I almost stepped over the first brook trout I saw in South Carolina. A wavering of his tail caught my eye before my boots crossed the rivulet that spanned the trail. A single steppingstone placed mid-current was all that was required for hikers to maintain dry feet; a bridge, or even a felled log, would have been a laughable overkill. The trout was positioned alongside the steppingstone, steadying himself in the ankle-deep flow with outstretched fins. While at most only six inches long, he still appeared oversized in such diminutive water. I sat and watched him as the evening light faded, my astonishment at finding a brook trout only superseded by the surprising location he resided.
This encounter occurred as I hiked out from an afternoon spent fishing the Chattooga River, a brawling mountain freestone dropping out of the North Carolina mountains before demarcating the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The Chattooga had yielded several strong and vibrant wild brown trout, their vitality only surpassed by the wilderness surroundings. I had only been a South Carolina resident for about a month and had just begun the fun process of learning a new assemblage of home waters. My expectations of South Carolina trout fishing had consisted of marginal waters where stocked trout would either meet a demise of heat stroke or powerbait. The browns of the day gave cause for reconsideration; the brook trout shattered what was left of my ignorant assumptions.
South Carolina is largely considered as an afterthought when it comes to trout fishing in the Southeast. The mountain bluelines of western North Carolina, the tailwaters of Tennessee, and the private waters of North Georgia garner all the attention. Tailing redfish claim nearly all of the Palmetto State’s fly-fishing notoriety. But the northwestern corner of South Carolina eclipses the Blue Ridge escarpment, forming an inverted parabola of trout habitat running along the state line. The elevation rises rapidly out of the piedmont. Rhododendron-choked creeks fall fast, clean, and cold off the mountains. The state’s department of natural resources claims that 200 miles of trout streams are found within this region.
I spent my first few months in South Carolina exploring these waters and made several visits to the streams I found most productive. But 200 miles is paltry to the thousands of miles of trout streams lying unexplored across the North Carolina and Georgia borders. I paid for out-of-state licenses and my monthly gas bills began to cut deeper and deeper into my budget as I explored further and further into the unknowns of the southern Appalachians. The grass is always greener as they say.
I put South Carolina’s trout fisheries on the backburner for several years- the draw of the uncharted was too hard to resist. And after a four-year stint of residency, I was planning on moving to a different part of the country. I spend a considerable amount time pouring over online maps searching for new waters, and in my last few months as a South Carolina resident I found that my searching centered closer and closer to the home that I was about to leave. How many of those trickles flowing through the mountains held wild trout? I began to regret what I had overlooked at my doorstep. But as happens in life, opportunities close and opportunities open, and my move did not materialize. This allowed the rare chance to capitalize on my regrets. ~~~
The headwaters of the French Broad River lying across the North Carolina border have become one of my favorite river systems. A network of tributaries spreads across the landscape—the circulatory system of the mountain ecosystem—providing miles of wild trout habitat in pristine seclusion. On my drive to these waters, I cross over a small mountain stream just before leaving South Carolina. In dozens of trips, I had never stopped to explore it.
This spring I changed that. I made my usually commute to the French Broad, fishing into the afternoon but leaving an hour earlier than I needed to. Before crossing the bridge over the stream on my return trip, I eased the car onto the shoulder of the road. I slipped back into my waders and put together my three-weight rod before climbing down a steep embankment to the stream.
I stood abreast a deep pool that formed just downstream of the bridge. A plume of fast water rushed in at its head before being cleaved by a midstream boulder. Two separate current seams eased down either side of the pool. The water was slightly stained from recent rains, but still allowed enough clarity for trout to hopefully find my flies. I tied a yellow stimulator to the end of my leader and tied on an additional two feet of tippet from the bend of the stimulator’s hook. To the tippet I tied a small pheasant tail nymph. I stripped out line and lobbed a roll cast to the head of the nearside seam and let my flies drift back towards me. After several uneventful drifts I let out more line and cast to the farther current seam. The stimulator submerged with a sharp tug as it drifted past the boulder, but I set late, and my flies shot out of the water and into the surrounding foliage.
I turned upstream after disentangling my flies. Above the bridge the stream was redirected on its right bank by a chunk of bedrock, forming a fishy-looking run. Crouching low, I inched forward under the bridge and into casting position on the other side. A cast led to an aggressive splash when the stimulator reached the rock face, and this time my set was met with the resistance of a fish. I reined the fish downstream as he cut across the run, slowly guiding him into my waiting net. I recognized the vermiculation patterning his back instantly- a native brook trout. The hook fell from his jaw as I took a quick second of admiration before releasing him.
Above me the stream stair stepped through a series of plunge pools. I wondered how many times I had driven over these brook trout, the jewels of the mountains, just to chase them elsewhere.
The next time I went fishing, I stopped short of the state line.