It’s the time of year when certain folks seem to be whispering more at the fly shop. They’re isolated in corners and peeking over their shoulders before saying too much. They’re talking about brown trout. Big ones. Somebody mentioned seeing a decent one around Metcalf Bottoms – about 18-inches. A younger guy innocently asked, “Since when did we start referring to 18-inch browns as ‘decent’?” The older guy replied with a grin, “October.”
The Smoky Mountains is largely thought of as a fly fishing destination where the appeal is to catch wild trout in a beautiful place. But as a whole, you don’t expect to catch particularly big trout. After all, rainbows rarely exceed 15-inches and brook trout rarely get any bigger than 10-inches in the Smokies. They’re both almost exclusively bug eaters, and after 3-5 years, they simply can’t support their weight with the bugs available, and they die. But when brown trout reach about 8 or 9-inches, they begin eating minnows, and crayfish, and mice, and birds, and small rainbows. They live 10-15 years and reach lengths of 30-inches in the Smokies!
Fish that size don’t get caught often. Brown trout only live in a handful of rivers in the Smokies to begin with. They’re extremely cagey and for much of the year, they do most of their feeding at night – it’s illegal to fish the park at night. So, outside of the occasional big brown caught at dusk, or dawn, or after a good rain, we don’t get a lot of good shots at these guys. Until late fall.
Brown trout tend to make their spawning runs after the fall foliage has turned colors but before the last leaves have fallen. In the Smokies, that’s usually late October or early November. They typically move to shallower, more visible areas of the stream and are spotted by far more fishermen then. When they’re actually on the nest (or redd), we leave them alone. Not only is it just bad ethics, but they have other things on their mind than food at that time. But in the weeks leading up to the spawn and in the weeks to follow, their appetites are enormous!
In the weeks leading up to the spawn, they’re on the move searching for suitable nesting areas, often where they were originally hatched. This is when many fishermen are hoping to get their shot at a trophy. A number of folks have booked me during this time, thinking a seasoned fly fishing guide will be their ticket to success. While I can certainly help locate the fish, there is a whole lot that has to go right to catch him. It’s not just having the right fly at some secret honey hole!
Most people aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to catch one of these fish. Unless you’re just going to depend on luck, you have to trade fishing time for looking time. You may not spot one at the first place, or second or third… And once you do spot one, you’re not done looking. You have to watch him for a while to figure out his pattern: how he’s feeding, where he’s feeding, when he’s feeding, IF he’s feeding. You then may have to spend a pain-staking amount of time sneaking into a position where you can cast to him without spooking him.
Assuming everything has gone your way up to this point, you may only have one shot at him and a bad cast will kill the deal. And if he does eat and you do hook him, you’re problems have just begun. Now you have to fight a 25-inch trout in the fast, rocky waters of the Smokies! But it’s all worth it when it does come together and you become one of the lucky few. It’s the stuff legends are made of.
The Smoky Mountains are known for receiving large amounts of rain in a season and when it comes in bunches, the result can be swollen, rough, intimidating, and dangerous streams and rivers. Good and bad things occur when the water rises in mountain streams. On the down side, the streams become much more dangerous and sometimes impossible to wade. The faster current also makes it more difficult to control your drift. On the up side, a lot of food gets churned up in the stream, and that factor, combined with a level of comfort and security in stained water, often results in more reckless feeding by some of the bigger trout on the block. There are brown trout exceeding 20” in many mountain streams that don’t get caught often, but when they do, it’s usually when the water is up and off color.
The stream is going to look completely different under these conditions and it will help if you have intimate familiarity with the stream under normal flows. Regardless of how well you know the water, always use extreme caution under these conditions and don’t try any heroic stream crossings. One wrong step can quickly get you in big trouble! In fact, it’s not a bad idea to wear a life vest when fishing under these conditions. Better safe than sorry!
Forget about finesse. You’re not going to coax rainbows to #16 dry flies with delicate casts. Bring a long rod for a heavier line – maybe a 9’ 6 weight – and plan on chucking large, heavy nymphs with a rosary of split shot and no strike indicator. Casting is going to simply involve one flip behind you, wait for the tug on the rod tip, and chuck it forward with an open loop. Long casts are not necessary and will be less effective.
Instead, wade the edges and look for slower seams on the edge of fast currents and eddies behind rocks. Position yourself as close to the feeding zone as you safely can and use the length of the rod to reach and hold your flies in position. Keep the rod tip up and try to keep as much of the fly line off the water as possible, allowing for a much slower, more controlled drift. Follow the flies with the rod tip as they drift through the feeding lane and keep an eye on the fly line between the rod tip and water. You may feel a strike since you’re working with such a short line but most likely you’ll determine the strike when you see the fly line pull down or hesitate. If anything suspicious like this occurs, set the hook! With practice you’ll soon be able to differentiate between fish and rocks.
