With the spread of the Delta Variant we are seeing a significant spike in Covid cases in our area, as well as around the country. Many hospitals in the East Tennessee area are seeing numbers of cases higher and more serious than during the height of the pandemic in 2020. The more recent spike seems to be hitting the unvaccinated the hardest but many vaccinated individuals are also being impacted.
In light of this news, I have decided to reinstate the separate vehicle policy that was in place in 2020. We will still meet at a convenient location but guide clients will need to drive separately to the destination. This policy will remain in place until at least the end of the year. In my view, time spent close together in an enclosed vehicle is the highest risk of exposure on a guide trip. The remainder of the day is spent outside and maintaining reasonable distance is pretty easy.
Beyond that, I am not requiring that you wear a mask but you are certainly welcome to do so. I do not typically wear a mask on the stream but always have one. I will gladly wear it if it makes you more comfortable.
I’m sorry for any inconvenience and please let me know if there is anything else I can do to make you feel more safe and comfortable on your guided trip.
One of my favorite things to do is fish in very remote places. I love going to places where I’m unlikely to see anyone else and even better, places that few have ever been. But traveling to these places, or anyplace in the backcountry involves a certain amount of risk.
No one ever plans to get lost or to get hurt. And certainly,
nobody ever expects that a day of fishing will turn into an overnight stay in
the woods. However, no matter who you are, something can always go wrong and
when you’re in the backcountry of the mountains, there is a name for people who
are not prepared for those unforeseen occurrences when they arise… “Statistics.”
I’ve always been accused of being over prepared and some will probably roll their eyes when they read this article. But things can go bad in a hurry in the wilderness. And if they do, you can hope that someone happens by to help, or you can be prepared to deal with it yourself. And when you travel to some of the remote places I do, the chances of someone happening by are slim. Even when I’m traveling to a location where I’m more likely to see someone, I would much rather be the person prepared to provide aid than to need it.
I always wear a daypack in the backcountry, and I define the backcountry as anyplace I can’t exit and get aid fairly immediately. So, it could be five miles up a trail or it could be a deep roadside gorge that I can’t exit until I get to the other end. In addition to my fishing supplies, I always carry the following items in my backcountry kit and suggest that you do the same.
Whether in the backcountry or not, I was taught as a boy that you never go to the woods without a knife. The needs and uses for a knife in the outdoors are endless.
2) First Aid Kit
From a fall to a sting to a severe cut, you just don’t know when you’re going to hurt yourself. A first aid kit is a must and I’d recommend putting together your own rather than using the pre-made kits. Think about the most likely injuries you could suffer as well as any personal issues you may have, such as bee allergies, and pack your first aid kit with items to treat those things.
Even when you’re in an area where there are more people, if you should injure yourself in the stream or anywhere else out of sight of the trail, help may not be able to see or hear you. A whistle or other loud sounding device can signal others that you’re in distress. It can also be a tool to scare away aggressive wildlife.
4) Bear Spray
Speaking of aggressive wildlife, I always carry bear spray with me in the backcountry. While it can provide comfort and protection against aggressive bears and other wildlife, it can also be a useful weapon against undesirable people. Anyone remember the machete wielding killer on the Appalachian Trail a few years ago?
5) Topo Map
Certainly this can include GPS devices but a good old fashion paper map won’t run out of batteries. Learn how to read a topo map if you don’t already and keep one with you. I can’t tell you how many lost hikers I’ve encountered and set straight in the backcountry who didn’t have a map.
6) Fire Starting Tools
I always carry waterproof matches, a fire stick and a small amount of dry tinder in my pack. This is in case I, for whatever reason, unexpectedly must spend the night in the woods. Or maybe I take a spill in the water on a cool day and need to prevent hypothermia.
7) Emergency Space Blanket
Much like fire starting tools, this may be used for warmth and/or shelter in case of an unexpected overnight stay or as prevention/treatment for hypothermia.
8) Water Purification
I always carry water with me on a fishing trip or hike. But if it becomes an unexpected extended stay, I want a way to purify water. A LifeStraw is a simple, light, packable option.
