9 Items You Should Have in Your Backcountry Fishing Kit

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.

1) Knife

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.

3) Whistle

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.

9) Paracord

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.

Additional Thoughts

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 items.

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” excursions.

The Bear Necessities

How to Deal with Bears in the Backcountry

“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.

Airtight Food Containers

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!

Bear Minding His Own Business

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 business.

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!

Vision Quest

I have been in this business for a long time now. And for many years, I was the young guide taking out all of the “old” guys. As I’d tie on their fly or untangle a wad of tippet enveloping that fly, time after time they’d say, “Wait ‘til you turn 40.” I’d laugh it off, secretly thinking it would never happen to me. Well it did happen to me and it doesn’t seem so funny now!

I didn’t experience any dramatic vision changes when I turned 40. During my early 40’s, I found myself holding the fly a little farther away to tie it on and tangles were just a little more frustrating in lower light. But when 45 rolled around, my arms were no longer long enough and that sunshine just never seemed bright enough to help! I needed a solution and for the last few years, I’ve been searching for the perfect vision “system.”

I’ve worn eyeglasses or contacts for distance my entire adult life. When I don’t have contacts in or glasses on, my close up vision is perfect. So for a year, I quit wearing contacts. I wore my eyeglasses when I fished and when I needed to see up close, I’d just look over the top of my glasses. It was perfect for managing my vision challenges, but created a problem with one of my most important pieces of fishing gear… polarized sunglasses.

Fit Over Style Glasses

I didn’t want to get prescription sunglasses because they were heavy and I couldn’t get prescription lenses in the wrap style that I preferred. Additionally, they made it difficult to see in low light conditions. So, I went with the “fit over” style sunglasses to wear over my eyeglasses. They worked great, but I found that wearing those for 8 hours a day, every day, just wasn’t very comfortable. That’s a lot of weight on your nose, particularly on a hot day when you’re sweating a little more.

I’m sure many of you in the 40+ club have similar struggles. You want the eye protection and visual benefits of polarized sunglasses but you also need to be able to see in low light. You need to be able to see detail in small things, such as threading the eye of a hook. And you likely don’t want to have three or four pairs of glasses hanging around your neck!

I ultimately went back to contact lenses and I found a pair of polarized glasses that have small magnifiers in the bottom of the lenses – kind of like a bifocal. They present a little problem when wading because of the distortion when you look down, but I’ve mostly trained myself to use more head than eyes when looking down. For lowlight situations, I keep a pair of readers handy. I use the ThinOptics brand/style because they take up so little space.

This little system has been working pretty well for me the last couple of years but you may have slightly different challenges. In my “vision quest,” I found a few different solutions and have included some of them below.

Polarized Sunglasses with Magnifiers

Polarized Sunglasses with Magnifiers

I’m sure there are others out there but if so, I didn’t see them. The only ones I could find were from Orvis. They’re good glasses and I’ve worn them for a few years now with no issues. Apparently there are also stick-on magnifiers you can add to any glasses but I haven’t tried them.


There are a number of readers you can get from high dollar to just a few bucks and they can be purchased through specialty stores or at your local grocery or Walmart. My issue with most readers is they either need to be stored in a pocket where they aren’t readily accessible or they hang around your neck. Since my preferred “pack,” the Richardson Chest Fly Box, hangs on my chest and I already have polarized sunglasses on a Croakie, I didn’t want one more thing hanging around my neck.

ThinOptics readers for cell phone
ThinOptics readers keychain

I solved the problem with ThinOptics readers. They are super thin and they “fold” into a super thin case. The original was designed to stick on the back of your cellphone. I stick mine on the front of my chest fly box. But there are numerous other clever designs now, including one intended to be a key chain, that conveniently attaches to a zipper or D-ring on a vest or pack.

Flip Focal Magnifier

Another reader/magnifier popular among fly fishers is the Flip Focal. This is a simple device that clips to the bill of your hat and folds up out of the way. When you need to tie a knot or perform a similar task, you can flip down the magnifier. I personally don’t like looking upward to do those things so this didn’t suit me. I also wear different hats and don’t like having to remember to change my Flip Focal to a different hat every day.

Threaders and Knot Tools

Many folks, instead of attempting to improve their vision to perform tasks like threading hooks and tying knots, prefer to utilize various tools and gadgets.  

Threader Fly Box
Threader Fly Box

One popular item is the threader fly box. You can preload flies onto the threaders in the box. Run your tippet through the head of the threader and pull the desired fly off onto the tippet.

