In the 1993 Warner Brothers film, “The Fugitive,” actor Harrison Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, who escapes from custody and is declared a fugitive. He sets out to prove his innocence and bring those who were responsible to justice while being pursued relentlessly by a team of U.S. marshals, led by Samuel Gerard, played by actor Tommy Lee Jones.
At one point in the chase, Jones has Ford’s seemingly cornered at the top of a turbine shaft in a dam overlooking a long drop into the spillway below. The dam where the movie is filmed forms Lake Cheoah, a 644-acre impoundment on the Little Tennessee River west of Bryson City.
Ford’s character escapes by making a daring leap off the dam, into the frothy tailrace waters below. He’s declared to be “fish food” by state authorities, but Jones’ pragmatic character, unconvinced, barks out “Fine. Go get a cane pole, catch the fish that ate him.”
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, Mr. Jones, but that’s doing it wrong. If Gerard were really interested in catching fish at Cheoah, he’d do well to listen to guide Ronnie Parris of Smoky Mountain Outdoors Unlimited, who has lived in the area his entire life and claims the cold, winding, riverine lake is one of the best places to fish when the heat of August descends upon the western North Carolina mountains. With cold inflows from deep behind Fontana Dam, surface temperatures at the head of Cheoah will still be in the upper 40s on even the hottest of days.
“Cheoah is going to be cold pretty much all the time,” said Parris. “At the upper end of the lake where you put your boat in, even in July/August, you’re going to be looking at 44 to 45 degrees. Then down towards the dam, probably the hottest you’re going to see down there is 68 to 69 degrees. It’s going to be one of the coolest lakes that you’ll fish around here.”
Although Cheoah holds largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, bream, catfish and muskellunge, which have been recently introduced, the primary fish that Parris targets when he fishes is trout. The lake holds good numbers and decent sizes of rainbow, brown and brook trout.
Though the fish do reproduce naturally in the cold water, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission supplements the populations by stocking throughout the year. The trout do not have to dwell in the depths of the lake as they would in nearby Fontana. Because the lake is relatively shallow throughout its 6-mile run to the dam and because surface temperatures stay relatively low, Parris said it’s not uncommon to find trout feeding on the surface early and late in the day, even in August.
In order to target trout at a variety of levels, Parris will troll up to a dozen rods from the rear quarter and stern of his 24-foot pontoon boat. He uses up to four downriggers to hit specific depths where he marks fish on his graph, and on others, he’ll use a combination of Dipsey Divers, diving planers that can get to the 30- to 40-foot range, and side planers and flat lines to target fish nearer to the surface.
“You’re not going to see surface fish on your depth finder,” said Parris. “By the time you get to them, you’ve spooked them off, but they are there. I usually troll planer boards and use different lures, but I prefer the small Rapalas — the little escape lures. I also use some small spoons that have a bucktail treble hook connected to the end. The key with any lure up here is to stay small, because what baitfish you do see are going to be really, really tiny.”
With his trolling setup in place, Parris dials in on fish by keying on water temperatures. His ideal range is around 60 degrees. He adjusts by trolling closer to or further away from Fontana Dam. The closer to the dam he is, the colder the water will be.
“I really concentrate on my water temperature. If you’re going to catch these trout, try to get to where your water is changing over from the upper 50s and starting into the 60s,” he said. “That’s usually going to be your best.”
As far as trolling speed, Parris likes 1.5 to 2.0 mph. On certain days he will alter that while trolling by avoiding a straight-line troll.
“When you’re trolling, don’t go in straight line. Make a lot of U-turns,” he said. “What this does is it slows the lures on the inside of the turn. The ones on the outside of the turn, it makes like the minnow or whatever you’re using is trying to get away, and it’ll speed it up. Sometimes, that’s what triggers your bite.”
Parris trolls for all three species using the same tactics and baits. The exception to that might be when targeting only brown trout. Parris said browns can be a little more finicky and prefer much bigger baits than rainbows or brook trout.
“For a customer who just wants to target brown trout, I would probably fish live bait,” said Parris. “Browns are bad to hang a little bit deeper, toward the bottom. They’re also going to be more moody. There are going to be trips that, if that’s what you’re looking for, you may be disappointed a few trips, but some of my best brown trout trips come when there is a thunderstorm or a front coming in. We don’t get those much in August.”
Anglers who are not set up to troll or prefer to do the chunk-and-wind bit can also catch trout by targeting the upper end of the lake. One of Parris’ guide buddies, James McManus of 153 Charters, said fishing for trout in the upper end of Cheoah is very similar to bass fishing.
“I love to throw plugs at the shoreline, just work right up the side of the lake like I was bass fishing,” said McManus. “By this time of year, there is a lot of vegetation growing up along the side of the bank. That stuff is like a kelp weed; most of it is underwater, and trout will sit right in the vegetation looking out into the current and grab something that gets close.”
McManus said anglers need to watch the current, as frequent water releases occur from Fontana, but when the turbines are not open, he can get his boat as close as a couple hundred yards from the dam, drop his trolling motor and do sort of a slow, back-troll downstream.
“The best area will be from the bridge right above the landing down to about the powerhouse,” said McManus. “The average water depth up against the shoreline is about 10 to 12 feet. I like to work my way down the bank casting No. 5 Shad Raps in a rainbow trout pattern or maybe a Little Cleo spoon.
“The water is pretty clear so I wouldn’t advise going any heavier than 6- to 8-pound test mono or fluorocarbon, because the fish can be line shy,” he said.
Of particular interest to fly anglers is that McManus sees midge hatches all summer long in the evenings, especially around sandy areas or sandbars. When he does, he will stand on the bow of his boat and cast dry flies to rising trout.
“It’s a mix of rainbow, brown and brook trout up here this time of year,” he said. “You can catch a lot of 12- to 14- and sometimes up to 20-inch fish. As we progress into the fall, you can expect to catch some really nice brown trout when they move up here to spawn.”
HOW TO GET THERE — From Bryson City, N.C., head west on NC 28 to Fontana Dam. From the junction of N.C. 28 & SR 1245 (Fontana Dam Road, continue on NC 28 north for 3 miles, then turn left into the access area. Another access areas, Llewellyn Branch, is at the upstream end of the lake, just below Fontana Dam. This ramp and adjacent fishing pier are both handicapped accessible.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Trolling with downriggers, planer boards and weighed or weightless free lines are the ticket for fishermen targeting rainbow, brown and brook trout. Casting small crankbaits and in-line spinners along the shoreline from Fontana Lake to the powerhouse station is also a productive tactic.
REGULATIONS — A North Carolina fishing license with a trout stamp is required to fish for trout on Lake Cheoah, which is managed with a 7-fish daily creel limit, but no size limits.