Fishing in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge: Your Complete Guide

a rainbow trout being released

If you're planning to go fishing in the Smokies area, be aware of catch and release season and other state regulations (photo by Iryna Harry/

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When I was 10 or 11, I started mowing my Papa’s yard. It was a big yard, a couple of acres and Papa paid pretty well. 

Half of my earnings went directly into savings so I could contribute to the purchase of a new alto saxophone. I would be joining the school band at the end of the summer and needed a horn to play. 

The other half? Mine to spend, baby.

Of course, I went for the necessities. G.I. Joes, Star Wars figures, comic books and a Rambo-style survival knife. And music, first vinyl records and then cassettes.

At some point, I bought a whip but I could never get it to wrap around tree branches so I could swing like Indiana Jones.  

But then, I won a fishing rod in a raffle. It was a nice rod but it didn’t have a reel. Suddenly, I was a man on a mission. 

I grew up fishing with Nanny and Papa and sometimes Uncle Mike on the Lakes of Southern Indiana. When I was a boy, Pap had a pontoon and we’d go spend the day on the like. Once, I caught what I believed to be the world’s biggest sunfish, but I digress. 

Read Also: Trout farm fishing: Where can you trout fish in Gatlinburg?

The lure of fishing (see what we did there?)

But my rod – a really nice one – didn’t have a reel. 

I immediately went to the hardware store downtown and spotted just the model I wanted. Nothing too fancy or complicated. It was a Zebco closed-faced reel. It took a couple of weeks to save the money. And I’d visit my reel every so often just to make sure it hadn’t sold. 

Finally, the day came when I had saved enough and triumphantly bought my Zebco. The reel and rod were united, as a holy thing, like the bringing together of a pair of ancient talismans that only worked when joined.

For the rest of the summer, I carried that rod and reel to every river, stream or cow pond within a reasonable bike ride of the house. I fished the stream coming out of the state park and anyplace else I thought I might have some luck. 

I did not catch a thing with it. But that was hardly the point. 

The fishing changed when we moved closer to the mountains and Papa retired to Florida.

My stepdad became an avid fly fisherman, but I never got the knack for trout fishing in the Smokies and without a boat, the Tennessee Valley Authority Lakes were too big for me to tackle.

So for years, the only fishing I did was when we visited Nanny and Papa down near the gulf and we’d get out on the Homosassa River and see what we could catch with the tide.  

Still, for many, a vacation to the Smoky Mountains is an excuse to build a fishing trip around your other typical vacation stuff. 

a man fishes in gatlinburg
There is good fishing in Gatlinburg, but there are regulations you need to know about (photo by Picture This Images/

Is there fishing near Gatlinburg TN?

Yes. There’s great fishing, but it can also be a challenge.

According to the National Park Service, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 2,900 miles of streams within its boundaries and protects one of the last wild trout habitats in the Eastern United States.

But only approximately 20% of the park’s streams are large enough to support trout populations and even the ones that do aren’t particularly trout friendly.

So even if you’re successful in landing a mountain trout – brown, rainbow or brook – it’s unlikely the fish will be of sufficient size to keep.

According to the NPS, the mountains offer a diversity of aquatic insects. However, the density is not enough to sustain a population of large trout. In fact, the park service says, the average trout in the park lives only four years due to a lack of food.

Only 4% of native brook trout reach the required seven inches and only 30% of the non-native rainbow trout reach that size. Only the non-native brown trout – which begins eating other fish later in life – can live longer and grow to nearly 30 inches in the right conditions. 

Furthermore, only about 800 miles of the park’s 2,100 miles of streams contain fish. Most of those are found below 3,000 feet. 

Brook trout vs rainbow trout

The chances of catching a brook trout are lessened by the fact they are losing habitat to rainbow trout. Rainbow trout breed and grow faster and produce higher numbers of offspring.

Today, only about 133 miles of park streams contain the native brook trout. 

