January has been relatively mild for the most part but very
wet. So water levels have been up more than they’ve been down. And even in a
mild January we’re talking about water temperatures in the 40’s at best, so not
exactly stellar fishing. But a few fish have been caught and the mountains look
completely different in the winter, so it’s always nice to get out.
February will likely be more of the same. You never know what you’re going to get around here but February usually stays pretty cold and things don’t consistently start warming up until about mid March. I know I sound like a broken record but I do find myself having to explain this to wannabe winter fishermen more than anything else… It’s not that I’m worried about being uncomfortable in the cold. I have great gear and don’t mind the cold one bit. It’s all about the water temperature with wild fish and if that water temperature is significantly below 50-degrees, they just don’t do much feeding.
And in the winter, it takes a lot to reach those
temperatures. Even when you get a couple of nice 60-degree days, the overnight
lows are still often in the 30’s and your water temperature just won’t climb
much. When the days get longer and the overnight lows get warmer, you’ll start
to see better water temperatures and active fish!
If you do get out this month, expect to be nymphing. Go with darker patterns and try to fish them right on the bottom, focusing on pools and slower runs. Here’s a little bit on winter fishing in the mountains.
February is the last month for Delayed Harvest streams. These stocked fish should be quite a bit more active than their wild brothers in the Smokies. However, by February, poaching has usually taken its toll and there just aren’t a lot of fish left. Nymphing will definitely be the ticket on these streams. Standard nymph patterns are worth a try and anything bright and shiny is a good bet!
As usual, the fishery that does have good water temperatures year round and should fish well in the winter is cranking 2+ generators 24 hours a day. Last year was a tough one on the Clinch. A very wet spring resulted in very few days of low water. Unfortunately, this year is starting out the same way. Man, every year seems to be flood or drought. Is an “average” year too much to ask for?
Every year, it seems every fly rod company comes out with a
new rod that is not only supposed to cast itself, but is substantially lighter
than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, the average graphite rod today is
probably about 1/3 the weight of the average graphite rod of 30 years ago. And
that difference is far more substantial when you start comparing the weight of
today’s graphite rods to the bamboo and fiberglass rods that your father or
grandfather may have used. But none of this matters if your rod is not properly
balanced by your reel.
It’s a phenomenon called “levered weight.” If you carry two
20lb. buckets of water, one in each hand, it will feel more comfortable than
carrying just one 20lb. bucket of water in one hand. One side balances out the
other. The same concept applies if you have the lightest fly rod on the market
but have a reel on it that is too heavy. It will feel heavier in your hand than
a heavier rod that is properly balanced by its reel.
When it comes to trout fishing and really, most freshwater in general, your reel does not play a very significant role. Unless, you just have to have “the best,” it is not necessary to sink a lot of money into a reel. However, just because it may not be the most important piece of equipment, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some consideration into things like its size. It needs to be big enough to comfortably hold the fly line and appropriate amount of backing, and it needs to balance the rod. In most cases, a rod and reel are balanced if it will self-balance when you set it on one finger positioned near the tip of the cork grip.
In the picture above, the reel is just a little too heavy for the rod. I prefer the balance point to be just a little closer to the tip of the cork. But it’s close enough to not feel uncomfortable.
Most companies will designate specific reel sizes for specific line and rod sizes. If a reel is for 4 – 6 weight lines, it not only means it has the capacity to store those line sizes, but it should balance most 4 – 6 weight rods. Of course, things like the material from which the rod is made and the length of the rod can determine if it actually falls in the “balance range” of that particular reel. If your rod is a short, super light 4-weight, you may want to bump down to the next smaller size. On the other hand, if your rod is a 6-weight bamboo, you may want to bump up to the next larger reel size.
The design of the reel seat on the rod will also be a factor. Almost all modern graphite rods have an uplocking reel seat, which positions the reel just behind the cork grip. Some bamboo rods may have a downlocking reel seat, which puts the reel almost right at the butt of the rod. The latter can help when trying to balance a heavier rod.
As reels become lighter and lighter, it has become far more difficult to find appropriate size reels to balance bamboo rods. However, one reel manufacturer, Ursus, has designed a reel that has removable brass plates on the interior. The weight of the brass plates help to balance heavier bamboo rods. When using the reel on a lighter graphite rod, the plates can be removed. Pretty cool.
In any case, no matter what rod you fish with, keep this in
mind when selecting your reel. It will greatly reduce casting fatigue and
result in much more enjoyable days on the water!
When a trout feeds on or near the surface, it creates a ring
in the water that can appear as a violent splash or a mere dimple. Recognizing
certain characteristics of this rise ring can tell you a lot about where the
fish is positioned, where his feeding lane is, his size and possibly what he’s
Lengthy chapters of vast and detailed information on this topic can be found in a number of well known fly fishing books. I recommend reading them. This article will attempt to condense that information into a useful overview. As always, these are general rules to which there are always exceptions!
