Fifty years ago, as a teenager, I passed through what was then the tiny hamlet of Gatlinburg three or four times each autumn en route from my hometown of Bryson City, North Carolina to Knoxville. We seldom missed an opportunity to see the University of Tennessee Volunteer football squad, under the tutelage of General Neyland, take to the gridiron. For some reason, I remember far more about Gatlinburg than I do the football. In those days, once leaves had fallen, it became a virtual ghost town. Highway 441, which passed through the heart of town, was as deserted as the streets.
What a change half a century has wrought. Today the dream of an old fisherman, hunter, and all-round mountaineer named Wiley Oakley has become reality. Oakley, who various styled himself the “Ramblin’ Man of the Smokies” and the “Roamin’ Man of the Smokies” (and wrote books under those titles), was a one-man public relations machine touting to all and sundry who would listen the virtues of his hometown. Well in the forefront of Oakley’s spiel was reference to the region’s wonderful trout fishing, and one of the many ways this staunch high-country entrepreneur made money was through acting as a guide to visiting anglers.
Oakley, for all his firm belief that tourism would put Gatlinburg on the map, would scarcely recognize the town today. It has grown from basically a one-street group of shop fronts, with a few motels thrown in the mix, to a bustling tourist mecca with year-round activities designed to draw visitors. Local leaders have recognized, as did Oakley, that the proximity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its scenic beauty, striking vistas, and unmatched biological diversity, has wide-ranging appeal. Since the park surrounds Gatlinburg on three sides, the linkage is natural, and one aspect, which has been utilized to good advantage, is the fishing opportunities afforded by area trout streams.
GATLINBURG’S FISHERIES PROGRAM
Since 1981, Gatlinburg has had its own trout-fishing program. It is a put-grow-take effort that begins with acquisition of fingerlings from the Buffalo Springs Hatchery. These are grown in Gatlinburg’s own rearing facility before being stocked in 12 stream miles controlled by the town. Annual stockings run from 30,000-35,000 keeper-sized fish and, according to Danny Grey, who oversees the town’s fisheries program, Gatlinburg recently reached a landmark when the one-millionth trout in the enterprise’s history was released.
Streams in the Gatlinburg program include the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River from the park boundary downstream to its intersection with Gnatty Branch Creek, Dudley Creek from the park boundary to where it meets the West Prong, Roaring Fork from the park boundary to the West Prong, and LeConte Creek from Painters Branch downstream to the West Prong. Portions of these waters are set aside exclusively for children under the age of 13.
Basically, there are two seasons on Gatlinburg’s waters. One runs from April 1 through the end of November with a daily limit of five fish (two on children’s water). The second is a catch-and-release approach (Dec. 1 through March 31) with only single-hook artificials allowed. Streams are closed on Thursdays throughout the year for purposes of restocking.
As anyone who has had experience with Tennessee’s licensing system will realize, things are a bit complicated when it comes to having the necessary permit and license. Basically, resident adults under the age of 65 will need an annual trout permit, a fishing license (several variations are available) and a Gatlinburg permit. The latter are available in one-day or three-day forms.
Different requirements apply for non-residents as well as residents over 65 or under 16. If this seems difficult, the good news is that Gatlinburg publishes a brochure (copies are available by calling 865/436-4178 or at www.gatlinburg-tn.com), which makes everything completely clear, and licenses are available from friendly and helpful folks at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center.
Probably the biggest draw of the Gatlinburg program is its appeal to children. There are access points to two children’s sections at Herbert Holt and Mynatt Municipal parks, and the former includes a fishing ramp and pier handy not only for kids but wheelchair-bound. On a grey, misty day in late September when I checked by the pier, there was a genial gentleman in a wheelchair, along with two youngsters with their fathers, utilizing the area. All had caught fish.
Elsewhere in the same period, I fished a bit and talked to anglers ranging from a local guy who said he fished “every Friday” to visitors from Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and several locations scattered across Tennessee. Interestingly, only one individual was actually keeping fish — the rest were practicing catch-and-release. In one big pool right in the heart of town (where the greatest amount of stocking takes place), fellows on opposite sides of the stream were landing and releasing trout with gratifying regularity, and there must have been 50 fish visible in the clear depths of the hole.
NEARBY FISHING DESTINATIONS
From a personal perspective, and it is one looking back on a marvelously misspent life of wading mountain trout waters, the Gatlinburg fishery has the greatest appeal to youngsters and inexperienced anglers. Yet, others, whether it is a purist relying exclusively on the long rod and whistling line or simply someone who finds opportunities to catch wild trout particularly appealing, have options aplenty nearby.
Those primarily focus on the waters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and many of the park’s finest streams on the Tennessee side are easily and quickly accessible using Gatlinburg as a base of operations. For starters, there are the upper reaches of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon, the same creek that flows through the heart of town.
From the park boundary upstream to its beginnings where Road Prong and Walker Camp Prong meet to form the West Prong, it closely parallels Highway 441 over much of its flow. At places you can park, walk a few yards, and begin casting, while the angler anxious to get back of beyond can find a full day’s fishing in more remote areas of West Prong in the heart of the Sugarlands or in the stretch immediately upstream of the Chimneys picnic area.
Don’t overlook the West Prong’s two major headwater feeders, Road Prong and Walker Camp Prong. Both carry an interesting mix of specks and wild rainbows, and there’s no easier place in the entire park to catch true natives (brookies, if you
insist, although no mountain man worth his salt will ever use this term to describe the species) than on Walker Camp Prong. It’s a bit confusing, but it is this prong, not Road Prong, which lies close to Highway 441 as it climbs towards Newfound Gap. Road Prong takes its name from a rugged 19th century toll road that once was the only way across this section of the Smokies.
