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Get the Jump on French Broad Trout

Get the Jump on French Broad Trout

The French Broad River itself may not be the top trout destination in the state, but many of this river's tributaries are.

By Jeff Samsel


While several miles of the upper French Broad River are designated as trout waters and receive some stocked trout every year, it is not a river that would land on many anglers' lists of favorite trout streams in western North Carolina. Numerous streams in the French Broad watershed, however, would show up on some of those lists, and collectively they offer a tremendous amount of opportunity.

Beyond providing literally hundreds of miles of waters for trout anglers to explore, the French Broad watershed includes streams of all sizes and waters that fall under several different management schemes. Therefore, whether an angler wants an easy limit, likely catch-and-release action, or wild trout in a remote setting, something in the French Broad River system should fit the bill.

Let's take a look at some of the best opportunities - space won't allow us to cover everything, but what we do cover can give the dedicated angler some good places to start. We'll sort the rivers and creeks by stream designation, as waters that fall under the same designation provide some of the same types of experiences.


The main stem of the French Broad is a large valley river through most of its run and is too warm and silty to provide wild trout habitat. However, virtually all of the French Broad's major tributaries head up high in the mountains, mostly within the Pisgah National Forest and many quite close to the Blue Ridge. Dozens of tributary flows (many of which are actually tributaries of French Broad tributaries) hold good populations of wild trout, including brookies in some cases.

Among the best-known wild trout streams in the French Broad system are Looking Glass and Avery creeks, both of which are accessible off U.S. Highway 276, and flow into the Davidson River. Looking Glass Creek parallels Highway 276, and its namesake waterfall is one of the most popular spots in the national forest. The creek's small size keeps pressure light, however. Avery, smaller and more remote, gets even less pressure than Looking Glass.

Both streams require a delicate approach and a fair amount of crawling, but they both also contain good populations of wild rainbow trout. Likewise, high-elevation tributaries of most major feeders that rise along the Blue Ridge provide good trout habitat as soon as there is enough water in the creek to hold fish. For fishermen, the only question is how hard they want to work to get to a stream and how small a creek they want to crawl up to fish.

Arguably, the best major stream that falls under Wild Trout designation is the South Mills River, which rises near the Cradle of Forestry and runs several miles through Forest Service lands. The South Mills offers outstanding habitat for wild trout and has grown into a fairly large stream by the time it exits public land. Access to much of the stream requires quite a bit of effort, which keeps fishing pressure minimal and allows trout to grow large.

The only good access points for reaching the South Mills River are at opposite ends of its public waters, near the Cradle of Forestry and off Highway 280. In between, more than 10 miles of river are accessible only by the South Mills River Trail or by walking up the stream. Middle sections of the South Mills get very light fishing pressure and support very good wild trout populations.

Backpacking is definitely the best way to fish the South Mills. By parking a vehicle at each end, fishermen can work top to bottom and hike downhill most of the way. The South Mills River Trail is 12 miles long and stays pretty close to the stream most of the way.

The South Mills River's reputation has been built on brown trout, and indeed it produces some big and beautiful browns. In between the big pools where the browns tend to lurk, however, abundant feisty rainbows fill swift runs and keep the action steady.

Fishermen who hope to hook into a heavyweight brown trout should keep the browns' behavior in mind as they fish. Brown trout like deep, protected areas, dense cover and all the shade they can find. Generally speaking, the harder it would be to get a lure to a spot, the better that spot probably is for browns.

Big browns also rely heavily on fish, crawfish and other large meal items for calories, so flies or lures that imitate larger morsels generally offer the best prospects. Woolly Buggers, Muddlers, Clousers and other streamers provide good bets on a fly rod. For any unweighted fly, a split shot or a sinking-tip line might be needed to get the offering down to the best areas. Spinning tackle offers even better options. Small plugs that imitate minnows or crawfish are outstanding for getting the attention of big brown trout.

