Water temperatures are nearly perfect in the low and mid
elevations and still a little cold (but reasonable) in the high elevations.
Water levels are starting to get a little low, particularly up high. We could
use some rain.
Temperatures look fantastic in the coming week and we have
at least a slight chance of rain nearly every day. Hopefully that will help get
those levels back up a bit. In any case, fishing conditions are looking pretty
good in the coming week.
Look around. There are a lot of hatches this time of year
and they can vary considerably through the day and from stream to stream.
Having a good generic fly pattern will get you by in most situations but
matching what they’re seeing will be even better, especially on bigger and more
heavily fished streams.
We’re in a transition period with fly color right now. You’re
going to begin seeing a lot of yellow flies common with late spring and summer
but there are still a few darker early spring flies hanging around.
*There are not gauges on most streams, so these readings can
only be used as general estimates for certain areas of the park. In general,
the Little River reading gives an idea of water levels near the Townsend side
of the park, the Pigeon represents streams near the Gatlinburg side, the
Oconaluftee represents streams closer to the Cherokee side and Cataloochee represents
the eastern side.
**There are approximately 800 miles of “fishable” streams
inside the park and it is impossible to provide exact water temperatures for
each of them in a general report. And water temperatures will vary considerably
based on elevation. For example, there may be a 12-degree water temperature
difference between the headwaters of Little River and where the gauge is
located in Townsend. When I report water temperatures, they are general
estimates and I consider low elevation to be sections of streams below 2000’,
mid elevation between 2000’ and 3000’ and high elevation above 3000’.
We’ve had a lot of rain in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina this week. Stream levels spiked sharply but are on their way down. The good news is the rain and warmer temperatures brought the water temps up to respectable levels. The bad news is water levels on most streams are still more than a foot above the “high side of good.”
A significant cold front is moving in today, which should completely erase any progress we’ve made with water temperatures. Not a whole lot to be excited about the next few days. However, next week looks like it will be dry with a steady warming trend. Conditions should look considerably better this time next week.
Make sure your gear is in good shape, get to that last bit of fly tying and wrap up loose ends with home projects. We’re probably just a few weeks away from things really starting to turn on.
Darker colored patterns do best this time of year. You’ll do best with nymphs while water is still cold and high. As water drops and warms, keep an eye out for surface feeding fish in the afternoon.
*There are not gauges on most streams, so these readings can only be used as general estimates for certain areas of the park. In general, the Little River reading gives an idea of water levels near the Townsend side of the park, the Pigeon represents streams near the Gatlinburg side, the Oconaluftee represents streams closer to the Cherokee side and Cataloochee represents the eastern side.
**There are approximately 800 miles of “fishable” streams inside the park and it is impossible to provide exact water temperatures for each of them in a general report. And water temperatures will vary considerably based on elevation. For example, there may be a 12-degree water temperature difference between the headwaters of Little River and where the gauge is located in Townsend. When I report water temperatures, they are general estimates and I consider low elevation to be sections of streams below 2000’, mid elevation between 2000’ and 3000’ and high elevation above 3000’.
On numerous occasions I have been asked at the beginning of the day whether we’re going to be fishing dry flies or wets. But what the person usually means by “wets” is nymphs. Actual wet flies are a very specific style of fly that differ in many ways from a nymph. It’s a simple mistake that is of little consequence when chatting with your fly fishing guide. But making the same mistake when fishing on your own might be the difference in catching fish or getting skunked.
Let’s say you had the good fortune to run into another
angler on the stream who tells you he clobbered them swinging a yellow wet fly.
This is obviously a valuable piece of information. But if you tie on a yellow
nymph and swing it through the currents, you’re likely not going to have much
success. It’s kind of like assembling something and the instructions indicate that
all you need is a Phillips screwdriver and you try to use a Flat Head.
Fly fishing terminology can be a bit confusing and sometimes overwhelming. However, learning this terminology will not only give you a better understanding of the sport, but will also help you better communicate with other anglers. One of the greatest sources of confusion for many is the topic of sinking flies. We’re going to ultimately focus more on wet flies, but let’s get started by listing different categories of sinking flies and what differentiates them.
