Sunday, April 19, 2009

Shutout in the Smokies

…..Well, not really.

My son had done such an admirable job on our first outing this year, I decided to take him along on longer trip. I made the 4-day Easter weekend trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park with a friend and my 8-year-old son. I had not been to the Smokies since 2005 and we were really looking forward to this trip.

Heavy rains passed through the area on Good Friday that caused the streams to raise (not off-color) and the flows were absolutely brutal. Our first step was to set up camp, what an adventure that was! My friend’s new tent had never been slept in and had only been assemble once.

After setting up camp it was off to Little River Outfitters, probably THE best fly shop I have been in anywhere in the United States. I let my son pick out his own flies, of those flies he selected a purple parachute Adams and a size 2 gray ghost. Who knows, under the right conditions they may have worked. The employees of the shop were great as usual and treated my son like he was king of the world.

The first stop I had planned was the Middle Prong of the Little River above Tremont, but after a brief conversation in LRO I was informed that section was closed to habitat enhancement. They did suggest, however, Sam’s Creek above the Middle Prong trailhead – so off we went.

I knew they had received some rainfall earlier in the day and I knew they were still experiencing runoff from the 8-10” of snowfall on Tuesday, but I did not expect water levels/flows that were present when we got to the trailhead. My last trip to this watershed was Memorial Day weekend in 2005 and I wet waded the Middle Prong that weekend. This trip, where I had previously wet waded, the first view of the stream was kayakers – it was absolutely raging! Regardless, we crossed the bridge on the Middle Prong and headed toward Sam’s Creek.

We ran into this guy where the Middle Prong and Sam’s Creek trails split. He was sunning himself on a fallen tree and he was pretty lethargic – April is still early for the reptiles.

With the skies darkening, we didn’t hike long before we decided try are luck in the raging waters. We didn’t fish long before we realized we should head back toward the vehicle. I did not catch a fish, but I did miss a fierce strike on the nymph dropper at the first bridge abutment.

With the rain beginning, I decided to take Ross to the Tremont visitor’s center – just missed them. While Ross picked flies from one of my boxes to stock up his new fly box, my friend decided to try his luck right behind the visitor’s center. He picked up a small rainbow against the bank while fishing downstream with a weighted woolybugger.

With the rain coming down even harder (even threats of tornadoes) we decided to stay in the car and take a tour of the Cade’s Cove area. This was a great decision as my son was able to see several gobblers and jakes spread throughout the fields. At one point they gobbled every time it thundered.

So with day one closing, I had yet to catch a fish but still a successful day for my son: new flies, new fly box, rat snake, and gobbling turkeys.

Day two started with lower than forecasted temperatures and a slight drizzle that was not in the forecast. Our decision was to go high toward Newfound Gap, in hopes of avoiding the raging waters we found in lower elevations the day prior.

We made a quick stop along Little River when we spotted this on the route toward Gatlinburg.

This tactic works in West Virginia but apparently not so well in Tennessee. After a hike of about a mile straight up, what we found up high were the same conditions. The conditions were much more treacherous due to the car size boulders we would have been fishing on and around, not to mention the fact that at 11:00 AM the visibility was still about 50 yards.

They call them the Smoky Mountains for a reason.

We fished for an hour or so, before making the decision to move back down in search of lower gradient water and hopefully easier traversing.

Our next stop was a roadside stream just west of the Sugarlands visitor center. The water in this small stream was in much better condition, but in our brief stay on this stream we moved only one small fish – I saw nothing.

The trout were elusive but the spring wild flowers were beginning to peak. These yellow trillium were everywhere.

After looking over the park map, we chose to explore larger water, so we made a short jump back into the Little River watershed and my first visit to Elkmont. We could not find a parking space at the Little River trailhead above Elkmont campground, so we made our way to the old logging community of Elkmont. We gave another attempt on the new waters of Jake’s Creek.

The water looked great, but the rhododendron-choked stream was impossible to fish from the bank and the current made it impossible to fish from the stream….another swing and a miss!

The little cabins of Elkmont were in fairly good condition but are closed to visitors, leaving only your imagination to wonder what the community would have been like during the peak of the logging industry.

Running late in the day, we chose to head back in the direction of camp. We decided to give the Middle Prong of the Little River another try, this time below Tremont in the lower gradient area. The stream was still too swift to wade but my friend was still able to pick up a couple of small bows – with the assistance of three splitshot.

