We had a better than usual August in the Smokies. Fairly regular rainfall kept water levels respectable and other than a few spells, it was relatively mild. Streams are beginning to get low again though and September is typically a very dry month here unless we pick up some hurricane remnants. The current beast, Dorian, is not showing signs of tracking this direction, so prepare yourself for low water and spooky fish.
I would expect to see mostly warm, summer type conditions for the first half of the month with a gradual cooling toward the middle of the month. There aren’t many hatches to speak of in September. Caddis are always a good possibility and Isonychias are active, but that’s more important as a nymph. Terrestrials are still probably the main course for the next month or so.
The Clinch has been a tough one this year. Flows have not been very friendly to the wade fisherman, at least with any predictability. If you live nearby and have a flexible work schedule, you’ve probably found some mornings to fish. Hopefully, we’ll see some more consistency in September.
If so, you’ll likely see better water in the morning and early
afternoon. Don’t expect to see much in the way of hatches except for
midges. I’d tie on a dark Zebra Midge as small as you dare to go!
trout (maybe a very rare brown or brook trout)
Stream Size: Moderate
Type of Water:
Boat Access: None
Spring through late fall
Nearest Fly Shop: Little River Outfitter – Townsend
From Townsend, travel southeast on 73 to GSMNP entrance. At the “Y” in the road, turn right on Laurel Creek Road (toward Cades Cove). Take your first left (toward Tremont Institute). This road will follow the Middle Prong of Little River for approximately five miles. The first two miles (to Tremont) are paved and the three miles above Tremont are gravel. The road comes to an end at a large parking area, located where Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong converge to form the Middle Prong of Little River. From the parking area, cross the bridge and take the trail on the right. It is unmarked and does not appear on maps, but remains fairly clear due to frequent foot traffic.
The trail follows Thunderhead for probably a mile or better, just beyond where Sam’s Creek enters the stream, before coming to an abrupt halt. From this point you will have to make your way through the stream and by bank when available. Of course you will have to return the same way. All and all, there is probably a little more than four miles of Thunderhead to be fished.
We had a pretty good July in the Smokies. As one would expect, most of the productive fishing was in the higher elevations. Most of my time was spent in the backcountry, and for those willing to walk a ways, fishing was usually good! A big rain system dumped a ton of water on us the weekend of the 20th and we had to cancel a few trips, but a wonderful cool front followed and brought very mild temperatures for a few days.
August should mirror July but likely without the rainfall. August is usually dryer and probably a little hotter on average. Again, expect more activity up high and on smaller streams. Terrestrials are still the main fare for trout flies.
We saw a little bit of good water on the Clinch in July but not much. This year’s rainfall has kept the dam churning. We have, however, seen a recent change in that trend and are beginning to get better flows. Hopefully that will continue into August.
If so, you’ll likely see better water in the morning and early afternoon. Don’t expect to see much in the way of hatches except for midges. I’d tie on a dark Zebra Midge as small as you dare to go!
Abrams Creek is one of the best known trout streams in the national park if not the southeast. While its reputation is probably based more on how well it used to fish, it is still a top quality fishery and a very worthy destination.
Once a prolific brown trout fishery, Abrams consists
primarily of rainbows these days. Though
nobody seems too certain of the reason for the decline in brown trout, comfort
is taken in the quality of rainbows that make this stream home. Abundant food and a slower flow of water
likely account for these larger than average rainbows. However, with rainbows up to 18” in length a
possibility, an 8” to 10” fish is more the norm.
There is really no road access to this stream but a trail follows it through the majority of the best trout water, which is located between Cades Cove and the Abrams Creek Campground. The stream actually originates above the cove from Anthony Creek. However, it is difficult to distinguish where Anthony Creek ends and where Abrams Creek begins. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to follow Abrams Creek at all as it flows through the pastures of Cades Cove due its temporary disappearance underground and reappearance in the form of springs.
In Cades Cove
It maintains this smaller spring creek characteristic throughout its journey through the cove and is difficult to reach with no road access. Furthermore, there is no trail through this stretch, and the terrain through Cades Cove is much rougher than you’d think! Cades Cove consists of an eleven mile, one lane driving loop that encircles the cove and grants tourists access to historic structures and viewable wildlife, all from the comfort of their automobile. During peak seasons, it can take up to three hours to drive around the loop with the always possible “bear jam” capable of shutting down traffic completely.
While there is no road that follows the stream through the cove, there are two roads that cut across the loop, Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Both of these roads cross Abrams Creek. Sparks Lane is the first one you will encounter and will allow the quickest access. To reach it, enter the loop and drive .09 miles and it will be on your left. It will cross Abrams approximately .08 miles back. After fishing, you can exit by continuing on Sparks Lane to the other end and turning left, back onto the loop.