Equally close to Gatlinburg are the lovely waters of Roaring Fork. Reached by the one-way Motor Nature Trail, this is a stream rich in history with many buildings from the hardy settlers who eked out a hardscrabble living here in yesteryear still standing.
Little fished, this is a stream of rare scenic beauty, which lives up to its name in every sense of the word. Few if any creeks in the Smokies drop more precipitously, and casting to one lovely plunge pool after another in surprisingly open conditions is an exercise in pure pleasure. There are rainbows aplenty, and while you will see those traveling along the Nature Trail, competing fishermen are rare.
A bit farther afield, but still in easy driving distance of an hour or less (unless you have the misfortune of getting caught up in stopped traffic with what locals call a “bear jam”), are some of the most storied streams of the Smokies. Basically, visitors to the region have two options. They can head east of Gatlinburg along U.S. Highway 321 or drive a short ways along U.S. Highway 441 South before turning westward along the Little River Road at the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center. Either direction leads to a choice of park streams ranging from those where you can drive to streamside to those destinations lying long miles along rugged trails.
For those choosing the latter option, a trip heading toward scenic Cades Cove will take you to Abrams Creek, long reckoned one of the best trout streams in the park. This is thanks, at least in part, to the fact that it runs through limestone and thus has an appreciably larger insect base than other, comparatively sterile park streams. The best sections require some walking, with the area above Abrams Creek Falls and below the cove being particularly recommended.
Just be sure you study the trail system carefully, because once you are committed to the section of Abrams Creek locals call “The Horseshoe,” you are away from ready trail access for many hours. Also, be aware of the fact that the stream you see running through Cades Cove is but a watery shadow of that lying outside the Cove, thanks to the fact that much of its flow lies underground in the area that was once some of the finest farmland in the Smokies. Be prepared, in warmer months and on weekends, for slow traffic along the one-way Cades Cove loop.
On the way to Abrams Creek via the Little River Road, you pass or come close to other important streams. As its name suggests, the road closely parallels one of the park’s largest streams, the Little River, for many miles. For savvy veterans who have long fished park waters, this stream (which is actually the East Prong of the Little River, but everyone just calls it the Little River) is a favorite. Large by park standards, it is far more technical than most other streams.
That is thanks to the fact it is heavily fished and appreciably more difficult to read than many smaller creeks. All this translates to what can be an exceptionally challenging experience. The potential rewards, though, are significant. There are some huge browns here and every big pool holds a trophy fish or two.
Arguably, a better choice for many is the Middle Prong of the Little River. Most locals refer to it as Tremont, which is the name of the study institute located here as well as the road that offers access to its lower reaches. Several of its feeders, such as Thunderhead Prong (a popular dry fly pattern is named the “Thunderhead”), also deserve attention from those willing to do some walking to get away from pressured waters.
To the east of Gatlinburg, the most significant stream nearby is the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. However, if you ask a local for directions, even though the Middle Prong lies only six or so miles from Gatlinburg, he may not know what you are talking about until you say you want to fish Greenbriar. Then you will readily learn that it is accessed off Tennessee Highway 73 via the Greenbriar Road.
Lying in the shadow of towering Mt. LeConte, this rough portion of the park was never a heavily settled area, and the rugged nature of the creek soon explains why. This is a stream of immense boulders, fast flows and hard work. It enjoys the notable advantage, as does the West Prong of the Little Pigeon, of being quite wide open for a drainage of its size.
This is thanks to the fact that heavy rainfalls on the steep western slopes of the Smokies often send raging torrents down its course, keeping vegetation pushed well back and giving the angler elbowroom aplenty. It probably offers as good an opportunity as you’ll find on the Tennessee side of the park for a “Smoky Mountain Slam” (catching wild browns, bows, and brookies in a single day’s outing).
There are other streams, literally dozens of them, ranging from Cosby Creek 20 miles east of Gatlinburg to feeder streams along all the major watercourses listed above. The dilemma facing the angler isn’t a lack of places to go but rather selecting a destination that suits his individual tastes. That can range from places where you park at the roadside and walk only a few paces before being in position to cast to remote headwaters where shank’s mare comes into play in a big way.
One thing is certain, though: Gatlinburg’s waters, in combination with the park’s wild trout streams, offer something for everyone anxious to sample and savor an Appalachian trout-fishing experience. The fact that the fishing can be combined with family fun in a tourist destination providing variety ranging from shows at nearby Dollywood to hikes along the lofty Appalachian Trail or walks amidst a wonderment of wildflowers makes Gatlinburg a little piece of paradise for the trout fisherman.
THE BACKPACKING ALTERNATIVE
If you want to experience Smokies’ trout fishing at its finest, give some thought to backpacking to one of the many designated backcountry campsites within the park and using them as a base of operations.
Most of the streams noted above have one or more such sites (the West Prong of the Little Pigeon is a noteworthy exception, but it is readily accessible by road), and this approach minimizes competition from other anglers. One good plan is to take the trail to adventure for two or three days and sandwich it between the clean beds, hot showers and restaurant meals a stay in Gatlinburg provides.
(Editor’s Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer who grew up fishing in the Smokies. His huge book on fly-fishing in the park, with detailed coverage of every stream, along with looks at equipment, tactics, human history and more, will be published in 2009. To reserve a copy or to subscribe to his free monthly e-newsletter, contact him at his Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.)