Recently I was fortunate enough to take a week long trip touring the fly fishing waters of North and South Carolina. From the pristine trout streams in the high Appalachian Mountains to the Charleston Lowcountry.
The sun began to rise slightly over the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains as dad and I wound our way down a lofty road bordered by incredible views and vistas. Careful not to look down, we worked our way around dog leg curves, right angles, and protruding rocks. Higher and higher we climbed as the tops of smaller mounds disappeared below the clouds. Stopping for the occasional snapshot we eventually found our way to an empty parking lot at the Graveyard Fields trailhead.
Donning our waders, rigging our poles, and stocking our boxes we rattled down the boardwalk path to the Yellowstone Prong River, for or first taste of North Carolina trout fishing. Visions of deep plunge pools, emerald water, and cascading water falls filled our minds as we bounded along the half mile hike. The sound of the water sprang into our ears as we ventured closer and closer to our destination. Turning the corner the unmistakable trout water smell lofted from the water and I, happily, breathed in deeply.
Hopping from boulder to boulder we stalked the water quietly. The slightest movement or disturbance of the water scattered the small, native, brooks. Keeping a low profile with the rock dad and I worked our way up stream plopping hopper dropper rigs into shady spots and deep pools. Wild brooks took our offers gratefully, often times hitting our terrestrials as soon as the touched water. Bringing the vibrant fish to hand seemed to connect me further with the wonders of nature as I saw the true spectacle in the beauty of the wild brook trout. Small, but hearty, these gorgeous fish laced in white with pink, orange, and gold spots never cease to amaze me.
The challenge involved was that of incredible skill as dad and I often times found ourselves standing in uncomfortable positions, on precarious rocks as we flipped our flies up under limbs and into riffles. Army crawling up massive boulders, climbing trees, and tiptoeing through pools was common place on the Yellowstone Prong that day. Often times laying backhand casts or tight looped roll casts into fishy spots stretched our abilities to the max.
Hooking the fish was a whole other challenge in itself. With such big appetites but such small mouths they often times had trouble fitting the smallest of my hopper patterns into their mouths. I became so frustrated at one point I tried a variety of smaller dry fly patterns to no avail. These fish may have been small but they were looking for a big meal and would have nothing to do with my prissy little dry flies. Their vicious attacks on the hoppers amused us throughout the day as we slowly worked our way up the stream.
The Yellowstone Prong didn’t disappoint the reports of high brook trout numbers and high altitudes. Once we ran out of fishable water dad and I were sucking eggs as we slogged our way back to the truck. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves once again winding through the breathtaking scenery towards another Appalachian trout stream.
Breaking around the final bend, the West Fork of the Pigeon River stretched far below us. Parking on a small pull off dad and I began to pick our way down a steep slope to a small feeder creek, which we then picked our way down to the river. Once reaching the river we put our nymphing skills on show as we attempted to fish the deep, fast moving water of the West Fork. But it was quickly obvious that not only did the water have few fish in it but that we may have put ourselves in a dangerous situation. We began to hike upstream to look for an easy way up and out of the stream when dad and I realized just how dangerous what we were doing was.
The West Fork of the PIgeon River is about half “Wild Trout Water” and half “Delayed Harvest”. To avoid the delayed harvest crowd dad and I had hiked into the, more remote, upper reaches of the West Fork. Here the river runs mostly through slate rock and massive boulders which combine to form a dangerous cocktail of wading obstacles. The slate rock was dangerously slick and often times dad and I slipped and fell, narrowly escaping catastrophe. One wrong step and a fun day of fishing could have easily turned into a nightmare.
I began to cast but the fish picked up his tail and changed directions on me. I quickly adjusted and laid a nice cast into the area but my fly was sticking high in the flooded grass well above his line of sight. Another cast, another cast, another cast, all the same result. I could not get my fly to drop to his level. The fish splashed eagerly into thicker grass and left us waiting on the edge. Five minutes passed then ten when he finally appeared on the far side of the thick flooded grass. Michael spotted him cruising to an open area and I flicked a perfect cast up and in front of him. Bumping the fly with short strips the fish turned his head slightly, rolled, then slurped, strip set, I had him.
He blasted his way through the shallow water with his bull like head, looking for someplace to run. Quickly taking me to my reel, he fought valiantly in the high tide before I finally brought him to hand. Not a big fish, but my first. A few snapped pictures and he was off to fight another day.
A quick moment to bask in the glory was cut short when the rain began to bear down on us. For a long five minutes we couldn’t even see enough to drive down the canal. We were drenched before we could get our raincoats out, let alone put on. Thankfully the deluge eased and eventually ceased allowing us to get back to fishing.