Much like a knife, paracord has multiple uses in the
outdoors whether in the backcountry or not. It’s light, small and strong and
can be used for simple “emergencies” like replacing a broken boot lace to more
serious tasks like constructing a shelter for an unforeseen overnight.
I don’t usually carry a map on guided trips or on many solo
trips in the Smokies, only because I am so intimately familiar with those
locations. But I take one anytime I go someplace I’ve never been or have only
been to a few times. Otherwise, I never travel in the backcountry without the above-mentioned
Additionally, although I do it routinely, it’s not a very
good idea to fish the backcountry by yourself. Take a buddy and always let
someone know where you’re going to be. If you tend to go to really remote
spots, you may consider carrying some sort of GPS beacon. They allow you to
send an SOS if you get into trouble and some offer text messaging if you need
to message a potentially worried loved one when you’re running way late. It
didn’t make my list of essentials, but my wife insisted I take one on my “extreme”
“Do you ever see any bears when you fish?” It’s one of the most common questions I get. Probably the only question I get more often is, “Is that your real last name?” “Yes” to both. If you spend enough time in the Smokies, especially in the backcountry, you’re going to eventually run into a bear. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is thought to have the densest population of black bears east of the Mississippi.
Likelihood of Seeing a Bear
Other than pure chance, the number of bears you’re likely to see depends on how much time you spend in the mountains and how abundant food is. When bears have plenty to eat, they don’t roam around as much. However, when food is in short supply, such as following a drought, bears need to do more looking and that tends to take them closer to trails and roads. I typically spend about 200 days a year in the mountains and I see anywhere from 3 to 40 bears in a year.
On a recent backcountry guide trip, we saw 4 bears in one day! Seeing a bear when you’re fishing or hiking is usually a good thing. They’re pretty and they’re really cool to watch. The key to enjoying bears is knowing how to behave around them.
Concern for Bears
Many people tend to be far too afraid of bears, allowing that anxiety to disrupt what should be a peaceful day in the mountains. Or worse, their fear incites panic when they encounter a bear and they make poor choices. However, on the other end of the spectrum, you have people who do not give black bears the respect they deserve. I routinely see tourists getting far too close to bears when trying to photograph them. And I’ve had more than a few “macho” guide clients chuckle when they learn that I carry bear spray in the backcountry – “They’re just black bears.”
It’s true that black bears don’t get as big as brown bears and grizzlies, but they can still get as big as 600 pounds. It’s also true that black bears are rarely aggressive toward humans. On the list of top causes of injuries in the Smokies every year, bear attacks don’t even rank, which means that, on average, there are less than four a year. As a matter of fact, in the entire history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there have only been two bear attacks that resulted in human death. One of those was just last year on Hazel Creek.
So, I don’t carry bear spray out of an abundance of fear but
more as a precaution in case I run into one of those few bears who don’t know
the rules. For one thing, I’m in the backcountry far more than, well, the
average bear, so I have far more opportunities for an encounter. Additionally,
I am responsible for the safety of paying clients and I don’t take that lightly.
In any case, whether or not you decide to carry bear spray
is up to you. But I have learned over the years from talking to guide clients
and passing hikers and fishermen that most people don’t have any idea what to
do when they encounter a bear. Hopefully this article will help a little.
Black Bear Facts and Statistics
As I typed that header, I couldn’t help thinking about Dwight Schrute. Fans of The Office will understand. Before we get into managing a bear encounter, let’s get a little information on black bears, at least when it comes to the Smoky Mountains.
There are an estimated 1500 – 2000 bears in the Smoky Mountains. This works out to roughly four bears per square mile and is thought to be the densest population of black bears east of the Mississippi River.
Black bears are omnivores and they are scavengers. They feed mostly on plants, nuts and berries. Black bears also feed regularly on insects (grubs, larvae, etc.) and crustaceans (like crayfish), and they eat meat but rarely kill for it. In other words, they are unlikely to kill a deer for meat but will feed on a deer carcass if they come across it, much like a buzzard.
Some black bears turn to scavenging in towns for food, raiding dumpsters and trash cans. This behavior should never be encouraged as it increasing endangers the bear and the humans around the town.
