A Look at Noland Creek

Featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

On The Fly Freshwater

Follow the Road to Nowhere to find this North Carolina jewel!

By Jim Casada

February 2021

In some senses, Noland Creek, one of several streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) emptying into Fontana Lake, offers the angler the best of many worlds. For starters, it is easily accessible. There are three possible approaches to the stream—by boat from the Tuckaseigee River arm of Fontana Lake, hiking into the creek’s upper reaches via the Noland Divide Trail, or by vehicle via the once controversial “Road to Nowhere” out of Bryson City.  The latter option is so much simpler. It is difficult to imagine anyone who has fishing as their primary goal selecting either of the others.

Once in the little town of Bryson City, follow Everett Street across the Tuckaseigee River and continue straight on toward Swain County High School (once you leave town the road is known as Lakeview Drive).  Not far beyond the school you enter the GSMNP.  From the park boundary the road continues for some five miles until you reach Noland Creek.  There is a sizeable parking area on the left immediately before a viaduct crosses Noland Creek.  From here, an angler’s trail under the bridge leads straight down to the stream, or if you plan to work the creek’s lower reaches, there’s also a gated off avenue of asphalt (Park officials use it for vehicular access to the Noland Creek Trail).  The Noland Creek Trail, which is in reality an old gravel road for many miles, then becomes your pathway for piscatorial pursuits.

Queve Woody lost one hand in a sawmill accident, but he was an accomplished fly fisherman who frequented Noland Creek and had a cabin there in pre-park days. This photo and the one appearing later in the story of Mark Cathey are very early color slide photos, circa 1940-41. I. K. Stearns photo, courtesy of the Carl Grueninger family.

While access is obviously easy, it is still possible to get back of beyond on Noland. Doing so involves taking shank’s mare for several miles upstream, but fortunately there are multiple campsites – Mill Creek, Jerry Flats, and Upper Ripshin (what an irresistible place name!) – which will put you beyond the range of most “day tripper” anglers. Also, there’s the option of the Bearpen Branch campsite. It requires an easy hike of just over a mile to reach, and it has a type of appeal you won’t find many places in the park backcountry.  The campsite is far enough away from the main trail to be out of sight and have a special aura of peace, privacy, and solitude.  This offers a welcome contrast to the frequently encountered situations where trails either plunge right through the middle of a campsite or, more commonly, skirt its edge in all too visible a fashion. This is also a fine stream, at least in its lower three or four miles of flow, for the day tripper staying in the Bryson City area.

Noland Creek, named for the first settler in the area, Andrew Noland, is the easternmost of a series of streams which flow in a generally southward direction from the main ridge of the Great Smokies and empty into Fontana Lake.  Thanks to a combination of three factors – ease of access, predictability of flow in terms of never seeming to be overly low and clearing up quickly after heavy rains, and surprisingly little fishing pressure – this medium-sized stream has been one of my personal favorites over the years.  It holds a mixture of rainbows and browns.  Local guides use the lower reaches with some frequency, thanks to accessibility and the ease of walking, but a half hour of hiking, especially on week days, will likely bring you the splendor of solitude.

Wild rainbows are the mainstay of the trout fishery on Noland Creek. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

In my view, the most appealing part of Noland Creek begins above Bearpen Branch and continues on into the Solola Valley area and beyond.  It is in this area you begin to encounter abundant evidence of what was once a thriving little mountain community.  Here the passerby comes upon a pair of massive boxwoods standing immediately to the right of the trail.  Soon thereafter you reach yet another bridge, and from it a pathway leading to the left and back downstream wends its way to the Noland Creek Cemetery.  During springtime, you’ll spot blooming forsythia and daffodils, along with an abundance of native wildflowers. In this section, and in pre-park days, two locals, Queve Woody and I. K. Stearns, both of whom were in the upper echelons of Swain County’s largest employer Carolina Wood Turning Company, had cabins here.  Upstream from the cemetery, which is situated on a ridge west of the creek and overlooking it, you enter Solola Valley proper.  Here old stone walls, quite a bit of relatively flat land, and other vestiges of the pioneer presence remind one that folks once worked hard to wrest a living from this mountain land.  This also happens to be the area where I’ve enjoyed more fishing success than any other section of Noland Creek. 

Mark Cathey (on the right in wet pants) with a visiting angler at a spot just downstream from Solola Valley near the cabin of the photographer. I. K. Stearns photo, courtesy of the Carl Grueninger family

Finally, while touching on matters of history, it might be noted that Noland Creek was likely the destination for legendary angler Mark Cathey’s final fishing trip.  Not long before Uncle Mark’s death, when heart trouble had already put pause to his days astream, my father and his regular fishing buddy, Claude Gossett, met him just before setting off for a trip to Noland Creek.  “Just give me a minute,” Cathey said, “and I’ll go watch you.”  Clearly the warm memories of a lifetime devoted to sport in the Smokies still stirred the old fellow’s spirit.

One noteworthy feature of Noland Creek is the way it retains its size over miles of flow.  Thanks to the fact that its feeder streams are, with only two exceptions, Laurel Branch and Mill Creek, few in number and small in size, Noland Creek seems almost unchanging from one mile to the next as the angler progresses upstream.  This translates to some 9 miles of fishing, from the creek mouth all the way to Bald Creek campsite, where the stream size diminishes far less than might be expected. 

While Noland Creek doesn’t quite match either of its nearest neighbors, Deep Creek and Forney Creek, in terms of size, it has its own special appeal.  Keep in mind that “the fishing’s only part of it” and pay attention to the ample vestiges of the one-time human presence, which included thousands of acres owned by Philip Rust (and he even had a trout hatchery). In the spring you’ll notice flowers—iris, day lilies, forsythia, and others—reminding you that hardy mountain folks once called this place home. It’s somehow comforting to be casting in waters where sporting icons once waded and where staunch sons and daughters of the Smokies lived a simple, satisfying life. The fact that the fishing for wild ‘bows and browns can be top drawer is simply the lace on the bride’s pajamas when it comes to the Noland Creek angling experience.

Photos by Jimmy Jacocbs

When it comes to tactics and techniques, standard mountain fly patterns will pretty much fit the bill at any season. My personal preference in warmer months is to fish a dry fly and dropper combo with the topwater portion of the rig being one of the buoyant old-time local favorites such as Thunderhead, Deerhair, Adams Variant, Elkhair Caddis, or Hairwing Coachman (what area anglers called the pattern now known as the Royal Wulff – they were fishing the fly long before Wulff popularized it and gave the fly his name). A small beadhead nymph (a Prince nymph is my go-to choice) underneath will be light enough for the dry fly to stay on the surface. Noland Creek is fairly open, primarily a stream of pocket water rather than large pools (most of the big pools are in the lowermost reaches close to Fontana Lake), and seldom will you require a cast of more than 30 feet. Although it runs contrary to what is pretty much standard wisdom, I strongly feel that a longer rod of 8 to 9 feet is a better choice here. It will facilitate better roll casts, allow easier mending in turbulent pocket water, and make “reach” casts simpler.

Whether you are looking for a leisurely day’s outing, with a relaxing evening to follow in one of Bryson City’s appealing local breweries or eating establishments, or some quality time well away from the hurly burly of daily life and lots of other human beings, Noland Creek can be your ticket to a full measure of angling pleasure.

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