Don’t expect to catch large quantities of fish under these circumstances. It will be tough fishing to say the least. But if you stick with it, the rewards can be enormous!
I have repeatedly heard these two statements throughout my fly fishing life, and I’d have to say, I agree with both. Ants are not only abundant in nearly every stream where trout live, they’re pretty easy pickin’s once they make their way into the water. And for Smoky Mountain trout, they’re one of the few meals available in the summer months.
From a fishing perspective, I love ants for their versatility. Whether it’s topwater in heavier current, topwater in low, slow runs, or below the surface… There’s an ant for that!
Made popular in the American West, a Chernobyl Ant is an oversized ant pattern, often tied on a size #6 hook or even bigger! While they are considerably larger than most natural ants, the trout don’t seem to mind. Trout may actually take them more for a beetle or some other type of terrestrial, but who cares? They eat them. I typically find the traditional Chernobyl Ants too big for slower water, though I have had a number of nice fish eat them on slow, shady edges of summertime pools. The Chernobyl is best suited for heavier water with a little more chop and because of its buoyancy, is a great dry fly to support a dropper nymph.
Most of the time, however, I scale the fly size down to a #12 or #14, making it more of a “mini-Chernobyl.” At this size, it makes a great generic searching pattern from late spring through early fall. It rides a little lower in the water, sometimes making it difficult to see in choppy water or where there is excessive glare. But with a brighter piece of foam on top of the fly, you can pick it up most of the time.
In late summer and early fall, or anytime when the water is low, fish are spookier and big foam flies (even the mini-Chernobyl) can send the fish running for cover. A parachute ant pattern can be more effective during these times. It lands softer and provides a little more natural silhouette. I typically fish these in smaller sizes like #16 and # 18. Tying these with a white or orange post makes them visible in most conditions.
One of the most underutilized methods for fishing an ant is to fish it below the surface. Ants are not particularly strong swimmers and often find themselves drowning when they’re in the water. Fishing an ant between the surface and the middle of the water column can be highly productive. Hard bodied ants or, my favorite, soft hackle ants, in a size #14 or #16 are great for this. I’ll often fish one as the top fly of a two-fly nymph/wet fly rig, especially when streams are running full. When streams are low, I like to put a soft hackle ant as a dropper off a dry fly. It hangs in, or just below the surface film and will often fool the most finicky of trout.
Most of the ants I fish are black but can be effective in brown, tan, or cinnamon as well. You can fish them almost anytime of year but they will be most productive during the summer. Ants also tend to be most active through the middle of the day so that is when trout are most likely to see them.
In any case, you should have at least one ant pattern in your fly selection, preferably two or three variations. You can find the mini-Chernobyl and the Soft Hackle Ant in the Boys of Summer fly selection on my web site.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
As many of you know, I spend nearly 200 days a year fishing and guiding on small mountain streams in the Smoky Mountains where creel surveys indicate that approximately 90% of (unguided) fishermen never catch a fish. Meanwhile, the 10% who do catch fish tend to catch A LOT of them. When fishing small streams, it’s a fine line between getting skunked and catching 50, and most of the time, the difference isn’t what’s in your fly box. In the Smokies and other similar small mountain streams, approach and presentation is the name of the game and to have success, you may need to adjust a few of your techniques. Listed below are 10 tips that may make your next small stream fishing trip more productive.
Dress for Success: As simple as it sounds, one of the biggest keys to being successful is not spooking the fish. There are a number of ways you can spook a trout but it all starts with what you wear. Leave the coral casting shirts at home. Instead, dress in earth tones like olive, tan, and grey. You don’t need to be a fly fishing commando with face paint and twigs in your hat but you do need to blend in.
This doesn’t matter as much on big, open rivers because you’re usually casting farther and your backdrop is the sky. On small mountain streams, you’re closer to the fish and your backdrop is usually trees, bushes, and rocks. Brighter colors stand out against that backdrop and allow the trout to more easily detect your movement.
Wade Quietly: Think Great Blue Heron and not Labrador Retriever when you’re moving through the stream. Step slowly, quietly, and try not to drag your legs through the water. Again, you’re closer to the fish in these streams and the fish are going to be sensitive to splashes and rocks scraping together. For this same reason, I don’t encourage wearing studded wading boots on these streams.
Move Upstream: Trout are going to be facing upstream watching a current for food. By moving upstream, you will be staying behind the fish making it more difficult for it to detect you.
Stay Low: A trout has a cone of vision that allows it to see things above it. The closer and higher up you are, the more the fish will be able to visually detect your movements. As before, you don’t have to be a fly fishing commando and belly crawl from spot to spot. Just try to crouch more when approaching a run and take advantage of natural barriers. For example, if there’s a boulder in the water, stay behind it rather than standing on it.
