Fly Fishing the Springtime in the Smokies

This article was first published in the Spring 2001 issue of Fish & Fly magazine. It chronicles a spring of fly fishing in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina .

I always fish in a hurry this time of year. Our early spring hatches of Blue Quills and – with a little luck- their larger cousins, the Quill Gordons, send me nearly running up and down my favorite pools on eastern Tennessee’s Little River. After a couple of weeks of good hatches and good fishing, my winter longing satisfied with an exceptional fish or two, I’ll settle down. My mind begins to wonder to Deep Creek, the Oconaluftee River, Abrams Creek, or maybe the springtime trip to Hazel Creek I’ve been promising to take for several years.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 700 miles of trout stream for the adventure angler to explore, all with wild, streambred fish. Rainbows are the main fare; browns are present in most of the larger streams. Both species average six to eight inches. The occasional rainbow reaches a foot long, with a few browns exceeding that size with ease. Brookies here are the distinct southern Appalachian strain, pure natives, found exclusively in small headwater streams above 3,000 feet in elevation. Many of these creeks have been closed to fishing since the 1970’s although recent restoration efforts by the National Park Service give hope that these tumbling waters will someday reopen for fly fishing.

Some of my most treasured angling memories are of chilly March days with only the slightest hint of spring in the air. In my favorite Appalachian streams, the small Blue Quills, easily the most overlooked hatch of the year, keep fish looking to the surface. Now and then a large, clumsy Quill Gordon will float down the river, causing an alert trout to lose all caution. I didn’t even know what a Quill Gordon was one wintry day in early spring when my #12 Thunderhead disappeared in a boil. A large brown trout cut a wake up the shallow run of water; my leader snapped.

Several years later I did know what a Quill Gordon was as a few fluttered past. By then I also knew enough to burn a trail to a pool where I had seen a large brown the previous December. This trout was greedy enough to pass up numerous Blue Quills and concentrate his efforts on the large, clumsy Quill Gordons drifting his way. His rise was slow and easy; he measured exactly 19 inches.

The season’s first real insect activity will usually be triggered by water temperatures rising to and remaining in the 50 degree range for the better part of a week. This can happen as early as late February – normally by the middle of March. Blue Quills tend to precede the Gordons by a few days and are more reliable. Blues begin hatching by 11 AM or so and continue through the afternoon. Careful attention should be paid, however, not to let the Gordons slip by without your noticing. Rarely does a significant hatch last more than an hour. Emergences are more often sporadic and occur in different stretches of water as conditions become optimum. Wet flies and nymphsproduce well at this time of year but dry fly fishing is what I’ve waited for all winter long.

The Blue Quills are small and best fished in a #18 or #20. Quill Gordons, on the contrary, are rather large. Some are #14; most are #12. Sometimes a #10 is more than a trout can stand. The classic Catskill ties are effective but I’ve found that Comparadun style imitations work extremely well. Attractor patterns such as Wulffs take their share of fish, particularly in swift or turbulent water. These hatches linger into April. By late March or April there are enough assorted mayflies, caddis-flies, and stoneflies hatching that a variety of dry fly and nymph patterns will take fish.

Hatches are rarely thick so a fly of average size and color is your best choice. Adams and Elk Hair Caddis floaters, and Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear nymph patterns – all in a #14 – are about as average as trout flies get. Hendricksons, Light Cahills, and Little Yellow Stoneflies all hatch by the middle of April. Don’t reel in too soon: All of these hatches are best late in the day, often peaking during the last hour of full light.

As the season progresses into full-leaf spring, I see more of my friends on the Little River. Stan will be haunting the water just above Metcalf Bottoms where a yellow lady’s slipper orchid always blooms just downstream. Jack will be in a handful of pools, watching for signs of good fish rising to March Browns. One spring he finally found one of the truly large ones rising to mayflies. He tied on the fly he had dressed just so at his vise, circled downstream so as no to disturb the water, and stalked his way carefully into position…. just as a pod of noisy kayakers paddled through the pool.