Thinking about fishing trips as a kid brings back memories of slinging an over-baited hook off the dock and watching too many pieces of corn sink to the abyss. Two minutes of intense bobber staring later (an eternity in kid years), and the slightest vibration would elicit a frantic reeling-in of, what felt like, 8-miles of fishing line. A hook now devoid of both fish and bait lead to a deeper understanding of patience. And a desire to try a different hobby.
The flowing movements of an experienced fly fisherman—a choreographed dance of feather-light line tapping cold mountain streams—couldn’t be farther from those childhood memories. But the motion and challenge that makes the hobby so alluring can also provide a considerable barrier to the first-timer. So RootsRated met up with two of central Carolina’s most experienced guides to help us get started and find the most accessible fly fishing in Charlotte.
Getting Started Fly Fishing
Cold-water trout fishing is what most people think of when it comes to fly fishing. Standing in a chilly mountain stream, tantalizing hungry trout, keeping hooks out of encroaching vegetation. Since 1999 Rob Domico and his staff at Madison River Fly Fishing Outfitters have lead new and experienced anglers to the best spots North Carolina has to offer.
Domico’s top tip for new fly flingers? Don’t try and go it alone.
“That is mistake number one for someone who enters into a hobby like fly fishing,” he says. “If someone will buddy up with a very good fly-fishing instructor for a day, they’ll have 75 percent of what they need to know to start going out on their own. Otherwise, its years for someone to figure things out.”
What their clients find most surprising, says Domico, is how close they are to the fish they catch.
“Everybody watches A River Runs Through It and in their mind’s eye sees themselves casting 60 or 70 feet of line and a trout rises to the surface and grabs the fly. It’s very romantic. What they learn is how to catch fish right off their rod top, within 20 feet. That is how you catch a lot of fish in North Carolina with fly tackle.”
Knowing the Rules
There are several types, or designations, of trout waters around the state. Not only are they an indication of the abundance of fish available, but specific rules are attached to each. Two of these designations are particularly important to understand for the most popular fishing streams easily accessible to Charlotte.
Delayed Harvest Trout Waters: Each year North Carolina fish hatcheries—supported by the sale of fishing licenses—stock these waters with rainbow, brown and brook trout. From Oct. 1 through the first Saturday of June, these waters are catch and release only. That is the season to go, says Domico. The rest of the year you can keep what you catch within daily limits so the pickings are slimmer. Only artificial lures with a single hook are allowed.
Wild Trout Waters: This basically means that the state does not stock these waters with hatchery fish. They are often more remote and a great challenge for the experienced angler. There are no closed seasons for these waters.
Where to Find Cold Water Trout
Stone Mountain State Park: Known for the 800 foot, domed granite monolith rising from the surrounding countryside, Stone Mountain State Park is a popular place for hiking or climbing to impressive views. More subtly, SMSP is also well known as one of the best places within easy drive from Charlotte to snag a trout.
There are more than 20 miles of trout streams claimed by the park. Widow’s, Garden and Big Sandy creeks are designated Wild Trout Waters. Fishing these streams can require a more delicate cast as thick patches of rhododendron and hemlock gobble up flies faster than the brown and brook trout that hide under them.
For a little better odds, the stocked East Prong of Roaring River is classified as delayed harvest. Following the loop road that runs around the main part of SMSP, this river offers some of the easiest access to well-stocked fishing around.
The “fish for fun” areas of Bullhead and Rich Mountain creeks are perfect for newer fly-fishing enthusiasts or anyone looking to fish year-round. The park designates sections for each angler so you have a spot to call your own. To occupy one of these sections the park requires a special, park issued $15 permit. Opening at 7:30 a.m., these areas can fill up quick on busy days.
South Mountain State Park: At just over an hour away, South Mountain State Park is the closest of Domico’s pics to Charlotte. Bridle trails, top notch hiking, camping, and its proximity to the Queen City make the park very popular. Get your cast down and expect an audience of intrigued hikers.
At South Mountain, it’s the Shinny Creek and Jacobs Branch for wild trout waters. Located to the north and west of the main parking lot, you might find a little more peace and quiet here. To help further solidify your solitude, stay at one of the primitive campsites and get an early start.
