Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina
On The Fly Freshwater
By Jim Casada
Featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs
Arguably no wild trout stream in the Southeast, and certainly none in the fly fisherman’s haven that is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has garnered greater acclaim than Hazel Creek. That renown is richly merited, for the drainage has a vivid history; was once home to interesting folks such as Granville Calhoun, Jack Coburn, and Horace Kephart; has been chronicled in books such as Harry Middleton’s On the Spine of Time, Jim Gasque’s Hunting and Fishing in the Great Smokies, Dan Pierce’s Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community, and a host of works on fishing in the Smokies; and enjoys the undeniable virtue of seeming to be one of those streams that can take a licking in terms of fishing pressure and keep on kicking.
Gasque, writing of the stream in the aftermath of the logging era when the Hazel Creek Fishing Club controlled much of the fishable water, said “the creek became known as the finest stream in the southeast.” So it continues to this day, a full four score years after it became a public fishery (with the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) rather than exclusive private domain.
At one point, decades ago, I wondered (and worried) that articles appeared in regional and national magazines, and I was among the contributors, might make Hazel Creek a victim of its own angling bounty. Not so. Hazel Creek has remained resilient, probably holds as many trout as ever, is home to some bruiser browns along with the dominant rainbows (numbers wise), and increasingly with each passing year native specks seem to expand downstream a bit from their headwaters refuge.
Hazel Creek is such a large drainage, with the basin which feeds it being one of the largest clearly defined pieces of topography in all the Smokies, and since it lies far from any road, getting away from it all on this storied stream poses few difficulties. All that is required is a willingness to walk. Yet for the ultimate in a solitary angling experience, the fisherman will need to rely on shank’s mare with a will. The best approach is to establish a campsite somewhere along the stream. Day trips are possible, but for the finest Hazel Creek experience you will want multiple days and perhaps even a change of campsites. There are a number of these from one just a few hundred yards from the lake to high up in the headwaters. The site at the juncture of Bone Valley Creek is perhaps the best, most central choice.
From its beginning at the Hazel Creek embayment on Fontana Lake to its juncture with the Welch Ridge Trail at an elevation of well over 4,000 feet some 15 1/2 miles upstream, the Hazel Creek Trail seldom ventures far from the stream. It offers plenty of choice when it comes to backcountry campsites, and in many senses the biggest problem is just getting there. That requires a boat ride or canoe paddle from a launch site on Fontana’s south shore (Cable Cove or the boat dock at Fontana Village, with arrangements for a commercial shuttle being possible from the latter access). It should also be noted that a number of local guides offer Hazel Creek trips. Once there, where you fish depends on your energy level and what type of water your prefer.
Fortunately, the fishing to be enjoyed here offers a pleasant counterpoise to the place names. For a feeder stream, Bone Valley is a good-sized creek, and it is served by a trail for just under two miles. The Bone Valley Trail dead ends at the Crate Hall Cabin, which is sometimes known as the Kress Cabin after a family which maintained a hunting and fishing lodge nearby prior to the creation of the Park. From this point there are still several miles of fish-holding water.
Hazel Creek’s next significant feeder, and again it enters from the left, is Walkers Creek. This stream, some five miles in length, heads up in the shadow of Mount Davis and flows in a north to south direction between Starkey and Locust Ridges. As so often is the case with remote streams, the sensible and easiest approach (although “easy” can be a relative term with such creeks) is to fish up the drainage and, when time, tiredness, or water too small to fish confront you, retrace your footsteps. Thanks to being a long hike from Fontana as well as being trackless, Walkers Creek gets very little fishing pressure.
The final major feeder stream in the Hazel Creek drainage is Proctor Creek. There can be some confusion here, given the fact that the town of Proctor and today’s campsite bearing that name lie far downstream. While somewhat difficult to discern at the point of its juncture with Hazel Creek, thanks to being encompassed by a rhododendron thicket, Proctor Creek is actually a decent-sized stream which carries a bit more water than Walkers Creek. Proctor Creek contains a mixture of rainbows and specks, with the latter being the dominant fish numbers wise.
That leaves the highest reaches of Hazel Creek, the area from the Cascades to the stream’s origins. Appropriately named, this is a spectacular series of drops where the stream plunges precipitously over solid rock ledges defining a narrow gorge. Most of the way upstream from Proctor Creek the trail stays close to Hazel Creek, crossing it time and again in fords that are easily manageable thanks to the stream’s small size. An exception comes at the Cascades, where the trail sidles up the ridge and gives the hiker a spectacular view, especially in the winter, into the gorge embracing the Cascades. The trail comes back to the stream, and crosses it on a foot log, at the head of the Cascades. There is an abandoned campsite in this area, and finally the Hazel Creek Trail leaves the stream and makes its steep final climb to Welch Ridge.
By the time the trail reaches the Cascades elevations exceed 4,000 feet. In the Smokies that altitude, especially when combined with barriers to upstream migration of browns and rainbows such as that offered by the Cascades, translates to mountain trout water. There are several miles of fine native stream here at the creek’s upper end, but as is almost always the case with natives, you will pay the price in terms of sore muscles and tired legs to get to these treasures.
Hazel Creek, over the course of its lengthy drainage, offers something for everyone. Big water in the lower reaches, classic mountain trout water in the middle portions, and tempting small stream fishing in the upper reaches and feeder streams. Generally speaking, attractor dry fly patterns, perhaps with a small nymph trailing as a dropper, are the way to go. It’s really presentation, as opposed to pattern, that matters most.
A pilgrimage to Hazel Creek is one every serious Southeastern trout fisherman owes it to himself to make at least once. Then you can decide whether a return is your angling cup of tea. For my part, I have to reckon that the total of my lifetime trips to this bit of back of beyond approaches a hundred. That speaks volumes about my thoughts on a treasured mountain water.