Breaking the Smoky Mountain Jinx

By Mike Tapscott

On July 20, 1969, man first set foot on the Moon.

On January 8, 1935, Elvis Presley was born in a two-room, shotgun house in East Tupelo.

On October 25, 2023, I caught my first trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Three momentous events.

But I know what you’re thinking: “Come on, Mike, that fish is tiny, hardly bigger than your hand. That’s nothing to brag about.”

Don’t be fooled by the little fella. This diminutive rainbow is a genius at survival in unforgiving waters, the culmination of eons of evolutionary changes and adaptations that help it evade predators, especially clumsy anglers clambering boulders strewn in the frothy, churning waters of GSMNP streams. Brown, rainbow and brook trout in the park are notoriously wary and small. They don’t come to hooks easily, nor do they usually grow much larger than your hand.

I devoted three days to fishing GSMNP in October of 2014. I drove on dirt roads and hiked up mountain trails to remote streams that tumbled down mountains while looking over my shoulder for black bears. I knew it wouldn’t be easy and sought advice online and from fly shop clerks. There was plenty available. Use ultra-thin line, crawl up to streams to avoid spooking the fish, cast no more than twice to a fishy-looking spot of water, hold your mouth right, wear earth-tone clothes, stand on one leg at the water’s edge while reciting three Hail Marys. I did it all and got skunked.

I prefer to think I’m a smarter angler today than nine years ago. (I’m not sure why I think that.) Buoyed by that optimism, I returned to the GSMNP last week to have another go at the elusive trout that dart about the Little River, Abrams Creek and Cataloochee River that flow through the park. The helpful folks at Little River Outfitters just outside the Townsend, Tennessee, park entrance sold me flies deemed most alluring to the GSMNP trout. They also dispensed the standard advice on fishing the park along with the warning that abnormally low water during the ongoing drought makes the spooky park fish even more finicky. Stealth, they cautioned me, was doubly important with water flows half the normal rate.

Just before I departed the shop, a pessimistic clerk gave me a sympathetic smile and said, “It’s not easy to catch fish in the park.” No kidding.

The next morning, I ate a leisurely breakfast at the Best Western in Townsend and then drove into the park, my destination the Tremont hiking trail that follows the Middle Prong of the Little River. I parked at the trailhead, geared up and climbed down a gorge to the creek.

The water flowed clear and shallow in the narrow stream. It tumbled from one shelf of rocks to another and rushed around Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulders. The soothing noise of the moving water drowned the whisper of yellow leaves fluttering in the autumn breeze.

Acting on the advice of the fly shop people, I tied on a faux grasshopper that floated and dropped beneath the hopper a nymph resembling aquatic insects that drift from the stream bed to the water surface during hatches. If a fish snatched the nymph, I would know because the floating hopper would sink. I drifted the hopper and a series of nymphs in pools and runs up and down Little River all morning. Nothing. Not even a nibble that tugged the hopper underwater. It was 2014 all over again. So much for my confidence that I had progressed as an angler in the last nine years.

After my favorite streamside lunch of Ritz crackers and Vienna sausages washed down with a Diet Coke, I decided to change tactics and fish so-called dry flies – those fake bugs that remain on the surface of the creek. I put on a feathery fly made from elk hair with orange thread, described as a stimulator at the fly shop because it didn’t closely resemble any specific bug. I decided to fish dry flies a couple of hours earlier in the afternoon than recommended at the fly shop. Why not, I thought. The fish ignored my wet flies.

I returned to the creek and cast into a pool just downstream of a foot-tall waterfall. The fly floated downstream multiple times without success. Sometime later, the fly was convulsed in a tiny splash. A miracle. No hookup but the fly had attracted a fish and that was cause for elation after so much failure.

A couple of casts later, the fly was engulfed in a commotion, and I actually felt for the briefest moment the pull of a fish. Oh hell, this was getting serious. Another cast and a fish hit the fly again and was hooked. I pulled the little rainbow from the water – my first catch in the GSMNP and the end of my frustration. I admired it for a moment, snapped the attached picture and let it slip between my fingers back into the creek. Wonder what a taxidermist would have said if I told him I wanted to mount it.

Mike Tapscott is a retired lawyer in Tupelo Mississippi, who has written for The Drake Flyfishing Magazine and Gotham Canoes.