Our home waters are the wild trout streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ian has been a guiding fly fishing since 1995. I have been a full-time fly fishing guide since 2002. Together we own and operate R&R Fly Fishing guide service in Townsend, TN and have created the online instructional series called RISE Fly Fishing Advice.
The fishing in the Southern Appalachians can be difficult, but it's in one of the most beautiful places on earth! Our mountain stream trout can prove difficult to catch. since they have been on the defense from day one. Keeping the mindset of a predator will be in your best interest on any trout stream. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when fishing wild mountain trout streams.
Fishing a small stream requires an angler to be closer to the fish so it's important to position yourself so you aren't seen. Trout naturally position themselves to face upstream or into the current. Fish upstream and you'll usually remain out of a trout's line of sight. Cast your fly in front of the fish while remaining behind the fish. You always want them to see your fly before they have a chance to see you.
STAY OUT OF THE WATER AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Small streams typically don't have much extra space for fish. Any time you're in the water there's a good chance a fish used to be right where you've decided to stand or very close. Staying out of the water, or at least out of the best water, is the best policy. If you're in the water fish are more likely to see you and feel you coming as your movement creates a push in the water. Wading only as necessary and moving along the river banks as much as possible without disturbing the water will help you sneak up on your target. If you do wade, try to stay in the shallowest water possible. It's important to remember fish sit in water that is less than knee-deep, not just deep pools.
CAST TO WHAT'S CLOSEST TO YOU FIRST
It's not wrong to think that a big long cast to the head of the pool is going to catch a fish right away, but what you should consider first is all the fish you might spook when you make that big long cast. Look at the water at the tail of the pool. Look at the bubble line or the slots on the other side of a nearby boulder or log that is close to you before making that big long cast. Also, consider all the fish your fly line will land on if your first cast goes from the tail (where you approach the pool) to the head of the pool. Those fish will likely spook and tip-off other trout as they run away. In most cases, you can fish a little bit at a time starting with what's closest to you first. Some of the biggest fish we see in small streams like to sit near the tail out. I suggest you start at your rod tip and add a few feet at a time either by adding distance to your cast or by moving forward to the best position to get a good drift as you move from the tail to the head of the pool. By working a pool this way, you are more likely to catch multiple fish as you move upstream instead of just one fish at the head of the run.
BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Sidearm casts and roll casts are KEY in small streams! Be aware of your surroundings as most small streams have an abundance of low hanging limbs, streamside bushes, and other covers. Keep your cast low instead of overhead to prevent getting tangled in the trees. A roll cast will allow you to keep your fly line in front of your body without concern for obstacles behind that would catch your fly. Be intentional with your cast and have a clear target for your fly. Look at the feeding lane and current to decide where you will place your fly and put it there. Don't randomly throw your fly out there, pick a feeding lane and work that run by making every cast count. Just as when you meet someone new, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression, the same applies to trout so make it count.
KEEP IT SHORT
Short accurate casts with very little line on the water will serve you best on small streams. Here in the Smoky Mountains, we have a lot of boulders, little plunges, and waterfalls. These characteristics of the streams create multiple currents that are not always moving at the same speed. The idea is to have a rapid or boulder between you and where your fly is cast. Using the length of the rod keep your line off the rapid or boulder. This is super effective as trout aren't likely to be aware of your presence and the short cast prevents snags which are more common with longer casts.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER
Fish don't want to get caught!
No matter where you fish, always remember that the fish don't want to get caught. This is often overlooked on wild trout streams where fish are ultra-paranoid. Most anglers never realize how much fly fishing for wild trout is like hunting. You have to watch, be intentional with your cast, and know your target. If the fish know you are coming they will leave. If your fly drags on the water or your cast lands with a splashy smack, the game is usually over. Be sneaky. Get the good drift. Make the first cast count. Most of all, have fun out on the water and make memories to last a lifetime!