Fall fishing in North Carolina is chock-full of great opportunities. Here are some of the best places and species to target.
The fall is a great time to be on the water in North Carolina. If you become bored waiting for a whitetail while sitting in a tree stand, feed your fishing daydreams and head for these top destinations for an abundance of crappie, largemouth and smallmouth bass, muskellunge, mountain trout, catfish, stripers and red drum.
HIGH ROCK LAKE
White Crappie, Largemouth Bass
Located near Salisbury, High Rock Lake is undergoing a renaissance in its crappie fishing. The 15,180-acre lake is also one of the best lakes for catching largemouth bass in the state. It won its well-deserved reputation for producing huge bass after hosting several national bass fishing championships over the years.
Currently, it is the lake’s crappie fishing making headlines. The lake’s high fertility produced such a bumper crop of white crappie that the fish overpopulated. The fish were “stunted,” which means that they were not reaching normal weights for their ages, and few were reaching the 8-inch size limit which applies to most lakes in the state. To restore the lake’s reputation as a good place to catch crappie, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission removed the size and bag limit for crappie two years ago.
“It has really worked,” said Capt. Butch Foster of Yeah Right Charters (910) 845-2004. “Before the Commission removed the size and bag limits, the crappie were as small as potato chips. Now, in a typical day’s catch, I have as many crappie as I want to take home and they weight from a half-pound to a pound.”
Using his depth finder, Foster finds brush piles in 15 to 18 feet of water and drops 1/16-ounce tube jigs just above them. The fish come up and out of the brush to hit the jigs. His favorite color has a red head and a yellow tail. Anglers place the brush piles beneath boat docks, in creek mouths and many other places in the lake.
Foster also catches crappie by trolling up to 16 long rods, using what anglers term “spider rigging” techniques because all of the rods stationed in holders around the boat makes it look like a spider. He ties two jigs above a half-ounce bank sinker on each dropper rig, giving crappie an entire school of tantalizing jigs to look over as the boat eases slowly along.
Another method he uses is long line trolling, which is simply trolling two to four jigs on individual rods behind the boat. The technique works increasingly well with the onset of cold weather, with some of the best long line trolling occurring when the fish are entering shallow water coves in December.
In September and October, the bass fishing is as good as it is in spring. Bass will strike stickbaits such as a Rebel Minnow cast to the points and rocky banks. They will also strike spinnerbaits and buzzbaits cast in the backs of the creeks, with Abbotts, Crane, Crow, Flat Swamp and Glady’s creeks excellent places to fish.
“I cast to any hard structure I can find,” Foster said. “If the sun is shining on a rock outcrop or dock, it is always worth a few casts. In a good day of fishing, you can catch 40 or 50 bass, with some topping 5 pounds.”
Bass fishermen should also rig a rod with a Zara Spook or other walk-the-dog lure ready to fire off a cast. In September, High Rock bass form schools near bridges and underwater humps. Anglers can see them chasing baitfish to the surface. The best time to catch surface feeding bass is at dawn and dusk and the largemouth bass mix with striped bass, which attack the same topwater lures.
Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass, Muskellunge
Lake James is the lowest elevation lake in the Catawba chain that has good fishing for smallmouth bass. The lake also has largemouth bass. Both species bite well in September and early October. However, as the winter grows colder, anglers have better luck if they target the lake’s smallmouth bass.
The Linville River arm of the 6,510-acre lake is less fertile than the Catawba River arm. Therefore, bass anglers will usually find better smallmouth fishing in the Linville River and better largemouth fishing in the Catawba River. In September, bass will be in the shallow areas, feeding on shad and blueback herring. The water is still warm enough that topwater lures will catch plenty of chubby bass.
Propeller lures, including the X-Rap Prop, Tiny Torpedo and Devil’s Horse are great lures on windy days when the surface ripples, while a walk-the-dog lure such as the Lucky Craft Sammy is among the most popular during calm days. Buzzbaits will wake up bass in the shallower areas of the rivers, in the backs of the coves and around the boat docks.
As the weather turns colder, anglers should focus their search for smallmouth bass on the edges and ledges, with rock outcrops angling down into the water with the sun warming them some of the best places to fish. Fallen trees along the banks extending down into the water, which anglers call “lay-downs,” are some of the best places to catch smallmouth bass.
Crankbaits, including Shad Raps, are good bets for fishing these areas. When the fish head deep in the coldest weather, stair stepping a tube jig or Carolina rigged soft plastic lure dragged down a rocky point is a great tactic.
Lake James has some of the best muskellunge fishing in the state. The fish are so scattered that raising one in a day’s fishing makes it a good day. Nevertheless, dedicated muskie anglers catch them consistently. The Catawba River arm is best place to find them, with any large lure likely to attract attention. The fish strike stickbaits such as Rebel and Rapala minnows, 4-ounce four-bladed spinnerbaits and other big lures.
Most anglers hook muskellunge while they are fishing for bass, but their lures and tackle are not up to the task, so they lose the fish within seconds. Muskie anglers use heavy baitcasting rigs with 80-pound braided line and heavy wire leaders.
A muskie may follow the lure all the way to the boat without striking. For this reason, after making a cast a good tactic is working the lure in a figure-8 pattern at the side of the boat before lifting it from the water. Seeing a muskie strike a lure just off the rod tip is one of the most exciting events of all the state’s mountain waters fishing.
