Planning a Backcountry Fly Fishing Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Part 4 – The Trip

The Trip

By Jake Pugh, Catoma Director of Sales and Marketing

All sportsmen know that trips afield can morph and change and become something different – something better – than expected. What draws me, and I’m sure many sportsmen, to the field is the opportunity to test my wits and endurance against mother nature. On this trip, we were given that opportunity.

Hurricane season in the South can be unpredictable. My father and I had our trip slated, campsite booked, and time off planned for months leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Sally. It had been a while – too long – since our last trip afield just him and me, so we were determined to make this trip happen. We made the call on the week-of to put our plans on hold as Sally intensified. We bumped the trip back two weeks, betting on clear skies in the days following the storm. Hurricane Sally made landfall the day we would have hit the trail.

We rolled into Gatlinburg in my Dad’s Subaru on a Sunday evening a couple of weeks later, feeling like we had dodged a bullet in some ways, but still keeping our eye on some remaining bands of bad weather on the forecast. If it rained much at all, the rivers could swell, making them unfishable. We made a stop by Nantahala Outdoor Center to pick up a new pair of Leki trekking poles and headed to our hotel to situate our gear. We would hit the trail at daylight the next morning, hiking 5 miles deep into the valley from a trailhead near Clingman’s dome. I could feel my dad’s concern for his ability to pull this hike off as we loaded our Catoma packs up with nearly 50 pounds of gear. An extra 10 lbs. of rods, reels, and tackle was something I’m not used to dragging into the backcountry, so I was a little worried about the extra weight too.

It happened to be my birthday that Sunday, and my dad surprised me with a new 3 weight rod and a reel of my own as we were packing our gear. He tossed me a fly box filled with flies that he had tied and said Happy Birthday. What more could a guy ask for.

Just a couple of miles outside of bustling Gatlinburg, the road makes one last turn and cell signal vanishes along with the crowds and the noise. Except, there’s no noise and certainly no crowds at 5 am. Just dense fog and a few determined fishermen heading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to chase trout. There are hundreds of miles of fishable water in the park. The closer to town or a campground, the more heavily fished are the waters. This means lower trout numbers and more wily fish. The deeper into the park you go and the more remote you’re willing to hike, the better the fishing gets, as a general rule. Today, we were going into some rugged country where very few fishermen care to explore. It’s exciting just to know you’re about to put in the effort to get to the good stuff. I was also thankful – if a little anxious – to say goodbye to my cell phone for a few days.

The sun was peaking over the distant hills to the East as Dad pulled off the road and put the car in park. We had been driving uphill for a half-hour, climbing into the mountains surrounding Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Headwaters of Deep creek was somewhere below us, shrouded by the canopy of towering white oaks and buckeye trees. About a mile into our hike we would reach the river’s rough and tumble early stages and follow it downhill until it began to flatten out enough to fish. The streams high in these hills are the natural habitat for the elusive brook trout, an absolutely beautiful species of fish whose range just barely stretches far enough South to include the Appalachian Mountains. They were our target quarry.

With a granola bar in our stomachs and the finishing touches on our packs’ loads completed, we strapped in and started down the hill. Steep, rough, and slippery already, I knew this trail was going to be a little more than we bargained for right off the bat. The location of this trail was a bit odd with its proximity to the famous Clingman’s dome trail, so I knew it would be less traveled. I was just hoping it would be maintained well enough for us to make it to our destination without some off-trail walking. I was worried about my Dad’s ability to improvise with the extra weight on his back. I didn’t tell him that.

We took our time, using the trekking poles to slow our descent. The Catoma Switchblade packs are made for rugged terrain, with pivoting waist belt and shoulder straps and a well-padded harness. I was thankful for the attention to detail as we made our way through the rocky hills. Even at a slow pace, we could be fishing by mid-afternoon. Once we laid eyes on the river a mile and a half in, the trail flattened out a little, offering us the opportunity to pick up the pace. Several water crossings along the way increased our concern that the river could already be too high and swift from the previous weeks’ rain to offer good fishing conditions. Up high in the mountains, though, the headwaters are the first to recede after a rain. Hopefully, we could find some good water.

I don’t think a lot of people realize the climate of this part of the Smokies. On this side of the park at these elevations, it rains significantly more than down in Gatlinburg. It looks like a rainforest. Ferns, moss, salamanders, and fungi of all kinds line the trail. It’s exciting just to walk and observe the biodiversity.

The familiar relief of walking into camp hit me a little before lunchtime. We had made the hike in about 4 hours. Not record time, but slightly ahead of schedule, putting us in a good position to fish the afternoon. We took our time setting up camp, preparing for the worst, since the last we had checked it could still rain on us in the coming days. I was using a Catoma Gopher Tarp over a Burrow tent body. Dad was using a full Wolverine EBNS. It’s a little more reliable for keeping the water out in stormy conditions. I, admittedly, was inviting the uncertainty of experimentation taking the tarp as my shelter. I have always been a tent camper but wanted to try something different.

