A friend and I were following a stream in the Great Smoky Mountains, looking for waters we had never fished before. It was one of those perfect autumn days with a cool edge and azure skies. Leaves drizzled around us.
We rounded a bend and saw a lone fisherman down in the creek. With rhythmic grace, he cast his rod back and forth, aiming his fly toward a precise point on the water. Without a word, we stopped to watch. He cast a few more times, then paused to tie on a new fly. Even these motions transmitted a sense of calm.
New fly in place, the gentleman pulled back on the rod and resumed his back-and-forth lilt. Suddenly, he lifted his rod high. A splash broke the water’s surface several yards in front of him. A fish glistened on his line.
Maybe it was the setting. Maybe it was the pride I sensed in the fisherman when he glanced over his shoulder at us as he scooped the fish into his net. No doubt it also had something to do with the peacefulness surrounding the entire scene. I was mesmerized.
And I was converted. After fishing with a spinning reel since age 5, I went the next day to buy a fly rod and reel. I read The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide from cover to cover and then went looking for water to lay my first line. About the only thing I was missing when I was starting out — other than some solid skills — was any idea of where to find these waterways. But I learned.
Fortunately, I live in a state with almost endless fly-fishing opportunities. Thousands of miles of trout-filled rivers, streams, and creeks flow across North Carolina’s western counties. Many are stocked by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), almost guaranteeing success every time you wade into the water. Others are more remote and challenge even the experienced fisher to snare the wily wild trout.
After years of fishing in North Carolina rivers and streams, I have my favorites. Some I like because the state keeps them stocked. In these spots, I can hook two dozen or more decent-size fish on a good day.
I slosh into other waterways in search of wild trout. They lurk in the more remote regions, places that feel wild and ripe with the possibility of adventure. These fish are smart. They know the difference between an insect lighting on the surface and a metal-and-feather contrivance hopping up and down at the end of a string. It takes all the skill and patience I can muster to get them on my line.
In my view, there are no bad waters. Any day on a stream — even one when I decide that a particular stretch of river isn’t worth a second trip — is a good day.
Some streams, however, are more productive than others, and here are a few of my favorites:
Davidson River, Transylvania County
The national conservation group Trout Unlimited ranks the Davidson River among the top 100 trout streams in America. Designated by NCWRC as Catch & Release Fly-Fish Only, the river’s headwaters contain some of the largest trout in North Carolina and have more brown, rainbow, and brook trout per mile than any other stream in the state. You haven’t really fly-fished in North Carolina until you’ve floated a fly on the Davidson.
Access: U.S. Highway 64, near Brevard.
Nantahala River, Macon County
The Nantahala starts out as a small headwater that opens up into a large river. The Nantahala has a delayed harvest section, which means that NCWRC stocks it the first week of the months of October, November, March, April, and May. Wild native trout also populate this river. A dam regulates the river’s flow, so keep watch for rising water. You can check the water-flow release schedule at duke-energy.com by typing “Nantahala” in the search bar.
Access: U.S. Highway 74 and Wayah Road, near Rainbow Springs.
Tuckasegee River, Jackson County
The Tuckasegee runs through several small towns, including Dillsboro, Cullowhee, East Laport, and Tuckasegee. For this reason, it has several access points. The river also tends to have larger trout. It’s a favorite destination for drift boating, with fly fishers casting their favorite flies to hungry trout as they float downstream. Like the Nantahala, the delayed harvest section of the river experiences water level changes. Check the water-release schedule at duke-energy.com on the Nantahala page under “Downstream Flow Releases.”
Access: U.S. Highway 74 and N.C. Highway 107
Wilson Creek, Caldwell County
Wilson Creek stretches up the backside of Grandfather Mountain and tumbles down into a beautiful valley where it joins the John River in Caldwell County. There’s a delayed harvest section on the river, creating a beautiful spot for fly-fishing. A welcome center located near this section of the river makes it one of the easiest waterways to access. You’ll find hiking trails and large parking areas. An unpaved road also runs the length of the river. Logging dominated the area until the late 1940s when a flood swept through the area and destroyed the sawmill, textile mills, and most houses. You can still glimpse remnants of some of these buildings within one of the prettiest mountain settings in North Carolina.
Wilson Creek Visitor Center
7805 Brown Mountain Beach Road
Collettsville, N.C. 28611
Watauga River, Watauga County
One of the easiest places to access this trout stream is where it runs through Valle Crucis. It offers several sections for fishing and flows through a park with a playground and walking trails. Here, you’ll find brown and rainbow trout and an occasional brook trout. When you’re ready for a lunch break, you don’t even have to shed your waders before heading over to Mast General Store for a meal and drink. A great spot for the entire family, the Watauga River offers breathtaking views of our state’s fall foliage.
Access: N.C. Highway 194 in Valle Crucis.
East Prong Roaring River, Wilkes County
For easy access, you can’t beat the East Prong Roaring River at Stone Mountain State Park; the river also offers handicap access. The river has a delayed harvest section and other small streams that are designated as wild streams. Brown, rainbow, and brook trout swim this river and make for easy fishing. The East Prong is beautiful and on weekends, tends to attract a crowd. But on weekdays, you’re likely to encounter only a handful of fellow anglers.
Stone Mountain State Park
3042 Frank Parkway
Roaring Gap, N.C. 28668
Helton Creek, Ashe County
Helton Creek flows among rolling hills and lush, green meadows, a perfect setting for fishing the delayed harvest waters. The road follows the stream, providing access almost anywhere on the river. Helton Creek Campground unfolds along the banks of the river, so fly fishers have an easy hike back to camp for an evening spent swapping stories and listening to a chorus of night sounds. The stream is stocked with all three species of trout, while lunkers also consider flies tossed their way. This is one of my favorite spots. Several friends and I get together here with our children annually. Every year, the kids can’t wait to go back — and neither can the dads.
Access: N.C. Highway 16 just north of the New River.
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
NCWRC provides information on designated trout waters, including locations, regulations, and maps. The commission is also a good source of general information on fishing in North Carolina.
Davidson River Outfitters
95 Pisgah Highway
Pisgah Forest, N.C. 28768
Curtis Wright Outfitters
24 North Main Street
Weaverville, N.C. 28787
Mac Brown, Guide
McLeod’s Highland Fly-Fishing
779 West Deep Creek
Bryson City, N.C. 28713
Troy Baker lives in Concord with his wife and son. He provides information on fly-fishing in North Carolina on his website flyfishingnc.com. When he’s not on the water, Baker manages his own business, Carolina Building Maintenance.