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.
October is one of those idyllic months in the mountains. Sure, the fishing can be good, but it’s just as much about the feel. Days are shortening, temperatures are cooling and leaves are changing. I can not imagine a better backdrop for standing in a river and waving a stick!
This year things are looking better than usual. September and October are typically pretty dry months around here. So often, while cooling temperatures are cooling and fish are getting active, low water has them unusually skittish. But this year we had a wetter than usual September, including visits from two tropical storms. Fishing should be great!
Expect better fishing from late morning through late afternoon most of the month. And starting around the middle of the month, begin scanning the tail end of pools for large, pre-spawn brown trout.
While hatches are not as frequent or robust as we might see in spring, fall does bring a number of aquatic insects out, particularly caddis. Most of your standard mountain patterns should still be productive, but patterns in the caddis family should do even better. Staples like the Elk Wing Caddis are great and larger, orange dry fly patterns like Stimulators and Neversinks will make a nice representation of the large ginger caddis. Wired Caddis and tan, orange or rusty soft hackles should fit the bill below the surface.
As always, the Clinch is pretty hit and miss with generation schedules. Recently, they have not been releasing in the morning, allowing for a small window of wade fishing.
Not a lot changes on the Clinch when it comes to fly selection. Zebra Midges in
size #18 and smaller are productive most days. Really any midge pattern
in that size range is worth playing with. Small Pheasant Tail Nymphs
are also a good bet.
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.
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.
It’s the time of year when certain folks seem to be whispering more at the fly shop. They huddle in corners and peek over their shoulders before saying too much. They’re talking about brown trout. Big ones. Somebody mentioned seeing a decent one around Metcalf Bottoms – about 18-inches. A younger guy innocently asked, “Since when did we start referring to 18-inch browns as just ‘decent’?” The older guy replied with a grin, “October.”
Many anglers purely think of the Smokies as a place where you catch wild trout in a pretty place. But as a whole, you don’t expect to catch particularly big trout. After all, rainbows rarely exceed 15-inches and brook trout rarely get any bigger than 10-inches in the Smokies. They’re both almost exclusively bug eaters, and after 3-5 years, they simply can’t support their weight with the bugs available, and they die. But when brown trout reach about 8 or 9-inches, they begin eating minnows, and crayfish, and mice, and birds, and small rainbows. They live 10-15 years and reach lengths of 30-inches in the Smokies!
Fish that size don’t get caught often. Brown trout only live in a handful of rivers in the Smokies to begin with. They’re extremely cagey and for much of the year, they do most of their feeding at night – it’s illegal to fish the park at night. So, outside of the occasional big brown caught at dusk, or dawn, or after a good rain, we don’t get a lot of good shots at these guys. Until late fall.
Brown trout tend to make their spawning runs after the fall foliage has turned colors but before the last leaves have fallen. In the Smokies, that’s usually late October or early November. They typically move to shallower, more visible areas of the stream and are spotted by far more fishermen then. When they’re actually on the nest (or redd), we leave them alone. Not only is it just bad ethics, but they have other things on their mind than food at that time. But in the weeks leading up to the spawn and in the weeks to follow, their appetites are enormous!
In the weeks leading up to the spawn, they’re on the move searching for suitable nesting areas, often. This is when many fishermen are hoping to get their shot at a trophy. A number of folks have booked me during this time, thinking a seasoned fly fishing guide will be their ticket to success. While I can certainly help locate the fish, there is a whole lot that has to go right to catch him. It’s not just having the right fly at some secret honey hole!
Most people aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to catch one of these fish. Unless you’re just going to depend on luck, you have to trade fishing time for looking time. You may not spot one at the first place, or second or third… And once you do spot one, you’re not done looking. You have to watch him for a while to figure out his pattern: how he’s feeding, where he’s feeding, when he’s feeding, IF he’s feeding. You then may have to spend a pain-staking amount of time sneaking into a position where you can cast to him without spooking him.
Assuming everything has gone your way up to this point, you may only have one shot at him. A bad cast will kill the deal. And if he does eat and you do hook him, you’re problems have just begun. Now you have to fight a 25-inch trout in the fast, rocky waters of the Smokies! But it’s all worth it when it does come together and you become one of the lucky few. It’s the stuff legends are made of.
The Ginger Caddis of the Smokies is known in other circles as the Great Brown Autumn Sedge. Many lump it together with a few other similar species and refer to them all just as October Caddis. No matter what we decide to call it, fish just call it food! Caddis of numerous varieties are available most of the year in the Smokies but really seem to come into their own in fall. And of the many caddis species hatching in the fall, the Ginger Caddis is the undisputed king.
