By Brock Ray
There are great smallmouth bass angling opportunities found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Tennessee side of the Smokies boasts four major streamsheds and a minor one: Abrams Creek located at the southwestern corner of the park, Little River which leaves the park at Townsend, West Prong of the Little Pigeon River which leaves the park at Gatlinburg, Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River which exits the park near Pittman Center, and Cosby Creek which leaves the park near Cosby and flows into the Pigeon River a few miles away. All but little Cosby Creek hold smallmouth (and redeye) bass somewhere in their lengths in the national park.Granted, smallmouth bass occupy considerably less range in the national park than do trout, but the lower reaches of these streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is prime bronzeback country.
The existence of smallmouth bass in these streams comes as a shock to many, including a few lifelong trouters in the region. However, these marvelous gamefish, as well as rock bass and even a few largemouth bass, are found in these streams. It is a bit ironic that most trout fishermen frequenting these streams ignore the brown bass, as it is a far better battler than any of the trout occurring here.
Smallmouth bass prefer rock or gravel-bottomed feeding stations, which characterizes most of their habitat in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Two- to three-pound smallmouth bass are trophies from these waters are common, while a 12-inch rock bass is a true “eye popper.” Each season, a few larger bass are taken from park waters.
Crawfish, which are common to park streams, are key diet items, along with small fish such as darters and sculpins, spring lizards, and insects and other invertebrates. These fish are slightly more meat-conscious than trout, although they will take small flies. Fishing specifically for smallmouth bass is a challenging sport, but their abundance in the Park makes it worthwhile. I could easily devote an entire book to this subject, as the various techniques and awesome array of fishing situations can take years to master.
One reason many trout fishermen visiting these waters fail to catch smallmouth and rock bass from the streams of the Smokies is they fail to recognize the distinctly different habitat preferences of the sunfish clan to that of trout in these waters. Trout, and especially rainbows, are far more likely to be caught in modestly swift runs. Smallmouth bass shun fast water, preferring to “lay up” in the rear of pools in shaded areas. All of the bass in the Smokies are most common in the lower reaches of the largest streams.
Smallmouth bass in the streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park not only can be caught on hardware such as spinners and small crankbaits, but also a variety of flies, ranging from streamers to nymphs. During the early years of the Park, fishing for smallmouth bass was almost During the 1940 streams in the Smokies were not all tree lines and were warmer, providing smallmouth bass with great habitat. The lack of shade on many reaches of water as a result of 50 years of intensive logging. These days though, these streams are now canopied (at least half of the year) and resulted in prime smallmouth bass habitat.
During those early days of the Park, fishermen used what was known then as flyrod baits. In most instances, these were scaled-down versions of proven plugs such as Heddon’s Flaptail or South Bend’s Bass Oreno. These bantam-sized plugs were too light to be cast with any tackle of that era other than a flyrod. Experienced Park smallie fishermen agree that more consistent results are obtained with light tackle and relatively small baits. I like two- to four- pound-test tippets, but some fishermen advocated the use of six- to eightpound- test line. Favorite smallmouth fly patterns for park waters include Muddler Minnows, Joe’s Hopper, large stonefly nymphs, and the Wooly Booger. Favorite hardware includes Mepp Comet Squirreltail and Roosertail spinners, but be sure to remember to trim off all but a single hook when fishing inside the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In these waters only single hook, artificial only lures are legal to use. Presented to the rear of pools, these fly patterns and lures are deadly on lurking smallmouth bass.
Late winter is one of the finest times to fish for brown bass in the Park. Water temperatures and normally abundant rainfall help keep these cool-natured fish active. Streamers and spinners can’t be beat at this time, when the metabolisms of these fish has slowed. These offerings worked slowly over drop-offs, saddles, and bars can bring surprising results. Around late March, smallmouth bass become increasingly active, and wander. Plumbing the bottom along rocky drop-offs by vertical jigging is an old-time tactic that still works at this time.
March and April are exciting months for tangling with Smoky Mountain brown bass. In most streams, these fish can be found shallow in the slow runs. Two- to four-foot depths are not uncommon. Quarter-ounce spinners, as well as Rapala and Rebel Crawdad crankbaits (modified to be single-hook), streamers (#2- to #6-sizes) and nymphs (#6- to #10-sizes) retrieved at a brisk pace are often met by violent strikes. Spawning action at this time can be located along sloping gravel- or rock- bottomed areas.
Plastic twister-tail style grubs on leadheads, marabou streamers and crayfish patterns (#2- to #8-sizes) plus big nymphs (#4- to #8-sizes) bounced through likely bedding cover can net an irate parent fish or two. Following the spawn, the fish spread out along rocky-bottomed areas where they feed throughout late spring and summer.
The best in smallmouth bass action available in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Abrams Creek and Little River, although the final couple miles of both prongs the Little Pigeon River offer good bass fishing. The sport fishery at Abrams Creek downstream from the Abrams Creek Primitive Campground located near Happy Valley is about 50 percent smallmouth. Lightly fished due to how difficult it is to get to it and then to get around once you are there, brown bass in the 2- to 3-pound brown are common in the long, slow pools of Abrams Creek. The final five miles of this stream offer superb bass fishing–unquestionably the best in all of the Park.
Little River is not as loaded with smallmouth bass as is Abrams Creek, but it is certainly a lot easier to access and worth exploring. The best fishing is on the East Prong downstream from Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area to the river’s conjunction with the West Prong (approaching from Tremont), and then beyond at Little River to the park boundary at Townsend. I once observed Vic Stewart, an old angling buddy of mine from Morristown, catch a 14-inch rock bass from the Junction Pool early one morning on a Tellico Nymph. He and the fish were equally surprised to see the other. Vic expected to see a trout, and the rock bass was not expecting to see Vic.