Read the Water: Trout won’t be just anywhere in the stream. Aimlessly casting your fly around the creek is not only unproductive, you risk spooking the good spots by throwing your line across them. Most of what you’ll find in small mountain streams is pocket water, which is just faster water interspersed with large rocks. Almost everywhere a current breaks over or around a rock creates a holding area for a trout, usually on the edges of the current and directly above and below the rock.
Reading water becomes very instinctive with a little experience, but at first, you’ll have to think about it a little more. Look at each spot you’re approaching and consider that trout need three basic things: food, cover, and comfort. Food is typically going to be concentrated more in the currents rather than in still water. Cover is typically going to be found in deeper water and/or under things like rocks. Comfort is going to be found in places that don’t stress the fish, like slower currents rather than turbulent white water, or shade rather than sun on a bright, warm day.
Position First, Cast Second: Making a good presentation is the other biggest key to success on small streams, and one of the most challenging. Many anglers mistakenly stay too far back from their target and cast way too much line. In smaller mountain streams, you typically have a fairly large volume of water moving downhill through a narrow area. Everyplace the water breaks around a rock creates a velocity change, resulting in dozens of different current speeds. Making long casts puts line across all of these currents and creates drag on the fly. Drag on the fly means you don’t catch fish.
Attempting to overcome this exclusively by mending line is often impractical not only because of the numerous varied currents, but you simply don’t have time to do that much mending when casting to such small target areas. Your best course of action in pocket water is usually to get closer to the target where you can keep most of the line and leader off the water, often eliminating the need to mend altogether. At the very least, it will be easier to mend a short length of line on one current than a long length of line on five currents.
To get closer and keep from spooking fish, the idea is to keep something between you and the fish, like a boulder or simply a fast current. If you want to drift a fly on the inside edge of a current, you’re going to approach from the lower outside of the current, using that current to conceal you from the fish on the other side. Try to get close enough to use the length of your arm and rod to reach across the current and keep line completely off of the faster water. A longer rod will be beneficial because it’s going to give you more reach, allowing you to stay back a little farther. Of course, utilizing steps 1-4 are critical to making this work.
As you move up the stream, you’re constantly repositioning yourself for the next spot. Sometimes you’re repositioning yourself within the same pocket by fishing the near current first, moving closer, then fishing the far current. Remember, it has nothing to do with how far you can cast. Rather, it’s where you need to be to control line for the best drift. In pocket water, I’d estimate that 80% of the fish I catch are with less than 4’ of fly line past the rod tip.
When you come to a bigger, slower pool, you may not be able to get as close because you don’t have the faster currents to hide you. You also don’t have the faster currents to screw up your drift. Stay back and make slightly longer casts here. Just be careful not to make long casts to the head of the pool before fishing the tail or you can spook half the fish by lining them. Everything gets broken into pieces here. Whatever you’re going to spook first, fish first.
Minimize False Casting: Or just don’t do it at all. Most of the time when fishing small streams, you’re making very short casts, and in pocket water you’re often using a fixed amount of line. Repeated false casting is unnecessary and is movement above the fish. Wild mountain trout are in the middle of the food chain and they typically associate movement above them with a kingfisher or heron swooping down to eat them.
Use a Longer Rod: There’s a common misconception that you need to have a short rod to fish small streams to stay out of the trees. Again, the idea here is not to make the longest cast possible up the stream without hanging a tree limb. You want to move closer, make short casts, and reach to keep line off of currents. A longer rod will better allow you to do that and I like to fish as long a rod as I can get away with. In the tiniest, rhododendron-choked mountain streams, that may only be 7’, but for typical mountain streams in the Smokies, it’s 8 ½’ – 9’. And yes, even longer tenkara rods can be highly effective for fishing this type of water.
Accuracy is Everything: All of the best small stream fly fishermen I can think of have two things in common. They know exactly where to position themselves before making a cast, and they are great casters. Unfortunately, great casting is often associated with double-hauling 110’ of line, and that’s hardly what I’m talking about. These fishermen aren’t making long casts, but can put the fly exactly where they want it the first time, the second time, and every time. In pocket water, if your first two casts are off target and/or drag a little bit, you still might catch a fish on the third cast, but you’ve probably already spooked the big fish of the hole.
If you’re not one to practice casting in the backyard, you should be. If you are, don’t just try to cast it as far as you can. Instead, practice with 20’ of line and less and try to hit a small target. Try to do it with an overhead cast off both sides of your body. Try to do it side arm. Try to do it with a roll or circle cast. You’ll find that the more you practice off the water, the “luckier” you’ll be on the water.
Keep Moving: In small streams, especially in pocket water, you’re going to catch more fish by covering more stream. Identify the likely spots in a pocket or run, put a half dozen drifts in each spot and catch your fish. If you miss a couple of strikes, put a few more drifts through and move on. If you don’t get a strike, don’t spend an hour there changing flies until you do. Move on. This doesn’t mean speed fish the stream, as you still need to be methodical in your approach. But when you get good at reading water, positioning and casting accuracy, you’ll be able to cover the water quickly and efficiently.
