American Fly Fishing

Making Memories
By Nick Roberts

North Carolina’s famous Davidson River is one of those moody trout streams that can reward you with the biggest brown of your life one day, but leave you scratching your head the next. With its highly pressured fish and water as clear as moonshine, even seasoned anglers may struggle on the Davidson, while the novice fly fisher may wonder why he or she even bothered to bring a landing net in the first place.
   But on days when the fish are cooperating, it is easy to see why Trout Unlimited included this gem of a river in its guidebook, America’s 100 Best Trout Streams. Without question, the Davidson is one of the top freestone rivers in the Southeast, producing quality rainbows and browns year after year.
   Before moving to south Florida to work in bonefish and tarpon conservation, I guided on the Davidson for six years. During that time, I was on the river day in and day out, in good conditions and bad. I fished the Davidson during high water, low water, in the dead of winter, and in the heat of late summer. Experiencing the river in such a wide range of conditions left me with a solid understanding of the fishery and plenty of thoughts on how anglers can optimize their time on the water.
  I also learned a great deal about the fishery from Kevin Howell, who owns Davidson River Outfitters (DRO) and started fishing the river as a boy in 1980 with his father, Don, and his uncle, Dwight. Howell recalls that, during the 1970s, the Davidson produced the state-record brown trout at least twice. The first record fish was caught by Kevin’s uncle; the second was caught a year later by Kevin’s dad.
   J. E. B. Hall, guide and author of The Southern Appalachian Fly Guide, taught me a lot as well. Davidson River Outfitters guides Walker Parrott, Jeff Furman, and Than Axtell also know the Davidson inside and out, and were gracious enough to share many of their insights with me. Because of the river’s technical difficulty, visiting anglers, or those new to the sport, would be wise to hire one of these experienced guides for at least half a day. This is a wise investment of time and money, as it will cut down significantly on the river’s steep learning curve.
   Formed below the Blue Ridge Parkway by six small tributaries, the Davidson flows for approximately 17 miles through Pisgah National Forest, receiving clear, cold water from Looking Glass Creek and Avery Creek along the way. For about 14 miles, from its headwaters to the Avery Creek confluence, the Davidson is managed under year-round catch-and-release, fly-only regulations, and is not stocked. The majority of this C&R stretch is accessible from US Highway 276 and Forest Road 475-A. Fish can be kept only if they are caught between Avery Creek and the national forest boundary near the town
of Brevard.
   After leaving federal land, the Davidson runs through private property for roughly 3 miles before joining the French Broad River, which flows north toward the city of Asheville. While you may see kayakers on the Davidson during high flows, the fishing is done by wading, as the river is too narrow for drift boats and most rafts. Breathable waders suffice throughout the year, but many anglers choose to wet-wade during the summer months, when the river’s temperature is in the mid-60s and the air temperature can reach a high of 90 degrees.
   Given the slippery, moss-covered rocks, I strongly recommend wearing wading boots with good felt or rubber soles. If you have difficulty wading, use a staff; while the river’s average flows make for generally safe wading conditions, the cobblestone often shifts underfoot and sections of exposed bedrock can be very slick. As in any mountain environment, the weather in Pisgah National Forest can change rapidly. Take a rain jacket and wear plenty of layers if you fish during the winter, spring, or fall. It is also worth noting that there is no cellphone reception along the Davidson in Pisgah National Forest, so if you’re fishing alone, tell someone what section of the river you’ll be on.
   The Davidson has three distinct sections. The upper Davidson runs from the headwaters through a rugged mile-long gorge. Though they are choked with overhanging rhododendrons, each of the Davidson’s six aforementioned feeder streams offers good fishing for small, wild rainbows, especially during the summer. Anglers may also encounter native southern Appalachian brook trout high on the Davidson, as well as the occasional brown. When fishing the headwaters, I prefer a 6- to 7-foot, 2- or 3-weight rod. The tight quarters call for high-sticking and short, precise roll casting. In every little nook and cranny, you’ll find fish more than willing to rise for a well-presented attractor pattern, such as a yellow Stimulator or Tennessee Wulff. Effective droppers include Copper Johns, Prince Nymphs, and Flashback Pheasant Tails.
