Carolina's Best Family Fishing Trips
October 04, 2010
From bream to bass to big red drum, North Carolina's waters will let you match some excellent fishing to your family vacation. (June 2006)
The boss gave you an extra day off. You had a vacation day to spare. Now, you've got a long, long weekend ahead -- or maybe a week of vacation. Ah, the perfect setup for a nice, extended fishing trip, maybe even for you and the kids.
Where do you go? To a certain extent, that depends a lot on how good a fisherman you are, what kind of fish you prefer to target, and whether or not you're going with the boys from work or the boys and girls whose bedrooms are down the hall from yours.
You can aim to do anything from dap tiny dry flies in the tiniest of mountain streams for the most wary of all wild trout, or you can anchor an aluminum johnboat up in a little cove, open a container of chicken livers and set out a half-dozen rods in hopes of catching a dinner of channel catfish.
On the saltwater end of things, you can dunk bloodworms from a pier or bridge in hopes of running into spots, croakers or sea mullet, or you can stalk wary puppy drum in 18 inches of water with a spinning outfit and artificial lures.
It's all about how you want your fishing vacation to go. With that in mind, here are a handful of places -- jumping-off points -- where a variety of fishing opportunities are within a half-hour's drive.
If the first things you thought of when you read "North Wilkesboro" were Junior Johnson and moonshine, you're forgiven. Deep in the heart of NASCAR country, the foothills around Wilkes County have given birth to a number of great stock-car racers, including Johnson and Harry Gant. And Wilkes County will never shed its title as the moonshine capital of North Carolina.
However, the chamber of commerce should be promoting Wilkes County as the gateway to Northwest North Carolina. Perched in the Brushy Mountains, North Wilkesboro is a perfect spot for fishermen to use as their home base for a number of different excursions -- none of which are more than 30 minutes away.
First and foremost is W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, a 1,750-acre lake in Wilkes County. Impounded on the upper end of the Yadkin River, W. Kerr Scott is a deep, clear lake that is part mountain lake, part Piedmont reservoir.
For bass fishermen, summertime isn't the greatest time to show up, because W. Kerr Scott has been known more as a great cold-weather lake -- tremendous fishing from December through March.
But the summer can be a great time to fish for the lake's abundant population of channel catfish, and W. Kerr Scott has always produced its share of monster slab crappie -- if not tremendous numbers.
Crappie and catfish tactics are about as easy as things come. Any aluminum johnboat with an outboard motor of some description can put you at the mouth of main-lake coves, where you can anchor up and set out a handful of rods that are tipped with a variety of traditional catfish baits -- chicken livers, night crawlers, cut bait, stink baits -- you name it.
For crappie, concentrate on the deep ends of laydowns on the main lake. Find laydown trees that are close to deep water and fish around the treetops with live crappie minnows set at a variety of depths. The other effective tactic is to locate boat docks or piers that are close to deep water. W. Kerr Scott's shoreline isn't too developed, so hunting for boat docks is a little harder than hunting for laydowns -- but with a 2-pound crappie waiting, it's worth the effort.
Heading north out of town puts you up into the high hills. It's about a 20-minute drive from North Wilkesboro to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a great spot to fish for mountain trout during the summer. A handful of excellent streams are within walking distance of the parkway, including Brush, Big Pine and Meadow Fork creeks in Alleghany County and Cranberry Creek in Ashe County. All four streams are heavily stocked with hatchery brown, rainbow and brook trout through June. Regulations on hatchery-supported streams allow for natural bait, with a seven-fish daily creel limit and no size minimum. In addition, Basin and Cove creeks are two very good streams whose headwaters can be accessed from the Doughton Park area of the parkway.
Beyond the parkway lies the New River, one of the world's oldest waterways. It runs through Ashe and Alleghany counties before flowing across the Virginia state line and heading toward the Ohio River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. On the upper end, it has two really nice fish to offer: smallmouth bass and redeyes or "rock bass."
Smallmouths are the primary target for canoe-bound anglers on the main stem of the New or on the South Fork or North Fork of the river. The South Fork is generally larger and more easily accessible, with many canoe outfitters able to provide floating platforms for fishermen with spinning tackle looking to battle with chunky smallmouths that generally average around a pound but can get much bigger.
And one of North Carolina's real jewels is barely 30 minutes from North Wilkesboro: Stone Mountain State Park, on the northern edge of the county. The park is home to some quality trout waters, including native trout streams like Garden and Widow creeks -- which require fly rods only and barbless flies -- to Bullhead Creek -- a stream where fishermen can sight-cast to 18-inch trout all day long by "renting" a section of stream -- to the East Prong Roaring River, which is in the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's "delayed-harvest" program.
If North Wilkesboro is the gateway to Northwest North Carolina, New Bern is the gateway to the Crystal Coast, the stretch of North Carolina beaches from the Neuse River and Cape Lookout to Bogue Inlet and the White Oak River.
