No question about it, he’s the unofficial trout master of North Carolina.
Fly fisherman Bobby Kilby demonstrated his piscatorial prowess last week when he stepped into the West Fork of Campbell Creek in the mountains west of Asheville and cast a floating fly.
Fellow angler Ray Sugg Jr. called a play by play. “There’s one in there. Over between the two mossy rocks.”
A fish rose to give a look at Kilby’s fly. “I think that was a rainbow of decent size,” Kilby said, probing small pools and pockets in the rhododendron-shaded stream on private property.
“You missed one – you had a hit right there,” Sugg said. “Right in there.”
After six minutes of fishing, his No. 14 hare’s ear parachute fly hooked a Southern Appalachian brook trout. A few minutes later, he caught another. Like the first, the fish was about six inches long with red and gold dots. He released both alive.
The two catches met Kilby’s self-imposed minimum standard for successfully fishing a trout stream. He’s been on a 24-year mission to catch trout in every named N.C. mountain stream. In 2007, he went to South Mountains State Park to claim stream No. 1,000. Last week, with two brookies from the West Fork and two rainbows from the East Fork, he added streams No. 1,245 and 1,246. (Later that day, he caught a brown trout and a foot-long rainbow in Twin Brook Branch for stream No. 1,247.)
Lots of streams over the years means lots of bushwhacking. Lots of clambering up slick rocks.
Lots of crouching and crawling.
Veteran fly anglers would be surprised to learn North Carolina has more than 1,200 streams with trout. After all, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission regulates just 350 streams as public trout waters. Some are stocked with hatchery-raised trout, some are populated by wild-born trout, some are fly-fishing only. All others, termed “undesignated waters,” may or may not contain browns, brooks and rainbows. The two forks and Twin Brook are “undesignated waters.”
Kilby, a Wilkes County native who lives in Pawleys Island, S.C., has proved that trout abound in nearly every waterway, no matter how skinny or ugly. They include step-across rills spilling down ridges, rivulets coursing through pastures and muddy channels running beside highways.
Kilby said trout hide in plain sight in both rural and urban streams. He cited the brown trout in Clark Branch in Avery County as an example. “These are large fish. I mean, 10 inches and above for the most part. They’re big and they’re orange and they’re beautiful. Looks like you’re catching a pumpkin.”
Sugg, 53, of Canton, began trout fishing when he was a ninth-grader. Now a fly angler, he eventually adopted a goal of fishing all 350 public trout waters. “I figured I had my whole life to do it,” he said.
Then, in 2008, he read about Kilby’s achievement of fishing 1,000 trout streams in Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. They met, exchanged information and have become good friends.
Infected with Kilby fever, Sugg set his sights higher. His new goal is 1,000 streams.
Sugg is three-quarters of the way there. He too adopted a two-fish minimum. At the two forks of Campbell Creek, he caught five rainbows and a brookie on a No. 14 parachute Hazel Creek dry fly. Those catches upped his total to 752 streams.
Sugg arranged the trip to the Campbell Creek, getting permission from property owner Bart Campbell to go through locked gates to get to the tributaries.
Kilby, 74, keeps meticulous logs of each stream, with number of trout caught, water quality and accompanying anglers. He estimates he’s caught and released 16,000-17,000 trout since 1991, when he began his quest. He’s been skunked on 70 streams though he’s pretty sure 60 of them have trout. He’s also caught 6,000 trout from 1,000 streams in 21 other states.
Kilby believes the mountains, including the N.C. side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have at least 350 streams he hasn’t fished. “I think it’s possible, with good health, I might get 1,500,” he said, noting that he uses U.S. Geological Survey topo maps as well as wildlife mission surveys as a guide. “I find trout in streams where they have listed no fish – no trout.”
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”