Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
In one sense, a calendar shows a multitude of days to go fishing — 365 each year. Looking more closely, however, most folks’ calendars stay pretty crowded, given workdays, family plans and other obligations. What that means is when anglers do get the opportunity to get out on the water, they want to make the very best decisions about how to use that time.
In North Carolina, great angling opportunities abound and are widely varied, which is both good and bad for fishermen making plans. It’s great to be able to go so many different directions and enjoy good fishing prospects, but all those choices make the decisions extra difficult. We’ve put together a whole year’s worth of selections to help make the decision-making process a little easier. Destinations are spread from the mountains of western North Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean and include everything from crappie to king mackerel.
Flatheads: Sutton Lake
Winter and flathead fishing do not normally go together: Under normal circumstances, flathead catfish virtually shut down when water temperatures plummet. As a warming pond for the Sutton Steam Plant, however, Sutton Lake stays warm throughout the year, making it a legitimate winter hotpot for flatheads. The cats stay active all winter in the lake’s warmest waters, creating great opportunities for fishermen.
Because Sutton Lake is part of the Cape Fear River system, it’s not surprising that the lake supports a strong population of big cats. Fittingly, the lake impounds Catfish Creek, a major tributary of the state’s most famous catfish river. Biologists actually removed non-native flatheads from Sutton Lake for several years, but it became obvious that the big cats were there to stay and that anglers might as well embrace the exciting fishery.
Sutton Lake is shallow overall, with an average depth of only 5 feet. However, the old creek channel includes depths of up to 25 feet. A variety of fish species will attract the flatheads’ attention if presented alive on or near the bottom and close to cover. Beyond bluegills, shad and other traditional catfish baits, live eels and small catfish are good options.
Largemouths: Lake Wylie
February is a big-bass month, so anglers will be wise to steer their efforts toward waters that produce hefty largemouths. Beyond occasional trophies, Lake Wylie produces great numbers of high-quality bass — fish in the 3- to 6-pound range. Highly fertile, this lake supports loads of shad, and the bass stay fat and happy.
Bass can be shallow or deep on Wylie during February. Anglers do well at times fishing near the bottom within the Catawba River channel, where they jig spoons or kick the bottom with deep-diving crankbaits. Other times, bass will be way up the creeks, under docks and deep in the brush, where flippin’ and pitchin’ techniques come to the forefront. Generally speaking, stained water and hints of spring push more fish into shallow water.
Lake Wylie also has two “hotspots,” where waters warmed by power-production plants are discharged into the lake and keep baitfish and bass stacked up even on the coldest days. The Allen Steam Station is located in the North Carolina section of the lake, with the warm water flowing into the South Fork River arm of the lake. The Catawba Nuclear Station is in South Carolina.
Crappie: Buggs Island
March is made for crappie fishing, and few Tar Heel waterways offer better crappie fishing prospects year in and year out than Buggs Island, or John Kerr Reservoir, as the lake is officially named. Buggs is highly fertile and its creeks and main-lake flats are loaded with cover. The lake’s crappie are both big and abundant.
The best patterns for March fishing vary substantially based on weather patterns and water levels, and the fishing can change dramatically over the course of the month. Crappie can be down in river channels or way up on the flats — or anywhere in between. By considering the progression of spring, asking a few pointed questions in bait shops and doing a bit of searching on the water, anglers typically don’t have trouble homing in on the fish.
Unless the fish are way up in the bushes, the most efficient way to find and catch crappie is to troll both minnows and jigs, putting baits at a variety of depths and exploring creek channels and flats alike. When high-water and spring-like conditions push the crappie extra shallow, a long pole rigged with a jig works great for pulling fish out of the cover.
Trout: Davidson River
The Davidson River offers the best of both worlds for trout fishermen. More than a mile of the river offers easy access to heavily stocked trout, providing a great place for anglers to catch a limit of trout to take home. Upstream, several miles of North Carolina’s best wild trout waters are open only to catch-and-release fishing with artificial flies only.
