Great Smoky Mountains NP: Sept. 2020 (Part 1)

Sometimes the fishing gods find it necessary to test our resolve, to throw everything at us (including the kitchen sink). Just to see how badly we want that fish. In 2020, it should be no surprise that the fishing gods had just such a trip in plan for me.

In a year of postponements and cancelled plans, my wife and I were resolved to venture far from home at least once. Wanting to keep two streaks alive, traveling for her birthday and visiting at least one National Park each year, we settled on a September trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Booking a secluded cabin online, we invited my parents to join and all agreed we’d reconsider should Pandemic numbers warrant as the date approached.

As the summer Pandemic peak waned and the cancellation deadline approached in mid-August, we agreed to move forward with our plans and my thoughts shifted to a third streak I hoped to keep alive: Consecutive years catching a trout on my fly rod.

Having visited the Smokys in the spring of 2019, and Colorado each of the past two summers, I had successfully landed trout on a fly rod two years running for the first time since my youth. Intent on keeping this streak alive, I dusted off my trusty 2 wt Orvis Silver Label full flex and began sorting my fly boxes. Though by no means a “fishing trip,” my thoughts quickly gave way to trout slams interspersed with Tennessee smallmouth.

As I said though, sometime the fishing gods have other things in store and by late August fly fishing day dreams had been pushed to the back of my mind.

Nothing says 2020 like a Double Hurricane

Though Marco fizzled out, and southeast Louisiana was largely spared the worst of Laura, the simple threat of a double hurricane seemed all too fitting for 2020. And in the wake of Laura’s landfall on August 27th, a surge in work stemming from the recovery efforts all but erased dreams of trout, fly fishing or vacation from my mind.

With just over two weeks until our scheduled departure, work began to overwhelm. Even working from home 50% of the time, work became a 24/7 endeavor. Emergency response was the name of the game, and everyone expected results yesterday. People were displaced, businesses were devastated and, often, backlogged lab results were the one thing between them and taking that first step towards recovery. A pep talk to the crew fell on largely weary ears, but the entire team leaned into it and trudged through the onslaught that was the following weeks. After a slow spring due to COVID, everyone knew this was a blessing in disguise. Still, that did little to combat exhaustion.

As our planned departure date approached, I was running ragged. While work was still surging, and I’d done little to prepare in the way of fly tying, I knew I now needed this escape more than ever. Turning to my employees, I polled the room on how they felt about holding down the fort without me. To my surprise, “Go. We’ve got this,” was the universal response. And so, we went.

Bags packed somewhat hastily, my wife and I left straight from the office the afternoon of September 12th with plans to meet my parents near Gatlinburg by noon the next day. Mother nature had more in store, however, as TS Sally now loomed just west of the Florida Everglades with a projected arrival in SE Louisiana by midweek.

The fun just never ends! Sigh…

Nonetheless, we continued on. Accepting there was little we could do to change Sally’s course.

Arriving at the Sugarlands visitor center shortly before noon the following day, I was amazed by the crowds. While I shouldn’t have been surprised as the park hosts ~12.5M visitors annually, the fact such a crowd existed post-Labor Day was a bit of a shock. Social distancing among the parks more popular trails would prove a challenge to say the least.

Our cabin, adjacent to the far less frequented Greenbrier section of the park, would provide a reprieve from the masses at least. And none in our group seemed particularly disappointed at the prospect of missing out on the Gatlinburg experience.

Battling our way through downtown Gatlinburg traffic, we made a quick stop for groceries on the outskirts of town and headed for the cabin.

Photo credit:

Overlooking the Little Pigeon River, our cabin (River Hideaway) offered the solitude and social distance, we all desired. And, in my case, a prime opportunity to wet a line for the first time since work had turned chaotic three weeks prior. Though the lower deck had been damaged and was roped off, that proved only a minor deterrent and I was on the water before bags had been unpacked.

No doubt highly pressured by this late in the season, I rightly assumed my odds of catching a fish were limited, but persisted regardless. Joined by my father, hampered largely by an outbreak of Shingles the prior week, we worked the water. (Rather I worked the water as he attempted to regain his casting stroke for the first time since taking casting classes with me some 25 years early. )

Shingles be damned. My 60 year old father was getting to that prime water no mater how much his body hurt.

