Close Combat Fishing For Wild Trout

An Alabama coastal fly caster does battle with summertime small-stream trout in the highlands of North Carolina.

Featured photo by Ed Mashburn.

On The Fly Freshwater

January 2023

By Ed Mashburn

Perhaps I should be looking around me at the soaring mountains with early morning mist flowing down toward the valleys. Perhaps I should be listening and trying to identify the myriad of bird calls I hear all around me. Perhaps I should be doing these things, but I’m not.

Although the world around me is worthy of consideration and long thought, my total attention is focused on the bouncing dry fly, which is drifting with my dropper wet fly below it along a deep, dark channel near a massive boulder.

And when the dry fly, with its tuft of easily seen white hair, reaches the end of the boulder, I see what I’m looking for. The signal is given, and I respond. The drifting dry fly stops and jerks just a tiny bit, so I lift my hand in response, and I feel a solid take on the deep dropper.

There’s a flash and then there’s a good, hard pull as this fish displays its desire to remain safe in its deep, dark home and not to come up to the bright world above.  It takes me a while, but I manage to keep the line tight and the fish hooked up, and when Matt Rinehardt, the guide who has educated me so well this morning, slides the net under the almost 2-pound stream-born  rainbow, it’s more than I can do to keep from smiling really big and shaking Matt’s wet hand.

Where To Go

Jackson County. North Carolina is a grand place for a fly angler to be. The Tuckasegee River, a prime trout fishing destination in itself, is the largest water feature of the county, but there are countless smaller flows which feed into the Tuckasegee. It was on one of these smaller flows that I concentrated my attention.

Although it is quite possible for a visiting fly angler to look at blue lines on a topo map and find good small water fishing, for a first-time visitor such as I was, working with one of the very good and helpful local fly shops is the way to go.

Even though all I caught on this trip were gorgeous, wild-born rainbow trout, there are browns and brookies in most of the blue-squiggle waters of the Jackson County region. I had the good folks at Tuckaseegee Fly Shop, which has stores in Bryson City, Waynesville, and the one I used in Sylva, to hook me up with a first-rate guide – Matt Rinehardt.

How It’s Done

Although these small stream Smoky Mountain trout will respond to dry flies – I did catch one smaller, but gorgeous wild stream-born and bred rainbow on the dry fly – the great majority of the fish came on the dropper.  A Pale Morning Dun or PMD Emerger stonefly that had a solid tail of fiber to provide a good holding point for the slingshot casting this kind of creek fishing demands was the ticket.

The thick streamside brush and overhanging tree limbs make traditional casting almost impossible.  This close-combat style of fishing requires an angler to perfect – or at least, in my case- improve the short distance slingshot cast. 

Once the cast is made and the flies reach the water, I found that these wild trout were much faster in their strikes than anything I am used to. At first, I was a beat or two behind the music, when the trout would take the wet fly. I was forced to anticipate strikes and when they came, to immediately do a straight up, lift set to get the hook to catch. Any other kind of hook set was useless.

Guide Matt Reinhardt showing how it is done.

My 9-foot, 4-weight graphite rod worked fine for this sort of close-in fishing, but my 8-foot, 3-weight was a joy to use when pulling the fly back by hand to release it to slingshot the flies out to the water. This technique- whether you call it “slingshot” or “bow-and-arrow” takes some time to gain any kind of competency, but on these brushy mountain streams, it is quite often the only way to get a fly on the water.

Even though I had my waders with me, the water in the creek was just perfect for a little wet wading, and I have to admit, feeling that cool, moving water felt very, nice to my legs and feet.

When You Are There

There are many good places for a visiting fly angler to stay in the area, but I found the Best Western Motel in Dillsboro to be quite nice.  This new and well-maintained lodging sits smack on the banks of the Tuckasegee River, and an angler can walk out the back door and be fishing in ten steps. After a good day of fishing, it is very pleasant to sit on the balcony with a cool libation and watch the river-world go by as the sun sets over the mountains.

And just in case you’re wondering, I am making plans for another trip to the Smokies for some more small stream fishing.

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