The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s delayed harvest program is one of the more popular trout programs in the state. By delaying harvest of trout stocked in certain bodies of water, the Commission provides anglers with high quality, catch-and-release fishing opportunities in the spring and fall.
This is a program that was instituted through the regulations process with substantial public input in the early 1990s. Four streams were opened for the delayed harvest program for spring fishing only in 1992. The program was then expanded to fall and spring fishing in 1996. The number of streams in the program has continued to grow through the regulations process, primarily due to strong public interest and support.
With around 4,000 miles of trout streams, the mountains of western North Carolina has long been considered a haven for fly-fishermen looking to test their angling skills in a beautiful and oftentimes rugged environment. In Transylvania County alone, the nearly 500 miles of creeks, streams and rivers that course through the steep mountains and rich forests are renowned as one of the top destinations in the state for fly-fishing.
For local fishing guides who spend a great deal of their time guiding clients on the rivers, the diversity of the county’s waterways and the bountiful fish populations that thrive in the cool mountain water helps keep them and their clients satisfied day in and day out.
North Fork of the French Broad
Nathan “Than” Axtell said that when it comes to fishing, there is no place he’d rather be than deep in the gorge of the North Fork of the French Broad stalking a wild and elusive trout.
The river’s rugged location makes it less popular with the average fishermen and that’s exactly why he likes it, Axtell said.
Axtell is an independent guide, who regularly does guided trips through Headwaters Outfitters, and has been working as a certified guide for more than 10 years.
“It’s remote, so it’s a true backcountry fishing experience,” Axtell said. “There is really only a handful of places in the Pisgah National Forest where a stream of that size is that far from the road. You can get away from the crowds and fish in relative solitude.”
He said that during the week it is rare to run into other fishermen in the gorge region of the North Fork.
“There are not a lot of people who will go to those lengths to catch small wild fish, which is mostly the type of fish there,” he said. “It isn’t a stocked stream, so it is a completely wild fishery in the gorge section.”
It isn’t necessarily the distance that keeps the crowds away; it’s the gradient, Axtell said.
“It’s how far you have to drop in to get to the water and how hard the hike is to get out,” he added.
The other challenge facing anglers looking to get their feet wet on the North Fork is the limited number of access points.
“If you get in at one point and you don’t know where you are climbing out you’re going to get hopelessly lost,” he jested.
Axtell said that he prefers to “fish through” sections of the river to access a different trail than the one he hiked in on. Oftentimes that involves making a serious commitment. The shortest section between trails is two miles, he said. In between lie the wild, elusive trout and some very difficult and challenging terrain.
“There are some stretches where you have to climb over waterfalls, big boulders and climb around stuff with no official trail or trail markings for three to six miles,” he said. “There are a few sections where you could fish through in about four hours. But if you really work the water it could easily take you the better part of an eight hour day.”
The North Fork isn’t for the everyday recreational angler looking to land big stocked trout just minutes from the road, Axtell said.
“It takes time, it takes stamina and it takes some athletic ability,” he said. “That’s what I like about it. The terrain and the ruggedness of it keeps the average guy from going down in there because the average guy is not going to want to go through that much effort and pain and the potential of a broken ankle to catch a wild fish.”
Axtell said that for the most part, the river holds rainbow and brown trout, but occasionally a brook trout from one of the small tributaries will wash into the river.
Axtell recommends fishermen looking to test their mettle on the North Fork should start at the Pisgah National Forest boundary at Lazy Jay campground.
“You can fish up into what is the mouth of the gorge,” he said. “That’s a long stretch of water that can easily be fished in an afternoon. There are some nice wild fish in there in that nine to 12 inch class.”
The North Fork is regulated as Wild Natural Bait, allowing the harvest of four fish per day.
Landon Lipke, a California native who has been a guide at Davidson River Outfitters for five years, said one of his favorite rivers in the area is the Davidson.
He said that the hatchery located near the headwaters of the river creates ideal conditions for trout.
“The hatchery puts nutrients into the river that feeds the whole river,” he informed. “In turn, it makes the river hold some big fish.”
While most of the Davidson River is only a “stone’s throw” from the road, Lipke said for the most part it doesn’t feel that way.
“You don’t really feel the road while you’re there,” he said. “It’s actually pretty serene.”
Above the hatchery, the river narrows into a smaller stream that offers a true wilderness setting, Lipke added.
“You can get away from people and still catch bigger fish, unlike some of the other small streams in the area.”
Lipke said that the average size trout in the river is around 14 inches, but that’s not the only size fish to be caught there.
“There are big fish pulled out of the Davidson all of the time that are bigger than 20 inches. It’s just all about catching them at the right time.”
Lipke said that what makes the river such a fun place to fish is the variety. Lipke said that in order to be successful, anglers would need to work to figure out what the fish are feeding on at each spot.
