Smokies Fishing Report 5/16/21

Eastern Green Drake
Green Drake

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 264cfs / 2.20 feet
Pigeon: 472cfs / 2.08 feet
Oconaluftee: 531cfs / 1.90 feet
Cataloochee: 113cfs / 2.67

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 52 – 56 degrees
Mid elevations: 50 – 54 degrees
High elevations: 50 – 52 degrees

Current Conditions

We’re coming off a pretty weird week… at least for mid May. Another big rain system brought water levels up early in the week. The accompanying cold front played all kinds of havoc with feeding patterns and hatches. It was pretty weird to be fishing in mid May in full waders and a fleece jacket! Things began to stabilize by the end of the week and it looks like that trend will remain heading into the coming week.

My personal highlight of the week was running into a pretty nice hatch of Green Drakes. These are big mayflies that are always rumored to hatch in certain locations in the Smokies but few people ever see more than one or two. This is only the third time I’ve seen them come off in good numbers and they definitely got the attention of the fish. Of course, they barely hatched at all in following days.

Projected Conditions

It should be warm and mostly dry this week. As a matter of fact, it looks like it will be down right hot next weekend. I’m expecting the activity to finally start showing some consistency this week. Fishing should be really good most anywhere but as it really starts warming up next weekend, expect low elevation fishing to slow down a little in the afternoons.

Tips

With things warming and water levels normalizing, fish should begin spreading out more and you’ll likely see activity picking up in the pockets. This is great dry/dropper water. Choose a buoyant dry fly, preferably yellow, and drop your favorite nymph about 15″ off the back. Most days your strikes will be split about 50/50 between the dry and nymph. You can read more about rigging here and you can find more specific fly recommendations below.

Hatches/Fly Suggestions

We are firmly into “yellow season,” when most everything hatching is yellow in color. Look for bigger numbers of sulphurs (#16), Light Cahills (#14-12) and Yellow Sallies (#16) over the next month.

As always, a good selection of attractors will get you through most situations. Parachute Adams, Parachute Hares Ears, Thunderheads, Adams Wulffs and Royal Wulffs always do pretty well. But as mentioned above, you’ll want to be sure to have some dry flies in yellow. A Neversink in #16 – 14 is a staple for me. So is a Yellow Stimulator. I’d also have a selection of Parachute Sulphurs and Cahills.

For nymphs, try Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns and Tellico Nymphs. And with so much stuff hatching, now is a pretty good time to start experimenting with soft hackles. Check out my Hatch Guide for complete hatch information.

We’re also on the front end of terrestrial season. As things warm, fish will begin feeding a lot on ants and beetles. Inchworms are becoming more 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.

As a matter of fact, lets just make the Green Weenie our featured fly this week. If you’ve spent much time fishing the Smokies, you’ve likely heard of this pattern and probably fished it. Don’t be fooled by its simple appearance… fish dig it!

Featured Fly

Green Weenie
Green Weenie

Smokies Fishing Report

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 275cfs / 2.23 feet
Pigeon: 701cfs / 2.43 feet
Oconaluftee: 579cfs / 1.97 feet
Cataloochee: 93.4cfs / 2.58

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 52 – 56 degrees
Mid elevations: 50 – 54 degrees
High elevations: 48 – 52 degrees

Current Conditions

As predicted in the last report, we hit a little bump in the road last week. A significant cold front hit on Wednesday and dropped water temperatures in a big way. We are gradually recovering from that and things improved a lot this weekend. Rain on Saturday helped. Not only did it warm water temps a little, streams were starting to get a little low for this time of year.

Projected Conditions

We’re going to make a hard rebound this week with temperatures reaching the 80’s mid week. It’s hard to believe that the projected high for this Wednesday is about 40-degrees warmer than last Wednesday! These poor trout don’t know if they’re coming or going. Otherwise, mostly a dry week with better chances for rain late week. It’s going to be hard for me to not wet wade Wednesday and Thursday but I’m going to give it another week or two.

Tips

I’m expecting fish to really turn on this week and stay a little more consistent. As it warms up, fishing should be pretty good at all elevations. If you’re heading to the high country I’d focus more on the afternoon. Trees are beginning to fill in which will help, too. Some of those warm days two weeks ago were tough with all of that sun hitting the water.