Throwing a half-drowned hopper as he worked a slump buster, I eventually registered my first fish of the trip. A tiny Warpaint Shiner (presumably?) that smashed the small black terrestrial as it drifted past a midstream shelf.

Half-drowned hopper proving its worth in the Smokys

Garnering no further strikes, we called it an evening shortly thereafter. As heavy rains began to fall, we retired to the back porch for a cold beer and conversation. Still…Hurricane Sally remained in the back of my mind.

The following morning, however, things were looking up as Sally had begun to drift east and was now projected to make landfall somewhere along the Mississippi coast line. Relieved to have once again dodged the proverbial bullet, we took to making coffee and began to plan our day. At the advice of the Smoky Mountain Angler fly shop, we’d head for Big Creek along park’s northeastern border in hopes of avoiding the crowds and possibly finding a few trout.

Stepping out onto the lower deck, my morning brightened further as four species of Mayfly (including a number of minute Tricos too small for my phone’s camera to capture) graced the railing. Though the water at the cabin was now high and dirty from the prior night’s rain, the presence of these flies left me hopeful that a productive day in the mountains lay ahead.

Three rods in tow, we arrived at the trailhead shortly before noon and preceded to make our way up slope. Pausing occasionally to photograph wildlife or take in our surroundings, we made our way upstream passing the Midnight Hole (where we later learned a fellow tourist sadly drowned shortly after our visit) and Mouse Creek falls. Eventually passing the first bridge near the 2.5 mile mark, I spotted trout rising in the large open pool below. A perfect spot for some practice casting, I proposed we end our hike and begin fishing our way back towards the car.

Providing my father and wife each a 4wt rigged with a highly visible attractor pattern, I spent the next 30 minutes doing my best to play guide. We worked on reading the water, mending line and really just doing our best to not spook the fish. Each did well, and even elicited a strike or two, but it was clear such large offerings were not on the menu this particular afternoon.

Regrouping, I added a size 18 Elk Hair Caddis to each of their rigs. Trailing the more reasonably sized offering 18″ behind the attractor, I hoped the new double dry setup would improve their odds as we leapfrogged our way down stream. Trusting their abilities after our earlier tutorial, I placed each on a promising run and proceeded to rig my own 2wt with a #16 snowshoe hare Yellow Sally.

Slipping into a position just downstream of my wife, I began working the tail end of the run all the while keeping a watchful eye on my father. While I trust the old man to hold his own with anyone half his age under normal conditions, shingles had him looking his age for once and I found myself hesitant to leave him rock hopping unattended.

Eventually though, we all settled into a rhythm and the strikes began to come. Strikes do not always equate to fish brought to hand, however, and the rest of the afternoon was largely a humbling experience.

While I did manage one small, wild rainbow on the afternoon, my wife was skunked and eventually tired of the frustration.

A short hike and an hour’s drive still remaining, I conceded that it may be time to call it a day and went in search of my father who had disappeared behind a midstream boulder.

Finding my father working his way back towards shore near where I had left him, he proceeded to smile widely and thrust his cell phone in my face. The image of a rainbow slightly larger than mine graced the screen.

As he proudly boasted of his catch (his first rainbow on a fly rod), the image disappeared as his celebration was interrupted by an incoming call…

My mother waiting for us back at the car had received a call from their kennel back home. TS Sally had suddenly shifted east towards Pensacola, and the kennel was attempting to evacuate all of the dogs before the storm made landfall. Ten hours from home, there was little my parents could do. Nevertheless, we rushed back to the cabin where WiFi (how did we ever survive without it?) allowed them to better assess the situation.

Resigned to the fact there was little they could do now, my parents agreed it would be best to stay and return home once the storm had passed. A friend would secure their house, and, after the initial panic, the kennel staff agreed to evacuate their aging English Bulldog should it come to it.

And as tends to be the case, projections change. By Tuesday morning, the storm had yet to make landfall and appeared as if it might stay west over Alabama and Mississippi. With any luck, we would all still avoid the worst of what Sally had to offer and make a week of things yet…

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