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Fishing in Graham County and the surrounding Snowbird Area

Real Estate Agent with Old Town Brokers

Graham County is remote, wild, relatively pristine, and sparsely populated – Lots of cold clear mountain streams and rivers; the sort of place where trout flourish. The following is an overview of the trout-fishing paradise that is within Graham County because of the vast tracts of the Nantahala National Forest, with an abundance of great trout fishing streams. Altogether there is more than 200 miles of trout-holding water in Graham county. From easy access to those accessible only by an challenging hike or bush whacking into areas not easily accessible. I have friends that horse back into the backcountry as their main mode of transportation in the remote areas. Bottomline: This area is truly a trout-fishing piece of paradise. It is worth hiring some local guides to get you started. One outfit worth the really knows this area is Nantahala Fly Fishing Company. They offer guided fly fishing trips for anglers of all skill levels.

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These are my favorites:

BIG SNOWBIRD CREEK – Big Snowbird is an dynamic stream that changes dramatically as you go upstream. This is probably North Carolina’s finest brook trout stream, and arguably has the largest, longest stretch of water where brook trout hold exclusive domain. Miles of drainage that contains large, open water and as one ventures upstream, becomes increasingly obvious to the angler that this one special fishery. For me, this is the creek that keeps on giving because once up to the watershed, a number of the feeder streams to Big Snowbird’s upper reaches hold natives as well. Downstream from the end of Forest Service Rd. 1120, or Big Snowbird Road, the stream is stocked water. However there are also plenty of wild fish in this stretch of the stream. Upstream there is no stocking, and regulations change from “Hatchery Supported” to “Wild Trout.” At this point, for more than three miles upstream from this point, anglers will find both wild rainbows and browns. Beyond this point and just above where Sassafras Creek enters Big Snowbird, the situation changes quite a bit. A series of elevation changes known as Mouse Knob Falls drops the stream many hundred feet in a quarter of a mile. This change is an effective barrier to upstream migration by rainbows and browns. First this point on and beginning from the head of the falls where Mouse Knob Creek enters the main stream from the right, one is now effectively in exclusive “brook trout” country.

LITTLE SNOWBIRD CREEK – just like Big snowbird is also full of trout. Boiling with Browns, Rainbows and in the more remote areas, Brookies. The challenge with Little Snowbird is that it is mostly private water. A good bit is actually on part of the Cherokee Indian Reservation or towards the headwaters, controlled by the fain hunting/fishing club. However, this is the area that affords individuals the opportunity to own a piece of the action because often there are properties for sale in this area. Imagine waking up in your own cabin early at the break of day, slipping on waders, grabbing hold of your gear, gliding into the creek, bringing in a few rainbows and having breakfast…. All before the world has awakened!. Besure and call or email Robin Sargent or Jeremiah Jacobs at Old Town Brokers for a current listing of every property available, listed or unlisted.

SLICKROCK CREEK – Slickrock Creek forms the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee and has a number of special or unique features. Unlike many of Graham County’s creeks, which feature a mixture of browns and rainbows — or, where natural barriers have prevented upstream migration, brook trout. Pretty much , Slickrock is home exclusively to brown trout, thanks to the U.S. Forest service, who purchased the watershed in 1936 and the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who made the long hike to Slickrock Creek carrying fingerlings in specially constructed backpacks. Browns found the habitat, which was last logged in 1922, to their liking and began natural reproduction. Browns have thrived in Slickrock ever since this original implantation, with no further stocking having been needed. These fish have vivid red spots and golden-bronze bodies and as it tends to be the case with brown trout everywhere, they can be capricious. Slickrock Creek has several other characteristics that add to its appeal. It is in a designated wilderness area, and the sole means of access is on foot. The most common approach is from Calderwood Lake at the creek’s mouth. Also is hiking in from Big Fat Gap (The trailhead is reached by a U.S. Forest Service road off US 129. Great way to fish Slickrock is camping and make day hikes from where you pitch your tent. This area is naturally without much fishing pressure and the further upstream you go, the fewer people you will see and thus better the fishing.

BIG SANTEETLAH CREEK – Big Santeetlah is good fishing waters for trout fishermen. As you go higher upstream on Big Santeetlah, there is robust populations of browns and rainbows. Use Forest Service Rd. 81, which turns off the Joyce Kilmer Rd. just after you cross Santeetlah Gap and the Cherohala Highway begins. Don’t miss Wright Creek. This is an significant and largest feeder creek and worth the trek.

LITTLE SANTEETLAH CREEK – Flows out of the well-known Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Wild-trout water, holding plenty of smaller rainbows.

DEEP CREEK – Ends and flows into the Cheoah River along US 129. Just northwest of Robbinsville and known for carrying a Wild Trout designation where it is legal to use natural bait.

OTHER STREAMS – There are many other streams that also need to be referenced: Yellow, Stecoah, Panther, Long, West Buffalo, Sawyer, and Talula creeks. These are all designated as Hatchery Supported waters. Most are relatively small but hold wild trout as well.

Brief History of the area:

Graham County in its early days was strictly an ancient forest with forest pressing close by on every side. Pre- 1800’s this was home for the indigenous people, most recently the Snowbird clan of the Modern Cherokee Nation. The dense undergrowth and rough terrain coupled with complete lack of transportation facilities caused this area to be one of the last in the state to attract industries. However, the outside world was soon to realize the vast potential of this region of hardwood forests. Lumbering and saw milling, however primitive the method, were the first industries of the county. The sobriquet, lumberjack, although coined in the west has meaning to a resident of Graham County. The first boards sawed in Graham County were probably for local use. It is likely that they were cut with a whipsaw pulled up and down by a man above the log and one below. River drives were started in the 1880’s. The Belding Lumber Company and the Heiser Lumber Company bought and cut timber on Santeetlah, West Buffalo and Snowbird Creeks. The stumpage paid for virgin yellow poplar trees was 25 cents each. Only the best white pine, yellow poplar, chestnut, basswood, and cherry were cut. Such trees had to be within reasonable horse or ox skidding distance of a navigable stream. Splash dams were built on West Buffalo, Little Snowbird, and Big Santeetlah Creeks. Logs were floated down Big Snowbird during periods of naturally high water. These logs floated down the Cheoah River and the Little Tennessee River to a sorting boom below the present Chilhowee Dam. Men followed the logs in whaleboats and freed lodged or breached logs with pike poles and peavies.

Early logging using oxen

Trains of packhorses and mules from Tennessee, probably Loudon, supplied these early loggers. Trails had to be built for these pack trains. The Belding Trail came across Citico Creek to the head of Little Slickrock, down that drainage to cross the main creek and sometime through the Yellow Hammer Gap to Cheoah River at the present site of Tapoco. The first sawmills were the up and down type powered with water, some on Atoah Creek others on Long Creek, snowbird or others. The first circle mill powered by steam was at the mouth of Anderson Creek on Tallulah Creek. Portable steam mills largely cut timber from the Tallulah and Sweetwater drainages. After this more primitive method of lumber production using horses, mules ,oxen and flums were replaced with large trucks, trains, skidders and mega sized mills fully operational with massive sawing/milling equipment, all resulting from the results of the industrial age. Logging the area has declined since the 70’s but make no mistake, in this area of western north Carolina men and women has logging/timbering running deep within their DNA and even today are dependent on this profession. One could say, these people were instrumental in building America and making America great.

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