There's an almost endless number of destinations in North Carolina that combine family vacations and family fishing. Here are a few you shouldn't overlook. (June 2007)
Photo by Bill Banaszewski.
Follow the equation. Summer equals vacation. Vacation equals recreation. Recreation equals fishing.
OK, so the rhyme fell apart, but not the idea. North Carolina's tourism industry used to have a slogan, "Variety Vacationland" that isn't far from the truth as far as fishing in the state is concerned.
Oh, is there variety. In a long day's drive, you can go from dropping a bloodworm down next to a pier post in search of a spot or croaker to dropping a jigging spoon 50 feet below the surface of a clear mountain lake in search of a walleye. Or you can tie on a tiny dry fly barely the size of a mosquito in a babbling mountain trout stream in hopes of fooling a native brook trout, then the next day, fish for striped bass with baitfish bigger than the trout you targeted.
North Carolina is blessed with borders encompassing mountain ranges up to a mile in elevation, to hundreds of miles of sandy coastline, plus everything in between. And there is no better time to go exploring -- with rod and reel in hand, of course -- than during the summer, when the family vacation can be easily organized to provide plenty of time on the water.
Just as important, the water is spread out enough to be readily available, within an easy morning's drive to most residents of the Tar Heel State. Here are a handful of ideas for families who like to make fishing a part of their summer vacations.
GREAT SMOKIES/FONTANA LAKE
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the nation's busiest park, attracting around 9 million visitors per year. Quite a few of these visitors come for the wide range of camping and fishing opportunities.
The park, which straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border, has more than a dozen organized group campsites that can accommodate a party of up to eight persons, plus 100 more backcountry sites and shelters. Group campsites can be reserved by calling (800) 365-2267, backcountry sites by calling 865-436-1297.
Some of the backcountry sites can put fishermen within easy hiking distance of some of the park's 2,115 miles of streams -- most of which hold good populations of wild brown and rainbow trout. A handful of high-country streams hold native brook trout, which cannot be kept as part of the park's five-fish daily creel limit. Park officials have booklets and maps that show locations and access points for most of the streams in the park, which covers more than a half-million acres. It's important that you check regulations on the stream you plan to fish.
Fishermen can use only single-hook, artificial lures in the park. A fishing license from either Tennessee or North Carolina -- but no trout stamp -- is required for fishing in the park.
Access to much of the park's blue-ribbon trout streams is by boat only from landings on 11,685-acre Fontana Lake, the product of a massive dam that impounds the Little Tennessee, Nantahala and Tuckaseegee rivers, as well as streams that drain the park.
Another park attraction that has been recently added is a herd of elk, relocated between 2001 and 2003 by the park service to try to rebuild the native herd that vanished in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Approximately 50 elk were introduced into the Cataloochie area of the park, and they can occasionally be seen and heard by park visitors.
Fontana Lake, known as "the jewel of the Smokies" is a deep, clear lake with excellent populations of smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, white bass, walleyes, crappie and sunfish.
Summertime fishing is a perfect fit for vacationing families because the best action takes place in the first hour or two of daylight, the last hour or two before dusk, and the nighttime hours. Those are times when bass are most likely to feed near the surface, chasing minnows and hitting small topwater lures. It's also the best time for fishermen to locate schools of walleyes in deeper water, and then jig them up with slab-sided spoons that mimic the fluttering of injured baitfish.
Boat and cabin rentals are available at a number of different places on the lake, with Almond Boat Park (828/488-6423) being very convenient to Bryson City, the gateway to the Smokies.
Jim Mathis, who has run Almond for around 30 years, said he sticks almost exclusively to low-light situations during the summer.
"During the daytime, you can catch some walleyes jigging down around bridge pilings and over deep points, but it's definitely a summertime pattern," Mathis said. "At night, you can fish shallow banks with anything that looks like a minnow -- a Rebel or Rapala -- you'll just be doodling along the bank. A twistertail (grub) will work real good, and a lot of guys are starting to use spider jigs."
Mathis said that many fishermen still set up shop around bridge pilings after dark, putting out floating or suspended lights to attract insects and baitfish -- and eventually, game fish like walleyes, crappie and even white bass.
