Fly Fishing the Pigeon River Near Asheville, NC

We slid down a steep bank covered with waist to shoulder high foliage. Every plant was a brilliant green from the consistent days of rain. Reaching the bottom, we found the small game trail that wove through the briars and poison ivy. I stopped to take my bearing. In front of us flowed the Pigeon River which was slightly elevated due to the consistent rain. To my right and left was and expansion of wide, thick undergrowth.

A few days before, my wife and I had landed in Asheville, NC for a wedding. The area had been experiencing heat waves and widespread showers for several months. Many of the frequently fished rivers and streams were surging with a large amount of muddy water which made them near impossible to fly fish. So I would have to focus on finding trout in calmer waters.

North Carolina has a very well managed Public Mountain Trout Waters program. The cold mountain waters offers fishing almost year round. In many places the water temperature remains low enough that wild trout will spawn consistently to replenish the streams population during the year. In other trout designated streams the trout population are hatchery supported. The average temperatures in these streams will sustain trout but will not allow them to spawn so fish are added monthly during the season.

Access to the information on the streams designated as Public Mountain Trout Waters is easily accessible on the North Carolina Fish and Game Website. There they provide maps, easily read regulations, and access points listed by county.

I was new to fishing the area. Even with the online aids I was still a little overwhelmed. Luckily enough, a friend had fished the streams in and around Asheville a couple of weeks before and made some suggestions. One of those suggestions was the Pigeon River which was now stretched out in front of me.

I paused momentarily on the trail and looked back at my fishing partner-of-the-day, D’Mitri, to see which way he wanted to go. He shrugged his shoulders. I gestured my head to follow and cast a warning about keeping an eye out for snakes. The trail twisted through the underbrush and abruptly ended at the water’s edge about a quarter of a mile from where we began.

Pigeon River near Canton, NC

I studied the water and noticed several promising pockets upstream from our current location. There the knee deep water swirled past poised rocks and then settled into calm flat pool of water. Flashes of silver could be seen moving throughout the water. We both stood on the bank and studied the water as I filled him in on how to watch for the fish in the water. This was D’Mitri’s first time fishing and I took it upon myself to try and give him to best experience possible so he would be motivated to try again.

I stepped into the water and gestured for D’Mitri to follow. Surprised at seeing me waist deep in the water he reluctantly stepped in. The slick moss covered rocks made for a slow stream crossing as we tried to balance each step. We made it to the other side and began following another trail upstream towards the calm pool.

That morning we had stopped by Curtis Wright Outfitters, the local fly shop in Asheville, to purchase some flies and other equipment. Even here the ease of fly fishing this area was present. I inquired about the proper fly for our trip and was referred to a placard hanging near the register. This placard showed the suggested flies to use on each type of designated trout waters and the upcoming weather. I told the cashier where I was going and he recommended I use a menagerie of flies from two different categories for the Pigeon River. I then mentally chose my flies and selected them from the case. I ended up purchasing about a dozen flies of different sizes and patterns.

At the river’s edge we dropped out gear and stepped again into the water. The temperature was beginning to creep towards the upper nineties and the coolness of the water was at just the right temperature that you would rather be in than out. We waded out into the middle of the stream. I handed D’Mitri the fly rod and tied on a Caddis Dry Fly.

I pointed out a location on the stream which looked promising so he began casting using the same method I had taught him earlier in the parking lot. Each time he cast he was able to comfortably move the fly a little further away from the previous spot. We each traded off, casting into different areas as we worked upstream from where we had waded in.

I noticed the sun was almost directly above us now as the day crept past noon. The day was mild in comparison to the previous days’ sweltering heat. I began casting towards the shadows which were formed by the overhanging branches. The water was clear enough that we could see the trout ascend and strike at the fly. He hit it and I waited briefly for him to run but nothing happened. The fly rose back to the surface. I drew it back and casted again, setting it a little further upstream so it could drift into place. No fish rose to meet the fly. I tried again and this time had another hit following the same process ending with the fly rising back to the surface. I handed the rod to D’Mitri while I frantically searched my fly box for a smaller version of the same fly.

Naturally, the only type of fly I had two of the same size. All the other varieties I had purchased a smaller and a larger. Not the one I needed! D’Mitri and I took turns trying to land a fish with the larger fly. Each of us received several hits but no fish. I swapped out the fly to a similarly colored pattern. No luck with this one. Nothing would hit it. We changed back to the Caddis and moved upstream to try some deeper holes for larger fish. We could see the flashes of their bellies as they moved from the shadows to the sunlight but we couldn’t get them to surface for the fly. One positive to the whole thing is that D’Mitri seemed to be enjoying himself.

As the day wore on the fact that we hadn’t caught any fish was beginning to set in. It was frustrating and was taking its toll on our expedition. I could see another hole further up the stream but the water was deeper ahead and didn’t allow an easy trip. I suggested that we slowly work out way back towards the car.

We waded back towards the shore and started on the trail again. This time I would stop and fish the small areas of rapids. I tied on a woolyworm wet fly with a small lead weight about a foot above the fly. I landed it at the base of the pool and let it drift into the quicker water. I walked parallel along the bank as my fly traveled down the stream. I saw a small pool of water near the opposite side of the bank ahead of my fly. It looked promising so I drew my fly back and repositioned it so it would travel into the pool.

The fly moved down into the pool but I didn’t feel anything take the fly as I had hoped.  The yellow line continued to drift downstream. I pulled back on the fly but it wouldn’t budge. Great, it was snagged on another submerged branch. I had already pulled a couple from the river. I reeled in my excess line and walked towards the water. I pulled the tip of the rod back and was surprised at what I saw. A small 12” rainbow trout was on the end of the line. I tightened the line and yelled for D’Mitri who was about twenty yards ahead of me. He looked back but didn’t understand me. He continued walking towards our original crossing point.

I reeled in the fish and dislodged the hook from its mouth. I held it up against my arm. The pins and greens sparkled in the sunlight like a freshly painted canvas. It barely made it past my wrist. I hated that if I didn’t keep it that I would be going home with no fish.  My conscious took the best of me and I placed the fish back in the water. I held it softly so it could catch its breath and then watched as it darted back into the rippling water. I cast one more time in the same spot and let it drift down the stream feeling nothing. I pulled the line back past my shoulder and caught a tree. I put tension on the line and it popped back to my feet. I held the tip of the line up to reveal that my fly was still tangled in the tree signaling a time to head home.

Overall, I was happy that I did catch a fish while on a North Carolina River. I think I am happier that I had the opportunity to teach someone a sport that I so truly hold dear. The trip was well worth the time spent, the fish missed, and the flies lost because in the end it isn’t always about catching…. It’s about fishing.

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