That would be simple if the fly was drifting independently down the river. But it’s not. It’s attached to your line. Consequently, line management is a vital skill when it comes to fly fishing success and mending line is a big part of that skill set.
If your leader, or especially your fly line, is in a different current speed than the fly, it will pull or stop the fly when the line tightens. The term we use for this is drag. If your fly is dragging, you won’t catch many trout because it doesn’t look natural. Not only will the trout typically refuse to eat your fly when it has drag, they will often spook. This is especially true when you repeatedly drag a fly over a fish.
When you’re fishing small creeks and/or pocket water, you
can often get closer to the fish because the broken currents help conceal you.
In those instances, you can usually prevent drag by just keeping most of the
line off the water. The less line on the water, the less there is to pull the
But in slower pools or in bigger, deeper water, you may not be able to get as close to the fish. This forces you to make longer casts. As a result, you’ll have more line on the water. The more line you have on the water, the more currents you’ll have pulling it at different speeds.
When possible, I like to cast mostly upstream when I’m fishing bigger water. This allows me to stay behind the fish and it puts my fly and line more in the same speed of current. When the fly and line are in the same current speed, line management is much simpler. You mainly just have to strip the slack in as it drift back to you.
However, sometimes a particular run won’t allow for a
practical upstream cast. It could be that the depth of the water won’t allow
you to get in the proper position. Or maybe it’s a slick with really spooky
fish and you’re concerned about casting your line across them. You may decide
to get above them and cast downstream.
You have to be careful with this approach because you’re
moving into their direct line of sight, and anything you stir up while wading
will drift down to them. Excessive debris or a big mud cloud will send them
running. The other challenge casting downstream is the drift.
If you make a straight, fully extended cast downstream, your
fly will start to drag almost immediately because the tight line will prevent
the fly from going anywhere. It just drags in the water. I see a lot of people
try to feed line at this point. But if the line is tight from the start, you’re
just feeding a dragging fly. The trick is to land your cast with slack in the
line. Using something like a pile cast will allow the line to land with little
s-curves in it. You’ll be able to achieve a good dead drift while the s-curves
straighten out. And if you want it to drift farther, feed line while you have
those s-curves to get a nice, long drag-free drift.
The big challenge is when you have to make a longer cast
across the river. It’s something I avoid if I can, but often, especially on
large rivers, you have no choice. Casting across the river will almost always
put your line and fly in different current speeds. And the longer the cast, the
more different current speeds your likely to find.
So, let’s say you have a nice, slow current on the other side of a wide run. There’s a fast current between you and the slow current. When you cast your fly into the slow current, your line will lay across the fast the current. Consequently, the fast current pulls the line, the line pulls the fly and you have drag. This is a scenario when you need to mend line.
Mending line means that I am going to manipulate the line in
such a way that I put it upstream of the fly. By the time the faster current
moves the line past the fly, the fly has had an opportunity to naturally drift
through the target area. You can make this mend during the cast with what’s
called a reach cast. This is known as an aerial mend. Or you can make the mend
after the cast has landed by using the rod to flip the belly of the line
upstream. Sometimes, longer casts or longer drifts may require you to do both.
Longer drifts may also require you to make multiple mends.
Let’s pose a similar scenario, but this time you’re casting across a slower current and the fly is landing in a faster current. Consequently, the fly will move ahead of the line, tighten and swing (drag) out of the drift lane. In this situation, you want the line downstream of the fly to give the fly time to drift before it overtakes the line. You would use a downstream mend. Like before, this could be achieved with a reach cast and/or by flipping the line downstream after it’s on the water.
Mending is not easy and requires some practice because a lot of it has to do with anticipation and timing. If you wait until the fly starts to drag before you mend, you’ll move the fly out of the drift lane. You need to anticipate that the fly will drag and make your mend before, while you still have slack. This will disrupt the fly’s drift very little, if at all. Again, it will just take some practice.
