Brown trout and remote water are two things that make Deep Creek one of my favorites in the Park. My largest fish in the Smokies came from Deep Creek and every trip there is always good for at least one memorable moment. After some convincing, my cousin Nathan agreed to do a trip with me to #53 in search of the Deep Creek slam. This section of stream is well protected by the rigorous hike in but still sees a fair number of fishermen.
I have done this trip as a daytrip, and also I’ve hiked down to #54 from the top. Each time I do this trip, I promise myself that I’ll never pack in overnight again, but I like Deep Creek so much that I just can’t stay away. The section of Deep Creek above the confluence with the Left Fork is characterized by smooth low gradient stretches that are perfect for brown trout alternating with steep sections of picture perfect pocket water containing rainbows and, as you go higher, more and more brook trout. The stream is fed by several feeder creeks between #53 and #54 meaning that as you go higher, the stream is getting smaller fairly quickly. Still, occasional larger pools often harbor better than average brown trout.
The trip was motivated by two things. First was my desire to return to upper Deep Creek along with wanting to do a backcountry trip. Second, my cousin Nathan just received a fly rod for his birthday and obviously needed to try it out. This trip was the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone so to speak. Friday morning we both got up later than anticipated so we really didn’t reach the trailhead until around noon. Nathan beat me there, but thankfully we were both completely ready to hit the trail and started hiking as soon as I arrived.
Hiking down from near Newfound Gap is the pleasant part of this trip. Hiking back out is an altogether different story. We made really good time, only stopping briefly twice to adjust the shoulder straps on my pack. I was hiking in a pair of Tevas that are extremely comfortable to walk in, even with a 40 pound pack on. This eliminates the need to carry sandals or flip flops for wearing around camp. The downside is the lack of ankle support. Nathan had brought an extra pair of trekking poles for me to try out on this hike, and I must say that I found them useful.
The best part of the hike in was checking out the stream along the way. In a favorite small pool near the trail, we spotted a beautiful brook trout waiting for food to come along in the current. This particular pool is well protected by the surrounding vegetation making fishing nearly impossible. One of these days I’ll solve the problems posed by this particular scenario but in the meantime, it is nice to know that the fish will be there again next time for me to watch when I need a breather on the hike in to campsite #53.
Upon arriving at #53, we quickly set up the tent and then ran our packs up the bear cables. I wanted to get in some fishing time before we had supper. We hiked a short distance down the trail before jumping in the creek to fish back upstream. It was only a matter of minutes before the first trout hit, and for the next couple of hours, the action continued fast and furious. I managed a slam relatively quickly although Nathan was having trouble finding a willing brown trout.
Not too far up the stream, I cast my double nymph rig into a small pool and watched as the line gave a telltale twitch. Raising the rod tip, I discovered that I was attached to something big that obviously didn’t want to come downstream to me. After a couple of headshakes as it plowed upstream, the nice fish came free. Deep Creek is full of surprises and nearly every trip I’m reminded that more than anywhere else I’ve fished, the large browns on Deep Creek are often NOT where you would expect them…
We cut the evening fishing short since supper was going to require some effort and we were both really hungry after the hike down the ridge. The plan was to make hobo stew (lots of different names for these but this is what we’ve always called them). The basic idea for those that don’t know about this delicious camp food is to cook various vegetables in packs of foil over the fire. As I’m vegetarian, mine includes a meatless alternative to chicken that I like. We went with just the basics since we had to carry everything in. The night before I cut and chopped potatoes, onions, and carrots and put them in Ziploc bags. Nathan brought butter and foil. Everything goes in the foil and then after wrapping it all up really well, you put it on a fire.
The fire was the difficult part of this whole operation. The forest was soaked from the daily thunderstorms. After a lot of effort, we found enough semi dry wood to get the fire smoldering. After another 30 minutes of blowing on the small coals, we (read Nathan here…I mostly stood back watching and laughing) got the fire roaring. In fact, it was so hot that the outside of the foil was burning off. Nothing I’ve ever ate while backpacking could compare with that incredible meal. The extra weight was well worth it, and best of all, we didn’t have to carry it all back up the hill in our packs. When you’re done, throw the used foil and other trash into the Ziploc bags and everything is clean and ready to pack back out.
We let the fire die soon after eating and decided to hit the sack. The next day was dedicated to exploring downstream in search of some larger browns, and we were both tired after the hike in.
The next morning I was up early and headed over to the stream to look things over. In one nice pool, I was sneaking slowly along the edge when a dark shadow caused me to pause. I couldn’t believe such a nice brown was out feeding in such an easy to spot location, but then, I’m used to fishing Little River where the larger brown trout are notoriously hard to find. Apparently the fish was attentive to its surroundings, because shortly after spotting it, the fish noticed me and spooked. Knowing where nice fish are is at least half the battle though, so I was confident that returning later might produce better results.
Back in camp, I found Nathan ready to get going. After a quick breakfast we started hiking downstream. We made it down below #54 where we saw another fisherman working upstream. Realizing that it was pointless to fish behind him we backtracked upstream probably a half a mile or more. Entering the stream, I started with a dry as did Nathan. The fish weren’t really looking up so after 15 minutes of fruitless casting, I went back to a double nymph rig.