When I first got into fly fishing, I didn’t have any money. At that age, you simply had to get what you could get when you could get it, and that often meant holding out until birthday or Christmas. I had a cheap rod and reel outfit and a box of flies. My fishing “vest” was my uncle’s old Marines shirt with the sleeves cut off. The bellows pockets on the front were plenty big to hold my one fly box and any other accessories. And I had a pair of fingernail clippers, Trim brand, hung around my neck on a piece of fly line. My wading gear consisted of cutoff Duckhead shorts and an old pair of Asics running shoes.
I slowly started to accumulate better gear but it wasn’t until much later that I even considered buying actual wading gear. On the smallmouth streams of central Kentucky where I cut my teeth, it just wasn’t necessary. And when I did eventually start fishing the 50-degree tailwaters for trout, I guess I was just too young and full of testosterone to notice the cold. That changed when I waded the Cumberland River tailwater one rainy November day and somehow narrowly avoided hypothermia. On the top of my list the following Christmas was a pair of neoprene waders and rubber soled wading boots – I didn’t know much about felt soles and thought the rubber soled boots would be more durable.
In the mostly cobble-bottomed tailwaters where I was fishing, the rubber soles were adequate and all was right in my fly fishing world… until I went to the Smokies. That first trip to the Smokies provided me with countless views of the sky as I spent nearly every moment on my back. I’d get up, takes a step, then slip again. Seems that even
A Bad Step the best of waders don’t keep you dry when they’re full of water! It didn’t help that my first Smokies trip was to Abrams Creek, possibly the slickest stream on the planet, but it definitely made me begin to question my choice in wading gear.
I soon replaced the rubber-soled boots with felt, and eventually began wearing breathable waders when they hit the market. And I quickly realized why countless fly fishermen chose felt soles and had been doing so for decades. They are vastly superior to rubber when it comes to providing traction on slick, rocky stream bottoms. As a matter of fact, at the time, major fly fishing companies like Orvis didn’t even offer a rubber sole option in their catalog.
Fast forward about 30 years and look at an Orvis catalog, web site, etc. and you’ll find almost all rubber sole wading boots with only one or two felt alternatives. Why the change? The spread of exotic organisms from stream to stream.
While there are a number of different ways these exotics can be spread, many scientists pointed to felt soles as a big culprit and one that could be controlled. It sparked a movement where some
Felt Soled Boots popular fly fishing destinations added boot cleaning stations at select river access points, a few states went as far as banning felt boots, and fly fishing companies began aggressively looking for alternative bottoms to their boots.
The result has been a variety of different tread designs, all created on a Vibram rubber sole or variation thereof. Some companies, like Simms, even went so far as to discontinue production of felt sole boots entirely, while most manufacturers chose to offer both. After a short time, likely due to a significant dip in sales, Simms returned a couple of felt sole options to their product line. The problem was, despite companies’ claims that these new soles were as good as felt, many fishermen didn’t agree. In fact, some fishermen in “felt ban states” even took the whole, “I’ll quit
Typical Vibram Soles wearing felt boots when they pry them from my cold, dead feet” approach!
To be fair, all of these new rubber sole designs are quite different and way better than those rubber sole boots I had 30 years ago, and they’re light years better than an old pair of running shoes. They even offer some real traction advantages to felt when it comes to trail use and scrambling up and down banks. But the fact is, they are nowhere near as good as felt when it comes to providing traction on a slick streambed. I suppose you could just call that an opinion but I like to think it’s based on more than just preference as I routinely field test many of these new boots. As part of my field-testing, I will spend some days on the water wearing the rubber sole on one foot and a felt sole on the other. Time and time again, the rubber sole slips in places where the felt does not.
An alternative is to wear rubber soles with studs. This is probably the closest thing I’ve found to felt as far as traction on the stream bottom goes. However, these have a real tendency to slide and slip on dry rocks, posing another safety risk if you do a lot of rock hopping on smaller streams like we have in the Smokies. The other downside to studs is that they are noisy. That’s probably not a big deal on a larger, deeper, swift river, but if you’re trying to sneak up on a pool in a smaller, shallower headwater
Vibram Rubber Soles with Studs stream, you’re going to spook a lot more fish.
So, we’re kind of left with this whole responsibility vs. practicality debate. Most younger and/or newer fly fishermen are readily going with the rubber designs – some probably because they’re the current, cool thing, and others probably because they don’t know any better. They’ve never worn felt so have no basis for comparison. It’s the guys that have been around (like me) that are the problem. For us, trendy new designs aren’t nearly as important as staying upright!
Okay, maybe trendy designs aren’t that important to me, but being a responsible fisherman is, and that’s where it gets tricky. As an environmentalist, I take it very seriously. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the spread of exotic organisms, but again, I do want to stay upright. As someone who wades creeks every single day, I need to be as sure-footed as possible not only for my own safety, but sometimes for the safety of my clients. Fortunately, with a little planning and/or extra effort, you can wear felt soles responsibly.