Magnetic Threader

Or you may prefer to carry a separate threader attached to your pack or vest. This magnetic threader is pretty slick. You simply put the eye of the hook on the magnet which automatically lines it up with the precut channel on the tool. Run your tippet through the channel and it threads perfectly through the eye of the hook. Watch this video to see exactly how it works.

Three-in-One Knot Tool
Knot Tool

You may prefer to take it one step further and have a tool that will also assist in tying the knot. There are a bunch of different variations but this three-in-one tool will act as a threader and help tie a few different knots. Here’s a good video to show you how it works.

Hopefully one or more of these items will make your time on the water a little easier. If you have another method not mentioned here that works well for you, please share!

Brood X Cicada

The last time it happened, George W. Bush was not far into his second term and LeBron James was nearing the end of his rookie season. Netflix wasn’t streaming, Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist and Facebook was only available on the campus of Harvard University. The first iPhone was still three years away and I was still five months away from meeting the woman I would eventually marry.

Brood X cicadas have missed a lot in the 17 years they’ve been underground, but this is the year they come to the surface to see what’s been going on. And there will be a lot of them coming. Tens of billions of Brood X cicadas are expected to emerge across 18 states, including Tennessee. But we see cicadas every year. What’s so special about these?

There are, in fact, 13-year cicadas and even annual cicadas that can emerge in pretty significant numbers. But the 17-year cicadas emerge in mind boggling swarms, and the Brood X is supposed to be one of the biggest yet.

They typically begin to emerge when the ground temperature reaches 64-degrees. In Tennessee, that’s expected to be around Mother’s Day. Once they begin emerging, expect them to hang around for about 4-6 weeks. While they’re here, in addition to catching up on all of the latest tech and social trends, they will damage a few young trees and plants, make a hell of a lot of noise and end up in the bellies of a lot of fish!

Unfortunately, we don’t typically see many of them in the mountains… but I’m hopeful. And there doesn’t tend to be a lot of them near tailwaters. Where they are going to be of most significance to fly fishers is on warmwater lakes and rivers. I hope to get out at least a few times on the mud flats to cast to rising carp!

I spent part of the winter tying a bunch of these in preparation. I tied most of them on bass hooks but tied several trout versions, too… just in case…

Get ready. The cicadas are coming!

Brood X Cicada Fly Pattern

Rob’s Cicada (Trout Version)

  • Hook: TMC 5212 #10
  • Thread: Black 6/0
  • Eyes: Red glass beads burnt onto 15lb. red Amnesia
  • Underbody: Golden brown Ice Dub
  • Body 1: 2mm black foam, folded over to layer Body 2
  • Body 2: 2mm orange foam
  • Underwing: Pearl yellow Krystal Flash
  • Wing: Mix of orange and white antron yarn
  • Legs: Orange and black Sili Legs

Smokies Fishing Report


Smoky Mountains

Smokies Stream Conditions

Water Levels

Little River: 1630cfs / 4.14 feet
Pigeon: 4130cfs / 5.14 feet
Oconaluftee: 2080cfs / 3.58 feet
Cataloochee: 552cfs / 3.82

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 48 – 52 degrees
Mid elevations: 46 – 50 degrees
High elevations: 42 – 47 degrees

Current Conditions

Well, we appear to be in a pattern… and not a very good one I’m afraid. As predicted in last week’s report, just as everything was getting back to normal, we got whopped by a major rain event on Thursday. That was followed by a cold front and another two day bout with heavy rain and storms over the weekend. The result is falling water temperatures and blown out streams.

Actual rainfall totals vary around the region. Middle Tennessee received approximately 7″ in a couple of days. Most of the areas around the mountains received 3-5″. Most streams came up 3-4′ and are still flowing 2-4′ above normal but falling. Not only are these conditions not very productive for most folks, they are just not safe.

In the summertime, water like this usually drops back down to normal in just a couple of days. But in the spring, when we usually get a lot more frequent, sustained rainfall, banks are already heavily saturated and there’s just nowhere for the water to go. So, stream levels tend to drop at a much slower rate. In short, I’d try to find something else to do for at least the next few days.

Projected Conditions

If we didn’t get any more rain, it would likely take about 4 or 5 days for streams to get back down to a “fishable” level – probably a full week to get down to normal. That puts us on track to see reasonable water by Thursday or Friday this week. The problem is we are expecting another 1 1/2″ of rain from late Tuesday night through Wednesday evening, which would easily spike those already high water levels back up 1 or 2′.

