Captivating Cataloochee Creek

On The Fly Freshwater

Featured photo by Polly Dean

By Jim Casada

July 2020

Tucked away deep within the fastnesses of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), Cataloochee Creek is a place of captivating beauty. When you top the ridge leading down into the hidden valley which embraces the stream and its many trout-filled tributaries, it is to be awestruck with some of the same sense of wonder which must have greeted the first pioneers to move into the area. 

Until the last decade or so, Cataloochee was a largely overlooked gem. Introduction of elk has changed much of that. The good news is that the influx of visitors hasn’t appreciably altered the fishing situation. The enchanting basin which forms the Cataloochee drainage has a rich history. In 1930, according to local historian W. Clark Medford in The Middle History of Haywood County, there were 711 souls living in Cataloochee Township.  Until the decade immediately before the GSMNP’s formation of the Park, Cataloochee had been, in his words, “only remotely connected with the other parts of the country on account of almost impassable roads and tall mountains.”  Its people were lonely, isolated, fiercely independent, and supremely happy. In the words of another historian:  “For one hundred years a lot of folks were born, lived, went to school, to church, and were buried in these two valleys (Big and Little Cataloochee).”

An elk in front of the historic Messer Barn in Cataloochee Valley. Photo by Polly Dean.

Their isolation was in large measure a product of geography. There were no easy entry points, and even today visitors who travel through Cove Creek Gap to reach Cataloochee will realize as much.  Though once in the complex of coves and hollows, which feature a remarkable amount of flat land for the Smokies, it is easy to understand why this isolated, largely self-sufficient area thrived.

The view from Cove Creek Gap at the entrance to Cataloochee Valley. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

You walk in the footsteps of “Boogerman” Palmer, a simple son of the soil yet also a man of great vision. You share the homeland of perhaps the most famous of all the rangers ever to serve the GSMNP, Mark Hannah. You are in the haunts of famed bear hunter (105 lifetime kills) George “Turkey” Palmer. Surviving buildings—homes, schools, churches, barns—offer visual evidence of a rich past in this mountain Eden, a place where North Carolina’s finest apples thrived in vast orchards, a land of plenty where an industrious farmer could live a good life in close harmony with the good earth. Cataloochee then and now had a way of seizing one’s soul. 

To drive past Palmer Chapel or the old school, or to wade Cataloochee and its major feeders–Little Cataloochee Creek, Caldwell Fork, Palmer Creek, Rough Fork, and Pretty Hollow Creek–is to develop a poignant feel for why the coming of the Park tore so deeply into the hearts of the folks who lived here.  In 1928, when Reverend Pat Davis told his Palmer’s Chapel congregation what lay ahead—“You will be scattered all over the United States, and part of you will be here no more”—there was literally wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of all the removal and resettlement on the North Carolina side of the Park, that in Cataloochee Valley was unquestionably the most traumatic.   

As for the fishing, quite simply, it always has been and remains first-rate.  An early indication comes from an account of an 1879 trip to the region described in Wilbur Zeigler and Ben Grosscup’s The Heart of the Alleghanies.  “Our party of sixteen . . . visited the Cataluche river in the early part of June, 1879, (and) put up at Mr. Palmer’s, the first farm house reached after passing the ford.”  The fishing was clearly impressive.  “Soon after our arrival that day two of us, with our rods, started for its banks.  It was just after dusk, and white millers and gnats were fluttering above and dropping into the water.  The stream seemed perfectly alive with trout, coming up in sight with a splatter to secure these dainty morsels.  The hour was propitious, and we improved it.  Without moving from a line of smooth, deep-flowing pools, we secured a mess of forty trout before it became too dark to cast our lines.”

A native “speck,” as the brook trout were known. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Those trout would have been specks.  Today, Cataloochee Creek is populated by a mixture of browns and rainbows, with the former predominating in lower reaches and ‘bows holding sway in the headwaters.  Increasingly specks are also present, not only in tributaries but the main stream. In fact, this is a fine place to catch a “Smoky Mountain Slam” (brown, ‘bow, and brookie).

Colorful rainbows now dominate in the upper part of Cataloochee Creek. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Once you reach Cataloochee Valley stream access to the main creek is fairly simple.  Much of the area is served by a gravel road, and even in the case of the feeders fishermen are helped by one of the most extensive trail systems found anywhere in the Park.  Visiting anglers will find that appreciable portions of the streams here, while freestone creeks, differ markedly in character from those elsewhere in the Park.  The essential variation centers on the fact that much of their flow involves a gradual elevation change through old farm fields.  This results in streams characterized by long runs and riffles as opposed to plunge pools.  Accordingly, accurate casts produce ample opportunity for long, unimpeded drifts for dry flies, while the nearby fields mean that throughout the summer and fall terrestrial patterns deserve special consideration. 

Much of pastoral Big Cataloochee, beginning with the confluence of Palmer and Caldwell creeks, is readily accessible from the road. It should be noted that this is a complex drainage.  Yet the prospective angler should not be overwhelmed by the complexity. Once you study the road system, topo maps, and trail guides, things become much more readily understandable.  The key consideration is that Cataloochee Valley is home to dozens of miles of trout water, and they feature everything from roadside access to remote off-trail feeders.

The author targeting the shoals of Cataloochee Creek. Photo by Polly Dean.

As for how to fish Cataloochee, there isn’t really all that much variation from what you encounter elsewhere in the Park.  Presentation, as opposed to pattern, comes first in order of importance, and because so much of the water moves slowly, delicacy in casts and tippets takes on added importance. Personally I love probing the long, deep pools of the main stream at dawn and dusk, but the rest of the time I prefer the smaller feeder streams, with Palmer and Pretty Hollow creeks in particular being just my cup of angling tea.

Anyone who visits Cataloochee Creek and its major feeders will find themselves, like a moth drawn to a flickering flame, returning time and again.  It is a special place, redolent of history, and at every bend of the creek or peek at the horizon you feel as if somehow time has melted away to pre-Park days.  

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