Fly fishing enthusiasts living in Columbia can experience some of the best opportunities in the sport and still make it home in time for dinner. In their own backyard, certain stretches of the Saluda River support healthy habitat for both brown and rainbow trout, but for those wanting to wet their line in a mountain stream, the lower chain of Appalachia is just a short drive up the interstate.
One of these Appalachian destinations for fly fishing is the Davidson River, which flows through the Pisgah National Forest. “The Davidson River receives consistent top ratings from Field and Stream. It’s a small river and offers a nice technical challenge for people familiar with fly fishing. It’s also close to Brevard, North Carolina, so if you want to make a weekend of it, you can camp along the river or find a nice place in town with a great restaurant nearby,” says Greg Allison.
Greg has spent most of his life in Columbia, but has several years of experience making camp and fly fishing along the banks of the Davidson River, as well as several other tributaries throughout the Appalachian Mountain chain. The cool mountain waters sustain healthy numbers of native brown and rainbow trout, and their populations are supplemented by the hatcheries.
Another popular fly fishing area of the Pisgah National Forest is the Mills River. “The northern part of the Mills River is a great spot for beginners. They stock the river from the hatcheries eight months of the year. There’s a lot of easy access, plenty of campgrounds nearby, and like the Davidson River, it’s also close to Brevard,” Greg says.
A delayed harvest program ensures plenty of fish swim the river with a mandatory catch-and-release law, but later in the season people are allowed to harvest the fish to rebalance the habitat. Those more experienced at fly fishing will enjoy the southern stretch of the Mills River. This section holds wild brook trout in the tiny tributaries feeding the main river. Greg says, “These small creeks are more technical, but any of the species found there, like the brook trout, will eat just about any dry fly that you throw at them.” He refers to fishing along the smaller creeks as “blue-line” fishing since they appear as little blue lines on a topographic map.
Next on the hit list of hotspots for Columbia’s avid anglers is Wilson Creek, which is also a part of the Pisgah National Forest and lies just west of Lenoir, North Carolina. Public campgrounds aplenty dot the area, and the waters are well-stocked by a nearby hatchery. In addition to the brown and rainbow trout from a hatchery, some smaller creeks and waterways offer more technical fishing and varied species.
The South Carolina side of Appalachia features the Chattooga River just west of Walhalla and Lake Keowee. This remote riverscape might not offer five-star lodging or fine dining, but for those wishing to escape an urban area, it delivers prime camping, a pristine habitat, and fly fishing opportunities for the veteran or novice. Columbia-native Sam Crews and Mary Margaret, his wife, steal away to this area as often as possible. “It’s a big clean river with lots of habitat and large brown trout along with some rainbows populating its waters. For beginners, it’s got a hatchery that’s nice to fish, and for those who are a little more advanced, brook trout like to hide in the plentiful feeder creeks,” Sam says, adding, “For Clemson fans who fly fish, the Chattooga River is an easy hop from the stadium after a noon game for some fishing and camping.”
Spring and fall are generally the best times of the year for an Appalachian fly fishing day trip or overnight excursion. In the spring, they’ll be biting on dry flies as the bug hatches of several species swarm the surfaces of the streams and rivers. “Bug hatches before sunset are one of the most exciting experiences in fly fishing,” Sam says. “Fish are swarming and breeching the water to get at them, and if you have the right dry fly, you’re playing with a fish on every cast.”
The term “dry fly” refers to flies used for fishing on top of the water, whereas “wet flies” refer to those flies used to fish below the water’s surface. Summers can also be productive, but if the water temperature rises above 70 degrees F, the oxygen content falls lower than the optimum range for catch-and-release fly fishing.
“Warmer water temperatures won’t provide the oxygen levels needed by trout to survive a catch-and-release fight,” Greg says. “There’s a chance they’ll die soon after you snap a photo and send them back downstream. In summer, it’s better to go after the delayed harvest season so you can make a meal of the trout you catch.” Though most of the year can be productive for fly fishing, both Greg and Sam agree fly fishing in the winter months is often a fool’s errand. Greg adds, “Aside from the uncomfortable feeling of being cold and wet, your fishing line will accumulate ice and pretty much every piece of your equipment that touches water will wind up getting iced over.”
Fly fishing in Lower Appalachia requires some recommended pieces of equipment that run the gamut in price from common and affordable to bespoke and expensive. First and foremost would be a fly rod. This can become a little confusing as they are classified by weight, and the named weight has nothing to do with the weight of the rod or fish but rather the weight of the line being used. Though most fly fishing can be done with an eight-weight rod, the five-weight rod is supremely suited for catching brown and rainbow trout in the rivers of Lower Appalachia.
“Acquiring a smaller two-weight rod with 5 to 7 feet of length will be helpful in the smaller creeks and rivulets when fishing for brook trout,” Sam says. He also recommends having some spare line for each rod and a wading staff for testing the ground while walking in the river.
The slippery rocks and shoals can be treacherous, so Greg suggests investing in the best non-slip footwear you can afford: “It’s better to spend your money on a pair of non-slip shoes and waders than spending your money at the hospital for a broken arm or broken leg.”
If waders are being used, having a wading belt to cinch them in the middle might mean the difference between life or death. “If you fall in and your waders are swamped, they’ll hold you down in the river and drown you,” Sam says. “Having a wading belt prevents the water from rushing in and filling them up too quickly.”
Trout have a layer of film on their skin that protects them from disease, so Greg recommends fishnets made of rubber or with a rubber coating. “Having nets like this is a responsible way of protecting the fish population,” he says. Greg also recommends having a pair of hemostats for removing the fly from the trout’s mouth without damaging it.
If a piece of gear winds up getting lost, damaged, or forgotten back in Columbia, local fly fishing shops sell anything you might need. Sam and Greg both recommend a trip to the local fly shop near the fishing hole, whether something is needed or not, because these places provide information on the area and what the fish are biting.
“Spending a little money on some extra flies can change your day on the river. Those guys in there will give you a lot of good information. If the fish are biting and you don’t have the right bug, you’ll be sorry you didn’t spend $10,” Greg says.
Sam also suggests beginners can save themselves some time and frustration by hiring a guide. “A beginner will be able to spend more time fishing and less time trying to figure things out.”
When time and temperature are cooperative, Columbia-based fly fishing enthusiasts can find their own little piece of heaven in a part of Lower Appalachia. Somewhere in the seclusion of a shallow mountain stream, the current flowing over the rocks causes little ripples on the water that glisten in the sun like beads of sequence. A hatch of insects above the surface triggers a feeding frenzy among the trout, and in spite of the excitement from this spectacle, the fidgety fingers of the angler find the right fly. Every cast confirms their correct selection with bite, after bite, after bite. The short trip up the mountain seems worth the extra effort, and leaving earlier in the morning means more potential for moments like this. By the time daylight succumbs to darkness, it is nice to know home is just a couple of hours away.