A Stream of Mystery and Magic
On the Fly Freshwater
By Jim Casada
Photos by Jimmy Jacobs
With the possible exception of the Jackson County headwaters of the Tuckaseigee River in the Panthertown Valley area, I know of no stream in the entire Southern Appalachians blessed with anything approaching the mystique of storied Abrams Creek in the Tennessee portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). For a significant portion of its drainage this sizeable creek (one of the biggest if not the biggest in the entire GSMNP in terms of flow volume) the stream virtually disappears. That occurs in history-rich Cades Cove, where sub-surface limestone formations, highly unusual in this region, in effect soak of the waters like a vast underground sponge. As a result, when Abrams Creek re-emerges as it leaves the verdant, fertile bottomland which once was the jewel of Smokies agricultural land, the water has been amply enriched with life-giving nutrients. That translates to extremely slick rocks perilous for fishermen, a consideration offset in spades thanks to fertility producing an abundance of insect life and, in turn, fat, healthy trout.
Then there’s the fabled “Horseshoe” where Abrams Creek affords some of its finest fishing as well as an “invitation” to “fish on” which has drawn many a mistaken RSVP from unwary fishermen who belatedly find themselves far from the nearest trail. Add to that the complete disappearance of what once was the home for the largest brown trout in the GSMNP (you can thank the reintroduction of otters for that situation, never mind what the official verbiage from Sugarlands might say), miles of the stream’s lower reaches where there are no maintained access trails, and the only truly viable smallmouth fishery within the Park’s boundaries—the result is a creek which is beckoning, bewitching, and more than a little bit bedeviling. Getting to the stream’s finest offerings isn’t all that easy, but for those who savor solitude, the remoteness is a wonderful blessing.
Abrams Creek offers the only viable smallmouth bass fishery in the National Park.
All of the maintained trails lie in the middle portion of the stream’s flow, and in a situation that reverses the normal state of affairs in the Park where the lower reaches of streams are well served by trails, such is not the case with Abrams Creek. The final dozen miles or so of Abrams Creek, from Little Bottoms downstream, get little fishing pressure for the simple reason they are inaccessible. There are fishermen’s trails downstream from Little Bottoms for a way, and long-abandoned trails in the stream’s lower reaches. Essentially though on all of lower Abrams Creek you are off trail.
The vast majority of those who fish its waters are “day trippers” who hike in, fish, and hike out. Since there are no trails, much less designated backcountry campsites, on the lower part of the stream it gets almost no pressure. Even the one-time bushwhacking access from Parsons Branch Road is currently out of the question since that one-way avenue of gravel has been closed for several years. While an initial glance at the GSMNP trail map might suggest lots of primitive camping options, most of the sites listed are not viable for those for whom angling is their primary interest. The most notable exceptions are Cooper Road (#1) and Little Bottoms (#17) backcountry campsites. Both are conveniently located along the Little Bottoms Trail downstream from Abrams Creek Falls.
Abrams Creek Campground on the lower stretch of the stream.
There are also three drive-to campgrounds in the area—Abrams Creek, Look Rock, and Cades Cove. Basically though, my recommendation is that you focus on day tripping, keeping in mind that the GSMNP has begun setting aside certain days where there’s limited or no vehicular access to Cades Cove, which is likely to be your starting point. For day trips, staying in the convenient nearby town of Townsend, and maybe paying a visit to Little River Outfitters while there, is the best bet.
Along with Deep Creek and Hazel Creek, Abrams Creek was among the first Park streams to be stocked with rainbows. This dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In mountain parlance they “took holt” and are the species you’ll catch in the relatively accessible middle reaches, with the slower flowing, warmer waters seeing the bows give way to smallmouth bass.
Abrams Creek really needs to be viewed as a stream with three faces—the lower several miles of stream, where it is a large, comparatively slow moving stream with lots of deep pools and calm water; the section above and below Abrams Creek Falls; and the headwaters above Cades Cove, which locals usually refer to as Anthony Creek.
The key portion of Abrams Creek is the Falls region, a section of stream served by the Little Bottoms, Abrams Creek, and Hatcher Mountain trails. All of the uppermost section of Abrams Creek below Cades Cove) is reached by the Abrams Falls Trail. Most of the way, with the notable exception of The Horseshoe, the trail clings closely to the creek.
The fisherman can leave the trail and enter the creek most anywhere along the way. At the two-mile point a short side trail leads to the spectacular vista of Abrams Falls. The next two miles are much rougher than those above the Falls, and, thanks to being at a greater distance from the nearest trailheads, this section of Abrams Creek gets less fishing pressure. Indeed, in my personal opinion, this portion of the stream, from the falls down to the end of Abrams Creek Trail where it meets the Hannah Mountain and Hatcher Mountain trails, is the most appealing part of all the creek’s central reaches.
Abrams Creek Falls.
More than once I have heard The Horseshoe described as the toughest section of stream in the Smokies. In truth though, it doesn’t even come close to the ruggedness you will find in places like the Cascades area of Forney Creek, The Gorges on Raven Fork, or the upper reaches of Roaring Fork. Still, it is an intriguing section of stream which can be intimidating. It’s not a section of stream to be taken lightly and is probably best fished with a companion. But with reasonable water levels in the summertime it’s a joy, and come the typical low flows of autumn it is a pure delight. Local anglers seem to talk more about the “‘Shoe” than any area of Abrams Creek, with the possible exception of the big pool at the foot of Abrams Creek Falls, but it is only one stretch out of several miles of top-quality trout water in a stream which, thanks to exceptional fertility, can support far more and bigger fish than other waters.
There are impressive hatches of caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies. The caddis hatches are particularly impressive in late April, May, and early June, but you’ll get tricos emerging over several months. In the summer, dusk invariably brings impressive numbers of little yellow stoneflies, white millers, and other insects swirling through the gloaming. You’ll need to give more thought than is normal with the GSMNP to hatch matching but overall presentation holds pride of place over pattern.
Sprawling, remote in no small measure, and delightfully different, Abrams Creek is a complex drainage, and it should be noted that a bunch of its feeder streams also offer appealing angling. It definitely is a destination which every ardent trout taker in the South needs to explore, and what is offered here merely touches the essence of a Smokies jewel. If you want far fuller details, and if the erstwhile editor of this publication allows this shameless bit of promotion to pass, one of the longest chapters in my book, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion, deals with Abrams Creek.