A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Hop in a kayak to cast a line with Schuster — and learn more about trout and their importance to Graham County — in the newest installment of our NC

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Hop in a kayak to cast a line with Schuster — and learn more about trout and their importance to Graham County — in the newest installment of our NC

The Smoky Mountain Fish Whisperer

Hop in a kayak to cast a line with Schuster — and learn more about trout and their importance to Graham County — in the newest installment of our NC Icons video series at ourstate.com/nc-icons-trout-fishing.

It’s been said that trout are so smart, so perceptive, that they can hear not only when you’re approaching but also how much change you have in your pocket when you cast. They’re so elusive that they’ve inspired songs and driven fisherfolk mad. And although they thrive in the cold, crisp waters of our mountain rivers and lakes, their abundance does not guarantee success for the angler.

That’s why Jared Schuster, one of the most sought-after fishing guides in the region, dedicates a significant portion of his life to trying to catch them. “It’s the challenge,” he says. “Throughout the year, trout change locations, diet, and feeding habits. I enjoy trying to keep up with them. It’s satisfying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and be rewarded with a good day of fishing.”

If you want to give yourself a decent shot at landing one of these majestic creatures, you’d best get on the water early, when the fish are most active. And you’d better pick that water wisely. Schuster and I meet on the edge of Lake Santeetlah, a serene reservoir tucked into a remote corner of the mountains. I’ve been casting for trout on my own for years, stalking the mountains of northern Georgia and North Carolina since I was a teenager. I’ve had some success over the years, but I’ve been skunked — or gone home empty-handed — more often than I’d like to admit. Today, I’ll find out if Schuster is the real deal.

• • •

Although Schuster guides on a handful of lakes in Graham County, the 2,881-acre Santeetlah is his favorite because of its diversity of fish species. The dark waters hold largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, walleye, and bream — but it’s the large, wild rainbow and brown trout that Schuster is after. There’s even a thriving population of steelheads, a migratory form of rainbow trout more common in the North and West that spend most of their lives in oceans or cold mountain lakes, swimming up tributary streams to spawn every fall.

The mountains come down to the edge of Lake Santeetlah, the Smokies rising to the north and the Cheoahs dominating the eastern horizon. Roughly 75 percent of the shoreline is protected as Nantahala National Forest, so there are relatively few houses on the lake. There aren’t even many trails or campgrounds on the shore.

Trout lurk far below the surface at Lake Santeetlah. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

“I’m on the water over 200 days each year, and I never get over the scenery, the sunrises, and the sunsets,” Schuster says as we set off. The beauty of the area may be irresistible to humans, but what draws trout to Santeetlah is its depth. The lake has channels up to 189 feet deep, which allows the trout to retreat to cold water even during the hottest days of summer.

On Lake Santeetlah, you might catch a shimmering rainbow trout. photograph by Brian Gomsak

We’re in kayaks that we propel by foot pedals — almost like riding a bike — and steer with a small handle on the left side of the boat. A computer screen, fed by a sonar system, shows us the topography of the bottom of the lake and the schools of fish that swim beneath us. We’re trolling, which means that we drop a shiny artificial lure designed to look like a tasty fish deep into the water and then drag it behind us, maintaining a steady 1.7-mile-per-hour speed to keep the decoy fish moving at an attractive pace. I have three lines in the lake, each rod sandwiched into plastic holders. If there’s tension on the line, I have to start reeling it in immediately. Schuster has his own boat with three or four rods outfitted in case I have an equipment issue. Of the roughly 600 trips he’s led in western North Carolina, he’s only been skunked twice.

That’s partly because trolling, Schuster explains, is the best way to catch lake trout in deep water. Trolling from kayaks adds to the experience. “The kayaks allow you to cover a lot of water, but you’re not removed from the action like you would be if you were standing on the deck of a large boat,” he says. “I like being on the water, not above it. I like being close to the action and the fish. I want to give my clients the best overall experience possible, and I think fishing from a kayak offers the whole package.”

• • •

Schuster grew up on a horse farm in Wisconsin, enjoying a childhood filled with bow hunting and pond fishing. Later, he learned to fly-fish and eventually started exploring the deeper waters of the Great Lakes. He was guiding fly-fishing clients by the age of 23, but always as a side gig, something to do when he wasn’t at his day job. Early on, he made a living as a chef, working mostly with wild game like elk and boar; later, after getting married, he transitioned to an office job, managing sales for a major food distribution company. He worked 80-hour weeks and was successful but stressed.

