June 09, 2010
These five trout-fishing spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide some of the finest fishing for wild trout east of the Rockies. (April 2010)
My long-suffering wife once, in a moment of richly deserved frustration focusing on my returning late from one of my countless forays into the more remote regions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), commented: "When you die, your tombstone will read 'Jim Casada hated people.' " My response, which did absolutely nothing for marital harmony, suggested that since I planned to be cremated and have my ashes spread on trout streams to do a bit to offset acidity, an epitaph didn't really enter into the picture. Then I added, obviously without thinking, "It isn't that I don't like people; I just want them in tiny doses when it comes to trout fishing."
Indeed, my idea of a perfect day of fishing is one when I encounter one or two other people, preferably either when I am leaving or returning to my truck. Countless other Tar Heel trout fishermen share my misanthropic inclinations. They savor solitude, remoteness of place, casting through spider webs (a sure sign no angler has passed for some time), and the greatly increased likelihood of first-rate fishing such places offer. After all, minimally pressured trout are easier to catch than those that encounter sparkling spinners or frauds made of fur and feathers day after day.
With such thoughts in mind, what follows is a look at a number of destinations that give every promise of elbowroom aplenty; indeed, more often than not when casting in their waters, you will not encounter another angler. They range from streams demanding a long hike and an overnight camping trip to those so readily accessible that a walk of a few minutes will put you on the water.
A medium-small stream that enters Deep Creek half a mile from the lower trailhead (three miles from downtown Bryson City), Indian Creek is a stream rich in angling history. It also happens to be where this writer cut his fly-fishing teeth, catching my first limit of trout, my first decent-sized rainbow, and learning the basics of tight-quarters fishing. Access to Indian Creek is the essence of simplicity. You follow the Deep Creek Trail to the beginning of the Indian Creek Trail, which starts where the stream feeds into Deep Creek Trail. From there, the latter trail (really a gravel road) follows the stream quite closely for most of its 3.7 miles of fishable length.
Even though it was the home water of legendary angler Mark Cathey, who lived along its banks in pre-park days, today Indian Creek receives very little pressure. One explanation for this situation is that the stream has, over time, become increasingly difficult to fish. As old farmsteads have become overgrown, rhododendrons have overtaken banks that were once quite open. Yet open areas remain, especially in the middle reaches sometimes known as the "gorge."
Thanks to the barrier formed by the strikingly beautiful waterfall near Indian Creek's mouth, this is a stream populated exclusively by rainbows. They are here in great abundance, although the general range is quite small and a 10-inch fish is a fine one indeed. Still, the opportunity for a competent angler to catch 30 to 50 fish in a day is realistic, and most would reckon that a fine day indeed. This isn't really back of beyond, but almost no one fishes this stream. It is also heartening, when wading in the footsteps of old Mark Cathey, to pause and ponder the wonderful epitaph adorning his tombstone in nearby Bryson City Cemetery:
Mark Cathey, 1871-1944
Beloved hunter and fisherman,
Was himself caught by the Gospel hook,
Just before the season closed for good.
LEFT FORK OF DEEP CREEK
Although forming part of the same drainage and pretty much the same size in terms of flow, the Left Fork of Deep Creek provides a striking contrast with Indian Creek. It epitomizes remoteness (there is no trail accessing the stream) and, in sharp contrast to the bow-and-arrow type tactics so often required on Indian Creek, affords amazingly open angling.
There are various ways to reach the prime waters of Left Fork, which lie in its middle reaches rather than where its confluence with Right Fork forms Deep Creek proper. All involve lengthy on-trail hikes, and then you have to bushwhack to reach the stream.
At that point, its flow becomes your trail. An overnight stay at the nearest campsite, Poke Patch (No. 53), is almost essential. To reach this site, take a four-mile hike from the upper Deep Creek trailhead on Highway 441 (1.8 miles from Newfound Gap). From Poke Patch it is then a fairly short climb up to the Fork Ridge Trail. Once you reach it, you can hear Left Fork far below. Pick a good place to bushwhack downhill through open woods, and when you reach the creek, be absolutely sure to mark the point where you enter it. Failure to do so may find you exhausted as, when attempting to return to the Fork Ridge Trail, you encounter finger ridges, leads and the like rather than the pathway you seek.
Left Fork is a gem, the place where local legend has it that noble Tsali sought refuge from federal soldiers before surrendering and giving up his life so that a remnant of the Cherokees could remain in their homeland. This is a creek which experiences periodic floods of major proportions, thanks to cloudbursts in the Clingmans Dome area and a lack of soil to soak up these headwater rains. This means the streambed is scoured regularly, keeping over-arching vegetation at bay. It's a grand place to catch a Smokies slam -- a brown, 'bow, and speck -- and the nature of the flow means lots of nice plunge pools interspersed with long runs. After a day of fishing, in order to make your way back to your campsite, just walk back down the creek to the point where you first accessed it and re-trace your steps.
