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Head Northwest for Carolina Trout

Top-drawer trout fishing is closer than most of North Carolina's city-dwelling anglers know. Here are some of the best trout waters.

Photo by Kurt Finlayson

By Dan Kibler

I parked in the turnout by the old wooden building, crossed the dirt road, found the trail next to the creek and headed up the mountain, bouncing a whitetail doe about 10 minutes into the walk. Thirty minutes and a half-mile of stream later, I was breathing heavily when I strung my little 5-weight fly rod, tied on a tiny dry fly and stepped into the stream, the water barely covering the tops of my waders' shoe tops.

I caught a 12-inch brown trout in first pool, an elbow of water where the stream made a 90-degree turn around a huge boulder and headed south, down the mountain. From there up, there was a tiny wild brook trout in just about every pool, all of them willing to dart out from behind a rock and make a snack of whatever I could put in front of them with a good drift.

All of the fish went back where they were caught for the next guy who would know enough to recognize that there is good trout water in areas besides the extreme western mountains.

When I made the first cast, I was a little over a 90-minute drive from Charlotte. An hour from Winston-Salem. Ninety minutes from Greensboro and High Point. About 2 1/2 hours from Durham and three hours from Raleigh.

That's how close the trout streams of northwest North Carolina are from the state's largest metropolitan areas. There are dozens of streams included in the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's trout program in District 7, which covers 11 counties in the northwestern corner of the state. There is fishable trout water in about half of them, with most of the streams stocked with hatchery-raised fish, some of them holding fishable populations of wild trout, some a mixture of both.

"I've been guiding here for 18 years, and in the last seven or eight years, the fishing has been better than I've ever seen," said Theo Copeland, who books about 2,000 trout-fishing trips for the 14 guides associated with his Appalachian Angler shop in Boone. "We've got a lot of good streams up here."


The great majority of streams in a six-county area are hatchery supported and during the season open to any fisherman who can dig up a can or worms or open a can of corn. The region has a handful of the popular delayed-harvest streams that are heavily stocked but fish as catch-and-release only four months out of the year, and some fine wild-trout waters.

"The main issue between hatchery supported and wild-trout streams is nothing more than access," said biologist Kin Hodges from Dobson, who works the northwestern corner of the state for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "A lot of the streams in this area are hatchery supported because so many wild-trout streams are on private land and posted. If we've got a good trout stream and there's good public access to it, it will primarily be a hatchery-supported stream, even if it holds some wild trout. A lot of it has to do with the history of the area and what the landowners want. If we were to take a lot of those streams out of the hatchery-supported program, we'd lose some of them."

Kevin Hining, an ardent trout fisherman who happens to be a biologist - and Hodges' assistant - said that the area is a mixture of streams where you might spend several hours working a half-mile stretch with a fly rod, plus smaller streams where you might hop from spot to spot in your vehicle, giving each little pool a dozen or so casts with an ultralight spinning rod.

"Several of our hatchery-supported streams contain really good populations of wild trout, and a lot of flyfishermen don't bother fishing them, because they don't know that they'll hold fish year 'round," Hining said.

Copeland said that trout fishermen who prefer fly-fishing should stick with March Brown or Hendrickson patterns if they're adamant about fishing dry flies in the spring. Nymphing is far and away the better way to get action in most northwestern trout streams, though.

"The most prevalent fly in most of the streams in North Carolina is a yellow stonefly, so you're talking about stuff that will match that - yellow and tan stonefly nymphs in sizes 12 to 14, Hare's Ear nymphs in 12 to 16, and Tellico nymphs in 12 to 16," said Copeland. "I fish underneath a lot more than on top, but you can take advantage of fishing on top."

Hining keeps it simple.

"I think you can catch fish on a caddis fly year 'round," he said, "but a Hare's Ear nymph is probably your best bet. I don't think you'll see many trout turning down a good meal, either an Elk Hair Caddis, a Stimulator pattern or a nymph. I think they're just hungry, and if you get a good float, you have a good opportunity. I probably fish a nymph with (a strike) indicator about 80 percent of the time."

He adds that if he is going to try to cover a lot of different areas, he'll take a spinning rod and an in-line spinner, and jump from hole to hole. The reason why most of the streams up here can be fly-fished, he says, is because some of them are too small to spin-fish easily.

In the northwestern corner of the state, with very few exceptions, streams are managed under one of three sets of regulations: hatchery supported, wild trout and delayed harvest.

