July 28, 2015
Bikers, through-hikers, and wild trout in southwestern Virginia and Tennessee
Virginia's Whitetop Laurel Creek ranks as one of the finest natural wild trout streams in the Southeastern U.S. Paralleled for long sections by both the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail, the creek offers backcountry adventures within a 15-minute drive of Interstate 81 in southwestern Virginia—one of the major transportation arteries in the East.
Rising in the confines of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Whitetop Laurel Creek begins as two tiny feeder streams: Little Laurel and Big Laurel. These rivulets flow in and out of private property through a mountain basin located near the hamlet of Konnarock. Downstream of Konnarock, Whitetop Laurel, by now a medium-size stream, enters a narrow gorge where access is via foot or bicycle trail only. Two special-regulation sections begin here, as well as several spectacular fishing stretches.
The 6 miles of Whitetop Laurel Creek below Konnarock beginning at Creek Junction—the confluence of Whitetop with Green Cove Creek—are designated artificials only, and all trout smaller than 12 inches must be released. Creek Junction, an access to both the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Appalachian Trail, is reached by the dead-end Creek Junction Road, just east of Damascus, Virginia. The approximately 4 miles of Whitetop below Creek Junction is known as the Taylor's Valley section.
Green Cove Creek is also special-regulations water for the first mile upstream from Creek Junction. Even with the 12-inch keeper rule, you'll see many larger trout in the Taylor's Valley section, with the Virginia Creeper Trail providing good spotter's access.
More fish from 14 to 20 inches apparently die of old age in the stream than fall prey to meat fishermen. Numerous wild rainbow trout are found in Whitetop, a rarity in the Southeast; and also a surprise in a stream where whirling disease has been detected but mostly held in check. Look for larger browns up to 20 inches or more sulking around logjams, undercut banks, and boulders.
The low-gradient first mile of Whitetop Laurel below Creek Junction has numerous large pools, and access for handicapped anglers. Downstream, the gradient increases and plunge pools alternate with riffles, and the canopy over the stream opens to allow easier casting.
Seasonal beaver ponds in this stretch provide exceptional "micro-stillwater" fishing. I like to hit them during the summer with small hopper and beetle patterns, which the trout slurp with amazing regularity.
At Taylor's Valley, a road-accessed section of hatchery-supported water divides the two special-regulations areas. (Virginia has chosen this management plan due to the private property in Taylor's Valley.)
Special regulations start again at the Daniel Boone Campsite on the Creeper Trail—where Boone really did sleep—at the boundary of Jefferson National Forest.
Another special-regulations section is the 2 miles below Boone Campsite to the Straight Branch trailhead, located only 3 miles from Damascus on U.S. Highway 58. This stretch has excellent pocketwater fishing.
While rainbows dominate the Taylor's Valley section, browns appear in equally high numbers down to Straight Branch. The Straight Branch area receives more fishing pressure than Taylor's Valley due to its proximity to Damascus. Even with the added traffic, many large wild trout swim in the Straight Branch area.
Bugs and Tactics
Whitetop Laurel's headwaters flow in and out of high-elevation private farmland. The low-elevation sections are within the boundaries of the Jefferson National Forest. Throughout, good water levels, trout-hospitable year-round temperatures, and nutrients and terrestrial life from local pastures and other grasslands help enrich the stream. Other factors that enhance fishing include special regulations and little fishing pressure.
A now retired fly-fishing magazine editor once told me, "The crowds go out West and fish elbow-to-elbow on the Big Hole, and leave the Southeast deserted for people like you and me."
I've also often heard small-stream fishing characterized as "easy," almost always by anglers who seldom do it. In reality small-stream angling can be easy, though only after a number of specialized skills are learned, such as cross-body roll casts.
On Whitetop Laurel, where sparse hatches are the rule rather than the exception, hatch matching isn't as important as hatch approximation, where the sporadic hatches require attractor flies. Harry Murray's springtime Virginia Wulff fly—the Mr. Rapidan—is the best-known example.
Other patterns such as ants, beetles, Parachute Adams, and #12-14 Stimulators work equally well or better on Whitetop Laurel, depending on the season and water level.
Whitetop Laurel is at its best during spring, as trout rise to almost any edible-looking dry.
