An Angler’s Southern Comfort
Nathaniel H. Axtell
The shadowy form that
ghosted out from the undercut bank looked like it belonged to a
large otter rather than a brown trout. But its languid rise, golden
flanks, and huge snout left little doubt that it was Salmo trutta. A skittering cream midge disappeared with hardly a ripple.
"Jeez, did you see
My client was incredulous.
An investment banker from Minnesota, he'd flown in specifically
to fish the Davidson River as part of his quest to conquer all of
Trout Unlimited's "Top 100 Trout Streams." He'd already
checked off the Madison, the Bighorn, the Fryingpan, the Green,
and at least 50 more, but he'd left the Davidson for a late-February
vacation when the South's trout would rise again.
"Yeah, that's his
preferred hideout," I replied calmly. "Edge upstream a
little and cast down and across to him so he sees the fly first.
Stay in the shadows, though."
Three drifts later, the
fish re-emerged from the undercut and confidently sipped a size-24
midge emerger. The banker struck and the water exploded, the brown
shaking its head violently against 6X tippet. After a few short
runs and much bulldogging on the bottom, the 21-inch hen, adorned
with bright red spots, came to my net.
"I can't believe
there are fish like this in North Carolina," the banker gushed,
cradling his trophy in the water. "Who would have thought it?"
A lot of people, as it
turns out. Because of its high trout densities and easy access,
the Davidson is one of the most heavily fished streams in the Southeast.
On most summer days, there's hardly a vacant pull-off to be found
along U.S. Highway 276, which parallels the river for 4.5 miles
in the Pisgah National Forest. Add picnickers, tubers, canoeists,
kayakers, swimmers, and other tourists, and the Davidson can become
quite a circus.
amazingly, the river seems to keep pace with the pressure, thanks
to catch-and-release regulations and above-average productivity.
Between 1990 and 1993, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
(NCWRC) sampled several sites on the river and found an average
of 64 browns, 216 rainbows, and a handful of brook trout for every
acre of river. What explains such fecundity in a freestone stream?
"It may be that the parent soils are more productive than other
streams in similar-sized watersheds," says regional fisheries
biologist Scott Loftis.
While the Davidson's
fertility can't compare to that of a Pennsylvania spring creek or
a Western tailwater, the fishing can be just as challenging as on
those venues. Ultra-clear water, constant fishing pressure, and
educated trout make this one river where the odor of skunk pervades
the air all season long. Fortunately, the Davidson offers many distractions
for the defeated: banks of flowering rhododendrons, blazing fall
foliage, chattering kingfishers, and giant hellbender salamanders
From its high-gradient
headwaters below the Blue Ridge Parkway down to its silty, sluggish
pools near the town of Pisgah Forest, the Davidson offers something
for every taste: roll-casting attractor dries to small, native brookies;
micro-nymphing for overfed, educated rainbows; dredging Bunny Leeches
for record-size browns. Those who cherish solitude can hike into
the river's remote headwaters, while the more sociable can fish
elbow to elbow with other fly anglers, sharing patterns and advice.
The Upper River
About 14 miles of the
river, from its headwaters to Avery Creek, are managed under catch-and-release,
fly-fishing-only regulations. Much of this stretch is paralleled
by U.S. Highway 276 and Forest Road 475-A.
The Davidson begins as
a series of springs and seeps more than 4,000 feet above sea level,
gradually coalescing into six main tributaries: Laurel Fork, Shuck
Ridge Creek, Right Fork, Daniel Ridge Creek, Cove Creek, and Caney
Bottom Creek. Though hemmed in by thick rhododendron, birch, and
hemlock, all of these feeders offer fun summer fishing for small,
wild rainbows (and a few brookies up high), with a bigger brown
surprising anglers once in a while.
Use a short rod, roll-cast
a short line, and hit every pocket bigger than a streamer box. These
streams are characterized by fast-moving runs, mini plunge pools,
and pocket water, so high-sticking is the preferred method. To avoid
drag, hold the rod tip high enough to keep the fly line off the
water. Go-to flies for the upper section include attractors such
as the Tennessee Wulff, Yellow Humpy, and Thunderhead. Add a Copper
John or Lite Brite Prince Nymph for a dropper if the trout seem
disinterested in floating flies.
