From the Super 8 Motel astride the junction of the I-40 and I-75 the prospects did not seem superb – although the weather at least was promising. A low swelling upon the south horizon, barely discernible behind a deep spring haze, indicated the Appalachians close to their southern extremity, and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Therein lies a concentrated fly fishing culture that is undiluted by any trickery other than the ancient and respectable deception of the fly. To prove this, just outside the mountain hamlet of Townsend, sits Little River Outfitters, a toothsome, compact little fly fishing centre with that exclusivity of purpose that so delights the heart of a true fly fisherman. No hint of a spinner here. Not a silicone worm in sight. Just the pleasing, anodised texture of finely crafted fly reels, rows of slim, purposeful and mildly malevolent fly rods and a series of fly trays sweetly girded with some old favourites alongside plenty of bright and spry modern adaptations. Lovely. Add to this an enthusiastic and well informed counter assistant and this is without doubt the place to start a day fly fishing in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park.
My background reading on fly fishing on this side of the Smokies had painted a picture of a headwater/dry-fly culture that appealed very strongly to me. Punctuating the usual superlatives that one can expect to encounter in a fly fishing manual were warnings that the fish in the Appalachian streams tend to be small. It seems, though, that they compensate for this with unusual energy and aggression, and with a size-to-cunning ratio that makes them extremely difficult to catch. I was encouraged also by warm and dry local weather conditions, clear skies and much entomology evident in the dense deciduous woodland that seemed so characteristic of the region.
According to local standards, a small fish in the southern Appalachians is a very small fish, usually at less than five inches. A medium catch would be something between five and nine inches, and an outstanding result would be a fish upwards of nine, but rarely exceeding sixteen inches. A twenty in inch trout is a beast. Brown Trout, which are an introduced species, and are quite commonly caught, are usually the largest, with the indigenous Brook Trout rarely exceeding ten inches, and even that would be a fine fish. Rainbow Trout are probably the most commonly caught.
Approaching the Great Smokey Mountains National Park from Knoxville leads to the most visited Gatlinburg/Cades Cove vector that even on a weekday during the school term is overcrowded, so it stands to reason that most of the north flowing streams are heavily fished. However there are a number of them, but also there is an almost unlimited associated network of reasonably accessible headwaters covering both the north and south facing slopes, some more fishable than others, but all offering a quintessential fly fishing experience in this uniquely beautiful mountain environment.
And there is no lie about this. There is an extraordinary beauty about these mountains, but also sense of immeasurable bounty. The woodlands hereabouts were once roamed by the Cherokee, one of the five so called Civilized Tribes, who assimilated much of advancing European culture, where generally compliant and who lived an existence of combined hunter/gathering and agriculture. Life then must have been idyllic. There would seem to be no obstacle to a fairly comfortable survival here if the need should ever arise. To a skilled woodsman the forests and woodlands are alive with potential. Black bear are the icon of the Smokies, and are probably the most recognisable mammal, but white tailed deer are not uncommon, along with other antelope species, and they would certainly have been more common a century ago. There are also reported to be over fifty native fish species inhabiting some 700 miles of accessible streams, so how bad could it possibly be?
There is also a cloistered, secretive aspect of the Appalachians that is not quite so easy to quantify, and which gives the region much of its mood and character. The dense carpet of deciduous woodland and hardwood forest tends to close in the senses, generating superstition and in some respects fortifying the development of alternative senses that, on the one hand, aid survival, but on the other also generate clannishness, distrust and such widely charismatic pursuits as snake handling as a spiritual device (this art is still practiced widely in Appalachia). The popular hillbilly stereotype is quite easy to picture in this natural social redoubt where a family, or a community, could quite easily lose itself indefinitely, reproduce prolifically and evolve any number of unique social peculiarities. One need only remember Deliverance, the original bad-seed portrayal of that very hillbilly stereotype.
