First off, let me apologize for the length of this post. If you're in a hurry, you need to skip this one....
I had made up my mind to try a "daytrip from ****". The most I had ever hiked/fished in a day before was an 8 mile r/t up Fish Camp Prong earlier this year. I had thought long and hard about making the trip up Snowbird Creek to Middle Falls (14 miles r/t), and after my camping trip fell through this weekend, I decided to give it a try.
From Maryville its about an hour and 50 minutes over the Dragon and down to the trailhead and I was there at 8:45a. At the trailhead I talked to a man who has lots of experience fishing Snowbird but due to his advanced age, no longer makes the hike up to the Brookie water, instead he focuses his attention on the gorge area just upstream of the trail and chasing browns (in the 20" range, according to him). For Brookies, he suggested going all the way up to Middle Falls (7 miles one way) by taking the overland shortcut from Big Falls (Lower Falls) to Middle Falls instead of the 12 dicey watercrossings. We talked for about 15 minutes and as we did, some other guys were gearing up and getting ready to head out. He told me to take off before I ended up fishing behind them.
I quickly threw on my pack and since I had already studied the map the night before, stuffed it in my pocket and took off. I went onto the trail straight ahead from my parking spot and quickly came to a very nice foot bridge (much like the Goshen Gate Bridge) and then to a much older footlog crossing of a tributary, and then started to climb. And Climb. And Climb. After about 15 minutes of climbing it occurred to me that maybe I was not going the right way.
The creek was completely out of earshot and hadn't the map said something about an old railroad grade?
I pulled out the map and to my disbelief realized that I was about a mile up the wrong trail and heading in the opposite direction. So now, instead of "merely" a 14 mile r/t I was looking at 16 miles, minimum.
I hiked back down to the main bridge, back on the left side of the stream and back to the parking area, and there to the left was the trailhead (much smaller and less obvious, but there, nonetheless). It was now 9:30. I started hiking.
Thankfully the trail (which really looks like a dismantled railway bed) was relatively easy. I believe that its only about 800' of elevation change over the first 5 miles up to Big Falls. In about an hour I made it up to Sassafras Creek (there is a very old car from the 30s in remarkable shape abandoned on the trailside) and in a couple more minutes made it to the Sassafras Creek Trailhead. The Snowbird Creek trail runs high above the stream and offers very few glimpses of the gorge section and even fewer ways to get down to it. At Sassafras Creek you could get down to the stream and fish from there if you were so inclined. I kept hiking and at the hour and a half mark I made it to Big Falls.
You can see Big Falls (a series of cascades) through the trees on the trail, but can never get a really good look at it. The trail finally comes down to the water above Big Falls and at the start of Brookie waters. At this point the trail gets tricky. You cross over the stream to the right side and a nice campsite. I decided that I was going to take the Old guy's advice and try the overland "shortcut". He said it was steep. Ha! What did he know...
The trail is not really marked, but instead of the Blue blazes for the Snowbird Creek Trail, I spotted a Brown blaze on a tree and took that to mean the shortcut trail. I followed it and lo and behold we started to quickly climb. And Climb. And Climb. When he said steep, he wasn't kidding. My heels never touched the trail for what seemed like a very long time. It was probably only about a quarter of a mile, but it was very, very tough. After the initial climb of death the trail became more gradual and alot easier. I covered the "shortcut" in about 30 minutes and came out onto the stream above Middle Falls. I had covered 9 miles (7 on purpose, 2 by accident), it was 11:15 and I wanted to start fishing...
I cooled down a bit and rigged up. The water temp was 55 degrees and the air temp was 66 degrees. Life was Good. The part of the stream I started at looked like something from another planet. It was not rocky but rather had a large rock formation that had been worn smooth with a few fissures between some of the slabs. This first section didn't hold many fish and those that it did were very spooky. I worked my way upstream and had no luck with a #16 Yellow Stimi. After 30 minutes I started thinking to myself "Please tell me I didn't hike all this way for nothing...after all, people have been known to come up here and catch 100 fish in a day..."
I noticed that the fish were spookier than any I had every seen anywhere before. The water was very flat in most places and the stream didn't have much gradient. There were very few pocket areas where Brookies had to grab and run with their food, these fish could afford themselves a longer look at anything floating by. The canopy over the stream was another problem, as well. It didn't just surround the stream, in enveloped it and hung down and touched the water from both side. It was bushwacking in the middle of the stream, in spots. Roll casting was about the only tactic that would work (in some places up to 50' with a 3wt - yikes). These Brookies would scatter like dark torpedoes everytime you made a wrong step. It took alot of effort to catch the first 3 or 4.
But after awhile I started catching them with more regularity. I had switched to my new go-to fly the #14 Mr Rapidan Cripple and got into a pretty good rhythm. I wound up passing on about 60-70% of the stream and only fished the areas where I knew I could stay hidden and wouldn't be as likely to get tangled in the canopy. It didn't always work, but I wound up being more successful. In the end, I caught about 25 fish. Most were 7-8 inches or larger including a 9.5 incher and 10.5-11 incher. I was amazed at the average size of them. This is a great stream and despite my troubles and frustration at times, thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I fished up above the confluence with Flat Branch as it was approaching 5pm, so I decided that it was time start working my way back. I had decided to fish some of the stream crossings between Big Falls and Middle Falls on the way out, instead of taking the "shortcut". I wanted to see if there really was 12 stream crossings. It had also started raining, so it made the decision to head out all the easier. Most of the trail above Middle Falls is on the right side of the stream and I made my way back in about 10 minutes (leading me to believe that I had covered about .75 miles above Middle Falls).
There are 12 crossings. He didn't exaggerate. I fished a few of them. I found the section between Big Falls and Middle Falls more to my liking. The character of the stream was quite different than above Middle Falls. It was rockier, had fewer long pools and had much higher canopy. It reminded me of LR above Elkmont. The stream also had more of a gradient. I fished a few of the crossings and picked up some smaller brookies. At some point, I'd like to start fishing in this section. I believe the fish may be smaller, but they are definitely less spooky. I tried to keep track of the length of time it took to go from Middle Falls to Big Falls (less the time I spent fishing in between) and it seems to be about 5-10 minutes longer than the overland route (35-40 minutes total). I was wearing my Korkers wading/hiking boots so the water crossings were no problem, but someone in hiking boots would have an awful time. I left my felt soles on until I made it down to Big Falls and then switched to the lug soles for the hike out.
The hike out from Big Falls took a bit less than 90 minutes, but not much. I was definitely tired and slower than normal. I made it back to the car at about 8pm and talked for awhile to a local kid who had caught, and was cleaning, four Browns over 12", one of which was 16". On the way home I went the back way over the Cherohala Skyway, instead of the Dragon. It took about 20-30 minutes longer and was about 20 miles further, but it was an incredible drive at sunset and a very pleasant alternative. I may have to go that way again, next time...
Final totals: 25 Brookies, one pushing 11" in 5 hours.
Total Hiking/Fishing: 17.5 Miles (14 Planned, 1.5 in/along the stream, 2 unplanned...
Hiking Times: to Big Falls 90 Minutes. from Big to Middle 30 minutes
Driving: 70 Miles over the Dragon in 1:50, 90 Miles on the Cherohala Skyway in 2:15
Left home: 6:30am
Returned home: 10:3pm
It was a "Day Trip"