Smoky Mountains - Nantahala River

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Fly-fishing:Nantahala River

Fishing in the Smoky Mountains


The following is an experience Tom Randles had while fishing the Nantahala River. For Tom, if asked to choose one of the many rivers and streams he has had the good fortune to fish, he would pick the "Land of the Noon-day Sun" as his first stop.

t was one of those good news-bad news things in early October. For starters, the bad news was that the yellow jackets were out with a vengeance. Those bees were everywhere, seeking out food for those precious grubs carefully stored in underground nests. One step in the wrong direction and you're face to face with a highly protective and purely vindictive swarm of adult yellow jackets merging in defense of their young. For those of us who have inadvertently triggered such a reaction know it is the kind of situation that will ruin your day.

The good news, if you can call it good news, was that the yellow jackets were out in force in the Smoky Mountains that month. The aroma of decay--vegetable or animal--guided them in their quest for grub chow. In all, the yellow jackets' search patterns extended to the water's edge and beyond. Resting spots were provided by overhanging bushes and mud, and other spots along the bank produced a smorgasbord for the yellow-orange and black beasties. You would occasionally hear one stumble or crash-land in the water. Water, in this instance, meant the tumbling, surging Nantahala River. Once they hit water, each was swept away to become part of the food chain.

Appropriately named "place of the noon-day sun" by the native Cherokee, the Nantahala River is bordered on both sides by a sheer rock wall that soars for hundreds of feet above the river blocking the sun's rays... With the small exception of an hour or so before and after 12 noon. The river's genesis is high in the Nantahala Mountains at Rainbow Springs in northwest North Carolina between Doe Knobs and Rattlesnake at an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet. It then flows clear and ice-cold over garnet-studded rocks to Nantahala Lake. The Nantahala Tunnel draws water over a six-mile distance from the lake bottom to a generating plant near Beechertown. It's there that the Nantahala flows at several thousand cubic feet per second, providing a day-time white-water experience for kayakers and rafters. This is all done through an agreement between the power company and at least a dozen white-water rafting companies. When the water is turned off and the discharge tubes are silent, then the trout to be caught: brookies, browns, rainbows, and some large, and a few leviathans of the trout world. They're there, but they aren't easy.

I took a quiet perch on the swinging bridge above the river, content to watch the water as it flows upstream. I had hoped the fish would be "looking up" - rising to take an emerging dun - or struggling terrestrial off the surface. Inevitably the rise was not to be; but a flash in a two-foot by four-foot pocket told me that the trout were there, feeding.

I hurriedly strung up my rod - a 7 1/2 foot Winston graphite of an earlier generation. Its action was almost as soft as a bamboo being a three weight, and perfect for fishing drowned terrestrial mimics and nymphs. I pulled a nine-foot, compound tapered leader with a 5x tippet off my reel and strung it through the guides. Behind the leader was a double-taper, ungreased two-weight silk line. Because of its much smaller diameter for any given weight line I prefer silk to synthetics, and due to its neutral buoyancy if left untreated. With my rod now strung, I again turned my attention upstream. Soon thereafter came another flash, this time I saw it at the head of a small pool almost directly beneath the bridge. The fish were very visible here and I identified one as a brookie by its black, red and white caudal fins. At that moment, the brook finned backward a foot and seemed to sense my presence, disappearing in a nanosecond. About that time another yellow jacket made its way over and immediately went for my nose. As I recoiled, I temporarily forgot about the trout as I struggled to stay upright on the now violently swaying bridge. Once steadied, I thought, why not tie on a similar make of the bug that had just buzzed me - kind of a revenge by proxy. I would fish a yellow hammer wet - drowned. Actually, I would tie two on, in tandem, both artificial artificials.

Nantahala RiverThe yellow hammer is both a bird and a traditional Smoky Mountain fly pattern. The winged version of the yellow hammer, pronounced "yaller hammer" by local mountaineers, is really called the yellow shafted flicker. It is a member of the woodpecker family and its primary wing feathers sport golden yellow fibers that are lined in black. Fishermen have since seized upon the notion that the yellow and black of the yellow-hammer feather as an excellent way to imitate the sound of the yellow jacket, as well as the auditory emanations of hornets and wasps. Still, the yellow-hammer fly's origins are unknown. Older local fishermen with whom I've spoken to about the yellow hammer say the fly has been in existence for as long as they can remember.

