February 17, 2023
My wife, Rosie, made a dozen or so casts to a rock-strewn run before hooking up with a stout 15-inch rainbow. Her fish shot upstream through the pool toward a couple of large boulders as guide Debbie Gillespie looked on and readied her net. Seconds later another 'bow sucked in my nymph as the current swept it through the waist-deep riffle by a large rock. It, too, took off upstream, heading toward the women until I snubbed it.
The trout leaped skyward. I turned the fish and continued the battle in the smaller pool closer to my position while watching the catch and release above me. Gillespie then headed downstream to put a net under my fish, a beautiful twin of the rainbow Rosie had just caught.
Rosie and I were dry-dropper fishing with 9-foot, 5-weight fly rods most of the morning. We used a terrestrial as our dry fly and fished a single nymph or squirmy worm underneath it. According to our guide, in the summer there are lots of larva that fall into North Carolina's Davidson River, such as inchworms, caterpillars and grubs. We added the tiniest of spilt shot in fast-current areas to keep the offering deeper in the water column.
The action in the catch-and-release section of the Davidson continued over the next 3 1/2 hours, and we ended the morning having caught and released 14 big trout, all rainbows. They averaged about 17 inches, and five were between 18 and 20 inches in length. I caught my last fish, a fat 21-inch rainbow, from the shallow center of the flow below a short weir. The low-water dam once provided an intake for a paper mill that went defunct during the 1960s. The waters were shallow there except for the pools on each side of the river. The 5 1/2 pounder was an appropriate finale to a great day on the water!
The Davidson is one of many rivers in the southern Appalachian Mountains that provide anglers with great trout action and lots of fond memories. The Blue Ridge Parkway running through North Carolina is the backbone of the highest portion of the scenic range that extends to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In North Carolina the parkway runs from Alleghany County at the Virginia line southwest to Swain County bordering Tennessee. Flows from the High Country in the western 23 counties of the state are impressive, and the legendary Davidson River in Transylvania County is one of the best.
The Davidson River is a freestone waterway with wild rainbow and brown trout, and an occasional native brook trout that washes down from a cooler feeder stream. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, the headwaters flow south from underground springs through the Pisgah National Forest toward Brevard, N.C. The smaller tributaries include Looking Glass Creek, Avery Creek, Cove Creek and Daniels Ridge Creek. A couple of the fishable forks average 15 to 20 feet in width.
The main Davidson River is public water that runs 13 miles through the Pisgah National Forest. All but 1 1/2 miles of that stretch are under catch-and-release regulations. The waters vary from shallow to 6 feet in depth. They are fairly rocky with large boulders, which makes wading a little difficult. The average fish are 12 to 14 inches in length, and a trophy is anything over 20 inches. The Davidson near Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery down to the mouth of Looking Glass Creek can be particularly productive.
We were fishing a couple of areas in the last 3 miles of the Davidson River before its confluence with the French Broad River. These are private-access waters offering riffles, small runs and deeper pools with some spots as wide as 40 feet. They are leased by Davidson River Outfitters (DRO), the premier fly-fishing shop and guide service in the region. The DRO section of river is fly fishing only, and the number of rods per day is limited. It offers anglers a slightly larger average size of trout than does the public water.
In the DRO stretch, small rocks along most of the bottom are scattered over gravel making for easy wading. A significant flood in August 2021 made the entire river shallower and left more sand and sediment. The Davidson still stays fairly clear most of the year; even after a big rainstorm, the river clears in half a day, according to Gillespie. She has guided anglers nine years on waters all over the Blue Ridge area and has been named "Blue Ridge Outdoors Guide of the Year."
There are several great trout waters in western North Carolina, notes Kevin Howell, owner of DRO. Howell, who was born in Brevard, began guiding for DRO when it opened in 1993 and became manager in 1996. In 1998 he became owner. He has fished all his life in most of the trout waters in western North Carolina and can boast of an 11-pound brown trout from the Davidson.
"The Davidson, North Toe and South Toe rivers, and Cane Creek are very typically classic mountain trout waters," he explains. "They are 40 to 50 feet wide and have 70 to 100 cubic feet of flow per second. They have sections of catch and release and wild trout, and other sections that are hatchery supported. The waters within the Pisgah Forest are generally public fishing.
