Wild Trout Streams
Tennessee is fortunate to have an abundant wild trout resource. The Appalachian Mountain range in East Tennessee has approximately 845 miles of stream that support wild populations of Brook, Rainbow, and Brown trout. Most of these streams can be found on public land within the Cherokee National Forest (420 miles of stream) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (245 miles of stream). The remainder occurs on privately property.
A wild trout can be generally defined as having spent its entire life cycle (egg through adult) in the wild. Since trout are abundant and can naturally reproduce in these streams, stocking is not needed to provide year-round fishing opportunities . Wild trout are typically found in soft-water (lack dissolved minerals) streams, causing them to be naturally infertile. Consequently, fish don’t get very big. Rainbow and Brook trout rarely live longer than 5 years of age and stay relatively small (<10 inches). However, wild Brown Trout in Tennessee streams can have been found to live up to 12 years, occasionally reaching over 20 inches in length. The statewide regulation for trout is a daily creel of 7 fish with no length limit. Several streams have exceptions to these limits so refer to TWRA's Fishing Guide to get the latest information for special regulations on the water you plan to fish.
Brook Trout are Tennessee’s only native trout species, which have been found to be genetically distinct from Brook Trout native to more northern parts of its range. At one time, all wild trout water in Tennessee was inhabited by Brook Trout. However, in the late 1800s many populations were lost due to primitive logging techniques and stocking of non-native Rainbow Trout. Wild populations can now only be found in the coldest and cleanest headwater streams in the mountains of eastern Tennessee at elevations greater than 3,000 feet where water temperatures are typically below 68° F.
TWRA biologists, in cooperation with the US Forest Service, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee Aquarium and Trout Unlimited have recently worked to expand the range of Brook Trout by stocking native strains back into their native waters. Today, we have about 150 streams that support wild Brook Trout. For additional information on TWRA’s efforts to restore native Southern Appalachian Brook Trout populations across East Tennessee, check out of this episode of Tennessee’s Wild Side.
Identification: Yellow or reddish-orange spots on sides and belly. Light wormlike markings on the upper body. Leading edge of lower fins white with black stripe.
State Record: 4 lbs, 12 oz. (Caney Fork River)
Angler Recognition Program: minimum 10 inches
Fishing Tips: Brook Trout are aggressive feeders eating insects, crayfish, salamanders, and other fish. Food is typically in short supply in headwater streams so Brook Trout rely heavily prey that falls into the stream (e.g., ants, caterpillars, inchworms).
Rainbow Trout are native to the Pacific drainages of the western United States, but through extensive trout management during much of the 20th century has become the most widely distributed and abundant trout species in Tennessee. Rainbows were originally introduced into Tennessee in the late 1880s when logging practices destroyed native Brook Trout habitat. Wild populations are now found in about 300 streams across East Tennessee. Rainbow Trout spawn in late winter and their juvenile hatch out in early spring. They can tolerate temperature slightly warmer than Brook Trout, preferring water temperatures below 70° F.
Identification: Body olive to silver in color. Small black spots throughout the body that extend into the bottom of the tail. Pink streak along middle of the body.
State Record: 18 lbs, 8 oz. (Private Pond)
Angler Recognition Program: minimum 24 inches
Fishing Tips: Rainbow Trout eat insects, crayfish, fish, and fish eggs. They are susceptible to a wide variety of tackle. Fly-fishing with streamers, wet and dry flies can be effective. Spinning and bait casting tackle includes small spinners, spoons, worms, and hellgramites.
Brown Trout are native to Europe and Asia and, like Rainbows, became naturalized in Tennessee through stocking. They are typically found in lower elevation streams, often coexisting with Rainbow Trout. They spawn in the fall between October and November, and juveniles emerge in February or March. Common in about 25 wild streams, Brown Trout offer the best opportunity to catch a trophy trout in Tennessee. Tennessee’s wild Brown Trout can live twice as long and attain much greater sizes than either Rainbow or Brook trout.
Identification: Brown to yellowish body color. Large dark spots and reddish dots, many having halos. Slightly forked tail with no spots.
State Record: 28 lbs, 12 oz. (Clinch River)
Angler Recognition Program: minimum 26 inches
Fishing Tips: Young Brown Trout feed mostly on aquatic insects, small crayfish and minnows. Adults will feed on fish, crayfish, rodents, and salamanders. Large browns tend to feed during low light conditions and after dark. Typical trout baits and lures work for Brown Trout, but slightly larger tackle may help catch trophy sized fish.