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Going Wild With Tennessee Trout

Going Wild With Tennessee Trout

Browns, brookies and rainbows are waiting for you in these mountain trout streams!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

A small drop between two boulders forms a tabletop-sized pocket in a stream of about twice the width of the pocket. A flyfisherman lays a No. 16 Royal Wulff atop a current line at the head of the hole. The little fly dances swiftly at first and then begins slowing. As it slows, a wild rainbow appears from nowhere and nabs it. The angler plays in the 8-inch brilliant-colored fish, admires it for a moment as it splashes near his feet and then twists the hook from the trout's mouth with his hemostats, releasing the fish without ever touching it.

Wild trout generally don't grow as large as tailwater fish, and densities may not be as high as in stocked water. But anglers fish wild trout streams because of the appeal of catching stream-bred fish, which present more of a challenge than their cousins and tend to be beautifully marked. The waters wild fish reside in also have their own appeal as they tumble down the sides of mountains amid rhododendron banks, high hemlocks, rock bluffs and boulders.

Excluding the waters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee has roughly 625 miles of wild trout waters, all in a 10-county region along the eastern edge of the state. The Smokies add another 220 miles of Tennessee trout waters. The Tennessee/North Carolina border roughly follows the ridge of the western Blue Ridge, so most wild trout waters rise close to the border. The majority of the state's wild trout waters flow through the Cherokee National Forest, providing good public access for fishermen.

Several wild trout stream sections on national forest land are managed with special wild trout regulations. While there are a few variances, generally that means only single-hook artificial lures or flies may be used or possessed. The limit on most of these streams is three trout, with a 9-inch minimum size for rainbows and browns and a 6-inch minimum size for brook trout.

Many wild trout streams, especially headwaters branches that contain wild brook trout, are too small to highlight on their own. However, numerous streams spread along the eastern edge of the state offer wild trout fishing opportunities that do warrant discussing. Rainbows are the most abundant wild trout, but browns live in the lower reaches of several trout streams and native brook trout inhabit feeder creeks well up the mountainsides. Let's take a closer look at some of the state's best wild trout streams and their offerings to anglers.


The namesake of the Tellico Nymph, which is one of the best-loved and fish-catchingest flies ever created, the Tellico River is legendary for its trout fishing. However, when most anglers think about Tellico, they think about the main river and its "permit waters," which are heavily stocked on a weekly basis from a special streamside hatchery. Often forgotten is the outstanding wild trout fishing that Tellico's tributaries provide.


The North and Bald rivers, two of the Tellico's largest feeders, both are managed strictly as wild trout waters. Both streams contain a blend of wild rainbow and brown trout, plus brookies in their upper ends.

Rainbows predominate in the North River, but some brown trout grow to large sizes, according to Bart Carter, Region IV stream fisheries biologist for the TWRA. North River Road (Forest Service Road 217) parallels the river, providing very good access. The upper half of the stream is well suited for wading, Carter noted.

In recent years, TWRA has stocked some brook trout in the upper end of the North River. A handful of tributaries also contain wild brook trout. One feeder, Meadow Branch, deserves special note because it contains an introduced population of Northern-strain brook trout, which grow a little larger than the Southern-strain fish that are native to the region.

Bald River is best known for Bald River Falls, a major waterfall right off Tellico River Road, which attracts a lot of sightseers. Above the falls, the river pours through a four-mile-long gorge within the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and all access is by a paralleling trail. The Gorge Section attracts a lot of day-hikers and backpackers but few serious fishermen. The lower end of the gorge is the steepest and most rugged section. Above the gorge, the river is relatively flat, and access is good, especially in the area around Holly Flats, Carter noted.

For anglers who don't mind working hard to fish wild, remote waters, Sycamore Creek supports a very good population of Southern-strain wild brook trout in its headwaters, according to Carter. While the creek is pretty small, it's also quite steep, which means that rapids and small falls create big plunge pools that cause the creek to fish a little larger than it really is. The lower end of Sycamore Creek, which feeds the Tellico near the hatchery, contains wild rainbows and has a forest service road beside it.


