Photo by Jim Casada.
The Appalachian chain in North Carolina, running from the southwest corner of the state northward and eastward for the entire length of North Carolina’s boundary with Tennessee, embraces some of the finest trout water east of the Rockies. There are hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, creeks and rivers that hold trout in the state. While some are private water, most of the stream mileage is open to the public. This is thanks to the fact that the waterways of close to a million and a half acres of land in the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, are suitable for trout.
If you want to start an argument among the trout-fishing fraternity, just make a bold statement that one stream or another is the “finest trout water” in North Carolina. Everyone has an opinion and likely can make some cogent, although not totally convincing, arguments in support of their stream of choice. That leads directly to the matter at hand — selecting not one but 10 top streams. As we turn to that task, fairness dictates a bit of what pointy-headed lawyers describe as “qualifying the witness.”
The picks that follow come totally from first-hand experience. Mine has been a marvelously misspent life that has seen me, as a native Tar Heel and hopelessly addicted trout fisherman, spend appreciably chunks of a full six decades in pursuit of these inhabitants of bright, sparkling waters. My early experiences were largely confined to waters of the park and a few streams in the Nantahala National Forest, but in adulthood they have expanded to encompass delightful days all up and down what a good friend and fellow angler, the late Harry Middleton, described as the ancient “spine of time” of the Appalachians. That said, these are my choices, in no particular order of preference, and I’m sticking to them.
On a national level, this stream in the heart of the park is possibly the best-known Tar Heel trout water. Flowing into the north shore of Fontana Lake, it is a medium to large stream in its lower reaches, and its relative remoteness (it is accessible only by boat or long hikes) keeps it from being too much a victim of its fame.
Like all park waters, Hazel Creek contains exclusively wild trout, with browns becoming increasingly prevalent in the first few miles although this is still primarily a rainbow trout stream. There are a number of designated backcountry campsites from the one at Proctor near Hazel Creek’s mouth on upstream, and the best way to enjoy this wonderful water is by camping for two or three days. Don’t overlook a major feeder, Bone Valley Creek, and the adventurous can find solitude and speckled trout in the uppermost stretches.
Of all the streams in the park, Forney Creek is my personal favorite. Like Hazel Creek, it flows into the north shore of Fontana, but it is more distant from boat-launching areas on the opposite side of the lake. On the other hand, it can be reached by a reasonable hike (about four miles) from the trailhead, which begins at the end of the “Road to Nowhere” (some maps show it as the Lakeshore Road).
This medium-sized stream gets far less pressure than Hazel Creek and is every bit as productive when it comes to rainbows and browns. For those who cherish solitude combined with fine fishing, Forney is about as good as it gets. As is the case with Hazel Creek, backcountry camping, as opposed to one-day trips, is the way to go.
I must confess that Deep Creek holds a special place in this angler’s heart inasmuch as it is my “home water,” the place where I cut my fly-fishing teeth. The lower reaches of Deep Creek in the park receive a great deal of fishing pressure, as do the two miles of state water after the stream leaves the park. However, from the Bumgardner Bend area on upstream there is reduced activity, and those seeking a day without seeing another fisherman can likely do just that on Left Fork, the Bend, or feeders, such as Indian Creek and Pole Road Creek. Access is strictly by foot in the park portions of the stream, with the Deep Creek Trail following the stream pretty closely most of the time from its beginning until one starts the climb (10-plus miles upstream) away from Right Fork toward Highway 441 hear Clingmans Dome. Increasingly, this is brown trout water, although you are likely to catch more ‘bows than browns, thanks to the difference in the ease of deceiving the two.
Should I be faced with the challenge of putting trout on the table and having my choice of streams in North Carolina to do so, I would opt to fish the Nantahala River’s lower reaches.
This section, which is a tailwater that draws whitewater enthusiasts from around the world, is an aesthetic nightmare during full flow, thanks to a non-stop “hatch” of canoes, kayaks and rafts. Yet, it is full of browns and rainbows, and though it is stocked and stocked heavily, most of the trout are stream bred.
You can actually wade much of the lower stream, which runs right along Highway 19, even when the water is “on.” It requires some wading skill and care, but the fishing is better than in the “off” conditions when moving from one pool to another can be accomplished with ease.
Mention should also be made of the delayed harvest section just upstream from where the massive outflow from a pipe running through the mountain creates the Nantahala tailwater. Likewise, there are many more miles of fine, albeit smaller, water in the Standing Indian area of the Nantahala’s headwaters.
One other fact worthy of mention is that when Trout Unlimited (TU) chose the top 100 trout streams nationally, the Nantahala River was one of two North Carolina destinations to make the list.
The second TU choice was the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest.
Virtually the entire stream is designated as catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only, so readers who are of my dear mom’s way of thinking (release to grease) need to turn elsewhere. It should also be noted that the stream’s ready accessibility and heavy stocking make for plenty of pressure, especially near the Pisgah Forest Hatchery. Access is easy — Highway 276 follows the Davidson up to where Looking Glass Creek joins it, and afterward Forest Service Road 475 puts you at streamside.
