Tennessee has about 600 miles of coldwater streams that support wild trout and nearly all of this resource is located in Region IV. Wild trout populations require cold, clean water, but are self-sustaining and require no stocking to survive. Ten counties in Region IV have wild trout fisheries and most (~70%) are located within the 625,000-acre Cherokee National Forest (CNF). The remainder occurs on privately-owned lands and includes some of Tennessee’s best wild trout streams (including Doe Creek, Stony Creek, and Rocky Fork). Additionally, the Tennessee portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (in Blount, Sevier, and Cocke counties) contains another 245 miles of wild trout streams managed by the National Park Service.
Rainbow trout are the most abundant and widely-distributed of Tennessee’s three wild trout species. Brown trout are not as widely distributed as rainbow or brook trout, but can live longer (up to 12 years) and attain larger sizes (up to 25 inches or more). They typically occur with rainbow trout, but are the predominant wild trout species in a few streams, such as Laurel Fork and Paint Creek. Rainbow and brown trout are not native to Tennessee, but became naturalized in many suitable streams through the intensive stocking efforts during much of the twentieth century.
Brook trout are Tennessee's only native trout, but have sustained substantial distribution losses during much of the previous century. These impacts were caused by habitat degradation (especially logging prior to the 1930s) and other land use changes, coupled with competition from introduced rainbow and brown trout. Currently, brook trout inhabit about 150 miles in 107 streams (all in Region IV) and represent about 25% of Tennessee’s wild trout resource. Genetic analyses have shown that 53% of Tennessee’s wild brook trout populations are of southern Appalachian heritage (our only truly native brook trout). The remaining populations are descended from stocked fish (derived from northern stocks) or consist of hybrids. Many brook trout populations on the CNF were restored or enhanced during the 1980s and 1990s through the cooperation of TWRA, the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and others. These efforts typically involved removing rainbow trout above a natural or man-made barrier and re-establishing brook trout. Although brook trout distribution losses related to rainbow trout encroachment appear to have stabilized, Tennessee’s brook trout populations remain subject to habitat degradation and other threats.
Tennessee’s wild trout streams are characterized by extremely soft waters that lack dissolved minerals and are poorly buffered against pH changes. Because of this natural infertility, food is the primary limiting factor to trout populations in these streams. Consequently, Tennessee’s wild trout are relatively small and short-lived (most do not exceed 10 inches or three years of age). In terms of abundance and size distribution, Region IV’s best wild trout streams (rainbows and browns) include Doe Creek, Laurel Creek, and Beaverdam Creek (Johnson County); Doe River and Stony Creek (Carter County); Rocky Fork (Unicoi County); and North River and upper Tellico River (Monroe County).