A while back, I decided to do some exploring in the headwaters of one of my favorite trout streams. I have fished the lower sections of this river with a good bit of success over the years, and driven by the upper reaches a time or two on the Forest Service road, but I had never fished the headwaters. The lower stretch of the river fell under Catch and Release - Artificial Flies Only regulations when I began fishing here several years go, while the headwaters were classified as regular Wild Trout waters by the NC Wildlife Commission with a daily limit of four fish greater than seven inches long. The lower river contains some fairly deep holes, and I had caught some nice brown and rainbow trout from it over the years. A few years ago, the lower river was reclassified as Wild Trout waters, while the headwaters received the Catch and Release - Artificial Flies Only designation. I had never fished very far beyond the old boundaries of the catch and release water, so I was anxious to see what kind of secrets the upper river held.
We drove a few miles above the campground and found a parking spot along the side of the road at the lower boundary of the new catch and release water. I decided to start the day fishing a Thunderhead dry fly, one of my favorite patterns. I hadn't fished far when a nice wild rainbow rose to my fly and the first fish of the day was brought to hand. I couldn't help but remember that the first trout I ever caught on a dry fly was a wild brown from this same river on a Thunderhead. In a way it felt like I had come full circle back to the beginning of my fly fishing career.
I continued working my way upstream, and passed a small tributary or two as the river began to narrow. I managed to catch a few more wild rainbows, and then came upon a deeper plunge pool that just seemed perfect for a nice trout to be hiding in. It took several casts and drifts, but eventually a brown trout made a slow rise to my dry fly, and sipped it in. Once I set the hook, I realized that I had a better fish on than the previous ones I had caught that day, and took my time to make sure I didn't horse it and break it off. After a minute or two I had a nice wild brown trout in the net, and I couldn't help but stop and admire the beautiful golden color and red spots before I released it. It rivaled anything I had caught on the lower river, both in size and beauty, and I couldn't help but wonder why I had taken so long to explore the headwaters of this river. This brown led me to think that the headwaters might be hiding some secrets that I would like to learn, and so I continued upstream with a renewed sense of wonder at how pretty wild trout could be. I decided they must be made that way so they would match the places where they live.
Somewhere along the way I donated my Thunderhead to the overhanging rhododendron, and decided since I had to retie anyway I would switch things up a little bit and try a Rio Grande Trude. This is another one of my favorite fly patterns, and one that I had enjoyed some success with on the lower stretches of this river. I had a few more rainbow trout decide that the Rio would make a good morning snack, and then I had the surprise and pleasure of catching the first native brook trout of the trip. I knew that some of the tributaries of this river were rumored to contain healthy brook trout populations, but in my previous experience the lower river belonged to the rainbows and browns. I was excited to see that the natives were still holding on up in the headwaters, and I had to once again marvel at the colors of a wild brook trout. A few pools later another brookie came to hand, about the same size as the first. Unfortunately I was about at the end of my trip and I decided since access to the road was becoming harder to find I would fish until I came to a good spot to climb out. Another pool or two and I found a trail winding up the ridge back to the road and decided it was time to call it a day.
Once I reached the car, I was surprised to have two NC Wildlife Officers stop by to ask how the fishing was and to check my license. I was glad to see that they were out enforcing the regulations, and we spent a pleasant few minutes talking about fishing and the trout I had caught. They were especially happy to hear that I had caught a few brook trout, and said that they were wondering how the population was doing in the main river. I asked them if there was much fishing pressure in the headwaters, because I was surprised to be one of the only people fishing on a beautiful Saturday morning, and they said in their experience most people tended to fish down around the campsites on the lower river. This just gave me more incentive to come back to the headwaters again and do some more exploring. It has also made me rethink some of my other favorite trout streams and caused me to wonder just what might be just a little farther up the trail or over the ridge. Hopefully I will have the chance to find out someday soon.