North Carolina Family Fishing Getaways

Need a vacation? Want a place where the wife and kids will be happy and you'll get a chance to use a fillet knife? Check out these destinations.

By Dan Kibler

North Carolina is about 550 miles wide, from east to west, and a good 200 miles wide, north to south, at the widest spot. Inside that roughly triangle-shaped chunk of earth, the places a man can carry his family on a "fishing vacation" are too numerous to list. You could take two weeks every summer and within a decade still not visit all of the great fishing-vacation destinations the Tar Heel State has to offer.

But we must consider what goes into making a fishing vacation and a family vacation a dual success. First and foremost, the fish should want to bite. In fact, they almost have to bite, because the attention span of kids isn't long enough to allow for any bad days on the water.

So eliminate the idea of going fishing for a trophy striped bass on Lake Rhodhiss and substitute the idea of catching 50 or 60 smaller stripers a day at the Route 64 bridge at Mann's Harbor.

Forget about slinging a spinnerbait into flooded shoreline bushes to try and fool a bass on one of the state's many reservoirs, because that 11-year-old is going to stay hung up all day, and neither of you is going to have much fun. Buy a bucket of minnows and dunk them around the deep end of a dock instead.

Don't even think about carrying a kid into the high country and asking him or her to lay a No. 16 dry fly in an eddy the size of a gallon milk jug in hopes of fooling a wild brown trout. Instead, buy a cup of earthworms and find a stream where the trout all grew up in the hatchery and will eat just about anything.

So, here are a few ideas. Take 'em or leave 'em, but don't leave home without 'em.

Photo by Chester Moore Jr.

Ocracoke is so far removed from the hustle and bustle of the mainland that it's often been said that if the world ended on Friday, they wouldn't hear about it at Ocracoke until Monday, at the earliest.

But really, distance and water are the only things that separate the quaintest of North Carolina's barrier islands from the rest of civilization. Once you spend a week there, you'll wonder why people ever return to civilization.

Located a 45-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Island (or two hours from Swan Quarter and Cedar Island), Ocracoke is a thin barrier island, roughly 15 miles long and, at its narrowest, maybe a quarter-mile wide from the ocean to the Pamlico Sound.

Ocracoke is a great combination of beach vacation and fishing vacation for the parent who is willing to drive and ride the ferry. Camping is common at both public and private campgrounds for anyone with a tent, an RV or trailer. The island has a handful of motels, and real estate agencies offer a lot of cottages for rent on a weekly basis.

For the wife and kids, there's plenty to do as far as sightseeing goes - Ocracoke was home to the pirate Blackbeard, and his image adorns what seems to be about half the island's shops. There are plenty of tourist attractions that build on the pirate theme, as well as one museum dedicated to the difficult existence that the earliest Ocracoke residents experienced, stuck way out in the Atlantic Ocean as they were. In addition, tourists can visit the island's herd of wild ponies (on the sound side of Route 12, about halfway from the village of Ocracoke and Hatteras Inlet). The centerpiece of the village is beautiful Silver Lake harbor, and beach goings-on are always available.

Now, about the fishing. The earlier you can go, the better. Outer Banks fishing tends to be excellent in early June and often difficult in August. July is about midway between the two.

Like neighboring Hatteras, Ocracoke sticks so far out into the Atlantic that the port is one of the closest to the Gulf Stream of any on the coast. Charter fishing boats can put you in the fighting chair to battle yellowfin tuna (early June), dolphin (all summer), marlin (all summer) and wahoo (generally later in the summer). Inshore, both Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets offer great fishing for cobia into mid-June and Spanish mackerel all summer, with guides working both inlets. Throw in soundside trips for speckled trout, gray trout, flounder and puppy drum, and you're in business.

If you want to keep your toes in the sand while fishing, the summertime array of surf fish tends toward panfish-sized offerings such as small bluefish, croakers and pompano. All three species can be caught on simple double-hook bottom rigs available at every tackle shop, using a medium-action spinning outfit.