The hatchery-supported portion of the Davidson River, which parallels U.S. Highway 276 through the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, is one of the most heavily stocked sections of river in western North Carolina. Along with getting stocked weekly with big numbers of trout, it receives a fair number of “bonus” big fish because of its popularity and its proximity to the Pisgah Fish Hatchery.
The catch-and-release/fly-fishing waters, which include the Davidson’s entire headwaters region, also produce some big trout, but these fish are rainbows and browns that have grown large in the river. Because of heavy use by flyfishermen, the upper Davidson supports some of North Carolina’s most sophisticated trout. Despite good numbers, they can be tough to fool. During April, small nymphs fished close to the bottom probably account for the most trout.
Largemouths: Greensboro City Lakes
Across North Carolina, many anglers don’t know the names Lake Higgins, Lake Brandt and Lake Townsend. Around Greensboro, on the other hand, serious bass fishermen do know these names; however, they’d prefer not to hear those names mentioned very often or very loudly. All these lakes, which cover between 280 and 1,500 acres and serve as water-supply reservoirs for Greensboro, offer outstanding bass fishing to those anglers who do take them on.
Bass grow big in all three lakes, which are operated by the city of Greensboro, but co-managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resourc
es Commission. The lakes get regular stockings of threadfin shad to keep the bass well fed. Lake Townsend, the largest of the three lakes, also supports a large gizzard shad population. Each lake is closed to fishing one day per week and at night, but is open one night per week during the summer.
During May, bass fishermen find success using a broad range of approaches. Topwater lures, soft-plastic lures on Texas rigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits draw fish from shoreline cover, while Carolina rigs and deep-diving crankbaits work well around offshore structure.
Smallmouths: New River
Once summer sets in, there are few finer places to be than knee deep in a cool-water stream in the mountainous western part of North Carolina. Add abundant smallmouth bass, which hit with gusto and jump repeatedly once hooked, and it just doesn’t get much better. Those ingredients come together perfectly along the New River, including its South Fork, which heads up near Boone and flows north toward the Virginia border.
Smallmouth anglers can wade shoals from rights of way or from the various tracts of New River State Park or they can float canoes from one access point to another. Arguably, the best plan is to combine the two approaches, floating from point to point to reach key shoals and then wading to fish those waters thoroughly.
Smallmouths often will hammer small topwater plugs cast into eddies behind rocks and into cuts in the bank. If fish won’t come up, veteran smallmouth anglers send baits down after them, using grubs on 1/8-ounce leadheads and Rebel Wee-Crawfish, which imitate the smallies’ favorite snacks. Flyfishermen can have a load of fun with deer hair popping bugs and black or brown Woolly Buggers.
As the dog days crank up, offshore fishing turns hotter and hotter off the North Carolina coast. A variety of fish can come into trolling spreads during July, but few serve up more consistently exciting action than dolphin with their hard, fast runs, brilliant colors and tendency to show up in numbers.
Schools of dolphin typically contain small to medium-sized fish. Bulls often swim alone or in pairs. Diving birds provide good clues that dolphin may be nearby. Most anglers troll for dolphin unless they come upon a school of fish that are within casting distance. Trolling baits are kept near the top, as dolphin are surface fish. Standard rigs include bait/lure combinations with bright-colored skirts.
Dolphin will readily take cut bait if anglers can get the fish close enough to find the bait, which is usually accomplished through chumming. Once the fish get close, anglers simply drop fishy offerings to them. Veteran anglers always try to keep a dolphin on the line, as the excitement of the fish racing around typically will keep the rest of the school close and active.
Largemouths: Falls Lake
Scorching August days beckon anglers to do their fishing at night, as do fish that prowl and feed readily after hours. For fishermen who want to target hefty largemouths under the stars, Falls Lake offers outstanding prospects. Year after year, Falls sustains a great population of high-quality largemouths, including some real giants.
On very calm, moonlit nights, anglers can wobble big surface plugs slowly across the surface. These anglers fish all night for one or two strikes, but the fish that hit their big plugs tend to be hawgs. Most night-fishing is subsurface with jigs, soft-plastic lures or spinnerbaits. Most anglers like large red, purple or black worms or creature baits on Texas rigs or Carolina rigs for fishing around cover. Spinnerbait anglers use large baits, usually rigged with a single oversized Colorado blade.