“There are so many different types of water. From pocket water to big slicks to big plunge pools that your fishing is not just one style of fishing. It’s a nice mixture of everything.”
Lipke said that he thinks spring fishing makes for some of the most exciting fly-fishing of the year.
“Fish are usually coming out of their winter mode, so they are a little more aggressive. They begin to eat because they are trying to gain up some strength, and the bug life this time of year is also more prolific.”
Lipke said that while the spring hatches are fairly hit or miss, when they happen, it makes for a great day of fishing.
Lipke said that it takes anglers utilizing trial and error to determine what the fish are feeding on. When an angler finds something the fish is hungry for, it makes for a fun afternoon.”
“They kind of start to get crazy,” he refers to the fish during a spring hatch. “They key on that bug, and it makes the fishing just a little bit easier because they start to go after those bugs that begin popping up.”
Around 14 miles of the river, from its headwaters to Avery Creek, are managed under catch-and-release, fly-fishing only regulations. The lower mile is hatchery supported.
East Fork of the French Broad
For guide Walker Parrott, the East Fork of the French Broad River is one of his favorite destinations because of its easy access and large population of trout. “It’s easy for people to get in and get out,” he said. “And it’s easy for the stocking truck to get close to the river.”
The drop and pool style river is home to countless brown, rainbow and brook trout, which he enjoys because each fish, much like the type of environment where they live, is unique in their own distinct way.
The diversity of the rivers environs forces anglers to either adapt to what the fish are feeding on or get shutout, Parrott said.
“I like it because there are some pretty deep runs where you can nymph fish long leaders,” he said. “And there are also some nice riffles that can be fished with a dry fly and dropper combo.”
Parrott said that the fishing in the East Fork is good from October to June, but said his favorite season is in the spring.
Walker said he particularly enjoys dry fly fishing on the East Fork – a type of fly-fishing where anglers fish with small flies that float on top of the water and mimic different types of flying bugs – because it’s exciting.
“The end of March is great because that’s when we get our first sightings of dry flies,” he said. “The East Fork has a lot of good quill hatches and some bigger may fly hatches which is nice. It makes for some easy dry fly fishing.”
Walker said that the size of fish that can be caught in the river run the gamut.
“The average is probably 10 to 12 inches. But there are some big ones in there, some twenty inch fish.”
However, due to its close proximity to South Carolina, Georgia and other southern states, the river is very popular with visitors coming in from out of the area.
There’s a ton of pressure, but there’s enough water for people to spread out if they practice harmonious angling,” he claimed
The state stocks around 17,000 trout along the nearly five-mile section of the East Fork that runs alongside East Fork Road between Glady Fork Road and the main stem of the French Broad. Catch-and-release regulations apply from October to May, and only single-hook artificial lures are allowed.
The Tuckaseegee River
Flowing through the mountains of Jackson County, the Tuckaseegee, or the Tuck as many of the locals fondly refer to it, is acclaimed as one of North Carolina’s top spots for fly fishing. The popular river is renowned for its wide shoals, which offer anglers a chance to spool out their line and make some long casts across the wide riffles and boulder-strewn rapids.
The river also has the distinction of being the most stocked river in North Carolina, which makes it a top destination for beginning anglers looking to hook into their first fish. From October to June, the river is designated as catch and release only as part of the delayed harvest regulations.
According to local guides, the river fishes great through winter and early spring but really starts to shine when warmer weather moves in and causes more frequent hatches that seem to rile the fish into a feeding frenzy.
Anglers can suit up at a number of roadside pull offs near Sylva, Webster, and Dillsboro.
North Mills River
For anglers looking to get a bit more off the beaten path and into the forest, look no further than the delayed-harvest waters of the North Mills River.
Located halfway between Brevard and Asheville, the tight confines of the river’s forested banks, small pools and crystal clear waters offer a nice change of scenery from many of the roadside fishing destinations popular across western North Carolina.
From the fishing near the entrance to the forest at the paved parking area to the seldom seen holes deep in the forest, the North Mills offers anglers a variety of types of different fishing conditions sure to suit nearly everyone.
As a delayed harvest river, fishing is easiest during spring. However, summer through winter also offers anglers looking for a challenge a chance to see if their skills are enough to make trout rise to the occasion.
To access Mills River, head toward the Asheville Regional Airport and continue on U.S. 280 to North Mills River Road. Access to the recreation area is roughly five miles from U.S. 280.
As with all outdoor adventures, a map, compass and proper gear for the excursion are a necessity.
Written & Photographed By Eric Crews
Eric Crews is a writer and photographer who writes about outdoor adventure sports in the mountains of North Carolina. Follow his adventures online at: www.landofskyadventures.com