The other big key is how you mend the line. I see a lot of people keep the rod on a level plane and make a side-to-side motion to mend the line. As a result, the line pulls through the water and drags the fly. Instead, point your rod down and toward the line you want to move and make a sweeping, semi-circle motion to move the line. The idea is to essentially pick the line up and place it in a different position… without moving the fly.
How much line you have to move will determine how big of a semi-circle you make. For instance, a big mend with a short line will likely pick the line and the fly up off the water. You don’t want that. A small mend with a long line likely won’t pick up the entire line belly, and you’ll still have drag.
As I mentioned before, it will take some practice. But it is an essential skill when drifting dry flies or nymphs to trout, especially on bigger water. Keep messing with it and before you know it, it will be second nature.
In the wake of our recent heat wave and drought conditions in East Tennessee, I’ve been hearing the same question that always surfaces after a severe weather event…. the same questions that came up after out flooding in February 2019. What does this do to the trout? It depends. It depends on the fishery and it depends on the fish.
First, let me clarify that what I’m going to talk about here
is severe conditions. For instance, a few hot days and a little bit of low
water does not constitute drought. Those conditions have to persist over a longer
period of time. Similarly, a few days of high water doesn’t equal severe
flooding. What we’ve had this February (2019) is severe flooding.
In general, when you get severe conditions as described above, you’re going to lose some fish. A major drought is harmful to all trout but tends to impact the bigger fish. Low, hot water depletes oxygen and bigger fish require more oxygen. A major flooding event will have the greatest impact on younger, smaller trout because they don’t know where to go. Stocked trout are also very vulnerable to high water events for the same reason young wild trout are. They just don’t know what to do.
Nearly 20 years ago, we had a major flood and were catching large brown trout around the picnic tables at Metcalf Bottoms. However, I should point out that it wasn’t a guide trip. Rather, it was a group of very experienced Smoky Mountain trout fishermen who all knew the area VERY well. In other words, don’t try this at home! But the point is, the bigger, older wild fish knew where to go to get out of the heavy currents. In that case, it was under a normally dry picnic table!
So, you are absolutely going to lose some fish, maybe a lot,
when these sorts of things happen. For some fisheries, it can be devastating.
In a small, stocked stream, you may have some really crappy fishing until they
stock again. For the Smokies, it tends to be a good thing in the long run.
As I’ve discussed before, the streams in the Smokies are
very healthy as far as fish populations, but they are nutrient poor. Nutrient
poor streams have a far less dense population of aquatic insects. When you have
trout streams with very healthy fish populations but an inadequate food supply,
you end up with a lot of small fish. So, when you get a major drought or
flooding event that “thins the herd,” there is more food for the survivors and
they get bigger. In the Smokies, this is
especially true for the rainbows and brook trout.
Years ago, we had a major drought in the Smokies. Prior to the drought, we averaged 4000 fish per mile. Following the drought, the number dropped to an average of 2000 fish per mile. Half of the fish were gone! Local fishermen learned about this and started pulling their hair out thinking fishing in the Smokies was going to be terrible.
Instead, in the year or two after the drought, they found
that they still caught about the same number of fish they always did, but the
fish averaged an inch or two bigger. After all, you’re only going to catch so
many in a pool before you spook it. So, you may only catch six fish out of a
pool whether it has fifty fish in it or one hundred.
The impact drought has on fish size is not usually apparent
for a year or two. But the impact that floods have on fish size are often more
immediate. You tend to find noticeable differences that same year and
significant differences the following year.
In other words, if you fish the Smokies this year and next
year, don’t be surprised if the rainbows you catch aren’t a little bigger!
I get to see a lot of things as a fly fishing guide and instructor. Few things make me cringe more than watching someone pull out a new leader and start yanking at either end. The result is inevitably a rat’s nest and nobody wants to start their day that way. It’s an easy thing to avoid and this quick tip will help you get start the day on the right foot!