From this point you will only have about a mile and a half of the loop to travel before exiting. The second option is Hyatt Lane. To reach it, enter the loop and it will be 2.8 miles back on your left. Hyatt Lane crosses the stream about a mile back. As with Sparks Lane, you can exit by continuing back Hyatt to its end and turning left on the loop. From there you will have an approximate 3 mile drive before exiting the loop.
All of the water in the cove is relatively small and relatively slow moving. As a result, the fish can be extremely spooky. The best time to fish this stretch is typically after a decent rain when the water is a little high and slightly off color. I also tend to focus on early season to fish this stretch when water temps are lower and traffic in the cove is at a minimum. Winter fishing in the park is generally not fantastic but if you do decide to try your luck in January or February, this would probably be one of your better bets.
Above the Falls
After flowing out of the cove, the stream passes by a large
parking area, also accessible via the loop road, and begins its approximate 15
mile tumble to Chilhowee Lake, with about half of that distance paralleled by
trail. There are two practical ways to
access this section of trail. The first
is via the loop road.
Upon entering the loop, drive 4.8 miles and turn right at
the sign indicating the Abrams Falls Trail.
After turning, drive another half mile and there will be a large parking
area. At this point you can actually
fish upstream a pretty good ways, accessing the last of the “meadow
water.” There is not trail access but you’ll
see many well-beaten fisherman’s paths.
You can also access Abram’s Falls Trail here, which will lead you
Although this trail parallels the stream for most of the
way, there are several stretches where it is high above the water or there is
enough thick growth to prevent access.
So you may have to do a little scouting to plan your way in and out of
the stream. When doing so, beware of the
The Infamous Horseshoe
One of the most notorious stretches of Abrams Creek is the horseshoe. When hiking the trail, you lose site of the stream for a short time, crest a ridge, and soon see the stream again. To the casual observer it might appear that you could hop in at one point and easily fish your way to the other, when in fact, the stream flows a considerable distance away from the trail, forming a horseshoe shape. This horseshoe of water is about a mile and a half long and requires a full day to fish. Furthermore, you have to fish pretty quickly. Failure to recognize this could result, as it has for many, in a feeble attempt to bushwhack back to the trail and ultimately spending the night there.
The horseshoe can be a great, remote stretch of water to fish. Just go in there properly prepared and plan to spend the day – a LONG day. Get an early start, pack a lunch, and take a buddy. If something happens, you’ll be very hard to find! I also recommend taking a handheld GPS if you have one. This allows you to track your progress through the stretch and can let you know if you need to pick up the pace.
Continuing down the trail, there is another similar stretch
of water just above Abrams Falls referred to as the “little shoe” or “baby
shoe.” It provides the same scenario as
the horseshoe, only it is shorter in length.
At least a half day should be dedicated to this stretch and the same
precautions should be taken.
Below the Falls
The trail continues past Abrams Falls and then requires a
short detour on Hatcher Mountain Trail and another change to Little Bottoms
Trail to stay with the stream. Little
Bottoms Trail, like Abrams Falls Trail, will parallel Abrams Creek but offers
only select locations to get in and out.
Ultimately, Little Bottoms Trail joins Cane Creek Trail and delivers you
to the Abrams Creek Campground. Since
you can reach this campground by automobile, driving to it and hiking up the
trail make the most sense to access the stretch of Abrams below the falls.
To reach Abrams Creek Campground, travel south on 129 and
turn left just past Foothills Parkway onto Happy Valley Road. Drive 5.8 miles back and turn right at the
sign for Abrams Creek Campground. About
a mile back, you will find a place to park just before entering the
campground. The campground will allow
you access to a little more of Abrams Creek before you get on the trail.
Below the campground, Abrams Creek is very difficult to access and much of it is too deep to wade. Because of this,the best way to fish this portion of the creek is to take a canoe up from the mouth of Abrams Creek – where it enters Chilhowee Lake. I’ve also seen fishermen in float tubes on this stretch.
While this lower stretch does get runs of trout from
Chilhowee, particularly in the early part of the year, it is primarily home to
smallmouth bass. The smallies grow to
better than average sizes here and while they will take the occasional top
water bug, they’ll much more likely fall victim to streamers and large
From the campground to the falls, you’ll find a mix of
rainbows and smallmouth with the percentage of rainbows steadily increasing the
further up you go. From the falls up, it
is almost entirely rainbows and it is this stretch, from the falls to the cove
that I would deem the most consistently productive trout water on Abrams Creek.
