Carolina Family Fishing Getaways
October 04, 2010
Great for kids or experts, these three North Carolina hotspots can satisfy your vacation fishing urge this summer.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Where can you go in North Carolina to find fishing that will appeal both to the top dog and teen, to the caretaker and kid, the expert and experimental fishermen in the family?
There are answers all over the map; the only problem is deciding where to go and how much travel is required. After all, it is 543 miles from Murphy to Manteo. At least that's what it says on the sign on the westbound shoulder of Route 64 near the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
No matter where you live in the Tar Heel State, there are places within easy driving distance that can provide fishing of all spectrums, from live bait under a float to tough, technical fishing.
This month, we will explore three of them.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains lie these two cities that are located so perfectly for the fisherman that it's amazing that neither is overpopulated by guys with bass boats and fly rods.
Hickory and Morganton are about 20 miles apart on Interstate 40, at the foot of the mountains. By some sort of lucky coincidence, the Catawba River runs reasonably parallel to I-40 for about 40 miles in the same area, giving fishermen in Catawba County and Burke County cities easy access to a number of reservoirs that hold fish of all shapes and sizes. And both are within a drive of 45 minutes to an hour to some top-drawer trout streams to the north and west, and in the case of South Mountain State Park, to the south and west.
The westernmost lake on the Catawba chain is Lake James, about 15 miles west of Morganton. It covers 6,500 surface acres on two distinct arms -- the Catawba and Linville rivers. Lake James is deep and clear, characteristic of higher mountain lakes in terms of habitat and fish species, but with the advantage of being the warmest and easternmost reservoir in North Carolina to have smallmouth bass and walleyes.
Prime fishing months for those two, however, will be over before school's out. The best bet is to fish red-clay banks around the mouth of the Linville for some late-spawning walleyes that are just finished recovering from their reproductive stress and feeding heavily. Sliding a night crawler (threaded onto a leadhead jig) down a red-clay bank can be productive, especially when there's a laydown tree around. And there will be a few late-spawning smallmouths on their way back out of creeks and the Linville that can be caught on live shiner minnows in 5 to 15 feet of water on secondary points, normally with rocks or some other kind of cover.
For guided trips, try Stanley Correll of Catawba Lakes Guide Service at (828) 205-1429.
Lake Rhodhiss covers 3,515 acres and stretches about 10 miles from just northwest of Hickory to just northeast of Morganton. It is one of the least-pressured lakes on the Catawba chain. Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Duke Power guess that a lot of fishermen bypass Rhodhiss for either Lake Hickory or Lake James, in part because Rhodhiss is a fairly narrow lake with a lot of river-fishing features.
However, those fishermen are missing out. Those same biologists admit that Rhodhiss is probably the most fertile reservoir on the Catawba, producing more pounds of fish flesh per surface acre than even famed Lake Wylie or nearby Lake Hickory.
Rhodhiss warms up a little later than reservoirs downstream, so the spring spawning run of the lake's striped bass is a little later. It's not unusual for fishermen to run into spawners in early June well up the river, often as far as the municipal water-treatment plant on the outskirts of Morganton. And the chance of catching a trophy striper is probably better at Rhodhiss than any other reservoir on the Catawba.
For guided trips, Capt. Frank Maddy at (704) 263-0801 and Capt. Joe Jobin at (704) 240-0165 do a lot of work on Lake Rhodhiss.
Lake Hickory is one of North Carolina's best "smallish" reservoirs. At 5,200 acres, it stretches close to 17 miles from Oxford Dam at the Route 16 bridge north of Conover to Rhodhiss Dam just west of the Burke-Catawba county line.
Like Rhodhiss, Hickory is also a very fertile reservoir. It has excellent populations of largemouth bass, striped bass, crappie and channel catfish. Night-fishing for bass and crappie can be excellent throughout the summer, especially around the deep ends of piers and boat docks in 10 to 15 feet of water.
Summertime fishing for catfish and striped bass can also be excellent. Lake Hickory's stripers migrate a lot; their spring spawning run to the tailrace below Rhodhiss Dam will usually be over by Memorial Day, and the fish will make their way back down the lake as summer approaches. However, they usually make a move back up into the upper sections of the lake in August when Duke Power receives great demands on its hydroelectric plants and runs a lot of cool water off the bottom of Lake Rhodhiss into Lake Hickory. That attracts stripers to areas from Gunpowder Creek upstream to the Route 127 bridge and beyond.
Channel cats can be "easy" at Hickory for fishermen who set up on main-lake pockets and fish around laydown trees with baits, such as chicken livers, night crawlers and mussels. Better fish are often found on the deep ends of flats where they drop off into creek channels.