In hatchery-supported streams, the daily creel limit is seven fish, and there is no size minimum. In wild-trout waters, the daily creel limit is four fish, with a 7-inch minimum size limit, and only single-hook, artificial lures are permitted. Some wild-trout waters are more restricted, including catch-and-release-only areas and fly-only areas. Delayed-harvest waters are managed under special regulations from each Oct. 1 until the first Saturday of June: single-hook, artificial-only fishing, no bait, and no harvesting or possession of trout. From the first Saturday of June through Sept. 30, they are managed under hatchery-supported regulations. Streams within Blue Ridge Parkway boundaries are managed as wild-trout waters, even if they're stocked outside those boundaries.

Obviously, anglers will want to make sure they know the regulations for both the stream and the time of year they are fishing.

County by county, here is a smorgasbord of trout waters that are worth the drive up I-77 or west on I-40 and Route 421, then north on routes 16, 18 and 21.

The majority of streams in Alleghany County are hatchery supported, and there is good access to streams along much of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Hodges' favorite is Meadow Fork Creek, which runs adjacent to the Parkway for several miles west of Doughton Park.

"There is good access to some of the longer sections," Hodges said. "There are some areas where it runs across pastures; there's one site where there was a stream restoration project done several years ago."

Prathers Creek has some promise along its lower end, Hodges says, where it runs along Route 221 and Route 113. He likes Big Glade Creek on either side of Route 21; Little Glade, which is managed under wild-trout regulations on the parkway property; and Big Pine, which winds along the parkway several miles north and east of Route 21.

Hodges likes the Little River from Route 18 downstream toward Sparta. "Basically, we stock it at the bridges, and there's an awful lot of water between them, but there are some horseshoe bends away from the road where our crews can stock several stretches of stream in a small area," he said.

Hining said that the Little River offers some excellent fishing for nice brown trout in the fall and winter; most of those are wild trout that are left after the fishing public strips the stream of its hatchery-reared trout.

Ashe County is a little wilder than Alleghany, and there is a bit more diversity in the streams.

The North Fork of the New River is one of the largest streams in the county, and Hodges said that it is stocked in a lot of places, in addition to carrying some big, wild browns. It is hatchery-supported trout water for much of its length upstream from Route 194, along Route 88 and beyond. The South Fork, while not classified as trout water, holds a lot of big, wild browns in the Todd area.

Big Laurel Creek is a good hatchery-supported fishery from where it joins the North Fork near Route 88 upstream to the state line. Hining said that it supports a fairly good population of wild trout in addition to the hatchery fish.

Three Top Creek, which is hatchery supported, pours into the North Fork upstream from Big Laurel. Hodges said that it has a good number of wild trout along its length, especially downstream from the border.

"There are a lot of hatchery-supported streams that hold wild trout, but maybe not enough to fish them outside the stocking season," Hining said. "At Three Top Creek, there are some 25-inch brown trout in that stream, but there may only be one for every half-mile."

Cranberry Creek is a very popular hatchery-supported stream in the southeastern corner of the county, running from the parkway along the Alleghany County boundary, across Route 88 and all the way to the South Fork at the Route 221 bridge.

"It's the most popular trout stream in this district," Hodges said. "You talk to people, and everybody goes to Cranberry Creek. Some people who go to that stream really like to fish open water because it's a bigger creek."

The "most popular" stream may actually be Helton Creek, which is managed under delayed-harvest regulations for most of its length from the mouth of the creek at the North Fork to the Virginia line. There is a long section that runs alongside Route 194 a few miles south of the state line that Hining said "holds a lot of wild fish."

Copeland said that Helton is a stream that offers "opportunities for beginning fly-anglers to have a decent day of fishing."

The area around Boone is known as the "high country" for a good reason. Peaks stretch toward and above the 5,000-foot mark in elevation, and trout streams abound.

Perhaps the best creek in the county - and the entire district - is Beech Creek, which runs east of Beech Mountain, along the Avery County line in some sections, including the Route 321 bridge.

"One of the first questions I asked after I fished Beech Creek was, 'Why are we stocking it?' " Hining said. "It has excellent wild browns, rainbows and brook trout. It's just one of those things. It's been stocked for ages, at least 30 years. The wild trout do just fine, and the hatchery-reared fish don't make it very long; they all get caught out. But what happens is that, because so many of our streams are on private land, we have to go with what the landowners want. If we made Beech Creek wild trout, we might lose a lot of it."