Recommendations and Tips
When fishing this stretch, felt soles are a must if you want to stay upright. And even with felt there are no guarantees. With its long sloped rocks and silty bottom, this is without a doubt the slickest stream I’ve ever waded.
You’ll do much better here in spring and fall. Furthermore, all of the standard Smoky Mountain fly patterns should serve you well here. Just make sure your fly box includes a selection of caddis in #18 – #14 range as hatches can be prolific.
Over approximately 30 years of fly fishing, I have broken
one rod. And that was kind of a fluke. About 25 years ago, I was floating
extremely high water on the Cumberland River in Kentucky when I hung a streamer
on some submerged wood. While trying to dislodge it, the river began pushing
the boat toward a “sweeper” that likely would have capsized the boat. Since I
was in charge of steering the vessel, I had to act quickly and the rod was an
unfortunate casualty in my evasive maneuver.
Some might say I’m lucky to have such a long streak without
breaking a rod. And the fact that I’m putting this in writing all but
guarantees I’ll break one the next time I go fishing! It is certainly possible
as accidents do happen. But in the span of approximately 25 years of guiding,
I’ve seen dozens of rods broken by clients. Dozens… and that’s being
conservative! With that kind of disparity, I can’t help but think there may be
a little more than luck at play.
Yes, accidents are going to happen, but there are a number
of things I see anglers repeatedly do with their fly rods that lead to
breakage. And there are plenty of other things that may not instantly break the
rod but will stress it, leading to a seemingly inexplicable break at a later
time. So here we go… Here are the top 10 ways to prevent breaking your fly rod.
1) Store your rod in a tube.
Many rods get broken or weakened in transit. Folks toss them in the back of a truck or the trunk of a car and then set something on them, a cooler shifts, etc. I’ve never seen a rod break while it was in its tube!
2) Be gentle.
This one should be obvious, but it’s not for many. Set you rod down. Don’t toss it. Few things make me cringe more!
3) Keep the tip up.
When walking with your rod, be mindful to
keep the tip pointing up. I can’t tell you how many times I see people jab the
tip into the ground when walking on a trail. Even if it doesn’t break, you’re
potentially damaging the rod every time that happens.
4) Keep the rod ahead of you when walking through the brush.
There are many who disagree with this and
argue that the rod should be pointing behind you when traveling through the
brush. I’m sure I’ll hear from you! Fly line, leaders or rod guides can easily
get caught on branches when carrying the rod pointing behind you. Because you
don’t see it happen, you continue moving full speed ahead and pull hard against
the branch. I’ve seen guides get completely ripped off and I’ve seen rod tips
snap. I like to see where the rod is going so I can steer it around obstacles
in the woods.
5) Don’t hold the rod by its tip section.
I sometimes see this happen when people are
stringing up the rod at the beginning of the day. However, it mostly occurs on
the stream when the line gets tangled near the tip. To reach the tangle, the
fisherman will hold the rod somewhere between the tip and mid section of the
rod while the heavier butt end causes the rod to bend. Your rod is not designed
to do this and it stresses the graphite tremendously. You don’t want to hold
the rod like this in any circumstance, but it’s even worse in the stream when
the reel is attached. To reach a tangle at the tip of the rod, set the butt end
of the rod on the bank or a rock to support the weight.
6) Don’t pull against the limb with the rod when trying to pull a fly out of a tree.
If the line is wrapped in the limb, you may
end up with a broken rod tip. Instead, point the rod straight at the limb and
pull straight back. Or grab the line and pull it with your hand. You’ll not
only protect your rod tip, but you’ll be more likely to break the line near the
7) Don’t set the rod flat on the ground (or boat bottom).
When taking a break, lean the rod upward
somewhere, like against a tree. Setting the rod flat on the ground is an
invitation for you or a buddy to step on it.
8) When fighting a big fish, use the whole rod.
Many fishermen are taught to put their hand
or finger midway up the rod to apply more pressure on a large fish. Instead,
you are applying more pressure on your rod. Your fly rod is a precision tool
designed to bend in a very specific way. Holding the rod by the handle and not
applying pressure farther up the rod will ensure that your rod is bending where
it should, protecting your tippet and your rod tip from breakage on a big fish.
9) Use the recommended fly line to match your rod.
If you have a 5-weight rod, use a 5-weight line. Sure it’s okay to fudge up one size if you deem it necessary, but routinely overloading a rod with a significantly heavier line can stress the rod over time.
10) Learn how to fall.
I know, I know. This one sounds harsh, but respect the rod! I learned very early on in my fly fishing career to break my fall with my non rod hand. As a matter of fact, when I stumble in the stream, my rod hand immediately goes up!
