Great Smoky Mountains National Park
On The Fly Freshwater
By Jim Casada
Featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs.
Every serious angler has a special affinity, a sort of corner of his angling soul, set aside for his “home water.” Usually, though not always, that location is where the fisherman cut his angling teeth; learned the basics of the sport; and found himself a hopeless, hapless, yet endlessly happy captive of a delightful mania. For me that special place is Deep Creek in the heart of the North Carolina portion of the Great Smokies. I was blessed to grow up in the small town of Bryson City, which lay within reasonable walking distance and easy biking distance of the stream. It offered two miles of state water in its lowermost reaches and mile after wonderful mile of trout-filled water from the Park line to its headwaters nestled in the shadow of Clingmans Dome. As a boy and man I’ve waded its waters decade after decade, and they’ve been times of pure delight.
Yet looking back I realize that in many senses it is not only Deep Creek, but its myriad feeder streams, that have held a grip on the very essence of my being. Anglers often refer to such streams, often lying back of beyond and like as not unserved by any maintained trail, as “blue line waters.” They are destinations meriting the attention of every serious angler, and I thought that an overview of what the feeders of one such stream have to offer might serve as a sort of mental compass guiding readers to similar opportunities to be found pretty much anywhere there are sizeable streams holding trout.
While I’ve always claimed Deep Creek as my home stream, in truth its largest feeder, Indian Creek, might be more accurate in that regard. This was where I caught my first limit of trout and where probably 80% of the trout I “reduced to possession” (as it used to be described) in my first four of five adolescent years of flinging of a fly were taken.
Indian Creek is in some ways a storied stream inasmuch as it was, prior to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the place iconic angler Mark Cathey called home. If you do go to this or any of the other streams covered here, make a point of setting aside 15 minutes while in the area to visit his grave in beautiful Bryson City Cemetery. Cathey’s gravesite looks out towards the Deep Creek drainage and if you aren’t moved by the words engraved on his simple stone–“Mark Cathey, beloved hunter and fisherman, was himself caught by the Gospel hook just before the season closed for good”—well I have to reckon, to use the local vernacular, you ain’t got a soul.
Indian Creek is actually quite easy to reach and, unlike many if not most blue line streams in this drainage and elsewhere, served by an access trail. It enters Deep Creek only half a mile’s easy walk from the lower trailhead and it is paralleled by a trail (actually a gravel road that Park vehicles still use occasionally to access cemeteries in the drainage and for other matters) that parallels the stream for several miles. Indian Creek is chock full of rainbows (an impressive waterfall near its mouth means no brown trout have made their way upstream). It is tight fishing, with overarching rhododendrons posing huge problems in places, but in the middle reaches there are stretches that are quite open for those who are masters of tight quarters, dappling, bow-and-arrow casts, and short roll casts. Incidentally, such tactics are pretty much standard on blue-line waters.
As is true for the rest of the streams covered here, Bridge Creek is best considered as an overnight backcountry camping venue. It enters Deep Creek from the west a short way above the Bumgarner Bend, the better part of three miles from the lower trail head, and my educated guess would be that it doesn’t see five fishermen a year. Indeed, most Deep Creek anglers, except for the occasional local, likely don’t know it exists. Its confluence with the main stream is barely noticeable and since the Deep Creek Trail is on the opposite site of the main creek, it’s practically invisible. It holds rainbows and browns and is of fishable size for perhaps a mile and a half.
POLE ROAD CREEK
Entering Deep Creek from the west, Pole Road Creek is best accessed from the designated campsite located at its mouth (Campsite #55) or the not too distant and storied designated campsite at the Bryson Place (#57). It is roughly equidistant from the lower and upper trailheads (the latter located alongside Highway 441 1.8 miles from Newfound Gap), but using the lower trailhead to take shank’s mare for camping purposes is easier and a bit shorter. The stream, which sees minimal pressure, holds rainbows and browns and is accessible from the Pole Road Creek Trail which climbs from Deep Creek towards the Noland Divide Trail.
Just under a half mile above the confluence of Pole Road Creek, Deep Creek divides into its Left and Right Forks with the trail following the latter. That means that the Left Fork, throughout its entire reach, has no trail serving it. You can fish its lower portions by accessing Left Fork from where the forks divide, although you’ll need a topo map and close attention to detail because its juncture is virtually unnoticeable. A better approach, and one that gives places you amidst the best Left Fork has to offer, is to hike from Poke Patch backcountry campsite (#54) up to the Fork Ridge Trail and then bushwhack down to the Left Fork. The stream becomes your trail at day’s end and you’ll need to pay close attention to where you enter the stream (carrying a GPS unit might be advisable, as I can attest by trying to climb back out at day’s end from a spot different than where I began—I came away with a thorough understanding of the term “rhododendron hell”) so as to avoid problems. In one sense Left Fork is a true gem. That’s because, unlike most remote, higher elevation streams, it is wide open. The occasional torrential downpour on the main ridgeline in the Climgmans Dome area translates to scouring of the banks and plenty of elbow room for casting. The stream holds ‘bows, browns, and brookies in abundance. As a sort of side note, as a teenager I spent 10 days camped on the Left Fork (not strictly legal but my buddy was a son of the Park ranger responsible for that area). It was piscatorial paradise.
RIGHT FORK AND ITS FEEDERS
The Deep Creek Trail follows the Right Fork, usually being right at streamside, until well above the last designated campsite at Poke Patch. Along the way it crosses trout-holding streams including Cherry, Nettle, and Beetree creeks. All are off trail, tight, virtually unfished, and all full of trout. The trail continues fairly close to the stream for some way above Polk Patch before turning away northeastwards as it head up the ridge towards Highway 441. Right Fork itself is your means of access to the two uppermost opportunities to get back of beyond, Sahlee Creek and Rocky Fork. Right Fork, as well as all its feeder streams, is home to rainbows and natives, and in spawning season larger browns make their way into surprisingly small water.
The real message from the above material is that there are dozens of miles of remote water, much of it virtually unfished, along this one storied drainage. It’s tough going, requires a good deal of perseverance and in some instances a great deal of fitness, but wonderful rewards come in forms such as delicious tiredness alongside a twilight campfire where you enjoy a filling meal before climbing into a sleeping bag, days filled with dozens or even scores of trout, ample opportunities for a Smoky Mountain Slam (catching rainbows, browns, and natives in a single day), and in some cases wading where only a few intrepid souls venture in any given year. Add to that realization that you are walking and wading in the footsteps of sporting giants (Mark Cathey or the author of the quaint and delightful book, Twenty Years Hunting & Fishing in the Great Smokies, Sam Hunnicutt) and you have a true blue line bonanza.
To order Jim Casada’s award-winning Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion or Sam Hunnicutt’s Twenty Years Hunting & Fishing in the Great Smokies (with a lengthy new Introduction by Casada), visit his website at http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.