"Most of the wading in all these waters is mid-thigh depth," Howell continues. "The geology of the region's waters is similar. Draw a 2 1/2-hour radius around Asheville, and you'll find most streams have a series of small granite rock bottoms, riffle shoals and pools, with maybe some sandstone and limestone rocks."
The regulations on the waters in western North Carolina vary greatly from stream to stream and even from one section of a river or creek to another. Water designations include Hatchery Supported, Delayed Harvest, Wild Trout, Wild Trout Natural Bait, and Catch and Release Artificial Flies and Lures Only. Some of these streams are limited to unscented, single-hook flies and lures. In some hatchery-supported areas, you can use plugs and spinners with treble hooks.
What are ideal characteristics of a great trout stream? Hatches on most North Carolina waters are similar across the regions and are relatively weak, Howell notes. They seldom generate big numbers of catches. Hatches are strong enough, though, to motivate the fish to feed on top and keep them looking at the surface. Timing of each hatch may vary by only a week or two from one end of the region to the other.
"Weather can have an impact on determining the best waters," the DRO chief points out. "In general, the cooler, the better the fishing, and the more rain, the better the fishing year-round. The ideal water conditions are a rising water level from a rain shower. A tea-stained water color where I can stand in waist-deep water and see the toes on my boots is perfect."
The temperatures of the trout rivers in western North Carolina typically vary from 35 to 72 degrees F. August is typically the warmest time of the year but during the week that Rosie and I fished, the Davidson River was 64 degrees, about 8 degrees cooler than normal. The ideal water temperature for catching trout is usually 45 to 55 degrees, and that occurs from mid-October to Christmas and then again from mid-February to mid-June, according to Howell. Most of the springs at the headwaters of the creeks in the mountains emit 55-degree water all year long.
"What I look for in any stream is strong current coming into a deeper pool," Howell says. "In such a location, the fish can easily transition from feeding near the back of the pool to moving right up to the head of the pool where the current supplies the oxygen they need."
The best public waters to catch rainbow trout currently in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains are the Watauga and Davidson rivers, according to the 53-year-old outfitter. Both receive heavy fishing pressure, and larger fish may be very spooky. Thus, he suggests a guide on those waters can increase success. The DRO owner believes the best rivers to catch a big brown trout are the Davidson and the cold-water South Toe River. He also suggests the best water to catch brookies is the Tuckasegee River due to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's heavy stockings.
Beyond the Davidson
The Tuckasegee River running through the towns of Tuckasegee and Dillsboro in Jackson County is a northwest-flowing tailwater stream below a couple of lakes. Fishable tributaries include Greens, Savannah, Panthertown, Tanasee, Scott and Cullowhee Creeks. The Tuckasegee is about 80 feet wide and shallower than the Davidson. Float-fishing it successfully depends on favorable power-generation water releases. The schedules are posted online by Duke Energy.
The "Tuck" is hatchery supported with browns, 10- to 12-inch brookies and rainbows that may grow to 20-plus inches, according to Howell. DRO float-fishes the river in the Nantahala National Forest from mid-October through May. It has several access areas over 20 miles and receives fairly heavy fishing pressure with a mix of drift boats and wade anglers. The waters are stocked with 20,000 hatchery fish several times each year, which helps keeps fishing productive.
Running about 70 miles, the French Broad River begins south of Brevard and continues through Asheville to the Tennessee border. DRO fishes the remote and rugged North and West forks, which have predominately wild brown and rainbow trout. They also have plenty of wild waters, Class III rapids and minimal access points. The East Fork of the French Broad runs along the road, offers easy access and is one of Gillespie's favorite flows. It is a Delayed Harvest area with 10- to 12-inch rainbows, browns and brookies. The Mills River and Cane Creek are also productive tributaries.
The South and North forks of the Mills River are scenic public waters in the Pisgah National Forest southwest of Asheville. The South Fork is a wild trout, catch-and-release fishery yielding rainbows of 8 to 11 inches and an occasional 18-incher. The waters are a little wider than the Davidson in some spots and have more volume. Preferred by 29-year-old DRO guide Zach Hart, the South Mills winds through a wilderness area and is primarily accessible only by hiking along a rough trail through the forest.
