Photo of the Month: Bycatch

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Backpacking For Brookies

Backpacking trips tend to happen abruptly.  That is, while I think about them and plan them for a while, things always seem to work out differently than I intend.  This past weekend was such a trip.  My original plan was to backpack into a favorite stream where you could catch brookies, yes, but also rainbows and browns.  In fact, my last trip there produced a fine brown trout close to camp in addition to lots of other great memories, both on the water and in camp.

As the departure date for this trip approached, the trip shifted its focus.  My dad decided to come along as he has been wanting to camp with me for a while now.  The front country campgrounds were all full or nearly so, and our desire for solitude made the decision to backpack easy.  I was concerned about my dad carrying a pack for too far, so changed our destination to an easy hike with willing brookies as the target species.  My dad does not fish although enjoys going with me on my adventures.  Joining us on this trip was a buddy of mine who I have been friends with since we were both kids.  He had not fished in the Smokies for many years and was excited to catch some brook trout.

On the day of our departure, it took a little time to get organized.  I wanted to keep my dad's pack as light as possible so packing took a bit of extra time.  In the end, we got on our way about fifteen minutes later than I wanted which was not bad!  Stopping in at Little River Outfitters gave my buddy David the chance to get a license, but soon we were on our way again.  A quick stop at Subway for lunch gave us the energy we would shortly need to hike to our campsite.

Arriving at the trailheads, the three Davids (yep, we all have the same name) shouldered packs and started moving.  The hike in was beautiful, but we were frustrated to discover an extra group at our site (not supposed to be there) that added an extra 4 tents to the relatively small camping area.  They were clustered like servants around a king of a tent that the other party (supposed to be there) had lugged in there.  While exploring the options for pitching our tents, I discovered where a recent visitor had used the bathroom without concealing it very well.  Not surprisingly, I was just a little frustrated about everything.  However, once we got the tents up and some food going, I decided there was no point to being upset in such a beautiful environment and that I might as well enjoy my time in nature.  I had brought in pita bread with avocados and tomatoes for supper and it was the perfect food after the hike in.

The creek nearby was gorgeous and after supper cleanup, I just had to rig up my fly rod and probe its waters.  Three brookies later I was convinced that we were in for a great camping and fishing experience.  The fish all came on a yellow Neversink caddis that happens to be one of my favorite little yellow stonefly imitations.

Back in camp, as day light yielded to darkness, we made small talk with the other campers before hitting the sack.  The soothing waters of the creek lulled us to sleep as it murmured by in the night.

The next morning, the big group of hikers had packed up and left by the time we got up, definitely a good start to the day.  They were very polite and kept almost complete silence so as not to disturb us as they packed.  By the time we were up and fixing breakfast, I was getting antsy to be fishing.  Its hard to not get distracted from breakfast when you are eating on the banks of a perfectly good trout stream.  Such are the difficulties of life.

Finally, with everything cleaned up, lunch packed, and rods rigged, we started off on our adventure.  As we were walking to our starting point, the trips first and second snakes made an appearance.  While I'm not exactly scared of snakes, it does tend to make one more cautious once you've spotted a couple.

Getting into the creek proved more difficult than you might think.  The banks were covered in vegetation, including a healthy crop of stinging nettle.  I avoided it the whole weekend, but both my friend and my dad ended up playing in it with varying degrees of resulting discomfort.  Once in the streambed, it was essential to keep moving through the water and on the rocks.  To move up the banks was to invite death by stinging nettle or at least a short term painful disaster.

I had brought my favorite fly rod (4 wt) which was designed just for such trips as this.  Small streams and dry flies are where this rod shines although I fish nymphs with this rod fairly often as well.  We started out with #16 yellow Neversink Caddis and that proved to be a good choice.  Really, in the Smokies, its hard to go wrong with any #16 dry fly in yellow this time of year.  I like the Neversink because of the foam wing that just keeps floating.

The first pocket we each fished produced nothing, but then the brookies started to come to hand.  A fish here and there, although not as many as on my previous trip to this same stream.  Still, they were pretty, and its hard to complain about catching plenty of brook trout without sounding selfish.  The stream was beautiful as well, the kind of place you find yourself daydreaming about at work.  Lush green lined the bank and led up into the darker woods above.

