Trout of the Smokies

Native Smokies Brook Trout

Over the years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is about the trout in the Smokies. What kind are there? Where did they come from? How big do they get? Why don’t they get bigger? Why don’t they stock fish in the park? The list goes on and on. I thought I’d take this opportunity to satisfy some of the curiosity of enquiring minds.

Trout fishing in the Smokies starts with brook trout. They are the native fish of the Smoky Mountains. The terms native and wild are often confused and misused when referring to fish. To clarify, a wild trout is a trout that is not stocked but was born in the stream. However, it may have been introduced through stocking at one time. All trout in the Smokies are wild – there has been no stocking since the early 1970’s. A native trout is one that has always been there and was not introduced by humans. Brook trout have been in the Smokies since the last ice age!

Wild Smokies Rainbow

It used to be that every stream in the Smokies had brook trout and rainbows and brown trout were non-existent. The intense logging of the area, prior to its designation as a national park, sparked that change. In the early 1900’s, logging practices simply weren’t very responsible and they cut any and every tree they could get to. When trees near mountain streams were removed, critical canopy to provide shade on these waters disappeared and water temperatures climbed to levels in the warmer months that made them uninhabitable for coldwater species like brook trout. Many of the brook trout migrated to high elevations for cooler water. The ones that didn’t died.

Over time, logging operations came to a stop – in some places because there was nothing left to cut, and in others because the national park was formed and the land was protected. In the former, many streams were stocked with trout (mainly rainbow) to appease some of the emerging sporting clubs and camps. Brown trout were also introduced in a handful of rivers. Even after the formation of the park, the National Park Service continued to stock these rivers with trout.

Wild Smokies Brown

By the time the forest regrew to a level of maturity and much needed canopy returned to cool low and mid elevation streams, the rainbows and browns had established a foothold, and the native brook trout could not compete for the limited food source, forcing their relegation to the high country.

This changed again in the early 1970’s when the NPS began using electroshocking techniques to sample streams for data on fish population and size. Prior to that, they had to rely solely on creel surveys – asking fishermen how many they caught and what size. Well, as you hopefully know, just because you’re not catching fish or seeing fish doesn’t mean there are no fish! The electroshocking proved that, and they learned that they were stocking fish on top of fish. The rainbow and brown trout were all reproducing, and had been for some time.

They ceased the stocking of streams at that time and they have been thriving as wild trout fisheries ever since, boasting park-wide populations of anywhere from 2000 to 6000 fish per square mile. The only two things that seem to make that number fluctuate are flood and drought. They have determined that fishermen have absolutely no impact on the fish numbers. In fact, fisheries biologists agree that it could very well be a healthier fishery, at least when it comes to fish size, if more fishermen kept fish to keep the numbers down.

Brook trout and rainbow trout in the park only live about 4-5 years. Brook trout rarely exceed 10” in size and rainbows rarely exceed 15”. There are no regulations, like catch-and-release or slot limits, that can change this. These mountains are some of the oldest in the world and consequently are more acidic. Streams with low ph levels have less aquatic insect life, which is the primary food source for rainbow and brook trout.

Stocked Clinch River Rainbow

So we simply have too many fish for the available food source. Years with heavy flooding or intense drought often kill a generation of fish, reducing the population significantly. In the year or two following such an event, even though the fish population might be decreased by a third, fishermen still catch the same number of fish they always did, but the fish they do catch average 1-2” bigger. More food for fewer fish equals bigger fish.

Brown trout in the Smokies seem to be the exception to all of this. While they are only in a limited number of streams, they can live 15 years and reach lengths of 30”! Biologists believe one of the main reasons for this is their tendency to add bigger fare to their diet. Rainbows and brookies pretty much stay bug eaters in the park. While brown trout also eat bugs, when they reach a size of 8 or 9”, they also begin eating crayfish, mice, leeches, and smaller fish – including smaller trout!