Common or Simple Rise
A common rise is characterized by a quick view of the trout’s head, dorsal fin, and often “wagging” tail, followed by a boil of water. It indicates that the trout is positioned near the surface and feeding on insects on the surface or near the surface film. The insects are probably medium to large in size. Because of the increased exposure to predators, trout rarely position themselves near the surface unless there is a lot of food available. So, if you see this kind of rise, keep watching. Chances are you will see the same fish repeatedly feeding.
The surface swirl is similar to the common rise but without
the appearance of the head, fin or tail. You only see the water boil. In this
case, the fish is probably positioned within a foot or two of the surface and
is feeding on insects at least two inches below the surface. You can spend
hours casting dry flies to these kind of rises without a take, but an
unweighted nymph or wet fly fished just below the surface can be deadly.
Poking or Dimple Rise
As the name implies, this rise form appears as just a dimple on the surface and if you look carefully, you can often see just the nose of the trout penetrate the surface. This rise form also suggests the trout is positioned near the surface but likely feeding on small insects on or just below the surface. This type of rise is most often seen in slower pools and runs, slow edges of currents and eddies.
When a rise ring is more of a splash, it can mean a few things. Usually, it just indicates that the trout is positioned deeper in the water. By traveling farther up the column for food, the trout’s momentum often results in more of a splash on the surface. If the trout is positioned deeper, this was likely an opportunistic rise from a fish not necessarily focused on the surface. You may never see him come up again.
Similarly, trout feeding on insects that emerge and get off
the water quickly can display a splashier rise. Caddis flies fit this description,
so many anglers assume (sometimes incorrectly) that a splashy rise means trout
are feeding on caddis. And sometimes a splashy rise can simply be the result of
a smaller, eager trout rising recklessly.
A gulping rise is like a greatly exaggerated common rise.
The trout’s mouth is wide open and his entire backside breaks the surface,
followed by an often audible “gulp.” You’re likely to see this type of rise
during very heavy hatches when there are frequently multiple bugs very close
together on the surface. The trout may eat as many as six bugs in one rise. If
you’re seeing this, you’re at the right place at the right time. Try to match
what you see on the water and don’t get your leader in a big tangle!
A jumping rise is when the trout completely clears the water, sometimes by a few feet! This could mean the fish is feeding on bugs in the air just above the surface, or possibly something large like a mouse or even baitfish. In any case, a jumping rise suggests a brief moment of opportunity and not a steadily feeding trout. I don’t recall ever standing in a pool and seeing dozens of trout routinely jumping out of the water. Most experienced anglers recognize the jumping rise as fool’s gold, shake their heads and move on.
Where is the trout?
As mentioned above, certain types of rise rings can suggest
how deep the trout may be. However, there are other things to consider when
determining where in the stream that trout is positioned.
First and foremost, when a trout rises in a stream, he is
going to drift back during the process, then return to his original position. So
the trout is actually positioned upstream of where you saw him rise. If he is
holding near the surface, his position may only be a few inches upstream of the
rise. If he’s holding in deeper water, his position may be several feet
upstream of the rise.
When a trout rises, you’re also going to see a “push” of
water, like a little wave. That wave usually pushes upstream. But if the wave
pushes to one side or another, it indicates that the trout came over to feed.
So, he may be holding in one lane and feeding in another.
There’s a lot to this, I know. The best advice I can offer
is when you see a trout rise, don’t immediately cast a dry fly to that spot.
Think about what the rise looked like and stop and look for others. Identifying
rise rings may not give you all the answers, but it will give you a great place
Caddis flies have just never been given the same attention
as mayflies by fly fishermen. Pick any mayfly out there and it’s not difficult
to find its Latin name and a separate common name. Likely, you’ll also find
multiple fly patterns imitating every possible stage of just that one
That’s not the case with caddis. They are often just described by their size and color: green caddis, yellow caddis, dun caddis, etc. Sure there are different patterns out there like the Neversink Caddis and the Henryville Special, but they are just different variations of generic patterns, intended to represent a host of different caddis by varying the size and color. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I suppose in a sport where we often overcomplicate things, a little simplicity is refreshing. But don’t confuse simplicity with lack of importance as caddis flies can be found on most every trout stream in the United States.
The most popular and widely used fly pattern for a caddis adult is the Elk Wing Caddis, also called the Elk Hair Caddis. It was created by Pennsylvania fly fishing legend, Al Troth, in 1957. At least that seems to be when it was first written about. I’m sure he was fishing it before then. Since that time, it has become a staple in most every fly angler’s box not only as a caddis imitation, but also as an effective searching pattern when no hatch is present. It’s a great fly in the Smokies almost all year.
