Variety on Santeetlah

Easy Access and Lots of Trout Options

On The Fly Freshwater

April 2022

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

Actually, it’s not hard to find good trout fishing in western North Carolina. That part of the Old North State is loaded with possibilities for tangling with those cold-water fish. For that reason, it’s pretty hard for a stream to standout in the crowd. Still, Santeetlah Creek manages to do just that.

Santeetlah rises in the western edge of Graham County, with Haw Knob to its west and Hooper Bald on the east. Its valley lies to the north of the Cherohala Skyway, with that thoroughfare separating it and Big Snowbird Creek, its better-known neighbor to the south. The vast majority of Santeelah’s course is through the state-managed Nantahala Game Lands within the national forest of the same name. Through here the stream is small to medium size, but open enough for easy fly casting.

One of the creek’s ubiquitous rainbows.

What particularly sets Santeetlah apart is the variety of angling it can provide. Headlining  that fishing is the stream’s reputation for yielding wild brown trout, even far up toward the headwaters. That part of the creek also is home to lots of smaller wild rainbows.

Additionally, there are 7 miles of  water on Santeetlah that receive regular stockings under Hatchery Support regulations. These releases take place from March to July annually. That stretch begins at the junction with Johns Branch, continuing downstream to the mouth of creek on Santeetlah Reservoir.

Along its entire length, Santeetlah is only a small- to medium-sized stream.

The releases are composed of 600 rainbows and brookies each, along with half that number of browns up thorough May, then decline to 320 rainbows and brookies and 160 browns in June and July. That’s a total of 6,000 fish, or more than 850 per mile of water. This part of the creek also has some larger holdover trout from earlier stockings, plus wild trout also show up here.

However, if the wild fish are what interests you, you have the better option of moving upstream of Johns Branch where the stream is managed up Wild Trout rules. Feeder streams along Santeetlah that are under those regulations also offer wild fish opportunities, begin with Wright Creek and continuing upstream through, Indian and Sand creeks, as well as Whigg Branch. Here you encounter mostly smaller wild rainbows, but Indian Creek, in particular, also gives up wild brook trout.

It is worth noting that for a number of years the Wild section ran all the way down to the mouth of Wright Creek. That meant the stocked water was less than half as long as its present incarnation. At least from the standpoint of summertime dry-fly fishermen the change has been good news. Santeetlah’s wild fish through this section were notorious for getting lockjaw at that time of year, and especially so with regard to coming to the surface. The addition of more fish in June and July has improved that situation.

The addition of summer stockers has improved the dry-fly fishing at that time of year.

On The Fly South’s most recent outing to Santeetlah indicated the truth of that conclusion. We were wet wading in the summer and caught a mixture of all three species of trout on topwater flies. The usual Southern Appalachian mixture of Adams Parachutes, Royal Wulffs and Trudes, along with Thunderheads, turned the trick on those fish. A couple of them were the wild browns for which the stream is famed.

One of the creek’s wild browns.

On an earlier weekend on Santeetlah in the wild stream section, our party of three caught and released a combined 92 trout. The break down there was 72 rainbows and 20 browns, which is a pretty high ratio of brown trout on such a small stream.

Access to Santeetlah Creek is good via  Forest Service Road 81, beginning at the intersection with Santeetlah Road.  From that point the forest road parallels the creek to its junction with Johns Branch. From that intersection, FS 81C forks to the south following a now quite small Santeetlah Creek to its junction with Whigg Branch.

Camping is allowed at a number of primitive sites along the creek. Of particular note it the area around the Stewart Cabin. This late 1800s structure was originally part of a larger cabin that stood 1/2 mile downstream. When that site was destroyed in a flood, the smaller building was moved to its present location. The cabin gets its name from the family that owned the surrounding land prior to it becoming part of the national forest.

The Stewart Cabin on Santeetlah Creek.

Just before the creek empties into Santeetlah Lake, the flow passes through Rattler Ford, a national forest group camp. This location offers four sites, each of which can accommodate up to 25 campers. It has drinking water, flush toilets and showers.  Just downstream is another national forest campground at Horse Cove, but unfortunately, it is closed indefinitely due to problems with its water system.

Santeetlah Creek has plenty of variety to offer fly casters targeting the dependability of stocked fish, or the challenge of wild trout. Just take your pick.

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