Smokies Fishing Report

abrams creek
meter smokies fishing report

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 585cfs / 2.78 feet
Pigeon: 1180cfs / 2.99 feet
Oconaluftee: 1140cfs / 2.69 feet

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 42 – 45 degrees
Mid elevations: 40 – 44 degrees
High elevations: 34 – 37 degrees

Current Conditions

Streams in the mountains are still running a little on the high side. They have been slowly, steadily dropping the last few days, but today’s rain may have something to say about that. Water temperatures are still well below ideal but they’re what you’d expect for February.

Projected Conditions

The week ahead is looking promising with a nice warm-up expected and we may see some “okay” fishing by the end of the week. Remember that it takes time for those water temperatures to come up and one or two warm afternoons won’t have much impact. We need a string of warmer days and more important, warmer overnights. Those overnight lows will have the biggest impact on water temperature this time of year.

The biggest x-factor right now is the rain that we are getting right now. As long as it doesn’t give water levels too much of a spike, I think you may see some decent days by the weekend.

Tips

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. Fishing high water can be tough and it can be dangerous. Keep an eye on those water levels. It’s not an exact science but typically, I consider around 2.5′ on the gauge to be the high side of good. Ideally, you want it more around 2′. Between 2.5′ and 3′ might give you a little bit of manageable water in very select locations, but you better know what you’re doing. Above 3′ will leave you very little fishable water and is really just unsafe.

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

girdle bug
Girdle Bug

Smokies Fishing Report

Date of Report

February 15, 2021

Location

Smoky Mountains

Water Levels

Little River: 777cfs / 3.06 feet
Pigeon: 1660cfs / 3.42 feet
Oconaluftee: 1390cfs / 2.95 feet

Water Temperatures (approximate)

Low elevations: 44 – 47 degrees
Mid elevations: 37 – 40 degrees
High elevations: 32 degrees

Current Conditions

Conditions haven’t changed much since last report and are what you’d likely expect in February. Water temperatures are way below ideal and fishing is very slow. Streams are running high 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 a little lower but still running high. Water temperatures are running slightly higher on the North Carolina side as well.

Projected Conditions

It doesn’t look like we’ll see much improvement in the coming week. With air temperatures remaining cold and rain expected almost every day, it’s more likely things are going to get worse!

Tips

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. Remember, water that is too cold makes for slow fishing but water that is too high makes for very dangerous fishing. Unless you know these streams really well, I wouldn’t mess with them at this level. If you do have a lot of experience on these streams, please be very careful!

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

Girdle Bug

Smokies Fishing Report

Date of Report

February 8, 2021

Location

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.

Tips

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

Location

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.

Tips

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

The Royal Coachman

Royal Coachman
Royal Coachman

Fly lineage can be an incredibly difficult thing to trace. I’ve certainly opined more than once about this in previous articles. For some flies, there is simply little to no written history. For others, the waters get muddied by endless variations. When you change the body color or, say, the tail material of an existing pattern, have you created a new fly or is it just a variation of the original?

My friend Walter has a wonderful trout fly called a Smoky Mountain Candy. It is considered an original fly pattern but it’s really just a Thunderhead dry fly with a yellow body. When someone tied an Adams dry fly with a yellow body, they called it a yellow Adams. So, is Walter’s fly original or is it just a yellow Thunderhead?  Don’t answer yet. It gets even more complicated.

The Thunderhead dry fly is really just an Adams Wulff with a deer hair tail instead of moose hair. And of course, the Adams Wulff is a hybrid of an Adams and a Wulff. The Wulff series of flies are named for and were made popular by Lee Wulff but the most popular, the Royal Wulff, is almost identical to an earlier pattern called a Quack Coachman. The Quack Coachman was a hairwing  version of a Royal Coachman developed by L.Q. Quackenbush. And somehow, after a really long trip around the barn, I’ve made it to this month’s fly, the Royal Coachman. Its history is just as complicated, which is what started the above detour!