Bluefish are partial to silvery casting spoons such as Hopkins or Stingsilvers, plus cut bait of any kind. Croaker are suckers for bloodworms or squid, and you don't even have to buy pompano bait; you can dig up plenty of mole crabs (sand fleas) in the surf. Just go to the water's edge and dig frantically as a wave recedes. Those little shelled critters about the size of a dime or nickel are sand fleas. Hook them up - you'll need several dozen - cast them out just beyond the closest breakers and hold on.

What's good about summertime panfishing is that these fish aren't hard to catch, and they're usually plentiful, which fills the bill as far as kids are concerned. Fish early and late - that's usually when the best action is - then spend the rest of the day sunning at the beach.

Throw camping, hiking and trout fishing into the pot, shake well, and out comes Stone Mountain State Park, which covers more than 13,000 acres along the Wilkes County-Alleghany County border north of Elkin.

Stone Mountain is a hiker's paradise. There are seven well-marked trails ranging from the half-mile nature trail at the base of Stone Mountain, a 600-foot granite dome, to a four-mile loop that takes you to the top of Stone Mountain. Family and backcountry camping are available by permit only, either on a reservation (family) or first-come, first-served (backcountry) basis. Call the park office at (336) 957-8185 for details. The park office has a mountain culture exhibit that tells how the settlers provided food and shelter for their families, and the Hutchinson Homestead is a 19th-century mountain farm that's representative of how homesteaders lived 150 years ago.

Now, for the fishing. Stone Mountain State Park has 17 miles of trout streams. As far as the kids are concerned, there's no need to fish anywhere but the East Prong Roaring River, a delayed-harvest stream that is managed as catch-and-release-only water until the first Saturday in June. From early June through Sep

tember, the creek is managed under hatchery-supported regulations, which means that any kind of bait or lures can be used, with a seven-fish daily limit. That's the kind of fishing we're looking for where the kids are concerned. We're talking earthworms, crickets, kernels of corn, tiny dough balls and salmon eggs.

The East Prong is heavily stocked during the winter and spring months, and catch rates are almost double those on wild-trout waters during the catch-and-release period, meaning there are thousands of trout to be caught when the harvest season opens. Look for deep pools to hold the most fish; most will be between 7 and 15 inches long, but there will be an occasional trophy-sized fish stocked during the spring.

There are two piers built out over the stream for fishermen, and in addition, that section of the East Prong downstream of the park boundaries - across the Traphill-Longbottom Road - is managed with hatchery-supported regulations year 'round.

The park has a handful of fine wild trout streams, where fishermen are restricted to single-hook artificial lures; Garden Creek, Widow Creek, Big Sandy Creek and Stone Mountain Creek fall into that category. For the advanced fisherman, a hike up Bullhead Creek offers the opportunity to cast flies for trophy trout. The stream is managed under catch-and-release, artificial flies-only regulations year 'round, and a daily fee will give you unfettered access to one of eight sections of Bullhead and its tributary, Rich Mountain Creek. Browns and rainbows exceeding 20 inches are common.

Bryson City is the county seat of Swain County, and it's the jumping-off point for a lot of different attractions, from the village of Cherokee to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to river-rafting or canoe trips.

Camping opportunities abound in the park, which receives more visits (almost 10 million) annually than any other national park. There are eight major hiking trails in the park, ranging from less than two to more than 12 miles in length. Permits for camping in backcountry and organized sites are available by contacting the park's office in Gatlinburg, Tennessee at (865) 436-1200. The park covers more than a half-million acres and offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the southeast.

Trout fishing opportunities in the park are limitless, but they will mostly be for more experienced fishermen. To get the kids involved, Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation offers trout fishing on stocked streams that's a good bit easier than trying to catch some of the park's more wary browns and rainbows.

What's neat about the Bryson City area is that there's more to do than just visit Cherokee, hike in the park or fish for trout. Numerous outfitters run guided raft, kayak or canoe trips down the Nantahala River, and outfitters also run trips down the Tuckaseegee River, a bigger and more "calm" stream.

Both rivers feed 10,900-acre Fontana Lake, just west of Bryson City. The big lake offers some excellent early-morning and late-evening topwater action on largemouth, smallmouth and white bass, and a northern import, the walleye, is pushing for popularity among local fishermen.