Below the convergence
of the tributaries, the Davidson enters a gorge that is partly accessible
via the Davidson River Trail. The water plunges over a series of
small cascades as it drops 200 feet in elevation in about 1 mile.
The water is exceptionally clear, and the fish are wild and spooky.
Hiking and fishing this gorge section is a difficult proposition
for unskilled waders, out-of-shape desk jockeys, and herpetophobes,
as timber rattlers and copperheads are common.
There are days in the
late spring and early summer when a well-presented Chernobyl Ant
or a big Stimulator draws fish to the surface in the gorge, but
usually nymphs seriously outfish dries. The gorge waters are loaded
with giant and Golden Stonefly nymphs, chimney-building caddisflies,
and blue-wing olives. Tie on a 9-foot leader with a size-8 Kevin's
Stone or Superfly as your point fly and attach a size-18 Barr's
BWO Emerger or a Peeking Caddis as your dropper. Fish the deepest,
darkest slots and dumps, using a yarn indicator doused in floatant.
Adjust your depth frequently, so that the flies are ticking the
rocks at least some of the time.
Years ago, I was creeping
up the gorge on an overcast spring day when I looked over my shoulder
and saw a camouflaged man fishing about three pools behind me. His
rod was bent from the weight of a nice trout that somehow had eluded
my presentations. I fished a couple more pools with little success,
while camo guy continued to slay trout in the water I'd just fished.
Finally, I stopped and waited for him to catch up. "Looks like
you've got the magic fly," I yelled to him over the white water.
"What are you fishing with?"
He looked at the stonefly
dangling from my tippet. "Same thing as you," he said,
grinning. "You know, sometimes the difference between an average
fisherman and a great fisherman is just one split shot."
The Middle River
Below the gorge, the
Davidson flattens considerably as it passes over a spillway dam
that serves as an intake for the state's Pisgah Fish Hatchery, where
some 2,200 gallons of water per minute are diverted from the Davidson,
oxygenated, flushed through the raceways, and then dumped back into
the river through a series of pipes.
Locals call this reach
the hatchery section, but this label can confuse first-time visitors
to the "Big D." This section is not stocked, although
a few fish escape the hatchery from time to time. However, the abundant
wild trout in this "miracle mile" grow big shoulders thanks
to the hatchery's oxgyen- and nutrient-rich effluent. Flip over
any rock here and you will see hundreds of midge and caddisfly larvae,
clinger mayfly nymphs, annelid worms, and a host of other invertebrates
that benefit from the nutrients. Cold water, tons of bugs, and big
trout make the mile or so below the dam the closest thing to a spring
creek in western North Carolina.
With easy access, easy
wading, and big, visible fish, the hatchery stretch gets pounded
by fly anglers. Many of them leave disappointed, though. The Davidson's
trout have adapted to the constant barrage of flies by becoming
highly selective about what and where they eat. I guide the Big
D more than 100 days each year, and the most common mistakes I
see people make are fishing flies that are too large or that don't
match common prey species using tippets that are too short and/or
too heavy, and presenting flies outside of the narrow feeding lanes
patrolled by these trout.
Chironomids are the single
most abundant insects throughout the Davidson, and the hatchery
stretch is rife with them. Anglers hoping for success on this section
need size-18 through -28 midge patterns and spools of 6X and 7X
tippet. A standard hatchery-stretch rig starts with an olive, cream,
or red midge larva pattern weighted with a few microshots, and a
midge pupa dropper. Seine the drift to determine which colors and
sizes of midges are most abundant. San Juan Worms, Glo-Bugs, and
small Green Weenies make good point flies.
Trout in the hatchery
stretch don't seem too spooky, and often allow anglers to approach
within a rod's length. Such behavior is easily explained: if the
fish stopped eating every time a human came by, they'd starve to
death. However, just because they don't shy away from anglers doesn't
mean the trout are not on guard. The most successful anglers keep
a low profile, make few false casts, use long tippets, and shun
large, bright strike indicators. Drift flies directly down each
trout's feeding lane—if you're off by an inch to either side, keep
trying until you bump the fish on die nose with the fly. Change
Below the hatchery, the
Davidson enters an area known as Horse Cove, a wide floodplain of
beaver ponds and grassy meadows where the river slows down into
long slicks divided by stretches of pocket water. Pools with names
like Lake James Hole and Roving Indian Joe Hole hold plentiful rainbows
averaging 10 inches, with a few wily brutes up to twice that size.