We took a short boat ride to another flat and began to work the deeper edge of the flooded grass. Sopping wet I stood on the casting platform one hand holding the pole the other the fly ready to strike. “There, two o’clock” Michael said eyes bearing down on a large tail flopping on the surface. It dipped below then came back up. I shot a piercing cast into the shallows and stripped the fly into the strike zone with short quick pulses. One more, boom, strip set, two in a row. He screamed from the edge of the grass to deep offshore water as I frantically tried to get my line and the fish under control. One run left, then right, then back left. Spooling line out he turned 180 and began streaking straight for the boat. Stripping line as fast as I possibly could I struggled to keep up with is awesome speed. At last it wasn’t quick enough and he received the slack he so actively worked for. He was off, I doubled over in agony at the thought of losing such a fish. In such a blur, just seconds of fishing, I learned the true nature and skill of fishing for redfish.
I took a moment of silence and a deep breath to once again cool my nerves down and prepare for the next fish. Another boat ride, another flat, another boat ride, another flat. The rain was setting in for good when we drifted into the final bit of flooded grass. A small creek was running into the pool from the outgoing tide and Michael spotted two fish tailing at it’s mouth. Surrounded by thick grass the area was not ideal. I glanced to the right and spotted a solid fish tailing just to the right of the other two in an open pool. Pointing it out to Michael I began to cast and laid a nice cast just up in front of him.
He cruised over to the fly and sucked it in. I felt a thump on my end and I stripped quickly setting the hook into his rubbery mouth. He tore through the thick grass to deeper water, only slightly deeper but his power was immense as he took me to the reel in no time. Running twenty then thirty then forty yards away Michael poled after him. Eventually bringing him to hand we scooped the fish out of the water marveling at his solid size and copper coloring. A few nice pictures later and we slipped him back into the flooded grass.
Thoroughly drenched from head to toe by the rain we cruised to the ramp. Very happy with the results I said my goodbyes to Michael and thanked him for his time. Splashing my way to the truck and sitting on a the plastic lid of a storage tub to keep from soaking the seat I replayed the morning in my head as happy as I could be. I can’t wait to step on a skiff again to chase those beautiful, unique, and powerful fish.
Eventually we found an area where we could hear cars passing over the road from the water. Practically climbing our way up a small cliff/hill my waders earned three battle stars as I scampered over sharp rock out croppings looking for hand/foot holds. Dad followed and we pulled ourselves over the precipice of the cliff onto more horizontal ground. Crouching through the underbrush we trudged to the road and slowly walked back to the truck, thoroughly beaten.
I’ll say now that we spent another full day fishing the Appalachian Mountain country for wild trout. And while I’d recommend the views and sightseeing opportunities to anyone, the fishing was poor. No other words for it. The water is beautiful, and what fish we caught were too, but the wild stretches of river have few fish in them. The Yellowstone Prong was the saving grace of this trip and only something I’d do again for a half day. The fishing is definitely not bucket list material and The Davidson, which is a so called “Trout Unlimited Top 100 Trout Stream in the United States” was exceedingly disappointing and highly overrated. However if you like hiking, breathtaking scenery, and mountains, then pack a few flies and a rod and go take a look, maybe you’ll have better luck than me.
Out of the mountains and into the lowcountry. As the clouds of a small tropical storm rolled into Charleston, South Carolina I stepped onto my first skiff for my first day of fly fishing the salt. I had booked a half day of fishing through Fins and Flies Charters (Link) on the first day of a three day family vacation. I was eager to get on the water and I exchanged pleasantries with my guide, Michael Bruner, who seemed as eager to get out there as I did. We idled away from the ramp then began to speed through the open waters to an awaiting flat.
Pulling up to the flooded grass Michael gave me the rundown of how we would go about catching the famed redfish. He confirmed everything I’d seen and read, explaining the sight fishing aspect, the accuracy required for casting, and the strip strike hook set I’d have to employ to hook the brutes. I stepped nervously up on to the casting platform at the front of the boat and Michael took his place on the poling stand at the back. With the tide coming in we drifted easily into the grass and Michael began to pole us along the flat. We scanned the water constantly for cruising copper backs and spotted tails.
I spotted a small drum cruising easily through the deeper water and attempted to lay a short cast about four feet in front of him. My nerves had me shaking as I took my first casts and I sloppily plopped the fly well beyond the fish and to far behind him. I lost sight of the fish and turned back forward once again watching the calm water intently.
Not ten more yards passed and I spotted a slightly better fish hovering just off the bottom not ten yards from the bow. I flipped my small fiddler crab pattern in front of him and watched as he slurped the fly in. But my midwest crappie, bass, and trout fishing past came out as I stupidly set the hook straight up as if I was back on an Appalachian stream. The fly flew straight out of the fish’s mouth and nearly knocked Michael thoroughly on the head.
“That’s not gonna work,” Michael quickly said as he gathered himself from almost having a pair of lead eyes smashed into his forehead. After a quick lecture on the importance of a strip set I was back on the casting platform eager for another shot. Working our way through the flooded flat I had shots at a couple of other fish which I very elegantly spooked with poor casting.
We cruised to another area and upon taking our places I was determined not to let my nerves get the best of me this time. Thunder playing ominously in the background I was worried my trip may be cut short, and I’d have to face the world fishless. “Eleven o’clock,” Michael shouted from his platform, “point your rod, left, left, left. There! See em?”