Many credit John Hailey with the origin of the Royal Coachman. He was a fly tyer in New York and was said to have first tied the pattern in 1878. However, it was merely one rung on an evolutionary ladder of variations that we’re still climbing today. As most would agree, by adding some red floss in the middle and wood duck feathers for a tail, he simply created a flashier version of an old British pattern called a Coachman.

The Original Original

Tom Bosworth created that original pattern, a wet fly, in the 1830’s. It had a number of variations from different tyers, most notably the Leadwing Coachman, before John Hailey ultimately shaped it into the more familiar version seen today. Actually, the most widely accepted version of the fly today includes golden pheasant for the tail and white mallard quill for the wings, both of which, I believe, vary from Hailey’s original.

And over the years, variations of variations have emerged. In addition to the Wulff and Trude variations, there are assortments of dry flies, wet flies and streamers in the “royal family.” Different colored floss bands branch the tree even more, accounting for Tennessee versions, North Carolina versions and others.

Most people don’t care about all of this. They just want a fly that catches fish. It certainly does that, even after all of these years. After all, a fly pattern doesn’t hang around for hundreds of years and get tweaked by every tyer that touches it if it doesn’t catch fish!

Even the version I’ve included here has my own bastardized twist! I most often substitute the quill wing with a synthetic called Z-lon. I find it more durable and simpler to tie. Tying in upright, divided wings is already time consuming. Doing it with quill wings requires an entirely different degree of fuss. Does that make it the Royal Fightmaster?

The Royal Fightmaster… err… Coachman

  • Hook: TMC 100 #18-10
  • Thread: 8/0 Black
  • Tail: Golden Pheasant Tippets
  • Wing: White Z-lon
  • Body: Peacock Herl
  • Band: Red Floss
  • Hackle: Brown Rooster Neck   

November Fishing Forecast

Little River Smoky Mountains Tennessee

Mountains

November and March are kind of parallel months for the mountains, in that they are what I term “transistional” months. The weather is often going through some of its more severe transitions and consequently, so is the fishing. A string of mild weather days in November can trigger some very active fish. A string of cold days, particularly overnights, can make water temperatures plummet and bring the fishing to a grinding halt.

So November fishing is very much a gamble. However, while you are decreasing your chances of consistent, active fish, you are increasing your chance at a big fish. The larger brown trout of the Smokies are typically entering spawning mode at this time and can feed pretty aggressively pre and post spawn. They don’t come easily or often, but for the fisherman with the right skills, timing, patience and luck, the rewards can be big!

In general, your better fishing in November will be during the middle of the day when water temperatures are a little warmer. You may see sporadic hatches of caddis, midges and Blue Wing Olives to bring the fish to the surface, but mostly you’re nymphing. On rainbow and brook trout water, I’m likely fishing smaller, darker nymphs like Pheasant Tails. On brown trout water, I’m more likely to be fishing larger stonefly nymphs. Streamers can also be productive for large brown trout, but patience and persistence will be key. The strikes will be few.

Clinch River

As always, the big variable for the Clinch is water releases. With the most recent of four hurricanes dropping large amounts of rain in our region last week, things are not looking promising for the wade fisherman.

If, by chance, you find good release schedules this month, plan to fish the usual tailwater favorites. Zebra Midges and small Pheasant Tails are always on the menu in the Clinch. Additionally, Clinch River brown trout may be attempting to spawn and simple egg patterns can be productive when this is going on.

Finding the Perfect Mountain Fly Rod

The Forgotten 4-weight

Orvis Superfine fly rod, Patagonia pack and Richardson chest fly box

Everyone is always looking for the one easy answer to a question and the one simple solution to a problem. In fly fishing, maybe it’s the dry fly that won’t sink, the nymph that won’t hang the bottom, the wading boot that won’t slip or the perfect size mountain fly rod. Well, I can tell you if you’re still hoping to find any of those things, you will be sorely disappointed. But with the latter, the perfect size mountain fly rod, I believe you can come close!