This is probably the easiest category to define so we’ll
start here. Any imitation you fish with a fly rod is just generically called a
fly. However, streamers are flies that sink and imitate something that swims. Flies
that imitate things like minnows, crayfish and leeches are all types of
These flies often have a long profile. They are frequently
weighted with tin wire wrapped around the hook shank or a bead or cone on the
head. However, some streamers are tied unweighted to be fished near the surface
or to allow freedom of movement when fished on a sink tip line.
While there are always exceptions, streamers are typically fished with movement. The fly is often cast beyond a target zone and pulled through that zone by actively stripping the fly line.
Nymphs are usually designed to imitate the juvenile stage of an aquatic insect. However, some fly patterns get lumped into the nymph category simply because they are fished like a nymph. For instance, a Green Weenie is thought by most to imitate an inchworm that has fallen in the water, not a juvenile aquatic insect. But since it is often fished subsurface on a dead drift, it is sometimes qualified as a nymph.
Compared to streamers, nymphs usually have a shorter, streamline profile that often tapers from a fuller thorax down to a slenderer abdomen. Many imitations, especially mayflies and stoneflies will include a tail and legs. Nymph patterns are commonly weighted by a brass or tungsten bead at the head or tin wire wrapped around the hook shank. For a variety of reasons, some nymphs may be tied unweighted, but this is not common.
As with anything, there are plenty of exceptions, but nymphs are most often fished on a dead drift near the stream bottom. This can be accomplished by suspending the nymph under a strike indicator or at close range, without an indicator using straight line nymphing tactics.
Wet Flies and Soft Hackles
This is where things get a little cloudy. Wet flies and soft hackles are technically different but are so similar we’re going to group them together. There are a rare few who will make a really big deal about you referring to a wet fly as a soft hackle or vice versa. These are typically the same people who start many of their sentences with “actually” and who will call you out in public if you end a sentence in a preposition. You know the ones.
If you spend any time at all researching the difference in wet flies and soft hackles you’re going to find a number of passionate arguments that all seem to lead you back to the same question: Now WHAT exactly is the difference? Right or wrong, I routinely use the two terms interchangeably. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the term wet fly for now. Later, we can split hairs about what makes a soft hackle different.
Let’s start by defining hackle. Hackle is a feather that is
wrapped around the hook when constructing a fly. When the feather is wrapped
around the hook, the individual fibers of the feather splay out. Different
types of feathers and different wrapping techniques will result in different
fly looks and behaviors.
Many dry fly patterns use a hackle feather from the neck of a rooster. The fibers on this feather are relatively stiff and uniform, and they don’t cling together. These features help create a buoyant fly that will float well on the water. Body feathers from many game birds like a grouse or partridge are short and soft. They cling together more and when submerged, undulate in a lively manner.
As you may have guessed, those “soft hackles” are used to construct wet flies. There is often a tail on these patterns but not always. There is a slender body constructed of floss, dubbing or a number of other materials. Sometimes there is a wing that is usually angled rearward. The soft hackle is tied in near the head, wrapped around the hook a few times and swept rearward.
Classic wet fly patterns have no weight added. They were
designed to imitate that ‘middle ground” in an aquatic insect’s life. Fished
more upstream, the fly will ride in or just under the surface, suggesting a
drowned adult or maybe a bug struggling to hatch. Or fished down and across,
the fly will swing in a current allowing those soft hackle fibers to undulate
in an enticing manner. In this situation, the fly most likely suggests an
actively hatching insect.
The Difference in Wet Flies and Soft Hackles
Again, I tend to interchange the terms and don’t think much about it but for those keeping score, there are some who try to differentiate the two. And many of the people that argue there’s a difference, don’t even know what the difference is.
One writer said that the difference is how you retrieve them and went on to describe in confusing and excruciating detail the nuances of fly retrieval. That explanation just seemed like a lot of BS to me. Another person told me that the difference is wet flies have wings and soft hackles don’t. But there are some fly patterns classified as wingless wets. So that argument just raises more questions.