The biggest issue with felt is that it dries slowly. So, if you pick up some weird organism in one river system and go to another totally different river system the next day, you could transport that organism with you because it can stay alive in that wet felt. As soon as the soles dry, any organism you pick up will likely die, so for a lot of fishermen who are fishing no more than once a week, those soles have plenty of time to dry. Even so, it’s a good idea to clean them to be safe.
For someone like me, who is on the water every day, my soles almost never completely dry until the end of the season. But I don’t worry too much about it because I am constantly going to the same “system” of streams. I’d be picking up something in Little River and transferring it back to Little River! When it is a concern for me is when I’m going to be in the Smokies on Tuesday, the Clinch River tailwater on Wednesday, and back to the Smokies on Thursday. Then I run the risk of transferring something from the Clinch to the Smokies.
My solution for this is multiple pairs of boots. I have one pair of studded rubber boots for tailwaters and another pair of felt soles for the mountains. But if you don’t want to purchase two pairs of boots, you want to own felt soles, and you might want to fish the Clinch one day and the Smokies the next, cleaning your boots in between trips is a must. Many experts will tell you that if you’re fishing multiple river systems in consecutive days as described above, thorough cleaning is the surest way to prevent the spread of exotics, even with rubber sole boots. So it’s just a good habit to get into.
Again, some popular areas actually have cleaning stations for this purpose – there is one at Little River Outfitters in Townsend that’s accessible whether the store is open or not. Or if you’re going to clean them at home, thoroughly hose the boots off with water and soak them for about 10 minutes in a solution of about 5% bleach and hot water. I’d also recommend scrubbing the soles with a wire or stiff bristled brush. Then rinse one more time with the hose.
If you’re planning a multi-day fishing trip somewhere and will be fishing numerous river systems, just throw your soak bin, brush and solution in the car and you’ll be ready to go. If you’re going to a state where felt is banned, you can certainly wear felt and take your chances with the law, but that’s a pretty big risk. Yellowstone National Park just implemented a felt ban and the
Korkers Boots with Interchangeable Soles penalty can be up to 6 months in jail and a $5000 fine. All of a sudden, the cost of a second pair of wading boots doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Again, that’s the solution that works best for me. Or you might consider one of the Korker boot models that have interchangeable soles. You can quickly change from felt soles to rubber soles on the same boot.
As with everything I write, this is just one man’s opinion with a few facts mixed in here and there. Find a legal and responsible system that works for you. If you currently wear rubber soles and like them, by all means stick with them. If you mostly fish streams with a more cobble type bottom (like many tailwaters), you’ll probably be happy with rubber. For freestone mountain streams with larger, more slippery rocks, felt is tough to beat and continues to be my preference.
However, I am keeping an open mind and continually looking for that next great felt alternative. Technology and design for felt-alternative boots is getting better every year and I hope to personally be able to make the switch soon.
If you’ve ever fished with me or have read more than two articles in this newsletter, you undoubtedly know how much I emphasize the importance of water temperature when fishing for wild trout. Often in the summer, it can be too warm in many places, causing trout to be lethargic or even migrate to cooler water. In winter, it can be too cold, causing changes in metabolism and a shut down in feeding. In early spring, you’re often fishing right on the edge of good water temperatures. Throughout the day, you may encounter totally different feeding behaviors – from hour to hour and from pool to pool.
Though it’s not quite this exact, 50-degrees is kind of the magic number we’re looking for. When we see water temperatures at or above 50-degrees for the better part of the day, we typically start to see actively feeding fish. This is due to not only the change in metabolism, but also the increase in bug activity. It can be deceiving, though, when we start to have these warmer days but the overnight temperatures are still getting pretty cold. It may be late morning or early afternoon before the water has had time to warm to a “stimulating” temperature.
So forget what your granddad told you about getting to the water at dawn. That’s great advice during the heat of summer, but in early spring, it will usually only give you a lot of casting practice until things heat up later in the day. While there are, of course, variables based mostly on weather, your best fishing this time of year will probably be between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, get to the water around 10 so you have some time to gear up, and enjoy your afternoon.
This is also not the best time of year for making that 7-mile hike to a high elevation brook trout stream. With very rare exceptions, your water temperatures are going to be considerably cooler at high elevations. This is the time to focus on lower and mid elevation streams.
Now that you’re at the right place at the right time, there are other things you want to look for. While slower pools often fish poorly later in the year, they can be great places to fish in early spring, mostly because of the abundance of food. The best hatches, at least in the Smokies, occur in the spring and you can target a lot of feeding fish in these pools. Dry fly fishing can be at its best on early spring afternoons and it’s a great opportunity to find a larger brown trout feeding on the surface. Even if there is not an active hatch, there are plenty of bugs preparing to hatch. Drifting nymphs along the bottom, particularly near the heads of these pools can be very productive.
