Best Bets For Family Fishing In North Carolina

There's no need to choose between a family vacation and a fishing trip — you can do both at once at these great locations! (June 2009)

Vacation preferences are sort of like Jack Sprat and his wife, with the fat being fishing plans and the lean being other forms of exploration and relaxation. And like the nursery rhyme couple, families who are making summer plans can assemble a "platter" that serves up both kinds of opportunities and have a grand time licking the whole thing clean.

Knowing that various family members will have different ideas about what makes a great vacation, we've sought destinations that blend fishing and non-fishing opportunities. So here are our best fishing vacation picks, beginning in the east and traveling west.

PLEASURE ISLAND
A nice thing about vacationing at the beach is that when the summer sun really sizzles, a dip in the ocean is never far away. For fishermen, it's even better, because an angler (or family of anglers) can stand in the surf and fish at the same time. Pleasure Island, which contains both Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, offers a terrific blend of opportunities to North Carolina anglers who want to combine an ocean vacation with a summer fishing trip. Pier-fishing and surf-fishing are just a couple of the many angling opportunities that are well suited for families visiting Pleasure Island during the summer.

Pier-fishing is one of the best options for a family outing because it does not require a boat equipped for marine use or a lot of specialized tackle or knowledge. Summer brings a big mix of species in close proximity of the beaches, and anglers can catch everything from spadefish to flounder to croaker from piers. The Carolina Beach Pier and Kure Beach Pier both stretch more than 700 feet out into the ocean, creating great opportunities for anglers. Both also offer bait and tackle, and pier operators can provide current fishing reports and good advice about rigs and baits.

For family members who select the surf-fishing option, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area at the southern end of Cure Beach is an ideal destination. The recreation area offers five miles of undeveloped beach that is nicely suited for surf-fishing. Pompano, small sharks and puppy drum are just a few of the many species that are apt to be pulled from the summer surf.

For anglers who do opt to trailer boats to the beach, inshore waters offer good opportunities to catch redfish, speckled trout, flounder and more. And the combination of the lower Cape Fear River, the Intracoastal Waterway and a network of tidal creeks that break up the salt marsh provides plenty of water to explore. An alternative is to charter a boat, and the Carolina Beach Fishing Center docks boats of every size for everything from inshore family-oriented trips to Gulf Stream trolling.

Between fishing trips, families find plenty to do on Pleasure Island, with the fun beginning on the beaches themselves. Carolina Beach State Park offers opportunities for hiking, along with a campground and nature center, and the park is home to Venus flytrap plants. There's also a one-mile hiking trail at the Fort Fisher Recreation Area that winds through the marsh to an observation platform.

Other places to explore include the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the boardwalk at Carolina Beach. Some charter boats also provide scenic tours by water. In addition to the campground, both beach communities offer lodging options that range from simple motels to rental homes to bed and breakfasts.

To learn more about attractions, fishing opportunities and places to stay and eat on Pleasure Island, check out www.gocapefearcoast.com.

CHARLOTTE
Many folks might not think of a major city as a destination for a family fishing vacation, but North Carolina's biggest city provides a wealth of opportunities for family trips, both on and off the water. The bulk of the fishing is on Lake Wylie, immediately west of town.

An impoundment of the Catawba River that's divided in half by the North Carolina/South Carolina border, Lake Wylie offers a great diversity of summer fishing opportunities. Although probably best known as a bass lake, Wylie also serves up terrific fishing for crappie, white bass and channel catfish. Bluegills provide additional family-fishing action.

For families who want to target Lake Wylie's largemouths during the summer, two major strategies come heavily into play. The first is to focus on humps and other structural features along the main river channel and either vertical jig the structure with a spoon or crank it with a deep-diving crankbait. The same strategy will also produce white bass, and the two species often will be together. The second approach is to flip docks, of which there are hundreds on Lake Wylie. Docks produce all-day shade and good structure for the bass to relate to, and they produce fish all summer long at Lake Wylie.

