Categorized | North Carolina

Little Tennessee River

Little Tennessee River
Article By: Sam Potts (SmallieSam)
Little Tennessee River
About The River:
The Little Tennessee River flows northwest from it’s headwaters in Northeast Georgia and on across Western North Carolina until it’s confluence with the Tennessee River. Starting as a small stream in Rabun Co., it meanders gently through the farmland of Southern Macon Co. in NC until it’s confluence with the Cullasaja River in the town of Franklin, NC. After its impoundment at Lake Emory in Franklin, it flows again through the beautiful Blue Ridge farm country until it is impounded again at Fontana Lake. The area from Iotla Bridge down to the Needmore area on Needmore Rd. is of most interest to the riverbasser and what I’ll discuss here.   During a day on the “Little T” there is much wildlife, natural beauty as well as good fishing to be enjoyed.  Deer, turkey, osprey, hawks, cranes, beaver, Eastern banded water snake are just a few species one can witness there. Of note, more than half of the mussel species in NC are native to the Little T, including the federally endangered Appalachian Elktoe Mussel. The Little Tennessee Valley was also a favorite location of the Cherokee and you will find yourself passing through any number of Nartive American fish weirs on a float trip. Several suspension bridges are interspersed along the river as well. These were built to allow children from local farms to cross the river to catch the school bus in the days before good roads lined both sides of the river.

Bass Species Present: Smallmouth Bass, Rock Bass, Largemouth Bass

The Bassin’:

There are many species of fish that reside in the Little T, but by and large, the smallmouth bass is king. Other species include, largemouth bass, rock bass, perch, walleye, redhorse sucker, bream, bluegill, catfish and others, as well as many species of minnow. Being a coolwater river, trout are generally not found in great numbers, but do surprise an angler occasionally.  It’s a local belief, and one that I share, that largest portion of the population of smallmouth are migratory. As early spring approaches, they migrate from Lake Fontana upriver to spawn, stay until early to mid-autumn and return to the lake to winter. In my 14 years of fishing the Little T almost exclusively, I’ve caught one smallmouth fishing the winter months. That being a 2 lber. I caught and released on New Year’s Day during an extremely unusual warm spell for winter in WNC. I have returned and attempted several times over the years and have yet to catch another during the winter months. The migration of the Little T smallmouth is consistent with studies showing migrations in similar rivers that have a large percentage of river miles that are basically too shallow and uninhabitable to sustain a year-round population.

Little Tennessee River SmallieThe proximity to the mountainous geography of the area does not leave the Little T much in the way of aquatic vegetation. But, there are areas that the vegetation, while limited, is richer. That’s where you’ll often find your best concentration of smallies, especially when the water becomes lower as summer fades into fall.  There are several long, deep stretches on the Little T and the heads, tailouts and pushes of these areas are also productive and often hold the biggest smallmouth.  While the middle of the slow stretches hold a few smallies, I fly fish and found out long ago there are plenty of good spots on the Little T and the downed timbers in those deep stretches are too difficult to work with the long rod and stay sane. The shoals, plunge pools, and runs where the river narrows, bends and/or the elevation drops are the most consistently productive areas on the Little T. The water being more highly oxygenated in these areas attracts more baitfish and other aquatic life that the smallmouth thrive on. The ledges, boulders and rocks in these areas afford the smallies the perfect ambush points to take a meal the current is bringing to them. Even the smallest pocket under a ledge will often hold a nice smallie, ready to attack your offering. Of course, the deeper runs or pools with structure adjacent to the current hold your best chance of getting a bigger smallmouth in the shoals. Unless the river structure is suitable, do not overly concern yourself with fishing the banks as many fishermen seem to do. The structure and cuts mid-stream will actually hold more smallies and increase your success.

Most smallies on the Little T range from 10-12 inches, and on a good day, you can catch a handful pushing 2 lbs. But, a competent angler stands the chance of bagging a 3-4 lb. smallie, while a bass pushing 5 lbs. would likely be a fish of a lifetime on the Little T. Rumor has it that catches that size did not used to be uncommon, but I’ve only been able to manage a smallmouth in the 3 lb. range. Even though, I’ve caught numerous fish that size over the years and they are well worth the price of admission with the right tackle. Many local anglers believe that the historically high waters from the hurricanes Frances and Ivan of 2004, sandwiched between several years of drought, have depleted the numbers of better fish in the Little T. I also believe this to be true, but in recent years have seen the average size on the increase. But, with the smaller size being the norm, light action rods or fly fishing is the way to go on the Little T. Spin fishermen do well with small crankbaits like Rebel Craws, curly tail grubs or small worms on jigheads, poppers, Rapallas, Bitsy Bugs, small spinnerbaits and the like. But, a 2-4″ white or pearl Flukes are very hard to beat most days, especially as you get into summer and baitfish are their main forage.