The other advantage to larger pools this time of year is they typically have less tree canopy and the water gets more direct sunlight. Seeking direct sunlight is counterintuitive to many fishermen, but in the early season, it often means warmer water. And even if the sunlight isn’t significantly warming the water, it is likely stimulating more bug activity, which will in turn, stimulate fish. Still, bright sunlight can have a negative impact on fish and their willingness to feed, so I try to seek out and pay particular attention to the “sweet spots” – good holding water that has a nice mix of sun and shadows.
Finally, when choosing days to fish this time of year, really try to pay attention to the overnight lows more than the daytime highs. Warmer overnights will better maintain those water temperatures we’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to get wet. A warm rain can raise water temperatures and turn fish on quicker than anything this time of year!
In normal years, there are going to be periods that are dryer than others, and in a rainfall driven fishery like the Smoky Mountains, water levels routinely fluctuate and you have to be able to adjust your strategies to match the conditions. While some years can give us low water conditions any time of year, late summer and fall is historically the driest time of year in the Smokies. We’re fortunate that we’ve had a fairly wet summer this year and have a little more “reserve” going into fall, but September and and October will undoubtedly show us drier conditions and fishing low water can be a challenge.
What’s particularly bad is when we have a summer drought with low water AND warm water temperatures. That’s a pretty tough combination. But when you’re dealing with the typical low water we see in September and particularly October, water temperatures are cool and trout are very active. So, there’s one obstacle, warm water temperatures, out of the way. Below are some tips for dealing with the other obstacle.
The biggest problem low water creates is it makes already spooky fish spookier. While having less water depth can be an issue, the real challenge is having less water flow. When streams are full, the extra flow of water helps conceal you and your movements. The surface is more broken, making the trout’s view of the outside world more distorted and the extra flow helps to dampen the noise you make when you move in or near the water. In a nutshell, you’re going to have to be a lot stealthier when you fish for low water trout.
I’ve talked about this first piece in the article Dress for Success, but it all starts with what you wear. When you are fishing in the Smoky Mountains, your backdrop consists mostly of trees and bushes. When you wear bright colors, your silhouette against that woody backdrop is much more pronounced, and the trout more easily detects your movements. Dress in dull, earth-tone colors like brown, tan, olive, or grey. And stay low. Crouching, squatting, kneeling and/or staying behind boulders will help eliminate your silhouette altogether.
Without the benefit of faster currents, you have to stay farther away from the fish. Simply staying back farther and casting farther can cause drag issues when you’re working across currents, as more line will be on the water. Use the longest rod you can get away with to allow for extra reach across those currents. With shorter rods, take extra measures to position yourself as much downstream from the fish as possible. This will put your line/leader more in the same speed current as the fly and provide a better drift.
Speaking of lines… Heavier fly lines will make more commotion on the water and will drag more. Try using lighter lines, 4-weight and smaller, and keep them off the water as much as you can by keeping the rod tip up. Longer leaders with longer and finer tippet will also help with less drag and less commotion on the water. For small to mid size streams, I usually fish 9’ leaders in low water, and often 12’ leaders on larger rivers.
Lower, slower moving water also gives the fish a better, longer look at your fly. Larger, bushier flies will often produce “short strikes,” where the fish merely bumps or noses it, or stops just short of taking it. Smaller flies and low profile flies like parachutes or comparaduns, will often solve that. A Griffith’s Gnat in a size #18 is a favorite late season, low water pattern. A Parachute Adams in size #18 is another favorite. Terrestrials are still abundant this time of year and a small parachute ant or a soft hackle ant dropper can be very effective in these conditions.
You may also try to seek out choppier water. Fish will often position themselves more in choppy water during these conditions to remain less visible to predators.
Mostly, success in low water is going to boil down to movement. Keep your false casting to an absolute minimum, like, not at all if you can. Don’t go rushing into each new spot. First, assess the pocket, pool, or run from afar, then keep a low profile and approach it slowly.
After doing all of this, as simple as it sounds, be ready! Your strike is most often going to come on the first cast and you don’t get many second chances.
Understanding How Trout Feed and the Importance of Presentation….
It has been claimed by many, beginner and expert alike, that Smoky Mountain trout are among the most difficult to catch. Talk to a few Smoky Mountain anglers for any length of time and at some point the statement, “If you can catch them here, you can catch them anywhere!” will certainly be heard. That’s not entirely true. Simply driving a little north to the Clinch will teach you that. Employing Smoky Mountain fishing tactics on that big tailwater may reap rewards in a few areas, but the long, slick waters of the Clinch will require different skills to be consistently successful. Almost every fishery has certain characteristics and little quirks that make it uniquely challenging.
