In the North Carolina mountains of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park a trout angler has it all -- beautiful water, solitude and some great fishing. (May 2006)
The hundreds of miles of trout streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are an angler's paradise. Although you might get some arguments on the matter from folks in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, a solid case can be made for the park waters providing the finest fishing for wild trout east of the Rockies.
There hasn't been a trout stocked in park streams for many decades, which means that every trout swimming in them was born and raised there. They may not be "natives" in the sense of having always been residents of the park (both rainbows and browns are imports), but they are wild, many generations removed from any thought of concrete hatchery walls or pelletized food.
You can find excellent fishing in almost every park stream, but for a variety of reasons, with accessibility leading the pack, some of these waters are quite "technical" in nature. "Technical," incidentally, is a convenient term trout fishermen adopt to explain why they have trouble catching fish. Another problem is popularity, with Hazel Creek being a prime example. Although quite remote, Hazel Creek has received so much attention in print and holds such a special place in the minds of local anglers, it can at times resemble opening day on heavily stocked state waters. That is to say, as I once heard an old-timer put it, "It's so crowded you better tote your own rock if you want one to stand on."
By way of sharp and welcome contrast, at least to folks like yours truly who think the perfect trout-fishing day is one when they never see another angler, there are plenty of destinations on the North Carolina side of the park that let you get away from the crowds. Let's take a detailed look at five of them, with information not only on how to get there but other matters, such as stream size, nature of the fishing you can expect, and the like.
LEFT FORK OF DEEP CREEK
If getting "back of beyond" is your cup of angling tea, then give some thought to fishing the Left Fork of Deep Creek. You won't find trails leading to it in any of the guidebooks or hiking manuals, nor will you find much information about the area in park literature. The reason is simple: There are no maintained trails on the Left Fork. It's about as remote, other than the headwaters of Raven Fork, as you can get in the park. It wasn't by accident that the great hero of the Cherokees, who fought against removal to Oklahoma, Tsali, sought refuge here after killing one of the troopers sent by Andrew Jackson.
Yet once you wade the waters of Left Fork, you will be enchanted. For starters, the stream, although averaging only 15 or 20 feet wide (less as you work your way toward its headwaters hard under the towering peak that is Clingmans Dome), is amazingly wide open. That's because once a year or so, tremendous downpours that might almost be categorized as cloudbursts scour the stream and keep vegetation pushed well back from its banks. As a result, the fisherman has easy casting rather that the dabbling or bow-and-arrow casts typically found on headwaters.
There are two basic ways to get to the Left Fork. You can fish upstream from the point where it joins the Right Fork to form Deep Creek proper. The trail is right along the stream here (on the opposite side from where the Left Fork meets the right Fork), but unless you know where it is or study a map carefully, you are likely to miss it. Further complicating matters is that the Left Fork, at this confluence, breaks into an island or delta-like pattern that can be really confusing.
A better approach, and it is one that lands you squarely in some of Left Fork's finest fishing, is to drop down off the Fork Ridge Trail, which runs along the ridgetop dividing the two forks of Deep Creek, into the Left Fork.
The ideal place to do this is at the point where the trail leading up from Poke Patch Campsite on the Right Fork joins the Fork Ridge Trail (the Poke Patch backcountry campsite is also the closest designated place to overnight, and it's an ideal base of operations). Just be sure you pay attention as you bushwhack your way down to the stream after leaving the trail. You will have to make your way back out, and as I learned to my dismay several years ago, you can get turned around in a hurry, fighting your way through laurel and rhododendron hells, if you fail to pay attention.
Once on the stream, you will find a mixture of browns and rainbows, with increasing numbers of speckled trout as you near the confluence of Keg Drive Branch (keep in mind the fact that specks must be released). The stream is your trail back out once you finish fishing, so be sure to leave plenty of daylight to retrace your footsteps to where you began the day.
Located at the far southwestern end of the park, Twentymile Creek is in one sense as accessible as any stream on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. You can drive right to the ranger station near its mouth, traveling over asphalt for all but the final few hundred yards when you turn up the creek. To reach the creek, drive southwest along U.S. Highway 28 out of Fontana Village for a few miles to where the stream enters Cheoah Lake and turn right onto the gravel road that leads to the seasonal ranger station. There is a parking area just above the ranger station, and this is where the trailhead begins.The trail (actually an old road from pre-park days) follows the stream quite closely for four and a half miles, and this comprises the portion of the stream that is of primary interest to anglers.
Twentymile Creek, which gets its name from the distance it lies from Hazel Creek, is for much of its drainage a rough, tumbling stream full of plunge pools, fast-flowing rapids, and steep gorges. It is best fished in summer and early fall, when water levels are at their lowest. A day on this stream will give you plenty of exercise, since it makes for tough going in places, but there are ample rewards to be garnered from its turbulent waters.
Eagle Creek is one of several park streams that flow into the north shore of Fontana Lake. Accordingly, there are only two ways to reach this stream: on foot or by boat. The latter is strongly recommended, although there are several trail systems, all described in detail in Ken Wise's fine book, Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains, which provide access by foot. Most anglers prefer to conserve their energy and arrange for a boat shuttle from the Fontana Village Marina or go by their own watercraft.
