Smokies Fishing Report

winter fishing

Date of Report

January 31, 2021


Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 525cfs / 2.69 feet

Pigeon: 744cfs / 2.49 feet

Oconaluftee: 933cfs / 2.46 feet

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 37 – 40 degrees

Mid elevations: 33 – 36 degrees

High elevations: 32 degrees

Current Conditions

Conditions are what you’d likely expect entering February. Water temperatures are way below ideal and fishing is very slow. Streams are running full from recent rainfall, particularly on the TN side, and some of the bigger streams may be difficult to wade.

Projected Conditions

Pretty rough week ahead. Significant snow is expected in the mountains tomorrow. In addition to slow fishing, expect a number of road closures. Cold weather persists through the week, capped off by rain for the weekend.


With water temperatures likely in the 30’s all week, the only reason to get out is simply because you want to get out. Fish can be caught in these conditions but activity will be very sparse. Plan on nymphing deep and slow and try to focus on pools and slower parts of runs.

Other than seeking out slower water, you want to fish the warmest water possible right now. Try to concentrate your efforts on the middle of the day, stick to the lower elevations and look for areas that get a little more sunlight.

Hatches/Fly Suggestions

There is very little in the way of hatches this time of year but you may run into the occasional Blue Wing Olive. Small dark stoneflies and caddis may also make an appearance. Most everything coming off the water will be small, in the #18 – 20 range. I would primarily fish dark colored nymphs deep and slow. A black or olive Zebra Midge would be a good bet. I do well with “peacock flies” in the #14 – 16 range this time of year, like Zug Bugs, Prince Nymphs, etc. In the right water, a larger stonefly nymph may entice a nice brown trout.

Featured Fly

Prince Nymph

Fly Rod Cases

I have seen fly rods break more times and in more ways than I care to remember. However, in all of my years fishing and guiding, I am yet to see a fly rod break in its case! I’m sure someone out there has a story about it, but it is pretty safe to say that it’s rare. Most fly rods come with a case when you buy them. So, I’ve always wondered why so many anglers choose not to use them. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I physically cringe when a client pulls an uncased rod out of the trunk and throws it in the back of my truck.

It’s one thing if you have a rack on or in your vehicle that is designed to carry a rod while it is strung up. But I’m talking about the strung up rod that is broken down in 2-4 pieces with the leader tangled around it. The person who does this usually justifies it with something like, “I just hate having to tie the fly back on every time.”

Forgive me for the harsh judgement but this is terrible reasoning! Aside from the fact that you’re committing your fishing life to always fishing just one beat up fly tied to what is usually a leader that is way too short and thick; you’re setting yourself up for an epic tangle to start the day and you’re just begging for a broken rod tip.

Know Your Knots

If this is you… learn to tie your knots!  You really only need to know two. A perfection loop gives you a “knotless” connection between your fly line and leader. So you just need a knot for splicing tippet and a knot for tying the fly on. A double surgeons knot will take care of the former and a clinch knot will handle the latter. Both are simple to tie with a little practice. Now you can break down your rod and put it back in its tube at the end of the day. Take care of your tools and your tools will take care of you! If you don’t have a case for your rod or maybe you’re just looking for something new, here’s a breakdown of what’s available.

PVC Tube with Fabric Interior
Aluminum and PVC Cases
Aluminum Tube with Sleeve

As mentioned above, most fly rods will come with a case when you buy them. More often than not, this will either be an aluminum tube with a separate cloth sleeve for the rod, or it will be a PVC tube with fabric inside. If the latter, the fabric will have pre-sewn slots for each section of the rod. The cloth sleeves designed to slide into aluminum tubes will also have pre-sewn, individual slots for each rod section. In either design, you’ll want to put the rod in with the small ends of each section except the butt pointing up. The cork handle end of the butt section should point up. This allows the thick handle of the butt section to protect the smaller tip sections. And it offsets the size of the sections, allowing everything to fit in the tube better.

