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When it comes to diversity of opportunity, arguably no area east of the Rockies offers more to the trout fisherman than the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. Within the compass of a handful of counties, you have top-drawer tail waters (portions of the Nantahala and Tuckasegee rivers), immensely popular delayed harvest streams that are heavily stocked by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the fly-fishing only, catch-and-release trophy program operated by Cherokee tribal authorities on Raven Fork, plus hundreds of miles of wild trout streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest.
Given all this potential, it’s probably not surprising that someone developed the concept of a “Trout Trail” in eastern North Carolina. The men behind this trail are adventurous fisherman Bobby Kilby, who claims to have caught trout in more than 1,000 streams in North Carolina, and local guide Alex Bell. Ballyhooed as the first trail of its kind in the United States, it features a bit of everything. There’s the delayed harvest fishing available on the Tuckasegee River, a tailwater that can be waded when the gates upstream are closed, though it requires a drift boat or raft when the water is “on”; the Tribal Enterprise water, Raven Fork, on the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation; a number of hatchery-supported trout streams; and finally, several smaller and generally remote creeks that receive relatively little pressure and boast naturally reproducing trout, including, in some cases, native specks (brook trout).
A fine example of the latter is Panthertown Valley, in the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River Those led there blindfolded would be convinced that they were in another world. The terrain, the vegetation, and the stream in no way resemble what is typically encountered in the Smokies and Blue Ridge. The stream resembles blackwater rivers found at lower elevations across the Southeast and seldom can you see deeper than a foot or so. Yet it is home to a fine population of speckled trout, and they are as vividly colored as those you will find anywhere. One caveat: either
go with a guide or do plenty of map research, because the area is a maze of trails, and it is easy, as locals sometimes put it, to get “temporarily misplaced.”
Altogether, there are fifteen “stops” on the North Carolina Trout Trail, and those interested in fishing any of them can obtain details by visiting www.FlyFishingTrail.com or calling 800-962-1911. Several local guides and outfitters are available to help you enjoy the trail. They include AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service (www.abfish.org; 828-226-3833), Brookings’ Cashiers Village Outfitters (www.Brookingsonline.com; 828-743-3768), Hooker’s Fly Shop and Guide Service (www.hookersflyshop.com; 828-587-4665), and River’s Edge Outfitters (www.flyfishcherokee.com; 828-497-9300). If you want to try the trail on your own, the map available for the trail includes fairly detailed access information. For the remote, walk-in destinations, however, you will want more complete information such as trail or topography maps, perhaps supplemented by the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission’s excellent publication, North Carolina Trout Fishing Maps (www.ncwildstore.com/troutfi smapb.html).
Trail visitors will find plenty of accommodation and dining options nearby. These range from cabins along the Tuckasegee River to motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments, along with RV campgrounds and weekly house rentals. Full details are available on the local chamber of commerce Web site, www.mountainlovers.com, or by calling 800-962-1911.
The Fly Fishing Trail is only part of the western North Carolina trout story. Nearby lies the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its half million acres of pristine wilderness and scores of streams holding wild trout. Here, there are all sorts of fishing options, from easily accessed streams, such as the lower reaches of Deep Creek and Noland Creek, to storied streams that empty into the north shore of Fontana Lake and that can only be reached by boat or lengthy hikes.
These are my home waters, the streams where I caught my first trout. In my studied opinion, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers the finest wild trout east of the Rockies with the emphasis on wild. No trout have been stocked in any of these streams in decades, and most feature a mixture of browns and ’bows, with some headwaters home to specks. The best way to sample and savor these waters is by camping in designated backcountry sites, although day trips are certainly a possibility. For two of the streams that empty into Fontana, storied Hazel Creek—the most famous of all park streams—and Eagle Creek, there is a shuttle from the marina at Fontana Village that will take you (and your gear if you are planning to camp) across the lake and then pick you up at a specified time. The round trip is $50 per person, and you can obtain details or make reservations by calling 828-498-2129 or by visiting www.fontanavillage.com. Incidentally, Fontana Village, which was originally created to build Fontana Dam during World War II, has been totally updated and offers a variety of dining and lodging options.
Another alternative is hooking up with a local guide service for some camping in style. Steve Claxton’s Smoky Mountain Adventures (www.steveclaxton .com; 828-736-7501) or Ronnie Parris’s Smoky Mountains Outdoors Unlimited (www.smokymountainoutdoorsunlimited.com; 828-488-9711) are fine choices whether you want a single day’s experience or an extended backcountry trip Both men grew up in nearby Bryson City and have fished these waters all their lives. Then, too, if you are fi t, like to get away from it all, and revel in seeing few if any other fishermen, a backpacking/camping trip on your own is always a possibility. I’ve done this in the area all my life and, misanthrope that I undoubtedly am, it remains my favorite approach to fishing in the Smokies. So much the case that I devoted several years and a world of wonderful “field research” to a book on the subject (see the postscript below).
At the other end of the spectrum from the standpoint of ease of access, there are the Cherokee tribal waters on the reservation. They include not only the special trophy section of Raven Fork, where you can cast to monstrous (albeit highly educated) trout, but other streams as well. These waters are a put-and-take situation (mostly stockers, since the tribe has its own state-of-the art hatchery, but there are plenty of wild fish as well) that draws mostly worm and corn dunkers, but I know from personal experience that they can be highly productive for the fly fisherman who eschews the big pools and works riffles and runs. This is especially true on small Soco Creek. Several years back, I spent a day with Bob Bradley, a local angler. It was a delight from beginning to end, but what was most striking was a couple of hours spent on a section of Soco Creek. Using a dry fl y and nymph dropper, I caught between 40 and 50 wild trout. Mind you, none was a foot long, but it was satisfying to the nth degree for me.
Finally, anyone visiting the region for more than a day or two will want to check out the Nantahala River. It actually offers two faces: one is a five or six mile section of delayed harvest water above the power plant; the second is the tailwater section in Nantahala Gorge. The latter is unusual in that portions of it can be waded even when the water is on. The aesthetics when the water is at full flow is anything but ideal, thanks to the fact that this is a world-class whitewater destination with a constant canoe and kayak hatch, but the fishing is extraordinary. In my opinion, there’s no finer trout stream in North Carolina. Local guides such as Steve Claxton and Ronnie Parris mentioned earlier, along with Mac Brown (www.macbrownflyfish.com; 828-488-8975), who actually does some fl oats when the water is on, know the stream well. Brown, incidentally, is an expert casting instructor with top-level FFF certification who has written a book on the subject.
I might note that if the task was put to me to catch a limit of fish for the table and to do so in fairly rapid order, the Nantahala would be where I would go. Unlike most southern Appalachian streams, it has major hatches and a prime food base. That translates to more and bigger fish, and over the years I’ve caught more large fish here than anywhere in the Smokies. The stream has also given me more 50-plus fish days than anywhere in the region, and its different options—from delayed harvest to the tailwater section, not to mention the fact that it is the only trout stream in North Carolina where you can fish at night—make it most inviting. – Jim Casada.
Postscript: Jim Casada’s book, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion covers every major stream in the park in great detail. It devotes a chapter to each stream of note, includes graphs of every drainage indicating waypoints and elevation changes, provides details such as the average monthly rainfall and temperatures, offers access information on each stream, contains an appendix listing local guide services, outfitters, and chambers of commerce, and includes a removable map. The 448-page book is $24.95 in paperback and $37.50 in hardback. It can be ordered on the Web at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.