While they may appear to be slow and clumsy, black bears are quite agile and can reach speeds of 35mph. They are also exceptionally good climbers.
Black bears in the Smokies are usually most active during the early morning and late evening and they typically mate sometime in July.
Black bears do not truly hibernate in the Smokies but in winter, do enter long periods of sleep. They may leave the den for short periods if disturbed or during brief warming spells.
Their cubs are born during this period of deep sleep, usually in late January or early February.
Females with newborn cubs usually emerge from the den in late March or early April. The cubs, which are usually born in pairs, will typically stay with the mother about a year and a half.
Video of Bear Scavenging on Stream Bank
Preparation for Travel in Bear Country
Preparing for travel in bear country mostly means packing to prevent a bad encounter but also to deal with a bad encounter should one arise. Of course, by bad encounter we’re talking about the rare occurrence when a bear behaves aggressively toward you. Any bear will behave aggressively if it feels that it or its cubs are being threatened, and understandably so. If you were at the supermarket and a stranger approached your kid in an unusual manner, you’d do the same! “Problem bears” may behave aggressively if they view you as a source of food. This behavior is rare but may occur from a bear that has been fed by people at some point or that is simply a victim of starvation.
You can significantly reduce the chances of an encounter with the latter by packing your food properly. Always have any food (including trash after you eat) you’re carrying sealed in an airtight container. Ziplock bags, for example, will do the trick or better yet, cut down on those single use plastics and carry your food in a reusable container. If you’ve ever been on a full day guided trip with me, you may recall your lunch was packed in a sealed container.
Another suggestion many experts make to prevent a surprise encounter is to put bells on your pack when you’re hiking. The idea is that you won’t accidentally startle a bear that might be upwind of you because it will hear you coming. This approach absolutely has merit but it is not one that I personally choose to take. When I visit the backcountry, I enjoy taking in ALL of nature, including the sounds. I want to hear the wind in the trees, the sound of the stream, chirping birds, etc. and not the sound of bells. Furthermore, I don’t want to scare off wildlife.
To prepare for a bad encounter, carry bear spray and a whistle. The whistle can be used to scare off an aggressive bear and also as a signaling device if you get into any other kind of trouble. Keep the bear spray in a place where it is immediately accessible. You likely won’t need it but if you do, you’re not going to have time to rummage through your pack.
Dealing with an Encounter
When you encounter a bear, stop what you’re doing and observe. Many people have heard that you should look big and make a lot of noise when you see a black bear. There is a time and place for that but it’s not every time you see a bear. If it’s far away and minding its business, you don’t want to start harassing it by yelling and waving your arms!
You want to watch and see what it’s doing. Look around to
make sure there are no cubs and if there are, that you don’t put yourself
between the adult and cubs. More often than not, your course of action will
be to do nothing. As long as you’re at a respectable distance, the bear
will likely ignore you and go about his business. Bears are cool and fun to
watch. Enjoy the show and after it moves on, go back to what you were doing.
Just always be sure to give the bear plenty of space and
make sure it has a clear path. You don’t want it to feel cornered. If you
encounter one a little too closely, keep watching it and slowly back away. As
long as its behavior doesn’t change, it doesn’t feel threatened and you don’t
need to worry.
I frequently see bears walking stream banks and turning over
rocks for food. If you see this when you’re fishing and the bear is heading your
direction, quit what you’re doing, get out of the stream and go to the opposite
bank of the bear. Typically, it will totally ignore you and go right by you. In
any situation, try not to turn your back on the bear and never run. Running can
often trigger a predatory response in a bear that was otherwise minding his own
When Bear Encounters Go Bad
If a bear changes its behavior around you, it’s time to get serious. While it may be difficult, try to remain calm and pay attention to what the bear is doing. If it is doing things like swatting the ground or making a quick step and stop (bluff charging) toward you, it is demanding space. If you have bear spray, now is the time to get it out as you slowly back away from the bear. Keep backing away until the bear quits this behavior. As mentioned above, do not run. Black bears can run 35mph! And don’t try to throw food at it. You don’t want the bear to view you as a food source.
