Western North Carolina Offers Great Winter Fishing
Winter fishing in western North Carolina can be as action-packed as skiing, as long as you know where to fish and what to target.
Trout anglers who enjoy catch-and-release fishing can cast a line in one of 26 Delayed-Harvest Trout Waters, while anglers who prefer fishing for walleye can try their luck in many of North Carolina's mountain reservoirs, where this coolwater species is typically found.
Kin Hodges, a fisheries biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, recommends a newly designated Delayed-Harvest Trout Water located in Surry County - the Ararat River in Mt. Airy, between the N.C. 103 bridge and Hwy. 52.
This 2-mile section of the river was designated as delayed-harvest in August, and opened to the public this fall. Delayed-harvest waters, posted with black-and-white signs, create high-quality fishing opportunities where anglers can fish densely stocked trout streams on a catch-and-release basis, fall through spring.
Although anglers aren't allowed to harvest trout when fishing on delayed-harvest waters - at least not until they revert to hatchery-supported regulations on the first Saturday in June - these waters offer terrific fishing opportunities, even in the winter.
This is particularly true of the Ararat River, according to Hodges.
"Given its relatively low elevation - approximately 1,000 feet above sea level - the Ararat River should stay a bit warmer and provide good fishing further into the winter months than many other delayed-harvest streams," Hodges said.
Mt. Airy recently completed a stream restoration project on more than two miles of river to help stabilize the banks and improve stream habitat. A greenway trail along the river was built simultaneously to improve public access. These improvements made it possible for the Commission to add the stream to its delayed-harvest program.
Anglers wanting to fish the delayed-harvest section can access the river from three designated access points along the greenway:
Riverside Park on N.C. 103;
H.B. Rowe Environmental Park on Hamburg Road; and,
Tharrington Elementary School Park just upstream of Highway 52.
"Given the distance between access points, anglers may want to bring a bicycle to help reach areas further from the parking areas," Hodges said.
Although most people think of trout fishing when visiting the mountains, fishing for walleye also can offer exciting fishing action as well as excellent table fare.
Walleye, also known as pike and jackfish, thrive in cooler waters. While most of North Carolina's mountain reservoirs have walleye populations, the best walleye fishing can be found in Fontana and Hiwassee reservoirs and in Lake James, according to David Yow, the Wildlife Commission's warmwater research coordinator and an expert on walleye fisheries.
Fontana Reservoir, located on the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, is a large, deep reservoir that provides plenty of forage and habitat for its walleye population. Further west, Hiwassee Reservoir near Murphy has a walleye fishery that has rebounded due to annual walleye fingerling stockings. On the eastern side of the mountains, Lake James provides a walleye-fishing experience within easy driving distance for anglers in the central part of the state.
Regardless of where anglers fish for walleye, Yow advises them to bring a good depth finder, because walleye tend to avoid sunlight and often are found in deep water associated with baitfish or structure.
"A good depth finder is essential for determining trolling depth or locating schools for still fishing," Yow said. "Walleye schools may be as deep as 90 feet or more this time of year. That also affects the way you handle your catch."
Bringing a fish up from that depth may affect its ability to survive if released, and some studies have indicated that the deeper a fish is caught, the less likely it is to survive.
"For that reason we have no length limits for walleye in our mountain reservoirs," Yow said. "The only exception is Lake James, which has a 15-inch minimum."
Popular walleye baits include spoons, jigs and plastic worms. One technique that works well is to cast the jig parallel to the boat and let it sink. Start a hopping motion using only the wrist, not the arm. Make the jig hop six to 12 inches from the bottom while retrieving the jig between hops. Slack the line after each hop.
Safety is a key concern when fishing mountain reservoirs in winter and Yow recommends that anglers have a "float plan" so that someone knows where you're going and when you expect to return.
"Because water levels are lower, shallow points and submerged ridges present more navigational hazards in winter than in warmer months when the reservoirs are full," Yow said. "There are also fewer boaters on the water to help if you get into trouble, and there is no cell phone service in some of the more remote areas."
While walleye is considered by many to be one of the best tasting of all freshwater fish, anglers should note that there is a consumption advisory for walleye due to mercury levels in Fontana and Santeetlah reservoirs. Consumption advisories are issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains an updated list on its website.
For more information on fishing in public, inland waters, including a list of more than 500 sites across the state where the public can cast a line, visit www.ncwildlife.org/fishing.