It may be old news to some, but newcomers are learning all the time that Newport and the surrounding countryside is an angler’s paradise.
Most local anglers are well aware how good the fishing gets when the weather is warm. But even life-long natives might be surprised to learn that some catches don’t get really hot until the colder temps have driven most people off the water for the year.
November through March is a prime stretch of calendar to bounce jigs for arguably the best-tasting fish swimming in Tennessee Valley waters.
“We are getting close to being in some of the best walleye and sauger fishing of the year,” Derek Kinsler, who runs Smoky Mountain Fishing Co. guide service, said as October drew to a close. “And that lasts all the way until April.”
Walleye and sauger are both prehistoric-looking members of the perch family, and are arguably more prized for their plump, delectable filets than any game fish lurking in the waters of North America.
Elusive and wily, walleye and sauger possess darkness-piercing vision that enables them to mercilessly hunt the cold, dark depths of moving and still waters alike. When Smoky Mountain bears start getting sleepy, these fearsome-toothed predators are wide awake and on the prowl all winter long.
Adding to the angling excitement during the season of shorter days is improved trout fishing. Falling water temperatures often stimulate trout feeding activity, and they also start venturing down into lower elevations, making it a choice time of year for fly-casting enthusiasts.
The waters in all directions surrounding the Cocke County seat are renowned for their catches — but what about Newport proper?
“Oh, Lord yeah! We catch a lot of big fish right through downtown Newport,” reveals Kinsler, a born-and-raised East Tennessee lunker hunter who keeps otherwise tight-lipped about the especially fishy places he slips in his boat.
Kinsler is based in Jefferson City and ventures with clients throughout the Volunteer State’s Appalachian mountains and valleys — using either traditional tackle or fly gear. He feels especially at home on the French Broad, Pigeon and Nolichucky Rivers, as well as Douglas Lake.
“We go all over the area,” he said. “I float water all the way from Del Rio to Cosby to Newport to Johnson City, Bristol and Knoxville.”
The vibrant Tennessee Valley guide industry not only plays a vital role in enhancing the experience of visiting anglers, these personal fishing scouts and trainers also nudge clients to sink some dollars in locally owned businesses, especially food and beverage and lodging establishments.
While Kinsler might not reveal his favorite places to put fish in the net, he freely communicates precise destination-coordinates to fellow fisher-folks (or anybody else) angling for a good meal in Cocke County.
Forget for a bit about casting flies or flipping baits and go fox hunting instead, he advises: try tracking down the Fox and Hound in Newport or Del Rio’s Fox Den, which serves “by far the best breakfast in East Tennessee,” Kinsler reports.
Kinsler also counsels hungry clients to take a growling stomach out to The Woodshed in Newport — and when in need of a bite in Bybee, he often gets reeled into CJ Papadops.
Growing up on Douglas Lake, angler and business owner, Hobie Rice knows a thing or two about fishing lures. The sport of angling is about so many variables- skill, equipment, fish, and weather.
A lure is as essential as the bait for fish. The first lures were brought to this country by the English settlers. The lure replaced live bait by mimicking the “action” of live bait, whether the lure mimics a deep dive, zig-zags, or floats near the surface. There are dozens of types and colors of lures to choose from.
At Ledge Hog Fishing Supply in Dandridge, TN, they have reengineered the blade lure for fishing a multiple depths. This is a lure that is popular with professional anglers for its ability to attract trophy size fish.
In May, Cocke County Tourism and Brad Wiegmann from the Fishing Guide Podcast had an opportunity to sit down with Hobie and talk about Douglas Lake fishing and other attractions in Cocke County. Listen inand get a few “tips” on fishing for the big bite.
If you are heading to Douglas Lake for a fishing trip, stop by Bucks an’ Bass to pick up a Ledge Hog lure. Find a place to stay here.
Welcome to Your Wild & Woolly Destination for Wilderness, Whitewater & Open-Air Wonderment
Exit 447 along I-40 about 14 miles south of Newport doesn’t really look like much on a map. But this wide spot in the road just five miles from the TN-NC state line is brimming with all manner of nature-based activities to please outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
Hartford, Tennessee has become a magnet for adventure seekers. It offers a range of sensory stimulation suggestions that’ll ignite your spirit of exploration and set you on a course for seeking more of everything the waters, woods and wild landscapes of Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains have to offer.
With genuine hospitality and an eagerness to please those with a predilection for embarking on outdoor excursions, Hartford invites visitors to embrace an escape into the wonders that abound in the mountains and valleys all around.
