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