New Bern is about a 30- to 45-minute drive from the Morehead City area and its multitude of saltwater opportunities. It sits at the junction of the Neuse and Trent rivers, where the fishing opportunities are endless -- in fresh water and salt water.
The Trent River flows eastward to New Bern, a normally placid watercourse whose banks are blanketed with aquatic grasses. It is primarily fresh water, with largemouth bass, striped bass and sunfish packing its acres.
The Neuse River is much larger and filled with all kinds of fish -- fresh water and salt water. When pro bass fishermen hit the river in the late 1990s for a national tournament, they remarked about the uncertainty that came with fishing the river downstream from New Bern -- not knowing when they pitched a plastic worm in under a boat dock or up against a piling whether the tap-tap on the other end of the line was from a bass, a
puppy drum, a flounder or speckled trout.
There are literally thousands of pieces of wooden cover to target in the river and in major tributary creeks for 10 miles upstream or downstream from New Bern. Fishing is best on low tides, but tidal movement of water is more influenced by wind direction than the moon in the New Bern area. Low water concentrates fish on the ends of laydowns and docks. The "salt line" will often determine exactly what tugs on the end of your line. A relatively dry spring and summer will have salty or brackish water close to New Bern; a wet spring and summer will push freshwater and saltwater species down the river.
Some of the Neuse's finest fishing is in late August and September, when big red drum move into the area around the mouth of the river, preparing to spawn. They tend to feed in shallow water on shoals or sandbars after dark, and guides like George Beckwith of Oriental (252/249-3101) and Chris Elliott of Gloucester (252/808-7067) target them by anchoring up, putting out a chum slick of ground fish and menhaden oil, then fishing big chunks of cut bait on heavy spinning tackle around the shoals, waiting for fish to move up to hit the chum line and feed.
Thirty or so miles to the east of New Bern is Morehead City and the Cape Lookout area, one of North Carolina's finest coastal fisheries. During the summer, fishermen can target about a dozen species, depending on their preference and pocketbooks -- from blue water brawlers like yellowfin tuna, wahoo and dolphin to the highly desirable inshore puppy drum, speckled trout, gray trout and flounder, and panfish like spots, croakers and sea mullet.
Some of the richest fishing areas are the Beaufort and North River marshes, sprawling areas of shallow water, marsh grass and oyster rocks. For most of the summer, the marshes are full of puppy drum, often in schools of dozens of fish, pushing through the soft bottom in search of crabs and baitfish.
Menhaden are the live bait of choice during the summer, with mullet minnows and shrimp arriving in around Labor Day. Puppy drum are liable to hit a number of different kinds of artificial lures, including soft plastics of various sizes and shapes, plus spoons and spinners. Speckled trout will hit many of the same lures, but they don't tend to move into the marshes as heavily as puppy drum until around Labor Day.
Typically, medium-action spinning tackle is preferred, but some bass fishermen will find their baitcasting tackle to be just the ticket for puppy drum that can be anywhere from 12 to 30 inches long.
The deeper channels around Barden, Beaufort and Bogue inlets are generally home to flounder and gray trout. Fishing areas with sharp dropoffs and plenty of cover on the bottom are prime areas for both species, but especially flounder, which move out of extremely deep water to feed on different swings of the tide. Live menhaden and mud minnows fished on a Carolina rig are the primary live baits for flounder, which tend to bite very slowly, first mouthing a bait, then scaling it before pulling it deep into its throat for swallowing.
Fishermen who prefer the surf or piers can count on a variety of saltwater panfish being on the beach, including spots, sea mullet, croakers and small bluefish. Tactics are not complicated: A medium-action spinning rod loaded with 10-pound-test line, tied to a double-hook bottom rig baited with something like shrimp, squid, cut bait or bloodworms will normally attract attention from inshore bottom dwellers. And the possibility exists for some nice flounder in the surf and around piers, especially if you can find mud minnows.
Capt. Joe Shute's Tackle Shop (252/240-2744), on the causeway between Morehead City and Atlantic Beach, is a source of fishing information for all species and all areas of the Crystal Coast, plus a booking agent for guides and charters.
If North Wilkesboro is the gateway to Northwest North Carolina, Asheville is the gateway to the rest of North Carolina's mountains, but you don't have to go far from the county seat of Buncombe County for plenty of different fishing possibilities.
Within 30 to 45 minutes of Asheville, you can be on some of the finest waters in North Carolina or the Southeast for trout, walleyes, smallmouth bass and even muskellunge. A good source for fishing information in the area is Franklin Outdoor Sports in West Asheville (828/253-7925).
The French Broad River south of Asheville includes a fantastic 30-mile stretch of muskie water, with big fish lying in wait for anglers to pitch buzzbaits, swim baits, jerkbaits and even spinnerbaits behind anything that breaks up the current -- laydown trees, rocks, sandbars and shoals. Heavy tackle and some measure of fishing expertise is required when you're talking about doing battle with fish that routinely reach 3 feet in length and regularly weigh 15 to 30 pounds. Guide Jay Dodd (828/281-1538) targets muskies up and down the river.