Epeorus is the dominant mayfly in the South, and imitations ranging from the Mr. Rapidan to a spent Quill Gordon pattern to a #12 Parachute Adams provide great fishing. I've had more springtime success with a #12 Early Brown Stonefly and a #12 Quill Gordon Spinner than most other drys.
Late spring brings early hatches of Yellow Sallies, and Whitetop Laurel trout hammer #14 Dirty Sallies—dark versions of Mike Lawson's Henry's Fork Yellow Sally—all day long. The Dirty Sally represents a number of small yellow/tan stonefly and caddisfly species, and doubles as a Sulphur imitation in a pinch.
Terrestrial season begins as early as May on Whitetop and its tributaries. Letort Crickets and Hoppers, Harry Steeves's Firefly and TransparANT (two Virginia patterns), and various beetles work throughout the summer. A #12-14 Letort Hopper followed by a #14 Epoxy TransparANT dropper is highly effective. Fish this combination with confidence, and a long 12-foot spring creek-style leader, well into the low water of fall.
Winter fishing is usually a matter of dead-drifting small generic nymphs like Princes, Pheasant Tails, and Lightning Bugs, as well as smaller #10-12 Woolly Buggers.
Stoneflies, both tiny and large, as well as midges, predominate. Use either small soft-hackles or Griffith's Gnats for midging, and carry some larger #4-6 stonefly patterns and smaller #10-16 Copper Johns.
Because of the prolific nature of the winter stonefly hatches, pay close attention to the possibility of good mid-winter dry-fly fishing during periods of low water and warmer weather. The best fishing, as with all winter fishing, occurs during the midday hours.
Other Area Streams
Whitetop Laurel has one important wild-trout tributary, Beaverdam Creek, which flows northward out of Tennessee to join Whitetop in Damascus. While Whitetop offers a hike- or bike-in backcountry experience, the best sections of Beaverdam are roadside, via Tennessee 133, in the Cherokee National Forest. More than 6 miles of the creek are designated as wild-trout waters.
While Beaverdam is smaller than Whitetop Laurel, its fishing rivals that of its larger neighbor, especially for wild browns. Annual Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) stream surveys typically list Beaverdam Creek's browns as the largest in the state.
Tennessee Laurel Creek is another small tributary that joins Whitetop in Damascus. This stocked stream flows northward from Tennessee, offering good last-minute roadside fishing.
While small-stream fishing is the name of the game in the Whitetop Laurel area, two of the East's premier tailwater fisheries, the Watauga and South Holston, are located less than an hour away.
The Watauga River is the smaller of the two, accessible from the town of Elizabethton, Tennessee, and is known for its hatchery-supported rainbow trout fishing.
The South Holston tailwater near Johnson City, Tennessee, is considered by many to be one of the best wild brown trout fisheries in the country. A 1990s river survey by Tennessee Technological University documented what local anglers had been saying for years; that stream-bred brown trout dominated. Tennessee Tech found overwintering brown trout per surface area in numbers equaling or surpassing Utah's Green River and the White River in Arkansas. A size slot limit helps protect the fishery from the tailwater angling hordes.
A Whitetop Weekend
My wife M. J. and I wanted to avoid crowds on a recent Labor Day weekend and planned a first course of some big Virginia smallmouth bass, followed by Whitetop Laurel Creek trout fishing for dessert.
Upon arrival, our smallmouth river was jammed and we turned to Beaverdam Creek for relief. Months of dry weather had left Beaverdam almost devoid of good trout-prospecting flows, but we decided to try it anyway.
Six browns and one rainbow fell for a #16 Steroid Beetle in the first long pool I fished. Four of the browns fit into the 12- to 16-inch range, and several others escaped before being landed.
Weather moved in overnight, providing the mountains with a welcome soaking. It also afforded us plenty of cover at Taylor's Valley on Whitetop Laurel the following day.
A sneaky approach put us within a few feet of normally skittish fish. We caught trout until we tired of it, and saw few of the bikers who normally crowd the trail on holiday weekends. There were no other fly fishers.
Later that afternoon the stream became slightly discolored from trail runoff, the fishing declined, and we called it a day—a pleasant, soggy end to an exceptional Whitetop Laurel weekend.