Hatches/Fly Suggestions

Dry fly fishing should really start getting more consistent this week. We’re starting to transition to “yellow season,” meaning much of what you’ll see hatching will be yellow. Blue Quills (#18) and Light Hendricksons (#14) will likely still be seen here and there. You’ll probably see a fair number of Red Quills (#14-12) and March Browns (#14-10) as well.

But look for bigger numbers of sulphurs (#16), Light Cahills (#14-12) and Yellow Sallies (#16) over the next 4 or 5 weeks. Caddis are also abundant this time of year depending where you are. A tan body in a #14 will do the trick.

As always, a good selection of attractors will get you through most situations. Parachute Adams, Parachute Hares Ears, Thunderheads, Adams Wulffs and Royal Wulffs always do pretty well. But as mentioned above, you’ll want to be sure to have some dry flies in yellow. A Neversink in #16 – 14 is a staple for me. So is a Yellow Stimulator. I’d also have a selection of Parachute Sulphurs and Cahills.

For nymphs, try Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns and Tellico Nymphs. And with so much stuff hatching, now is a pretty good time to start experimenting with soft hackles. Check out my Hatch Guide for complete hatch information.

For the featured fly, I’m keeping the same fly as last week because it should be even better this week! Neversink Caddis. The yellow body version, which is great, is pictured but I’d play with other colors, too. The tan body has been working great lately. It fished well by itself but is also a nice, buoyant fly to support a dropper nymph. Two Fly Rigs.

Featured Fly

Neversink Caddis
Neversink Caddis

Smokies Fishing Report

Smoky Mountain Brook Trout

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 170cfs / 1.91 feet
Pigeon: 451cfs / 2.05 feet
Oconaluftee: 538cfs / 1.91 feet
Cataloochee: 109cfs / 2.65

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 55 – 59 degrees
Mid elevations: 52 – 56 degrees
High elevations: 50 – 53 degrees

Current Conditions

Fishing is good in the Smokies right now. Water temps are sitting pretty and so are levels. And most important, at least for my sanity, is the crowds have dropped to “reasonable” levels. We’re in a very mild weather pattern and it looks like it may stay this way for a little while. Overnights and mornings are cool with nice warm-ups in the afternoon. Expect your better fishing to be from late morning to late afternoon.

Projected Conditions

Though overall we’re in good shape, it looks like we’ll see a minor setback this week. Rain is expected Wednesday and with it is a pretty significant cold front. Highs on Wednesday aren’t expected to get out of the 40’s and Wednesday and Thursday night lows will hit near freezing. While I don’t think this will have long term effects on fishing, I’d expect pretty slow activity on Thursday and Friday.

Tips

Fish are beginning to spread in the stream more and activity is picking up in riffles and pockets. However, without full tree bloom, fish may be spooky in the bright sunlight. Seek out locations near shade lines. Fishing is starting to get productive even in the mornings in the lower elevations. For mid and high elevation streams, I’d try to focus on the afternoon.

Hatches/Fly Suggestions

Fish are really beginning to look up now and most fish on my trips this past week were taking dry flies. Hatches are fairly diverse right now with very few heavy hatches of one insect coming off. Blue Quills (#18) and Light Hendricksons (#14) are accounting for most of the mayfly activity. Red Quills (#14-12) should begin showing up in better numbers and you may even see a few March Browns (#14-10) showing up early to the party.

There are a lot of small dark stoneflies but the adults don’t spend much time in front of the trout. A #18 Pheasant Tail is a respectable imitation for the nymph. A lot of #16 dun caddis are out and about and starting to see some larger tan caddis in a #14. And I’m seeing a few Yellow Sally Stoneflies. Expect more of them toward the end of the month.

You can certainly carry exact imitations of any of the flies mentioned above. But with so many different bugs and no large numbers of any, keeping your fly pattern fairly generic is not a bad idea. A Parachute Adams and Parachute Hares Ear are really good all-purpose spring dry flies. Thunderheads, Adams Wulffs and Royal Wulffs also do pretty well. On many of the backcountry streams, caddis have been the ticket. An Elk Wing or Neversink in #16 – 14.

For nymphs, try Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns and Tellico Nymphs. My most consistent producer has been a creation of my own that I call an Early Spring Nymph. I’ll include the pattern in my next newsletter. Until then, an olive Hares Ear is pretty similar. Check out my Hatch Guide for complete hatch information.

