The delights (and difficulties) of remoteness
On The Fly Freshwater
By Jim Casada
The stream’s name alone conjures up images of floating one’s hat or spending far too much time topsy-turvy, but in that regard I don’t find Slickrock Creek any more demanding when it comes to solid footing than countless other streams in Southern Appalachia. If you want truly slippery situations spend a day on Abrams Creek in the Smokies or try the footing on exposed rocks in the lower Nantahala tailwater shortly after the upstream outlet has closed. Then you’ll encounter situations as slick as a greased otter’s nether regions.
That should not suggest, however, that Slickrock doesn’t present difficulties to the peripatetic angler. Look at any trail or hiking guide to the region (Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area on the North Carolina/Tennessee border) and you will encounter words such as remote, difficult, strenuous, demanding, or arduous. They are directed towards hikers but apply equally to trout fishermen, because the only way to get to Slickrock is by shank’s mare and, as a good buddy of mine who is an exceptionally skilled angler, Marty Maxwell, puts matters: “It ain’t easy.” He should know because he’s fished the stream times without number and has spent his life as a resident of the nearest town, Robbinsville.
The difficulties posed by remoteness and rugged terrain actually are a gleaming facet of Slickrock’s appeal. Another is the fact that it is a rarity inasmuch as over much of the drainage it is strictly wild browns water. There may be the occasional rainbow that has migrated into the lower reaches from the frigid waters of Calderwood Lake (the next impoundment downstream from Fontana Lake on the Little Tennessee River drainage), but they won’t get further than the first falls on the stream. Likewise, I’ve heard the occasional mention of specks in the uppermost reaches. That may be the case, but if so they lie beyond the portions of Slickrock I have personally fished or have discussed with locals who know its waters intimately. One thing is certain—the heart of its flow is exclusively streambred brown trout, the descendants of fingerlings carried in by specially designed backpacks during the Depression.
That translates to all the challenges unique to brown trout. Namely, being finicky feeders, more difficult to catch that their rainbow and speckled trout cousins, tendency to prefer spots that are difficult to reach with a cast or else tough to get a drag-free drift, and what might almost be described as downright orneriness, and a picture begins to emerge of what Slickrock Creek is like. It can be decidedly hit-or-miss in terms of action, with my personal experience suggesting that you are most likely to have success at dawn and dusk or else on a grey, overcast day with misting rain. The latter translates to the whims of weather while the former pretty much demands, because of the time and energy involved in getting from the nearest trailheads to and from the stream, overnight camping. Overall, a two- or three-night backcountry stay is the best way to go.
Whether you take that option or decide to hike in and out in one day, there are two primary access points. One offers access to the stream’s lower reaches while the second places you a considerable distance upstream in Slickrock’s middle section. For access to the mouth of the stream, take Highway 129 out of Robbinsville, NC towards what is locally known as the portion of that twisting, tortuous road motor bikers call the Dragon’s Tail. The trailhead is located where 129 crosses Calderwood Lake immediately below Cheoah Dam. The Trail, sometimes known as Ike’s Branch Trail as well as Slickrock Creek Trail since the two intersect, follows the lake for a couple of miles before reaching the mouth of the stream. From there, you follow the stream.
Your other alternative, and it has been my personal preference, is the Big Fat Gap Trail (Forest Service Trail 41) which begins at the end of the graveled Forest Service Road leading to Big Fat Gap (off of Highway 129). From there you have an appreciable hike to the stream, with the trail emerging quite close to what is arguably the most spectacular pool on the entire stream, the one at the base of Wildcat Falls. From this point you can fish upstream or hike back down the Slickrock Trail for a piece before beginning to fish. All is well until you reach the point at day’s end or trip’s end where it is time to climb back out to Big Fat Gap. Rest assured you’ll burn up some surplus fat and not be quite as big when you do so. Before leaving the matter of access, all of this may seem a bit complex, and for those who have never been to Slickrock Creek, it is. I recommend you get a good trail guide for the area and study it, and perhaps relevant USGS maps as well, in connection with your pre-trip preparations.
Once on Slickrock, it can be, to borrow from the timeless words of noted English author Charles Dickens, “the best of worlds” or “the worst of worlds.” Brown trout are notoriously fickle, and you may only catch a few or you might hit one of those magical times when there is a heavy hatch (Slickrock is not nearly as acidic as most streams in the region and therefore has better diversity of insect life). Standard southern high country dry fly patterns—Elkhair Caddis, various Wulffs, Male Adams, Adams Variant, Deerhair, and the like, with a small beadhead dropper—will serve you well. Once you land your first brown, you’ll see and savor a special part of the Slickrock experience. The fish are strikingly beautiful, the loveliest browns I’ve seen anywhere in a life of fishing across this country and on other continents. All these considerations combine to make Slickrock a bucket list experience for the fit, energetic, and curious angler.