Still, for many anglers, it’s the challenge that makes it great. If it were easy, every one of us with a can of worms and a bobber would be out hauling in beautiful trout from the mountains.

If trout fishing is your game, here are some places near Gatlinburg that you can go:

Abrams Falls
Abrams Falls is a popular area in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Eddie J. Rodriquez/

1. Trout fishing at Abrams Creek

Located in Cades Cove, Abrams Creek is especially popular among Smokies anglers. It is the rare mountain waterway that is relatively wide and possesses a relatively dense food supply, allowing the local trout to grow bigger and more plentiful than in other areas.

The creek is fed by a spring that flows through a limestone rock formation, providing a more consistent temperature and higher pH levels, both of which are good for the trout as well as some deep pools where the larger trout can survive.

Located on the Cades Cove Loop, the creek is extremely accessible, but you will have to put up with tourist traffic while getting there. 

Middle prong of the little river
The Middle Prong area of the Little River in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Jerry Whaley/

2. Trout fishing at Greenbrier Creek (Middle Prong)

Located in the national park between Gatlinburg and Cosby, Greenbrier Road is paved for its first mile.

At its lower reaches, the creek is good for rainbow trout, but the closer you get to the Ramsey Cascade trailhead, the more likely you will be to catch the native brook trout.

3. Trout fishing at the East Prong of the Little River

Below Elkmont heading towards Townsend is when the fishing gets good with several tributaries worth exploring.

The Little River is popular as it comes down the park because it widens and gives anglers places to seek a strike. 

Where are the best fishing spots in the city limits of Gatlinburg?

You know how serious Gatlinburg is about providing fly fishing options to its visitors? The city operates a trout farm in order to stock the city streams with trout year-round. In fact, the trout are stocked each Thursday – which means no fishing in Gatlinburg city limits on Thursdays.

It also means that sometimes you’ll see a trout angler trying to land a strike outside the Ripley’s Aquarium in the middle of downtown Gatlinburg while his family is inside looking at fish of another kind.

Gatlinburg has designated several waterways within the city limits for children (12 and under) for fishing.

The children’s streams are: 

  • West Prong Little Pigeon River from a point 100 yards upstream of the Herbert Holt Park entrance downstream to the Gatlinburg By-Pass Bridge
  • Dudley Creek from the Highway 441 Bridge downstream to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River
  • LeConte Creek from Painters Branch upstream to National Park Boundary

Is there good fishing in Pigeon Forge?

Yes. The Little River flows from Gatlinburg down to Pigeon Forge, though the trout are generally more plentiful further upstream.

Pigeon Forge offers the Riverwalk Greenway, a path that follows the Little Pigeon River for nearly two miles and where a fisherperson could access the river.

A bluegill fish
Douglas Lake has a lot of bluegills (photo by Brookieland/

Fishing on Douglas Lake

If you’d like to chase something other than trout, consider Douglas Lake, created when the TVA built the Douglas Dam in less than a year during the height of World War II. It has a 43-mile-long reservoir fed by the French Broad and its tributaries, the Nolichucky and Pigeon Rivers.

It’s part of the TVA system that brings hydroelectric power to all of East Tennessee and beyond.

The lake is teeming with wildlife from the waterfowl that rest on its waters to the deer and bear that explore its shorelines to the variety of fish that live within its waters. 

Douglas Lake is popular with anglers. Its many coves provide a natural habitat for a variety of species to thrive and it doesn’t take a local to know the best spots. 

The TVA draws down the lake level after Labor Day, resulting in a shoreline that is ringed in some level of barren mud throughout the summer. That means a lot of the best habitat is farther offshore than in a natural lake. 

There are several places that rent pontoons, kayaks and other types of boats. Swann’s Marina is a popular choice for rentals.

Read Also: What kind of fish are in Douglas Lake? Your complete fishing guide

Which fish species can be found at Douglas Lake?

Douglas is home to many species of fish, but the largemouth bass population is among the best in East Tennessee.