In the early spring, I use smaller versions, usually with darker bodies to represent the darker caddis and stoneflies we see that time of year. As we get into late spring and early summer, the patterns get a little bigger and lighter, with tan bodies mostly. From late spring through early fall, a yellow body makes a great imitation for the prolific Little Yellow Sally stonefly. And by fall, I’m back to using tan, olive and even rust colored bodies.
The Elk Wing Caddis is a fairly simple dry fly to tie and again, allows for a lot of variation. By changing the color of the body, the hackle and/or the wing, you can imitate most any down-wing fly on the water. Below is a recipe for the Elk Wing Caddis I fish most often.
Elk Wing Caddis – Tan
Hook: Standard dry fly, size 16-12* Thread: Brown 8/0 Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered Body: Superfine dubbing, tan Wing: Natural elk hair
* This is the common size range in which I tie this tan caddis. General hook size for caddis imitations can range from size 10 down to size 20 (and smaller).
December is kind of the beginning of “fishing for the sake of going fishing” season. That’s not to say that fish can’t be caught, but we begin to see a lot more bad days than good ones, at least as far as activity goes. Spending the day on a quiet, snowy stream catching nothing is still a pretty good way to spend a day!
Right now we’re seeing water temps in the mid 40’s in low elevation mountain streams. As a broad rule, trout don’t feed very actively much below 50. You can still catch them but don’t expect a 40 fish day. You’ll need to nymph slow and deep and focus on the slower pools. Sleep in, eat a good breakfast and head to the stream a little later in the day. Your best fishing will be through the middle part of the day when water temps are at their warmest.
As suggested above, nymphs will be the ticket most of the time in December and throughout the winter. Darker patterns like Pheasant Tails, olive or black Hares Ears, and Prince Nymphs are good bets. Bigger stoneflies like Girdle Bug might produce but don’t disregard the small, dark Zebra Midges. I would use a tandem rig pairing a large stone with a smaller nymph.
On warmer, sunnier days, you may see isolated surface activity. If so, they’re likely eating BWO’s, black caddis, or small black stoneflies. So, you may want to keep a few of those in your box. Actually, some small Parachute Adams and Griffith’s Gnats should take care of most of your small fly needs.
The DH waters should be a little more productive through the colder months. Stocked trout just aren’t as impacted by the cold water temperatures. Unfortunately, the later into DH season we get, the fewer fish you will find. Poaching is always a problem on these streams. Any of the nymphs mentioned above should do okay along with any shiny or colorful nymphs you may have.
This report always sounds like a broken record, but the Clinch should fish well anytime during the winter as long as you get favorable water releases. We’ve seen some good release schedules sporadically throughout the late fall. But at the time of this writing, they are running 2+ generators around the clock. You just have to keep checking. Oh yeah… midges.
Location: GSMNP Western North Carolina Nearest Town: Bryson City, NC Species: Rainbow, brown, and brook trout Average Size: 8-10” (brook trout average smaller, some browns exceeding 20”) Stream Size: Open (lower stretches) to tight (headwaters) Pressure: Heavy (around campground), light (headwaters), moderate (in between) Type of Water: Freestone, Mountain Boat Access: None Best Times: Spring and fall Favorite Flies: Attractor dries, beadhead nymphs, stonefly nymph
Numerous hotels in Bryson City, NC and Cherokee, NC
Front Country Camping: Deep Creek Campground Smokemont Campground
From Bryson City, turn from Main Street (Hwy 19) onto
Everett Street. Turn right onto Depot
Street. Depot Street bends hard to the
left and becomes West Deep Creek Road.
Continue on West Deep Creek Road until you reach the campground
entrance. There are also numerous signs
in Bryson City directing you toward the campground.
Once at the campground, you will have immediate access to
the stream. To gain further upstream
access, follow the Deep Creek Trail from the campground. The trail follows the stream for
approximately ten miles, providing ample stream access as well as access to
numerous backcountry campsites along the way.
The first half mile of stream above the campground is designated tubing
water which you’ll want to skip during season, but no tubing is permitted
beyond that half mile point.
Alternate access is also available to the top, headwater
portion of Deep Creek from Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441). Just south of Newfound Gap, there is a
pull-off at the other end of the Deep Creek Trail. Expect to hike at least four miles to
Backcountry Campsite #53 before reaching access to some of the better
water. Beware that while it is a rather
simple hike in, it is a grueling uphill hike back out, particularly after a day
of fishing. Allow plenty of time to get
back out and be certain you’re in good physical condition before attempting.
The Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, commonly just referred to as a Hare’s Ear, is one of the oldest nymph patterns known. However, the history on the fly is shaky at best. If I’m being honest, the history of this fly is so vague and cumbersome that I just got tired of looking! But there are numerous references in many of the old English fishing journals to a similar fly that, at the time, was more of a wet fly. The more current nymph version of the fly appears to have been around since at least the 1880’s. There are two unrelated tyers, James Ogden and Frederick Halford, who both frequently receive credit for its origin.
When I write my comprehensive history on American trout flies, I’ll dig a little deeper. But for purposes of this newsletter article, let’s just say that it has been catching trout for a LONG time!
The Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear gets its name from the materials that are used to tie it. It seems they weren’t quite as creative with fly names back in the day. Should we call it the Sex Dungeon?!?! No. It’s tied with materials from a hare’s mask and a piece of gold tinsel for a rib. Let’s call it a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear.
What the fly lacks in name creativity, it more than makes up for in productivity. It is easily one of the most popular and effective nymph patterns of all time. Most agree that it is intended to imitate a mayfly nymph, but it is also an excellent representation of a caddis nymph and many crustaceans. And while the original natural rabbit color is still quite productive, there are countless color variations. Personally, in addition to the natural color, I love a black Hare’s Ear in the winter and an olive in the early spring to imitate Quill Gordon nymphs.
in addition to color variations, there are countless other variations. Many will have some kind of sparkle rib or sparkly back. Some might have a wingcase made of peacock herl. Of course, there are beadhead versions and micro jig versions. Like many great flies, its versatility is a big part of its effectiveness.
If you’ve been trout fishing for a while, you undoubtedly already know this fly. If you’re new to trout fishing, you need to know it. Since this is originally appearing in a winter newsletter, included one of my favorite winter variations of a Hare’s Ear below.
Hook: #18 – 12 2x long nymph hook Thread: 8/0 Black Bead: Gold tungsten to match hook size Rib: Gold wire Tail: Guard hairs from hares mask. Dyed black. Wing Case: Pearlescent Flashabou Abdomen: Black hares ear dubbing Thorax: Black hares ear dubbing (picked out)
October was kind of the tale of two seasons around here. We started the month still in a drought and record high temperatures in the 90’s. Cooler temperatures arrived mid month and finally a little rain. As I’m writing this (10/30) we’re in the midst of receiving what should total about 2″ of rain and I may have to cancel a couple of trips due to high water! All or nothing weather patterns sure seem to be the new norm.
November will start off with our first freezing temperatures of the year but start getting milder in the first week. I’m hoping for a mild November and then I’m ready for a cold winter this year! November typically sees cold mornings and mild afternoons. The best fishing in the park will be in the afternoons and in lower elevations. Delayed Harvest streams outside the park should fish okay all day.
For the patient and persistent, November is a good time to pursue large pre and post spawn browns in the Smokies – I prefer to leave them alone when they are actually spawning. These are not “numbers days.” You spend a lot of time looking and not fishing so, it’s definitely not for everyone. I know I’ve personally spent more of these NOT catching fish than catching. But on the days when it does come together, it’s pretty spectacular!
And this is definitely not beginner level stuff. If and when you do get a shot at one of these fish, you usually don’t get a second chance at anything so you need to be stealthy and you need to be able to cast.
For those not wanting the torture of stalking big browns, fishing the lower elevation streams for rainbows should be pretty productive. Expect some afternoon surface activity on sporadic caddis and BWO hatches. Otherwise, Pheasant Tail and Prince nymphs should do the trick.
This year, I feel like I could just copy and paste the same forecast every month for the Clinch. There has just been no rhyme or reason to their generation schedules this year. Out of nowhere, you’ll get four or five days of good water. Then, with no change in weather conditions they’ll generate 27/7 for three weeks straight.
My only recommendation here is to monitor the water releases. If you find a favorable schedule, go and fish Zebra Midges and small Pheasant Tails.
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.
September was a tough month. Our rainfall totals for the month were a micro-notch above zero, and it was one of the warmest Septembers on record. Guide trips went surprisingly well for the most part. For folks willing and able to hike 2-3 miles in, the fishing was pretty productive. For those limited to roadside destinations, things were quite a bit slower.
October will definitely start right where September left off. We should see 90’s for the first week but looks like things may begin easing into fall-like temperature after the first weekend. But if history is any guide, stream levels won’t see any improvement. Most years, we don’t begin seeing significant rainfall again until November.
So plan on being stealthy. Plan on longer tippets. Plan on smaller flies. They’re going to be a challenge! Fly patterns with orange, tan or rust coloring are always a good bet in the fall. We also tend to see more caddis this time of year, so caddis specific patterns or any generic down-wing pattern like a Stimulator should be a good choice.
The Clinch is showing signs of improvement. Weekend flows have been pretty good for wading and weekdays are starting to get more consistent. Of course, that’s always subject to change at a moments notice! As usual, midges are the main course.