The thin barrier islands that extend from the Virginia border south to Cape Lookout offer families plenty to do -- and fishermen plenty to catch. The thread that connects them all is Route 12, a paved two-lane that seems often to be carved out of the dunes that separate it from the ocean.
The summer months are not the year's prime fishing from Nags Head south to Ocracoke, but as far as multiple-levels of fishing are concerned, they fit the father-with-a-fishing-family just fine.
The opportunities range from booking an offshore charter boat for a day in the Gulf Stream after tuna, dolphin and billfish to drowning sand fleas just beyond the surf wash for half-pound pompano to casting a spoon off the end of a pier for Spanish mackerel.
And the "family" part of the vacation is the easy part, with tourist attractions including the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras -- not to mention all that sand and surf.
The big offshore boats head out of a handful of ports along the Outer Banks, from Broad Creek Fishing Center in Wanchese (252/473-9991) to the sprawling Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (252/441-6301) south of Nags Head to Oden's Dock (252/986-2555), Hatteras Harbor Marina (800/676-4939), Teach's Lair Marina (252/986-2460) and Hatteras Landing Marina (252/986-2077) at the southe
rn tip of Hatteras Island. Full-day trips to the Gulf Stream generally run in the neighborhood of $1,200 or better, depending on the boat and location, and most allow for six passengers.
June is an excellent month for yellowfin tuna, dolphin and billfish from almost every port. As the summer progresses, the Oregon Inlet fleet tends to find more tuna in its waters, while the Hatteras boats continue to do a number on dolphin (mahi-mahi), with a good showing of billfish and, later in the summer, wahoo.
Inshore charter trips are available throughout the summer from most ports, with Spanish mackerel, flounder, bluefish and various species of bottom fish making up the majority of the catch in the Oregon Inlet area. Boats out of Hatteras also do battle with Spanish and blues, but they also tend to run into better numbers of speckled trout, gray trout, puppy drum and flounder in the Pamlico Sound behind Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke as the summer progresses.
Flounder, puppy drum and trout, in particular, seem to take to the myriad network of sloughs and channels behind Hatteras and Ocracoke, where deep holes and ditches have been carved out over the years by various hurricanes and northeasters.
Flounder fishing involves drifting across the channels with either live bait or strip baits; most strikes will come right along the depth changes. Gray trout prefer the deeper waters of sloughs and holes; specks hang out around shallow reefs and bars, especially those dotted with patches of spartina grass, and puppy drum can be caught in plenty of those same areas, but especially cruising the edges of shallow flats.
Live shrimp is a killer bait when available; mud minnows or other live baits are very productive, but many fish are caught on soft-plastic grubs and jerkbaits.
A handful of piers are still operating in the Nags Head/Kitty Hawk area, and ocean piers are still open in the villages of Rodanthe, Avon and Frisco. Pier-fishermen can expect to catch panfish such as croaker, spot and sea mullet, along with small bluefish and an occasional Spanish mackerel, if water conditions are perfect. The ends of most piers are inhabited by fishermen using specialized tackle for the occasional king mackerel that strays too close to the beach.
Fishing in the surf is the most basic of all exploits. During the summer, the tasty pompano move into the surf, just beyond the breakers, where they nibble on the tiny sand fleas (mole crabs). A standard two-hook bottom rig with small hooks baited with a sand flea is a great way to catch pompano, and the process of collecting sand fleas can be a family adventure that kids will love.
Simply send them to the edge of the wash, where the remnants of the waves crawl up the beach before receding. Digging with their hands or with plastic toy shovels, kids can unearth dozens of sand fleas burrowing just behind the surface. They have to be used soon after they're caught, but keeping a good fresh supply for the hour or two you're fishing on either side of a tide change can keep kids busy.
UWHARRIE NATIONAL FOREST
The smallest in area of North Carolina's four national forests, the Uwharrie covers slightly more than 50,000 acres in three Piedmont counties: Montgomery, Randolph and Davidson.
Fishing opportunities center on two bodies of water: Badin Lake and the Uwharrie River.
