Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Reaching among the submerged branches of a tree that stretches across a remote mountain stream, an angler breaks off the deepest branch he can reach and lifts it for examination. To his delight, the branch contains a gold-mine of “stickbait” — all he’ll need for at least a couple of hours. So he pulls a small container from his fishing vest and begins carefully collecting treasures.
Stickbait, in traditional Southern Appalachian lingo, refers to caddis fly nymphs, complete with the little stick-like cases they build and inhabit. Old-time flyfishermen often tipped nymphs with stickbait or fished the same baits alone on tiny hooks, but still with the use of a fly rod to deliver the offering.
Not many mountain anglers drift stickbait anymore, and regulations probably have played some part in that change. Most tumbling high-country creeks, where stickbait fishing once was popular, are now managed under wild trout regulations, which do not allow the use of natural offerings. Several western North Carolina streams, however — 19 to be exact — fall under a special designation of “wild trout/natural bait,” allowing anglers to probe wild trout waters with natural offerings.
The streams were given this designation about a decade ago, as part of a broad-based reclassification of trout streams by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The NCWRC did not want to completely upend the way anglers were accustomed to fishing on many streams, according to Scott Loftis, the fisheries biologist over District 9, where all 19 streams under this designation are located.
The designation blends wild trout regulations, which include a four-fish limit, a 7-inch minimum size and an allowance of only a single hook, with hatchery-supported regulations that permit the use of natural bait. It allows anglers who favor bait, to fish backcountry streams for wild trout.
Wild trout/natural bait waters tend to get overlooked by anglers, but they include several outstanding streams. Brown, rainbow and brook trout are all part of the mix in the streams, which are spread over eight western North Carolina counties. The streams also vary dramatically in size and character.
Following the special designation of these streams and other changes in the 1990s, the NCWRC conducted electrofishing and creel surveys in several watersheds for five years to measure impact. They found that angler pressure and harvest had virtually no effect on stream populations in remote wild trout streams, even with the use of live bait, Loftis said.
Because the wild trout/natural bait streams vary so much in character and in the makeup of trout populations, the best stream depends largely on an angler’s specific preferences. Loftis pointed toward the Chattooga River, the North Fork of the French Broad River, Big Creek, Kimsey Creek and Buck Creek as some of the streams that offer the best opportunities for fishermen.
The Chattooga River, a National Wild & Scenic River beginning in the lower end of its North Carolina run, is best known for its world-class whitewater offerings along the Georgia/ South Carolina border and to a lesser extent for its trout fishing farther up the same border. Through North Carolina, an outstanding population of wild brown trout, including some large fish, gets minimal attention from anglers because of the stream’s remoteness and ruggedness.
Shocking surveys on the Chattooga, conducted from 1992 to 1996, consistently showed high numbers of first-year fish, which indicated that good conditions for natural reproduction exist here. The surveys also turned up plenty of adult fish in the stream. Most adult fish were in the 6- to 12-inch range, but stream surveyors would sometimes bring up fish up to 16 inches.
Bull Pen Bridge crosses the Chattooga a couple miles upstream of the North Carolina/South Carolina/ Georgia border. Upstream or downstream, all access is by wading (sometimes difficult wading) or by hiking one of a couple of trails, each three miles or more in length that lead to the river near the border.
The most effective way to fish the Chattooga is to backpack into the Ellicott Rock Wilderness by one of the trails and spend a couple of days fishing, ideally with a Georgia or South Carolina license in addition to a North Carolina license. Live crawfish dropped to the bottoms of big boulder-strewn pools on gray days offer the best prospects for enticing hefty brown trout.
Loftis noted that two of the Chattooga’s main tributaries, Scotsman and Fowler creeks, also support good wild brown trout populations. These are much smaller and tighter but lower in gradient overall and easier to access. They also get even less fishing pressure than the main river.
Overflow Creek in Macon County is also in the Chattooga River watershed; however, its flow feeds the West Fork of the Chattooga River in Georgia, which joins the main river more than 10 miles south of the North Carolina border. Small and fairly remote, the North Carolina section of the Overflow supports mostly brown trout, but has brook trout in its upper end. The topography the stream flows through is unusual and a cause for caution by anglers: The stream will be strangely flat for a long stretch and then plummet over a major waterfall.
The North Fork of the French Broad, like the Chattooga, is a pretty large trout stream. Through the wild trout/natural bait section, which is mostly on the Nantahala National Forest, the North Fork tumbles often, creating some huge pools where big brown trout lurk. The trout population on the North Fork includes rainbows and browns, according to Loftis. State Highway 215 parallels much of the North Fork and provides decent fishing access.
Moving north in the mountains, but staying the French Broad River system, anglers will come to Big Creek in Madison County (one of a handful of creeks of the same name in the North Carolina mountains). This particular Big Creek supports a dense population of trout, most of which are rainbows, based on NCWRC sampling work. Loftis did not rate Big Creek as a good destination for anglers seeking large fish, but he said it supports an abundance of legal-sized trout.
Because Big Creek is located in a sparsely populated area and has a somewhat pastoral appearance, Loftis suspected that it probably gets extremely light fishing pressure.
Much less of a secret but no less of a quality destination is Kimsey Creek, a major tributary of the Nantahala River that joins the main stream in the Standing Indian area. Kimsey Creek supports plenty o
f rainbows and browns and some big browns, which move up out of the main river. Tributaries also support brook trout.
Kimsey Creek and Park Creek, a smaller Nantahala tributary that joins the main river just downstream of Kimsey Creek and is managed under the same regulations, together offer a great trout-fishing experience. A Forest Service campground at the mouth of Kimsey Creek offers good amenities, and the entire area is heavily forested and high in the mountains.
“Everything for a nice weekend fishing trip is right there,” Loftis said.
Both streams are small and tight and run very clear, calling for short rods (whether spinning or fly), sneaky approaches and finesse presentations. A cricket fished with a fly rod, with just a small split shot added to the line, offers outstanding prospects.
Two other Nantahala River tributaries provide interesting opportunities. Buck Creek joins the river just upstream of Nantahala Lake, while Jarrett Creek actually feeds the lake. Buck Creek supports a good mix of rainbows and browns and offers a better-than-average opportunity for an angler to catch a “memorable brown trout,” Loftis said. It has a modest grade for a mountain trout stream. Jarrett Creek, which rises just south on the southern slope of Wayah Bald, is smaller and steeper and supports mostly rainbows.
Other streams under this management scheme are the upper Tellico River and Bald and Dockery creeks in Cherokee County, Deep and Long creeks in Graham County, Hurricane Creek in Haywood County, Tellico and Turtlepond creeks in Macon County and the Thompson River in Transylvania County.
Loftis noted that the upper Tellico has degraded water quality from an ORV area in its watershed and therefore carries fewer trout than most other mountain streams of its size. The rest offer good trout-fishing prospects, although a few are quite small. Rainbows predominate in all except the Thompson River, which is primarily a brown trout stream. Brookies are in many tributaries.
BEFORE YOU GO
For complete regulations regarding wild trout/natural bait waters and a complete list of stream sections under this designation, visit the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Web site at
www.ncwildlife.org. The site also offers downloadable maps of trout waters.