Campsite 53 is spacious, but there aren’t many good trees for setting up the tarp. I put my dad in a nice level spot up on a few feet elevation advantage from the rest of the site. I took a spot a little down a small decline from him. I was a little concerned about the rain making it muddy, but it had already been raining a good bit the previous week and it wasn’t muddy there yet, so I didn’t think much of it.

I had used a Switchblade Molle Panel mounted with a new concept product from Catoma we’re calling Fraction Pouches for carrying small gear and fishing equipment, including my rod tubes. I paired the Molle Panel with a Switchblade Raid Pack for carrying my soft goods. I was able to remove the Raid back once I set up camp, and simply stored it inside another bag with things I wouldn’t need during the week. I kept the Molle panel out as an organizational tool for my fishing and campsite gear.

As we were finishing our lunch and preparing our gear to hit the water, a hiker just starting the Mountain to Sea Trail came through camp and stopped to chat for a moment. He said he had checked the weather radar right before he hit the trail and apparently the rain was scheduled to start in the wee hours of the morning. Great. I had hoped we could avoid it.

We rigged up and set off downriver, following the trail as it hugged the riverbank. We knew right away we were going to struggle to find fishable holes, even without more rain moving in. The river was narrow, swift, and downright violent in some places. The best strategy is to get in the river and wade upriver, fishing the slack-water holes that hold fish. Trout are always facing upstream, so approaching from downriver – with your rod tip faced downriver also – meant you could approach them undetected, cast upriver beyond them, and let the fly drift downriver into their strike zone. But in these conditions, we would have to fish hole to hole along the bank instead of wading upstream. The river was just too dangerous to wade.

We stepped into the freezing river a little after 2 o’clock after scoping out the stretch of river downstream from camp. I was fishing a double nymph rig with a hot pink top nymph called the Pink Cadillac, designed by Lively Legs and tied by my dad. My bottom nymph was a brown and orange feather nymph also tied by my dad. My theory was that, with the water moving so swiftly, the bright color of the Pink Cadillac might increase the fish’s ability to see it as it came streaking by. A few casts into the second hole, I was proven correct as my indicator line twitched slightly and my wrist snapped upward in instinctive response. The 7” Brook trout on the other end of the line circled the hole once, twice, and gave up. I landed him in the shallows and posed for a quick picture.

Dad was beaming. You know, that phenomenon where a Dad would rather his son or daughter get the catch or the kill than himself. I’ve known this phenomenon since I can remember. We’ve been fishing, hunting, gigging, trapping as long as I can remember being alive and he’s always had that look. He’s handed me his rod or let me take the shot more times than I can count.

We fished until almost dark, bouncing from hole to hole, leapfrogging each other to share priority on the few decent holes we came to. It was hard fishing. The slack water was limited and hard to get to. At times, we would have to climb down a big embankment just to cast to one hole the size of the hood of a car a dozen times before climbing back out. I was lucky enough to catch two more Brookies. Dad got “skunked”.

We headed back to camp with some daylight left, thankful for the experience but worried about the water conditions should any rain at all move in. We had set up a second rain tarp over the exposed roots of a large tree as a common area for cooking or playing cards in case of early rain. It wasn’t really suitable for a sleeping space, but for sitting around, it was fine. We gathered some firewood and placed it under this spare tarp for tomorrow’s fire since it was due to rain overnight. After a freeze-dried dinner, there was nothing left to do but tidy up camp and go to bed. It had been a brutally demanding day.

I lied awake for a while trying to go to sleep, thinking about the events of the day, proud that dad had handled the hike so well. Suddenly my eyes snapped open at the smack of a big raindrop on the rainfly. I rolled over and looked at my phone. 8:30. Wait, pm? Oh no. The rain had moved in early. Really early. I used my headlamp to look around outside the tent as the intensity of the rain increased rapidly. Everything was tucked under the rainfly, all the electronics hanging from the centerline, well out of the reach of the splattering rain. I dozed off, hoping it would be done soon.

I woke at midnight to a roar. It was storming. I grabbed my headlamp and flicked it on to make sure everything was staying dry and aimed it out from under the tarp to see that it was an absolute torrent. I shined the light down to check on my gear on the ground to discover that my tent was sitting in 2”+ of standing water. I knew I was setting up in a low lying spot earlier that day, but with few other options for setting up the tarp, I had just hoped for the best. I kicked myself for the amateur move and sat up to check the damage. Miraculously, there was no water in the tent. My sleeping bag was bone dry. I checked the seams of the floor to see if there were any leaks. Nothing. Not one drop. The waterline was two inches up the tub floor on all sides of the tent. The bottom floor of the tent jiggled like a water bed when I tapped it with my finger.

