Fontana Lake Has Been Called the Best-kept Secret in the Mountains

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The 29-mile long, 11,700-acre Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lake has more than 240 miles of shoreline. And its deep, cold waters provide the ideal habitat for a variety of fish. In fact, record size muskie and walleye have been pulled from its depths. And many believe it’s one of the best smallmouth bass fishing lakes in the country, including the Fisherman’s Bass Tournament Circuit, which held its annual Hall of Fame Classic at Fontana in Fall 2001.

Fontana Lake is unique in many ways. Unlike most lakes in the area, shoreline development has been kept to a minimum. More than 90 percent of the land around the Lake is owned by either the National Park Service or the US Forest Service. Maps of the Lake are available at local fishing stores.

Those fortunate enough to go boating on Fontana Lake have a unique perspective of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At places the view is unobstructed from the lake level to the top of towering Clingmans Dome, the Park's highest peak.

There are a number of private marinas where you can rent a boat, or put your own boat on the lake. You'll find knowledgeable staff, and plenty of boating and fishing supplies. Shuttle service is offered to Eagle Creek and Hazel Creek - two north shore locations where you can spend time fishing, hiking, exploring and camping in the National Park.

Fontana Dam

Fontana Dam itself is an engineering marvel. When completed in November 1944 to produce electricity for the war effort, the 480-foot-high dam became the highest in the Eastern United States and the fourth highest in the nation. The story of its origin is effectively portrayed at the Fontana Dam Visitor Center (Open May to November, 9 am – 7 pm, daily).

The 2,147-mile Appalachian Trail crosses Fontana Dam providing a beautiful view of the lake and powerhouse. Learn more about the AT.

Annual Drawdown —Fontana is a man-made lake with lake levels controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). From September - November TVA lowers lake levels 60-feet to allow for winter snows and spring rains. Fontana is a very deep lake, so even with lowered lake levels fishing is not compromised and public access ramps are open all year.

For more information, visit TVA's Fontana web page, or read this History PDF.

Read a family's account of a day at Fontana and Cheoah dams.

Fontana's Finger Lakes Area

In the mountains, most river and lake banks are simply too steep and too rocky to serve as a beach. One exception is the  Finger Lakes Day Use Area of Fontana Lake where you’ll find a small park with picnic tables, public restrooms and a swimming area. Since there are no life guards, you naturally swim at your own risk.

Finger Lakes is also a popular access area for canoes, kayaks and other non-motorized boats.

Cheoah's Dam is Famous But Trout and Muskie Are The Main Attractions

Cheoah Lake was formed in 1919 and is the oldest dam on the Little Tennessee River. Cheoah is 644 acres and 9.5 miles long. At the time it was built, it was the world’s tallest overflow dam at 225 feet and had the largest turbines in the world. Cheoah Dam was made famous in the 1993 movie “The Fugitive” in which Harrison Ford "jumped" from the top of the dam to avoid capture by Tommy Lee Jones. Today the dam is referred to as the “Fugitive Dam”.

Cheoah is fed largely by the tailrace of Fontana Dam, which provides a constant flow of clear, cold water that remains at consistent temperatures year around. Rainbow, brown, and brook trout call Cheoah home, with some trout reaching several pounds. Rainbows and muskie are stocked by the state of North Carolina. With plenty of trout to feed upon, the muskie are growing at rapid rates.

Bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Forest Service, Cheoah Lake's shores remain undeveloped and pristine. There is only one boat access ramp – Llewellyn Branch – at the upstream end of the lake, just below Fontana Dam. This ramp and adjacent fishing pier are both handicapped accessible. Because the lake is fairly narrow you won't see much in the way of pleasure boat or jet ski traffic, only the occasional fisherman in search of trout and muskie.

The upper stretch of the lake fishes much like a tailwater river, and a close eye on generation schedules from Fontana Dam is highly advisable. Both lakes — the 26 mile-long Fontana and the smaller Cheoah — provide exceptional boating for recreation and fishing.