November and March are kind of parallel months for the mountains, in that they are what I term “transistional” months. The weather is often going through some of its more severe transitions and consequently, so is the fishing. A string of mild weather days in November can trigger some very active fish. A string of cold days, particularly overnights, can make water temperatures plummet and bring the fishing to a grinding halt.
So November fishing is very much a gamble. However, while you are decreasing your chances of consistent, active fish, you are increasing your chance at a big fish. The larger brown trout of the Smokies are typically entering spawning mode at this time and can feed pretty aggressively pre and post spawn. They don’t come easily or often, but for the fisherman with the right skills, timing, patience and luck, the rewards can be big!
In general, your better fishing in November will be during the middle of the day when water temperatures are a little warmer. You may see sporadic hatches of caddis, midges and Blue Wing Olives to bring the fish to the surface, but mostly you’re nymphing. On rainbow and brook trout water, I’m likely fishing smaller, darker nymphs like Pheasant Tails. On brown trout water, I’m more likely to be fishing larger stonefly nymphs. Streamers can also be productive for large brown trout, but patience and persistence will be key. The strikes will be few.
As always, the big variable for the Clinch is water releases. With the most recent of four hurricanes dropping large amounts of rain in our region last week, things are not looking promising for the wade fisherman.
If, by chance, you find good release schedules this month, plan to fish the usual tailwater favorites. Zebra Midges and small Pheasant Tails are always on the menu in the Clinch. Additionally, Clinch River brown trout may be attempting to spawn and simple egg patterns can be productive when this is going on.
Everyone is always looking for the one easy answer to a question and the one simple solution to a problem. In fly fishing, maybe it’s the dry fly that won’t sink, the nymph that won’t hang the bottom, the wading boot that won’t slip or the perfect size mountain fly rod. Well, I can tell you if you’re still hoping to find any of those things, you will be sorely disappointed. But with the latter, the perfect size mountain fly rod, I believe you can come close!
A few years ago, I was guiding a couple of guys on what I would classify as a mid-size stream in the Smoky Mountains. They were both fishing 12’ tenkara rods and absolutely clobbering fish. They wanted to fish at the same time, so I had them spread out in different sections of the stream, and I repeatedly walked the trail back and forth between them to help and advise as needed.
During my travels up and down the trail, I ran into two
other fishermen on three different occasions. They were friendly and chatted
with me about the fishing each time. As usual in those situations, I was
pleasant but tried to be brief. By the way, if you ever engage a working guide
on the stream or trail and he or she seems short with you, don’t take it
personally. They’re working.
But in my brief interactions with them, they were quick to tell me that they were not catching fish, and were asking for advice, mainly regarding fly patterns. The third time I saw them, they told me that they still weren’t catching fish but had figured out that the problem was their rods were too long. Each of them had a 7 ½’ rod. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my clients were catching fish left and right with 12’ rods, but I did mention the benefits of longer rods and offered a little advice on how to fish the stream.
So, obviously you need a 12’ tenkara rod to catch a lot of
fish in the Smokies, right? Wrong. I’ve seen plenty of fish caught on 7’ fly
rods, too! Many anglers fall into the trap of blaming or crediting all of their
success or failure on the gear, whether rods or flies. All of these things are just
tools. And in the hands of someone who knows how to use them, all of these
tools can be effective. A good carpenter will build a fine deck whether he uses
a handsaw or a power saw. And a bad carpenter will build a crappy deck
regardless of the tool he uses.
Of course, when it comes to choosing the right tool for the
job, it often comes down to the task at hand. But it just as often comes down
to the style, preference and philosophy of the person using the tool. It’s why
I often give such cryptic replies to people who ask me what rod they should use
in a specific location.
When it comes to mountain rods, or really, just trout rods
in general, I immediately eliminate anything bigger than a 6-weight. Yes, you
can catch a trout on an 8-weight, but unless you’re big river fishing with oversized
streamers for huge trout, it just doesn’t make much sense. 3, 4 and 5-weight
lines are really your bread and butter trout weights, particularly in the
mountains. They’re heavy enough to cast most anything you’d need to cast, and
still light enough to achieve delicate presentations and offer less drag on the
water. 1 and 2-weight rods fall more into the specialty category. They are a
lot of fun but a little too light to qualify as a legitimate all-purpose rod.
It’s similar when we talk about rod length. It used to be
that everybody thought you needed a really short rod, like a 6 or 7-footer, to
fish in the tighter streams found in the mountains. I think they envisioned
making these really long casts and thought the shorter rod would help with
that. However, for most folks who know what they’re doing on a mountain stream,
the casts are very short, and a longer rod gives you more reach to keep the
line off varying currents. Recently, we’ve gone the total opposite direction
with folks wanting to use a long rod like the 12’ tenkara mentioned earlier, or
an 11’ fly rod popular with what people like to call “Euro-nymphing,”
I am regularly asked by guide clients which rod they should bring
for a particular stream, the 7’ 3-weight or the 11’ 2-weight. Most of the time,
the answer is “either.” Which one do you enjoy fishing with? Because most of
the time, neither one is ideal. They’re both specialty rods in my book. The 7’
rod will give you a decided advantage on very small streams and in tighter
areas of a bigger stream, but the lack of reach will put you at a significant
disadvantage in open pocket water. The 11’ rod puts you at a distinct advantage
in larger rivers or open pocket water areas of smaller streams, but it will be
a major hindrance in tight spots.
And that’s fine. Which one do you enjoy fishing with? The short
rod? Just know that you’ll be sacrificing reach and make it work. The long rod?
Just skip past the tight stuff. But if you’re looking for versatility on
streams that vary in characteristics, you may want to shift more toward the
I said it 20 years ago and I still say it today. The perfect fly rod for fishing someplace like the Smoky Mountains is a 4-weight in a length between 8’ – 8 ½.’ Is it the absolute perfect rod for every situation? Of course not. But it’s the most versatile. It’s long enough to provide adequate reach when using high-sticking techniques in open water and it’s short enough to be able to maneuver in all but the tightest of streams. If I could only have one rod for the mountains, that’s what it would be.
Hopefully, if you don’t already, you will one day have the
desire, passion and means to possess more than one rod for mountain fishing.
But even then, I think you’re really pigeon-holing yourself by only getting rods
at either extreme. I would start in the middle, with something like an 8 ½’
4-weight, and add specialty rods from there.
As fly fishermen, we often love to jump on every latest trend, usually in an attempt to improve or simplify. However, in these perpetual attempts to improve and simply, we often end up over complicating things. Because most of the time, the best fly to imitate that nymph is a Pheasant Tail, and the best rod to fish that stream is an 8 ½’ 4-weight.