The Western North Carolina mountains are one long spidery network of watery blue lines and drainages – some easily accessible and unavoidable but many virtually pristine – each feeding into the next slightly larger stretch of water. Explore into one vein of these headwaters and you will find Creel Lodge sitting at the end of a single-lane unpaved road perched above Middle Creek just before it reenters the Nantahala Game Land after wandering in and out in the Wild Trout Water higher up. That’s where the road just kind of fades out so we are right on the edge of accessibility and taking in the pristine with each breath. There’s quiet, there’s North Carolina quiet, there’s Blue Ridge quiet, and then there’s Creel Lodge quiet.
For the details and the specs on Creel Lodge, I can’t say it any better or clearer than your host, Keith, so I’ll just refer you to Creel Lodge’s website for the details but to get a feel for what you’ll find when you come here, keep reading. I’m pretty verbose so you may have to read for a bit but what’s the fun in words if you can’t use them. At least I’m not James Fenimore Cooper who might spend three pages describing a single ray of sunshine piercing the rhododendron cover shielding Middle Creek’s secrets to illuminate only for a few heartbeats…I could go on. Well, HE could go on…
Anyway, I was able to visit Creel Lodge with Ernie King of Fish Tale’s Outfitters about 20 minutes up the road in Franklin, NC. He was kind enough to escort us across the property from Lower Beat all the way up above the picnic spot before we had to return to Highlands – about 40 minutes away to meet my wife and my mom for lunch at the Old Edwards Inn. Yes, there is Relais Chateaux hospitality and elegance just up the road so keep that tucked away when you have been tasked with planning a romantic weekend and you want to come to Creel Lodge for a few days. But Ernie showed us each pool, plunge, channel, run up Middle Creek and each harbored anywhere from a couple to dozens of trout. I’ll get to specifics in a minute but the private stretch that Creel Lodge owns and maintains is alive and at times boiling with Rainbow, Brown, and Brook trout. But why would you come to Creel Lodge for a few days anyways? Well, why do you like fly fishing in the first place?
Personally, I find fly fishing to be restorative and therapeutic and all about the experience and the moment and not about the fish. My first attempt at communicating this to anyone (www.bluelinesflyfishing.com) didn’t actually feature any fish on it at all but solely relied on the Water and the emotion to convey fly fishing’s impact. While Middle Creek is NOT big water and can NOT be compared to wading the Tuck or the East Outlet of the Kennebec or even the Roach or the Upper CT River, Middle Creek is as intimate and private and pristine as one can hope to find within sight and sound of modern plumbing and a meticulously renovated mountain lodge. As I have hinted previously, Creel Lodge rests in a narrow, steep mountain valley and much like skiing in Taos or Alta, is a part of the artwork of the mountains and not just on the edge looking in at a pretty picture “over there”. At Creel Lodge, you are in the painting. And that’s before you even start exploring the water.
We visited in mid-August when most of the trout waters in WNC basically shut down. It’s not actually “closed” but water temps and water levels make the late summer the low-season for WNC trout fishing with few exceptions. Even then, it’s generally good form to let the trout rest and just survive as water temps can easily climb above 70 degrees and stress most trout increasing mortality rates.
The magic number ranges between 65 and 68 depending on who you ask. There are always exceptions but there is a reason why the NC Wildlife stocks close to 1.5 million trout across the state beginning in October and ending in May. And, there is a reason why the Delayed Harvest water across the state does not permit harvesting during that stretch but encourage harvest the first weekend in June because most of those fish will not make it through summer. However, higher elevations and tighter valleys with close vegetation and canopy cover offer cooler temps and a protection from the sun so as the WNC summer blazes on down below, streams at about the 2,500’ elevation mark tend to support year-round populations of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout. And wouldn’t you know it, Creel Lodge sits just a little bit above 2,300’ on Middle Creek with its “back yard” quickly climbing into the Blue Lines (great name, huh?) climbing over 3,000’ with mountain peaks approaching 3,500’. So, even in the summer, Creel Lodge is fed directly by cold, higher-elevation, oxygen-rich plunging WNC mountain water supporting the wild trout at the southern higher end of the property and a mix of wild and stocked fish at the northern lower end of the property with the Lodge overlooking several runs and a few plunges that hold that mix of wild and stocked. This mid-August day brought 65-degree water right by the Lodge. We were not there to fish that day but to explore and it was comforting to see that even at the tail end of summer and the water levels were a little low, the temps held right in the upper end of the trout’s “happy place”.
