South Mills River

(An Excerpt From FlyFisher’s Guide to North Carolina & Georgia)

By Nick Carter

With more than 12 river miles accessible only by foot in Pisgah National Forest, the South Mills is one of the best backcountry fishing experiences in the region. It runs incredibly clear, with a low stream gradient on its lower end compared to most other mountain streams in the area. For the most part, wading is easy and so is the walk along the South Mills River Trail.

This medium-sized river is home to rainbows and browns that from personal experience run a little larger than you’ll find on most wild trout fisheries in North Carolina. It’s anecdotal, but typical rainbows from the South Mills measure 10 to 13 inches rather than the 8- to 10-inch fish you’ll find elsewhere, and the river has gained a reputation for producing some big wild browns. I’ve witnessed a gorgeous 16-inch brown caught on a dry at the South Mills, and there are without a doubt some bigger ones in there.

It sounds like heaven to those who like wild, remote waters, but the river can be extremely fickle. The water is super clear. The fish spook easily. For those unwilling to adapt, the bite can shut down completely for no apparent reason. I’ve been skunked more than once on the South Mills. On the other hand, I’ve experienced 30-fish days, when it seemed like trout were racing each other to get to the fly.

One of my earliest trips to the river was a pack-in camping trip with my older brother and his buddy Curtis. We fished one of the most productive hatches I’ve ever experienced on a Southeastern freestone, where hatches are usually sporadic. Typically the fish aren’t that selective, and a good attractor pattern to mimic a variety of insects is the best option. On this particular evening, we were back at our streamside campsite, worn out from a long day on the river. Sipping Scotch from stainless camping cups and thinking of preparations for dinner, we began to notice huge white mayflies fluttering around the campsite. They were coffin flies, the spinner stage of the Eastern Green Drake. Every now and then you’ll see a few flittering around over a creek, but this was a full-blown hatch, like you see out west.

Needless to say, we dropped what we were doing and grabbed our fly boxes, searching for something that would be a reasonably good match. Everyone has that section in their box reserved for flies that never get fished. These are flies purchased for some specific but forgotten purpose. In this instance, we were happy to scrounge up three or four Light Cahills that were abnormally large, maybe a size 8. They did the trick. In less than an hour on the river, right next to our campsite, we caught more quality rainbows and browns than we did the rest of the weekend. It was one of those glorious moments that doesn’t happen often but keeps you going back.

The South Mills holds many good memories, like bear sightings, and the time my good old dog Otis barked down a haughty horseback rider. I’m generally a share-the-trail kind of guy, but when some dude playing John Wayne in a 10-gallon hat trotted up behind us and arrogantly bellowed, “Step aside! Horses coming through!” I couldn’t help but enjoy the scene. Otis, who was a very reserved and polite dog, apparently took offense to the attitude. He went off like a string of firecrackers. “Control that animal!” Wild Bill shouted as his horse reared and set off at an uncontrollable gallop in the wrong direction. “Might think about controlling your horse,” my brother quipped as the rider disappeared around the bend.

There are a lot of horseback riders, mountain bikers and hikers who use the South Mills River Trail, but fishing pressure is surprisingly light. Or perhaps the fishermen are just spread out. There are 15 or more fishable miles from the headwaters near the Cradle of Forestry Historic Area off U.S. 276 down to the end of the publicly accessible water.

On its extreme upper end, accessible with a hike on the Pink Beds Loop Trail, the South Mills is flat and small. It runs through a mountain bog littered with beaver dams and brush. There are small wild browns in this stretch, but the better fishing doesn’t begin until farther downstream, where the small creek changes character with the influx of several feeders and significant elevation loss.

This change occurs around the old Wolf Ford gauging station, which can be reached with a hike from the end of Wolf Ford Road (FR 476). The river drops over several sets of cascades with nice plunge pools. It also widens out into what could be described as a good-sized creek. At this top end, the river is shoals and plunge pools and accessible only by the South Mills River Trail. It offers good fishing for good numbers of wild rainbows and browns in the 8 to 10 inch range.

Farther downstream, where the river is still gin-clear but significantly larger is where the larger fish come into play. Turkey Pen Road, off N.C. 280 between Brevard and the Town of Mills River, gives access to the South Mills where it is a small river. It is flatter on this lower end, but there are plenty of shoals and river bends that form inviting pocket water and long, sweeping runs. It is a gorgeous stretch of river with some good fishing.

The South Mills fly box should hold your standard western North Carolina selection of caddis, brightly colored mayflies and stoneflies. Unless something atypical is going on, like the hatch mentioned above, it’s tough to go wrong with attractor patterns that cover a wide range of available food sources. A yellow Stimulator with a red head is tough to beat on many North Carolina mountain streams. Trail it with a Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail or Copper John, and you’ll have the bases covered. There are those who swear by big streamers to mimic the creek chubs those big brown trout feed on. At least on the South Mills, I’ve always had a hard time committing to dredging out the holes when there’s so much fun to be had on the surface.

Access Points

There are really only three access points to the South Mills, which is part of what makes it such a good river. Anglers willing to wear out some boot leather will find the middle portion of the river halfway between Turkey Pen and the gauging station rarely gets fished. With more than 12 miles of good water accessible only by foot, fishing pressure is light even if the area gets covered up with other types of recreationalists. There are many campsites along the river, and there are also many river crossings along the trail.

• Pink Beds (35.353025, -82.779473): The Pink Beds Picnic Area is on U.S. 276 just north of the Cradle of Forestry facilities. The Pink Beds Loop Trailhead leaves from this picnic area. Take the right fork for quicker access to the South Mills. The trail crosses the creek several times, but the stream is a very small and brushy this high in the drainage.

• Wolf Ford Access (35.366714, -82.738926): Waypoint marks roadside campsites near the end of Wolf Ford Road (FR 476) and the top end of the South Mills River Trail. Just north of Pink Beds on U.S. 276, take Yellow Gap Road (FR 1206) east for about 3 miles to Wolf Ford Road (FR 476).

• Turkey Pen Road (35.342732, -82.659313): There are several trails that leave out of the parking area at the end of Turkey Pen Road. The one on the north end of the parking area to the west of the informational kiosk is the South Mills River Trail, which drops about a half mile into the valley before crossing the river and continuing upstream. A right turn onto the Bradley Creek Trail at this crossing will take you downstream.

Regulations and Necessary Information

• The South Mills is managed under wild trout regulations.

• There are many riverside campsites along the South Mills. The better ones fill up on good-weather weekends.

• A 5-weight rod with floating line and long leaders is suitable for the lower South Mills. A 3- or 4-weight is nice to have on the upper end.

For detailed maps and GPS access points to all of the regions best trout fishing, check out “Flyfisher’s Guide To North Carolina & Georgia,” available on Amazon, at fly shops or by contacting the author at