No roads lead to Slickrock Creek, which forms high in the North Carolina mountains and runs along the North Carolina/Tennessee border through its lower end. The border portion, which may be fished with a license from either state, lies deep in the mountains in the heart of the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Creek Wilderness. Access is gained only by fishing upstream from the creek's confluence with Calderwood Lake or hiking in on one of several steep trails.

"This is a terrific stream for anglers who want a wilderness-type setting. The creek is rugged and remote and contains only wild trout," Carter said.

A steep creek, Slickrock tumbles often, pouring over rapids and waterfalls and forming big plunge pools. Within those pools lurk wild brown trout, including some of heavyweight proportions. Interestingly, Slickrock contains almost all brown trout. Anglers also catch occasional brook trout toward the upper end of the border section, but most brookies are farther upstream, well into the Tar Heel State.

Only single-hook artificial lures may be used on Slickrock Creek. The limit is four trout, with a 7-inch minimum size, following North Carolina's wild trout regulations pattern. The shortest trail to Slickrock Creek begins at Big Fat Gap on the North Carolina side. Access from the mouth of the creek requires using a boat to cross Calderwood.


The Watauga River watershed contains several wild trout streams, with a great deal of variety from stream to stream. Whatever size stream an angler wants to fish and type of trout he wants to catch, he's apt to find it in one of these streams, which are located east of Elizabeth City.

Doe Creek is strictly a rainbow trout stream. Its lower reaches receive some stocked fish, but the e

ntire stream supports a very good wild rainbow population. A spring-fed stream, Doe Creek is more fertile than a typical mountain creek and it generally supports a larger grade of rainbows than most. Doe Creek did lose some of its larger trout during recent drought years, but last year's surveys showed that the population was improving already.

Doe Creek also has an important place in East Tennessee trout lore, as it used to host an incredible run of heavyweight rainbows, which ran up out of Watauga Lake to spawn during early spring. Attempts to restore that lost fishery through special stockings of lake-strain rainbows that spawn up creeks are currently underway, with the Overmountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited taking the lead role in the project.

The best access to Doe Creek, which joins the Watauga near the headwaters of Watauga Lake, is at its lower end on a tract owned by the TWRA.

The Doe River, a completely separate system from Doe Creek that actually feeds the Watauga well downstream and from the opposite side of the river, offers fine fishing for wild rainbows and browns, with good public access to a fair-sized stream through Roan Mountain State Park. Within the park, access is good to roughly four miles of river, all well suited for wading and plenty open for casting. Downstream of the park, the river runs mostly through private lands, and it eventually becomes a warmwater stream.

One Doe River tributary, Left Prong Hampton Creek, offers very good fishing for wild brook trout on the Hampton Cove State Natural Area. The brook trout population actually was restored through a major cooperative effort between the TWRA and the Overmountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The creek is small, but it is much more open and easier to fish than most wild brook trout streams, Carter noted.

Laurel Fork Creek, a tributary of the lower Doe River, offers a completely different type of opportunity than most for trout fishermen. Laurel Fork, which is managed with wild trout regulations upstream of an area called Dennis Cove, supports brown trout almost exclusively. Access is generally good, and much of the stream runs through national forest land. Trout are stocked during the spring downstream of Dennis Cove. Laurel Fork has a unique appearance for trout waters, Carter noted, with dark water that has a tannic color and a low gradient overall.


One of Tennessee's best tailwaters, downstream of South Holston Dam, the South Fork Holston River actually supports outstanding natural reproduction of wild brown trout. However, we'll stick with free-flowing wild trout streams in this coverage. Two South Holston tributaries, Beaverdam and Laurel creeks, warrant mention. These streams actually flow south to north in the extreme northeastern corner of Tennessee and end up feeding the South Fork Holston River in Virginia, upstream of South Holston Lake.

Both streams are stocked in the lower ends of their Tennessee runs but support good populations of wild trout populations throughout. Both average about 15 yards across and have a moderate grade, running through some flat areas but also tumbling over drops that create big plunge pools.