Truly a dry fly for all seasons, the Royal Wulff is one of the most popular and productive dry flies ever devised. It is a perfect example of an attractor pattern with its bright red band in the middle of the body. But for me, the fly’s two greatest attributes are its buoyancy and visibility. Those are two key characteristics for a Smoky Mountain dry fly. However, while its effectiveness is rarely in question, its origin is.
The pattern dates back to the late 20’s and has long been, for obvious reasons, attributed to well known fly fisherman, Lee Wulff. However, Wulff and fellow New York fly fisherman, L.Q. Quackenbush were independently working on hair wing substitutions for dry flies around the same time. Wulff concocted a number of hair-wing patterns in a variety of colors, referred to as “Wulffs.” Quackenbush had more specifically been working with fly tyer Reuben Cross to modify the popular Royal Coachman dry fly.
Many believe that Quackenbush is actually the originator and
what we now call a Royal Wulff is actually the Quack Wulff. Personally, I like
the name Royal Wulff better, but how nice does the Royal Quackenberry sound? In
any case, between Wulff’s extensive work with hair-wing flies and his ultimate
celebrity status, history, as it often does, got a little altered. Here’s a
little more detailed account from Trout
by Ernest Schwiebert, 1978:
“Hair-wing flies had their beginnings on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake before the First World War, when Benjamin Winchell and Carter Harrison first concocted them in honor of Alfred Trude, their host at a large ranch in Idaho. The first hair wings subsequently traveled with one of the party, Colonel Lewis Thompson, to the salmon rivers of the Maritime Provinces. These primitive flies were dressed down-wing over the body, and it was not until shortly before the Depression years that hair-wing dry flies evolved. Ralph Corey lived on the Muskegon in Lower Michigan, and his Corey Calftails were down-wing dries that became widely popular after the First World War. Wings tied upright and divided of hair appeared almost simultaneously on the Beaverkill and the Ausable of New York in about 1929.
“The hair-wing Royal Coachman dry fly was the creation of L.Q. Quackenbush, one of the early stalwarts of the Beaverkill Trout Club above Lew Beach. Quackenbush liked the fan-wing Royal Coachman, except that it was fragile and floated badly, and in 1929 he suggested to Reuben Cross that white hair wings might work better. Cross tied some using upright wings of calftail and tail fibers of natural brown buck. It worked perfectly, and Catskill fishermen soon labeled it the Quack Coachman in honor of its peripatetic inventor.
“Lee Wulff also worked out his famous Gray Wulff and White patterns in the Adirondacks in 1929, in a successful effort to find imitations of the big Isonychia duns and Ephemera spinners that would float well on the tumbling Ausable at Wilmington. These Wulffs have proven themselves superb flies, from Maine to California and British Columbia, and spawned a large family of patterns using different bodies and hackles. Wulffs have so completely dominated the upright hair wings that L.Q. Quackenbush and his hair-wing Coachman are almost forgotten, and his innovation is now commonly called the Royal Wulff.”
In more recent decades, there have been a number of other variations on this pattern. Locally, there’s a Tennessee Wulff that has a lime green band in the middle rather than red. Furthermore, there’s a Carolina Wulff that has a yellow band as an alternative to the original red. Anyone who spends much time fishing the Smokies knows that lime green and yellow are both very effective colors for flies. So, it’s no wonder these variations emerged from local tyers.
On a side note, back in 1998 I devised a version of the Royal Wulff that had a yellow floss band instead of red. I wasn’t aware of a Carolina Wulff at the time and thought I was really doing something clever and original! But it just goes to show how easily the origins of these fly patterns can get confused. I’ve tied countless original fly patterns over the years that I never even named, much less published. So, who is to say that someone else won’t tie one of those patterns 10 years from now? They might publish it, and end up with an iconic fly that was actually originated by me?!?
People are telling me all the time that they don’t fly fish very often because they don’t have anyplace to go. I know as well as anyone that there are an endless number of things that keep us from fishing as often as we’d like, but not having a place to go should never be one. While you may not have a world-class trout stream in your backyard, or even in your state, there are plenty of other alternatives. You may just have to get a little creative.
For instance, almost every city has some sort of park or
green space with a pond. These can be productive little fisheries, typically
containing bass, carp, catfish and some sort of variation(s) of sunfish. They
are a lot of fun to fish and at the very least, they will keep your casting
skills and fishing instincts sharp between fly fishing vacations.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a friend who has a farm
pond. These provide all of the same benefits as those city ponds but without
all of the people. I had access to one when I lived in Kentucky that I fished
three or four times a week. Sunfish like bluegill will readily take a fly and
fight as hard as any fish I know. And a big bass boiling on your surface bug at
dusk is a tough thing to beat.
