A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_182834" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Two worlds meet when a rainbow trout takes a dry fly in a pristine mountain stream.[/caption] Freshwater Let’s begin on a farm pond, which is where

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_182834" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Two worlds meet when a rainbow trout takes a dry fly in a pristine mountain stream.[/caption] Freshwater Let’s begin on a farm pond, which is where

Go Fish: Where to Cast a Line in North Carolina

A rainbow trout about to bite a lure.

Two worlds meet when a rainbow trout takes a dry fly in a pristine mountain stream. photograph by Derek Diluzio


Let’s begin on a farm pond, which is where many anglers get their start. A farm pond, say, or a small-town lake. There’s a bobber on the water, and ripples fan out in diminishing wavelets, leaving the red-and-white plastic sphere to float like a stopper holding two worlds apart. Which is exactly what it does. And then, when that bobber does its thing and goes bob-bob-BOB-blurp! and disappears underwater, well, there’s nothing quite like that feeling in the world. You can hear it in every little angler’s squeal: “I got one! I got one!”

From such a starting point, with a fish on the line in North Carolina, the possibilities for freshwater fishing are as endless as the landscape is varied.

Say we launch a canoe or kayak into a Coastal Plain river. A small one, like the upper Tar River, or the Little River near Goldsboro, or the Black River above Wilmington. In those fertile waters, there’s no telling what might eat a red wriggler or chase down a Rooster Tail lure or smack a popping bug fly. A redbreast sunfish on one cast. A warmouth on the next. Chain pickerel, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish — you never know. You could hook into a bowfin — a bone-headed, air-breathing, fanged fish that’s been around since prehistoric times.

A hot summer day. Cicadas in the trees. Let’s back the boat into a sprawling Piedmont lake, perhaps one of the reservoirs that hold Father Yadkin’s waters, where the ridgelines of the Uwharries lope along the horizon. In such open waters, the trick is to know where to start. Pan-size crappie hang out around underwater humps and downed trees. Big bass haunt the deep creek channels. Catfish prowl lakeside piers as the sun starts to sink. So many choices. That’s the blessing — and the curse — of freshwater fishing.

Unless you’re angling for quiet environs and solitude. Then you head uphill — into the Southern Appalachians, where the trout fishing is as easy, or as challenging, as you want to make it. Let’s go for the good stuff: A wild, stream-bred brook trout, native to North Carolina and a dweller of the small waters, the headwaters, the pure flows from those ancient crags. The fish strikes the fly with an audible splash, water droplets scattering like a tiny burst of fireworks, and then it races away into the deepest, darkest clefts in the pool. Brook trout are not big fish. They don’t have to be. Because every catch can be the headliner in a big fish story.

North Carolina fishing on Lake Glenville

While Lake Glenville boasts a reputation as a bass fisher’s dream, you never know what might be biting on a given day. photograph by Derek Diluzio

Who Goes There?

On Lake Glenville, the highest lake east of the Mississippi River, an angler casts into waters rippled by a mountain breeze. Here, near Cashiers in Jackson County, the quarry could be largemouth or smallmouth bass, walleye or bluegill or rainbow trout. The lakes of North Carolina’s mountains are a meeting place for warm-water and cold-water fish, so even though an angler might have a good idea of what they’ll reel in, there’s always the chance of a surprise.

Angler Mary Bradford holds a trout and Landon Lipke casts a line in western North Carolina's fishing scene

Angler Mary Bradford (left) and Davidson River Outfitters guide Landon Lipke (right) enjoy the peace and solitude of fly-fishing in Transylvania County.

The Lure of the Fly

It is the ultimate deception: A bit of feather, a pinch of fur, a wrap of thread and tinsel. A lure as light as hope itself. In the North Carolina mountains, trout anglers bushwhack into tiny, high-elevation streams to fish dark pools where native brook trout have hung on since the last Ice Age. Or they stalk along tumbling rivers, where every twist and turn conspires to make an angler lean the rod against a hemlock, take a seat on a mossy stone, and wonder: Who is catching whom?

North Carolina fishing includes flyfishing in the marshland of the Cape Fear Estuary

Guiding a fly fisherman through the shallows, Capt. Seth Vernon stalks the marsh of the Cape Fear Estuary. photograph by Matt Ray Photography


They are not all leviathans. The big fish get the attention, and they deserve it. Marlin and sailfish with their exquisite bills. Mahi-mahi lit up like a state fair carnival ride. Tiger-striped wahoo. Everything about the quest for these big-game, bluewater species is supersize: big boats, brawny tackle, and long days on the water. Wrestling a 600-pound fish onto the boat is a feat that an angler will never forget.

But not all saltwater fishing requires reels that can stop a train. North Carolina’s inshore marshes and tidal creeks teem with many of angling’s most-sought species — redfish and speckled trout, croaker and flounder. The nearshore waters, between the beach breakers and a few miles from shore, hold Spanish mackerel and bluefish, false albacore and king mackerel. You need a boat but not a big one. And North Carolina’s charter fleet ranges from skinny-water skiffs to gleaming, Gulf Stream-worthy sportfishing boats. Where there’s a will to get out on the salt, there’s a way along the Tar Heel coast.