If a black bear continues toward you, even after you attempt
to give it space, it’s time to stand your ground. Now is the time to look
bigger by stretching your arms out. If you’re with someone else, stand together
with your arms out. Act big and make a lot of noise. You’re trying to scare the
bear at this point. Blow your whistle, bang rocks together, etc.
If, after all of this, the bear is still approaching in an aggressive manner, it’s time to fight. You don’t want to play dead as is often suggested with other types of bears. Blast it with your bear spray. If you don’t have bear spray, use whatever is nearby. For example, in a stream, you are surrounded by rocks that you can throw at it. Or use a stick. Use whatever you can. Just fight.
About Bear Spray
Bear spray is essentially high intensity pepper spray that is compressed in a container resembling a small fire extinguisher. It usually comes with a holster that you can easily attach to your belt or pack. Unlike personal defense pepper spray you might carry on a keychain to spray into the face of an attacking human at close range, bear spray containers fire a cloud of chemical about 30 feet.
While I have test fired bear spray, I’ve fortunately never
had to use it for actual defense. If you do have to use it against a bear, it’s
recommended that you give a few short blasts rather than emptying the
container. If the bear continues approaching after those few short blasts,
unload it. Needless to say, after you have stopped the bear, get the hell out
of there, go home and pour yourself a stiff drink!
Ida came through mid week and dumped a ton of rain so streams are too high to fish right now. However, all that rain coupled with mild temperatures has dropped water temperatures a bunch.
Water is high everywhere but the North Carolina side of the park is in a little better shape. It will just take a couple of days to drop to workable levels. Across the board, expect fishing conditions to improve greatly by the latter part of the weekend.
Once water drops, we should be looking at a great week ahead! As mentioned above, water temperatures have dropped significantly which should have lower elevation streams turning on. Temperatures are expected to remain mild through the week. I’m sure we’ll have at least a couple more bouts with hot weather in the coming weeks but for now, enjoy this little fall teaser!
Over the next day or two, I’d stay off the streams unless you really know your way around Smokies streams. High water is dangerous and there will be a very limited amount of fishable water. As water continues to drop, use caution and focus flatter, “pooly” parts of the stream.
It will be mostly nymphing in the coming days… fish them heavy and deep. Check out Fishing High Water for a few tips. By Sunday or Monday we should begin seeing topwater activity pick up again.
While water is high, I’d focus mostly on nymphs. I’d fish a pair and try to diversify them. Have one bright and one drab or one big and the other small. Don’t be afraid to experiment. In addition to the standard nymphs mentioned below, I like worm patterns and big, rubber-legged stoneflies in higher water.
Once the water drops back to normal, you’ll still do a lot of pocket water fishing in the coming weeks. For that, it’s tough to beat a dry fly/dropper rig. For a dry fly, I like anything that floats well and that I can see, probably in the size #16-12 range. I prefer something yellow and probably foam. However, we will soon be transitioning into tans and oranges. But most any attractor will get you through most situations. Parachute Adams, Parachute Hares Ears, Thunderheads, Adams Wulffs and Royal Wulffs always do pretty well.
But as mentioned, you’ll want to be sure to have some dry flies in yellow, and soon orange and tan to best match hatching insects. A yellow, orange or tan Neversink in #16 – 14 is a staple for me. So is a yellow or orange Stimulator. I’d also carry some tan Elk Hair Caddis in #16-14. For nymphs, try Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, Tellico Nymphs and a favorite this time of year… George Nymphs.
Summer is winding down but terrestrials will still be an important food source for the next 6 weeks or so. Fish will continue feeding on ants and beetles. Inchworms are abundant as well and a Green Weenie can be a killer this time of year. It’s a great fly to drop off a dry fly. Check out my article Hidden Terrestrials for a different approach to your terrestrial fishing,
Check out my Hatch Guide for complete hatch information.
Isonychia nymphs are very active this time of year. While there are a number of specific Isonychia patterns, the George Nymph has always been one of my best imitations. So, while it’s a great generic nymph all year, I think the George Nymph is at its best in August and September!
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