Hiking: Backpackers and day trekkers can go trail stepping along countless footpaths and arboreal alleyways that wind through primeval forests and past falling water, leading to an abundance of awe-inspiring vistas and innumerable hidden treasures of nature. Want to get your feet on the Appalachian Trail? You can do that in Hartford.
Rafting: The Pigeon River, with its roiling freestone currents and rough-and-tumble rapids, promises to swamp you with invigoration. Trip Advisor recently featured the Volunteer State’s most adrenaline churning river-running put-in points, and Hartford topped the list. For that matter, it’s regarded as one of the most praiseworthy whitewater joyride jumping off spots in America, if not worldwide. Expert guides navigate you through Class III and IV rapids, ensuring a delightfully soggy but assuredly safe experience.
Ziplining: The 37753 zip code offers the kind of thrill-filled airborne escapade you’d normally associate with an amusement park. But on this ride, you can experience the weightless sensation of flight while immersed in nature’s wonders. Get familiar with a bird’s eye perspective on the landscape below as you soar through the tall temperate rainforest canopy, suspended by a harness from which you will be held safe and harmless.
Fishing: Sink a line in the pristine rivers and many gurgling high mountain creeks surrounding Hartford. A variety of gamefish species inhabit these scenic waters, providing ample hook-setting opportunities for action-seeking anglers. Lay back and reconnect with nature as you lazily await a twitch of the rod tip. Or get hyper-focused and hone your fly casting skills as you try to entice a hungry trout or bass to burst the surface and slurp up a hand-tied bug you’ve pitched into the strike zone.
Biking: Strap on your helmet, mount your trusty steel-and-titanium steed, and pedal into an exhilarating network of bike trails and more planned for in the backwoods forest service roads around Hartford. From mellow slow-roll meandering to intensely sheer gravity-fueled down-mountain descents, Hartford’s rugged terrain beckons mountain biking enthusiasts of all skill and age levels.
So whether you’re looking for a chill weekend getaway or a thrill-charged vacation of a lifetime, the endless opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, rafting, zip lining, and mountain biking make Hartford a gateway where exhilaration and rejuvenation are always available in a heartbeat.
The Adventure Side of the Smokies is a veritable outdoor waterpark for paddlers, float trips, kayak fishing, and swimming, all surrounded by some of Mother Nature’s most beautiful mountains and forests in the southeast.
During this week of National Water Safety, we want to remind you to play it safe on our waters. Each of the rivers offers a different experience, but also different risks.
The Pigeon River is known for its exhilarating whitewater, but the inherent danger comes from the rapids and the rocks.
In the spring, the French Broad can vary in depth and current from rains and extreme weather. Popular for float fishing and backpack paddling, the level of the river and weather conditions are your best guides before entering the river.
The Nolichucky can also vary in water flow and depth. Flooding rains upriver, will create hazardous conditions downriver.
Never enter the water without wearing a personal floatation device (PFD). Even strong swimmers can get caught in a current on the rivers. When the water is high, eddies can form from submerged rocks and trees. Make sure the PFD is sized properly for both adults and for children. PFDs can be purchased locally at most large box retailers in the area if you have forgotten to bring on.
Come play, but play it safe in and around our rivers and lake.
The three rivers of Cocke County are destinations for exciting recreational adventures on the Adventure Side of the Smokies. The history of these rivers shaped the past and are now shaping the future of recreation in Cocke County.
The Pigeon River is synonymous with some of the best white water rafting in the southeast. The river extends 70 miles, beginning in the mountains of North Carolina, flowing northwest into Tennessee. The river is impounded at Walter’s Dam in Waterville. It is the scheduled dam releases that create the exciting white water rafting between Waterville and the take-out in Hartford TN. The lower end of the Pigeon continues to the confluence of the French Broad in Newport, TN.
The 216 mile French Broad River also begins in North Carolina and serves as a drainage basin for the both the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. When the river enters Cocke County, it flows along the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway before entering the Holston River. The river is known for spring time rafting and kayaking when the water is running high, and both fishermen who bank and float fish. All thirty three (33 miles) of the river flowing in Cocke County were designated as a state scenic river. Read more about the scenic portion of the river from local paddler and birder, Michael S, here. ling
The Nolichucky River runs 115 miles from the highest mountains in eastern North Carolina and Tennessee until it reaches Cocke County creating the upper basin of Douglas Lake. The river serves to create a county border with Hamblen County. This area and the adjacent Rankin Bottom WMA is known for birdwatching, and when the lake begins to fill in the spring, locals know that the fishing is excellent.