Spin fishermen do plenty well on the Little T, but I truly believe, with it’s low, shallow water it is best suited for smallmouth on the fly. As the fish arrive from the lake in spring, they stage briefly for pre-spawn in the pockets and pools of the shoals. A simple crawfish pattern, like a Lead-eyed Wooly Bugger or Hairy Fodders in brown or olive “bumped” along the bottom is deadly during this time of year. After the spawn, high-riding topwater poppers in yellow, white or chartreuse will become deadly, as will diving bugs in these colors. In recent years, I’ve discovered that a large, shad-colored streamer fished deep on a sink-tip or sinking leader will get you more of those 12-14″ smallie on the Little T in spring and early summer. As summer approaches, the water lowers so it’s often necessary to size down your patterns. The fishing is more difficult, but when they turn on, the action can be extremely fast. Baitfish are prevalent then and I like throwing small Clousers and low-riding topwater bugs like Gurglers or Burblers this time of year. White or a white/gray combo seem to be the only colors I need to mimic the baitfish there.

Obstacles or Rapids to beware of:

Floating the Little T is easily done by kayak, canoe, float tube or pontoon as most of it’s ledges are no more than a Class II. There is one Class IV run downriver close to Fontana that I suggest you avoid unless you are a skilled whitewater paddler. Float tubes and pontoons should only be used for short floats less than 2 miles. With the river being very shallow in places, you’ll find you need to drag your boat through some areas. Tubes and pontoons become cumbersome in those situations from my experience. Canoes are great as well, especially for 2 anglers, but my craft of choice would be a sit-on-top kayak. Floating the Little T, I find that paddling from point A to point B to wade fish is more enjoyable and productive, especially for the fly angler. Not that you can’t float and fish, but there are many unproductive areas on a day’s float there and I prefer to concentrate on areas where the fish are more likely to be.

My favorite way to fish the Little T is to float without a shuttle by putting in at an access point, paddling upriver and fishing as I go. I paddle and/or fish through water too deep to wade, tethering my kayak to my belt and wading the areas I can, pulling the kayak behind me. Once I’ve covered a couple of miles going upriver, I can simply turn around, float and fish downriver to my truck. A friend of mine taught me this technique and refers to his kayak a “glorified tackle box.” It allows you to carry more gear and a good lunch to enjoy by the river.


Being that the Little T runs mostly through farmland and developed areas adjacent to mountains slopes, it often runs muddy after a summer shower. At this point, the fishing becomes very slow. A rain of 1/2″ can foul the river up to 3 days and 1-2″ for over a week. So, becoming adept at reading the local river gauge is important if you plan on fishing there very much. The USGS has a gauge on the Needmore tract that’s very reliable once you’ve learned what to look for. I prefer the gauge to read below 1000 cfs for floating only and under 500 cfs to wade. This is generally not an issue through the summer as it stays low during those months. Here’s the link to the gauge on the USGS site.,00060

Maps: Access point map coming soon to the members only area!!!

Sam Potts submitted this through the submit river description section .   Thanks Sam, all the River Bassin’ community owes you big time for helping us learn more about our nation’s rivers. staff

5 Responses to “Little Tennessee River”

  1. Tardevil says:

    Good article, Sam… very informative! Looking forward to fly fishing with you sometime this summer!

  2. smalliesam says:

    Thanks guys. But only 4.5 stars? What gives?

  3. prg2079 says:

    Great article, Sam.
    the 2004 flood really hurt the Little T. I’ve fish this river every spring through fall since 2000 and the best years were prior to the flood. Don’t think that it’s not good now, because it is. Prior to the flood the average size was closer to 14″ and fish in the 2-3 lb range were common, with a 4 lb fish coming often enough to keep you on your toes. From 2000 until 2004 i caught 6 fish over 5 lbs with a 5-9 being the largest. A comment on the baits you suggested. All are great baits to use, but ALWAYS have a bag of black w/ red flake 21/2 to 3 inch tubes. Rig the tub on a 1/16 ounce tube insert head (i buy mine at Wal-Mart) and let it tumble across the bottom. I will not fish the Little T without these baits in my tackle bag.

  4. Smalliesam says:

    I totally agree with your assesment about the fishing there post-flood, prg. Many local anglers concur. Unfortunately, my skills had not reached what they are now prior to the flood, so I only noticed more of those big smallies back then and had not quite learned how to hook up. But, both myself and a friend each lost smallies of around 4 lbs on the fly. I do catch several every year between 2.5-3 lbs., but most days I’m happy to catch a bunch of 10-12″ers. I do think that the size is on the rise considering what I’ve caught the last couple of seasons though. The one thing I most notice post-flood is the absence of bigger fish chasing bait against the banks. It was always a given to see several brutes in a day doing just that prior to the floods.


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