The best description I have been able to find contrasting the two is how the flies are hackled. Both styles use a soft hackle of some sort. If the fly is hackled over approximately the front quarter of the hook and it has a wing, it’s a wet fly. If it is hackled in that manner but does not have a wing, it’s a wingless wet. However, a soft hackle has no wing and a hackle sparsely wrapped just behind the eye. There is typically a “wall” of material, usually dubbing, behind the hackle that makes it stand straight up at a near 90-degree angle, rather than sweeping rearward.
Benefits of Different Hackling Styles
In theory, the strength of the wet fly style is its profile. It has a more realistic silhouette with the wing and the hackle fibers wrapped farther back on the hook look more like legs. But the denser hackle clings to itself and the hook more, allowing less movement. The strength of the soft hackle is its movement. The lack of wing and slender body serve as merely a backdrop to the hackle. By tying the hackle sparsely and at more of a 90-degree angle, the fibers have nothing to cling to and dance freely in the water.
Much of this could be considered trivial or just semantics. I completely believe in the logic behind the two different hackling styles but don’t personally find them unique enough to warrant their own fly pattern classification. I hackle some dry flies more heavily for fast water and some more sparsely for slow water, but I don’t call one a dry fly and the other a dense hackle. They’re both just called dry flies.
Again, I think it’s going to be the very rare (and probably annoying) person who is going to passionately differentiate between the two. Most of the industry, like me, will use the two terms interchangeably. For example, there is a common fly pattern called a Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail. It is not a Pheasant Tail with a hackle tied sparsely at a 90-degree angle behind the eye. It’s just a Pheasant Tail Nymph with a soft hackle.
Implementing Wet Flies
Unless you’re just into obscure trivia, the real takeaway from this article shouldn’t be the subtle difference between wet flies and soft hackles. The more important contrast is between wet flies and nymphs. Most people have a pretty good understanding of dead drifting a beadhead nymph under a strike indicator but implementing wet flies into your arsenal can make real differences on the stream.
For instance, Quill Gordon mayflies are one of the first good hatches of the year in the Smokies but they are notorious for getting off the water quickly, especially on sunny days. In other words, even though there’s a big hatch, fish aren’t getting a very good look at those adults and will often focus on the emergers. A Quill Gordon wet fly can be extremely productive during that hatch.
Fishing wet flies in pocket water when there’s no hatch can also
be productive. While classic techniques like the down and across swing can work,
don’t get locked into one method. Play around with different things. I
frequently fish soft hackles the same way I would a nymph with a straight line
method, but at the end of the drift I’ll allow the fly to swing. I catch a lot
of fish on the drift and a lot on the swing. Sometimes I’ll “pump” the rod a
little during the drift, causing the fly to twitch.
Are wet flies the secret weapon that will instantly and magically catch you more fish? Not necessarily, but it’s one more arrow in your quiver. Wet flies were some of the earliest flies ever devised but like many things, kind of fell out of fashion over the years. They’ve lost out to everything from dry fly purists to euronymphers. But you know what? The fish still like them.
Okay, I admit it. I stole this idea from Oprah. But I am in a
unique position to use and abuse a lot of fly fishing related products and over
the years, I have developed some favorites and I thought I’d share them with
you. I may even make this a holiday tradition. Who knows? Maybe Santa will see it
and put one of these items under your tree!
In any case, it’s worth mentioning that I do not make a dime on any of these items if you buy them. These are just five great products that have served me well. They are random items that range in price from about $12.95 – $400.
Richardson Chest Fly Box
If you’ve been on a guide trip with me, you’ve seen this. It
is absolutely my favorite piece of gear and I’ve been wearing it since 1999.
They’ve been making these boxes quite a bit longer, though. Ronald Fye
developed the first one in 1951. Rex Richardson purchased the company and the
patent in 1960 and the current owner, Bob Hegedus, has been making the boxes
since the mid 90’s. Each box is built by Bob in Bellefonte, PA and carries a
I love them for the organization and the flexibility they
offer. Everything is right in front of me so I’m not digging through pockets to
find things, and it acts as a sort of work table, too. It can be used alone or
in tandem with a backpack, vest or hip pack.