For the featured fly, I have the Neversink Caddis. The yellow body version, which is great, is pictured but I’d play with other colors, too. The tan body has been working great lately. It fished well by itself but is also a nice, buoyant fly to support a dropper nymph. Two Fly Rigs.

Featured Fly

Neversink Caddis
Neversink Caddis

Smokies Fishing Report

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 253cfs / 2.17 feet
Pigeon: 645cfs / 2.35 feet
Oconaluftee: 727cfs / 2.18 feet
Cataloochee: 164cfs / 2.81

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 55 – 59 degrees
Mid elevations: 52 – 56 degrees
High elevations: 50 – 53 degrees

Current Conditions

We’ve gotten a nice, long break from the heavy rains and sharp cold fronts and conditions are actually begining to stabilize. What has not been going our way is an unprecedented number of tourists… and when you’re talking about what is already the most visited national park in the country, that says a lot! It seems to be the perfect storm of spring breakers and Covid shut-in refugees and I’m hoping it slows soon. Right now our national park is being loved to death. With so many people out and about, it may be a good time to brush up on your Stream Etiquette.

But if you can manage to find a quiet place away from the masses, fishing is getting pretty good. Mornings are still a little chilly and it still needs to warm up in the high country. But most everything is fishing well with low elevations and afternoons being the real highlight right now.

Projected Conditions

We have a slight cold front and a little bit of rain in the forecast toward the end of the week but all and all, it looks like a good week ahead. I don’t expect drastic changes in water temperatures or levels. As we get a little farther into April, hopefully spring breaks will wind down and a little of the tourist traffic will decrease.

Tips

Fish are beginning to spread in the stream more and activity is picking up in riffles and pockets. Without full tree bloom, fish may be spooky in the bright sunlight. Seek out locations near shade lines. Fishing is starting to get productive even in the mornings in the lower elevations. For mid and high elevation streams, I’d try to focus on the afternoon.

Hatches/Fly Suggestions

Hatches are fairly diverse right now with very few heavy hatches of one insect coming off. There are still a few Quill Gordons (#14) hanging around but Blue Quills (#18) and Light Hendricksons (#14) are accounting for most of the mayfly activity. Red Quills (#14-12) should begin showing up in better numbers and you may even see a few March Browns (#14-10) showing up early to the party.

There are a lot of small dark stoneflies but the adults don’t spend much time in front of the trout. A #18 Pheasant Tail is a respectable imitation for the nymph. A lot of #16 dun caddis are out and about and starting to see some larger tan caddis in a #14. And I saw my first Yellow Sally Stonefly of the year. Expect more of them toward the end of the month.

You can certainly carry exact imitations of any of the flies mentioned above. But with so many different bugs and no large numbers of any, keeping your fly pattern fairly generic is not a bad idea. A Parachute Adams and Parachute Hares Ear are really good all-purpose spring dry flies. Thunderheads, Adams Wulffs and Royal Wulffs also do pretty well.

For nymphs, try Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns and Tellico Nymphs. My most consistent producer has been a creation of my own that I call an Early Spring Nymph. I’ll include the pattern in my next newsletter. Until then, an olive Hares Ear is pretty similar. Check out my Hatch Guide for complete hatch information.

For the featured fly, I’m going to suggest a Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail. It’s a great generic pattern that does a great job imitating a number of emerging insects. I frequently fish it in tandem as the top fly in a double nymph rig or as a dropper behind a dry fly. Two Fly Rigs.

Featured Fly

Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

Smokies Fishing Report

Early Spring Fishing in the Smoky Mountains

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 579cfs / 2.77 feet
Pigeon: 1160cfs / 2.97 feet
Oconaluftee: 1130cfs / 2.67 feet
Cataloochee: 273cfs / 3.16

Water Temperatures (approximate)

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

Current Conditions

We are currently in what I would call a recovery stage. It may not be great but it’s definitely heading in the right direction. Water levels have been slowly dropping from last week’s big rains but streams are still a little on the high side. Water temperatures took a big dive too from a significant cold front, but they are slowly climbing back into the 50’s.

Projected Conditions

The week ahead is looking really good. By mid week, temperatures and levels should be pretty close to normal for this time of year. More rain is in the forecast near the weekend but right now, it doesn’t look like the significant systems we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. Hopefully it won’t play too much havoc on water levels. As always, keep an eye on those stream gauges – reading stream gauges.