The true yellow-hammer fly is tied with one side of a carefully stripped wing primary. Then, with a razor blade or a finely tuned pair of fingernails, the barbules are carefully levered loose from the shaft leaving a windable one-sided hackle. Often fished as a pair, there are two basic yellow hammer ties, and both are fished wet. A weighted, peacock body aptly describes the first fly with the hackle secured at the head and wound backwards, resulting in a fly that resembles the classic gray hackle only with a striking yellow and black hackle at its neck. Dubbed a twist, the second type displays a peacock or yarn body with a yellow hammer hackle tied in at the head, palmered backwards and secured near the bend of the hook. The result of this action being that the barbules slant back toward the bend of the hook. With just a few turns of thread the feather is secured at the back of the hook. While it looks a little messy to me, as they said in Tobacco Road, "It don't hurt the runnin' of it none." The yellow hammer's effectiveness, in my mind, is unquestionable. Possibly due to the comparatively wide barbules more closely resembling insect legs than chicken hackle? Or could it be because in stripping the quill, when being fished a bit of organic material remains to dispense scent into the water? I really don't know. But what I do know is that they work.

Now, I mentioned earlier tying on an artificial artificial. That was not a typo. The feathers used on the yellow hammer come from a bird that, while beautiful, enjoys protected status in virtually every state it's found. Consequently, controversy can follow when fishing with a real yellow hammer, as well as potential legal problems. I'm aware of many fishermen who have had their supply confiscated by Great Smoky Mountain National Park rangers. However, there is some good news... As a result of the generally accepted belief that using body parts from an endangered species is a no-no, a local guide came up with an acceptable substitute - starling wings dyed yellow. The starling primaries' dun gray accepts the yellow dye well and the end result is a rather smoky yellow color. Compared to the originals, these work comparatively well - minus the guilt.

I began working pockets as I waded in the river, continuing upstream as I cast. Usually casting once or twice in each pocket and before moving on. There is little value in casting more than twice. If there is a hungry fish fining in a pocket, it will nail anything resembling a morsel at once. If it detects that what it has taken is not to its liking, the trout will spit it almost instantaneously. And I am not exaggerating when I use the word "instantaneous". Any edible rushing by a pocket-water dwelling trout must be quickly accepted or rejected. No decision is determined in a trout's rudimentary brain; instinct dictates that something that is of the proper form, color and size be ingested. The evaluation, take, and subsequent rejection of anything bogus occurs so fast that a fisherman using a strike indicator will miss out on most strikes. Most of the time the strike indicator will not even move when a mountain trout takes anything and spits. If it does, it is extremely difficult to detect in a surging mountain river, because the fly and the indicator are almost always in different currents even though they are only a few feet apart. This results in an unnatural drift of both the fly and the indicator. Instead, I rely on a rod-high position, a short line and the sensitivity of an ungreased silk line. A number of local fishermen use braided 20-pound test backing dyed green or gray as a substitute fly line. This line performs every bit as well as my silk line when it comes to detecting the trout's take and casts nearly as well. I use tapered silk fly line due to my preference of conventional fly tackle. Mainly because I'm just set in my ways. Believe me, silk's alternative is a lot cheaper and requires a lot less maintenance.

Four pockets down and a 12-inch rainbow smacked my fly and I smacked him back. Nothing subtle here. It's critical to set the hook quickly when scoring hook-ups in mountain stream angling. The fish had already put two or three rocks and 20 feet between us before I was able to turn him and lead him to my net. Soon, I had released him and was back to work. By the end of the day, I was done. Wading the Nantahala is tiring and hard work. Between the rushing water and the rocks, which resisted the sticking power of my felt shoes, I was ready to call it a day. I'd caught some very nice fish. A 19-inch hen rainbow had to be the biggest, with two more nearly that long to go with her, along with a mixed bag of browns, rainbows, and brookies to top things off. The faux 'hammer had done well.

In over 30 years of pursuing trout, I've had the opportunity to fish a multitude of streams and rivers in the Great Smoky Mountains including the spring creeks and limestones of Pennsylvania; and Big Born in the American West; the Henry's Fork, Yellowstone, chalk streams in Wales and the crystalline waters of New Zealand's North and South Islands. To pick one to fish for the rest of my days, it would be none of these. It would be the one the Cherokees called "The place of the noon-day sun". And I would fish a yellow-hammer.

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