Brown trout like low light, do a lot of their feeding at night, and are just generally reclusive. So they don’t get caught very often. You simply don’t go to the Smokies expecting to catch 20” brown trout on every trip. But in the right rivers, it’s always a possibility. In general, if you catch a trout in the Smokies bigger than 7” you’ve caught a pretty good fish. If your goal is purely to catch big trout, go to a tailwater, the Smokies isn’t for you.

Tailwaters are rivers created by water release from a dam and there are several in East Tennessee. They are stocked regularly by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Most of the trout they stock in these rivers are 7” or bigger and grow quickly thanks to the ample food supply found in these fertile waters.

When it comes to fish size, the bottom line is it’s relative to where you are fishing. A 12” native brook trout in the Smokies is a rare thing and surely qualifies as a “trophy.” A 12” stocked rainbow in the Clinch River is a dime a dozen.

Homemade Brookies

These are hardly the idealized fly fishing journeys that most anglers conjure in their minds in those last few moments before sleep takes hold. It’s not the casual, early morning stroll through a dewy meadow to the spacious pool in a lazily meandering river where 20-inch trout routinely clock in for their daily shift of methodically sipping delicate mayflies. In fact, unless you are one of a few passionate, dedicated, and perhaps slightly mentally unbalanced backcountry anglers, you might consider these journeys way too much like work.

This kind of trip involves laborious long miles up steep, narrow, rocky, root-infused trails with the necessities for the day transported on your back. The destination sometimes has a name but just as often is simply a mysterious, blue squiggly line on a map. And once the destination has been reached, the journey has really only begun. Since such small, rhododendron choked Appalachian streams may only yield a few trout per pool or pocket, to catch fish here you need to cover water. You need to keep moving up the stream. But this isn’t the large watershed two thousand feet below where a well maintained trail shadows every bend. It will be another mile and a half before the trail meets this stretch of stream again. From here, travelling the streambed is the only option, fishing as you go and being diligent with your pace to ensure you reach the takeout point before dark. With vertical banks coated in impenetrable tangles of undergrowth, exiting the stream beforehand is not a possibility.

Navigating up the bed presents its own set of challenges as the stream forces its way down a staircase of ancient boulders, persistently attempting to carve away at the earth’s multi-billion-year-old foundation. Through its course over, under, between, and around these timeless obstacles, countless small pockets, seams, and pools are formed. These are the places where water hesitates, as if taking a much needed rest from its perpetual quest to reach and become the sea. And in every hesitation of water, native brook trout exist and thrive, surviving in the stream’s periodic moments of weakness.

With full intent to exploit these weaknesses, you enter the stream and prepare to fish the first run, a little shoot that slices between two desk size boulders. Canopy is heavy above and to the right so you cast off your left shoulder, placing the fly perfectly on the upper left edge of the current. The fly casually drifts for mere seconds before vanishing in a sucking gulp, not the showy splash to which you’ve become accustomed on this type of water. This is a good fish you think to yourself as you watch the bent rod pulse with every desperate evasive maneuver attempted by the trout. Quickly tiring the fish, you raise your rod and grasp the line, now getting a close up confirmation that this is indeed a nice trout.

First wetting your hand, you reach out and gently cup the trout, admiring the vivid array of colors exploding from its body. An intense burnt orange consumes the trout’s belly and continues over its fins only to stop abruptly against vibrant white tips. Its back and sides are a deep, rich, olive, randomly dotted with spots of yellow and orange, the orange spots encircled by angelic blue halos. Temporarily mesmerized by nature’s perfection, you carefully remove the hook and place the trout back in the stream, transfixed as he instantly seems to transform to rock, moss, and water. Measuring out at 10-inches, this Southern Appalachian brook trout may be small by many anglers’ standards but is a trophy in a small, backcountry Smoky Mountain stream, where a 6-inch fish is the standard.

