Why Fish Are Seemingly Disappearing in the Smoky Mountains

old train bridge

It turns out, fish don't like the cold either. Pictured: The Old Train Bridge Across Wide Creek in the Smokies (photo by Kelly vanDellen/shutterstock.com)

Visitors may notice sparser fish populations as of late, it turns out, the fish are just cold like we are

As an East Tennessean with three decades worth of history in the park, I’ve learned that mountains don’t hibernate. Sure, the trees have lost their leaves, and the animals are less active. And fish, have all but seemingly disappeared in some areas. But, if you know where to look, you’ll find the mountains every bit as alive in winter as they are the rest of the year. 

When temperatures change in the Smoky Mountains, native fish populations seek warmth. They don’t hibernate like some mammals, but they do migrate in search of warmer waters.

Grotto falls in the Smoky Mountains
Swiftly moving water in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park helps the water temperatures stay above freezing (photo by PT Hamilton/stock.adobe.com)

Where are the fish going?

In most waters around the world, when things get cold the fish run deep. In general terms, the warmest water is the deepest water and fish populations – lethargic from the temperature change – will seek the relative warmth. And in the Smokies, where the streams and rivers can run quite shallow, the process is still chiefly the same. The fish will seek out areas where the water is the warmest, the pools and eddies, where they can survive. 

The good news is that they don’t have to worry too much about ice because the swiftly flowing water in the park usually stays above freezing. Fish will also move closer to spring water in the winter which comes out of the ground at a warmer temperature. An example of this would be upstream at Abrams Creek near Cades Cover. 

Other habitat changes in the Smoky Mountain waterways

In Smoky Mountain waterways, the habitat changes relatively quickly due to the relatively swift drop in elevation. Most of the park’s waterways begin as streams up in the high mountains. As they work their way down more streams converge and the waterways get bigger, deeper, and warmer. Habitat quickly becomes less welcoming to native brook trout. Downstream – below 3,000 feet in elevation – you’re more likely to see rainbow trout. Further downstream the rainbows give way to brown trout. Finally, when the water composition isn’t trout friendly at all, you’ll find bass, shiners, minnows, suckers and darters.

Those conditions – combined with waterfalls and natural impediments – limit migration and encourage populations to isolate even amongst their own species. In Smoky Mountain streams, the headwater brook trout have developed specific traits not seen in brook trout downstream. And, even if they encounter another population of brook trout, they will not frequently breed outside their population. 

The Park Service says brook trout are only found in about 133 miles of park streams. Restoration efforts have that number moving in a positive direction. Most of the year, the brook trout is a nocturnal feeder. In the winter that changes. The fish will be most active in the warmest parts of the day. While a fish’s metabolic process slows down in cold weather, they do not stop. Fish – including the brook trout – must still feed themselves through the winter, a significantly harder process. 

Life doesn’t stop in winter for the fish in Smoky Mountain streams and rivers, but it does slow down. Natural barriers – as well as downstream water acidity – make it difficult for fish populations to migrate to warmer waters. In the streams, trout will move to deeper pools and eddies or find warmer water from springs to survive.  

PS: Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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