Year-round for largemouth, there is a size limit and a daily bag limit. The regulations are similar for smallmouth bass throughout most of the year.

During smallmouth bass spawning season, which is typically in the spring, fishing is catch and release only.

The crappie fishing, as well as the catfish and bluegill fishing are excellent at the lake. Be sure to check out the TWRA website for the up-to-the-minute fishing regulations which can change each season.

Fish species living in Douglas Lake include:

  • Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass 
  • Bluegill
  • Bullhead
  • Carp
  • Catfish
  • Crappie
  • Minnow
  • Sauger
  • Shad
  • Shiner
  • Sunfish
  • Trout
  • Walleye
  • Warmouth
Summer view of Douglas Lake in TN
A summer view of Douglas Lake in East Tennessee (photo by Irina Moss/

Do I need a license? 

Unless you’re very, very old or fairly young, you probably do. 

The State of Tennessee, Gatlinburg and the National Park Service all have different license requirements and regulations regarding how you can fish for trout in the area. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) sells a wide variety of sporting licenses online.

Those licenses are good anywhere within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which accepts North Carolina and Tennessee licenses. It’s important to note anyone 12 or under in Tennessee does not require a fishing license.

After that? You’d better have a valid fishing license unless you were born prior to March 1, 1926. Although I’d say a game warden who gives a ticket to someone born March 2, 1926 would be a real stickler.

Within Gatlinburg, a local permit is required as well. A Gatlinburg permit is available at Gatlinburg City Hall, the Gatlinburg Welcome Center and other outlets. 

At the time of this writing, a Gatlinburg one-day Trout Permit is $11.50. These are required for Tennessee residents. There are also non-resident licenses.

Visit the TWRA website for more information.

Are there size limits to trout fishing?

Yes. And they can vary depending on where you are.

Within the Gatlinburg city limits, there are several other requirements a trout angler should know. 

Fishing is allowed during daylight hours year-round, except on Thursdays.

Daylight hours are defined as one half-hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.

No one over 12 years is allowed to fish in any designated children’s stream. 

Catch and release season is December 1 through March 31. During this season, possession of any trout is prohibited.

During catch and release season, possession of bait is prohibited. Artificial lures other than single hook artificial flies, spinners and spoons is prohibited. The use of one dropper fly with one single hook, separated from a legal lure by a length of a line, is permissible.

Open season is April 1 through November 30. Creel limits apply.

The daily creel limit during open season is five trout per person for general streams and two trout per child on children’s streams.

Possession of more than the daily creel limit is prohibited, regardless of whether trout are fresh, stored in an ice chest, in a vehicle, or otherwise preserved.

Fishing is permitted with one hand-held rod and single hook only.

A sign for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fishing regulations may differ within the national park boundaries (photo by Marie Graichen/

What are the rules in the national park?

The laws in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are different from outside the park, where fishing is permitted year round in open waters.

The official fishing hours remain the same as above. The size limit in the park for all three types of trout is a minimum of seven inches.

You may only possess five total fish of any type except rock bass, whether those fish were caught that day or caught previously and stored on ice or otherwise preserved.

You can catch up to 20 rock bass. Stop fishing once you reach the limit. 

Also, fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod.

Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used. Up to two flies on a leader.

Use or possession of any form of fish bait or liquid scent other than artificial flies or lures on or along any park stream while possessing fishing tackle is prohibited.

Prohibited baits include, but are not limited to, minnows (live or preserved), worms, corn, cheese, bread, salmon eggs, pork rinds, liquid scents and natural baits found along streams.

Use or possession of double, treble or gang hooks is prohibited.

Fishing tackle and equipment, including creels and fish in possession, are subject to inspection by authorized personnel.

Lastly, there are four federally protected fish species in the park, all of which live in lower Abrams Creek, according to the NPS. They include the spotfin chub, duskytail darter, smoky madtom and yellowfin madtom. To learn more, visit the NPS website.

Have you fished in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for LLC – the parent company of and

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