This article is written with a foucus on the freestome streams of the Smoky Mountains and the tailwaters of Tennessee but the information is just as applicable to waters in other parts of the country.
Winter can be a tough time to catch trout in the Southeast. Hatches are sparse on most tailwaters like the Clinch and Holston as well as the streams in the Smokies. While there are limited opportunities for dry fly fishing, nymphing provides the best chances for success. Nymph fishing is often thought of as more difficult than dry fly fishing, mostly because you are fishing a fly that you can’t see to a fish that you can’t see. However, there are a number of things you can do to improve your odds.
Fishing the freestone streams can present problems not typically encountered on tailwaters. The first is that water temperatures on the freestones can fluctuate quite a bit and will often get colder than the tailwaters. It’s not uncommon for streams to spend a good deal of the winter in the 30’s. A temperature of 45 should be considered good.
Fortunately trout in freestones are very open to eating a wide array of flies. Basic nymphs like the Pheasant Tail, Prince, Hare’s Ear, Prince and Tellico Nymph are all effective. I’ll usually carry a compliment of “big” nymphs or stonefly imitations. These are mostly Princes and Tellicos in #8-10. I tie these flies with a lot of weight so they’re right on bottom where a stonefly nymph belongs. My “average” size flies are Beadhead Pheasant Tails or Copper Johns tied in #14-16. Again these are tied heavy so they get right down where trout sit in cold conditions, the bottom.
The best way to start the day is to fish a tandem rig with a Pheasant Tail on top and a Prince or Tellico Nymph about 24″ down from it. This allows you to fish the stonefly pattern on bottom and the smaller nymph will give the appearance of a mayfly nymph or caddis pupa tumbling in the current or ascending to hatch. In effect, you’re fishing not only two flies, but two zones in the water. If you fish with a strike indicator as most anglers do, be sure it can handle heavy flies in the tumbling water of mountain streams. Foam pill shaped strike indicators excel at this job.
Fish the nymphs in water that has only a little bit of current. This isn’t meant to mean big quiet holes of water, but seams and pockets that have slow moving water. Keep your casts short to ensure that you don’t have excess fly line in conflicting currents. This drag will keep your flies from sinking and pull them out of the strike zone. We’ll usually tie this particular nymph rig on leader of about 8′ with the flies tied to 3-4X. Heavier tippet allows for better turn over and is far less likely to break when you have the inevitable snag on bottom. This style of nymph fishing can also be effective on the Hiwassee, Tuckaseegee, and Nantahala tailwaters which have rougher waters and large aquatic insects similar to the freestone streams.
The method we use on tailwaters like the Clinch and Holston is a bit different. These rivers have a calmer nature and the insects found there are smaller. Our “big” nymphs for these waters are #16 Beadhead Pheasant Tails and Sowbugs. I put extra weight under the bead to be sure it sinks quickly. The sowbug pattern I tie is mostly weight with a small amount of dubbing so this one really gets down on bottom. “Small” flies are #18-22 Brassies and Zebra Midges. If fish are somewhat active I’ll put the small midge pattern on top. I would do this if there are sporadic rises, but no fish rising steadily. If there are no fish rising whatsoever, I’ll put the midge on bottom.
Since the water isn’t so rough and even the heavy flies don’t weigh that much I prefer to use a tuft of yarn for a stirke indicator. These don’t make any plop like the foam ones will. This is important as the character of the water on most Southern tailwates is relatively calm. A heavy plop can spook fish. Tie the nymphs 24 – 40″ under the strike indicator, perhaps deeper if the run is especially deep. Your leader should be 9-10′ long with the flies tied on. Use 5X tippet for starters, but 6X may be a better choice with smaller midge patterns. You’ll be fishing from further away than in the freestones, usually 25-30′ away, because of the calmer water.
Fish the nymphs in the most concentrated tongues of current you can find. These will hold the most fish. Be sure to fish them thoroughly and deliberately. Tailwater trout are less likely to move for a fly. You may have to make a number of drifts before the fly comes to a trout just the way he wants it to.
Regardless of the type of river or stream you fish, the biggest issue associated with nymph fishing is missed strikes. When you fish a dry fly you see the strike the moment the trout eats it. In many instances you will see the trout before it eats the fly. However, the angler loses this advantage while nymphing. One of several things must happen to detect a strike if an angler is fishing a nymph on a dead drift under a strike indicator.
If the fly drifts right into the fish perfectly and he opens up and eats it, the indicator will go under once the current pulls the tippet tight. In many instances a fish will move up to a foot or so to eat a nymph. In this case the indicator will go under when the fish has the fly in its mouth and either turns upstream or toward the bottom. In any event, the strike indicator rarely goes under at the very instant the fish takes the fly. The angler is at least one beat if not two beats behind so it is extremely important to be vigilant and expect the strike.