Insects and other foods the trout should be eating:
1. BWOs (Little and baetis BWOs)
2. Little Yellow Quills
3. Little Yellow Stoneflies
4. Slate Drakes
5. Needle Stoneflies
6. Mahogany Duns
Most available/ Other types of food:
7. Sculpin, Minnows (Streamers)
Fly Fishing Strategies - Which Fly To Use - Coming Week - Part 2
Make certain you read part one which was yesterday's article. It brings out the fact that there's a
difference in the insects and food from the upper to the lower elevations and that many of the
above insects are very near the end of their period of importance as a trout food. First, as I have
been doing this second year of strategy articles, here's last year's article for this same time period.
I'll get to this in detail tomorrow but before I do, let me try to clear something up that tends to confuse a good
number of anglers. I have mentioned on several occasions that the number of fully grown aquatic insects in the
streams is much lower now than in the Spring. Although it's true there are fewer insects, some anglers take that to
mean there's very few insects in the water for the trout to eat. That simply isn't true.
This line of reasoning comes from those who are always eager to express their opinions about what the trout have
to eat and how to go about selecting flies to catch them, but when it really gets down to it, they actually know very
little about the aquatic insects and other food that's in the streams. In fact, it some cases, it's downright pitiful as to
the limited amount of knowledge they have about the food the trout have to eat. This includes some fly shop
salesmen, authors of books and magazine articles on fly fishing the Smokies, and many other self-proclaimed
experts on fly fishing the Smokies. To put it in the right context, any fifteen year old kid that spent a week or two
studying aquatic insects would have more knowledge than most of them.
They give the impression to anglers that trout in the Smokies eat hair and feathers and in general, live most of their
short life starving to death. If you have caught any trout in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I doubt you have
caught any that appeared starved or that had their stomachs caved in. I've caught a few thousand and I haven't
caught any that appeared to be starving to death.
Fish can go a long time without eating. The cooler the water, the longer they can survive with lower quantities of
food. When they don't eat for a long period of time, they will begin to get very skinny. I know this from
experimentation and from observing Tom Mann keep bass in an aquarium the size of a house over the years. It
isn't exactly easy keeping enough food, year-round for several large bass, bream, and catfish. I don't think there
would be a great deal of difference in the cold water species, except that they could survive longer with less food.
Before fish die from starvation, their stomachs will become caved in. In other words, instead of curving out slightly
like they normally do, the stomachs will curve in considerably. It is very easy to determine if a fish is starving. It is
very obvious. As cruel as it may seem, years ago while on the pro bass circuit, i actually starved several bass in
aquariums to determine the difference in how they reacted to lures with different degrees of hunger. I watched a
spotted bass live for three months without any food being put in its aquarium. I have also noticed that in the last
twelve years of fishing the Smokies as much as anyone, I haven't caught the first trout that appeared to be starving.
Because of false information spread by a few that for the most part, and in all due respect, borderline being
completely ignorant about the aquatic insects and other food in the streams, some anglers picture trout as stupid
creatures swimming in the current, starving to death searching for food. They envision that after several hours, the
trout sees something - a nymph, a grasshopper, or anything small enough to eat - then grabs it to escape death
from starvation for another day. In fact, in talking to some anglers attempting to learn the sport of fly fishing, it
obvious that's exactly how some picture opportunistic feeding. Such false impressions of what actually occurs,
misleads anglers into thinking success comes from relying strictly on luck, and/or trial and error methods of
fishing the Smokies. Because all trout in any headwater, freestone stream In the nation often eat more than one
item of food at a given time, they think fly selection isn't an important factor in success. They don't understand how
trout and many other wild animals are programmed by nature to survive. In very general terms, wild and/or native
trout will reject any and all food they see that requires more energy to acquire than will provide.
For example, lets take Little River near Elkmont. At this time of the year, when trout are holding in riffles, for
example, there are dozens of items of food within a typical square yard of bottom surrounding the trout. If you
consider all the very small items of food, it can be as high as hundreds of items. There are also many other types
of food available for the trout to eat nearby. The amount of food actually drifting by in the current is usually very low
in quantity. At this time of the year, many of the mayfly and stonefly nymphs are very small, and much of the
caddisfly and midge larvae are in the early stages of development, but a good number of species aren't small.