I had to move. Sure, impressive that the tent had held the water off that long, but it couldn’t last. I gathered my essential items into a dry bag and tossed it in the tent. I pulled on my rain jacket and my boots and rolled out of the Burrow to squat beneath the tarp. I made a run for it to see if the other tarp was an option at all. There were a lot of roots, but with some situating, I could probably get my Burrow under there in a spot that would allow me to at least lie down. It may not be comfortable, but it would have to work. I couldn’t go looking for another tent site in this downpour. Dad yelled out to check on me from inside his tent, but there was little he could’ve done to help. I told him to just stay put, no need for both of us to get wet. I tightened the guylines to get the tarp nice and tight and pushed the firewood we had put under there earlier to one end.

I ran back to my original tarp, snatched the Burrow out by its top handle – sleeping bag and gear still inside – and ran it over to the second tarp. I tossed it under and followed it in to see how wet everything was. To my surprise, only a few drops had splattered through the mesh. Everything was still dry. I made one more dash to my original tarp to get my pack. I tossed it under the dry tarp, climbed under myself, and sat on the roots to recover.

I had been asleep less than 5 minutes ago. Now I sat soaked under the second tarp, the rain still thundering down in sheets. The temperature had dropped significantly, and I was in underwear, boots, and a rainjacket. Nothing else. I needed to get dry and get back in my sleeping bag as soon as possible. I pulled out my microfiber towel, wiped down, and climbed in. Surprisingly, I couldn’t really feel the roots. I had my Klymit sleeping pad inside my sleeping bag (to protect it from getting punctured in situations like this) and that was enough to cushion their intrusion. I lied awake for a minute, thankful that that had not been worse. I was warm, dry, and comfortable again. Had the floor of my Burrow leaked, I would be in for a long, miserable, and maybe even dangerously cold night. Now still and slightly closer to the river, I could hear the water roaring, noticeably louder than the day before.

I woke at 5 am and again at 8 am. Both times it was raining. You know, that steady, imposing set-in rain that soaks thirsty crops and makes for cinematic Sunday afternoons with a book. In this scenario, it wasn’t quite so quaint. Around 9 am it let off enough to tempt me out of my sleeping bag. I got up and made coffee, listening to the river roar. It was certain at that point we would not be fishing any time soon. Dad got out of his tent not long after and took stock. His gear was mostly all dry too. Running water had run on top of his groundsheet at some point, soaking a pair of socks or two, but for the most part, he was good. Over 12 hours of rain is enough to penetrate most any tent.

We made breakfast in the drizzling rain and talked about our options. We would wait out the day and see how the water recovered from the rain. At the moment, it seemed like it was still rising, making fishing impossible. After hanging around camp for a while, we decided to take a walk with the camera to see what we could see. The post-storm scene was magical. The mosses, ferns, and other plants had sprung to life, glistening in the overcast light. We spent the day exploring in the misting rain, talking about our lives in the months leading up to the trip. With no destination and no game to chase, we took our time, taking in our surroundings at a snail’s pace; a moment of mindfulness that I had not expected. It was nice to slow down and just talk to my Dad.

When the rain finally let off about 5 pm, we (carefully) built a (pitiful) fire with the damp firewood we had stashed the night before and made a Mountain House Meal for dinner. The river had not dropped at all. We decided we would wake up the next morning and see how it looked before making the call to cut our trip short.

At 10 am the next morning, over a cup of coffee, we decided that was the reality. If there was any change in the water, it had only risen. We figured if we could get out by mid-afternoon, we might go back down to Little River and find some fishable holes to catch a rainbow or a big Brown. We started packing and were on the trail by late morning.

Usually, hiking out from a trip, your pack is lighter. In this case, we were carrying wet tents, went wading boots, wet waders, wet clothes. Our 50 pounds had turned into 55 pounds or more and we had a couple of thousand feet elevation to climb to get out of there. The climb out pushed my limits. I’m not exactly a spring chicken or a fitness guru. My dad was challenged even more by the extra weight and the long grueling climb. But we knew the trail now and knew our limits a little more, so we pushed on through the flat sections quickly, rested less, and took our time on the steep, slippery inclines. The sun peaked out for the first time the whole trip and gave us a little bit of a morale boost. We finished the hike out in under 3 and a half hours.

An hour later, we were fishing Little River between Sugarlands and Townsend. There are some deep holes there that were about the only places in the Park that weren’t whitewater. It was futile. The water was too swift. We knew it, but we fished until sunset anyway. We are slow to admit that the conditions have us beat. Even when it comes to fishing. I’m glad we’re alike that way.

Although we fished about 4 hours of what was to be a 4-day fishing trip, nothing about this trip was a loss. I got to reconnect with my Dad and him with me. My dad got to remind himself that he’s pretty dang tough for an old guy. His words, not mine. He handled the physical challenge like a champ. I’m proud of him. We’re already planning our next trip for some time in the Spring. I won’t look at it as a makeup trip, though, because I got everything I wanted out of this trip and more.






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