Once there, you have the option of several backcountry campsites, and one of these, the Lower Ekaneetlee site (No. 89 on park maps and two miles upstream from the mouth of Eagle Creek) gives you a ready choice of fishing either Eagle Creek or its Ekaneetlee Creek feeder. Somewhat larger than Twentymile Creek, th
is stream and its feeders offer many miles of fine fishing for a mixture of browns and rainbows, and it receives far less pressure than nearby Hazel Creek.
Although I hesitate a bit to say so in print, it is my personal opinion that when all things are considered, Forney Creek, which like Eagle Creek empties into Fontana Lake, offers the finest fishing on the North Carolina side of the park. It is sufficiently remote to offer just the right amount of challenge when it comes to accessibility, big enough to produce nice-sized trout and ample elbow room for casting, and characterized by the sort of mixture of pools and pocket water you envision when thinking about streams in the Smokies.
For the hiker, the easiest and shortest route to Forney Creek is from the trailhead at the tunnel that ends the "Road to Nowhere" that runs out of Bryson City to Noland Creek. Just beyond the bridge that crosses Noland Creek, you go through a tunnel and the road ends. The Lakeshore Trail begins here and four miles of travel on it will lead you to Forney Creek.
From there, you can follow the Forney Creek trail upstream or down. There are several backcountry campsites here including Lower Forney (No. 74), Bear Creek (No. 73), Upper Forney, also known as the old CCC site (No. 71), and Jonas Creek (No. 70).
You can also travel to Forney Creek by boat, launching at any of several sites: from a recently constructed one at the end of old State Road 88 near where the Tuckaseegee River enters the lake, from Almond Boat Dock, from the launch off Round Hill Road, or from the ramp at the end of Forest Road 2550 (the Tsali camping area). The latter is the easiest to locate, lying off Highway 28, but the Round Hill one is the closest.
From a fishing perspective, Forney Creek is a pure delight. For many years, it was a predominantly rainbow stream, but in the last decade or so, brown trout have, in the local vernacular, "took holt" in a major way. Some of the larger pools in the lower reaches hold huge browns (you are more likely to see them than to hook them), but you'll still find plenty of 'bows in pocket water and where the current flow is more rapid.
A medium to medium-large stream by Smokies standards, Forney Creek offers 10 miles or so of fishable water, with its larger feeders adding a couple more miles.
LOWER CATALOOCHEE CREEK
Before the introduction of elk in the Cataloochee Valley, this part of the park was a fairly well-kept secret. Local folks knew that it provided a Cades Cove-like setting without all of the human traffic and hurly-burly. The elk have changed all that, although the impact on fishing is in a lowering of aesthetic appeal rather than any alteration of quality.
Fortunately, there is one section of the Cataloochee where you can get away from the elk watchers, enjoy peace and quiet, and sample first-rate fishing. This is, oddly enough, the lowermost reaches of the stream. Here it leaves the peaceful valley setting, with old homes, churches, graveyards, and a schoolhouse standing as silent reminders of a bygone era, and enters a gorge-like area that carries the stream to its confluence with Waterville Lake.
The Cataloochee Valley is accessible by road. Take the Waterville exit off I-40, cross the Pigeon River, and turn left at the end of the bridge. Then follow a paved road for two miles to an intersection where you will turn left onto a gravel road, old N.C. 284, which leads into the Cataloochee Valley. Or take Highway 276 out of Maggie Valley to Cove Creek Road, follow it for just under six miles, and you enter the park and soon drop down into the valley. However, there is no road access to the lower reaches of the stream. In fact, there is not even a maintained trail into the area.
The best approach is to park in the area where Little Cataloochee Creek enters the main creek, then work your way downstream. This flies in the face of all standard wisdom, which dictates fishing upstream when dealing with trout, but the logistics of access are the key factor here.
The best answers, in my view, are to take one of two available approaches. One involves scrambling downstream for the distance you think you can cover in a day of fishing, then working your way back to where you began your hike. Alternatively, you can fish a pool or a short stretch, climb out and rock hop downstream, and then repeat the process. Either way, this is rugged territory best fished with a partner, although the fact that you can drive to your starting point makes it quite a reasonable venue for a single day's outing, in contrast to some of the above scenarios where overnight stays are almost mandatory.
There you have it, five destinations I consider real dandies. All have brought me tight lines and fine times over the years, all promise solitude and a comparative dearth of other anglers, and all carry you to trout-filled waters. The rest, getting there and catching fish, is strictly up to you.
A FEW NOTES ON REGULATIONS
When fishing park streams, make sure you adhere to all the regulations. If you plan to camp, and several of the suggested venues lend themselves best to overnight stays, do so only in designated campsites. Be sure to get your free camping permit as well. The fishing regulations throughout the park are quite straightforward. You need either a North Carolina or a Tennessee fishing license (one from either state is good for both sides of the park). The daily creel limit is five fish of at least 7 inches in length, and with the exception of just a handful of streams, you cannot keep speckled trout. Only single-hook artificials are allowed.
(Editor's Note: Jim Casada, who grew up within walking distance of the park in Bryson City, N.C., has fished its streams all his life. He is the author or editor of more than 40 books, including the just published Beginner's Guide to Fly Fishing. To order any of his books or subscribe to his free monthly newsletter, visit his Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.)