SOUTH MOUNTAINS STATE PARK
Located just south of Morganton, 20,000 acre South Mountains State Park is within an easy driving distance from Charlotte and other large cities. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has given the rivers and streams within the park multiple designations including delayed harvest, hatchery supported, wild trout and catch and release/single hook lure waters.
Through September 30, hatchery supported limits apply to all delayed harvest waters in the state, with a daily creel limit of seven trout that can be any size. Beginning October 1, anglers fishing in delayed harvest waters must use a lure with a single hook and must release all trout. In wild trout waters, the year-round limit is four fish with a minimum size of 7 inches.
Inside South Mountains State Park, the lowest section of Jacob’s Fork River has a delayed harvest designation. This stream is located near the park entrance and is an easy walk from the park’s office and visitor center, so it is a very popular fishing area. Upstream of the delayed harvest section, Jacob’s Fork River and all of its tributaries have a wild trout water designation.
Within the park, the main run of Henry Fork River has a catch and release/single hook artificial lure designation. The lowest section of Henry Fork River is hatchery supported water and the Commission stops stocking trout in that section in August. However, the residual fish maintain some good fishing well into September and possibly longer.
Anglers must be careful not to leave the park property because most of the hatchery-supported water is located on private property. The park boundary and all trout water designations are marked with signs. Anglers can access all of the trout streams on foot. The park also has mountain bike trails and bridle trails. The park has hike-in and drive-in campsites available by reservation. Maps of the trails and streams are available at the park office or call them at (828) 433-4772 or visit ncparks.gov/south-mountains-state-park.
NEUSE AND TRENT RIVERS
Striped Bass, Red Drum
New Bern sits at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers and this fertile estuarine area attracts many species of inshore saltwater game fish. It has some of the most reliable fishing for striped bass along the coast.
Capt. Gary Dubiel of Speck Fever Guide Service (252) 249-1520 usually launches his boat at Lawson’s Creek Park and heads for the nearby waters to look for fish. The fishing is good year-round, but the season for keeping striped bass runs October through April with a creel limit of two fish with a minimum size of 18 inches with no fish retained between 22 and 27 inches long.
The best times to fish are dawn and dusk. However, on overcast days, the fish may show on the surface, attacking baitfish at any time. The baitfish are primarily mullet and menhaden. Therefore, Dubiel uses lures that resemble these fish.
Dubiel’s favorite lures include Storm Wildeye Shad swimbaits, Zara Spooks topwater lures and 17MR MirrOlure suspending twitchbaits. “The first thing I do is look for the fish and for the birds that are working the baitfish,” Dubiel said. “Sometimes the stripers are deep, but the birds can still see them, so they hover above them. I also watch my depth finder for baitfish and larger marks that mean stripers are feeding in the baitfish schools.”
The best places to begin searching are drop-offs where the stripers can corner the baitfish. If the fish are showing at the surface, he starts casting a Zara Spook, staying far enough away from the fish to avoid spooking them. If alarmed, they may scatter or dive deeper.
“If I don’t get results with a topwater lure, I cast the MirrOlure,” he said. “I use a twitching retrieve, pausing it often because the fish usually strike when it is sitting still.” He also uses a swimbait for schooling stripers if they are deep. If he doesn’t find stripers in the river channels, he heads for the many highway bridges. Dubiel counsels, “You never know which bridge piling might hold stripers,” he said. “I keep casting around them and looking for baitfish. If you see baitfish, that means the stripers can’t be far away.”
Red drum are in the same area all year long. While stripers roam the open waters, Dubiel catches red drum along the edges. He casts jigs with soft plastic trailers to sunken boats, boat docks, sea walls, stumps and any other type of hard cover he sees. One of his favorite trailers is a Berkley Gulp Shrimp.
TAR RIVER RESERVOIR
Catfish and White Crappie
The 1,860-acre Tar River Reservoir supplies water to Rocky Mount. It receives runoff from farms along the river and Saponi Creek. It is often muddy, but the runoff makes it one of the most fertile lakes in the coastal plain.
While it is one of the best lakes for catching white crappie near the coast, its excellent catfish action is lesser known. The lake has flathead, blue and channel catfish in abundance. Anglers use several methods to catch catfish including drifting baits on the bottom, fishing live baits on float rigs and jug fishing.
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The most popular way to fish for them is anchoring the boat at the confluence of one of the coves or creeks and the main river channel, dropping a bait to the bottom on a Carolina rig and letting it soak. Good baits include live and cut shad and sunfish, shrimp, night crawlers and chicken livers.
The lake is one of only two in the coastal plain that has no size or creel limit for crappie. The white crappie are so abundant that local angler Tommy Short catches 100 or more in a day. According to Short, “I don’t care what color the fur is as long as it’s white,” he said. “I usually jig in the hurdles (brush piles resembling track hurdles), or anywhere else I can see crappie or baitfish schools fish with my depth finder.”
Mike Marsh’s latest book, Fishing North Carolina, has detailed information for fishing 100 of the state’s best lakes, rivers and sounds and piers. To order an autographed copy, send a check or MO for $26.60 to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409. His books include “Inshore Angler – Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide” ($26.20) and “Offshore Angler – Coastal Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide” ($22.40) For credit card orders or to contact Mike, visit mikemarshoutdoors.com.