One fine spring weekend in the mid-1980’s, my good friend and Highland Park neighbor Chris Carter and I took a fishing trip to Slickrock Creek Wilderness. The wilderness is a little known component of the Nantahala National Forest, south of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, on the North Carolina – Tennessee border. It is adjacent to the west of the better known Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Kilmer is famous for having one of the very few pockets of original, uncut virgin timber east of the Mississippi River.
I had read in a fishing magazine that Slickrock Creek, which runs through the wilderness, is a haven for trout. The article said that it is so far off the beaten path that if an angler is willing to hike the few miles from the nearest dirt road to get there, then he can have a lot of trout catching action to himself. So, off we went, with our fishing tackle and high hopes.
Neither Chris nor I considered ourselves to be any kind of fishing experts, but both of us had caught enough trout in plenty of other venues that we knew we would have some success.
We drove to Robbinsville, then continued west on US Hwy 129. We went northwest past Santeetlah Lake, and turned off at the concrete bridge just south of Lake Cheoah. Our route took us on the dirt road past Bear Creek Hunter Camp to Big Fat Gap at the Wilderness boundary. There we parked our car, loaded on our packs and headed east down the Big Flat Trail.
We crossed the Hangover Lead Trail, just north of where Dan Bumgarner and I found a large field of wild blueberries on an earlier trip. [That was the trip where we camped under my tarp, without a tent body, and the mice ate Dan’s socks!] Our trail then crossed the Nichols Cove Trail and continued to Slickrock Creek, which forms the NC - TN border. We hiked downstream and set up camp at Wildcat Falls.
An afternoon of fishing brought us…nothing. Not a single bite. Not even a follow. We saw absolutely no fish. The fishing magazine article promising trout nirvana lied to us. The best I can guess is that Slickrock Creek is not self-sustaining and is stocked by the NC Wildlife Commission trout trucks. Then, as happens everywhere else that I have ever tried to catch stocked trout, the local redneck people follow the stock truck, immediately go in, and illegally and selfishly catch out all the fish.
About dusk, Chris decided to give up and headed back to camp. I was determined somehow to catch a trout, and I had heard that fishing (like many kinds of hunting for wild game) is best around dawn and dusk. So I stayed our later. Again, no luck. So at full dark I headed back to camp.
Big surprise! My flashlight batteries immediately died. And I had no spares. I was at least a half mile from camp, in the 100% pitch dark, surrounded by a wilderness. No moon or stars were visible. It was much too far to yell for Chris. [This period was in the days long before the invention of cell phones.]
I had a flash of insight that was one of the greatest strokes of outdoor genius in my career. I took off my boots and socks and started shuffling towards camp. I could feel the hard, smooth surface of the trail with my bare feet. Whenever I went off trail, I could feel the softer, rougher surface of the forest floor and would move back in the other direction. Eventually, I made it back to camp, safe and sound.
We fished some more the next day, but never caught a single trout. Then we headed home. Despite the lack of piscatorial success, we had a good time backpacking and camping.