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“Cold Mountains”

by James Buice
These overlooked waters of the Appalachian South offer some of the region's best winter fly fishing.
Appalachian Trout

Winter bluelining in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee

SOON AFTER THE SOUTHERN APPALACHIANS HAVE LOST THE CRIMSON and yellow glow of autumn, tourists begin their mass exodus, leaving the countryside all but deserted. But during those months when the majority of our best trout fisheries are frozen in suspended animation, many waters below the Mason-Dixon line maintain fishable temperatures on all but the coldest days. There are no cars in the riverside pullouts and no fresh footprints in the sand on the hike upstream. When everyone else is leaving, hardy anglers know that some of the mountain South’s best trout fishing is just arriving. Mayflies, caddisflies, and the ubiquitous midges continue to hatch throughout the frigid season, keeping trout active and the winter angler’s vest a bit heavier with extra dry-fly boxes.

Rivers such as Tennessee’s Hiwassee, Watauga, and Clinch, along with the Davidson River in North Carolina, have earned big reputations among the great southern trout fisheries, and they all fish quite well during the winter. But what about the rivers, streams, and even lakes that few have heard about? The coldest months of the year are the perfect time to explore these hidden gems.

Hiwassee River (North Carolina)

The Hiwassee River in North Carolina and the Hiawassee River in Tennessee are actually one and the same, estranged by a solitary vowel, state lines, and a few dams. However, the two tailwaters are independently unique fisheries.

Snaking through the countryside of western North Carolina, somewhat forgotten in the shadow of its celebrated sister fishery in Tennessee, the Hiwassee River is perhaps the greatest sleeper among southern trout waters. Though lacking in notoriety, this state’s winter fishery surpasses most other tailraces in the region. And as on most of the others, power generation slows in the winter, which translates into the most wadeable water of the year.

As were many productive southern tailwaters, the Hiwassee trout fishery was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during its post-Depression Era damming campaign. Completed in 1942 as a flood-control measure, Chatuge Dam forms the basis of the river’s trout habitat, which extends some 18 miles downstream. The river’s exceptional biomass, combined with the installation of concrete weirs below the dam to control the scouring effects of sudden water releases, allow rainbow and brown trout to flourish in this coldwater ecosystem.

North Carolina Trout Fishing

Illustration by Bill Tipton www.compartmaps.com

The Hiwassee River is also on the state’s deregulated list, meaning there are no government-sponsored stocking programs in effect. All rainbow and brown trout, unless they’ve migrated into the main flow from stocked tributaries, are wild and naturally reproducing. These robust, spotted beauties are natural gems in a region of hatchery plantings. Local legend has it that the wild rainbows are descended from California’s McCloud River strain — the root stock of many of rainbows worldwide.

Hiwassee trout average around 12 inches, but anglers land plenty of 20-plus-inch fish each season. Typical Hiwassee rainbows are rapacious feeders and impressive acrobats even in the cold of winter. Brown trout, which have made their way into the ecosystem via feeder creeks, are the biggest trout in the river. Some of the larger specimens are to be measured in pounds rather than inches. While these behemoths are few and far between, 16- to 15-inch browns are fairly common.

The river is fishable during power generation, but the most productive times are periods of falling water or when the river has completely bottomed out. At low water, however, the trout become spooky, and a 12-foot leader with a 5X tippet is standard fare for winter anglers seeking rising fish.

Mayflies and caddisflies are abundant, and the wild trout often seem to prefer a floating meal. Cold, cloudy weather brings the Baetis out in force. Various emerger patterns — such as Smith’s BWO Emerger, RS2, and Harrop’s CDC Olive, all in sizes 18 through 22 —work quite well when the Baetis are emerging. On warmer days, sporadic caddisfly hatches work the trout into something of a frenzy, and the most productive imitations are tan-bodied Hemingway Caddis and Matthew’s X-Caddis, in sizes 16 and 18.

If surface activity seems lacking, try probing runs and tailouts with weighted nymphs. Mercer’s Micro Mayfly (sizes 16 and 18), Prince Nymphs (sizes 12 through 16), copper or red Copper Johns (sizes 14 through 18), along with large stonefly nymphs will often tempt otherwise tight-lipped trout. The trick here, as in any winter fishing scenario, is to get the fly down deep and fish it repeatedly through a run until you are certain you’ve covered as much likely holding water as possible. Then make a half dozen more casts. Winter angling success is born of the three P’s: perseverance, persistence, and patience. Keeping that in mind will help you hook more trout in any season.