Those aquatic insects listed above are all fully grown as nymphs and/or larvae.
In addition, all of the stoneflies and other insects that live longer than a year are approaching their fully grown
sizes. For example, all the streams have populations of Giant Stonefly nymphs that live for three years. Other
stonefly species, like Golden Stoneflies, that live for two years are sizable at this time of the year. Granted, these
nymphs stay hidden down under rocks most of the time, but they do crawl out to eat and occasionally get eaten by
trout. Winter stoneflies of several different species are now approaching their full grown size. Minnows and sculpin
are plentiful in most all streams. Crayfish are very plentiful. There are many other items of food. The bottom line is
that although the streams look extremely clear and void of life most of the time, if you happen to dig around a little
(not exactly legal in the park), you would find there's enough creatures in the water to scare some small kids to the
point they won't get into the water. Grab a large stonefly nymph from under a rock, an ugly sculpin, a crawfish, or a
hellgrammite from the stream and watch them run. Put a cup full of sand and gravel in a white pan and spread it
out and notice the tiny nymph and larvae. Depending on the time of year, there may be dozens of midge larvae in
the pan. In early spring, there may be as much as thirty larger nymphs in a square foot of bottom.
We have measured and observed hundreds of samples of aquatic insects from almost every stream in the park. In
past years we have done this throughout the year using various means of collection methods, including kick nets.
The higher the pH, the less the number of insects in general, but even in the high altitude brook trout streams at
this time of the year, there's far more food available for the trout than most anglers think there is.
The lifetime span of wild trout in the Smokies is short, but in all due respect to those who think so, it isn't true
that the prime reason for it is due to the lack of food. Over population for the available amount of food, long
periods of low, warm water are two of the reasons, but many other things contribute to the short life span of the
trout in my opinion. I'm convinced that much of the opinion to do with this particular subject is based on false
assumptions rather than facts.
Strategies (last year):
I know that most of the traditional, backwoods fishing strategies that are still subscribed to by many anglers, and
that are still taught by many as relates to this subject, are completely misleading. There are plenty that still try to
bamboozle anglers with bogus strategies. The lack of good, sound fly fishing teaching methods and resources is
very obvious. This should be noticeable due to the fact that out of hundreds of books that have been written on
what trout eat and specifically on aquatic insects, none of them have ever been written about what trout eat in the
streams of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Last Friday morning, first thing in the morning (I didn't write down the actual time like I usually do but my guess is
around 9:00 AM), I made a quick trip to the area just above the last uppermost parking section of the Chimneys
Picnic area. Angie and I have done that for several years at various times during the year, and have always
seemed to do very well. There's rarely anyone there early in the mornings and the kids are almost never there
throwing rocks in the stream and wading the shallow areas of Little Pigeon River. It's difficult to go very far
upstream without climbing over huge room size boulders or wading deep pools even with the low water, but
there's usually plenty of rainbow and normally some huge brook trout there. In fact Angie has caught some
whoppers there in previous years, but such wasn't the case for me last Friday. I didn't even get a good look from
I fished a size 18 Blue-winged Olive nymph and then after discovering two Little Yellow Quill spinners clinging to
the underside of some leaves, I changed to an imitation of the spinner even though I've never seen them deposit
their eggs in the mornings. That didn't work either, but it did tell me Little Yellow Quills had been hatching and
probably were still continuing to hatch. I stopped at the lower end of the picnic area to see if I could pick up a
rainbow fishing around the highway #441 Bridge. I didn't get a strike on the LYQ spinner or the BWO nymph. I only
fished for about 45 minutes, but it was completely unproductive. I haven't the slightest idea why. The normal
disturbance and activity at the picnic area shouldn't have been a factor. I don't think the kids have ever scarred the
trout to the point they left the area.
Saturday, I fished almost the same area as the last area I fished Friday morning on Little Pigeon River just
downstream of the Chimneys Picnic area bridge and then moved to two different areas of Little River below the
turn to Elkmont. I fished from just after 2:30 PM until a few minutes after sunset but that included driving to different
locations three times.