A short drive south from Asheville puts you in the Bent Creek drainage, with above-average to good trout fishing in that section of stream that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway between the North Carolina Arboretum and Lake Powatan. East of town, the Swannanoa River is classified as a hatchery-supported stream, and northeast of town, along the parkway toward Mount Mitchell are a handful of streams in the Dillingham Creek drainage, including Carter Creek and Mineral Creek.
Within about a 45-minute drive of Asheville are a few excellent reservoirs, ranging from tiny Wolf Creek on the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River south of Sylva to sprawling Lake James on the Catawba and Linville rivers a short hop down the mountain east of Asheville.
James is perhaps North Carolina's finest overall smallmouth lake in terms of numbers and size, in part because at a lower elevation than most mountain lakes, it stays a few degrees warmer and has a longer annual growing season, and it is a bit more productive or fertile than most mountain reservoirs.
Crappie fishing can be excellent during the summer at Lake James, especially in the area of the Catawba River around "Big Island." Fishing live minnows around laydown trees and boat docks is the easiest way to get started, especially if you remember to find those kinds of places as close to deep water as possible.
In June, a few smallmouth bass will still be relatively shallow, moving out toward their deeper summertime quarters after spawning in the spring. Start on secondary points in major creeks or in the Catawba or Linville rivers. Live shiner minnows have always been a favorite of smallmouth fishermen, especially those who consider big bronzebacks very difficult to catch on artificial lures.
Metal blade baits like Silver Buddies and Sonics can account for smallmouths in deeper water, and in the first week or two after Memorial Day, some fishermen count on some topwater activity, either fishing for schooling smallmouths or fishing soft-plastic jerkbaits like a Zoom Fluke off the end of long points. Guide Stanley Correll (828/205-1429) has put many fishermen on smallmouth bass up to 7 pounds over the past half-dozen years.
Four mountain reservoirs in the Sylva area offer some interesting opportunities. Three of them -- Cedar Cliff, Bear Creek and Wolf Creek lakes -- are toward the headwaters of the Tuckasegee. Cedar Cliff and Bear are both good fisheries for smallmouth bass and walleyes, and Wolf, a tiny lake well up in the highlands, has walleyes and trout.
The other reservoir is Lake Glenville (Thorpe) on the West Fork Tuckasegee. It is the highest elevation reservoir east of the Mississippi, impounding three major tributaries to the Tuckasegee, and it has an excellent smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, bluegill and crappie fishery. Summer trout fishing can be great trolling spoons at night in deeper water. For smallmouth bass, crankbaits fished around rocky points and banks are very productive. Guide Marty Jones (828/421-4569) works Glenville regularly.
RALEIG -DURHAM AREA
Heading to the "big city" to fish may sound a little strange, but there's little question that residents of the Raleigh-Durham area are among the luckiest in the nation in terms of having quality fishing opportunities close by.
Three major reservoirs are within a 30-minute drive of either city: Falls of Neuse Lake, Jordan Lake and Shearon Harris Lake.
Falls is a fantastic fishery located north of Raleigh and Durham, with its headwaters just upstream from the I-85 bridge between Durham and Butner. Impounded in the early 1980s, it has been an excellent summertime bass fishery and has a good population of crappie and channel catfish.
Fishing plastic worms and jigs around stumps along the old Neuse River channel is a great way to do battle with a big bass during the summer. Slow-trolling the mouths of major creeks with mini-jigs is an accepted way to catch a cooler full of slab crappie, and drifting shallow flats on the main river with cut bait or chicken livers will put a few catfish in your boat. Kennon Brown of Oxford (336/358-3207) has guided for bass for years, and Chris Coleman and Steve Tollerson of W&S Outdoor Adventures (434/374-4011) offer crappie-fishing trips at Falls of Neuse.
Jordan Lake is south of Durham. It is also an excellent bass fishery in the summer for fishermen using crankbaits and Carolina rigs around deeper dropoffs and creek channels, and in the past two or three years, a very good fishery for striped bass and hybrid bass has developed. Phil Cable of Holly Springs (919/815-1185) guides bass fishermen at Jordan and Shearon Harris, and Troy Roberson's Striper Sniper Guide Service (919/656-1887) offers trips for stripers and hybrids.
Shearon Harris is the third RDU area reservoir, impounded on a tributary of the Cape Fear River just off U.S. Route 1 between Raleigh and Sanford. Harris has a very heavy covering of hydrilla in the shallow areas that has been a shot in the arm to the lake's excellent bass population. The lake also has crappie and channel catfish, and it is one of the better large reservoirs for sunfish, having an excellent population of shellcrackers that can be caught on live bait in relatively shallow water -- especially around full moons -- throughout the summer. Jeffrey Thomas of Broadway (919/258-3757) guides for bass on Harris when he's not off fishing in national bass tournaments.
Besides the three larger lakes, there are a handful of excellent fishing opportunities at municipal lakes in Raleigh (Shelley Lake) and Durham (Lake Michie).