Tips

We’re easing back into “typical” early spring conditions. 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

I had to cancel most trips last week due to high water so I haven’t really had a chance to see if we have any new hatches starting up. I’ll learn a lot more in the coming days. For that reason, I’m keeping the hatch info below the same as last week. However, based on experience and pure speculation, we’re getting to the time when Quill Gordons may be winding down and you may see more Blue Quills and Light Hendricksons. Carry Parachute Adams in sizes 18-14 and you should be in pretty good shape.

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.

For the featured fly, I’m going to suggest the Red Fox Squirrel nymph for no other reason than it always seems to be a good early spring pattern for me. Clicking the link will give you a lot more info on this fly.

Featured Fly

Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

March Fishing Forecast

Upper Abrams Creek, Tennessee
The “Cove Section”

Mountains

While weather is all over the place around here and 80 degrees in February is just as likely as snow in May, I always call March the transition month. Winter is transitioning to spring and you tend to get sample of both seasons. When folks book trips for March, I always try to warn them that it’s a gamble. Not only can temperatures change on a dime and turn the fishing off, it tends to be a wetter month, so water levels can get way out of whack.

I’ve had some fantastic fishing in March, particularly toward the latter part of the month. When the stars align, we can see some of the first good hatches of the year with fish hungry after a winter of little food. It seems that every seasoned Smokies angler is on “Quill Gordon watch!” But a big cold front can delay the hatch and can lock a trout’s mouth tight as a drum.

What will this March hold? Only time will tell. We’re sure to see some really good fishing and some lousy fishing, too. When you live around here, you can pick your days. When you’re traveling here to fish, you just have to hope you’re here on one of the upswings.

In any case, most of the month will be spent fishing nymphs. Darker patterns do the best and a #12 Olive Hares Ear (or similar) is a pretty good imitation for the Quill Gordon nymphs that should be moving about. When water temperatures get into the 50’s for a significant part of the day, a few days in a row, our dry fly fishing should start to pick up. That’s probably going to be around the third week, but who knows?

Clinch

As usual, the fishery that does have good water temperatures year round and should fish well in the winter is cranking 2+ generators 24 hours a day. Last year was a tough one on the Clinch. A very wet spring resulted in very few days of low water. Unfortunately, this year is starting out the same way. Man, every year seems to be flood or drought. Is an “average” year too much to ask for?

June Fishing Forecast

Little River GSMNP Tennessee
Little River

Smoky Mountains

The Smokies have been fishing great and that should continue into June. The biggest concern right now is water levels. After a wet and wild spring, we haven’t seen rain in the mountains for over two weeks and the streams are starting to show it. However, the weather forecast for the first week of June shows a little better chance for precipitation so hopefully we can get back on track.

Lower elevations will likely fish pretty well through the first half of the month, but as water temperatures continue to warm, expect the best fishing conditions in the mid to higher elevations, particularly by the latter part of the month.

We should continue to see sporadic hatches of Little Yellow Sallies, Light Cahills, Sulphurs and tan caddis. Larger golden stones are still hatching at night but fish are sometimes still looking for them in the early morning. Also start looking for Isonychia nymphs to start moving around toward the end of the month. But terrestrials will be the main course from now until fall with trout looking for beetles, ants, inchworms and the like.

Clinch River

May is often my favorite month on the Clinch but heavy water releases left it largely unfishable for most of the month. Water releases have started to relax now and it’s looking like June could be a good month.

We’ll hopefully still see some Sulphurs hatching in the late morning and afternoon through most of the month. Of course, midges are abundant 365 days a year and will be the fly choice most of the time in June. There are many patterns that will work, but it’s tough to beat a standard black Zebra Midge.

Hendrickson Hatch

Hendrickson Dun
Adult Hendrickson Mayfly

Hendricksons have long been a favorite springtime hatch for Eastern fly fishermen. In the Smokies, they typically follow the Quill Gordon and Blue Quill hatches by two or three weeks. Most years, that means we don’t see Hendricksons until mid to late April. Because a warm stretch of weather in February triggered an early Quill Gordon hatch, things are a little out of whack and we are beginning to see Hendricksons now. I expect them to be around until about mid April.

Like many hatches in the Smokies, Hendricksons rarely come off in enormous, widespread numbers. But in the right place at the right time, you can find enough of these bugs to inspire some steady rises from trout. And while generic, attractor fly patterns will get you through most situations, having a fly that more closely matches what the fish are seeing never hurts!