A few years ago, I was guiding a couple of guys on what I would classify as a mid-size stream in the Smoky Mountains. They were both fishing 12’ tenkara rods and absolutely clobbering fish. They wanted to fish at the same time, so I had them spread out in different sections of the stream, and I repeatedly walked the trail back and forth between them to help and advise as needed.

During my travels up and down the trail, I ran into two other fishermen on three different occasions. They were friendly and chatted with me about the fishing each time. As usual in those situations, I was pleasant but tried to be brief. By the way, if you ever engage a working guide on the stream or trail and he or she seems short with you, don’t take it personally. They’re working.

But in my brief interactions with them, they were quick to tell me that they were not catching fish, and were asking for advice, mainly regarding fly patterns. The third time I saw them, they told me that they still weren’t catching fish but had figured out that the problem was their rods were too long. Each of them had a 7 ½’ rod. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my clients were catching fish left and right with 12’ rods, but I did mention the benefits of longer rods and offered a little advice on how to fish the stream.

So, obviously you need a 12’ tenkara rod to catch a lot of fish in the Smokies, right? Wrong. I’ve seen plenty of fish caught on 7’ fly rods, too! Many anglers fall into the trap of blaming or crediting all of their success or failure on the gear, whether rods or flies. All of these things are just tools. And in the hands of someone who knows how to use them, all of these tools can be effective. A good carpenter will build a fine deck whether he uses a handsaw or a power saw. And a bad carpenter will build a crappy deck regardless of the tool he uses.

Of course, when it comes to choosing the right tool for the job, it often comes down to the task at hand. But it just as often comes down to the style, preference and philosophy of the person using the tool. It’s why I often give such cryptic replies to people who ask me what rod they should use in a specific location.

When it comes to mountain rods, or really, just trout rods in general, I immediately eliminate anything bigger than a 6-weight. Yes, you can catch a trout on an 8-weight, but unless you’re big river fishing with oversized streamers for huge trout, it just doesn’t make much sense. 3, 4 and 5-weight lines are really your bread and butter trout weights, particularly in the mountains. They’re heavy enough to cast most anything you’d need to cast, and still light enough to achieve delicate presentations and offer less drag on the water. 1 and 2-weight rods fall more into the specialty category. They are a lot of fun but a little too light to qualify as a legitimate all-purpose rod.

It’s similar when we talk about rod length. It used to be that everybody thought you needed a really short rod, like a 6 or 7-footer, to fish in the tighter streams found in the mountains. I think they envisioned making these really long casts and thought the shorter rod would help with that. However, for most folks who know what they’re doing on a mountain stream, the casts are very short, and a longer rod gives you more reach to keep the line off varying currents. Recently, we’ve gone the total opposite direction with folks wanting to use a long rod like the 12’ tenkara mentioned earlier, or an 11’ fly rod popular with what people like to call “Euro-nymphing,”

Small Mountain Stream
Tough place for an 11′ fly rod

I am regularly asked by guide clients which rod they should bring for a particular stream, the 7’ 3-weight or the 11’ 2-weight. Most of the time, the answer is “either.” Which one do you enjoy fishing with? Because most of the time, neither one is ideal. They’re both specialty rods in my book. The 7’ rod will give you a decided advantage on very small streams and in tighter areas of a bigger stream, but the lack of reach will put you at a significant disadvantage in open pocket water. The 11’ rod puts you at a distinct advantage in larger rivers or open pocket water areas of smaller streams, but it will be a major hindrance in tight spots.

And that’s fine. Which one do you enjoy fishing with? The short rod? Just know that you’ll be sacrificing reach and make it work. The long rod? Just skip past the tight stuff. But if you’re looking for versatility on streams that vary in characteristics, you may want to shift more toward the middle.