To add salt to the wound, Wednesday’s rain will be followed by a significant cold front. Thursday’s high temperature is only going to be in the 40’s. No matter how you slice it, the week ahead doesn’t look too promising. If you’re planning a trip, definitely keep an eye on those stream gauges – reading stream gauges.


In general, you want to seek out slower water and 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. Finding Feeding Trout in Early Spring.

Hatches/Fly Suggestions

Quill Gordons are still popping off here and there. Again, it just depends where you are. I’ve been on pools where I only see two or three, and two pools up they’re coming off everywhere you look. They could show up at any time but mostly, we’re seeing the better hatches mid to late afternoon.

Standard Quill Gordon patterns should work well for topwater, so will a Parachute Adams – sizes #14 – #12. Everyone seems to have their favorite Quill Gordon nymph imitation. Mine is an olive Hares Ear. When the hatch is coming off pretty good, I always do best with an emerger, and my favorite is a Mr. Rapidan Emerger.

Blue Quills are coming off in better numbers in sizes #18 – #16. You’ll probably still run into some Blue Wing Olives, and there is always an assortment of dark caddis and stoneflies this time of year. A size #16 grey Elk Caddis will do the job for most of them. Otherwise, a lot of your favorite attractors should do fine. For early spring, I always like flies with peacock herl, Zug Bugs and Prince Nymphs in particular.

This week’s featured fly reflects the water conditions more than it does the seasonal hatches. If you can get on the water at all, it will be high and you’re going to want to fish larger, heavier flies that can get down quickly. Here are a few tips for fishing high water.

Featured Fly

Pats Rubber Legs
Pat’s Rubber Legs

Mr. Rapidan Emerger

Mr. Rapidan Emerger
Mr. Rapidan Emerger

The Mr. Rapidan fly pattern was originated by Harry Murray in the 1970’s. Originally tied as a dry fly, it was designed to be a buoyant, visible fly for the choppy waters of Virginia. Does that sound familiar? It should, because much of the trout water in Virginia is very similar to the trout water in Tennessee!

Like many other fly patterns I write about, the Mr. Rapidan has A LOT of branches on its family tree. In fact, if you visit Harry Murray’s online site, you’ll more likely find a description of the Mr. Rapidan family of flies. We’re not going to get into that this time, but you’ll find everything from dry flies to nymphs to ants in the Mr. Rapidan family.

But you’ve surely noticed that the title of this article is not Mr. Rapidan Ant or Mr. Rapidan Family. We are focused on the emerger, mainly because it is time for Quill Gordons to hatch and this is the best pattern for a Quill Gordon emerger I’ve ever used.

The Quill Gordon mayfly is one of the first good hatches of the year in the Smokies. Most folks will tell you it starts coming off around the third or fourth week of March. I wish it was that simple. As an early season hatch, it can be one of the toughest hatches of the year to time right.

Mayflies don’t time their emergence based on a calendar. It usually has more to do with water temperature. When water temperatures get into the 50’s and remain there for the better part of a few days, Quill Gordons will begin to hatch. Usually that’s late March but if we get a warm spell in February, they’ll come off then. If we get a really cold early spring, they may not come off until April. This year, all indications are that they’ll be right on schedule, but it’s still too soon to tell.

During a hatch, some mayfly species spend a fair amount of time on the surface before they fly off. Those are pretty easy picking for trout. However, unless you catch a Quill Gordon hatch on a particularly cool or damp day, they get off the water in a hurry and trout don’t get much of a look at the adults. So the trout often focus their attention more on the emerging insects.

Enter the Mr. Rapidan Emerger. While there are very specific Quill Gordon wet fly patterns, I haven’t found any that outproduce the Mr. Rapidan Emerger. I will sometimes fish it as a dropper below a Quill Gordon dry fly, but most often, I like to fish it by itself or in tandem with another wet fly. Of course, it depends on the specific run but I most often like to fish it on a tight line, “twitching” the rod tip periodically through the drift.

Some variations of this fly have a tail, usually made of pheasant tail fibers. The variation I included does not.