And indeed, Cades Cove, a nicely showcased community of the old Appalachian kind, speaks eloquently of the gorgeous, Eden-like beauty of the mountains, but also of the isolation that must have been a very real factor during Prohibition and the days of the Great Depression. It was then that the Moonshine culture hereabouts reached its peak.
But what we are here to do is fish. Including the Carolina side of the park there are nineteen separate water catchments flowing off the Smokies that amount to several major streams and rivers, and any number of smaller sub-streams and tributaries. The two main north flowing rivers are the Little River and the Little Pigeon River, with other smaller options including Abrams and Crosby Creek.
With a limited amount of time available to me I opted for the line of least resistance and drove out early on a sundrenched morning to fish the Little River, pausing at Little River Outfitters for a day licence and some advice on local flies. There had been some suggestion of a local sulphur hatch in the days past so yellow was the key pattern to present. I had no interest in nymphing, although the suggestion was that water flows might still be too high to effectively work a dry fly, but that is what I had come to do and that is what I did.
I selected a few likely looking yellows from the trays – a few foam tipped Never-Sink Caddis, some Mister Rapidian and Mr. Rapidian Parachute and a handful of Burk’s Extended Body Yellow Stone. It is a known fact that yellow is the colour of choice for the Southern Appalachians and Great Smoky Mountains, and this is fairly well reflected in the number of yellow patterns on offer at Little River Outfitters.
From Townsend I drove through the picturesque countryside heading towards Gatlinburg before turning right at Wear Valley and junctioning with the Little River alongside a large picnic area. I rigged up my preferred 2-weight carbon fibre with a weight-forward floating line and a nine foot leader tipped by a few feet of tippet. Dispensing with waders or a net I plunged into the stream, finding my footing on the cobbled streambed before commencing to probe the upstream riffles with a nicely buoyant Never-Sink Caddis. The first strike was registered almost immediately. It was quick and aggressive but wide, and I missed the fish.
Then upstream the fly seemed to attracted the constant interest of fry, but no fish of even reasonable size. When eventually I did hook a small brown it was probably four inches on a good day, and although sparky and certainly worth the effort, it was still a small fish for the day.
And in truth the water flows were too heavy for effective dry fly work, but as I made my way steadily upstream, probing the edges of feeding streams and quiet eddies, interest was constant but sizes again were very poor.
The Little River, however, was a wonderful fly stream. The average depth was probably a little over a foot, with odd channels that were much deeper than that, but underfoot the pebbled surface was easy to navigate with enough underwater topography to make the hunt very interesting. But no meaningful action, so I moved on.
I made my way generally towards Gatlinburg along the Little River, taking note as I drove of a wonderful riverscape of pools and rapids broken up occasionally by long runs that were just a little too deep at that time to really offer much hope. I paused at one or two spots, worked a few variants on the yellow dry pattern, but again, the best that was recorded was a six inch brown trout – a beautiful, caramel toned creature with deep chocolate and rose coloured spots that fought a good fight and disappeared quickly as it was released off a barbless hook.
A few days later I returned to the area and tried the West Prong of the Little River, using the same basic technique, but this time on a smaller stream with a somewhat reduced water flow, and here I was able to hook into a seven inch rainbow that seemed to me to have a few hybrid markings. But this was all the waters offered up that morning.
The difficulty was that waters were high, but an additional issue would probably be crowds when the summer season came into effect and large numbers of anglers could be expected to be on the water. It is not difficult to see why this would be so, and although technical reports give no indication that fishing pressure is negatively impacting populations, finding a worthwhile run during the busy season will probably be difficult.
Despite this I would recommend the Smokies as a fly fishing destination even though my own results were disappointing. The waters are so quintessential that no time spent engaged in technique is likely to be wasted. Fish are small, but they are canny, and extremely difficult to catch, so even if the adrenalin factor might be lacking, the cerebral thrill of catching one of those smart little buggers always tends to make up for that.