I said it 20 years ago and I still say it today. The perfect fly rod for fishing someplace like the Smoky Mountains is a 4-weight in a length between 8’ – 8 ½.’ Is it the absolute perfect rod for every situation? Of course not. But it’s the most versatile. It’s long enough to provide adequate reach when using high-sticking techniques in open water and it’s short enough to be able to maneuver in all but the tightest of streams. If I could only have one rod for the mountains, that’s what it would be.

Hopefully, if you don’t already, you will one day have the desire, passion and means to possess more than one rod for mountain fishing. But even then, I think you’re really pigeon-holing yourself by only getting rods at either extreme. I would start in the middle, with something like an 8 ½’ 4-weight, and add specialty rods from there.

As fly fishermen, we often love to jump on every latest trend, usually in an attempt to improve or simplify. However, in these perpetual attempts to improve and simply, we often end up over complicating things. Because most of the time, the best fly to imitate that nymph is a Pheasant Tail, and the best rod to fish that stream is an 8 ½’ 4-weight.

October Fishing Forecast

Mountains

October is one of those idyllic months in the mountains. Sure, the fishing can be good, but it’s just as much about the feel. Days are shortening, temperatures are cooling and leaves are changing. I can not imagine a better backdrop for standing in a river and waving a stick!

This year things are looking better than usual. September and October are typically pretty dry months around here. So often, while cooling temperatures are cooling and fish are getting active, low water has them unusually skittish. But this year we had a wetter than usual September, including visits from two tropical storms. Fishing should be great!

Expect better fishing from late morning through late afternoon most of the month. And starting around the middle of the month, begin scanning the tail end of pools for large, pre-spawn brown trout.

While hatches are not as frequent or robust as we might see in spring, fall does bring a number of aquatic insects out, particularly caddis. Most of your standard mountain patterns should still be productive, but patterns in the caddis family should do even better. Staples like the Elk Wing Caddis are great and larger, orange dry fly patterns like Stimulators and Neversinks will make a nice representation of the large ginger caddis. Wired Caddis and tan, orange or rusty soft hackles should fit the bill below the surface.

Clinch

As always, the Clinch is pretty hit and miss with generation schedules. Recently, they have not been releasing in the morning, allowing for a small window of wade fishing.

Not a lot changes on the Clinch when it comes to fly selection. Zebra Midges in size #18 and smaller are productive most days. Really any midge pattern in that size range is worth playing with. Small Pheasant Tail Nymphs are also a good bet.

August Fishing Forecast

Mountains

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.

Clinch

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.

July Fishing Forecast

Mountains

Most years, things really start to heat up in July. Lower elevation streams will typically not fish very well as water temperatures are just too warm most of the day. If you’re bound and determined to fish low elevation streams, get there early. Most will be fairly active from sunrise until probably 9 or 10 o’clock. They may also turn on for a short period just before sunset.

Mid and especially high elevation streams are the places to be in July which usually means you need to plan on doing some walking. While it’s not an exact science, for every 1000′ you gain in elevation, the water temperature drops about 4-degrees. That can make a huge difference in fish activity!

July is usually a fairly wet month. While we don’t often see the huge, organized rain systems of spring, afternoon thunderstorms seem to pop up daily. Consequently, water levels tend to stay at pretty good levels all month.

Hatches are sparse in summer. While there will most certainly be sporadic mayfly, stonefly and caddis sightings, they’re not abundant enough to get the fish keyed in on a particular bug. So, generic “prospecting” flies should cover most situations. Dry flies in yellow and chartreuse are especially productive.

Of course, summer is also terrestrial time. Be sure to include a selection of beetles, ants and inchworms in your fly box!

Clinch

The Clinch finally started showing some decent wade schedules in June. However, as is often the case, they all to nothing and on many days, there wasn’t nearly enough flow. Typical July flows usually have wadeable water in the morning with afternoon generation.

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.