Hendricksons hatch sporadically throughout the day in the Smokies but tend to be most active in sunny areas during the warmest part of the day. Most days this time of year, that means in the 2pm – 5pm range. They inhabit all types of water but I tend to see emergence occurring most in slow to medium currents.

Hendrickson Nymph
Hendrickson Nymph

The nymphs are not particularly good swimmers and they have an unusually robust profile. This combination of traits makes them very popular with the trout. Their color varies from reddish tan to dark, reddish brown. Tan and olive Hare’s Ear Nymphs work well for imitations. Whitlock’s Red Fox Squirrel Nymph is another great pattern during this hatch. Pheasant Tail Nymphs provide a nice color match but are pretty slender compared to the beefy naturals. In any case, they range in hook size from #14-12.

The adults also vary a bit in color. Much of that depends on the gender of the bug. The males tend to be darker, varying from grayish olive to grayish brown. However, the females are often a little lighter, sometimes taking on a tan or even pinkish hue.

Parachute Hendrickson
Parachute Hendrickson

While there are certainly numerous fly patterns specifically designed to imitate all of the variations of a Hendrickson, you can do pretty well with generic patterns as well. A Parachute Hare’s Ear works well, particularly when you’re seeing more of the lighter colored adults. And there’s always the Parachute Adams, especially when you’re seeing the darker variations. Like the nymphs, you’ll best match the naturals in sizes #14 – 12.

Early Wet Fly
Early Season Wet Fly

Finally, trout love taking the emerging insects during this hatch, so a wet fly can be an excellent choice. One of my favorites is the Early Season Wet Fly. I often fish it in tandem with another fly. Try it as the top fly of a nymphing rig with a Hare’s Ear or Red Fox Squirrel nymph down below. Or tie it as a dropper off the back of your dry fly of choice.

Matching the Hatch

Tying On A FlyProbably 20 years ago, I was fishing the Clinch River with a buddy during the sulfur hatch. I won’t get into what has happened to that hatch, but back then, it was epic. Sulfurs would come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day for about 3 months. We would drive down from Kentucky to fish it and on most trips, we would both steadily catch fish, many topping 20”.

On this particular trip, the bugs were coming off as good as they ever had, the water was boiling with rises, but we were both getting blanked! We were both going through every type of sulfur dry, emerger, and nymph in the box, all with the same result. Frustration got the best of both of us and we headed to the bank for a smoke, a bad habit we both enjoyed back then. While staring at the river and scratching our heads, it hit us both at the same time as we simultaneously exclaimed, “They’re eating caddis!”

Caddisflies tend to emerge quickly and almost explode off the water. When a trout feeds on one, it will frequently chase it to the top to eat it before it gets away. Sometimes the momentum will cause the fish to come completely out of the water, but at the least, results in a very distinct, splashy rise – not like the delicate sipping rise to a mayfly. Once we stepped away from the river and watched, we both noticed it.

We went back to the water and began looking more closely. Sure enough, there were caddis hatching, too. There was probably one caddis hatching for every 100 sulfurs, but for whatever reason, the trout were keyed in on the caddis. It’s what is referred to as a “masking hatch.” We both switched to the appropriate caddis pattern and were immediately into fish!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened, and each occurrence has trained me to always pay attention and sometimes try to look past the obvious. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you solve a hatch riddle sometime.

First, we have to address the basics. If you see fish rising and have a pretty good idea what they’re eating but you’re fly is being ignored, check to see that your fly is the same size as the naturals. Also be certain that your tippet is not too large and that you’re getting a good drift. Presentation is most often the culprit when your fly is being ignored. Next, make certain that the color is a close match to the natural. If you’re fishing a bushy pattern, you might try a more subtle pattern like a Comparadun. If that’s not working, try an emerger fished just under the surface or in the film.

Rise Ring from a Trout
Fish Rise

Still not catching them? Take a break and watch the water. You may be able to tell something from the rise rings as I described above. If you don’t learn anything from that, try to find a fish that is rising steadily and watch him. He’s probably feeding in rhythm, like every 10 seconds. Watch his spot and try to time his rises. When you have that down pretty close, try to see what he eats. You should be able to tell if it’s the same kind of bug you’re seeing in the air, or at the very least, whether he’s eating something on or just below the surface. It’s almost like detective work. You sometimes have to go through the process of eliminating suspects before you can zero in on your man!

