If you are an angler who seeks only prodigious collections of outsized fish, this action is not for you. But if you are one who enjoys a challenge, who thirsts for a bit of solitude, who longs for extraordinary vistas and bubbling water, read on. You are about to get a look at fishing for wild trout of freestone streams in the Smokey Mountains.
Freestones are those streams that are not dammed—they flow freely from the high reaches of the mountains and ultimately work their way downward, many joining others of their kind. Most are quite small, their width measured in mere yards. Flows are determined by rainfall. These may not look productive for fishing, but they hold an impressive collection of trout.
Rainbows make up the bulk of the fishery in the freestones, but browns are also available. And so are brook trout, but these are found generally at 2,500-feet elevation and higher. Cherokee National Forest and Great Smokey Mountain National Park both contain an incredible number of these diminutive streams. Since these areas are open to public use, access is seldom a problem.
Make no mistake, however. That access is seldom easy. To get to the quiet and solitude, expect to do more than simply pull off the roadside and start fishing. Those spots will receive much attention. The key is to hike the streams far away from roads and/or parking areas and get to the truly remote, wild areas. Take along a day pack with water and lunch. It is also a good idea to put your felt-soled wading shoes in the pack and make the hike in boots made for that purpose. And don’t go without those wading shoes. These are essential for negotiating the slippery rocks of the freestones.
What about fishing gear? Flyrods are the only way to go. While 9-foot, five-weight units are functional, the angler is better served with something smaller, say a 7-foot, four-weight. Freestones are generally not the domain of long, graceful casts since there are too many overhanging limbs. Casting will most often consist of rolls and even flipping or dangling a fly from the rod with no more than rod-length line spooled out.
Fly selection is always a concern of the one seeking trout. But it is not as critical on the freestones as it is on tailwaters. These latter generally have an abundance of food, but the diversity is often low. Unless the fly is a replica of what is there, the angler has little chance of success. But the freestones are not as productive as the availability of food is often limited. This tends to result in trout that grab the first thing that drifts by. Still, there is an incredible diversity—caddisflies, craneflies, mayflies, midges, and stoneflies are common. The angler with these basic patterns should be successful.
Nymph patterns are extremely effective on the freestones. This type fishing requires a discipline apart from the dry fly. The dry is often preferred by the angler, for it is exciting to see a trout pop the surface after the dry. It is also much easier to identify a strike. But if catching an obstinate trout is the goal, don’t forsake the nymph. A solid approach is to use a strike indicator. Even a dry fly can be used as a strike indicator. The approach here is to tie a section of tippet to the dry fly’s hook shank and attach a nymph to that tippet. In reality, the angler is fishing two flies. If the trout hits the dry, there is the top-water action. If it takes the nymph, the dry will serve as an indicator so that the angler can set the hook.
Freestone trout are seldom large. A 10-inch rainbow is a good fish and a 14-inch brown is outstanding. Brook trout, where they can be found in the higher elevations, are quite prolific. Just about any spot in a creek can hold a brookie. However, they tend to be quite small. Seldom will they reach over eight inches in length. But they are a true prize, brightly colored and beautiful.
So, if you want a fishing experience like no other, visit the freestones and try wild trout. You will come away with perhaps a bruised shin and fatigued legs, but you will be wearing a smile. All species available are worth the effort put forth to catch them. They are too good to miss.
Photos by Sherry Thornton