A few weekends ago I made the trip up to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to meet up with some friends for the 2023 TenkaraCamp at Elkmont Campground. While it wasn't my first time to the Smokies, it was my first time to that specific section and associated water. It ended up being a nice weekend, although the weather was a bit bi-polar. More on that in a bit...
I kind of associate the Smokies with rainbow trout...
I made the long trek from Florida to Tennessee early on Thursday morning. Fortunately, the drive was relatively uneventful, shooting up I-95, over into South Carolina on 26, and then up into Tennessee on 40. Traffic was light, and I was able to arrive at my destination at around 2:30 in the afternoon. I honestly think the biggest delay was caused by dodging pedestrian tourists while driving down the main strip in downtown Gatlinburg. Yikes. If you've never been, well, there are no words. And if you have, you know what I'm talking about.
In any event, once I got past that bit of chaos and down the road a couple of miles to check in at the Ranger station, it gave me just enough time to set up my campsite and then get a line wet for a few hours.
Little River runs right through the campground and made for some really easy access. I fished for maybe two or three hours and caught a little over a half dozen fish. Not a ton, but good enough to start the trip off on a good foot. I was actually surprised that the first three fish I caught were brown trout. I kind of associate the Smokies with rainbow trout (and in the far reaches brookies)... so that was also an interesting way to lead off.
That evening, about fifteen of us that had come in for the TenkaraCamp gathered at one campsite, telling stories by the fire. If I recall, I spent most of the time talking about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other things I can't (and probably shouldn't) remember with my friend Matt. After the early morning wake up, long drive, and afternoon of fishing, I was kind of on fumes at that point. Certainly made falling to sleep very easy that evening.
In my head it sounded fine...
Okay, Friday was glorious. It was also painfully exhausting. But really, it was glorious.
For some reason I thought it might be a good idea to go back and fish one of the tributaries of the Little River. Get away from some of the crowds that were in the campground and general vicinity and maybe bump into some brook trout. I had mapped out a plan to hike back about 5ish miles, fish all day, and then hike back to return around dinnertime. 10ish miles round-trip. In my head it sounded fine. By the end of the day my feet had a differing opinion.
Fortunately, I made new friend at camp the night before, and Paul was more than willing (he actually volunteered) to accompany me on this hike. In retrospect, I probably would have quit hiking long before I did if Paul wasn't there. But conversation was lively, and it made the time go a little bit faster. After about two and a half, maybe three hours of hiking, the two of us split up to cover different sections of water. I went upstream, Paul downstream, agreeing to meet back on the trail at around 4PM.
After a quick snack and drink of water, I popped into the stream and began to fish. And spoiler alert, while I didn't find a single brook trout that afternoon, I did find tons of rainbows. They were super eager too, bringing 3 to hand on maybe my first 5 or 6 casts. They took nymphs, they took wets, they even came up to smack a few dries.
Eventually a pretty steady wind started kicking up and I'm not sure if it was a coincidence, but the fish started shutting down. I was able to pick up a few more here and there, but defintiely not with the same frequency. In all, I think I brought a little under twenty to hand, and played with at least a half dozen more before finding a spot to climb through the brush and back on to the trail to meet up with Paul who I found beaming after catching himself what was essentially a "last cast" trout.
Pleasantries aside, I think we'd both admit that the walk back sucked. I mean it really suuuucked. It seemed at least three times as long as the hike out. Conversation was also a bit more sparse. I think we were both beat and focused on getting back so we could get our boots off and just relax.
Back at camp that evening there was another campfire get-together, this time with a larger turnout circling the fire pit. I sort of remember talking to my friends Bryan and Amanda for a bit, and getting introduced to her friends Rachael and Brock. Brock is a relative newcomer to tenkara fishing but quite versed with a fly rod and reel, so it was fun talking to him about both styles of fishing.
As for that evening... That bit of wind I felt while out fishing was the precursor to a stormfront rolling through the valley. It was a very windy and rainy overnight. While my campsite and tent survived the conditions just fine, I didn't sleep quite as well with that howling wind keeping me company.
It felt good to do nothing...
Not sleeping too well the night before, I decided I was going to take it easy on Saturday. The rain had stopped and it was moderately warm and sunny. It was actually the main day of the limited TenkaraCamp organized activities, with a gathtering in the morning at one of the campsites, a meet and greet, and some streamside clinics before everybody broke out to go fishing.
I basically just hung out at camp. I met and chatted up different people, recorded one of the educational sessions conducted by my friend Rob, and largely just watched people fish. I even took my folding camp chair streamside and just sat back with a cold drink and chilled out, dozing off briefly more than a few times. After running (and hiking) around the prior two days, it felt good to kind of do nothing. Fishing trips aren't just about the fishing.
Oh, then maybe around 2PM it got cold and increasingly dark and windy again. Uh oh.
The morning was sunny and warm enough to allow my tent to dry off... but that was suddenly under threat. Knowing I was going to leave first thing on Sunday morning anyway, I decided to break down camp a little bit early while things were dry. I just didn't want to risk everything getting soaked again. Nobody likes packing up a wet camp.
Everything packed, and kinda dreading the 8.5 hour drive that awaited me the next day, I decided that I was going to forego the evening's campfire chats, and just head home, grabbing a hotel for the night somewhere along the way to split the trip in half. So I said goodbye to the folks that were at camp, and headed a few hours to Flat Rock, NC where I stayed the night.
A very good run up to the Smokies...
I'm a little bummed missing out on that evening's campfire, I always get a little case of the FoMOs, but I did hear it was a little on the cold side on Saturday night and Sunday morning, so I probably made the right decision. Plus, I was able to get back home to Florida with enough time to actually enjoy my Sunday at home, decompress a bit, and get myself mentally ready for the work week to come.
In all, it was a very good run up to the Smokies. I enjoyed Elkmont Campground quite a bit. In many ways it's a lot like Deep Creek on the North Carolina side that I really had fun at the year prior. I can see myself being back to both at some point in the future.