Midges on the Water
Midges on the water

If fish are actively rising but you don’t see any bugs in the air, check the water. Try to position yourself at the bottom of a feeding lane (downstream of where the fish are feeding) and watch the surface of the water (and just beneath) for drifting bugs. Holding a fine mesh net in the current is a great way to collect what’s coming down the channel. If you don’t have one, your eyeballs will do just fine. If you see some insects, capture one and try to match it with a fly pattern.

Hatches are puzzles and that’s one of the things that makes them fun. Sometimes you solve it right away, sometimes it takes awhile. Just remember that while the fly pattern is a big part of the equation, it’s not the only one. As mentioned above, presentation is huge. In addition to your technique, a smaller tippet and/or a longer overall leader may be the solution. Also consider your approach.

I typically like to cast upstream to fish so that I can stay behind them. But they will sometimes shy away from your fly in slow runs if they see your line or leader. I will sometimes try to get above fish in slow runs and cast down to them so they are sure to see the fly first. To do this, you have to land your cast short of them with slack in the line. Continue feeding slack to enable the fly to naturally drift to them. This is a challenging presentation. It’s critical that you carefully position yourself out of the trout’s line of vision.

Again, it’s a puzzle and there’s not one universal solution to every challenge. Pay attention to your technique and everything that you’re doing (or not doing). Most important, pay attention to the fish. They’ll usually tell you what to do!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: Quill Gordon Hatch

March is the month when trout fishing in the Smokies officially kicks off. Days are getting a little longer, temperatures are getting a little warmer and water temperatures are on the rise. It’s also the month when we begin to see our first good hatches of the year.

Aquatic insects from Early Black Stones to Blue Wing Olives to a variety of midges will hatch all winter, but trout rarely pay much attention to them as water temperatures are typically too cold for active feeding (read Understanding Water Temeratures for more info). But in March, that begins to change. And if you pay attention to water temperature, you just might catch one of the best hatches of the year.

Quill Gordon Fly Pattern
Traditional Quill Gordon

Quill Gordons are fairly large mayflies, between a #14-10 hook size, that begin to hatch when the water temperature reaches 50-degrees for a significant part of the day, for a few days in a row. In unusually warm years, they’ve hatched as early as mid February. In particularly cool years, they may not hatch until April. But most years on the lower elevation streams in the Smokies, this occurs about the third week of March.

In any case, it’s a tricky hatch to catch and really just a tricky month to fish if you don’t live here where you can pick your days. Weather can change in the blink of an eye in March and one major cold front or one big, river blowing rain can make all the difference in your success. I’ve had some of my absolute best days in March and I’ve had some of my worst.

So, why even fool with it? Why not just wait until April when things are more stable? Because some of those “best days” were really, really good! The Quill Gordon hatch is not just worthwhile because of the number of bugs or the size of the bugs. It tends to happen at the exact same time wild mountain trout begin actively feeding. Many of these trout, including the large browns, have had very little to eat in the last 2-3 months and they tend to be a little less cautious. And when a size #12 Quill Gordon comes drifting down the lane, well, it’s pretty hard to resist!

Brown trout exceeding 20” don’t get caught very often in the Smokies, period. Even fewer are caught on dry flies. I’ve been fortunate to catch a fair number of large browns on dry flies in the Smokies, and probably 99% of them have come during the Quill Gordon hatch. Though it’s certainly a gamble, THAT is why it’s worth coming in March!

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon nymph

The good thing about the hatch is once it starts, it usually doesn’t stop. So, if the hatch gets started on say, 3/21, they’ll keep hatching every day even if you get a significant cold front on 3/25. While such a cold front may not impact the hatch, it still might impact the way the trout feed. They may be more reluctant to come to the surface. What many people forget, is that for all the bug activity on the surface during a hatch, there is just as much, if not more, activity under the surface with nymphs preparing to hatch. Drifting a greyish olive nymph below the surface can also be very productive during this hatch, especially in colder water

Most years the hatch lasts 2-3 weeks. It’s usually at its best during the warmest part of the day. In March, that’s typically about 11am to 4pm so rearranging your lunch plans is not a bad idea.

The best place to be during the hatch is in a larger pool near the head and middle of the run. Contrary to most scenarios in the Smokies, these large pools may require longer casts and more mending. The fish may be more aggressive but they still won’t tolerate a bad drift!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.