Slow-moving water allows fish to more closely inspect flies, so
use patterns with built-in movement: rubber-leg beetles, Soft Hackle
Pheasant Tails, or San Juan Worms. As usual, a midge larva or pupa
dropper often outfishes any point fly.
Horse Cove is my favorite
stretch of the Davidson for fishing streamers, especially when the
water runs off-color from heavy rains. I target undercut banks,
downed timber, rock walls, foamy eddies, and the tails of the bigger
pools, varying my retrieve, but usually stripping short and fast
to help fish locate the fly in dirty water. Black Wool Head Sculpins
and white Zonkers are top patterns. If those fail, dead-drift a
white Woolly Bugger below a yarn indicator to imitate a stunned
baitfish. One of my biggest Davidson browns—a hook-jawed, 24-inch
beast—fell to such a ploy several autumns ago. He was sitting below
a logjam, waiting patiently in the murky backwash.
Despite such occasional
good fortune, don't travel to the David-son expecting to catch a
huge trout. Kevin Howell, who owns Davidson River Outfitters, literally
grew up on the river's banks, fishing at the feet of his father
and uncle. One year while guiding, Howell spotted a monster brown
that spooked from a run, and he marked its location. For three years,
he watched the giant fish move between different feeding lies, depending
on the water level. Finally, in 2001, he hooked and landed the 9-pound
fish on a black Bunny Leech. He advises visiting anglers to "go
early, stay late, fish hard."
About half a mile below
Horse Cove, the Davidson meets Looking Glass Creek, which itself
offers miles of pocket water and plunge pools within easy reach
of U.S. Highway 276. Known for its 100-foot waterfall and popular
rock waterslide, Looking Glass Creek is also a great place to avoid
the Davidson's crowds and snooty fish. Below the Looking Glass confluence,
the Big D widens considerably and features long, smooth runs and
wide, glassy pools. The smooth surface magnifies mistakes made by
anglers, and demands long tippets, slack-line casts, and skilled
Most anglers fish nymph
patterns through the deepest, troutiest-looking portions of these
pools, including the broken water above and the drop-offs immediately
below. These areas certainly hold trout, but newcomers often bypass
the best holding lies by wading right through them on their way
to the obvious hot spots. Don't neglect the shallow edges, especially
where even a slight ribbon of current washes over cobblestone. Extremely
large trout sit on the margins in water barely able to cover their
backs, and you can entice them with a size-20 Parachute Adams if
you don't spook them first by pushing waves while wading.
For dry-fly purists,
the lower Davidson is pure nirvana. Decades-long monitoring by the
North Carolina Division of Water Quality shows that many pollution-intolerant
mayflies, including four Drunella species and seven Baetis species, thrive here. Size-18 through -22 Parachute BWOs or
olive Comparaduns are good imitations of these foul-weather-fan
mayflies, and a Rusty Spinner in the same sizes often fools large
fish at dusk in places like Coontree and Shut-in Pool. Clinger mayflies
such as Yellow Quills and Light Cahills also abound, making creamy
yellow parachute-style patterns good searching flies from May through
Winter and early spring,
before the crowds arrive, are my favorite times to pursue fish on
top. On most sunny days, midging fish can be found in the tails
or back eddies of the larger flats. The BWOs and Mahogany Duns
of March and early April really get the attention of the larger
fish, which seem to relish cripples and emergers more than the duns.
far the river's biggest star is the Green Drake, which traditionally
shows up around Memorial Day on the lower river. In 1987 and 2004,
Green Drake populations suffered from floods that washed out their
preferred silt habitat, but there are still a few to be found. The
river is also home to a little-known population of huge Litobrancha
recurvata mayflies. Substantially larger and darker than the
size-8 Green Drakes, the borrowing Litobrancha nymphs prefer
the same soft-bottomed habitat. Encountering either hatch is a hit-or-miss
proposition, often requiring many fruitless nights before finally
hitting pay dirt.