Combo Cases

Rod/Reel Combo Case

Though they rarely come standard with rods, you can also buy cases that allow you to store the rod with the reel still attached. This is simply for convenience and allows you to keep things assembled. You will still want to remove the fly and reel in the line before storage. I’ve seen folks try to store rods in these tubes with the rod still strung and fly attached, and it usually doesn’t end well. These tubes are available in single and double models.

Rooftop Cases

Car Top Rod Case

If you do prefer to keep your rod outfits fully assembled and rigged up, whether for convenience or because you hate to tie knots, there are a number of long cases available that attach to the roof of your vehicle. All of them that I’ve seen lock and can be purchased to accommodate a single rod and reel or multiples. There are several brands on the market now. I have the River Quiver “four banger” model from RiverSmith and have been very happy with it.

Whatever case you choose, please just choose a case. From giant fish to stream wipeouts to fighting off bears, there are so many better ways to break your rod than caseless in the trunk of your car!

The Royal Coachman

Royal Coachman
Royal Coachman

Fly lineage can be an incredibly difficult thing to trace. I’ve certainly opined more than once about this in previous articles. For some flies, there is simply little to no written history. For others, the waters get muddied by endless variations. When you change the body color or, say, the tail material of an existing pattern, have you created a new fly or is it just a variation of the original?

My friend Walter has a wonderful trout fly called a Smoky Mountain Candy. It is considered an original fly pattern but it’s really just a Thunderhead dry fly with a yellow body. When someone tied an Adams dry fly with a yellow body, they called it a yellow Adams. So, is Walter’s fly original or is it just a yellow Thunderhead?  Don’t answer yet. It gets even more complicated.

The Thunderhead dry fly is really just an Adams Wulff with a deer hair tail instead of moose hair. And of course, the Adams Wulff is a hybrid of an Adams and a Wulff. The Wulff series of flies are named for and were made popular by Lee Wulff but the most popular, the Royal Wulff, is almost identical to an earlier pattern called a Quack Coachman. The Quack Coachman was a hairwing  version of a Royal Coachman developed by L.Q. Quackenbush. And somehow, after a really long trip around the barn, I’ve made it to this month’s fly, the Royal Coachman. Its history is just as complicated, which is what started the above detour!

Many credit John Hailey with the origin of the Royal Coachman. He was a fly tyer in New York and was said to have first tied the pattern in 1878. However, it was merely one rung on an evolutionary ladder of variations that we’re still climbing today. As most would agree, by adding some red floss in the middle and wood duck feathers for a tail, he simply created a flashier version of an old British pattern called a Coachman.

The Original Original

Tom Bosworth created that original pattern, a wet fly, in the 1830’s. It had a number of variations from different tyers, most notably the Leadwing Coachman, before John Hailey ultimately shaped it into the more familiar version seen today. Actually, the most widely accepted version of the fly today includes golden pheasant for the tail and white mallard quill for the wings, both of which, I believe, vary from Hailey’s original.

And over the years, variations of variations have emerged. In addition to the Wulff and Trude variations, there are assortments of dry flies, wet flies and streamers in the “royal family.” Different colored floss bands branch the tree even more, accounting for Tennessee versions, North Carolina versions and others.

Most people don’t care about all of this. They just want a fly that catches fish. It certainly does that, even after all of these years. After all, a fly pattern doesn’t hang around for hundreds of years and get tweaked by every tyer that touches it if it doesn’t catch fish!

Even the version I’ve included here has my own bastardized twist! I most often substitute the quill wing with a synthetic called Z-lon. I find it more durable and simpler to tie. Tying in upright, divided wings is already time consuming. Doing it with quill wings requires an entirely different degree of fuss. Does that make it the Royal Fightmaster?

The Royal Fightmaster… err… Coachman

  • Hook: TMC 100 #18-10
  • Thread: 8/0 Black
  • Tail: Golden Pheasant Tippets
  • Wing: White Z-lon
  • Body: Peacock Herl
  • Band: Red Floss
  • Hackle: Brown Rooster Neck