But this much is true… If you are catching fish in the Smokies on a consistent basis and understand why and how you’re catching them, applying those skills to other freestone rivers, such as those in the American West, will put you a step ahead of many anglers. But why? What is it about these little mountain streams that is so challenging?
The first thing is simply the fact that you typically have a significant volume of water in a small space. Rather than water flowing through a broad basin, where current speeds are somewhat consistent and concentrated in long, broad channels; in these small streams, the flow breaks and changes speed dramatically with every boulder it hits. So in many situations, in one fishy run, there may be fifteen different current speeds with which to contend. That may not be a big deal if you understand how that phenomenon can impede drift and you can approach those runs properly, but failure to understand this can convince many an angler that there are no fish in these streams!
I’ve seen a number of VERY good fly fishermen come to the Smokies and get skunked. In most cases it is because they are big river fishermen and they approach these streams in the same way they approach the big rivers they normally fish. That usually entails standing erect at the bottom of a run and making a 40-60 foot, up and across cast to the top of the run. The result is 40-60 feet of line being grabbed by fifteen different current speeds, and an attached fly dragging like RuPaul! All but the smallest and dumbest fish in the Smokies will not tolerate a poor drift, and with the exception of the rare slow pools, there is no way you’re going to be able to cast that much line and be able to control your drift. Executing a good drift in the Smokies is going to require getting closer to the fish.
First, it is important to understand where the fish will be and why. You can find fish in the slow pools but these are among the most difficult to target. Without a defined channel to concentrate food, fish in these pools will be very spread out and often cruising, feeding opportunistically. Unless there is a significant hatch coming off to motivate consistent feeding and reveal fish when they break the surface for a meal, catching them in these environments is going to require a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of plain dumb luck. This is certainly not to say you can’t catch fish in slow pools in “hatchless” situations, but the odds are not with you.
For heavier concentrations of actively feeding fish, you’ll want to be in the riffles and runs where there are clearly defined channels. The stream funnels insects and other food items into these channels, and where you find food, you find fish. And in these food abundant areas, fish are typically “holding,” waiting for the meal to come to them. But because there is so much “stuff” coming through these chutes, from aquatic insects to stream debris, the fish instinctively ignore passing items that don’t look like food. Your imitation dragging through the feeding zone faster than the current because another current is pulling on your fly line, qualifies as something fish will ignore. To control the fly you have to control the line. To control the line in a run with multiple currents, you have to get closer.
To get closer, you’ll want to employ the strategies discussed in Part 1 of this article: dress accordingly, stay low, and be stealthy. The idea is to get into a position where you can use the length of your rod to keep the fly line out of any currents other than the one where your fly is. So you’re keeping the rod high, keeping most, if not all, of the line off the water so that there is very little to impede the drift. By following the fly with your rod tip, you can extend your drift through the run. There are going to be a number of these little feeding zones within a run, so you try to hit one, reposition yourself, hit the next, reposition yourself, and so on.
Check out the photo above – a typical stretch of water in the Smokies. You can easily see the numerous changes in current speed and direction in just this small area. Rather than standing at the bottom right of the photo and casting 40-50 feet to the top left of the photo, our angler is intelligently breaking this stretch into defined sections. He has likely already fished the water below, to his left, and right in front of him. Notice he has his rod high, keeping the line off the current directly in front of him, and allowing the fly to drift nicely in the current breaking around the right of the boulder. Next, he will likely step up to the boulder and fish that large pocket above it. Well done!
The angler in this photo is also doing a good job with a little more line out. Notice he is concealing himself behind a boulder and his rod is help upward, keeping the current lip in front of him from grabbing the line. The line that is on the water is all in the same current speed. Again, well done!
He likely fished the current below that boulder before stepping into that position. It’s all about planning your attack. Determine your targets and carefully place yourself in the proper position before casting to them.
Setting the Hook
Fishermen in the Smokies also miss A LOT of strikes. Some of the misses can be attributed to the fact that trout in the Smokies hit and spit a fly with amazing speed. You can just go on and plan on missing some strikes when you fish here – just like you can plan on getting hung in a few trees – it’s all part of it!
But you can greatly increase your number of hook-ups by implementing the above strategies. While many strikes are missed due to the angler just not being ready or reacting to slowly, just as many are the result of too much line on the water. The more line you have out, the more line you have to move and tighten to set the hook. And when that line has a lot of slack in it, there will be even more delay.
It’s a delicate balance. In most cases, you have to have a little bit of slack in your line to allow your nymph or dry fly to drift without drag. Keeping that slack to an absolute minimum will allow the rod tip to lift and tighten the line on the fish much more quickly and will certainly result in more fish to hand.