There are a several different options from which to choose and each box is custom built to your specifications. Choose from one to five trays and build them how you please: compartments, foam, storage, tippet dispenser… Continue accessorizing with floatant holders (built to fit your brand), magnifiers, flashlights and more. $85 – $400. View website.
Fishpond Burrito Wader Bag
I like keeping my wet stuff separate from my dry stuff when
traveling and this bag is the perfect solution. Unlike some products on the
market, it is well thought out without being over engineered. You know what I’m
Simply open the bag, grab the handles and lift and your
waders and boots roll right out. The waterproof interior liner acts as a “changing
station” where you can stand and protect the feet of your waders while suiting
up. At the end of the day, take your wet gear off while standing on the
waterproof liner and roll it all up. The video below will explain WAY better!
It’s ideal for one set of boots and waders but you can fit two if you need. $59.95. View website.
Simms Guide Guard Wading Socks
Wading socks are wading socks, right? Wrong. Wet wading
season lasts a long time in the Smokies and I’m probably fishing and hiking in
wading socks almost 150 days a year. I’ve worn about every brand and style out
there and these are hands down the most comfortable and durable.
The biggest problem with most wading socks is that they are usually only 2 – 2.5mm neoprene. Your wading boots are sized to fit over the neoprene foot of a wader, which is usually 3.5mm. So, when you end up with boots that are either too tight when you wear waders or too loose when you wet wade. The Simms Guide Guard sock is 3.5mm which means they’re not only more durable, but you get the same fit whether wearing waders or wet wading. They’re a little more expensive than other brands but in my opinion, worth every penny! $49.95. View website.
“Pio” stands for “pack it out.” This simple little
contraption is meant to act as a small streamside trash can to dispose of monofilament,
strike indicators, cigarette butts… you name it. The top has “one way” slits
that allow you to push things in without them easily coming back out. The lid
can easily be removed to properly dispose of trash when you get home.
It conveniently attaches to most any pack or vest with a dual attachment options. Check out the video below for more details. $12.95. View website.
Shelta Performance Sun Hat
After the recent removal of a basal cell carcinoma, I
decided to get more serious about protecting my skin against the sun. That
included a new hat. I’ve always been a ball cap guy. I don’t like big, wide
brims that seem to get in the way of everything and I don’t like floppy brims
flapping around in my face.
I found my solution with Shelta. They make a variety of sun
hats with different brim shapes and sizes, all with a rigid front brim that won’t
flop! Even better, it’s UPF 50+ and it floats. It’s also fairly water resistant
which is a big plus in a climate where there almost always at least a 30%
chance of rain. Another big bonus is a chin strap that secures out of the way
when you don’t need it.
It’s not a cheap hat. Then again, it’s not a CHEAP hat. This thing is extremely well made and comes with a lifetime guarantee. It’s the best purchase I made in 2021! $69.50. View website.
Although we’ve had a few pretty afternoons, cold weather has dominated recently. Overnight lows have not allowed the water temps to get much above 40-degrees.
Things are definitely improving and by the end of the week, we’ve got some great conditions for December. Daytime highs expected in the 60’s with, more importantly, overnight lows in the mid 40’s. looks like we’re going to pay for it after the weekend, though!
While you may find isolated fish rising on warm afternoons, the name of the game is nymphing right now. Get those flies deep and focus on low elevations during the middle of the day for the most activity.
If you’re going to see hatches of any significance, they’ll likely be BWO’s, dun caddis or midges. In any case, they’ll be small and dark. A Parachute Adams or Griffith’s Gnat in #20-16 should handle most anything.
Nymphing is going to be the most productive method right now, and fly pattern is not nearly as important as fly depth. Now is the time for tungsten beads and split shot. Most any generic nymph in the #18-12 range shoud be a good bet. I’m particularly fond of stonefly patterns like a Tellico and peacock patterns like Prince Nymphs and Zug Bugs.