Anglers love mayflies,
but caddisflies far outnumber them in the lower section. Abundant
caddisflies include the net-building Cinnamon Caddisfly (Ceratopsyche), Little Olive Caddisfly (Cheumatopsyche), and Great
Gray Spotted Sedge (Arctopsyche). For the adult net spinners,
try an Elk Hair Caddis; the larvae and pupae are nicely imitated
by an olive or ginger Glass Bead Larva and a Deep Sparkle Pupa,
respectively. If you see trout flashing below the surface when adult
caddisflies are flitting about, try swinging DSPs or Poopahs on
a sinking-tip line.
The lower mile of public
water on the Davidson, from Avery Creek to the former Ecusta plant
intake, is heavily stocked to appease tourists and campers in the
adjacent Davidson River Campground. The lower D receives 1,100 trout
(browns, rainbows, and brookies) per month from March through August.
Anglers are allowed to keep seven fish per day, with no size restriction.
Amazingly, the stocked
portion of the Davidson doesn't get much traffic from fly fishers.
Maybe they don't want to consort with the worm-dunking crowd, or
perhaps they think that getting skunked on wild trout water is more
honorable than catching a bunch of stockers. Either way, they're
missing out. Granted, the lower D can seem like one long flotilla
of tubby tubers during summer months, but hatchery fish don't really
care. They move up into the riffles or under the canopied shadows
and let the masses float by. They'll still eat size-16 Tellico Nymphs
and foam hoppers with gusto.
Although it ranks as
one of the region's cleanest streams, the Davidson faces increasing
problems with sediment, most of which emanates from Forest Road
475, eroded trails, and hurricane-damaged banks. Trout Unlimited's
Pisgah Chapter, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Brevard
College, and the local Rotary Club, has been assessing the river's
biotic life, stabilizing banks, and fixing eroded trails in the
middle and lower Davidson. However, local conservation groups are
most concerned about a Forest Service plan to pave and widen FR475,
which transects the river's headwaters across highly erodible bedrock.
Despite these issues,
the Davidson remains a highly prized and productive trout stream,
and one of the best in the entire region. It offers something for
fly fishers of every bent, from productive roadside fishing to highly
challenging match-the-hatch action for large, well-educated rainbows
and browns. Add a healthy dose of forested scenery and it's easy
to succumb to the Davidson's Southern comfort.
Davidson River Notebook:
National Forest, 45 min. southwest of Asheville, NC. U.S. Hwy. 276
and FR 475-A follow the river for 8 mi.
Headquarters: Pisgah Forest and Brevard offer all services. Davidson
River Campground offers tent sites on the river. Brevard/Transylvania
Chamber of Commerce, (828) 883-3700, www.brevardncchamber.org.
Appropriate gear: 3- to -5 wt. rods, floating and sinking-tip lines.
Useful fly patterns: Nymphs: Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, Barr's Emerger,
Glass Bead Caddis Larva, Peeking Caddis, Kevin's Stone, Karnopp's
Stone, Caddis Borealis, Sheepfly, Deep Sparkle Pupa, Red Fox Squirrel,
San Juan Worm, Copper John, Lite Brite Prince, Rubber Leg Hare's
Ear, Fox's Poopah. Dries: BWO Parachute, Elk Hair Caddis,
Yellow Stimulator, Parachute Adams, Blue Quill, Rusty Spinner, Parachute
Sulphur, Pink Cahill, Hendrickson, Light Cahill, March Brown, Thunderhead,
Yellow Humpy, Tennessee Wulff, Chernobyl Ant, Foam Beetle, Dave's
Hopper, Green Paradrake. Midges: Disco Midge, UFO, Zebra
Midge, WD-40, Thread Larva, Jujubee Midge, Halo Emerger, RS-2, CDC
Midge Adult, Griffith's Gnat. Streamers: Black Bunny Leech,
White Zonker, Woolly Bugger.
Necessary accessories: Brimmed hat, rain gear, earth-toned clothing, polarized
glasses, sunscreen, insect repellent.
Nonresident license: $10/1 day, $15/3 days, $30/annual, plus a $10 annual trout