Whatever the offering, only single-hook artificial lures are permitted on the South Mills or any other Wild Trout stream. For plugs, replacing the back treble with a larger single hook and removing the front treble works better than clipping points.

The limit on Wild Trout waters is four fish, with a 7-inch minimum size.


Anglers tend to catch a lot of fish when they visit North Carolina's Delayed Harvest trout waters during the spring, and high-quality trout are commonly part of the mix. As a result, these are some of the most popular streams in the mountains.

Delayed Harvest trout streams are heavily stocked in October, November, March, April and May, and only catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures is permitted from Oct. 1 through the first Saturday in June. This means that by midspring all the Delayed Harvest waters are absolutely loaded with trout.

The French Broad watershed actually includes four Delayed Harvest stream sections, which together offer more than a dozen stream miles under this designation. The streams are the North Mills River, Big Laurel Creek, Shelton Laurel Creek and the East Fork of the French Broad River. The East Fork was just added to the program this winter.

An examination of stocking rates for Shelton Laurel Creek in Madison County provides a good understanding of the number of trout that are available in Delayed Harvest waters. Hatchery-Supported waters on Shelton Laurel Creek extend more than a dozen miles and receive 6,350 trout over the course of a season. The Delayed Harvest section, by way of contrast, receives 10,875 trout for less than 2 1/2 miles of stream.

Shelton Laurel is a tributary of Big Laurel, and the Delayed Harvest sections of the two streams run together, creating a combined 3 1/2 miles of good waters. Access is off state

highways 208 and 212 and U.S. Highway 25/70, all between the hamlets of Belva and Hurricane.

The North Mills River is the best known of the four Delayed Harvest streams. Four miles of good waters, all on game lands, provide plenty of opportunity, and the NCWRC stocks 2,000 trout per month in that section during the delay period. North Mills River Road and Forest Service Road 1206 provide easy access to most of this section.

With so many hungry mouths in Delayed Harvest waters during the spring, the trout tend to feed somewhat opportunistically. At times they will get fussy, especially if the water is low and very clear, but generally speaking, a small, black Woolly Bugger or a well-presented Royal Wulff or Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear will keep a flyfisherman busy.

It's worth emphasizing that single-hook artificials only does not necessarily mean fly-fishing only. In-line spinners, small jigs and even small plugs work very well and are legal offerings as long as they only have one single hook on them.


Two streams in the French Broad system are open only to catch-and-release fishing year 'round. Ten or so miles of the Davidson River (plus several of its tributaries) are categorized as Catch-and-Release/Artificial Flies-Only waters. Carter Creek, a very small and remote tributary of Big Ivy Creek, falls under Catch-and-Release/Artificial Lures-Only regulations.

The Davidson clearly ranks among North Carolina's most famous wild trout streams, and it is a favorite of many flyfishermen. The special regulations, which govern the Davidson for close to 10 miles, allow some trout (especially browns) to reach heavyweight proportions. Also, because of the release regulation, trout numbers are disproportionately high, compared to similar-sized streams that have good access to them.

U.S. Highway 276 and Forest Service Road 475 together parallel most of the Davidson's special regulations section. Short sections do turn away from the road, however, providing fishermen the best opportunities to find a degree of solitude on this very popular stream.

Because of the release requirement and the high pressure on the fish, most trout have been caught a time or two before, and all are used to seeing a lot of fishermen and flies. Adding to the challenge of fishing here is the Davidson's fairly small size through most of its run, and the fact that its water tends to be very clear. Unless the fish are really keyed in on midges, picking the perfect fly is not usually as critical as good fly presentations and stealthy approaches.

Carter Creek, a small headwater stream, is accessible by trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway or off Craggy Gardens Road. It's tiny and tight and best suited for fishing with a micro-sized spinning rod and a tiny jig or in-line spinner. Flyfishermen rely on bow-and-arrow-style shots into small pockets, usually with classic nymphs or small attractor dry flies.