Something else to note is that your Host, Keith, has gone to great lengths to make Middle Creek safe and accessible to pretty much anyone not in a wheelchair. I qualify that because the trails are not Handicap Accessible but I was recovering from a subchondral bone bruise in one knee (and developing one in the other) so my mobility was severely compromised but the trails were just fine. Plus, many of the access points had handrails made from local wood so it all blended into the environment and was highly functional allowing me to access the creek and take the photos that you see. So, Keith, thank you for making it so this 52-year-old with low-functioning knees could still see and access all of the spots that you have created.
Now, what did I see? After marveling at the setting for probably too long, Ernie took us downstream towards the Lower Beat – the large pool on the other side of the HUGE rock shielding us from capturing the entire pool. However, Keith has a great video on the Creel Lodge website so you can savor the splendor there. But, right off the gravel path, there were several small plunges and channels along the way each looking probable for tightline nymphing, multiple short swings with soft hackles and even drifts with dries. We started out mid-morning after light overnight rain and there were small bugs coming off the water – Yellow Sally’s? Small Caddis??? – that continued throughout the morning so size 18 probably would have matched but a 16 or even 14 would have enticed an opportunistic feeder.
The Lower Beat fishes from the lower end of the pool accessed by crossing the stream above that huge rock I mentioned. Keith has installed a wire cable spanning the Creek high enough above the pool allowing folks like me to cross safely and avoid disturbing the fish down below. So, while I generally recommend using a wading staff in most cases, this is not one of those moments. Though, I suppose that if you’re working your way down through those plunges and runs just above you might appreciate a staff but you won’t need it crossing the stream here.
After enticing some of the Lower Beat’s denizens to breach and put themselves on display for the camera, we headed back upstream, past the Lodge towards some of the other access points along the Creek. In addition to some deeper elongated pools, we found some larger plunges (see photos) that each looked great for tightlining but even at low-water, there was some current so bring some lead-free split shot and/or Perdigon-like nymphs to get down quickly.
Just above one of the longer pools that, again, was boiling with fish, Keith has set up a ring of tree stumps as a snack stop just in case. “Trekking” through the well-maintained bottoms alongside Middle Creek is nothing like slogging through the bogs of the Maine interior looking for native brook trout or even unwisely bush whacking a rhododendron forest blanketing the mountainside of the Joyce Kilmer Forest (I’ve done both) so this snack stop is not placed here to recuperate from extreme fatigue. However, with a little forethought, it WOULD be a great spot for a strategically stashed bottle of Macallan or my bother-in-law’s Master Distiller winning moonshine (contact me privately) to help ward off the WNC winter chill.
After an early morning nip…Ok, that nip might take place on the way back to the Lodge… a stable and sturdy footbridge brings you to the other side of the Creek if you so desire. There is stream access on both sides allowing you to access more plunges and runs (see photos) but in order to reach the lunch spot and the Upper Beats and falls, you will need to cross here. We made it up to the picnic area just off the water alongside an extended pool/run holding masses of fish (see my last two videos).
We marveled for about two hours to get to this point and did not have the time to explore further but Keith’s video covers everything that I was not able to witness firsthand. I can say, however, that his photos and videos do not oversell Middle Creek. It is not an Atlantic Salmon spawning river up in Newfoundland and it’s not a S. Holsten, Watauga or Tuck float trip – though those are not too far away – but it IS as intimate and comfortable as one could want to hide away in plain sight for a few days to reconnect with friends, family, or just to reacquaint yourself with Mother Nature. I say hiding in plain sight because you will feel worlds away but in reality, you are
Plus, if you’re in the middle of it and you need a break from fishing or if your Spouse or Partner or buddy prefers the Wild or the birds over fly fishing, Creel Lodge happens to sit n the western edge of the Audubon North Carolina Highlands Plateau Important Bird area with 90 or so breeding species plus an impressive variety of Warblers. Plus PLUS, the Lodge sits just to the west of the Golden Winged Warbler Focal Area.
Creel Lodge is certainly off the beaten path but not terribly so. You will think that you've separated yourself from the world - definitely YOUR world - but the Lodge's comforts, amenities and ease of access can bring you in and out of a WNC fly fishing dream depending your desire to disconnect. Or connect, depending on your prespective.
Please contact me here if you have questions or if you are ready to book your next adventure at Creel Lodge. Or, if you want to reach out to your host directly, please visit Creel Lodge.
Completely surrounded by Wild Trout Water and the Blue Lines
About 20 Minutes to Franklin
40 minutes to Highlands making it about 1:40 from Brevard
45 to the Tuckaseegee DH below Sylva
70 minutes from Nantahala DH
60 minutes to Bryson City and the Tuck DH floating
2:10 from Atlanta
3:20 from Charlotte
So, it’s all right there.
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