Trout Fishing in The Great Smokies

TroutOne cannot fully appreciate the Smokies without fly fishing its abundant streams. From high mountains reaches to larger rivers at lower elevations, the park has nearly a thousand miles of fishable waters. The best experiences require hiking into remote portions of the park and finding clean, cold pools near fast moving rapids.

The brook trout are the only native species of game fish found here and are also known as “spec” or “speckled trout” by older locals. These native trout depend on clear and cold water to thrive and, where found, indicate a healthy, unmolested mountain stream. Although the history of logging and air pollution in the park have threatened brook trout populations, the park’s conservation effort has made the Great Smokies one of last great wild habitats for native fish in the eastern U.S.

Rainbow trout are the prized game fish in the park and are generally 6-10 inches in length. These fish were introduced here by logging camps in the early 1900s. Brown trout were imported from Europe and can reach over 2 feet in length, weigh 10 pounds, and live a dozen years. Brook trout live fewer than 3 years and rarely exceed 9 inches. Smallmouth and rock bass, both non-native, inhabit the lower rivers and streams along the park’s boundary.

FishingThe Park’s Aquatic World

Most of the park’s larger streams begin as springs along the Appalachian Trail high on the crest of the Smokies. As these small streams travel down the mountainside, they are joined by others to form progressively larger waterways. As this happens, the streams change from steep, shady, rushing cascades, dotted with beautiful waterfalls at high elevations, to wider, slower-moving waterways with gentle gradients at lower elevations. The forest canopy no longer completely covers lower elevation streams.

These changes in the stream channel, coupled with changes in water chemistry, bedrock composition, and water temperatures determine the distribution of fish species within the watershed. For example, the headwaters of streams above 3,000 ft. in elevation are inhabited by native brook trout. Downstream, non-native rainbow trout mix with brook trout for short distances. As the streams become larger, rainbow and brown trout become dominant and native non-game fish become part of the community.

Further downstream, close to the park boundary, as the waterways become more open and warmer, the fish community shifts from being dominated by trout to one that is dominated by smallmouth bass, rock bass, shiners, minnows, suckers, and darters.

This variety of habitat types in park streams supports a diverse spectrum of aquatic insects and invertebrates, plus over 53 species of fish.

Brook trout are the only native salmonid in the park. Since the turn of the century, the brook trout has lost about 75% of its range in the park due to logging and the introduction of the non-native rainbow trout.

The park has had an active brook trout restoration program since 1987. The primary objective of this program is to restore native brook trout populations to streams with natural barriers such as waterfalls that prevent invasion of non-native trout species. To date, this program has restored nine streams, and the restoration of eight additional streams at mid-to-low elevations is planned. The park’s brook trout restoration efforts have restored 11.1 miles of stream or 11% of the 97.5 miles of stream exclusively occupied by brook trout.

Stream acidity has increased 5-fold in high elevation streams in the last 20 years due to pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels. These data add urgency to the need to restore brook trout to streams at lower elevations with more stable water chemistry.” – NPS website:

Fishing in the Great Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 2,115 miles of streams within its boundaries, and protects one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. The park offers a wide variety of angling experiences from remote, headwater trout streams to large, coolwater smallmouth bass streams. Most streams remain at or near their carrying capacity of fish and offer a great opportunity to catch these species throughout the year.

Fishing is permitted year-round in the park, from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset. The park allows fishing in all streams EXCEPT the following streams and their tributaries upstream from the points described:

North Carolina
Bear Creek at its junction with Forney Creek.Tennessee
Sams Creek at the confluence with Thunderhead Prong
Indian Flats Prong at the Middle Prong Trial crossingThese streams are closed to fishing to allow fish to repopulate following restoration work. For the exact location, consult the appropriate USGS 1:24,000 Quadrangle Map available at park visitor centers. Detailed information, including a complete list of regulations and a map of fishable park waters, is also available at any visitor center or ranger station.
License Requirements
You must possess a valid fishing license or permit from either Tennessee or North Carolina. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park, but may be purchased in nearby towns or online (links provided by state below). Special permits are required for fishing in Gatlinburg and Cherokee.Tennessee License Requirements
Residents and nonresidents age 13 and older must have a valid license. Residents age 65 and older may obtain a special license from the state. Buy a license from the state government of Tennessee.North Carolina License Requirements
Residents and nonresidents age 16 and older need a license. Residents age 70 and older may obtain a special license from the state. Buy a license from the state government of North Carolina.Persons under 16 in North Carolina and under 13 in Tennessee are entitled to the adult daily bag and possession limits and are subject to all other regulations.
Fishing is permitted year-round in open waters.Time
Fishing is allowed from a half hour before official sunrise to a half hour after official sunset.Daily Possession Limits
Five (5) brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish.Twenty (20) rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit.A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.Size Limits
Brook, rainbow, and brown trout: 7 inch minimum
Smallmouth bass: 7 inch minimum
Rockbass: no minimumTrout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken.Lures, Bait, and Equipment
Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod.Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used. Up to two flies on a leader.Use or possession of any form of fish bait or liquid scent other than artificial flies or lures on or along any park stream while in possession of fishing tackle is prohibited. Prohibited baits include, but are not limited to, minnows (live or preserved), worms, corn, cheese, bread, salmon eggs, pork rinds, liquid scents and natural baits found along streams.Use or possession of double, treble, or gang hooks is prohibited.Fishing tackle and equipment, including creels and fish in possession, are subject to inspection by authorized personnel.

Please report violators to nearest ranger or to (865) 436-1294.

Standing and wading in streams can drain body heat and lead to hypothermia. Rising water levels resulting from sudden mountain storms occur quite frequently, so monitor water level. Water currents are swifter than they appear and footing is treacherous on wet and moss covered rocks. Additional information about water safety.
Be A Clean Fisherman
If there’s a tangle of line, or an empty can at your feet, clean up after your fellow angler.
Brook Trout Fishing
Because of the results of recent fisheries research and the success of the park’s brook trout restoration effort, in 2006 park management opened brook trout fishing and harvest park-wide for the first time since 1976. The results of a recent three-year brook trout fishing study indicate there was no decline in adult brook trout density or reproductive potential in any of the eight streams opened to fishing during the experimental period compared to eight streams closed to fishing during the same time period

Disturbing and moving rocks to form channels and rock dams is illegal in the park!

Moving rocks is harmful to both fish and aquatic insects that live in the streams. Many fish species that live in the park spawn between April and August. Some of these fish build their nests in small cavities under rocks and even guard the nest. When people move the rock, the nest is destroyed and the eggs and/or young fish die.Aquatic insects need rocks for cover as well. Some aquatic insects can drift off or move when disturbed, but many species attach themselves to the rock and cannot move. When a rock is moved, aquatic insects fall, are crushed by the movement, or dry out and die when the rock is placed out of water.One of the fundamental policies of the National Park Service is to preserve natural resources in an unaltered state. Consequently, it is against the law to move rocks in the stream. Please abide by these rules so that future generations may enjoy the park as well.” -NPS website:


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