The Uwharrie is a smallish stream, but it is navigable by canoe or johnboat for much of its length, from its headwaters in the Birkhead Wilderness Area of Randolph County to where it meets the Yadkin River in the upper reaches of Lake Tillery to form the Pee Dee River.
It is the easternmost stream in North Carolina that contains smallmouth bass, and it can provide a series of pleasant half-day paddling/ fishing excursions, with a popular one being downstream from the Coggins Mine Road bridge near the village of Eldorado in Montgomery County to the Route 109 bridge north of the city of Troy.
Badin Lake stripers are particularly active during the summer months, after they have finished their spring spawning run to the tailrace below Tuckertown Dam. They return to the main lake shortly after Memorial Day, gang up in sizable schools, and cruise the depths of the clear, deep lake, keying on baitfish.
Guide Jerry Hill of Denton (336/247-1265) has long contended that trolling with bucktails, spoons or soft-plastic baits is a great way to cover plenty of water and find stripers. He keys on the major arm of the lake that drains the counties on the eastern bank -- Davidson and Montgomery. Stripers at Badin have traditionally hung out 10 to 15 feet below the surface, even in 75 to 100 feet of water, depths not uncommon at Badin.
"They'll be in Glady's Fork and Buffalo Creek and around the islands," Hill said. "They'll be (on top) early in the morning and late in the evening, and if they're not on top, they'll be 10 to 12 feet deep."
Hill trolls double bucktail rigs with 3/4- and 3/8-ounce chartreuse or white bucktails with lemon-lime plastic worm trailers. With the small bucktail, he cuts the worm in half and uses the tail.
Typically, if Hill locates a school of stripers and catches a fish or two, he'll circle and troll through the same area again to try and pick up a few more fish.
Badin also has a reasonably good population of crappie, channel catfish and sunfish. During the summer, fishing live minnows around laydown trees or piers with deep water in close proximity is a good tactic for taking slab crappie. Bluegills and shellcrackers should be spawning on full moons throughout the summer, moving into shallow areas in the backs of pockets. Channel cats are popular with bank-fishermen, especially at night.
Camping opportunities in the national forest are numerous, and most of them are close to public access to Badin at the Cove Boat Ramp in the national forest.
The Arrowhead campground is between Troy and Denton, a half-mile from the ramp; it has 50 sites. The Badin Lake campground has 37 sites; it's north of Troy, accessible from Route 109, and it's two miles from the ramp. The Badin Lake Group Campground is in the same basic area and just as close to the boat access. The West Morris Mountain campground is near the village of Ophir; it has 18 sites, and the Uwharrie Hunt Camp is close to Badin, off Route 109 north of Troy. Camping information and reservations are available by calling (877) 444-6777.
Headquarters of the Uwharrie Ranger District are in Troy. For maps and other information about the national forest, call (910) 576-6391.
Families who plan their vacations around camping in the national forest are within an easy 30-minute drive of several other interesting tourist venues: the Town Creek Indian Mound near Mount Gilead, the Reeds Gold Mine in Midland and the North Carolina Zoological Park south of Asheboro.
The Town Creek Indian Mound dates to the 1100s, when the Pee Dee tribe built a series of structur
es near the junction of Town Creek and Little River in Montgomery County. The site was discovered in 1937 and excavated for 50 years. It includes the mound, two temples, a burial house and stockade. For information, call (910) 439-6802.
The Reeds Gold Mine near Midland in Cabarrus County is the site of the first documented gold strike in the United States -- which took place in 1799. John Reed, a farmer, discovered a 17-pound gold nugget in 1799 that served as a doorstop in his home for several years before it was identified and sold. Nuggets as large as 28 pounds were found at the mine site, which produced more than $100,000 worth of gold before 1824. A portion of mine tunnels has been restored for tours, and an exhibit of mining equipment is on site. For information, call (704) 721-4653.
The N.C. Zoological Park is south of Asheboro, about 30 minutes from the Uwharrie National Forest. It includes major African and North American exhibits and is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily during the summer. For information, call (800) 488-0444.
Find more about North Carolina fishing and hunting at: NCgameandfish.com