Mr. Rapidan Emerger

Hook: TMC 3769 #14-10
Thread: 8/0 Grey
Rib: Small copper wire
Tail (optional): Pheasant Tail
Body: Dark hare’s ear dubbing
Thorax: Cream antron dubbing
Hackle: Natural hen neck, swept rearward

Smokies Fishing Report

Date of Report

February 8, 2021


Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 392cfs / 2.44 feet
Pigeon: 843cfs / 2.62 feet
Oconaluftee: 545cfs / 1.94 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 in February. Water temperatures are way below ideal and fishing is very slow. Streams are running full on the Tennessee side of the park from recent rainfall. Use extra caution as some of the bigger streams may be difficult to wade. Most streams on the North Carolina side are at normal flows and will be easier to navigate. However, water temperatures are a little colder on the NC side as well, so pick your poison!

Projected Conditions

We get a pretty nice warm-up through the week, but as that warm-up melts high elevation snow, don’t expect much in the way of warming water temperatures. That warming trend also comes with what may be significant rainfall, so water levels may come up substantially after Thursday. And another cold front with snow expected over the weekend.


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

Zug Bug

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

August Fishing Forecast


I don’t typically think of August as one of the better fishing months in the mountains. Historically, it is one of the hottest months of the year and we don’t usually get the near daily thunderstorms that are common in July. However, this year August is off to a better than usual start.

July was unusually dry this year, as was June. So, we’ve been in a bit of a drought of late, and we’ve seen a lot of days in the mid 90’s. But things started to turn around the last week of July with temperatures cooling slightly and rainfall showing up most every day. It looks like that trend will continue into at least the first week of August. Hopefully, that will be the case all month.

Even with milder temperatures and some rainfall, August will still be warmer and drier than seasonal norms. Expect better fishing early and late in the day when temperatures are cooler and try to seek out streams with more tree canopy and at higher elevations.

Hatches are sparse this time of year. Terrestrials like ants, beetles and inchworms will main items on the menu. The few aquatic insects that do hatch this time of year are typically yellow, so a yellow dry fly in the #18-14 range is a good bet.


The Clinch has sort of settled into “summer mode” with generation schedules. On most days, generators will be off until mid to late morning and one generator will run until early evening. Of course, this is always subject to change so be sure to check that schedule the evening before you go.

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.

Rob’s Steroid Sally

Rob's Steroid Sally
Steroid Sally Top

Little Yellow Sally stoneflies are one of the most prolific hatches in the Smoky Mountains. Most years, we begin seeing the first ones around mid April and they tend to hang around until sometime in July. They’re small, dainty and bright, usually a bright yellow to sometimes chartreuse color.

For years I tied and fished very exact imitations of these bugs, and I still do on more heavily fished rivers where fish seem to be a little pickier.  But those smaller, more delicate versions are harder to see on the water and they have a tendency to sink in faster currents. Both of those features can spell trouble, or at least frustration, when guiding a beginner angler.

Yellow Sally
Little Yellow Sally

As a fisherman and especially as a guide, I like simplicity and versatility. The more variables I can remove from a situation (like a sinking dry fly), the better I can put clients in a position for success. Additionally, in many of the backcountry streams in the Smokies, the fish are not overly particular on fly patterns. Not spooking them and getting a good drift will usually produce strikes more than fly pattern. But if you can have a fly that is at least in the same ballpark of color, profile and/or size as the naturals, you’ll stack the deck even more in your favor.

So a few years ago, I began creating a fly that would be highly visible, extremely buoyant, durable and at least vaguely suggesting a Yellow Sally. I ended up with a beefy foam bug about two sizes bigger than a typical Yellow Sally – hence the name “Steroid Sally.” And if I’m being totally honest, I designed it more as something to support a dropper nymph than a dry fly to cast to rising trout. It would basically be an edible strike indicator.  But you guessed it… the trout loved it.

Rob's Steroid Sally
Steroid Sally Profile

Though no dry fly is totally unsinkable, this one is probably the closest I’ve found, at least in the smaller, trout fly category. It has become a go-to dry fly for me from late spring through early fall. And while yellow is still my favorite color, variations in orange, tan and lime green have also been very productive.

It has quickly become the most frequently requested fly for the custom tying orders I do in the winter.  Give me a shout if you want some or check out the recipe below if you want to tie some for yourself.

Rob’s Steroid Sally

  • Hook: 3XL Dry Fly #12
  • Thread: 8/0 Yellow
  • Lower Body & Head: 2mm yellow foam
  • Top Body: 2mm lime green foam
  • Wing: Yellow floating poly-yarn
  • Legs: Small round rubber, yellow