Understanding a Trout’s Vision and Instincts for a Better Approach…. On numerous occasions guiding clients in the Smoky Mountains, I have been met with a suspicious and doubting eye when I provide certain instruction regarding approaching and presenting the fly to wild mountain trout. The reply is often something like, “Are they really that smart?” No, trout aren’t that smart. They have the brain the size of a pea. But the fact that they aren’t that smart is what allows them to be so good at what they do. Unlike us more “intelligent” humans, trout aren’t distracted by health care reform, college football, paying the mortgage, or who got voted off American Idol last night. Their entire existence is ruled by instinct, and their only real concerns are receiving enough oxygen, eating, and not being eaten! When your life is that simple, it allows you to remain pretty focused.
Think about a simple housefly for a moment. Trying to catch one is difficult. A housefly isn’t smart. It’s not planning out evasive maneuvers in the event of a human attempting to catch it. First I’ll cut right, then I’ll go up, then I’ll get behind the blinds at the window…. It’s pure instinct. Survival. Something we humans have to go through rigorous, repetitive training to achieve.
One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when approaching fish is doing so from upstream. To a trout, a stream is a conveyor belt of food, constantly delivering hatched aquatic insects and terrestrials on the surface and juvenile aquatic insects (nymphs) between the surface and the bottom. Trout aren’t looking down the conveyor belt to see what they’ve missed, they’re looking up the conveyor belt to see what meal is coming next. If the trout see something suspicious at the top of the conveyor belt, like you, they’re going to likely quit feeding until they feel safe again. They may even go hide!
So the trout knows I’m trying to catch him? No! But he’s spooked. Think about a situation you’ve been in where your senses were heightened. Maybe you’re walking alone late at night on a dark street and you hear a strange noise up ahead. Is it the wind? A stray cat? Another person? A serial killer? You don’t know, so what do you do? Do you race up ahead to check it out? Do you ignore it and keep on as if nothing happened? You would probably stop doing what you’re doing and assess the situation. You might even turn around and go the other way. It’s the same thing if something disrupts a trout’s comfort zone while they’re feeding.
Another interesting way to look at it is if you take the dark street scenario described above and insert a thirteen year old rather than an adult. Due to limited life experiences and a feeling of invincibility, the thirteen year old may proceed with less caution, if any at all. Now you know why big (old) fish are harder to catch than small ones!
You’ll be far more successful if you approach the fish from downstream and cast upstream. This puts you behind the feeding fish where you are less likely to be detected. Notice I said less likely. You can still alert fish to your presence by making a lot of commotion through careless wading. When possible, stay out of the water or right on the edge. When you do enter and move through the water, do so quietly and deliberately. Stomping along the stream bottom and/or splashing through the water will produce excessive vibrations, again alerting the fish to possible danger.
You also want to keep a low profile to remain unseen by the fish. So trout have eyes in the back of their heads? No, but they can still see things behind them – to an extent. Trout are predators and prey, and they are blessed with vision that benefits them in both roles. Like humans, they have binocular vision that allows them to see straight ahead underwater. Because of the placement of their eyes, they also have an extended range of peripheral vision, allowing them to see things on either side of them. Since this vision is used to look straight ahead and to each side, there is little distortion and it’s very clear – much like we would see under water.
But trout also have a cone-shaped field of vision above them that allows them to detect predators from above. Because of the distortion caused by light refracting as it hits the surface of the water, trout are unable to clearly make out objects, so this is used to visually detect movement more than anything else, such as a Kingfisher swooping down to get them. It’s the same as if you were to lie down on the bottom of a swimming pool and look up. You would be able to see objects but they would be so distorted it would be difficult to differentiate between a person and a tree – until that person started to move. However, something that is right on the surface, like a mayfly dun, will be clearer to the trout than something above the surface, like a bird – at least the silhouette will be much more distinct – making this ability effective for feeding on adult insects and terrestrials.
As you’ll notice in the poorly illustrated drawing above, that field of vision does extend a little behind the trout – upward and outward. Everything that makes its way into that cone can be detected by the fish. So, when approaching a trout from behind, how close you are determines whether or not you’re in that cone of vision. Notice however, that a short object can be directly behind the trout and unseen while a tall object would be in the field of vision. This is why many successful Smoky Mountain anglers can be seen crouching or squatting when closely approaching fish. The lower profile keeps them out of the fish’s “window.”
The other thing that should be considered is the type of water you’re fishing. The faster and more broken the water is, the more difficult it will be for the trout to detect you, making it easier for you to get closer to the prey. On the other hand, trout in the slower, flatter runs and pools are going to be able to detect you much more easily and may require you to stay back a little more and put a little more distance on that cast.
In any situation, the more you can conceal yourself, the more successful you will be. Stay low. Wade slowly and quietly. Hide behind rocks and boulders when you can. And for God’s sake, leave the bright orange, hot pink, neon yellow clothing at home. You don’t have to be dressed in full camo with twigs and branches in your hat to catch fish here, but simply dressing in earth tones – browns, olives, khakis, and greys – will go a long way toward not scaring every fish before you even make a cast!
Check back soon to see Part 2 of this series about how trout feed and how to effectively present your fly.