  Once its upper tributaries converge, the Davidson flows into the gorge, part of which can be reached via the Davidson River Trail. Exercise caution when fishing this remote stretch; the steep gradient makes for tough wading and hiking, and the gorge is home to timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. Beautiful wild browns and rainbows inhabit the slots and plunge pools, where they feed on the plentiful stonefly nymphs and caddisfly larvae. During spring and summer, large terrestrials and bushy dry flies will occasionally entice the gorge’s wary trout to rise from their deep lies, but nymphs are usually your best bet. Pat’s Rubber Legs and Kevin’s Stonefly both make excellent point flies on a heavily weighted nymph rig. Try fishing them beneath an indicator on a 9- to 10-foot leader, with a Pheasant Tail, BWO Emerger, or caddisfly pupa as a dropper.
   The middle section of the Davidson runs from the bottom of the gorge to Looking Glass Creek, one of the river’s two main tributaries. After leaving the gorge, the Davidson flattens and passes over a spillway dam. At this point, a couple thousand gallons are diverted into the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery, where the water is oxygenated, pumped through the runs, and then flushed back out into the river through a system of pipes. This stretch of the Davidson receives the most angling pressure by far and is home to some notoriously picky trout. If you don’t like crowds, this section is not for you. But if you don’t mind company and enjoy sight-fishing to big fish with tiny flies, you’ll enjoy yourself.
   Although it is known as “the hatchery section,” this mile-long stretch of the Davidson is not stocked. The trout that reside near the hatchery, which supports a number of area streams, are wild fish drawn to its nutrient- and oxygen-rich discharge, which contains midge larvae and occasionally pellets, eggs, and dead fry. According to guide and author Hall, this section of the river “exists in an alternate reality.” I couldn’t agree more. The extra food flowing out of the hatchery, coupled with the river’s abundant bug life, allows the resident trout to grow quite large with little effort. However, anglers target these trout every day of year, so they’ve seen every fly under the sun; catching them requires a flawless drift and a good selection of midges. The most effective method of fishing the hatchery section is high-stick nymphing with an 8- to 8.5-foot, 4- or 5-weight rod.
   A few simple things can improve your chances of landing a trophy brown or rainbow in this section of the river. As you may have guessed, these fish are extremely tippet-shy and do not respond well to bright indicators. I usually fish a 9-foot nylon leader with about 18 inches of 6X or 7X fluorocarbon tippet, depending on water clarity. If you prefer to nymph with an indicator, try wool, yarn, or the small stick-on variety. Personally, I like to use an indicator at the hatchery section, not so much to see when the trout strike, but to use as a reference point for where my midges are likely drifting. The bite at the hatchery section is often subtle, so it’s a good idea to target a specific fish and watch its body language as you drift flies past it. If the fish moves a couple of inches to the left or right, or if your indicator seems to be out of rhythm with the current for an even an instant, set the hook.
   When it comes to fly selection on the hatchery section, the basic rule of thumb is to fish size 20 through 28 naturalistic patterns, and to avoid gold beadheads, which tend to give the resident trout a terrible case of lockjaw. Leave the Copper Johns and BH Prince Nymphs in the truck; the fish in the hatchery section are far too educated to fall for standard fare. To catch them on a consistent basis during average flows, you need to match the size and color of the ever-present midges they are feeding on, even if that means fishing a size 26 or smaller. Try Blood Midges, RS2s, Zebra Midges, and WD-40s. 
   Veteran Davidson River guide Furman also suggests UFO midges in cream, tan, or gray. During the spring and summer, a green inchworm pattern makes for a great point or “sighter” fly. The same goes for pink, orange, or yellow micro-eggs during the fall and winter. As is the case with many other trout streams, light-colored flies work best in the spring and summer, while darker flies are most effective in fall and winter. Dry-fly fishing on the hatchery section can be hit or miss. The best time to look for risers is during the evening in the spring and summer months. Try a Griffith’s Gnat, small Elk Hair Caddis, PMD, beetle, or ant. Look for big browns sitting shallow in the riffles or sipping flies at the tailout of a pool.