Ginger Caddis are big, big bugs – in the hook size #10-8 range to be exact. They are in the stream all year, most of the time in a larval encasement of lengthwise sticks. The larvae feed mostly on decaying leaves throughout the winter and spring. In early summer, when that food source has diminished, they seal off their cases and remain inactive until late summer. In late summer, they begin pupation. Emergence, mating, and egg laying occur in early fall. Eggs will hatch in late fall when most of the leaves have fallen, and the larvae will again begin feeding on this foliage. Their entire life cycle is completely synchronized with this food source and they are one of the most important converters of leaf material in the woodland streams of the Eastern United States.
What does that have to do with you? Well, it gives you a good idea of what to tie on the end of your tippet. You will probably only see a handful of these on the stream. The adults tend to fly mostly at night, but there is plenty of spillover near dusk and dawn. And trout don’t seem to care that their not supposed to be seeing them in the middle of the day. They regularly take these imitations with plenty of vigor!
While there are a number of more exact imitations out there, I have found few flies that work better than an orange Stimulator or an orange Neversink Caddis in sizes #12-8. Even when they’re not hitting the dries, these are both highly buoyant dry flies that do a great job of suspending a dropper. For dropper nymphs, the usual suspects like Pheasant Tails, Princes, and Green Weenies are always good choices. Or you may try a #12 orange soft hackle pattern to imitate the Ginger Caddis pupa.
Actively fishing an orange soft hackle by itself or in tandem with another nymph can be very productive, especially in the early morning. Refer to the Active Nymphingarticle in the Journal section of my web site for tips. Ginger Caddis begin showing up (hatching) in the Smokies in mid to late September and typically hang around until late October.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
In normal years, there are going to be periods that are dryer than others, and in a rainfall driven fishery like the Smoky Mountains, water levels routinely fluctuate and you have to be able to adjust your strategies to match the conditions. While some years can give us low water conditions any time of year, late summer and fall is historically the driest time of year in the Smokies.
What’s particularly bad is when we have a summer drought with low water AND warm water temperatures. That’s a pretty tough combination – one that often results in the loss of fish. But when you’re dealing with the typical low water we see in September and particularly October, water temperatures are cool and trout are very active. So, there’s one obstacle, warm water temperatures, out of the way. Below are some tips for dealing with the other obstacle.
The biggest problem low water creates is it makes already spooky fish spookier. While having less water depth can be an issue, the real challenge is having less water flow. When streams are full, the extra flow of water helps conceal you and your movements. The surface is more broken, making the trout’s view of the outside world more distorted and the extra flow helps to dampen the noise you make when you move in or near the water. In a nutshell, you’re going to have to be a lot stealthier when you fish for low water trout.
I’ve talked about this first piece in the article Dress for Success, but it all starts with what you wear. When you are fishing in the Smoky Mountains, your backdrop consists mostly of trees and bushes. When you wear bright colors, your silhouette against that woody backdrop is much more pronounced, and the trout more easily detects your movements. Dress in dull, earth-tone colors like brown, tan, olive, or grey. And stay low. Crouching, squatting, kneeling and/or staying behind boulders will help eliminate your silhouette altogether.
Without the benefit of faster currents, you have to stay farther away from the fish. Simply staying back farther and casting farther can cause drag issues when you’re working across currents, as more line will be on the water. Use the longest rod you can get away with to allow for extra reach across those currents. With shorter rods, take extra measures to position yourself as much downstream from the fish as possible. This will put your line/leader more in the same speed current as the fly and provide a better drift.
Speaking of lines… Heavier fly lines will make more commotion on the water and will drag more. Try using lighter lines, 4-weight and smaller, and keep them off the water as much as you can by keeping the rod tip up. Longer leaders with longer and finer tippet will also help with less drag and less commotion on the water. For small to mid size streams, I usually fish 9’ leaders in low water, and often 12’ leaders on larger rivers.
Lower, slower moving water also gives the fish a better, longer look at your fly. Larger, bushier flies will often produce “short strikes,” where the fish merely bumps or noses it, or stops just short of taking it. Smaller flies and low profile flies like parachutes or comparaduns, will often solve that. A Griffith’s Gnat in a size #18 is a favorite late season, low water pattern. A Parachute Adams in size #18 is another favorite. Terrestrials are still abundant this time of year and a small parachute ant or a soft hackle ant dropper can be very effective in these conditions.
You may also try to seek out choppier water. Fish will often position themselves more in choppy water during these conditions to remain less visible to predators.
Mostly, success in low water is going to boil down to movement. Keep your false casting to an absolute minimum, like, not at all if you can. Don’t go rushing into each new spot. First, assess the pocket, pool, or run from afar, then keep a low profile and approach it slowly.
After doing all of this, as simple as it sounds, be ready! Your strike is most often going to come on the first cast and you don’t get many second chances.