For guided trips, contact Jeff Tomlin at (704) 902-7246 or Ken Dalton at (828) 325-9848.
Lookout Shoals Lake is about 15 miles east of Hickory. At 1,200 acres and nine miles long, it is among the smallest reservoirs on the Catawba, but it produces bragging-sized striped bass and shellcrackers (redear sunfish) for bank-fishermen close to the Route 16 bridge, even during the summer.
Early June can be an excellent time to cast bucktails or live bait into the fast current below the turbines on the south bank, upstream from the Route 16 bridge to Oxford Dam. And when Duke Power isn't running water through the turbines, the shallow riverbed is full of big shellcrackers, as well as channel catfish. The state-record shellcracker weighed almost 4 1/2 pounds and was caught in the upper end of Lookout Shoals.
The shellcrackers thrive in Lookout Shoals because of high densities of freshwater mussels that collect on the rocky floor of the river. Fish typically spawn early in the summer; they can be caught on small in-line spinners, such as Roostertails or Panther Martins, on live worms or on mussels. As long as the current is calm, a small johnboat,
canoe or inflatable can be invaluable for getting around.
For lodging and other opportunities in the Hickory area, contact the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce at (828) 328-6000.
As far as mountain trout fishing is concerned, South Mountains State Park is about 15 minutes southwest of Morganton off Route 64. It features three main mountain-trout streams in its 23,000 acres: Jacob's Fork, Shinny Creek and Henry's Fork.
Jacobs Fork is managed for wild trout in its upper reaches and delayed harvest on its lower reaches. From the first Saturday in June through September, the delayed-harvest section is managed under hatchery-supported regulations, meaning that any type of bait is legal and fishermen can keep up to seven trout per day.
"Catch rates in our delayed-harvest streams are probably double the hatchery-supported streams," said biologist Doug Besler of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. "In places like state parks, people like to come and harvest fish, and we give them the opportunity to catch and keep some fish if they want to during certain seasons, and that also takes some pressure off the wild-trout streams."
Shinny Creek is managed for wild trout, and Henry's Fork is managed inside the park as a special catch-and-release-only, single-hook, artificial lures-only stream inside the park. It is a wild-trout stream on the South Mountain game lands portion and a hatchery-supported stream below the game lands boundary.
For information on fishing and camping in the park, call (828) 433-4772.
It's a short drive north out of Hickory on Route 321 or Morganton on Route 181 up the mountain to the Blue Ridge Parkway and into prime trout territory. The Wilson Creek drainage, one of North Carolina's top trout streams, lies between Route 181 and Route 321 in the Pisgah National Forest near the village of Mortimer. Beyond, above the parkway, lie dozens of streams in Avery and Watauga counties, the top trout destinations in northwest North Carolina, with good representations of hatchery-supported, wild-trout and delayed-harvest streams.
Like most beach areas, North Carolina's Outer Banks is already a family vacation mecca, and that's not even considering the folks who like to wet a fishing line while they're away from home.
But the fragile barrier islands that line North Carolina's coast don't simply shut down when school is in session. Fishermen fill a lot of motels and cottage rentals, put a lot of gas in pickup truck tanks and eat a lot of restaurant meals from Manteo south to Ocracoke.
Don't miss the great summertime fishing opportunities while you're digging your toes into the sand, because they are wide and varied. Some of the fishing is very advanced, but there are lots of things to do with kids to make lasting memories.
First, a handful of guides have discovered a tremendous summertime striped bass fishery in the Croatan Sound between the mainland and Roanoke Island. Thousands and thousands of the striped bass that make their spring spawning run up the Roanoke River live the rest of the year in the sound, and they tend to feed around the two bridges that carry "old" and "new" Route 64 from East Lake to Roanoke Island.
It's a fairly simple bite; you anchor and pitch live bait, such as pigfish, croaker and spot toward the concrete bridge pilings, which the stripers use as current blocks. On lower tide phases, you fish toward the middle of the bridge in deeper water. On higher tide phases, you can spread out toward the bank.
Half-day guided trips regularly produce 40 to 50 stripers in the 3- to 6-pound range, so there's plenty of action for young fishermen who have to have constant action to stay interested.
Guide David Dudley of Manteo and his father, James, operate Nags Head Guide Service out of Manteo (252-475-1555), and they spend much of the summer fishing the two bridges.
Another great summertime fish for the family is the pompano, a slab-sided, great-eating fish that migrates north during the summer and hangs out, literally, in the surf -- just behind the "berm" where waves break onto the beach.
