North Carolina'™s Walk-In Trout Fishing
May 06, 2010
Do you like the idea of fishing for wild trout on an uncrowded stream, and you're not afraid of walking? These are the spots for you.
One of the favorite expressions of that sage of the Smokies, Horace Kephart, focused on his desire to get “back of beyond.” That search for solitude brought Kephart to the Tar Heel high country in 1904, and the resulting balm he found for his troubled soul shows through clearly in his two enduring books, Our Southern Highlanders and Camping and Woodcraft. Trout fishing camps, with a tent pitched within earshot of a tumbling stream and the smell of hemlocks in the air, were an important part of Kephart’s lifestyle.
A century has passed since “Kep” first chose the mountains as his adopted home, but when it comes to the trout fisherman’s love of distant places and little-fished streams, little has changed. Occasionally my wife, usually when irritated, will say, “When you die, your epitaph should read ‘Jim Casada hated people.’ ” That isn’t actually the case, but when trout fishing, I do prefer people in mighty small doses.
Thankfully, such situations, with your only companions being tumbling waters and mountain fastnesses, still can be found in the North Carolina mountains. This is particularly the case in the southwestern-most portion of the state, where the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest offer those willing to take shank’s mare ample opportunities to savor the locations Kephart described as being “back of beyond.” With that glad thought in mind, what follows is a detailed look at five such destinations.
UPPER DEEP CREEK
I cut my fly-fishing teeth on lower Deep Creek and its largest feeder stream, Indian Creek. They lie within walking distance of my boyhood home and during what I now realize was a wonderful adolescence, I came to know them intimately. Yet my fondest memories of the stream focus on its upper reaches, which lie sufficiently far from the nearest road and trailhead to necessitate overnight backpacking trips to enjoy trout fishing there.
Upper Deep Creek remains a wonderful destination, and at least portions of the drainage receive surprisingly little angling pressure. It is one of those destinations a son of the Smokies, Frank Young, who for decades averaged 250 or more days a year on park streams, said would “challenge your skills, offer you real rewards at times, and always bring you joy.”
Here, as is true for all waters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, anglers are limited to use of single-hook artificials. The daily limit is five fish (browns or rainbows or a combination of the two) of 7 inches or more in length. Don’t forget to get a backcountry camping permit for your choice of campsites and a North Carolina or Tennessee license.
There are two ways to access the stream’s more remote parts: from the trailhead just above the drive-in campground two miles outside of Bryson City, or from a starting point that begins on U.S. Highway 441 1.8 miles short of the Newfound Gap overlook. There is a large parking lot at the trailhead and a smaller one near the overlook.
Lying halfway between the two is a favored local campsite known as the Bryson Place. It is close to Horace Kephart’s last permanent campsite (a plaque set in an old millstone marks the site) and for that reason has some nostalgic appeal. For the best fishing, however, other campsites are preferable.
My personal recommendations would be Polk Patch on the stream’s uppermost reaches (Campsite 53, which is a four-mile hike from the Highway 441 trailhead) and McCracken Branch (Campsite 59, which is 5.1 miles from the lower trailhead) or Nicks Nest (Campsite 58, which is 5.5 miles from the lower trailhead) for the middle portions. Incidentally, for this and the other trails in the park, Ken Wise’s Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains is absolutely invaluable.
From Polk Patch, located on the Right Fork of Deep Creek, you can make a day trip across Fork Ridge to fish Left Fork (there’s no trail after you reach the main ridge, so you need to study topo maps carefully) or work upstream from the campsite. Camping farther downstream, you have the option of following the Deep Creek trail in either direction and starting to fish wherever you please.
Expect to catch a mixture of browns and rainbows, although with each passing year browns become more dominant in Deep Creek. However, they are appreciably more difficult to fool than rainbows, so chances are your catch will be roughly balanced between the two.
Deep Creek’s middle reaches are quite open, making for easy casting and featuring a mixture of pocket water and bigger pools, while the farther you venture up the Right Fork (the stream divides upstream from where Pole Road Creek enters from the left), the tighter the canopy becomes. If you love really “close” fishing, with bow-and-arrow casts and overhanging brush, try one of the many feeder streams. Interestingly, the Left Fork, while not that large, is wide open and affords easy casting.
Forney Creek is one of several streams in the park emptying into Fontana Lake. In the present context it enjoys several advantages. Forney is not as well known as Hazel Creek or even Eagle Creek. It is the most remote of all the streams entering the lake. Add to that the fact that it is too far from the nearest trailhead for “hike-in, hike-out” day fishing, and you have the components of a stream the loner can love.
The backpacking fisherman’s access to Forney Creek begins at the end of what the locals call “The Road to Nowhere” (Lakeview Drive). This hard-surfaced road out of Bryson City winds past Swain County High School, enters the park, crosses Noland Creek, and then ends abruptly after passing through a tunnel. From the parking area at the tunnel, take the Lakeshore Trail and then, depending on whether you intend to overnight at campsites 73 and 74 or farther upstream (my personal favorite is Campsite 71), stay on that trail or (for Campsite 71) take the Whiteoak Branch Trail. Either way, you’ve got a hike of better than four miles ahead of you.
Forney Creek is a medium to medium-large stream, by high country standards, and in all but its uppermost reaches it offers plenty of casting room and the typical mix of plunge pools, riffles, small pockets and long runs found in such waters. It contains both browns and rainbows, with the latter tending to become more numerous as one progresses upstream.
Pick a midweek time period in the early spring, and chances are pretty good you can make a three- or four-day trip without encountering more than a handful of other anglers. To me, at least, that’s reason aplenty to venture into the heart of the park.
