Planning a Backcountry Fly Fishing Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Part 1

Where to go and how to choose a campsite to get the most out of your trip to Appalachia

By Jake Pugh, Catoma Director of Sales and Marketing

As you might have read in Part 0 of this series, I am walking you through the steps I took – from research to execution – in planning a backcountry fly fishing trip with my Father. Today, we’re talking about planning. There are some rules, requirements, and best practices to be aware of when planning to camp in the backcountry. We’ll cover those as well as the factors that I think make a good campsite, at least on paper.

One of the first things you should decide is what fish you are going to pursue. Brook trout, the only truly native species in the Smokies, are found at higher elevations in “smaller” water, as the fishermen call it. They are known for their beautiful coloration and elusive nature. A trophy brook trout will be about 10” long. Rainbows get to be about 14” long in the Smokies and are found in all stages of Appalachian Rivers, except the very smallest of high elevation brook trout streams. These fish are known for their entertaining fighting nature and striking appearance. Finally, Brown trout are one of the more challenging fly-fishing quarries, and wild specimens can grow up to 20” in Appalachian streams. They like to hang around natural cover more than rainbows and brook trout, and tend to stay in slightly deeper water, meaning they frequent the lower elevation areas of the rivers. All of this matters because the kind of fish you want to pursue will dictate where you should set up camp. Do you want to be high in the hills to chase the elusive brookie? Or do you want to fish the deep pools downstream for a trophy Brown?

[ Wild Appalachian Brook Trout, original photo via NPS.gov ]

Luckily for us, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been pretty well-traveled by resourceful fly fisherman who have provided us with a wealth of information when it comes to which creeks are best for which time of year, what the “hatch” (natural food source life cycle) is for that particular time, and how we can best get to the areas we want to fish. There are some fairly famous creeks in GSMNP that draw fishermen from all over the world. Many of the creeks in GSMNP are accessible right from the road, but many are a challenge to reach. One of the most renowned spots is Little River with its network of varied water characteristics and species. It is known for holding wild brook trout in its headwaters, rainbows and browns in its middle sections, and even quality smallmouth bass in its lower portions beyond the town of Townsend. If you’re looking for options along one water source, do your research on Little River. Deep Creek on the North Carolina side of the park is another of the more varied creeks in the park, and is known for holding quality Brown trout in the fall of the year. Other notable creeks are Abrams Creek inside the famous Cade’s Cove, Little Pigeon River closer to Gatlinburg, and Hazel Creek tucked behind the massive Fontana Lake. Hazel Creek is one of the most famous and remote fishing destinations within GSMNP. However, you don’t have to move mountains to get to the fish. The joke amongst experienced fishermen is that you can practically just pick any blue line on the map and find fish there. Get yourself a Trails Illustrated Map of GSMNP and you’ll see that the park is a labyrinth of quality water to fish.

Once you’ve decided on a stream to fish, let’s move on to choosing a campsite. There are likely no “bad” campsites in GSMNP, so that should put you at ease. However, when it comes to choosing a site, there are some things that you should consider. GSMNP is home to 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail along the Tennessee / North Carolina border, including the highest point anywhere on the trail at Clingman’s Dome (6,625 feet). The AT and, by default, GSMNP play host to hundreds of thru hikers every year. This could be positive, negative, or neutral for you depending on your outlook. If you’d like to say you’ve hiked part of the AT, here’s your chance! Plan it into your hike route and enjoy the experience! On the other hand, if you are looking for solitude and privacy, you should factor that into your campsite location decision. Your map will clearly show you where the AT traverses the area as well as popular shelters on the AT where hikers are certain to congregate.

When searching for a campsite – especially when I’m carrying extra gear for activities like fly fishing or hunting – I always look for a good combination of solitude and ease of access. Often times you have to give up one for the other, so just look for a balance that works for you. We’re not going ultralight, and neither my Father nor I are exactly a picture of physical fitness, so we needed to limit our hike to under 10 miles, preferably in the range of 5 miles. Furthermore, we wanted a location that was basically a destination for nothing else than the creek we wanted to fish, so other hikers would be few and far between. We were looking for solitude and minimal foot traffic.

As you narrow in on a particular area or campsite, it’s time to decide how you will get there. Some backcountry campsites are close to established campgrounds, some are close to trailheads for easy parking, and some are relatively hard to get to. For example, campsites 82-86 along Hazel Creek require a 10-15 mile strenuous hike from Fontana Dam or a ferry across Fontana Lake. If that degree of complexity is a welcome challenge to you, you will be rewarded with solitude and some of the best wild trout fishing in the Appalachians. My father and I weighed our options and settled on a moderately difficult hike to a campsite well off the beaten path but accessible to several different branches of Deep Creek, as it offers variety in river terrain and quarry. Our hike will begin at one of the many roadside trailheads and follow the creek right to our campsite, allowing us to fish on our way in and out.

Campsites in GSMNP have a few unique features and requirements. First off, most of the campsites hold 6 people. Unlike many campgrounds where if you book a campsite it’s “yours” GSMNP will always fill a campsite to capacity if the demand is there, meaning that when I booked the campsite for our trip, there were still 4 remaining slots available to book. It is possible – even likely – we will have neighbors at our campsite during our visit. We chose a fairly remote campsite to avoid this, but if we end up with visitors, we’ll make some new friends. No big deal! If this is something that will bother you, however, you should take more friends with you to fill all 6 slots or choose a smaller campsite. The rate is only $4 per person per night, so you might be tempted to book all 6 slots at the campsite of your choice, regardless of the size of your party. If you are booking a site on the AT, I do not recommend you do this, as you might block out weary thru hikers; but if you’re going remote, I suppose this could be a way to keep your campsite to yourself. Secondly, campsites can only be booked two weeks in advance of your arrival, and some of the sites book fast, so have your site picked out and set yourself a reminder to book your site on time. Lastly, you can only stay at one campsite for a maximum of three nights, so if you plan to stay longer, you will need to plan to extend or reverse your route and move campsites on Day 4. The permit portal on the NPS.gov website is efficient and thorough. You will have a few hoops to jump through in order to get your campsite booked, but it’s definitely no more difficult than, say, booking a hotel online. There is a zoomable map you must use to select your campsite, so if you’ve located your site on the map already, you will have no problem selecting and booking your site.

Now that we’ve got a campsite booked, we’ll move on to take a look at some of the gear you need and, more importantly, DON’T need in Part 2 of this series. Follow us on social media to get an update on the next edition of Field Notes.

Lastly, I would like to mention some resources you can use in your research.

NPS.gov – The official site for GSMNP has done a great job of consolidating information about the park and how to get the most out of your trip. More importantly, they have all the regulations by which you will need to abide housed in one convenient location.  Learn about backpacking in bear country, trail closures, etc. all right on their website or call the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297. For specific fishing regulations and bag limits visit www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fishing.htm

LNT.org – The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has tips for camping in the backcountry in the most ethical ways possible. At Catoma, we are very serious about Leave No Trace and encourage you to get educated on LNT ethics before you head out into one of our National Park treasures.

LittleRiverOutfitters.com – Local Fly shop Little River Outfitters is an invaluable resource for the fly fisherman visiting or living near GSMNP. They post regular fishing reports, news, even up to date stream conditions like flow and water temp. They offer fishing classes and guided trips, carry the premier brands in fly fishing equipment, and have decades of knowledge to share about where and how to fish the Smokies. Stop by on your way fishing to pick up some flies to “match the hatch”.

Get to researching your trip today and let us know how it goes!

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