For fishermen who enjoy the reward of catching stream-bred trout, but who sometimes like to rig up with natural offerings, Wild Trout/Natural Bait waters fit the bill perfectly. Two stream sections in the French Broad watershed fall under this unique designation. Best known and providing the most opportunity is the North Fork of the French Broad River, which is one of the river's major forks. Smaller and more remote is Spillcorn Creek, which is a tributary of Big Laurel Creek.

Even the North Fork is medium-sized at best through most of its run. Its steep gradient creates some big pools (which hold big trout), but the same topography makes it difficult to get up and down the creek in places. Access is from state Highway 215, which is sometimes quite close to the stream. Sections wind down away from the road, however, and create very rugged and remote fishing conditions.

Wild Trout/Natural Bait waters include the entire game lands section downstream of SR 1326. Farther upstream, where the North Fork is again on game lands, it is managed as Wild Trout waters.

On Wild Trout/Natural Bait waters, fishermen may use artificial lures or natural baits, except for live fish. Only a single hook may be used, whether on a lure or with bait. The limit is four trout, with a 7-inch minimum size, just like on other Wild Trout waters.

Natural bait, of course, provides the best prospects on waters where bait can be used. Worms probably top the list of popular trout baits, and they are undeniably effective. Crickets, however, work at least as well. Either can be fished on split-shot rigs, under corks or even on a fly rod.

Another traditional Appalachian approach, which has been largely forgotten because of artificial-only requirements on most Wild Trout waters, is to fish a nymph on a fly rod, but to add a piece of stick bait, which refers to caddis larvae in this case. Fishing stick bait, once extremely popular in the North Carolina mountains, is extremely effective.


Hatchery-Supported waters are closed throughout the month of March. However, April will be here in no time, and the French Broad watershed has some waters in this category that warrant mention. In fact, from the point where its forks come together, near Rosman, the French Broad itself is designated as Hatchery-Supported waters for several miles.

Tops on the stocked-trout-water list is undoubtedly the Davidson River. The same river that is managed with some of the most restrictive special regulations in the state also contains the most heavily stocked stream section in North Carolina. Between March and October, the NCWRC stocks 16,500 trout in one mile of the Davidson River.

This section of the Davidson, which is just down the road from the Pisgah State Fish Hatchery, also seems to get a disproportionate number of big fish stocked in it as bonus fish. Although there is no official policy directing more big fish to the Davidson, the river's extreme popularity makes it a very good place to put a few more "wild card" fish.

Because of the heavy stockings, this mile of the Davidson is among the most heavily fished river sections in North Carolina. Fishermen flock the banks and wade everywhere they can stand from opening day through the end of summer, especially on weekends. It is not a good place to go for solitude, but it is a great place to go for almost-certain action and a good opportunity to take a limit of trout home.

Hatchery-Supported waters on the Davidson extend from the mouth of Avery Creek to the Ecusta intake. U.S. Highway 276 parallels this section, providing easy river access. The river's character is mild, making for easy wading at most water levels. Because of the Davidson's extreme popularity, most anglers pick their spot and stick with it, usually fishing with bait or a flashy spinner.

Beyond the Davidson, several other French Broad tributaries get stocked with trout throughout the warm months; however, none begin to rival the Davidson's offerings, in terms of the

number of trout that get stocked. Plus, most others run primarily through private lands. Some larger tributaries, like the Swannanoa River, the West Fork of the French Broad and Big Ivy Creek, do offer a fair amount of opportunity for local anglers to catch trout.

The French Broad itself is designated as Hatchery-Supported trout waters from the confluence of its west and north forks to the U.S. Highway 276 bridge. These waters are marginal, however, which can be seen by the fact that only 4,000 trout are stocked in this entire 20-plus-mile section in a season.


Because different stream sections fall under different regulations, it's a good idea to check out a current North Carolina Fishing, Hunting and Trapping Regulations Digest before heading out. The digest, which is available from all license dealers, defines the boundaries of all specially designated sections. Regulations are also available on line at, along with stocking information, trout maps and game lands maps.

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