Nighttime fishing for walleyes is as easy as tying up to a bridge piling (try the Route 28 bridge over the Little Tennessee or Nantahala rivers, or the railroad trestle that crosses the lake at a narrow point just upstream from the mouth of the Little Tennessee), putting out some lights to attract insects and baitfish, and dropping some live bait down about 20 feet. Another summertime attraction at Fontana is the rainbow trout that live in the lake year 'round and are often referred to by local fishermen as "steelhead." They inhabit the extremely deep waters around Fontana Dam, and a lot of fishermen catch them either trolling between the dam and the mouth of Eagle Creek, or tying up to the dam, putting out lights and drowning night crawlers from 20 to 40 feet deep.

Fontana Village, at the extreme western end of the lake, has camping, as well as cottages available for rent, and resident fishing guides at its marina (800-849-2258). On the Bryson City end of the lake, Almond Boat Park (828-488-6423) has an RV park, cottage rentals and a full-service boat dock with guides available at the junction of the Nantahala and Little Tennessee rivers.

The home of the first English settlement in the New World is a reasonably quaint village when compared to the tourist mecca of Nags Head across the Roanoke Sound, but it's built up enough to offer all kinds of summertime fun for the family, from wave-rider trips on the sound to sailboat rentals to parasailing.

Additional vacation activities would include a trip to Jockey's Ridge, the Outer Banks' largest sand dune, as well as Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers made their historic flight a century ago. In fact, 2003 is being celebrated as the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur's flight. A trip to the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo will never be a waste of time.

Fishing-wise, Manteo offers a lot of opportunities. It's a 15-minute ride to the beaches for surf-fishing, and about a 15-minute ride down to Oregon Inlet, a jumping-off spot for all kinds of blue-water adventures. Typically, waters off Oregon Inlet will be a few degrees cooler than Ocracoke, and yellowfin tuna may run well into the summer months, along with dolphin and blue marlin. The annual white marlin blitz usually occurs in late August through September. Oregon Inlet is also a great spot for surf fishing (as at Ocracoke, you'll be fishing for panfish in the surf) and for inshore anglers who can take their own small boat or charter a guide to target puppy drum, gray trout, flounder and small bluefish. The Nags Head area also has a handful of fishing piers where youngsters can dunk baits for panfish.

A really great summer fishery for striped bass has developed around the Route 64 bridges across Croatan Sound. It's mostly catch-and-release fishing, but there are enough fish in the 2- to 8-pound range that inshore guides can put you on 40 to 60 fish in a half-day trip. For fishermen trailering their own boats, put in at the Mann's Harbor Marina at the old Route 64 bridge, motor out to the pilings and anchor upstream. Using a Carolina rig, cast a live or cut bait around the pilings, where stripers usually hide to ambush anything the current brings past their noses. Fish deeper pilings on lower tides, shallow pilings on higher tide phases.

What, you never knew there were lakes in the Uwharrie Mountains? Actually, the lakes are on the Yadkin River system, which is the western border for the Uwharries, one of the globe's oldest mountain ranges.

The Uwharrie National Forest covers about 50,000 acres in Randolph, Montgomery and Davidson counties. Camping opportunities are too numerous to list, but three of them are very close to Badin Lake, a 5,600-acre reservoir that's known for its excellent striped bass fishing. Badin Lake Campground, at the water's edge, has a public boat ramp; and Kings Mountain Point, a tent-only campground, has access to a fishing pier.

But opportunities in the Uwharrie don't stop at Badin. Within a half-hour's drive of the forest headquarters in Troy (910-576-6391), fishermen can be launching boats in Lake Tillery (5,294 acres) or Tuckertown Lake (2,600 acres). For the kids, Lake Tillery should be a blast; it has one of the best populations of shellcrackers (redear sunfish) of any large reservoir in the state, and shellcrackers should be going on the bed on full moons throughout the summer, beginning with June. Tuckertown Lake is a catfisherman's dream, even if you're not interested in the tackle-busting flatheads and blues. You won't be the only angler on the lake, but success rates are high. Cut bait, night crawlers and all forms of stink baits fished around laydown trees are liable to produce some excellent channel catfish in the 1- to 3-pound class.

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