Another good option for families is channel catfish. Cats, most of which will be between about 1 and 5 pounds (although some definitely will be larger), produce predictable action that makes fishing a lot of fun for young anglers. A good approach for finding catfish is to set up over points both in the main river and in the lower halves of creeks and to put out cut fish, chicken livers or night crawlers on the bottom. A 5-pound catfish makes for big fun for a young angler.

For families who seek a change of scenery or who favor a little smaller lake, Mountain Island Lake (next up from Wylie on the Catawba Chain) is similar to Wylie in its offerings but in a notably smaller package. A little farther north, Lake Norman is best known for its striped bass, and the bass population now includes a heavy mix of fat spotted bass.

Families visiting Charlotte might also want to explore one of the five Community Fishing Program sites (see www.ncwildlife.org) that are located in Mecklenburg County. These parks all contain ponds that offer good bank-fishing access and are regularly stocked with catchable-sized channel catfish through the warm months.

Looking beyond fishing opportunities, Charlotte provides an abundance of great places for family play. Among the coolest is the new U.S. National Whitewater Center, which includes a manmade, recirculating whitewater course that is designated as an Olympic Training Course and offers nearly continuous Class II to IV rapids. Other options worth checking out include historic Brattonsville and the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden and the Lazy 5 Ranch, an exotic animal drive-through park with animals from six continents.

On the outskirts of Charlotte — in Concord — Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is a massive playland for outdoorsy families, complete with a game fish-filled aquarium and plenty of full-body big-game mounts, and more tackle and other outdoo

rs stuff than most folks could even imagine. Concord is also home to the brand-new Great Wolf Lodge, which features a full water park, miniature golf course and wolf den themed suites.

For more information to help you plan a summer trip to the Charlotte area, check out the Web site at www.charlottesgotalot.com.

ASHEVILLE
Set in the valley of the French Broad River, Asheville is in the heart of the Blue Ridge. High mountains rise just outside town, and the river and its tributaries provide a terrific variety of places to fish and to otherwise play. The Asheville portion of the French Broad itself, in fact, is considered one of North Carolina's premier destinations for muskellunge. Anglers also catch some smallmouths from the same section of river

Better smallmouth fishing, however, is found downstream (north) of Asheville, in the whitewater section of the French Broad River between Marshall and the Tennessee border. Fishing this section of river involves wading that can only be done when the river is fairly low (which it often is during the summer). Smallmouth fishing can be excellent, and occasionally, a big muskie will come up and attack a topwater lure.

Asheville, with its numerous cool shops, great restaurants and fine places to stay, actually serves as a base camp for many fishing trips. Fishing in town is basically limited to floating the river in a canoe or a johnboat. However, the mountains that surround town abound with trout streams of every size and sort.

The closest spots with significant trout offerings are Lake Powhatan, immediately west of town, and the Swannanoa River, just to the east. A small lake (7 acres) that is the centerpiece of a national forest recreation area of the same name, Lake Powhatan is stocked with more than 3,500 trout per year, with all the fish stocked between March and June. Bent Creek, which feeds the lake, gets stocked with a similar number of trout. Sixteen miles of the Swannanoa River receive approximately 13,000 trout per year.

Southwest of Asheville is the Davidson River, which includes one of the most heavily stocked and heavily fished stretches of Hatchery Supported waters in North Carolina and some of the state's finest wild trout waters. Just north of the Davidson are the North and South Mills rivers; the former being a popular delayed-harvest stream; the latter a remote wild trout river that winds several miles between access points and is known for the big brown trout it produces.

Southeast of town, the Rocky Branch River is a very popular Hatchery Supported stream, with good access and heavy stockings. North of town are several streams that feed the French Broad directly, plus the upper Toe River watershed, which forms along the eastern slope of Mount Mitchell.

The streams, all within a half hour or so of Asheville in different directions, represent a huge range of management schemes and vary in size and character. Working from Asheville, anglers can enjoy very different types of mountain trout fishing experiences from one day to the next.

Beyond fishing trips, families drawn to outdoor adventures will enjoy rafting the whitewater section of the French Broad. If the river is low, some outfitters will offer guide-led trips in "duckies," which are essentially inflatable sit-on-top kayaks. For families who would like to see the river but favor a gentler trip, canoes can be rented to float a much milder section through Asheville, which actually goes right past the Biltmore Estate.