"Because it takes more effort to walk in, the remote South Fork is my favorite," Hart says. "It doesn't get hammered like a lot of rivers. South Mills is also cool because you can really get away from folks in there and catch some large trout from deeper pools. We've had great days and really bad days. On one day, you may not see a fish. The next day you may catch 20. It's all about the weather and what the bugs are doing."
Eighty miles long, the Watauga River is a hatchery-supported waterway that runs through Avery County and into Tennessee. In the North Carolina section, the flow is 40 feet wide with moderate current across runs and shallow shoals with plenty of fish in the pools. There are several public access points, such as the Valle Crucis Community Park, located behind the historic Mast General Store. DRO only guides with rafts or drift boats on the Watauga section in Tennessee, which is 90 minutes from the headquarters in Pisgah Forest. There, the river is a tailrace water that is 120 feet wide and very deep.
The Oconaluftee River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Swain County is about 70 feet wide and has a high gradient with lots of rapids, a few pools and wild fish. DRO guides anglers inside the park. The river outside the park is private water in the Qualla Boundary, which requires a fishing permit from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
Popular for whitewater rafting, the Nantahala River is located southwest of Bryson City. Fishing on the scenic river is controlled, and only a couple of guiding operations are permitted to fish it (DRO does not guide on the river). The narrow, high-gradient Nantahala has a delayed-harvest section that yields rainbows of 10 to 14 inches up to 22-inch trophies. It also has hatchery-supported upper and lower sections. Below Nantahala Dam, hydropower discharge can increase the water level 2 feet or so all at once, which can make fishing (and wading) difficult. Nantahala anglers often deal with armadas of whitewater rafters and kayakers.
Other rainbow trout waters favored by DRO guides are the West Fork of the Pigeon River near Waynesville; Tanasee Creek, which is also good for brown trout; the Chattooga River, mostly in South Carolina; and Looking Glass Creek above the Davidson. The rule of thumb is the more remote the water, the better the opportunity to make angling memories in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Blue Ridge Mountains Trip Planner
See waterfalls and white squirrels in western North Carolina.
Davidson River Outfitters (DRO), located in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, carries a full line of gear, apparel, tackle and fly-tying materials (davidsonflyfishing.com). More than a dozen experienced guides fish a variety of surrounding waters within two hours of the DRO headquarters, and they can be booked for half, full or multiple days of wade- or float-fishing trips.
The best trout fishing generally occurs from October through Christmas and then again from mid-February through June, according to DRO owner Kevin Howell. The most successful fly casters use dry flies in the spring and dry-dropper setups in the summer. They fish streamers and nymphs the rest of the year. January and February are usually the slowest trout-catching months due to the cold weather. August is also normally slow because water temperatures are too warm and water levels fluctuate.
Howell’s guides have put clients on rainbow trout up to 30 inches and weighing around 10 pounds, brown trout up to 11 pounds, stocked brook trout to 24 inches and wild brook trout to about 10 inches. Advice on catching trout in area waters is always free from Howell and the DRO staff.
The regulations and lure restrictions on North Carolina trout waters vary widely. Anglers must pay attention to where they are fishing on each river and stream. For a full list of mountain trout fishing regulations, visit the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at ncwildlife.org.
The Blue Ridge Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway, as well as the Great Smoky Mountains, offer anglers and their families an abundance of outdoor activities and sightseeing opportunities when not chasing trout. There are myriad pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking, camping, photography, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding, plus unique natural sights such as waterfalls. In Transylvania County alone, there are 250 waterfalls to visit.
I saw for the first time a white squirrel in Brevard and soon learned this color variant is not uncommon in this river town. Brevard even has a white squirrel festival. Check out explorebrevard.com.
Other attractions from Asheville west include the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Chimney Rock State Park, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Oconaluftee Indian Village and Fontana Lake. Northeast of Asheville near Boone are Linville Caverns, Linville Falls, Grandfather Mountain and Blowing Rock.