Shinny and Jacobs join forces near the main parking lot and picnic area. From here to the park entrance the creek is designated delayed harvest. As the road and trail parallel the creek, you’ll trade ease of access for answering the question “catchin’ anything” several times a day.
Mitchell River Access: Straight out of a country music song, complete with dirt road and old grist mill, this spot along the Mitchell River is Domico’s choice for experiencing the peaceful flow of fly fishing without a gallery of onlookers. Not located in a state park, this access is the domain of the fisherman.
To get to this fly fishing haven, take exit 93 off highway 77. Travel west to Kapps Mill Road and continue till you see the grist mill (also where the road ends at a “T” intersection). Park along the river for true roadside fishing. Your seclusion will cost you amenities, so come prepared for a day away from it all.
Warm-Water Lake Fishing
Paul Rose is a utility fisherman. Growing up in Pennsylvania he learned the fine art of pulling trout from cold-water streams. A stint in Texas exposed him to salt-water fishing. Now in North Carolina, Rose has found a niche in the fastest growing tributary of fly-fishing on the warm water lakes that surround Charlotte.
Rose has been introducing anglers to North Carolina waters for 15 years. Through his guide service, Carolina Bonefishing, Rose and his clients often hunt carp—a popular adversary for those trolling the Catawba River-fed lake. But lake fly fishing isn’t restricted to any one species or age-group.
“For beginners we take a three- or four-hour trip,” Rose says. “We hit up some bluegill beds using some small poppers. And they love it. Kids can catch a lot of fish.”
All three bodies of water that form the northern and western boundary of Charlotte are great places to practice your cast, Rose says. Since the peak season is June through October, warm-water carp fishing provides the perfect summertime link for fly fishermen hoping to fish year-round.
Lake Norman: With 520 miles of shoreline, Lake Norman is the largest lake of the three surrounding Charlotte—and the most developed. Weekends on the lake can be congested with jet skis, powerboats, and sandbar parties. But tucked away in the numerous coves, where trees grow near shallow waters, the crowds thin and fish feed in the flats. With the right boat, something that can maneuver in less than a foot of water, and a couple good flies, Rose says it’s common to pull carp well over 10 pounds.
Rose suggests starting at the Beatties Ford launch. There are plenty of quiet coves within a half mile of the put-in.
Mountain Island Lake: The relative quiet waters and undeveloped shoreline of Mountain Island Lake is the perfect respite from its larger, busier cousins. Clear water and lots of surrounding vegetation makes it an ideal location to fish for bluegill. Rose says Latta Plantation is the perfect jumping off point as it offers easy access to the lake, both from the shore or on a kayak. He also suggests your stand-up paddleboard as a fantastic craft from which to fly fish.
Use the kayak trail through Latta Plantation and enjoy the park from a different perspective than equestrians and hikers ever get to see.
Lake Wylie: To the south west of Charlotte, Lake Wylie continues to grow in popularity. The long, jagged edged lake is home to some of the best bass fishing in the area. In fact, the southernmost lake of the three has been host to the Bassmaster Classic tournament. Put in at the Buster Boyd Bridge and enjoy access to both the North and South Carolina sections of lake Wylie. But come prepared. You’ll need a license for both states says Rose.
Final Tips from the Pros
- Domico’s guided trips are fully supported—they supply all the gear and even bring lunch and drinks. But he says you should still plan for your location. Bring a rain jacket, sunglasses, bug and sun spray. And whatever you do, cautions Domico, do not watch A River Runs Through It before you go.
- The best time to fish delayed harvest waters is during the catch and release season, says Domico. Pickings are slim from June till October.
- While fly fishing can be an expensive hobby, Rose says you can get by with just a few basics. “Throw a rod and a couple flies in the pontoon boat. That’s all you really need.”
- Even if you’re more into saltwater fishing, Rose says the lakes around Charlotte are the perfect place to practice the skill. As a certified casting instructor, he can help teach the basics or tune-up an established cast.
- For trout waters, you’ll need both the standard North Carolina fishing license and the trout stamp.