100 Best: Nantahala River
Location: Southwestern North Carolina
Type of stream: Tailwater
Angling methods: Fly, Spin
Species: Rainbows, browns
Supporting Services: Cherokee, Bryson City
Short take: Water of champions
Handicapped Access: None
Closest TU Chapter: Hiawassee River
The lower Nantahala River bursts out of powerhouse seven miles below Nantahala Dam like Tar Heel great and NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor hell bent on sacking the Redskins’ quarterback. This is, in fact, a river of champions, one of five North Carolina streams where the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championships were held in May, 2011. And it along with Raven Fork, hosted the U. S. National Youth Fly Fishing Championships the following year. Using double-rigged nymphs, and short dead drift casts, Austin Randecker took 18, 7 7/8-inch (20 cm) trout out of the middle reaches of the Nantahala in two hours.
When generators are not pulling water from the dam, the lower eight miles or so down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center are wadeable. The river bounds over blocky boulders, cascades over low falls and chutes, the evens out in gentle riffles and flat pools, only to take off gain at the next set of rapids. The walls of flanking mountains squeeze the Nan into a gorge noted for deep plunge pools. U.S. 74 and 19 share the gorge with the river, though in many places there the river has fallen well below the road. Where the river is close to the road, access is easy. Where it’s not, you’ll have a bit of a downhill climb.
The sharp gradient and turbulent rapids have made this a favorite run for rafters and kayakers. On hot summer weekends, the blue and yellow rubber hatch and its screaming devotees are enough to drive away even diehard anglers. Yet trout are trout, and they gotta feed. You’ll find fish in soft water.