It helps to know what fish are in the pond when deciding what gear to use. You can effectively fish for bluegill with the same outfit you use for trout. A number of small to medium topwater terrestrials will work well. Small popping bugs are a good choice, too. They’ll eat trout flies but they’ll tear them up in a hurry. Therefore, I’d recommend more durable foam or hard-body flies.
As exciting as it is to catch those bluegill up top, I often catch the biggest ones below the surface. Wooly Buggers are productive, as are a large variety of rubber-leg nymphs. However, if you want to get a little more specific about imitating their food source, try crayfish patterns and damsel and dragonfly nymphs. They tend to be attracted to brighter colors. An old fashion Green Weenie has been one of my favorite subsurface flies for bluegill. As a matter of fact, fishing a Green Weenie as a dropper off a popping bug can be very productive.
Bass will eat many of the same flies as mentioned above, but big bass are often looking for a little more of a mouthful. A variety of streamer patterns can take bass in ponds and are always a good choice. But I love getting them on the surface when I can. Large hard-body poppers and sliders and spun deer hair bugs are a blast to fish with. However, these larger flies are very difficult to cast with a light trout outfit. If you do much of this type of fly fishing, I’d recommend picking up an 8-weight.
When fishing ponds, look for structure like rock piles and tree stumps. Also, these fish like the edges of things. Cast to shadow edges and the edges of shallow and deep water. In addition, during summer months, expect better fishing early and late in the day.
A popper, or popping bug, is a type of topwater fly commonly
used for warmwater species like bass and bream. Unlike the often delicate and
diminutive dry flies used in trout fishing, poppers are typically bright and
robust. While topwater trout flies are commonly designed to discreetly drift
down a feeding lane, popping bugs are designed to make commotion.
Poppers are most often made with a hard, cork body but more
and more frequently are being constructed of foam. Softer variations are also
made by spinning deer hair on a hook. The hair is tightly packed and trimmed to
shape. Using different colors of deer hair allows for some pretty cool color
and design variations. However, color and design variations can also be
achieved on cork and foam poppers with paint and markers.
What they all have in common is a flat or cupped “face” and a body that usually tapers slightly, getting smaller toward the rear of the hook. When fishing with them, the idea is to pull your line with a short, quick motion that jerks the fly abruptly. As a result, the flat or cupped face of the fly will make a “pop” on the water. A popper could certainly resemble some sort of insect, but most often it is designed to suggest a struggling baitfish.
A diver or slider is frequently lumped into the popper category. However, while made with similar materials, these have more of a bullet shaped face. The body tapers in the opposite direction of a popper. You use similar fishing methods with this style of fly but when the line is pulled toward you, the bullet head causes the fly to dive or erratically slide through the water.
There are few things more exciting than watching a bass follow and explode on a well presented popping bug! Check out this video from the folks at The New Fly Fisher for some great tips on how to fish them.
The Smokies fished great through most of June. As a matter of fact, we had an amazing four or five days with highs in the low 70’s and almost no humidity. It felt like fall! There were some significant rain systems but most only skirted the mountains, keeping water levels full but very manageable. So we’re heading into July with a surplus of water but, as you would expect this time of year, water temperatures are starting to climb.
On lower elevation rivers and streams, you’ll really want to focus on early morning and late evening when things are cooler. The best bet this time of year is getting to mid and high elevation streams where water temps can be significantly lower. In general, smaller backcountry streams will be better because they have more tree canopy and see less sunlight.
We should continue to see sporadic hatches of Little Yellow Sallies, Light Cahills, Sulphurs and tan caddis. Larger golden stones are still hatching at night but fish are sometimes still looking for them in the early morning. Isonychia nymphs are active, making a Prince Nymph or George Nymph a great choice. But terrestrials are the main course from now until fall with trout looking for beetles, ants, inchworms and the like.
It’s been a tough year on the Clinch with water flows. June started out great but those rain systems that skirted the Smokies hit the Norris Lake area pretty hard. They have been constantly releasing water from the dam for the last few weeks.
I’m expecting those water releases to relax pretty soon. We should soon see the standard summer release schedules of low water in the morning and increased generation in the afternoons when power demand is at its highest.
When water releases do relax, you may still see some Sulphurs hatching in the late morning and afternoon, but we’ve mostly missed that hatch this year. Of course, midges are abundant 365 days a year and will be the fly choice most of the time in July. There are many patterns that will work, but it’s tough to beat a standard black Zebra Midge.