The mud from the crudely cut road flew into the air on either side of the SUV. We were slowly making our way parallel to the French Broad River on a prime piece of property being developed into a campground. The goal was to get on the river close to the Tennessee/North Carolina border but the road was presenting an early and unexpected challenge. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck and have to walk all our gear to the put-in. Luckily, the road was just cooperative enough to allow us through.
The owner of the land was gracious to let us access the river for what was to be a two-day pack rafting trip. We crept down the road for two miles, passing old fishing shacks that may or may not still be in use. Finally, the road abruptly ended at a small beach on the water. We quickly unloaded and began inflating our rafts.
For this mini adventure, I’d brought along my friend and expert paddler, Bobby Johnson. Bobby is one of the best endurance paddlers in the world, having won numerous long-distance races. This trip would be both of our first times in a packraft though, so we both went into the experience with plenty of unknowns.
As we began the process of inflating our rafts and compiling our gear, I found myself staring out across the river to the mountains partially shrouded in fog. Even before getting on the water, we were already in a beautiful setting that would be tough to beat. Instantly, it felt like we were the only people around for miles and miles, and this adventure was going to be special.
We pushed our rafts off the beach and within less than a minute we were bouncing over small shoals. Other than the river in front of us, all we could see were the misty mountains rising sharply on either side. It felt both otherworldly and uniquely East Tennessee.
The plan was to divide the 21-mile trip into two days, giving ourselves the opportunity to enjoy our surroundings at a pace barely faster than the river would carry us. The end destination was a take-out spot near Newport, a town built on moonshine distilling and ripe as a potential hub for outdoor recreation.
The beauty of packrafting this section of the French Broad is that every bump and ripple is magnified. You don’t need Class 2 and 3 rapids to feel like you’re having a whitewater adventure in these boats. We were treated to some easy rapids throughout the first day, which gave us plenty of time to get used to how the rafts operated in the water.
High above us, a variety of birds made the trees lining the river their home. I counted no less than 20 bald eagles during the entire trip and each sighting was as special as the last. When the river would flatten out, I would grab my phone from its dry case and attempt to get video of the eagles in flight overhead. The river would spin the boat around in slow circles as I focused on these majestic creatures.
We had a predetermined stop about halfway through the trip at the Bobarosa Saloon. This gritty bar and restaurant next to the river is a biker’s paradise. We had heard that the food was really good and that was enough to convince us to stop. Less than 200 yards from our destination though was a rather large rapid, easily the largest so far of the trip. The roar ahead of us from the water crashing against itself was slightly anxiety-inducing but the thought of a burger and opportunity to dry off was enough to push us through. Steering to the right side, Bobby hit the rapid at a perfect angle, showing me the way through. The packraft easily absorbed the impact from the rapid and he was quickly through and paddling up to the restaurant. It was the perfect final exciting moment for our first day of paddling.
Day 2 began with temperatures in the low 50s and darker skies. After staying overnight next to the saloon, we slowly pulled on still-wet clothing and walked to the river’s edge. Less than 20 yards from the put-in we could see the first rapid of the day. It didn’t appear to be too challenging from a distance as we pushed our rafts off the shore. Immediately, our initial assessment of the rapid was proven wrong. What we hadn’t seen was a second set of rapids around a slight bend that were much bigger. Before we knew it, we hit them head on, water shooting over the front of the raft and completely soaking both of us. It was the perfect way to immediately wake up and prepare us for what was ahead that day.
After a quick stop to dump out the water in our rafts, we restarted our adventure. The first day had been a fairly easy, relaxed paddle. Today was going to be a bit more action-packed. The rapids were more frequent and slightly bigger now. The rafts handled each one quite well but it took some skill to keep them going straight with each encounter. The river current seemed to always want to pull us somewhere we didn’t want to go, forcing us to paddle harder and faster in order to hit the right line.
Sometime after an hour or so of continuous bumping over shoals, the river flattened out and we were treated to high cliff walls on one side and farmland on the other. It was a stark contrast between shores. With calmer waters, the silence all around was suddenly more obvious. It would only be a brief quiet though.
Throughout this area of the country, cryptozoology is all the rage. If you’re not familiar, this is the study of the legendary creatures that have graced the covers of tabloids for decades—the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch, likely the most famous. Bigfoot stickers cling to countless cars and every gift shop offers t-shirts and trinkets in honor to these creatures. Sightings have been reported for years and years in the area. It’s easy to dismiss these things as just another tourist item and an attempt to make it something uniquely Appalachian.
Our tranquil moment in this section was abruptly broken by a sound that can only be described as something between a shout and a growl. We had just floated past a small section of trees between two high cliff walls. Though we had joked about a potential run-in with Sasquatch a couple of times earlier, this suddenly felt less humorous. As is the nature of a flowing river, we were well beyond the source of the sound before we could fully digest what we had heard. Could it have been the legendary creature? We would never know.