Nathan Stanaway Photograph
There were lots of bugs hatching so any number of nymphs and wet flies worked well. Caddis pupa patterns were definitely catching fish and an Isonychia nymph soft hackle I tie was also doing the trick. Additionally, we saw good numbers of BWOs in a #20 or smaller, Golden Stoneflies, Little Yellow Stoneflies, and various light colored mayflies that I never could get a good look at but appeared to be either Light Cahills, Sulphurs, or Pale Evening Duns. All of these appeared to be somewhere the in #14-#16 size range.
Moving upstream, Nathan soon decided that a dropper would significantly enhance his odds so we tied on a bead head caddis pupa. Immediately he started catching a lot more fish. Once the sun finally came out from behind the clouds, the fish were on his dry fly as well. It was interesting to watch the clouds come and go.
Almost like flipping a switch, the clouds turned the fish on and off to feeding on the surface (or at least our dry flies). When the sun went behind the clouds the trout went deep. This is just one of those mysteries that keeps fly fishing interesting. Most places I’ve fished have the exact opposite situation. Clouds normally bring fish higher in the water column to feed on emerging insects. In the mountains the sun often seems to be a good thing though as long as you are satisfied with catching average sized fish.
Three photographs above by Nathan Stanaway
Eventually we were approaching a point where the stream flows through a gorge with the trail far above. The sun was already nearing the tops of the ridge to the west so we climbed out and started trekking back towards camp. I wanted plenty of time to try the spot where I briefly hooked the large fish the evening before and to look for the nice brown I spotted that morning. Getting back into the stream where we started the evening before, I moved rapidly upstream to the hole I missed the nice fish in. I carefully worked every inch with my pair of nymphs but never got so much as a single strike.
We got back out of the water and hustled far upstream to the nice pool I discovered that morning. I moved slowly along the bank trying to keep well under cover. Finally I was in casting position but couldn’t see the fish where I expected it to be. Undeterred, I figured it had moved a few feet further upstream to a better lie with the lower light conditions. I checked my tippet and knots one last time before making the first cast. Purposefully I kept my casts short until I was positive that I had the obstacles figured out.
Stripping a few more feet of line from the reel, I cast up to where I expected the fish to be. Immediately the line went tight. The boil of a good fish rolling on the surface showed and the fight was on. As the fish turned downstream, I got a decent look and knew it wasn’t a bad fish. After a couple of minutes, I wrestled the fish into the shallows and corralled it by kneeling down in the water to provide a human fence…definitely no last second opportunities for this fish to get away. Nathan came up from where he had been watching and took over the camera duties. I was thrilled with the 16 inch brown. This fish could be the nicest I catch in the Park this summer so I savored the moment. Finally, I cradled the fish in the current to release it. It only needed a couple of seconds before it bolted away to grow a little more and be caught again another time.
Two photographs above by Nathan Stanaway
The pinnacle of the trip had been reached, however back in camp a humorous episode awaited that would be almost as memorable as the big fish. As we strolled into the clearing, I looked up at my backpack and saw lots of bees flying around. You have to understand that I don’t like bees. I’ve had plenty of bad experiences with all kinds of stinging critters including sitting on a hive (more or less) a couple of summers ago.
Upon closer inspection, it appeared that the bees were attempting to take up residence in my pack. I came to this realization about the same time Nathan started rolling on the ground laughing in glee. While he continued laughing, I started to formulate an approach to rid my pack of the bees. Smoke was my first idea so I grabbed a long branch and rigged up an apparatus on the end we could light. After the smoke was wafting upwards on the breeze, I moved for my first attempt at putting the bees to sleep or otherwise encouraging them to head for a different locale. Sadly the smoke idea didn’t really work unless I got my improvised torch dangerously close to the pack.
After much discussion, plan B was enacted. This entailed unclipping the pack and running like hell for the opposite side of the clearing while the pack tumbled to the earth. Just before I actually let go of the cable, I wondered if I could lower it so gently that the bees wouldn’t notice the decrease in altitude. Altering plan B proved to be a good solution. The bees were still roaming around the pack though. At this point Nathan finally ceased his mirth, calmly grabbing the pack and carried it to our dinner log. Honey bees are nonaggressive as far as such things go.
After another hour of maneuvering around the few bees still hovering around my pack, it occurred to me that they must be after the salt. The last time I used this pack was for the Everglades canoe trip early this past spring. There were bees around my pack, its rain cover, and my tent. All items probably had a fair amount of salt on them. The bees didn’t care for any of Nathan’s gear and that was the final clue to the puzzle.
That evening we both had freeze dried backpacker dinners that just require boiling water. I love these meals but they are a bit expensive when there are other alternatives. Again we headed to bed early since we wanted to get out early the next morning.
We woke up to thunder rolling down from the direction of Clingmans Dome. Hurriedly packing, we just beat the furious downpour so at least our gear was dry. The same couldn’t be said for us though. We hiked out completely soaked but the effect was to keep us cool. Hiking out from #53 is never pleasant. We were both glad to see the cars and end the misery of walking uphill under a heavy pack. Another great trip was completed. I’m already tentatively planning two more, one on the North Carolina side and one on the Tennessee side. We’ll see if either one works out but if I had to guess I’d say I’ll be headed for the hills again sometime in July…