The Little River is a 60-mile long river in Tennessee. The river starts in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It flows 18 miles through the park and an additional 42 miles through Blount County before emptying into the Tennessee River.
The Little River is most famous for its beauty. Secondly it is known for its trout fishing. Much of the river section in the park flows alongside one of the most traveled roads in the National Park System. The river is fished year round by a number of people. But it does not see the same kind of pressure as some other more famous trout waters.
An average wild rainbow trout from the Little River
Trout are the main fish sought by anglers in the Little River. The Little River is a clean and clear river that does not produce a large number of aquatic insects. Because of that the average trout found in the Little River is on the small side. Many trout do not even grow to 7 inches before dying. Yet some brown trout that are able to switch over to a diet of fish live longer and can grow to surprisingly large sizes.
Smallmouth bass and rock bass are usually found in the deeper and slower holes. These fish become more common as you move downstream from an area known as the Sinks. Warpaint shiners can be found throughout the river.
Fish species in Little River
Little River is home to several species of fish. Rainbow trout and brown trout are the most common. Smallmouth bass, rock bass, and warpaint shiners also live in the Little River. Some brook trout from feeder streams will also find their way into the river from time to time.
Brook trout, smallmouth bass, rock bass and warpaint shiners are native to the Little River. Rainbow trout and brown trout are not native to the Little River. They are introduced species that now spawn in the river and its tributaries.
An average Little River brown trout
The National Park Service does not stock the Little River. Trout stocking inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ended in 1975. The vast majority of the trout found in the Little River are wild. Rainbow trout are stocked outside of the park. Some of them make it upstream into the park boundaries too.
The average trout in the Little River only lives about 4 years. A small number of brown trout live much longer. These elusive fish often have impressive size but are rarely seen by most people. Big brown trout in the Little River are rare but they certainly do exist. Brown trout up to twelve pounds have been caught here. Smallmouth bass are usually in the 10 to 14 inch range.
Fishing in the Little River
The entire length of the Little River within the park is open to fishing. Much of it flows alongside Little River Gorge Road. There are numerous pull offs along the road that give access to the river. That is not to say that accessing the river is necessarily easy. The river can be swift with a bottom lined with smooth round stones and boulders. Combine this with steep banks and you end up with a river that takes some effort to fish.
That is not to say fishing the Little River is necessarily difficult. Some of the largest holes can be found just feet from pull over areas. Yet some care is required when wading or walking the river. This is especially true when wet leaves or snow are on the ground.
A warpaint shiner from the Little River
I’ve caught hundreds of fish in the Little River over the years. The river is absolutely swimming with trout. You might not see them at first glance, but trust me when I tell you they are there. These are wary and wild fish that know how to elude predators. Catching them requires stealth. Wearing drab colors or even camouflage clothes and fishing from behind trees and boulders can really help. When possible, approaching likely areas from downstream also help.
Fly fishing is by far the most common approach to fishing the Little River. The vast majority of people fishing the Little River use a fly rod. A long 4 to 6 works well here. So does Euro nymphing for those who are stealthy enough to get closer to the fish. Flies like pheasant tail nymphs, hare’s ear nymphs, San Juan worms and perdigons will catch fish year round. Dry flies like the Neversink Caddis and terrestrials like the green weenie can be killer in the warmer months.
A nice Little River rainbow
I normally fly fish the little river with a two fly setup. I tie a pheasant tail above a heavy stonefly dropper to start. I rarely have to change my fly. In the smokies where insect life is less common fish have to eat what they can. It is more important to get a drag free drift than to try and “match the hatch.” If it looks like a bug and the fish aren’t spooked there is a good chance you will hook up.
Spin fishing can actually be very effective in the Little River too. Spinners can work here, though tossing spinning lures isn’t necessarily the best approach. Instead I like to drift flies, jigs and small soft plastic lures under a small foam float. With a long light spinning pole, this can actually make it easier to get a drag free drift in the Little River with its multiple micro currents.
Little River fishing regulations
Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open year round. Every stream is open to fishing from 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset. You do need a fishing license from either North Carolina or Tennessee. A valid license from either state allows you to fish anywhere in the park.
Fishing within the park must be done with a single rod. You can only use flies and artificial lures with single hooks. You can use one artificial lure or up to two flies tied in tandem on a dropper rig at a time. You cannot use or possess any baits, scents, or treble hooks.
The limit on trout and smallmouth bass is 5 fish combined. The limit on rock bass is 20. The minimum size on trout and smallmouth bass is 7 inches. There’s no minimum size on rock bass. You must immediately stop fishing once you reach your limit. The possession limit is the same as the daily limit. So eat the 5 fish you have before you keep any more.
Fishing the Little River outside of the park requires a Tennessee fishing license for anyone over the age of 13. Fishing the “trout water” section of the river that flows from the park boundary to Rockford Dam also requires a trout permit. Outside of the park the limit on trout is 7. The limit on smallmouth there is 5 per day. The limit on rock bass is 20 per day. There are no minimum sizes on trout or rock bass.
From Rockford Dam upstream to the park boundary, smallmouth bass must be over 13 inches to keep. No more than one fish over 17 inches can be kept per day.
To the best of my knowledge, this is accurate as of the time of writing. Of course regulations are subject to change. For current regulations be sure to check the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website.
Little River fishing at a glance
- Fish species present: Rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass, rock bass, warpaint shiner.
- Closest tackle shops: Little River Outfitters.
- Recommended spin fishing tackle: Ultralight rod, 2-4lb fluorocarbon line.
- Recommended fly fishing tackle: 4-6 weight rod, WF floating line, 4x fluorocarbon tippet.
- Recommended bait/lures: single hook Rooster Tail, unscented trout worm, Hawken Woolly Bugger Jig, Trout Magnet.
- Recommended flies: pheasant tail nymph size 12-14, gold tibbed hare’s ear nymph size 10-12, San Juan worm size 10-16, green weenie size 12-16, Yellow Neversink Caddis size 12-16.
- Nearby hotels: Best Western Cades Cove Inn, Townsend Timbers, Tremont Lodge & Resort.