Anglers who are unfamiliar with Falls should focus on points that stretch into deep water in the lower half of the lake. The bass hold in the channels during the day and follow points into shallower water to feed at night. Remnants from timber stands left intact when the lake was flooded also offer good prospects; however, the tangles of trees are difficult to fish at night, and if a fish buries itself in the trees, then that bass is likely gone for good. Banks that have cut-and-cabled trees along them also offer good prospects for night-fishermen.
Kings & Spanish: Nearshore
September brings king mackerel in close where they can be caught together with their smaller cousins. A few kings get caught by anglers casting from piers and by other means, but the most popular way to target them is to troll slowly with spreads of live bait. “Tournament fishing,” as this tactic is commonly called, is a highly efficient way to catch kings and larger Spanish.
Kings can be found along the beaches at times during September. Nearshore reefs and ledges also can be productive. A key to finding mackerel, veteran fishermen contend, is finding good concentrations of menhaden and other baitfish. Diving birds also help anglers key in on kings and Spanish.
Popular baits include live menhaden, spots, cigar minnows and ribbonfish, sometimes with skirts added to baits to get the fish’s attention. Some king fishermen also like to put big minnow-shaped baits in their trolling rigs during September.
Trout: Smoky Mountains
The combination of spectacular colors and spawning brown trout makes October a fabulous month to wade up a stream in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While autumn colors bring hordes of vacationers to the Smokies, most folks stay on the main roads and a handful of popular trails. With so many streams to pick from in the park, an angler is apt to have a long section of wonderful waters completely to himself.
All the major streams on the North Carolina side of the Smokies offer outstanding trout fishing. Deep Creek, which rises near Newfound Gap, is legendary for its big wild brown trout. The best waters in most streams are accessed only by hiking streamside for several miles. Backpacking is a terrific approach.
Streams tend to run low and very clear in the fall, so anglers have to move with stealth. A quiet approach, well-placed cast and good drift are all more important than picking the perfect fly. Attractor dry flies with small nymph droppers work well. Very small jigs and in-line spinners/fly combinations work well for spin-fishermen. Only single-hook artificial lures may be used in the park.
Red Drum: Outer Banks
Late fall is prime time to hit the beaches and throw offerings well out into the surf with extra-long surf rods and plenty of weight. Anglers drive four-wheel-drives with partially deflated tires onto the beaches, and then step into the surf while wearing waders and warm clothes to cast for heavyweight red drum.
Incredibly strong, massive redfish create huge thrills and earn bragging rights for anglers, who then slide the big drum back into the surf to be caught again another day. Inlets between islands and points of land that stretch into the surf offer the best prospects. Cape Point, the classic spot to target big reds on Hattaras, remains outstanding; however, fishing pressure can be intense at the cape,
and many other spots produce fine fishing.
Live finger mullet and menhaden, big chunks of cut mullet and blue crab baits are the most popular offerings for big redfish. Anglers fish all the way around the clock and throughout the tide cycles; however, the best fishing definitely occurs at night, and veteran anglers generally favor outgoing tides.
Blue Catfish: Lake Norman
Reports of Lake Norman’s big blue catfish had been creeping out for the past several years, but a new state-record blue landed last summer by Joel Lineberger blew the lid off the whole thing. Blues, which aren’t native to any North Carolina waters, have become very well established in Lake Norman, and high numbers of fish have grown to large sizes.
Defying catfishing stereotypes, blue catfish offer very good fishing through the cool months. In fact, many anglers like winter fishing better than summer fishing. The key to finding big blues during the winter is to find big concentrations of baitfish. The blues will hang out directly beneath the baitfish, often suspended well off the bottom. Anglers targeting blues commonly catch stripers as well (and vice versa).
Anglers use as bait the same baitfish the big cats are feeding on, dropping whole or cut baitfish straight below and counting them down to just below the school of baitfish. Because of the immense size that blue catfish can grow to, stout rods and reels and strong line are absolutely essential.