You might drift your boat down a quiet channel, letting live minnows bump-bump-bump the bottom for flounder. Or anchor up over a wreck or artificial reef and haul in tasty black sea bass, triggerfish, tilefish, and mahi-mahi. Or set your elbows atop a pier railing and drop a bottom rig beyond the breaking waves. No stress. Drink a beer. Crack a joke. Feel the tip of the rod thump and set the hook: dinner.

Ardent fly-fishing anglers stalk redfish in the spartina marshes. Using specialized skiffs that float in mere inches of water, one angler poles the boat silently through the green maze while the other stands on the bow, fly rod at the ready. When a redfish is spotted, nosing through the shallows, the angler must cast the fly with pinpoint precision. Called “sight-fishing,” it’s a hunting trip as much as a fishing venture.

And don’t forget the options afforded by the Intracoastal Waterway. Some 300 miles of the inland route run along the North Carolina coast, offering some of the most accessible saltwater fishing around. Redfish, flounder, and speckled trout haunt dock pilings along the ICW. On stretches close to inlets, even ocean fish like bluefish and Spanish mackerel can be caught in the “Big Ditch.” And there’s nothing like a pinfish smackdown to stoke a child’s love for saltwater fishing in North Carolina.

It can be as easy as you want to make it. In fact, the most straightforward — and in some ways most rewarding — way of fishing the salt in North Carolina requires little more than a rod, reel, and bucket: Simply stand on the beach, the sound of breaking waves in your ears, casting bits of shrimp and squid and whole sand fleas to the unseen denizens of the surf.

Is it really that easy? Often, but not always. Which is why they call it fishing.

Little girl and grandfather hold up a fish

Kids attending the fishing camp (left) are just as excited about their small catches. Photography courtesy of Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament

Big Rock, Big Rewards

In early June, on the sprawling waterfront of Morehead City, scores of gleaming sportfishing boats return to port after hours spent pursuing giant marlin — and the chance of a payout that tops $1 million. Part fishing tournament and part fundraiser, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament brings throngs to the town’s Big Rock Landing for the weigh-in of blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, and other ocean-dwelling giants. But it’s not all fish and games. The Big Rock Foundation has given more than $10 million to charities supporting everything from education to health care, community improvement to conservation. And while a champion pinfish won’t make headlines at Big Rock, no one doubts that the smile it brings to a young angler is the biggest trophy in all of fishing.

North Carolina fishing folks weather the waves as the tide rises over the sandbars at Cape Lookout.

Anglers weather the waves as the tide rises over the sandbars at Cape Lookout. photograph by John Mauser

On the Hook

From here, the diamond-patterned Cape Lookout Lighthouse casts a long shadow and a welcome beam of light. From here, the old whalers and fishing families from the long-vanished Diamond City pushed their wooden boats into the surf. And from here, still today, the fish can come from anywhere, storming along beach and marsh, holding tight along the inlet rock jetty, and appearing — in an instant and seemingly from out of nowhere — to froth the ocean surface with their feeding frenzies.

Ernal Foster and an 810-pound marlin in 1952; the Albatross fleet at the marina in present day.

A year before the third and final boat joined the Albatross Fleet in 1952, Ernal Foster brought in a 810-pound blue marlin. Photography courtesy of the Aycock Brown Papers, Outer Banks History Center, Manteo, NC; Chris Council

A Famous Fleet

History holds — no matter the winds or waves or shifting sands. Moored on the Hatteras Village waterfront, the trio of boats that compose the Albatross Fleet, the oldest charter fishing fleet in North Carolina, has held true to its roots. The first of the three handcrafted juniper boats was built in 1937. It was followed by the Albatross II in 1948 and the Albatross III in 1952. With their round sterns and candy-striped outriggers, they are impossible to miss. With their heritage of ushering in North Carolina’s history of charter fishing, they are impossible to forget. And their crews are still on the job, putting anglers within trolling distance of fish for the table and the memory books.

Silhouetted anglers against the sunrise at Cape Point welcome a morning of North Carolina fishing.

Silhouetted against an amber sunrise at Cape Point — known for its drum fishing — surf anglers launch lures, hopes, and dreams toward the Atlantic. photograph by Daniel Pullen

Point of Pride

There may be no finer place in the country to fish in the surf than at Hatteras Island’s Cape Point. Out here, you’re on the edge of everything: on the edge of the continent, the end of terra firma, one foot on shifting sands and the other in the ocean. Destiny swims in the form of giant redfish of 40 pounds or more. Slashing schools of chopper blues. Striped bass on migrating runs, ravenous and strong. This is where the diehards fish, the wind-burned and hard-core. Bring your big rods and your A game to Cape Point. This is the big leagues.

A sailfish leaping in the churning wake of a sportfishing boat out of Wanchese is a scene in North Carolina fishing

A sailfish leaping in the churning wake of a sportfishing boat out of Wanchese is a scene — and a moment — that etches itself in memory. photograph by Beth Snyder Photography

What a Catch!

The North Carolina coast elbows deep into the Atlantic Ocean, giving big-game anglers a jump start on their journey to the Gulf Stream. There, cold currents from the north collide with warm waters from the south, creating a swirling smorgasbord of baitfish and the giants that hunt them: mahi-mahi and wahoo, king mackerel and marlin, tilefish and tuna, barracuda and grouper. Out there, there are no horizons, only dreams. No boundaries, only endless possibilities.

This story was published on Apr 26, 2024

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.