Access to the Hiwassee is as simple as finding a road that runs alongside the river or a bridge crossing. Fire’s Creek Road off State Route 64 parallels a good stretch of the river and provides plenty of access to wading anglers. The river is relatively easy to wade and can produce some nice trout. A few other access points, including those at the dam and various bridge crossings down to Mission Reservoir, also provide wading access to foot-bound anglers when the dam’s generators are not on.

Wading anglers will find some amazing fishing, but floating the river grants access to the more remote stretches of water bordered by private land. Anglers may float the river in canoes, pontoon boats, rafts, or Mackenzie-style drift boats. Guides are available for hire, and many anglers choose to have someone else row and drag the boat over the numerous shallow, rocky shoals scattered throughout the river.

TVA Lakes

Not really lakes and not really rivers, three TVA impoundments northwest of Robbinsville, North Carolina, fall into a unique watercourse limbo. Calderwood, Cheoah, and Chilhowee Lakes are linked by a series of dams along the Little Tennessee River. When one of these dams begins generating, it pulls water through all the long, fingerlike lakes, transforming the tranquil still water into the equivalent of a large, slow river.

Delayed Harvest Streams

Delayed-harvest (DH) regulations have become exceedingly popular in the South since they were first introduced in the early 1990s. Delayed Harvest waters are chosen because they provide viable trout habitat only during the cooler months, typically between October and early June. When the temperature begins to rise in early summer, the water fails to maintain sufficient oxygen and temperature levels, and the rivers are opened to harvest. Under these regulations, the rivers are artificials-only and catch-and-release-only until the water is open to harvest in spring. The system makes for some great winter fly fishing on waters ranging from small freestone streams to one of the largest rivers in the region.

Each state’s Department of Natural Resources heavily stocks the DH portions of these rivers with thousands of trout averaging about 13 inches. Some larger fish are planted, as well, and a few holdover trout do make it though the summer, which means that catching a 19- to 22-inch fish is a very real possibility.

Among the more popular southern DH waters are the lower Chattahoochee River below Morgan Falls north of Atlanta, the Nantahala and Tuckaseegee rivers in western North Carolina, and the North Mills River just down the road from Brevard, North Carolina. Each of these rivers offers two or more miles of regulated water, providing anglers plenty of room to spread out.

- J. B.

Access to these lakes is by watercraft only. There is limited bank access and few trails leading to fishable areas. The banks are steep, and virtually no wadeable areas exist. During periods of nongeneration, a pontoon boat, canoe, or even a float tube can get you around well enough to fish productive areas.

Throughout the winter, midges hatch on all three lakes, providing some amazing dry-fly action. Pods of fish rise to these tiny offerings, but stealth is required to keep from putting the trout down. Size 20 or 22 Z-Wing Midges, Rooks’ Utility Midge (sizes 18 through 22), and Griffith’s Gnats (sizes 18 through 22) will work for trout that are sipping midges along scum lines. Adding a very light dropper, such as a Red Ass (size 18 or 20) or Disco Midge (20 or 22), will do the trick if your dry fly gets snubbed.

When the turbines come on and the water begins to flow, these still waters change character, and so should your tactics. First off, you’re going to need power on your watercraft to hold you in a specific area and to return to the boat ramp. Pontoon boats fitted with strong trolling motors, small motorboats, and canoes with light outboards or trolling motors are sufficient to get you pretty much anywhere you need to go. While the flows are not all that swift, navigating across a large body of moving water can be intimidating, and a motorized craft helps ensure safety.

After the trout have time to adjust to the new water level, usually an hour or so after generation begins, large streamers with a smaller pattern trailing about a foot behind will tempt some of the reservoir’s largest trout. Typically, a 7-weight rod loaded with a 200-grain sinking-tip line will get your flies down where the big boys live. A large fly with a brawny profile, such as the Whitlock Hare Sculpin or Rainey’s Articulated Minnow, will bring aggressive trout up for a look, at the very least.

The waters of all three lakes are so clear that you may well see some 20-plus-inch rainbows and browns come up from the depths to scope out their next meal. I like to tie a little something on the rear of the large streamer, and that will often be just enough to entice a quick reactionary strike. Try trailing a size 10 or even size 12 Woolly Bugger in black, brown, or green off the hook bend of the larger baitfish patterns. This can be the hammer that breaks the window between watching a trout follow your fly and actually hooking him.

Small Streams

Small-stream fishing is the quintessence of southern angling. Thousands of miles of trout water tumble through the southern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains.
From native brook-trout streams you can jump across, to larger flows running alongside mountain paths, there are countless options for the winter-bound angler. Miles of public water flow through the region, with some of the best water lying in relative anonymity among the mountains.