In the lower reaches, you will find mostly stoc
kers, but they get enough pressure to be pretty darn picky. The upper sections along with Avery Creek, which certainly merits attention, have self-sustaining populations of wild trout.
SOUTH MILLS RIVER
Designated as wild trout water throughout its drainage (better than a dozen miles), the South Mills in Transylvania County holds both rainbows and browns. It is appealing for several reasons, not the least of them being the fact it is accessible by road only at the upper and lower end (near the Cradle of Forestry and off Highway 280). Otherwise, access is exclusively by shank’s mare or horseback (the upper end is closed to horse riders), and the farther you walk from a trailhead the better the fishing.
The South Mills Trail follows the stream virtually its entire length, and there are plenty of attractive camping spots along the way. Since this is the Pisgah National Forest, you don’t need a camping permit (you do in the park), and as long as you don’t pitch a tent too close to a stream, you can make your home away from home anywhere. If you enjoy solitude, put your home in your backpack, hike a few miles, and except on weekends, you will see precious few fellow anglers.
NORTH TOE RIVER
To some this might seem a strange choice, yet there is mile after mile of fine, hatchery-supported fishing along this stream running through the heart of Avery County. Easily accessible off Highway 19E, which closely parallels the stream for much of its flow, the North Toe has a number of feeder streams that also deserve consideration. Most of them (Jones, Plumtree, Roaring and Horse creeks) are wild trout water. Its gradual gradient and ample runs and riffles make for easy wading, quite a contrast to the steep plunge pool characteristics of many Tar Heel streams. Then, too, there’s always a chance of making meaningful contact with a really hefty brown trout.
LOST COVE CREEK
Located in Avery County in the northwestern corner of the state, Lost Cove Creek is a part of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only program. Flowing through the heart of the Lost Cove Wilderness Study area, this is pure, pristine mountain water at its finest. Wild rainbows are the dominant species here, although you will find the occasional brown in the lower reaches where small falls plunge into deep pools. Access to Lost Cove Creek is by a trail leading off the Blue Ridge Parkway into its uppermost reaches or from Forest Service roads nearer to where it joins Gragg Prong.
NORTH HARPER CREEK
Yet another fine Avery County stream is North Harper Creek. Characterized by truly lovely terrain, with the massive boulders channeling water flow from one pool to the next, this is small-stream brown trout water at its best (there are rainbows as well). It is well served by a trail system that, for the most part, stays quite close to the creek. Forest Service roads parallel the stream to both the north and south and give foot access to North Harper Creek. There are fine camping spots aplenty along the flow, but it is also possible to hike in and out for day fishing (you can be at the stream in less than 30 minutes).
BIG SNOWBIRD CREEK
Graham County, in the far southwestern corner of the state, earns my vote for the ultimate “trout fisherman friendly” county in the state, although Avery County would certainly give it a run for its money. It has a number of fine streams, among them Big Santeetlah, Little Snowbird and Slickrock creeks, but here it is Big Snowbird that truly stands out. It appeals in many ways. You can take a “Smokies Slam” (catch a wild brown, rainbow and brookie in a single day’s outing), or fish from Mouse Knob Falls upstream, in the state’s finest speckled trout water. The lower reaches of the stream, up to a place known locally as The Junction (the site of an old logging railroad turnstile), are accessible from Big Snowbird Creek Road (State Road 1120, which turns to a gravel Forest Service road) a few miles out of Robbinsville. The sections along the road are hatchery supported but have plenty of wild fish. Upstream from Junction this is wild trout water.
REGULATIONS AND TACTICS
All the streams in the park noted above, along with a couple of others, have restrictions on types of lures or involve catch-and-release fishing only. Others allow bait, treble hook lures and the like, as well as flies or single-hook artificials. This isn’t the place to go into detail on favorite trout offerings, but throughout North Carolina, for the flyfisherman, keep in mind that it is presentation, not pattern, which matters most. Any attractor pattern, perhaps fished in tandem with a nymph dropper, should serve you well. Where allowed, natural bait offerings, such as worms, spring lizards, “nests,” or crickets, are hard to beat, and the spin-fisherman will find favor with Mepps Aglias, beetlespins or a Colorado blade followed by a Yellarhammer tied on a long-shank hook.
No matter what your preferences, these waters offer something for everyone. From park and walk 50 yards to the nearest pool situations to remote locations that require considerable hiking and a high level of fitness, the Old North State has it all. As I hint from time to time, feeder streams always merit investigation, and on a personal level, it has long been standard practice for me, when venturing into an area I haven’t fished before, to see what sort of opportunities side streams might present. For now though, here are 10 of North Carolina’s best, and if you haven’t visited each and every one, you owe it to yourself to do so. Every one promises tight lines and fine times.
Editor’s Note: Among the 40-plus books written or edited by Jim Casada are Modern Fly Fishing and Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing. He is presently completing a massive treatment on fishing in the waters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more details on his work or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com .