“I was going in the wrong direction and was completely burned out,” Schuster says. “It got to the point where the ding of my iPhone would trigger heartburn.”

For Schuster, a good day is one spent on the waters of western North Carolina, like Lake Cheoah, helping his clients locate and land trout. photograph by Brian Gomsak

He and his wife discovered Graham County while on a motorcycle tour, riding the famously curvy Tail of the Dragon southwest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They fell in love with the area instantly and orchestrated a move. Schuster started guiding fishing in kayaks on the local lakes as a way to take a breather and reorganize his life, but then the pandemic hit, and suddenly everyone wanted to be outside.

“It was just supposed to be a side hustle while I figured things out, but I got busy fast,” Schuster says. “The pandemic gave me a good jump start to the business.”

• • •

The lake is quiet as we fish, the only sounds coming from our boats and Schuster as he tells stories. Within a few minutes of launching off the bank, I get a bite and reel in a small white bass. Schuster scoops it up with a net and releases it back into the water unceremoniously — we’re in the market for trout, after all — and I reset the rod so it’s trolling 50 feet below. Schuster is a bit superstitious and has me let out exactly 111 feet of line. “That’s the magic number,” he says. “Not 110, not 112 — 111. Fish love that number.”

We move across the lake, always keeping an eye on the Garmin screens attached to our kayaks to make sure we’re hovering above the deepest channels in the lake. One of my rod tips jerks, and I move to start reeling in a fish. All of the action is behind me, but the fish feels heavy, like I’m tugging on a whale. As I get the beast closer to my boat, Schuster pulls out his net, ready to land it for me. It’s a steelhead, bright and silver, probably 19 or 20 inches. But just as I pull it close enough to see, the fish spits out my hook and vanishes deep into the channel beneath our boats. It’s frustrating to get so close to landing a fish like that just to lose it at the last second.

Schuster leads most trips aboard pedal-driven Hobie Outback kayaks, which leave client Mike Freibert’s hands free to respond quickly if he gets a bite. photograph by Brian Gomsak

The same thing happens to me a little later in the day: I hook a steelhead and fight the feisty monster to the edge of my boat, only to lose it before we can get it in the net. I catch a small white bass that Schuster decides to keep so we have something to eat, and we start making our way back to the shore. The trout are being stubborn today. They were probably up all night feeding on a hatch of bugs hitting the surface of the water, he explains, and now they’re full and sleepy.

“But that’s what makes trout so fun to catch,” he says. “Fishing for bass is easy. They’re plentiful and typically feed in shallow water. But to fish deep water, targeting multiple species of trout, is very technical. You have to consider a lot of factors — depth of the water, temperature, time of year, color of the bait, the wind … and you never really know what’s going on down there. I like the mystery of fishing over deep water for trout.”

Before we call it a day, I hook another fish. It doesn’t put up much of a fight, so I think it’s another bass. But as Schuster reaches out with his net, we see a colorful rainbow trout, maybe 13 inches long. It’s not huge, but it’s beautiful. I feel like I’m 12 years old again, full of pride as my dad helps me reel in my first catch.

Back on the shore where we launched earlier in the morning, Schuster pulls out a charcoal grill, two-burner stove, and white folding table from the back of his truck. He dices up my white bass for a gumbo with fresh vegetables, then fillets my rainbow trout and grills it with a spicy rémoulade and corn. Schuster seems comfortable here in his makeshift kitchen, just a few yards from the water, a sharp chef’s knife in his hand and fresh fish on the grill.

When I ask him why he left a successful career to help other people catch trout, he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s the juxtaposition of it all,” he says. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere, on the water, which is soothing. But then you get a trout to bite, and it’s like this huge release of anticipation, a great burst of adrenaline. There’s nothing else in the world like that combination of relaxation and excitement.”

It took him a long time to land in these mountains, to find this accidental career. But now, settled in the role of fishing guide, he’s in his element.

To learn more about Smoky Mountain Kayak Fishing and book a trip, call (828) 735-9793 or visit smokymountainkayakfishing.com.

This story was published on Sep 25, 2023

Graham Averill

Graham Averill writes about adventure and travel for Outside, Bike, and Southern Living. He lives in Asheville with his wife and two children.