Near the Davidson River, two extremely popular spots for exploration are Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock, a 40-foot natural waterslide on a Davidson River tributary. Hiking trails also abound in this section of the Pisgah National Forest, and U.S. Highway 270, the main road through the forest, climbs the mountain to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which can be followed back to Asheville.

For a fun family meal, check out Fiddlin' Pig Bluegrass & BBQ. Great lodging options include the Residences at Biltmore and the Grove Park Inn, a stone lodge built in 1913.

To learn more about attractions and places to stay in Asheville, check out www.exploreasheville.com. A visit to the Asheville Visitor Center in downtown Asheville is also helpful for making the most out of a trip.

GRAHAM COUNTY
Hot summer days dictate traveling deep into the mountains, and one of North Carolina's most westerly counties boasts some of the state's highest mountains and most splendid scenery. High elevations (1,177 to 5,560 feet) provide a distinct cooling influence, as do the brisk trout streams that drain through the mountains of Graham County. July highs (the hottest of the year) average 83 degrees. Lows during the month average 62 degrees.

Graham County is a dreamland for folks who love the Appalachian Mountains. Hundreds of miles of trails lead to waterfalls, wildflowers and quiet coves, while wild trout waters cut remote and rugged gorges. Small towns are rich in Appalachian heritage, with artisans' shops, traditional food and plenty of mountain music. Roughly two-thirds of the land in Graham County lies within the Nantahala National Forest and is therefore protected from development and open to the public. Included is Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness Area, which contains a spectacular old-growth forest.

Fishing opportunities abound throughout the county and range from casting crankbaits for smallmouths on Fontana Lake to "shooting" dry flies for native specks in remote branches. Offerings include 3 1/2 lakes (Calderwood is partly in Tennessee) and a host of mountain streams. Some streams are stocked and managed under general regulations; most are managed as wild trout waters.

Best known among the county's lakes is Fontana, which is fully flanked by mountains and bordered to the north by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and to the south by the Nantahala National Forest. Fontana is best known for its walleyes, smallmouths and big rainbow trout (with some of the best trout fishing occurring on summer nights), but the lake also supports good populations of crappie, white bass and bluegills for families to enjoy. Fontana Village provides good access to the lake, along with cabins and lodge rooms and a host of family activities.

Downstream of Fontana and a long ways from anything, two small impoundments of the Little Tennessee River produce excellent trout fishing and get light fishing pressure because of their remote location. Both Cheoah and Calderwood lakes are regularly stocked with rainbow, brook and brown trout, and some fish grow to large sizes in both waterways.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has also lake trout in Calderwood at times. Completing the county's lake offerings is Lake Santeetlah, which is steep-sided and beautiful and similar to Fontana in its offerings — except that it is smaller and it produces better largemouth fishing

Despite fine lake offerings, though, this section of North Carolina is best known for its trout streams. Slickrock Creek, which follows the state line and divides two large wilderness areas, is widely known for

producing outstanding brown trout fishing in a very remote setting.

Also famous are the headwaters of Big Snowbird Creek and the specks (Southern Appalachian brook trout) that swim in its high country branches. Well downstream of the wild trout waters, Big Snowbird is regularly stocked and access is good. Much of Santeetlah Creek is likewise the recipient of regular trout plantings. Numerous small tributaries of streams mentioned and of the Cheoah and Little Tennessee rivers are managed for wild trout and are loaded with small but colorful wild trout.

Opportunities for non-fishing adventures include mountain biking at the Tsali Recreation Area, hiking among the giant trees of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, rafting the spectacular Cheoah River (very limited opportunities during scheduled water releases) and canoeing one of the mountain lakes. Other places worth exploring are the town of Robbinsville, the Stecoah Valley Center and the Cherohala Skyway.

Lodging opportunities range from high-end lakeside lodges to simple motels to campsites. For more on this area, visit the Web site at www.grahamcountytravel.com.

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