Part of the great Southern woodlands, the Cherokee National Forest is the scene for the best fishing in the region.
The sun settled behind a distant mountain peak, daylight winking away as a leather-clad hunter eased slowly along a game trail. His flintlock rifle had grown heavy and his leaden legs struggled. Topping the steep ridge, he heard a rustling to his rear. At first glance he saw nothing, then slowly from the gloom emerged a beast unlike any other.
It was half-woman, half cat, and the hunter knew he had intruded upon the home of the wampus cat. The apparition stood a head higher than he could reach. It, or she, howled with a cry of desperate longing. For food or what? He only knew that even if he fired the flintlock and even if he hit the beast, the wampus cat would be upon him long before death found her. He dropped his rifle and fled like the wind down the other side of the mountain.
They say that the wampus cat was once a beautiful Cherokee Indian woman. She was jealous of the fact that she could not accompany her husband on hunting trips, so one day she clad herself in the fur of a mountain lion and secretly followed the hunting party.
That night she hid and listened as the men gathered around the campfire telling their sacred stories, stories which were forbidden to be told to the women of the tribe. Leaning from her hiding place to hear better, the medicine man caught sight of her. They fell upon her and the medicine man bound her into the mountain lion skin, casting a spell that turned her forever into the terrible monster known as the wampus cat. Doomed to roam the mountains of East Tennessee, she howls in agony and desire to return to her former body.
This legendary story has absolutely no basis in fact. The Cherokee National Forest, however, is filled with the unknown. With more than a half-million acres of rugged, mountainous forest ribboned by turbulent mountain streams, how can it not hold a certain amount of mystery?
“You feel as if you have stepped into an area untouched by civilization,” says Rob Prytula. When he’s not teaching at Chattanooga State, Prytula is an avid trout fisherman and an active member in the Chattanooga-area Trout Unlimited conservation organization with an admitted addiction to fishing in the Cherokee National Forest.
“Trout live in beautiful places and the Cherokee National Forest is one of these places with stunning scenery,” he says. “The rivers and streams are gin clear and the mountains make the perfect backdrop. It is a great resource and not a very long drive from Chattanooga.”
That depends, of course, upon which part of the Cherokee National Forest (CNF) you visit. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the 650,000-acre national forest stretches from the Tennessee/Georgia border, all the way to Virginia. It is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee and includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as just a piece of its grand puzzle. Visitors can explore more than 600 miles of trails, paddle seven whitewater rivers, enjoy 30 campgrounds, see or sometimes hunt abundant wildlife—and not least of all—they can fish!
“We have tremendous opportunities for fishing on the forest,” says Jim Herrig, U.S. Forest Service Aquatic Biologist. “We have streams, ponds and even reservoirs.” Herrig has been the man responsible for managing the waters of the southern half of the Cherokee National Forest for 28 years. He has seen many changes in those decades, most of them good.
“The Ocoee was once a dead river. It really was a completely dead river,” he says. Now well-known as a popular whitewater stream, the Ocoee used to be devoid of fish due to the gross pollution created by the copper mines at Copperhill, Tennessee. Herrig and other scientists surveyed a section of the Ocoee River in 1995, just before the Olympic paddling events were held there.
“We surveyed a three-mile section of stream up around the Olympic venue and we found a grand total of three fish,” he says. “We used scuba diving, snorkeling, seining and electrofishing… we used everything we had and we only found a total of three fish.”
Herrig says that began to change in 2004. That’s when the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, along with the EPA created a superfund site near Copperhill. The multi-million dollar project now filters most of the water coming off of the copper spoils, removing all the heavy metals and correcting the pH before the water is released into the Ocoee River.
Herrig says, “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the fish in the Ocoee System. Now we go in and sample every year and in a day we’ll count over a thousand fish. I think we’re up to 13 species. It’s been an incredible recovery. It’s really exciting to document this amazing comeback.”
The Ocoee feeds Parksville Lake, now home to three Tennessee state record fish—the Alabama spotted bass (7 lbs.), the Coosa bass (1 lb., 15 oz.) and the yellow perch (2 lbs., 2 oz.).
Kevin Drake fishes Parksville Lake every week. Drake is only 23, but even in his few years he has been excited to see the resurgence of Parksville. “I’m glad to see the lake improve so much,” says Drake. “It’s just a completely different lake now.”
Warmwater fish, however, are not what the Cherokee National Forest is best known for. The waters of the forest also claim three other Tennessee state record fish (brook trout, ohrid trout and lake trout). Trout fishermen, like Prytula, regularly ply more than 300 miles of coldwater streams.
“My favorite streams are the Tellico and Hiwassee Rivers,” says Prytula. “The Tellico provides native fish in a gorgeous setting and the Hiwassee offers good numbers of [stocked] fish and it’s just a short drive from home.” Much of Herrig’s work these days, with some “sweat equity” provided by organizations like Trout Unlimited, is devoted to protecting numerous endangered species in the forest waters, and to re-establishing populations of brook trout—the only trout truly native to Tennessee.
“When we first stocked brook trout they were mostly fish brought in from New York and Pennsylvania,” adds Herrig. “They grew very big, but we learned they couldn’t reproduce since they weren’t adapted to our climate. Now we’re trying to restock with native brook trout that are adapted to this area. We’re seeing that not only can they compete with rainbows, they’ll actually push the rainbows out. So when you use the right genetic strain you can see the brook trout doing good.”
Many Cherokee National Forest streams also provide wild rainbow or brown trout, versus stocked trout. Wild trout are born and bred in the streams. They are not raised in a concrete hatchery, and then hauled to the forest in a big tank where they are dumped unceremoniously into the river. They are born and bred where they live. Anglers say wild trout are far more challenging.
“Wild trout have been raised in the river and are smart,” says Prytula. “They have dodged kingfishers, herons, ospreys, otters, mink and even bigger trout. Fooling a wild trout into taking your fly is a real accomplishment because you have just matched your talents against a truly wild creature.”
For Herrig the real appeal for wild trout, and many other fish in the Cherokee National Forest, is where they live.
“The country is extremely beautiful,” he says. “The best fishing is usually away from the trails and roads. You get into the back country in April and May with wild flowers blooming, it’s just a great place to be.” Yes, especially with fly rod in hand. But when you visit, keep your eyes peeled for wampus cats, too.
Richard Simms is an author, television producer and fishing guide who lives and works in Chattanooga.
Cherokee National Forest: www.fs.usda.gov
Chattanooga-area Trout Unlimited: http://appalachiantu.org
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency: http://www.tnwildlife.org
Wild Trout Streams: www.tn.gov/twra/article/wild-trout-streams
Trout Stocking: http://www.tn.gov/twra/article/stocked-trout
Story and photography by Richard Simms