Trout in the Clouds

Several branches of Santeetlah Creek hold fine trout, such as this brookie.

The crystal clear waters of Santeetlah Creek produce colorful, scrappy brook trout.

The Friday before Easter last year was an incredible day for outdoor activities, especially trout fishing at the creeks draining the high mountains of extreme western North Carolina.

At Robbinsville, while waiting for guide Gene Shuler to arrive, the air was a warm 81 degrees but not too uncomfortable because of the low humidity.

Shuler arrived a little after 2 p.m., and we headed northwest out of town. Soon after turning off U. S. 129 onto N. C. 143, we followed the curvy west shore of Santeetlah Lake before crossing over Big Snowbird and West Buffalo creeks en route to Santeetlah Creek.

As we ascended the mountain in Shuler’s roomy Hummer, the air was as clear as gin, almost as invigorating, and the humidity was almost too low to measure.At the bench on the mountain called Santeetlah Gap, we left the Cherohala Parkway and immediately started a steep descent down a section of the blacktop road that led to lower Santeetlah Creek and the Joyce Kilmer National Forest campground.

Looking into cloudless, blue sky, we could see the top of the mountain in the distance. Black-topped N. C. 143 appeared to be a tiny, winding blacksnake trying to reach the crest where North Carolina and Tennessee join.

One of the prominent landmarks, Stratton Bald, located near the state boundary, has an elevation of 5,345 feet.

When crossing Santeetlah Creek, which flows under the roadway through a very large culvert, we could see two fly fishermen working fast-flowing rocky pools of crystal-clear water, a picturesque scene.

We checked out a small tributary stream that flows through the Joyce Kilmer campground, but Shuler quickly decided it was too small to harbor decent-sized trout, and casting was difficult since it was overgrown with thick stands of rhododendron bushes.

As we returned to S. R. 1134, which connects with U.S. 129 six miles down the road, Shuler got a better look at lower Santeetlah Creek and beamed.

“This is a great-looking trout stream,” he said. “It’s been almost 30 years since my father brought me here to fish, and I regret that I haven’t been back until today.”

I had checked out the stream after having an early lunch at a barbecue restaurant in Robbinsville, so I knew what to expect and where he could park.

“Pull into this turn out just ahead, where you see two picnic tables,” I said. “We can park there and find out if there are any hungry trout in the nearby pools.”

Many huge rocks obstructed the flow of the swift stream, and the current had cut out a dozen or more runs and pools in the short section of the creek Shuler planned to fish near the picnic site.

“For a stream to be a good, consistent producer of trout, it needs three things: good aerated cold water, places for the trout to hide and places for them to feed,” Shuler said. “This stream appears to satisfy their basic needs.”

The several branches of Santeetlah Creek drain some of the highest mountains in the far western part of the state, and spring-fed waters are quite cold even during mid-summer’s scorching daytime temperatures.

As Shuler was getting his fly fishing gear together, I thought about what Powell Wheeler, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s District 9 fishery biologist, had said a few months earlier about this creek.

“It’s 7 miles from John’s Creek to the lake,” Wheeler said.

And quite an uphill hike.

Going upstream, John’s Creek is the third major tributary after N. C. 81 joins the creek, and gravel-topped N. C. 81 follows much of it closely on its way to the top of the mountain.

“This is a hatchery-supported stream, and we stock it with a total of 5,400 trout annually,” Wheeler. “It’s stocked at least once a month from March through July, but we stock about twice as heavily in March and April, compared to the other three months. Our typical stocking ratio is 40 percent brook trout, 40 percent rainbow trout, and 20 percent brown trout.

“Because it’s a hatchery-supported stream, there are no lure restrictions or minimum size limit. Seven trout per day may be harvested. It’s open for fishing from the first Saturday in April to the last day in February.

“Recently stocked waters are updated weekly and they can be found on our web site,”

Shuler removed a three-weight fly rod and a single-action reel containing three-weight, double-tapered fly line from his Hummer.

“Some anglers like to use a small piece of floatable plastic as a strike indicator, but I prefer to use a fluffy dry fly as a strike indicator,” he said after securely mounting the reel in the rod seat and running the leader through all of the guides. “This way I’m offering two flies, rather than one, for the trout to strike.”

He tied a size-10 Adams Variant directly to the 9-foot leader about 4-feet from the end. To the end of the tippet, he tied on a size-8 Olive Wooly Bugger, which would serve as his primary lure.

The distance of the creek from the end of the lowest pool to the farthest upstream waterfalls was no more than 100 feet, but it contained some of the most attractive trout water either of us had seen in a while.

Most of the pools appeared to be deep enough to provide the cover and feeding areas trout required. All were all swift-flowing and crystal clear.

A towering rock wall rose abruptly from the stream bed on the far side of the creek, providing some 30 feet of shaded water during the later afternoon hours. Tall sycamores at our side of the stream helped keep the water temperatures from rising so high during the heat of the day.