At one time, you didn’t have to go to quite so much effort to catch the native brook trout of this region, since most all of the streams in the Appalachian Mountains were heavily populated with “specks,” as the locals call them. But years of irresponsible logging practices in the earlier part of the 20th century destroyed much of the brook trout’s habitat. Clear cutting right down to the stream created erosion issues and removed critical canopy to keep streams cool.  Brook trout were forced to either migrate or die. Many died, but many did make the migration upstream where elevation and remnants of forest provided cool enough temperatures to survive.

As time passed and logging companies began to focus their attention elsewhere, more and more people had discovered the area, including sportsmen. The lack of fish in these otherwise perfect streams prompted the introduction of non-native trout, mostly rainbows, through stocking.  As more time passed, the forest began to return and eventually, the streams had the solidified banks and necessary canopy to once again support a natural trout population.

Through decades of stocking, rainbow trout had taken hold and were reproducing. They had completely filled in the previous voids in the lower and mid elevation sections of stream – so much so that in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they ceased all stocking of rainbows in the early 1970’s.  Great news, right?  Not if you happen to be a brook trout.

The acidic nature of Appalachian streams doesn’t allow for a tremendous amount of aquatic insect life, at least not enough to adequately support and grow the healthy population of trout that live there. With the rainbows now thriving in these lower elevations, there simply wasn’t enough food to go around and brook trout, for the most part, remained relegated to the uppermost regions of the streams.

In an attempt to preserve the native brook trout in the Smokies, the park service closed most of these streams to fishing more than 30 years ago.  But after years of research, they determined angling pressure has little to no effect on these high-country brook trout populations and consequently, most of these streams were re-opened in recent years. Since then there has also been an effort to re-extend the range of the brook trout back into select mid elevation waters.

The first step in the process is defining a natural barrier, like a tall waterfall, that will prevent upstream migrations by non-native fish. Above the waterfall, existing fish are then removed by using a chemical called antimycin. This EPA approved chemical kills all fish and most aquatic insects from a stream while posing no threat to plants, amphibians, or humans. Only small areas of the stream are treated at a time and the chemical is neutralized below the waterfalls with potassium permanganate to render it harmless. After treatment, crews augment the brook trout population with native species from other areas in the park with expectations of a full return of aquatic insects, a reestablishment of brook trout, and no more rainbows.

The entire process typically takes about 5-7 years and the stream, of course, is closed to fishing during the process.  Though controversial at first, this method has been highly effective and successful, and now serves as a model for similar projects in the Smokies and elsewhere. However, there is only so much water that meets the necessary requirements and rainbows and browns will never be fully eradicated from the entire watershed. These trout have a solid foothold on the lower elevation stretches of rivers and very likely always will. While there are now a few more brook trout streams that are easier to reach, unless a more effective method of eradication and replacement is devised, brook trout seeking anglers will continue to be relegated to long, steep hikes into remote places to find their prize.

Why do some fly fishermen go to so much effort to pursue a fish that averages about four or five inches in length? Throughout the region are relatively flat, fifty-yard-wide tailwaters where a fisherman can stroll five minutes from the car and find seemingly infinite numbers of rainbows and browns that are rarely smaller than ten inches! To a dying breed of relatively few high-country enthusiasts, size doesn’t matter. These anglers pursue trout in the Appalachian backcountry because the fish they catch are born there, not in the cramped, narrow concrete runs of a hatchery. And while many of the rainbows and browns inhabiting lower elevations in these watersheds are wild, only the brookies that swim in the high streams of these mountains are truly native.

Quite simply, native trout have a certain indefinable appeal to the self-aware angler. Perhaps it’s just that we as humans seem to be wired to yearn for a connection to something bigger. Whether through genealogy, science, religion, or fly fishing, there is an innate desire to link to the world that was here before us; if for no other reason than to better understand ourselves. For fly fishermen in the eastern United States, the opportunity to pursue, connect with, and maybe even understand the uncompromising brook trout that have existed and persisted for centuries before us provides that all too vital link.