On the route to Tremont, again along Little River, I found these columbine in bloom.

Ross and I decided to try our luck along one of the rock retaining walls. We did not move a fish, but we did bring one of the locals to hand. What we found was a black-lipped red salamander sunning himself on the water’s edge of the retaining wall.

After our day one encounter with the black rat snake, Ross picked up a Smoky Mountain guide to reptiles and amphibians. It came in handy, as I would have guessed Midland Mud salamander but Ross pointed out that it did have a black chin. I think Ross enjoyed seeing the local fauna more than he did the fishing – probably due to the lack of “catching”.

With time for one more stop for the day we chose another new stream, the West Prong of the Little River above Cade’s Cove Road. The water again looked very good, but again the fish did not cooperate.

And so day two ended without a fish to hand, but again it was a success for Ross. He was able to test his hiking abilities on the Chimney top trail and he discovered another “critter” in the beautiful little salamander.

Day three started early in the morning when I had to cover Ross with another blanket. The weather forecast was for lows in the mid-40’s, but what we awoke to was a chilling 31 degrees. In a tent and a zero-degree sleeping bag, Ross still got chilled.

With the chilly temperatures, we decided to do a little sight seeing while waiting on the temps to warm up. The sky was nearly crystal clear, so we decided it was a perfect time to hit Clingman’s Dome (the second highest peak east of the Mississippi) and it was early enough to beat the crowds.

The views from the parking lot were amazing! Looking down on the low elevation clouds on the North Carolina side of the park was incredible.

The Forney Creek watershed also looked very inviting…some other time!

When we got to the top, you could actually see the overlook. The first time I made this short trek, I could barely see the overlook from 50 yards away!

You could actually see Mt. LeConte and in the very distance you could make out Mt. Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi).

Mt. LeConte

Ross also took his first steps on the Appalachian Trail. Is it a sign of things to come in his future?

We also got an indication why the fishing was slow, in addition to the high water there was still residual snow from the 8-10" they received five days earlier.

With the trail getting crowded and daylight burning, we decided it had warmed enough to hit the water. We were headed back down off the mountain, through Gatlinburg, and to the Greenbrier entrance.

The plan was to hike into the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon on the Ramsay Cascade trail. Once we made it to the trailhead, our plans changed again as the water was raging as it had been everywhere else. This section of the stream is boulder hopping at its finest and with the water ripping I didn't think it was safe for Ross. We fished briefly from the top of a car-sized boulder before calling it quits at this locale.

On the way back to the vehicle, I spotted bloodroot. It was flowering yet, but the unique feature of this plant is the root.

We then decided to head to a little smaller, lower gradient stream in the area - Porter's Creek. This stream was very difficult for Ross to maneuver around due to the rhododendron choking the water. After fighting the brush, I decided to try something a little different.

Ross and I walked back to the car with a purpose, I wanted to see if he could manage to wear my waders and wading boots. Obviously they were quite large on him, but he wanted in that water past his rubber boots!

Now we have a means to get Ross off the bank, but the fish were not cooperating again, the water was still brutally cold.

We decided to try one last location on the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon. On the way in we had spotted a section of slower moving water, it was bigger water but it was out last resort.

Once on the water, I could notice a significant increase in the water temperature and there were sporadic risers...good news!

I helped Ross wade across the stream and we fished for a short while before he decided he wanted to give it a try.

Ross gave it a go for a while and then turned the rod back to me. I missed several short strikes on a trio of different patterns: EHC, BWO, and a small ant. Ross and I then decided to call it a day and thus ended our Smokies fishing trip. We did stop and walk around Gatlinburg and dined catfish, gator, and frog legs at Huck Finns restaurant in Pigeon Forge.

Day three ended without trout again, but again I would still call the day a success. Ross made it to the top of the second highest peak east of the Mississippi, wore waders & waded for the first time, and he ate alligator for the first time.

With temps dropping again we packed up camp that night and rented a hotel room before heading for home the next morning.

We traveled home through Kentucky with hopes of adding another state to my brook trout list, but that disaster does not even merit a write-up.

Ross and I will make it back to the Smokies again, and there will be trout involved next time....but no trout does not equal failure!


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