   Below the hatchery, the Davidson enters Horse Cove, a beautiful stretch of river composed of long slicks, small riffles, and pocket water. The fish are more spread out in this area than they are in the hatchery section, and there is considerably less angling pressure. The wild rainbows found in the riffles and pockets are usually 8 to 10 inches, but much larger fish lurk beneath the undercut banks and around structure.
   The lower Davidson begins about 0.5 mile downstream of Horse Cove, at the river’s confluence with Looking Glass Creek, a great option for small-stream enthusiasts. Below Looking Glass, the Davidson stretches out, forming large pools, wide slicks, and long runs, which make for excellent nymphing water. With its variety of hatches, dry-fly aficionados will also love the
lower Davidson.
   “Late April through late May offers the best dry-fly fishing of the year, with Sulphurs, PMDs, Hendricksons, caddis, and Yellow Sallies sometimes all hatching on the same day,” says Howell. “But the Quill Gordon hatch in late February through late March is my favorite. The fish are just warming up and wanting to feed. While you will see fish actively rising, lightly weighted nymphs fished just below the surface will usually produce more fish than a dry fly.”
   Hall and Howell agree that you should also be sure to stick a few inchworm patterns in your box if you are planning to fish the river during the spring or summer. “While not a true hatch, the inchworms that inhabit the riverbank trees from mid-May to mid-September are by far one of the most important food sources for the river’s trout,” Howell explains. 
   Indeed, simple chenille patterns imitating this bright-green terrestrial have caught countless fish for Davidson River anglers over the years. A well-presented inchworm can be effective both on the surface and when fished wet. During the summer months, carry lots of beetles, ants, and hoppers as well, as these terrestrials can often entice even the wariest of browns to rise.
   Given the clear water and pressured fish, a long leader, a stealthy approach, and precise mending are critical to success throughout the Davidson, but especially in the lower section. Often you get only one or two opportunities for every piece of water you fish, so make the most of them. And don’t focus all of your efforts on the obvious runs and pools. “You would be surprised at the size of the fish you can find laid up in water many anglers would consider B-rate,” Furman notes.
   Downstream of the Avery Creek confluence, the catch-and-release, fly-only regulations end. This next stretch of the river runs alongside the Davidson River Campground and is stocked on a regular basis. Bait can be used, and the water is often crowded with tubers and swimmers, so I recommend avoiding this section of the river during the warm months of the year.
   Below the hatchery-supported section, the Davidson leaves Pisgah National Forest and enters private property, through which it flows for approximately 3 miles before meeting the mighty French Broad, home to smallmouth bass and muskies. Anglers can access this private stretch of the Davidson by obtaining a day pass from Davidson River Outfitters, located right outside the entrance to the National Forest. DRO is the only outfitter permitted to guide on this stretch of the river, which is limited to 10 anglers at a time and is strictly catch-and-release, fly-only. This section holds a mix of stocked fish, very large holdover fish, and beautiful wild fish. Reserving a spot on DRO’s private waters is a great way to avoid the summer crowds on the public waters; DRO also offers guided trips on this section of the river, which has produced many trophy rainbows and browns over the years.
   In addition to the quantity and quality of its trout, what stands out to me about the Davidson is the incredible diversity of its waters. If streamer fishing is your game, you can fish Zonkers and Slump Busters through the deep pools and runs, and all along the steep undercut banks. If you’re a dry-fly purist, you can sight-fish to risers in the long slicks at daybreak and well into the evening. If nymphing is your thing, you can high-stick double nymph rigs through the miles of trout-filled riffles and pocket water. Without question, fishing the Davidson for any considerable amount of time will make you a better angler across all three major disciplines of the sport. And the river’s challenging nature makes each hard-earned trout all the more memorable and rewarding.


Florida-based Nick Roberts is the membership and communications manager for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.


The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.