by David Knapp of Trout Zone Anglers
Species: Rainbow, brown, and brook trout and smallmouth bass
Angler Type: Wade or Boat
Access Type: Public or Private
Trout Zone Anglers
Fightmaster Fly Fishing
R&R Fly Fishing
Smoky Mountain Gillies
Smoky Mountain Angler
Little River Outfitters
Smoky Mountain Angler
3 Rivers Anglers
Tremont Lodge and Resort
Dancing Bear Lodge
Miss Lily’s Café
Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro
Apple Valley Café
Little River begins high in the Great Smoky Mountains on the flanks of Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Collins. The headwaters contain native southern Appalachian brook trout. The river grows from several tributaries and is a good sized trout stream by the time it passes the National Park Service Campground at Elkmont. The river’s character begins to change here from a backcountry pocket water stream, to a larger trout stream with large pools and larger trout. From Elkmont to Townsend, there are approximately 15 miles of excellent trout water. Rainbow and brown trout thrive in these waters. Some of the largest brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park inhabit these waters. Flows at the Townsend USGS gauge average from 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the fall, to 400 cfs in the spring time. The best wading is anything below 450 cfs. Even at this flow, caution is recommended.
The river in the Park is too small for drift boats or rafts. White water enthusiasts enjoy paddling Little River during high water episodes. Outside of the Park in Townsend, private land makes floating almost mandatory. This upper section can be done in a raft at appropriate flows. Below Walland, Little River can be easily floated in a canoe or kayak. This lower water is strictly smallmouth and other warm water species fishing, but can be a relaxing way to spend a day.
Water depths vary from mere inches in riffles, to well over 10 feet in the deeper holes. Use caution accordingly.
Floating in Townsend is a good option during the winter months when the state stocks some larger trout. Floating in warm weather can be good for smallmouth bass.
Legal Considerations and Fishing Regulations
Please be very conscientious of private property outside of the National Park. It is not recommended to wade the river outside of the Park unless you have definite permission to access the river.
In the National Park, there are special regulations to protect this unique wild fishery. A daily and possession limit of 5 fish with a minimum size of 7” is in effect. Fishing is allowed from a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset. Fishing is limited to single hook artificial lures and flies only, no bait or natural scents. No double or treble hooks are allowed. Anglers are limited to using one rod at a time.
Outside of the Park, statewide trout regulations apply. A 7 trout a day limit with no bait restrictions applies on this put and take fishery. We recommend catch and release on the smallmouth outside of the Park. Further information on regulations can be found at the following:
Rod and Gear Suggestions
7’ 6” to 10’ fly rods in 2-5 weights are ideal depending on the fishing. In the lower elevations, 8’6” to 10’ rods in 4 and 5 weight are recommended. In the high elevation waters, lighter and shorter rods are ideal for the small but eager native brook trout.
5’ to 9’ 4x and 5x leaders are ideal except in the fall when low water may require 6x tippets. Monofilament is fine for dry fly fishing but fluorocarbon tippets are recommended for nymphing.
The spring hatches bring anglers from around the country. A basic selection of standard flies should work most of the time, but check in with the local fly shops to see what hatches are on and buy proper imitations.
Some suggestions for the Smokies include Parachute Adams (#12-#18), Tan and Brown Elk Hair Caddis (#14-#16), Yellow Stimulators (#12-#16), Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymphs (#12-#20), Prince Nymphs (#10-#14), Tellico Nymph (#8-#14), Green Weenie (#12-#16).
Specific hatches in the spring and summer include Quill Gordons (#10-#14), Blue Quills (#16-#18), Hendricksons (#12-#14), Sulfurs (#16-#18), Light Cahills (#14-#16), Blue-winged Olives (#18-#24), Isonychias (#8-#12), Little Black Caddis (#16-#20), Little Yellow Stoneflies (#12-#18), Golden Stoneflies (#6-#12).
Summers are prime terrestrial time. Beetles, ants, and inchworms are all very important at certain times on Little River. The low elevations outside of the Park below Townsend may see some hopper action during windy days.
Midges hatch year round and are especially important in winter when they may be the only thing hatching.
On the smallmouth waters outside of the Park, Wooly Buggers, Stealth Bombers, Poppers, and Clouser Minnows should keep you catching fish.
Tennessee highway 321 follows lower Little River from Townsend to Maryville. In the Park, Little River Road, Tennessee state route 73, follows Little River from the Park boundary to the turnoff for Elkmont Campground. From Townsend, follow 321 to the only stoplight in town. At the stoplight, leave 321 for highway 73 which takes you into the Park. At the Wye, the road splits. To fish Little River, turn left towards Gatlinburg. The road follows the river for the next 13 miles. If you are coming from Gatlinburg, take highway 441 to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Turn right onto Little River Road and drive approximately 5 miles.