At the glistening surface of a long pool at the base of a huge rock wall, I noticed a tiny, tan-colored insect emerge from the water just before a fish attempted to nab it.

There were no trees growing in the creek bed or tree limbs protruding out from either bank, so it was an ideal spot to accommodate long back casts, but only casts of a moderate distance were needed to reach the heads of the pools.

Like most experienced fly fishers, Shuler likes to keep as low a profile as possible and fishes upstream to reduce the likelihood of spooking trout lurking in the waters.

A severe back problem now prevents me from wading in swift mountain streams, so I didn’t join Shuler as he started stepping over and around rocks that obstructed his path to the main creek bed.

I sat down on a large rock at the edge of the stream and prepared my camera and its telephoto zoom lens for action.

He was wearing chest-high waders and felt-soled wading shoes to provide better traction in navigating the slippery bottom and algae-coated rocks.

Bending low behind a large rock downstream from the last pool, Shuler cast his dual fly arrangement upstream to the head of a long pool and watched the wet fly sink beneath the surface in mid-stream.

He took in some slack fly line and twitched the leader. Instantly, a fish took the wet fly and rushed upstream after Shuler set the hook.

The fish fought bravely for a few minutes before it tired. He soon netted the colorful, 10-inch brook trout and displayed it in the net for me to see.

After letting the pool rest for a few minutes, Shuler left the rifle area and waded cautiously upstream a few feet.

His next target was the lower end of the pool shadowed by the huge rock wall. No trout were rising, but it definitely was a trouty-looking spot.

Shuler whipped the fly line back and forth a few times to dry the two flies and to put out enough line to reach the rock at the edge of the water.

The swift current carried the two flies rapidly downstream for several feet before the dry fly, the strike indicator, dipped below the surface.

The instant the floater disappeared, he set the hook into the jaw of a slightly larger trout.

Shuler saw the second trout clearly as he attempted to net it, but when he reached forward with the landing net, the brookie became frightened, splashed hard on the surface and threw the tiny hook before swimming away.

He looked a little sad when he turned around at me standing on the rocky shore with my camera in firing position.

“Don’t worry about losing one trout,” I said. “Nobody lands every trout they hook; besides, I suspect this stream is loaded with trout.”

We soon found out I had guessed correctly because he had several more hard strikes in the relatively short section of the creek yet to be fished.

Bending low as he walked on the gravelly bottom, Shuler eased his way upstream a few feet and cast toward a watery recess in the rock wall. It appeared to be a small cave with water running back into it.

The instant the Wooly Bugger hit the water, a trout grabbed it and started fighting its way downstream. Fortunately, I had prefocused the camera on my guide, so when the fish splashed on the surface, I was able to capture the action.

Seconds later, the trout broke water again as it continued its race downstream, but by then it was beginning to tire and Shuler was able to lead the fish into the landing net. He beamed as he held up a brightly colored 14-inch brook trout for me to see and photograph.

The last remaining pool in this section of the creek was about 15-feet long and began at the foot of a small waterfall. Upstream from the waterfall, a long, shallow riffle extended almost to a sharp bend in the creek, which appeared to be several hundred yards from where Shuler started fishing.

This relatively small pool produced four more brookies in successive casts to the edge of the waterfall. The first three, hit the Wooly Bugger, but the third trout tried to swallow the dry fly serving as a strike indicator.

We had arrived at the camping area at 3 p.m., and by 4 p.m., Shuler had hooked and netted five brook trout that ranged in size from 10 to 14 inches. Each fish was very colorful and appeared to be quite healthy.

By then, two bait fishermen using spinning tackle had moved in on us from downstream, so we decided to move on.

Earlier, I had explained to Shuler that I wanted to try to take some photos of rainbow trout that had hatched out in the creek. Rainbows taken the previous year by Richard Bowers, another guide, on Big Snowbird Creek had a solid white leading edge on their anal fins, and I wanted to photograph this feature.

Unfortunately, Shuler didn’t land a single rainbow at Santeetlah Creek, only brookies, so I suggested we visit Big Snowbird Creek before it got much later.

He agreed, and we drove the 5 or 6 miles to the upper reaches of Big Snowbird, where I’d seen native-born rainbows taken previously.

Shuler fished several pools for about 45 minutes before the light became too dim along the shaded creek bed for good picture-taking. Just before we called it a day, he did land a colorful 14-inch rainbow, but it was a stocked trout, having no white on the leading edge of its anal fin.

While I didn’t get to photograph any native-born rainbows, our trip to Big Snowbird was worthwhile, since he did catch one nice trout and it provided an opportunity for him to become familiar with another important trout fishery in the mountains of far western North Carolina.

Santeetlah Creek produced more decent-sized brookies for Shuler than I had seen taken on one trip to any other stream in the western part of the state in many years.

My guide and I were more than satisfied with the action and the opportunity to spend several hours in such a beautiful setting. The scenery alone was worth the trip.

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