UPPER RAVEN FORK THREE FORKS/ENLOE CREEK AREA
The Gorges of Raven Fork, which begin immediately above the boundary line between the GSMNP and the Cherokee Reservation, form the most remote and rugged region of the entire park, and fishing it alone is somewhere between inadvisable and flat-out foolish. But upstream of The Gorges, you have remote park fishing at its finest. Only the Enloe Creek Trail penetrates into upper Raven Fork, and it is a lateral connector rather than a trail system following the stream. In other words, hiking from the Straight Fork Road to the Enloe Creek backcountry campsite (No. 47 -- situated where that stream enters Raven Fork) gets you to the stream, but from that point on you will be fishing in an off-trail area.
This is a magical place, with the deep, crystalline pool at Three Forks, lying the better part of a day's fishing upstream from Enloe Creek's confluence with Raven Fork.
There's probably no finer fishing for specks anywhere in the Smokies, and in the long, deep pools which are this stream's hallmarks, it is often possible
to see scores of these mountain beauties finning easily in the depths. There are also rainbows in abundance, and is the case with all the streams covered here, a good offering involves attractor flies with a beadhead nymph dropper. For the spin-caster, tiny in-line spinners or a little Colorado blade followed by a Yellerhammer tied on a long shank hook will do the trick.
Make a three-day trip into Raven Fork and rest assured you will be taking steps back in time to a place where no one has ever worshipped the false gods of asphalt avenues and where a day of walking and fishing can find you casting amidst virgin forests. It is, plain and simple, a paradise for the trout fisherman seeking the solace of solitude.
Forney Creek is probably the most difficult to reach of all the major streams on the North Carolina side of the GSMNP. The easiest foot access involves a strenuous hike, while reaching the stream by water (it empties into Fontana's north shore) requires a lengthy trip from remote launching areas. That translates to the upper reaches of Forney being a long way from anywhere, reachable solely by means of demanding hikes. In truth, it would not be much of an overstatement to suggest that the entire watershed merits categorization as being "back of beyond," but the most distant portion of it is that section from the Huggins campsite (No. 69) upstream. The cascades of Forney Creek are situated at 3,700 feet elevation, and for those who want prime speckled trout action, camping at Steeltrap (No. 68) is also an option.
The best way to reach this part of the creek, and it isn't for lollipop-sucking pantywaists, is to begin at the trailhead lying 1.1 miles from the Clingmans Dome parking area. From here it is a 2.4-mile hike to Steeltrap, and if you go back out the same way, my advice is to travel mighty light and eat everything you brought in as foodstuffs. It's a haul.
Once in the area though (and I would suggest a four- or five-day trip is best), you've got backcountry, small stream fishing at its finest. In addition to Forney Creek proper, you will find both Huggins and Steeltrap creeks well worthy of attention, and in each of these, as well as in Forney above the cascades, specks will be your quarry.
LITTLE GEMS IN THE LUFTEE DRAINAGE
We began with a little-fished destination that is easily accessible, and then came three streams that are anything but simple to reach. For balance, let's close with a brief overview of quartet of smaller streams, all in the Oconaluftee (Luftee to locals) drainage, which are almost literally drive-to in nature yet little pressured. All are accessible directly off U.S. Highway 441 between Cherokee and Newfound Gap. They are Collins Creek, Kephart and Beech Flats prongs (where the two meet marks the beginning of the Oconaluftee River proper) and Kanati Fork.
Of the four, only Kephart Prong is served by a trail. There's roadside parking at the trailhead, and you cross a bridge over Luftee and shortly come to Kephart Prong at a site where there was once a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. There's a picnic area at the mouth of Collins Creek where you can park, but once you start fishing, the stream is your path. A trail serves the Kanati Fork drainage, but forget using it from a fishing perspective. It almost immediately leaves this lovely little creek, and your best way out after fishing is to retrace your footsteps.
As for Beech Flats Prong, it is closely paralleled by Highway 441, although you can't see it from the road. Here the best approach is to pull off in one of the next six parking spots above Kephart Prong, make the short hike down to the stream, fish as far as you wish, and then climb back out to Highway 441. Most places it is a climb of only 300-400 yards, and there's plenty of open woodland as opposed to rhododendron hells.
In Collins Creek you will find mostly rainbows, while Kephart Prong yields a mixture of browns and rainbows. Kanati Fork is populated almost entirely by specks, and you won't find an easier place to hook one of these mountain beauties anywhere in the Park. Beech Flats Prong holds all three species of trout found in the park, and it is a fine place to score a Smokies slam. The nice thing about all of these destinations is that they lend themselves to day or even half-day outings yet give full promise of being away from angling pressure.
There you have it. You have options, from backpacking into remote and rugged wilderness to leisurely hikes for a few hours' fishing, which should offer something for everyone.
The common denominator is that you can get away from it all and have quite realistic expectations of catching not just the occasional trout but lots of them. To do so, all the while knowing every fish is as wild as the setting in which it is hooked, and to cast amidst the most ecologically diverse region in the Northern Hemisphere, is to wade waters of wonder.