What makes the pompano a great fish for fathers, mothers and children is that gathering the bait is almost as fun as catching the fish. Pompano are suckers for the tiny crustaceans known as "sand fleas" that can be dug out of the wet sand as waves recede. Cover the bottom of a plastic bucket with an inch or two of sand, add water, then dig into the wet sand and pull out the tiny fleas, depositing them in the water.
You'll need quite a few, because they're rather fragile and don't last very long on the hook, but they're candy for pompano. A simple, two-hook bottom rig baited with two sand fleas and cast just a few yards out into the surf is all you'll need for some good action. Lots of surf-fishermen miss out because they cast too far -- pompano live within a few yards of the beach most of the time. They can grow to a pound or better.
Frank Folb at Frank & Fran's tackle shop in Avon (252-995-4171) is a great source for Outer Banks surf-fishing information.
For the more advanced fishermen, the opportunities are endless. Early June is a tremendous month to target cobia around Hatteras or Ocracoke inlets. The big tackle-busters usually make an appearance around those inlets in late May, and they tend to stay a month or so. Fishing deep sloughs in the Pamlico Sound close to the inlets has always been a good tactic, but in recent years, more fish have been staying around the inlets or in the ocean, around Diamond Shoals.
Soaking cut bait on the bottom on heavy tackle is the accepted way to draw strikes from cobia, which generally range in size from 25 to 50 pounds, with dozens of real behemoths in the 75- to 90-pound class caught every year.
Guides Ken Dempsey of Hatteras, (252-986-2102) and Doug Martin of Frisco (252-995-5643) are crackerjack fishermen who guide for cobia and some of the area's other desirable inshore species, such as gray trout, speckled trout, puppy drum and flounder.
Specks really don't show up in good numbers until midsummer; they cruise dropoffs and the edges of grassbeds all across the sound. Gray trout generally get cranked up earlier than specks -- they're most often found in the deeper channels and sloughs. Flounder are most likely caught on the edges of those sloughs by fishermen drifting live minnows or strip baits, and puppy drum can be found just about anywhere in the expansive, relatively shallow waters of the sound.
For the fisherman interested in bigger fish, charter boats carry anglers offshore to the blue waters of the Gulf Stream from a handful of Outer Banks ports, from Oregon Inlet, Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke Inlet. The summertime fishing for tuna tends to be a little better out of Oregon Inlet, so the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (252-441-6301) does a brisk business filling its fleet. Out of Hatteras and Ocracoke, the best tuna fish
ing is in early June; dolphin fishing remains good all summer, and a number of wahoos start to show up as September approaches. Oden's Dock (252-986-2555) and Hatteras Harbor Marina (800-676-4939) have active offshore charter fleets and headboats that will patrol the area around the inlets for panfish.
BRYSON CITY & GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
In the extreme southwestern corner of the state, North Carolina shares with Tennessee one of the nation's greatest natural treasures -- the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Camping opportunities are endless in the park, which is filled with some of the Southeast's finest trout streams. Many are accessible only by boat -- trips are available from Fontana Village Resort (800-849-2258) on the western end of the lake near Fontana Dam -- but there are dozens that campers entering the park from the Bryson City (east) end can access on foot from their campgrounds.
For maps and camping information, call the park office at (865) 436-1200.
Fishermen who spend time only in the park miss one of the area's greatest fishing attractions: 10,665-acre Fontana Lake, the largest impoundment in western North Carolina.
Fontana forms the park's southern boundary for much of the lake's length, which is close to 20 miles. Some of the best fishing during the summer is on the Bryson City end, where the Nantahala, Little Tennessee and Tuckaseegee rivers converge.
Walleyes may be a little difficult for many beginning fishermen, but the lake's shallow waters are full of panfish like bream and crappie, which will readily hit baits such as worms, crickets and minnows.
What really turns a lot of fishermen on is the great topwater fishing for largemouth, smallmouth and white bass. It's usually limited to the first and last hours of daylight, but the action can be intense and furious. Smallish topwater plugs, such as Pop-Rs and Tiny Torpedoes, are local favorites, along with in-line spinners and curlytail grubs cast into feeding fish on leadhead jigs.
White bass will school more than largemouths or smallmouths, but large groups of breaking fish will often include all three species.
Jim Mathis, who operates Almond Boat Park (828-488-6423) close to the junction of the Nantahala and Little Tennessee rivers, is a wealth of fishing information. His operation includes cabins and RV hookups as well as a boat ramp. For other lodging and tourist information, contact the Bryson City Chamber of Commerce at (800) 585-4219.