Winter Fishing in the Smokies

(Originally published in Fish & Fly Winter 2001)

Winter days on the stream have a ritual completely different from spring, summer, or fall outings. The streams of Southern Appalachia have a distinct winter mood. Maple and poplar trunks appear bone white against the dark evergreen hues of rhododendron and hemlock. Boulders in the stream accentuate the atmosphere, rising from aquamarine waters like icebergs.

Midwinter fishing on this end of the Appalachian chain is a pleasant possibility, though. Waters are rarely iced over. And there is no closed season on our wild trout streams. Midday temperatures are mild enough at least a few days a month so a quick fix can be had before spring arrives. This is one of the few mountainous locales where freestone streams remain fishable most of the winter. The snow packed regions of New Hampshire and Vermont are not so kind to the fly fisher.

Spring dry fly fishing is really the best time to be on the stream bu the quiet time allowed by the cold weather is welcome. All too often I share this water with some of the 9 million visitors who come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. Most are not anglers, usually sightseers with just enough swimmers and inner tubers in the mix to keep the fish from feeding freely in the really prime water.

Winter is a quiet time. Most fly fishers stay home. Tubers hibernate until June. There is no point in arriving at daybreak. The mercury will be at the lowest point of the day – not the best conditions for cold blooded quarry. It is better to enjoy a hot cup of coffee and a smoky, salty country ham biscuit. This breakfast is so indigenous to the region as to be freshly prepared at convenience marts throughout the southern mountains. The bottom half of the coffee cup washes down the last bites of biscuit as I crunch through frosty leaves along the creek banks.

Scouting the situation gives my wading boots to thaw. They soak in a back eddy weighted down with river rocks. The short drive to Abrams Creek, Little River, or Tremont wasn’t long enough for the stiff boots to limber up next to the heater.

Small dun caddisflies or blue winged olive mayflies may hatch later; trout will be lying deep in feeding lanes waiting to intercept drifting pupae or nymphs. The usual rig will be a #16 Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail nymph tied on the leader about one foot and a split shot away from a larger stonefly nymph. The heavy rig will pause occasionally as it tumbles along the uneven bottom. Slow seams in riffles and large pockets between currents usually hold active trout.

If the trout are eating well, a weighted Muddler slowly hobbled through a favorite hole might produce the best brown trout of the young year. A short pause in the drift results in a reflexive jerk of the rod. There are enough tugs in return to keep me out in the elements. Sometimes whem I’m out in the worst weather I’m reminded of the saying about a jerk on one end waiting for a jerk on the other.

The first rays of sun will begin to warm a select few pools by 11 AM. The winter sun doesn’t rise above some ridges and leaves many pools shaded for several months. Trout may be found rising in a few pools by midday. These pools were found through persistence, staying on the stream through the winter. The flurry of activity seldom lasts two hours. Take a long lunch break and you may miss the best rise of the month. Temperatures on days such as this will usually approach the high 40’s or low 50’s Farenheit.

Most days will be spent drowning nymphs in ice cold runs, though. Any trout that gets hooked will – I secretly hope – shake off before already cold fingers have to take a dip in the stinging water. Spring will come soon enough but I’ll savor the solitude offered by the wintery cold while it lasts.