My buddy was happily catching trout after trout.  He hadn't fished the Smokies for quite some time and was glad to be getting into brook trout.  These southern strain brookies are amazingly colored, and while I love catching browns most of all, I would rate brookies a close second even though a 10 incher is considered a really nice fish.  Really, its hard to compare the benefits of one fish over another because in the end, for most people, the best fish to catch is whatever happens to be on the end of the line.  And of course, a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work, or something like that.

Anyway, there we were, in the middle of nowhere, catching more gorgeous brook trout than we deserved.  The stream continued to wow us around each new bend.  The fish rose more and more willingly as the day continued to warm and a bit of a hatch developed.  A couple of caddis here, some stoneflies over there, and a few big mayflies all combined to keep the fish interested but never too full for something more.

Eventually I tied on a #14 Parachute Adams as an experiment.  I dropped a little bead head behind that but soon removed it once the fish proved they really just wanted the dry.  By the time we stopped for lunch, fished a little more, climbed a couple of waterfalls, and hiked back to camp, we had each caught more brookies than necessary to call it a great day.


On the hike back, the trail nearly vanished in places from the onslaught of vegetation, including the dreaded stinging nettle.  Here and there, wildflowers drew our attention.  My camera would come out, then it would be moving again towards camp.


That evening we had a treat in store.  We had packed in everything to have chili dogs for supper.  I've brought some pretty good food on backpacking trips but this might be my new favorite.  In my opinion, when you aren't hiking very far it is well worth the extra weight to eat well.  I brought some newspaper and such for kindling so we roasted the hotdogs over a small campfire.  As the coals grew dimmer, we grew sleepy until it was obviously time to go to bed.

The sound of rain gradually woke me the next morning.  This dreaded sound on a backpacking trip is frustrating to say the least.  My solution was to roll over and try to catch a little more sleep.  This strategy worked perfectly, and by the time I was ready to actually get up, the little shower had spent itself and the day held the promise of good hiking weather for our trek out.

After chowing down on breakfast and throwing gear and dirty clothes into the backpacks, off the trail we went.  Just outside of camp, we came across a nice-sized black bear that took off up a hill.  I don't often see bears on backpacking trips so this was one of those nice bonuses that you accept but don't expect.  Later, within sight of the parking area in fact, another critter stopped us.  This time a nice timber rattlesnake that was stretched out by the trail.  After a maneuvering for a picture, the snake got a little grumpy and coiled up and proceeded to rattle at us until we left.  The snake was an even greater treat than the bear, being only the 4th rattler I've seen in the wild.

Back at the car, the lure of a good meal had us hurriedly throwing our gear inside and hitting the road, another great trip complete!


  1. Good trip right up to the rattler. The first little guy, OK, the rattler, not so much. Chili dogs camping, yum....


    1. Mark, I'll admit, the rattler made me jump. I was carrying a pretty heavy pack and still managed to get off the ground I'm pretty sure...

  2. Looks like an unbelievable trip. Not much better in the world than a good camping trip.


    1. Ben, it was definitely a good one! Thanks for reading...

  3. james6:31 PM

    Tent city! One of my favorite sites in the park that I've never seen so packed. Great report.

    1. James, I was pretty shocked to say the least. Thankfully they were polite or it could have been a lot worse...

  4. Cool report! I've happened into some nasty nettels in that area as well... not fun.

    1. Caleb, the most interesting thing to me is that I don't really run into the nettle on this side of the hill as much, just on the NC side.

  5. Brings back memories. Good ones (bears jumping out of trees) and bad ones. The killer hike back out...

  6. David,

    I meant to reply earlier, but what a fantastic writeup! Your post made me miss the Smokies (again), but it also allowed me to visit the place vicariously through you, so thanks. It looks like you all had a marvelous trip, and found some jewels in the process. Nicely done.


    1. Iain, it was definitely a marvelous trip for sure! Hard to beat brookies in their native habitat. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Anonymous10:07 PM

    Loved hearing about the trip through your writing and thoroughly enjoyed the pictures, except for the snakes, ha!