Of the two streams, Beaverdam offers the most wild trout waters on public lands. From the confluence of Birch Branch, which is close to where the creek enters its biggest block of Cherokee National Forest lands, downstream to Forest Service Road 6044, five miles away, Beaverdam is managed with wild trout regulations.

Most of Beaverdam's headwater tributaries, some of which are located on public lands, also support good wild brook trout populations. These streams are very small -- as are the fish in them -- but they do offer opportunities for anglers to catch native fish.

Laurel Creek runs mostly through private lands, except in its lower end, and is managed under general trout fishing regulations, with much of the stream stocked from February through June. However, the creek also supports a good population of wild rainbows and browns, including some high-quality browns, according to Carter. He noted that it is similar in character to Beaverdam but provides a little better fishing overall. While only the lower end is public, pull-offs along state Highway 91 provide additional access father up the stream.


Wild trout, as a rule, are more challenging to catch than their hatchery-reared cousins. They have grown up in the wild, feeding on natural forage and hiding from predators, instead of growing up in big tanks where they would feast on pellets a couple times per day. Brown trout tend to be extra cagey.

Adding challenges for fishermen, most wild trout waters are somewhat small and run very clear, requiring trout fishermen to use finesse and fish streams with stealth to avoid spooking the fish. Fishing many streams effectively calls for short, careful pitches or casts into tight spots.

Accessing many wild trout streams also begins with a hike or at least involves fishing up the stream from a single access point. Working up or down a stream may require wading deep and climbing around rapids, waterfalls or other difficult spots.

Because Southern Appalachian streams generally are not overly fertile, "matching the hatch" generally is not critical. For flyfishermen, small "buggy" dry flies, like Elk Hair Caddis, Adams and Royal Wulffs and traditional nymphs like Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ears, Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails tend to work well. Through summer, anglers also should include grasshopper and ant imitations in their selections of offerings. More important than selecting exactly the right fly is making a stealthy approach to each spot and making drag-free drifts.

Among the best ways to catch wild trout is to combine a nymph and a dry fly, fishing the nymphs a couple of feet behind the dry fly as a dropper. The dry serves the double function of fish attractor and strike indicator, and the angler enjoys the opportunity to fish two flies at once. Some days, all fish will take the dry. Other days, they'll all favor the nymph.

Of course, while only artificial lures must be used to fish many of the state's best wild trout waters, anglers do not necessarily have to use fly-fishing gear. In-line spinners or miniature jigs also tend to work well in wild trout waters. Small lures with muted, natural color patterns work best in most cases.

Specific flies and lures that produce the most strikes also vary some according to the species makeup in a stream and an angler's preferences. While rainbows prefer swift water and feed mostly on insects, brown trout also eat a lot of sculpins and other small fish as the trout reach larger sizes. Anglers targeting browns should use larger offerings overall, including minnow-imitating plugs (converted into single-hook lures), and should focus on deep pools, eddies beside bluffs and undercut banks.

Brook trout tend to feed very opportunistically. If an angler is able to drift a dry fly over a brookie without the fish first sensing his presence, chances generally are pretty good that the fish will nab the offering. It won't hold onto an unnatural-feeling bait for long,

though, and rarely will hit twice. Therefore, anglers must be very quick with their hooksets.

Because wild trout waters are often small and have tunnels of rhododendron, mountain laurel and other cover surrounding them, anglers sometimes have to be creative about presentations. Flyfishermen use a lot of roll casts and sometimes place offerings into key spots more than they really cast, and spin-fishermen make a lot of short side-armed casts.

Anglers from both groups benefit from learning to "shoot" baits, bow-and-arrow style, pulling the offering back by hand against a flexed rod and then letting go to shoot it upstream. Shooting is highly effective for placing baits into very tight spaces and really is not that difficult with a bit of practice.


For much more on Tennessee trout fishing, including complete regulations for individual streams, check out the TWRA's Web site at Follow the link from the fishing page to the TWRA East Tennessee Stream Survey page for information about East Tennessee streams and management work that has been done on them.

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