I’m not going to lie, I was a little apprehensive of what I was going to find in traveling to the Smokies over this past Labor Day weekend. With the recent coronavirus-induced narrative being that people are flocking to the outdoors in record numbers, I could only imagine that every campground would be full, every trail would be crowded, and all of the fishing holes lined with anglers.
Throwing that caution to the wind, I tried to score a last minute campsite on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but they were all reserved. Probably had been for weeks; you snooze, you lose. While there weren’t a ton of options, I did find a motel room in Cherokee for two nights. The plan was to drive up on Friday after work, fish all day on Saturday, sleep, fish most of the day on Sunday, and then head home. Not blending Monday into the trip was intentional, as that would serve as a day-at-home “buffer” between the activities of the long weekend and the realities of the upcoming work week.
After the long drive from North Florida to Western North Carolina on Friday night, I awoke early on Saturday with the intention hitting the streams at first light before anybody else arrived. Boy was I wrong. Driving along the road that parallels the Oconaluftee & Raven Fork Rivers on the way to the Park, every gravel pull-off was already overflowing with pickup trucks and minivans. Eager fishermen, women, and children stood at the bumpers of their vehicles, either squeezing into rubber waders, loading up khaki fishing vests, or checking the Berkley Trilene spooled on their spinning reel. Some were even already knee deep in the water, casting toward what I assume were recently stocked trout from the Cherokee Tribal trout hatchery, located a few miles upstream.
Looking out the window and occasionally waving “hello” to lighten the mood resulting from awkward eye contact, I kept driving on toward the Park’s entrance. I wasn’t planning on fishing these larger waters. Fortunately, these anglers did not seem to have my appetite for wild (and likely smaller) trout. Once I crossed the threshold of the Park’s entrance, I was alone. No other anglers to be found.
That’s better. Deep exhale.
Day One: The Rainbow Connection
The extended day of fishing that followed was a wonderful mountain stream experience. The kind that requires slow, deliberate pacing as the potential for an encounter with a wild rainbow, or even a brook trout was in each and every hole, pocket, and riffle.
I love smaller waters like these, the kind that make you really work for the fish as you not only must navigate micro currents and plunge pools of uncertain depths, but are also forced to scale larger boulders and downed trees to simply progress upstream. Unlike the environment of my friends lined shoulder-to-shoulder outside the Park, there were no banks in which to casually stroll. And definitely nowhere to set up a folding camp chair. If there were, the thick clusters of rhododendron would surely impede any sort of timely procession.
On this part of the stream, there was a generally unobstructed overhead casting lane, so I was able to fish my preferred headwaters gear, the 340cm Oni Type III, paired with a 12.5 foot length of 3x level line, and an assortment of various kebari. This day was largely a “redhead silk” futsu day, as that pattern tied by Creekside Kebari seemed to pique the interest the stream’s residents the most often.
The rainbows were generous with their time, allowing me to spend more than my share with them over the course of the day. While to most they would not be considered as a trophy worth of wall mounting, the sleek chrome bullets that rose from the depths were definitely prizes to the small stream enthusiast.
Day Two: Traversing the Prong
The morning of day two was much like the first, although sightseers and photographers replaced anglers along the roadsides. The elk were out early this morning, making for a wonderful viewing experience as the morning mist burned off over the treeline. In all of my trips to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I never had much luck in seeing the elk out and about. On this day they were everywhere. Certainly an precursor of good things to come.
My eventual destination involved a bit longer hike in, then up, to some slightly tighter waters. Rainbows remained the quarry.
Upon descending the steep bank down to the cold water, it was running high and fast, the shade of the thick canopy eliminating much of the ambient light. As such, I chose a soft-hackled sakasa kebari to achieve greater depth in the water column. The fly’s turns of white feather also provided the bonus of increased sub-surface visibility. Pairing this pattern with the slightly shorter Nissin Royal Stage 320 and the same twelve and a half foot level line proved to be a desirable combination.
This more compact arena, paired with steeper and slicker vertical climbs, made for an intense full-body workout. I was pleased to see that the Orvis Pro Approach wading shoes procured earlier this year were passing their first serious test. I’d highly recommend them for streams such as this, however they cannot be worn “stock.” I had first tried them in North Georgia with mixed-results, finding that they do require a bit of after-market studding to ensure safe footing. A recommendation by a friend of the addition of Grip Studs was the difference between reliable traction and personal misfortune.
As for the fishing, a bit more coaxing was required today. Dead drifts were not successful, nor were pronounced “splats” into pockets, rather twitches both with and against the current, proved to be extremely attractive. Pausing the fly momentarily in front of obstacles at the feet of pools (prior to them plunging down a level) was also a tactic that worked on more than one occasion.
Unlike the first day, a foot path did not parallel this “prong” very closely, so it was quite difficult to exit. This cut into the actual fishing time as I was forced to descend the same way I ascended, which took a bit of time, in addition to re-tracing many well placed steps.
Hours later and back at the tailgate of my SUV, I sat down in the cargo area and began sliding off the well-used, wet neoprene gaiters, wading socks, and shoes. In doing that “end of outing” ritual, I couldn’t help but be a bit introspective, looking back fondly on what I feared might be a weekend of congested streams and poor fishing.
It just goes to show that if you’re willing to go a bit off the beaten path to pursue whatever you’re after, you’ll undoubtedly be rewarded in some way. Even should you decide to drive almost eight hours to fish one of the country’s most populous National Parks over an extremely busy holiday weekend.
Once again, the Smokies proved to be more than worth the round-trip.
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