The current was progressively slowing as the area around us became more flat and houses became more abundant. Before we knew it, we were at our takeout next to a historic bridge and the journey was over. Soaked to the bone, we pulled the rafts from the water and began the process of deflating and finding our dry clothing. We retrieved the car we had dropped off a few days before near the takeout spot and began driving back to my SUV deep in the woods.
Twenty-one miles down the French Broad River had been the ideal introduction into packrafting. But more importantly, it was the perfect way to see Cocke County, TN in a way that few others have. From the natural to the supernatural, this water adventure had everything you could want in a weekend in the outdoors.
Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.
I really love camping. That’s a statement not all too uncommon by many outdoors enthusiasts. There’s a certain freedom that exists with temporarily laying claim to a spot of earth and spreading out your basic necessities for a period of a few days. For a small fee, and sometimes no fee at all, you can embrace nature from the comforts of a tent.
Recently, I took a long weekend to explore the remote beauty of Martha Sundquist State Forest. This little-visited wooded area in Cocke County is almost fully surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Like so many of the country’s best destinations, this area is remote and mostly without cell service. Getting into the state forest requires following some windy single-lane roads and even through a small creek. What off-the-path destination isn’t complete without a creek crossing!
Before venturing to the forest, I made a stop at The Bean Trees restaurant in Hartford. Located right on the Pigeon River, The Bean Trees probably has the best burger in all of the county. Knowing that I would be deep in the woods for a few days, I wanted to get one last big meal and some hot coffee at the adjacent cafe. I sat on the deck overlooking the river and began daydreaming about the relaxing long weekend ahead.
Plugging in the address of the park into my phone’s GPS, I began the 30-minute drive to the first entrance. I found myself daydreaming about a life out here tucked away nestled between the bubbling and fragrant flowers. Though creature comforts aren’t far away, it really does feel like you’re disconnecting from society as you drive along. Houses become fewer and fewer as the road becomes more narrow.
I crossed the small creek at the entrance, an easy feat for my SUV, and almost immediately found my campsite for the first night. The spot was like something out of a nature book. Rhododendrons surrounded the campsite in a semicircle with an opening in the middle revealing a rippling creek. Stones rounded by countless years in the creek created the perfect sitting spot to enjoy the cool water after a hot day and long drive. Setting up camp was quick and even though the campsite was next to the main road in the forest, I never saw another vehicle pass.
Nighttime presented itself with a quick drop in temperature. This gave me the opportunity to light my first campfire of the year. There’s something very special about sitting by a campfire and getting lost in the dancing flames. I was seeking out solitude in the woods and I had found it.
The next morning, I set out to hike within the forest. I left my vehicle at the campsite and started down the gravel road to the main trailhead and park map kiosk. In keeping with the theme of solitude, I still hadn’t seen another soul. There was a sense of calm mixed with the twinge of adventure with knowing that I had this quiet, beautiful place all to myself.
The park map displayed several trail options and I chose to combine two. The Horse Route is a 9-mile trail that loops the perimeter of the forest. I started out on that trail and was immediately met with my first creek crossing. In true fashion for the trails throughout Tennessee and North Carolina, the bridge was a log split in half to create a perfect path across the water. It even had a knotted handrail perfect for balancing while taking stunning photos perfect for making your Instagram followers jealous.
The path continued on, and within a mile I turned off onto the TN Gulf Trail. The 3.5-mile point-to-point trail immediately engulfed me in its rhododendron tunnel. I spent the hike continually stopping next to the creek that followed by my side and taking in the sounds of rushing water over rounded rocks. It was hypnotic, calming, and perfectly cold to the touch.
After looping back on the other side of the Horse Route, my hike for the day was complete. Seven miles stretched out over several hours felt both leisurely and not long enough. I kept with the slow pace of the day and took my time making a meal back at the site. Though I was definitely hungry, there was no need to rush the experience. My loose plan for the next day was to stay at the campsite and write all morning while sitting by my private creek. I knew that would round out the ultimate solitary excursion in the woods.
Nighttime approached and the symphonic sounds of creatures all around signaled that the day was coming to a close. I felt privileged to be the only person around experiencing all that the forest had to offer. It was providing me with something that is increasingly harder to find – escape from the pressures and duty of everyday life. Sleep hit quickly thanks to the long hike, warm sleeping bag and fading thoughts of a backcountry trip not too far from civilization and yet perfectly withdrawn from the world.
Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.