At the first stop on the Little Pigeon River, I noticed Little Yellow Quills hatching as soon as I got to the water. There
were several of them hatching in the slow water at the edges of the riffles and runs. I tied on a Little Yellow Quill
dun and caught three small rainbows within the first thirty minutes or less, but then it ended and that was over. I
didn't see any more duns or get another strike during the next thirty minutes of fishing. I should have been there an
I moved to Little River in some of the deeper sections hoping to nail a larger size brown. I used the same game
plan as I have recommended for the last few weeks and started with the Blue-winged Olive nymph. I knew the
water was still a little warm and slightly early for the fall baetis, size 18 BWOs to hatch, but it's certainly getting
about that time. We show them starting to hatch about the middle of October on our hatch chart. I know the water
has plenty of the nymphs, which are swimmers, and are not able to avoid being eaten by the trout as well as other
mayflies such as the clingers. The nymph performed very well as it has been doing for the past few weeks. I
caught eight trout the nymph on Little River, both browns and rainbows and in two different locations. I had one
brown around ten or eleven inches that was the largest fish I caught.
There were some Diphetor species of Little Blue-winged Olives hatching and another species that was probably
an Acentrella species but I'm not sure about that. These are very small mayflies that are difficult to tell apart without
good light. I changed from the #18 BWO nymph to a #20 BWO dun but didn't have any takers. I switched back to the
nymph. I'm sure the hatch had already ended because I noticed some spinners dancing over my head when the
light was situated just right. The little Jenny spinners are tiny, clear bodied and probably didn't fall until near dark.
This same thing was going on at two locations on Little River which were about three miles apart.
I didn't see the first Mahogany Dun or Slate Drake nymph shuck on any of the rocks indicating they had hatched. I
think the water is still a little too warm for much activity from these or the baetis BWOs. The trout take the #18 BWO
very well. Although I probably left a little too early, I didn't see any spinner activity. I'm sure the little BWOs spinners
fell but they are impossible to see on the water and don't usually fall in warm weather until it's almost dark.
By the way, regarding the Great Brown Autumn Sedges, I didn't see the first adult and I looked closely in the
bushes. I think it needs to get cooler again. They were starting to hatch but it appears they have slowed down too.
Things will change quickly if the water drops about five to ten degrees.
I know there's not much to report that's very exciting but if you want to catch the most trout you can catch, meaning
have the highest odds of success, I'm still recommending you follow the same strategy as I have recommended
for the last couple of weeks. I feel confident that if I had started earlier in the day, I would have caught several more
trout and more on the dry fly for sure. I didn't fish the brook trout streams. I know they have started spawning and
that can be very good or very bad, depending on the exact stage it's in. My guess is you could probably catch more
in numbers fishing the streams in the higher elevations. Amazingly, I only saw two or maybe three vehicles of what
I thought were anglers fishing. I rarely fish on Saturdays, but it seemed it didn't make any difference last Saturday. I
guess most anglers were watching football games.
Strategies for the coming week:
If you fish very early under low light conditions or if the rain has stained the water, start out with a
streamer. Our Brown Sculpin can't be beat in the Smokies. Otherwise, start out with a hook size 20
or 18 BWO nymph. Change to a size 16 nymph if you see any large BWO duns that hatched the
day before. Fish this throughout the day and change only if you see something hatching. If it's
blue-winged olives, switch to an emerger or a dun of the same size. That would be a small BWO or
Little Yellow Quill. If you do find these hatching, change to an emerger or dun.
Remember, the Slate Drake may be hatching but they both crawl out of the water to hatch and
deposit their eggs near and after dark. The Great Autumn Brown Sedges both emerge and deposit
their eggs starting near dark. In the mid to high elevations, the Needle Stoneflies both crawl out of
the water to hatch and deposit their eggs near and after dark.
Late in the day, you should change to one of the nymphs of these insects if you see any evidence
that they have been hatching. If you see any egg layers, change to the corresponding adult
caddis, stonefly or mayfly spinner. Otherwise, stick with the BWO nymph. Changing flies every few
minutes (trial and error methods) is always less productive.
The only exception I would make to the above strategy is that if you see any brown trout out in
open water, switch to a streamer.
Copyright 2012 James Marsh