I like fishing double nymph rigs with a point fly and an “assist fly.” The point fly is usually a more subtle pattern while the assist fly is something bigger or brighter to get their attention. The idea is that the assist fly gets their attention and leads them to the point fly… and sometimes the assist fly catches a few, too!
Check out my Hatch Guide for specific hatches and patterns.
The Frenchie came into fashion during the first EuroNymphing wave, but I’ve been tying patterns similar to it for years. What we didn’t have until recently are these micro jig hooks and slotted tungsten beads. They are great to tie on and help the nymph to ride hook up, reducing bottom snags.
This is a pretty good pattern for me all year but really seems to shine in the winter. At the very least, it’s flashy pink thorax makes it a great assist fly.
A recent cold snap dropped water temperatures pretty significantly but they are beginning to slowly rebound. Water levels are low but pretty much in line with what you would expect in October.
Rain rolled in today with more expected over the next few days. It doesn’t look like it will be huge amounts but maybe it will help to bring those levels up a bit. Temperatures should be relatively mild the next few days with more rain and a significant cold front late next week. Brook trout are currently spawning in most mid elevation streams. High elevation brook trout should almost be done. Brown trout should begin spawning soon – some may already be beginning. Keep your eyes open and if you see fish paired up over a cobbly bottom, leave them alone. We want them to make more! Also keep your eyes open for redds in those kind of pools and avoid stepping on them.
It’s beginning to be too cold at high elevations. Best fishing will be best at low to mid elevations. Nymphing will be your best bet, especially in the morning, with topwater activity picking up in the afternoon. In general, expect better fishing through the middle of the day.
For pocket water fishing, a dry fly/dropper rig is still a good bet. 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 tan or orange and probably foam. 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.
Brown trout will be feeding more aggressively ahead of the spawn. In waters where they live, bigger stoneflies and even streamers can be productive. For streamers, just standard buggers will do but I love throwing sculpin patterns more than anything in fall.
Check out my Hatch Guide for complete hatch information.
The Slumbuster is a great streamer anytime but a long time favorite for me in the late fall. It has plenty of weight to get down without being a huge burden to cast, and the zonker strips give great action. There are a number of color combos you can use but my go to version is the olive and pearl one pictured above.
Climate Change is arguably the biggest existential threat we face as a human race. There is very little, if anything, that will not be impacted significantly by a warming planet and our trout fisheries are no exception. We’ve already begun to see changes in the Smokies and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
My friend, Steve Haigh, has put together an excellent podcast episode on the subject where he interviews two scientists from Trout Unlimited. Sure there’s some doom and gloom. It’s a gloomy topic! But there is also some hope offered and information on some very real things you can do to make a difference. Give it a listen!
On paper, our conditions are about as perfect as it gets. Water temperatures are great across the board, fall hatches are starting to kick in and water levels, while getting a little low, are great for this time of year.
Things are continuing to look good in the coming week with the possibility of a little rain early next week. That rain should just make it better. Brook trout likely begin spawning in the next week or two. Keep your eyes open and if you see fish paired up over a cobbly bottom, leave them alone. We want them to make more! Also keep your eyes open for redds in those kind of pools and avoid stepping on them.
Pretty much all options are on the table. It’s a good time to start fishing those low elevations again. Water is cooling down and fish are active. Larger browns should be getting more and more active as their late spawn approaches. Stripping streamers through brown trout water probably won’t yield many strikes but may produce that one bruiser! Fishing is pretty good all day but will likely be at its best through mid day, particularly on mid and high elevation streams.
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.
For pocket water fishing, 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. Tan and orange dry flies are also starting to work well as fall sets in. 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.
Summer is winding down but terrestrials will still be an important food source for the next few 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.
The Doculator is the creation of New Mexico fly guide, Doc Thompson. It floats well and fish dig it. We’ve featured it before in yellow. Try it this fall in orange. It’s as if Doc had the Smokies in mind when he came up with this one!
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.
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!