North Carolina has more than 4,000 miles of streams holding wild, native trout waiting to sample your fly collection.
For most residents of North Carolina, the summer’s heat and humidity are givens. Fishing one of the state’s trout steams designed as “wild trout” is a great way to make an end run around the elements.
Jake Rash, a biologist at the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission’s hatchery at Marion, said that of the 5,300 miles of public trout waters within the state’s boundaries, around 4,300 are designated as wild-trout waters. For the most part, these streams are in high country, cooler than places most of us live.
Squeak Smith of Morganton, a veteran trout fisherman, said the best fishing for wild brown, rainbow and brook trout is in streams requiring some pushing through underbrush.
“Part of the attraction of the wild trout streams is the pristine landscape: solitude, clean water. You can find that in our mountains.”
Steve Banakas, a wild-trout devotee from Hayesville, agreed.
“When I’m getting people interested in wild trout, I emphasize if you go in a mile you’ve passed water where 80 to 90 percent of fishermen fish. Two miles, perhaps 95 percent. The further in, the less pressure has been placed on the fish.”
Short rods are right at home in these waters
Most wild-trout streams are narrow and arched over by mountain laurel. Shorter rods work well here. The overhanging canopy argues against a rod that is 8 1/2 feet or longer. Bob Martin of Fort Mill, S.C., is in the short rod camp.
“Many (fishermen) believe a 9-foot or longer rod gives them the edge to dap their fly without casting,” he said. “I am in the short-rod camp. I fish a 1960s-era Orvis Flea. And I can load that short bamboo with very little line. The soft, slow cast lands my fly quietly. A bamboo fly rod roll cast is second to none. A longer rod requires more line to load a back cast. And that room is not present on the rhododendron-lined banks of western North Carolina.”
Banakas and Smith are in the long-rod crowd.
“Lots of the trout I catch are within the length of my fly rod,” Smith said. “I use a longer rod and put my fly in the precise place I want it.”
“I take a 9-foot, 5-weight rod with weight-forward, floating line and a 9-foot leader. The rod length provides some extra stealth but mainly helps get drag off the fly,” Banakas said.
In small, clear streams, trout have to be wary. Otters, osprey, other predators, including fishermen, are a constant threat.
Trout are wary of unnatural colors and movement above the surface
“It is essential to be mindful of your attire. Camouflage is best from top to bottom,” Banakas said. “Moving slowly is part of blending in. I also fish upstream all the way or up and across. Fish are generally looking upstream. If you choose to fish downstream, you will be alerting fish to your presence.”
“You spook a fish, you’re done,” Smith said, “so presentation is really important. If you do not spook fish in spots where there’s not much fishing pressure, you can catch a fish or two in every pool. But spook one, and you’re done.”
Trout in smaller streams haunt the same sorts of spots they do in larger water.
“Where they live in small streams is pretty much an instinctive thing. And the same general rules apply, like darker, deeper, broken bottom,” Banakas said.
Lots of people bypass good water, Smith said.
“They wade right through the pocket water, the places between the pools. When I look at the water, I look at the habitat within 20 feet. There are ‘X’ number of holding or feeding spots. Put your fly in each one. This is not brain surgery, yet most people pass that water by.”
Trophy-sized trout are few and far between here
Most of the trout in the wild trout streams are small. Smith said.
“Fishing wild-trout streams, there are not a lot of big fish, but you might catch a few,” he said. “It’s much more likely you’d catch 100, with most of them 4 or 5 inches.”
Banakas, who has caught fish in excess of 17 inches from wild-trout waters agrees. “But the fish are noticeably prettier. They are also smaller, faster and smarter. And they are more easily spooked.”
North Carolina is one of the spots that harbors the Appalachian strain of brook trout, a distinct subspecies. About 200 miles of wild trout streams support these brookies. Most are located at extremely high elevations where rainbows and browns are rarely found.
“These brook trout are an important biological component of our fishing heritage,” Rash said.
Banakas said targeting wild trout is the last step in the evolution of a fly fisherman.
“First, all you want to do is catch a fish,” he said. “Then, you want to catch big fish. Finally, if you’re very fortunate, you want to go after wild fish. And somewhere near the end of the list, you realize it’s not about the fish.”
Plus, for those of us who live in the Carolinas, in the summertime, it’s cooler in the mountains.
HOW TO GET THERE — Try these wild-trout streams in western North Carolina:
• Slickrock Creek in the Slickrock Wilderness in Graham County. Either hike in or boat across Calderwood Lake. Slickrock Creek forms the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The best fishing is a two mile hike from Forest Service Road No. 41 which is at the end of Forest Service Road No. 82, also known as Slickrock Creek Road off NC 129 out of Robinsville.
-Tanasee Creek, roughly the two or three miles upstream from the Tanasee Creek Bridge on SR 1762 in Jackson County.
-Whitewater River from NC 107 to the South Carolina border, south of Cashiers in Jackson County.
-Caldwell Fork, a tributary of the Oconoluftee River, with access at the Collins Creek Picnic Area in Great Smoky National Park in Haywood County.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Martin Bawden, Flymen Fishing Company, Brevard, 704-846-2634; Will Lillard, Fly Fishing Expeditions, Pisgah Forest, 828-577-8204; Brookings, Cashiers, 828-743-3768, www.Brookingsonline.com; Hookers Fly Shop and Guide Service, Sylva, 828-587-4665, www.hookersflyshop.com.
MAPS — DeLorme’s North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-561-5105, www.delorme.com; N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, www.ncwildlife.org/Fishing/WheretoFish/PublicMountainTroutWatersSearch.aspx.