Hazel Creek is a good fall break

Hazel Creek is perhaps the most-famous Great Smokies trout stream, and it’s for a good reason.

At some time or other, anyone who claims to be a trout fisher makes his or her way to Hazel Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to pay homage to one of the South’s most celebrated trout streams. Call it a pilgrimage, if you will, for Hazel Creek is a sacred place — remote, beautiful, accessible only by boat or foot, a stream that truly lives up to its legend.

Horace Kephart once lived at a fork of this stream until the loggers and miners ran him out. Legendary mountain trout fishers Mark Cathey and Granville Calhoun fished it back in the days when fishers hauled trout out by the sack load.

Hazel Creek survived it all: miners, loggers, and greedy fishers. You don’t catch trout by the sack load anymore, but Hazel still has plenty of trout — wild browns, rainbows, and native brookies — if you’re willing to work for them.

The creek rises in Swain County at the southwestern slope of Silers Bald and flows for more than 15 miles to Fontana, fed by numerous creeklets and creeks, including Bone Valley Creek, Sugar Fork, Procter Creek, and Walkers Creek.

In the lower section, where the creek is wide as a two-lane highway and pools are big enough to swim in, are the browns: big browns, some 8 to 10 pounds but more common in the 2- to 4-pound range.

The big browns aren’t easy to catch, but people who often fish the stream say browns respond best to terrestrial imitations, particularly grasshopper patterns.

Rainbows, the most numerous species, are found throughout the stream and can be caught with seasonal dry flies and nymphs.

Brook trout are in the upper reaches of the stream, near the headwaters.

A few hardy souls make the long hike to Hazel Creek from Fontana Village, Clingmans Dome, or Noland Creek, but most take the easy route — across Fontana Lake by boat. That easy route was the one that a friend and I chose this fall.

We tied our boat up at the mouth of the stream about 1 p.m. to begin fishing. Two couples were coming off the stream as we walked in.

“What are they hitting?“ I said.

“Nothing,“ one of the men said. “We didn’t get a single rise. We saw some 10- or 12-inch rainbows, but they wouldn’t hit anything we had.“

Not to be discouraged, we started fishing just above the back-country campground. The water was cool but not cold even in shaded sections, and clear — much too clear.

I selected a light Cahill to start with and saw a small trout rise to the fly on the first cast, which encouraged me. Farther up, another trout bubbled the water, but I missed it. Two casts later, I had my first rainbow, a 7-incher that felt much larger. The thrill of catching the first trout of the day never diminishes.

On one path, I followed fresh deer tracks to the water’s edge, and when I stepped up on a log and down, making a soft thud, a doe snorted softly on the opposite bank, and hopped through high weeds and into the woods.

Water was so low I could stay in the stream most of the time, hopping along the exposed rocks to the pools. I’d fish awhile and then sit awhile and enjoy the creek. My friend was far below me. I had the stream to myself.

In a place where the current slipped through a line of rocks and formed a small still pool between the rapids and a boulder, I hooked another trout, this one about 10 inches. It barely struggled as I reeled it in, but when it got close enough to see me, it suddenly jumped, startling me so that I lost it. Made me feel a bit foolish.

After about a mile of fishing, I hooked a limb on a cast and lost my fly.

When I reached for another Cahill, I realized I hadn’t been fishing with a Cahill after all. I had brought only two, and I still had two. One of my Quill Gordons was missing. Obviously the trout had been hitting the Quill the entire time, and it’s an early spring pattern. The patterns are similar, though. Just proves you can’t always predict what a trout will hit.

I tied on the Cahill and continued get rises and caught dozen or so trout, nothing larger than 10 inches, but feisty enough to be twice that size. On one cast, I hooked a rock in mid stream and had to wade out to free it.

After that, I saw a number of trout rise, but I couldn’t seem to catch one no matter how hard I tried, and I was too stubborn (or lazy) to change patterns.

With dark approaching, I climbed out of the stream and headed down the road to the boat. It had been a good fishing day, and I felt good. I met my friend coming up the trail looking for me.

“Just saw 12 wild turkeys cross the road,“ he said.

We rode across the lake, headed for the Alarka boat landing and home. Behind us, thin strips of clouds caught the pink-red remnants of a sunset and held tightly as the ridges turned from dark green to black.

I clipped the fly off the leader and looked at it. The hook was broken off. I had fished the last hour without a hook, but it didn’t matter.

I hadn’t gone to Hazel Creek to catch fish; I went to fish.

About Robert Satterwhite 180 Articles
Bob Satterwhite has been writing about the outdoors, particularly trout fishing, for more than 25 years. A native of Morganton, N.C., he lives in Cullowhee, N.C., close to the Tuckasegee River, Caney Fork, Moses Creek, and several other prime trout streams.

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