Little River, Great Smoky Mountains

Middle Prong Little River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Pisgah National Forest, and the Nantahala National Forest provide a mind-boggling amount of water, much of which can be fished year-round. Spending a few days exploring the small creeks in an area is by far the best way to experience what the region has to offer. Bryson City, North Carolina; Helen, Georgia; and a Tellico Plains, Tennessee, are great base camps for a small-stream expedition.

The Bald River (it’s a creek, really) near Tellico Plains, Duke’s Creek near Helen, and the upper Nantahala River near Bryson City are three of the better known fisheries in their respective regions, but they can be lost among the countless local watersheds.
Exploration is half the fun of small-stream fishing because you never know what’s waiting for you around the next bend.

While large trout do inhabit some very narrow flows, smaller creeks usually mean small rainbows and browns. Fooling your average small-stream trout isn’t rocket science, but they are not pushovers. During the colder months, these small, shallow streams are more affected by temperature fluctuations and typically lack the dry-fly activity of larger tailraces and freestone rivers in the region. As a result, the cold-weather angler must strap on some lead and begin probing the runs and pools with nymphs and streamers.

When searching out the deep winter pools where trout typically hold, fish bright flies and weight under a small indicator. My favorite cold-weather, small-stream rig is a small, dark nymph, such as a size 16 or 18 Puyan’s AP Nymph, dropped from a size 12 or 14 Lightning Bug or Rooks’ Blueberry. This bright-and-dark combination has proved itself time and again when the trout become mulish. A few regional favorites — such as the Y2K Bug, Rainbow Prince Nymphs (sizes 12 and 14), and Chamois Worms — work, as well.

Winter trout fishing in the South can be tough, it can be rewarding, but most of all, it will be fun. Don’t limit yourself to the warmer months, because you just may be missing out on some of the best fishing of the year.

If You Go

LODGING

HIWASSEE RIVER

Lake Chatuge Lodge
(1-800-613-4349, www.lakechatugelodge.com)
is just a few miles from the Hiwassee River and offers around 100 guest rooms and a restaurant.

TVA LAKES

Graham County, NC, Travel and Tourism Authority
1-800-470-3790; www.GrahamCountyTravel.com.

Tapoco Lodge
(1-800-822-5083, www.tapocolodge.com) is located near Robbinsville, North Carolina, and it’s a great jumping-off point for trips to the TVA lakes and the many small streams in the area.

SMALL STREAMS

Helen, GA

White County Convention & Visitors Bureau
1-800-858-8027
www.helenga.org

The Lodge at Unicoi State Park
(706) 878-2201
www.unicoilodge.com
Offers a variety of rooms and cabins, as well as walking access to Smith’s Creek.

Bryson City, NC

Swain County Chamber of Commerce
1-800-867-9246
www.greatsmokies.com

Nantahala Village
1-800-438-1507

Sleep Inn
(828) 488-0326

Tellico Plains, TN

Monroe County Tourism
1-800-245-5428
www.monroecounty.com

Tellico Inn
1-866-353-7600
www.tellicoinn.com

FLY SHOPS AND GUIDES

Unicoi Outfitters (Helen, GA)
(706) 878-3083
www.unicoioutfitters.com
Fly shop, guides, and information for the north Georgia Mountains and North Carolina.

The Fish Hawk (Atlanta, GA)
(404) 964-0575
www.thefishhawk.com
Fly shop, guides, and an up-to-date online fishing report for north Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Lowe Fly Shop (Waynesville, NC)
(828) 452-0039
www.loweflyshop.com
Fly shop, guides, and local information on western North Carolina fisheries.

The Creel (Knoxville, TN)
(865) 588-6159
www.creelflyfishing.com
Fly shop, guide services, and local information for Tennessee mountain streams.

Henry Williamson
(706) 746-5631
Henry has been guiding for 20-plus years and does the Hiwassee River, TVA Lakes, as well as small streams in North Carolina and North Georgia.

LICENSE INFORMATION

GEORGIA
Nonresident fishing with trout stamp: $37 (season), $20 (7 -day). For online license information, visit georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us/.

TENNESSEE
Nonresident fishing including trout: $81 (season) $33.50 (3-day). For online license information, visit www.wildlifelicense.com/tn.

NORTH CAROLINA
Nonresident fishing and trout stamp: $40 (season), $25 (3-day). For more information, call (919) 662-4370.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
James Buice is a freelance writer who spends his days running the travel department at the Fish Hawk fly shop in Atlanta. This article was first published in American Angler magazine. Copyright © 2006 by James Buice.
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