Unlike Forney Creek and the more remote reaches of Deep Creek, some of Twentymile Creek’s finest fishing doesn’t require hikes of such distance that they are really suitable solely for backpackers. Its appeal lies in the fact that it can be reached by road (North Carolina 28) with just a few miles travel from Fontana Village. However, the stream is so far from any major population center that it gets little pressure. To reach it, just take the turnoff onto a gravel road at the point where Highway 28 crosses the stream at its mouth, follow the road to a parking site just above the ranger station, and prepare to hike or start fishing.
Twentymile Creek gets its name from the distance by an old road (much of it now under the waters of Fontana Lake) from its mouth to that of Hazel Creek. The actual stream, a medium to medium-small one, is much shorter in length.
There is one designated campsite (93) here. It lies 1.8 miles upstream from the trailhead and has to be, aesthetically speaking, one of the least appealing sites in the park. On the other hand, the stream is a great one for a day of walk-in fishing, with access all along the Twentymile Creek Trail being quite simple (there are a number of bridge crossings).
This is a stream predominately populated by rainbows, although you may catch the occasional brown in the lower reaches. It can be quite rough going, thanks to a rapid rate of descent and lots of cascades. Even though it is small, some real wading skills are required during the high waters of spring.
On the other hand, its rugged nature means lots of plunge pools of just the sort ideally suited to holding good trout. The last four times I’ve fished Twentymile Creek, the only other people I saw were hikers, and despite being accessible by road it has to be one of the least fished streams in the park.
For much of its flow, Slickrock Creek forms the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. It lies in a region nationally designated as a “wilderness area,” and is unique among North Carolina streams, at least to my knowledge, in holding exclusively brown trout. These browns are descendants of fingerlings carried in by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in specially designed backpacks during the 1930s, and obviously the fish, in mountain parlance, “took holt.”
Slickrock Creek can be difficult, both in terms of getting to it and when it comes to getting the fickle browns to hit. However, as Graham County native Marty Maxwell, who has fished the stream his entire life and may well be the best fly-fisherman I’ve encountered in the high country, says, “It is truly a stream of dreams.”
No matter how you approach it, Slickrock Creek demands energy and more than a fair measure of fitness. The easiest way is to take the Ike Branch Trail from the U.S. Highway 129 bridge immediately below the Cheoah Dam. The other alternative, and it has the advantage of putting you squarely in the best section of the stream, is to take the Big Fat Gap Trail. It is reached by taking Forest Service Road 82 off U.S. Highway 129 out of Robbinsville and following the narrow gravel road for several miles. It ends at the trailhead. Take Forest Service Trail 41 (not 400) from here and a walk of a mile and a half will put you on the stream. That’s easy enough, but when you begin the steep climb out, you’ll find out why guidebooks describe the walk as “difficult.”
The best times to fish Slickrock Creek are the same times that angling for brown trout are best: dawn, dusk, or on grey, overcast days. Should you be so lucky as to be there on a day in late April or May when a green drake hatch comes off, you will discover that the fish go into a feeding frenzy.
When it comes to coloration and sheer beauty, you won’t find lovelier browns anywhere. This is designated “Wild Trout Water,” which means a limit of four fish, 7 inches or more in length, and use of single-hook artificials only.
BIG SNOWBIRD CREEK
Like Slickrock Creek, Big Snowbird Creek lies in remote Graham County. The lower portion carries a “Hatchery Supported” designation, but for walk-in fishing you want to concentrate on the many miles of stream that begin at a place locally called The Junction.
Getting there requires several turns, but here are the details. Take U.S. 129 out of Robbinsville toward Tennessee. Shortly after leaving town, turn left on State Road 1127 (toward Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest).
Follow this winding, paved road until it crosses Big Snowbird Creek just above where the stream enters Lake Santeetlah. Shortly afterward, you will turn left on State Road 1115. Follow this road to the point where it crosses a bridge at the juncture of Big and Little Snowbird, then turn right on gravel Forest Service Road 1120. After several miles, it ends in a parking area at The Junction where the Big Snowbird Trail begins.
For the first two miles above The Junction, up to Sassafras Creek (a good campsite), the trail follows the left side of the stream, although the trail is often quite far up the mountain. This stretch offers good fishing for both browns and rainbows and is a fine day trip.
Just above Sassafras Creek, Big Snowbird drops through a series of cascades known as Mouse Knob Falls, and from this point upstream you will find specks (brook trout) only. This is far and away the biggest stream in North Carolina holding exclusively native brookies, and that characteristic makes it truly special.
Camping at Mouse Knob or farther upstream is recommended for brook trout fishermen. As with Slickrock Creek, all of Big Snowbird above the Junction is Wild Trout Water.
This gives you five interesting choices of streams for your next trip, so let’s close with thoughts on tactics and techniques.
For the flyfisherman, particularly in the spring and early summer, attractor patterns or nymphs are preferred. Presentation, far more than fly pattern, matters most.
Streams run quite full at this time of year, so with dry flies you want something that floats well. Good choices include Royal or Tennessee Wulffs, Thunderheads, Parachute Adams, Deer Hairs, red or yellow Humpies, and Elk Hair Caddis on size 12 or 14 hooks.
For nymphs, try that old mountain
favorite, the Yellarhammer, with other productive patterns being Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears, Tellicos and Princes.
Spinners produce fine fishing in the high waters of spring, and such is doubly the case should the water be a bit discolored. An old-time mountain favorite is a gold Colorado blade with a Yellarhammer fly tied on a long-shank hook as a trailer. Other good choices include small Panther Martins or Mepps. Keep your monofilament fine, and if needed to get the spinner deep, use a split shot or two.
Then all that remains is a will to walk and camp if need be. There are far worse ways to spend spring days.
(Editor’s Note: Jim Casada is the author of the award-winning book, Modern Fly Fishing. To order this work or other books from him, contact him at 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730 or visit his Web site, www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.)