Still, Hining calls it "our little jewel - probably the best stream in the district." And, he says, fishing pressure is not terribly heavy, especially in the off-season for heavy stocking.

Not far away is Laurel Creek, which flows south-north and can be accessed from the Route 321 bridge. Hining and Hodges both agree that it holds some nice wild trout, even though it's hatchery supported.

A third creek that has both wild and hatchery-stocked trout is Dutch Creek. It's wild-trout water - without a lot of easy access - from its headwater in the high country to the second bridge on SR 1134. From that bridge downstream to where it meets the Watauga River near Valle Crucis, it's hatchery supported.

Both Hining and Hodges are excited about the two sections of the Watauga River that remain open to the public and designated as delayed-harvest waters. The first is from the SR 1557 bridge to the N.C. Route 105 bridge, and the second runs from the SR 1114 bridge to the Route 194 bridge at Valle Crucis, with much of that section running through a city park.

There are plenty of other streams in Watauga County that hold trout - a lot of them without names and designation, like the ones running through urban areas.

Hining said he was ready to jump into his truck and grab a spinning rod after doing some electroshocking work last fall. "We shocked up two 15-inch fish and an 18-inch fish in one place below where a culvert came out of somebody's back yard," he said. "I was ready to start fishing from culvert to culvert after that.

"I've seen all kinds of big trout in the urban streams around Boone, the creeks running right through town," he said. "The habitat is degraded, to some extent, but you sure see some big trout. They're almost in people's back yards, and they don't know they're there."

The Middle Prong of the New River from Blowing Rock to Boone was once a thriving stream holding wild trout, but being stocked regularly. Last fall, a chemical-related fish kill resulted in more than 4,000 wild trout. Hining and Hodges said that it may take three or four years before it is returned to its previous state.

Much of the county lies at too low an elevation to provide the cold water that mountain trout need for survival. The few really promising trout streams lie in either Stone Mountain State Park or Doughton Park on the parkway.

Stone Mountain State Park has a ha

ndful of wild trout streams, including Garden, Widows, Harris and Big Sandy creeks. The East Prong Roaring River cuts through the park, giving fishermen easy access for several miles; it's the park's biggest stream, and it's managed under delayed-harvest regulations inside the park's boundaries. West of the park, it's managed as a hatchery-supported stream.

A neat and relatively large creek on the park is Bullhead, which is catch-and-release-only, artificial flies-only, with a daily fishing fee attached. Some fishermen think the money is well worth the opportunity to stalk and cast to numerous browns and rainbows that exceed 20 inches, thanks in part to supplemental feedings.

Doughton Park's blue-ribbon streams are Basin and Cove creeks, with headwaters on the Blue Ridge Parkway. They are managed as wild-trout waters, and can be accessed by some strenuous hikes, either from the parkway above or from Longbottom Road below, where they pour into the Middle Prong Roaring River.

These two counties have limited mountainous areas; most of the good streams are borderline trout waters, tipping more in the direction of smallmouth bass waters.

But Hodges said there is one really good stream in each county - the Dan River in Stokes County and the Fisher River in Surry County - plus a promising delayed-harvest stream in the Mitchell River in Surry County.

"There used to not be much to the Fisher River, just that part close to Route 89, but last year, we added a stretch downstream of the bridge, about two or three miles, and it's nice, big water," Hodges said. "It's a pretty decent stretch, real nice habitat for trout."

The section of the Mitchell River that has recently been added to the delayed-harvest program is approximately 2 1/2 miles long, ending at Zephyr Road (SR 1330), just downstream from the Kapps Mill Dam and a few miles downstream from the old Reynolds estate of Devotion.

"I don't know if we can add enough delayed-harvest streams to satisfy the demand from fishermen," Hodges said. "They're tough to come by."

The section of the Dan River in Stokes County that's worth checking out is from the Virginia state line around the junction of the Dan and Little Dan rivers, roughly to Elastic Mill Road (SR 1422). "It's a big stream, well stocked, and we've gotten a lot more stocking places over the past couple of years as we've added stretches to the program," Hodges said.

"Where the river starts to get wide open, you get sandy bottoms, but the area we've got has a nice, rocky bottom, nice rhododendrons - very nice, physical habitat."

If you are a trout angler, you probably have some favorite streams, and if you have a free day, you probably fish one of those streams. There's a certain pleasure in revisiting a stream you've fished before.

But this spring, get yourself a copy of the fishing regs and a good map. Hop in your fishing car and take a look at some new water. You might be in for a nice surprise.

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