Nantahala River Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing the Nantahala River in North Carolina
The Nantahala River is a very popular destination for fly fishermen and tourists alike. The river is managed in several distinct sections. The headwaters on the Nantahala River begin around the North Carolina/Georgia border upstream of Nantahala Lake (South of the Lake). Below the lake, the Nantahala is managed as three different sections. This section of the Nantahala is not only known for excellent trout fishing, but also a popular stretch for whitewater rafters. Duke energy releases water sporadically below the powerhouse throughout the year, but with more regularity in the warmer/summer months. Wading the section of river below the powerhouse in the Summer can be sketchy with the high and turbulent waters and regular rafters coming down the river. Early mornings, late evenings and even night time fishing can be more productive. Be sure to know the regulations on each section as well as the water generation schedule of the Nantahala River before visiting to avoid any trouble.
Nantahala River Fly Fishing Upstream of Nantahala Lake
The Nantahala River above the lake is managed as a Wild Trout Stream. All three species of trout have wild populations present in this stretch of the river. Like many of the other wild trout stream headwaters in North Carolina, dry fly fishing can be fantastic and the go-to tactic in the warmer months. Modest hatches of caddis, stoneflies, and various mayfly species occur in the headwaters. Healthy Brook Trout populations can be found in the headwater tributary streams. Once above the natural barriers such as Mooney Falls and Big Laurel Falls, the small creeks will become exclusively brook trout streams. Summer is the best time to visit this section of the river as the lower sections of the river can get crowded with fisherman and
other visitors to the area. Camping at the Hurricane Creek Campground or Standing Indian Campground is an easy way to keep close to the trout streams.
Fly Fishing the Upper Tailwater Section of the Nantahala
The section of River just below the Nantahala Lake Dam is managed as a Hatchery Supported Trout Stream to the confluence of White Oak Creek. This section flows much slower than the sections below as a diversion pipe from the lake bypasses this stretch of the river. The lower water makes this section much more convenient for wading anglers when the sections below are flowing heavily. The fishing tends not to be as consistent here as it is below the the White Oak Creek confluence and receives much less pressure. If your timing is right , this section can produce some great times on the water. Junk flies (mop jigs, squirmy worms, egg patterns) are the go-to here as the stocked trout have a tough time passing up on a high calorie meal. Look for trout to congregate in the deeper pools along the pull-offs on Junaluska Road.
Fly Fishing the Nantahala River Delayed Harvest
The middle section of the Nantahala River below the Nantahala Lake Dam is managed as a Delayed Harvest Stream. This section runs from the White Oak Creek Confluence to the Duke Energy Powerhouse four miles downstream. This section is incredibly popular with anglers across the Southeastern United States. Heavily stocked throughout the season and managed with catch and release only restrictions from October through May, the river is home to your average sized stocked trout as well as some trophy sized trout. Brook, Rainbow, and Brown trout are all stocked in this section of the river. Following the stockings and early in the DH season, stocked trout can be easier to come by in the river, but as the season progresses, trout will get more finicky and selective. This leaves smaller, more natural patterns such as a pheasant tail, hares ear, and caddis patterns the most productive flies when fished close to the bottom. This section of the Nantahala River, along with the other sections of the tailwater offer the best fishing in winter and spring. Finding solitude can be difficult though so some scouting may be necessary to get off the beaten path and find some water to yourself.
Fly Fishing the Lower Nantahala River
The final section of the Nantahala River is located below the powerhouse along the Nantahala Gorge floor. This section of the river is also designated as a Hatchery Supported Trout Stream, and is frequently stocked throughout the year. As mentioned above, this section is subject to high waters during dam releases, which makes fishing difficult at times, especially from March through October. Mid-morning through the afternoon, yo can expect the water to be high and not wade friendly. The sections above will be best at these times. This eight mile section of river has a fair amount of public access until it hits the upper reaches of Lake Fontana. Much of the streamside access is limited as the river plunges through the gorge making boat access your best option to see the entire river. The good news is, the trout in these sections do not see as much pressure as the trout upstream. This makes fly selections easier for much of the year.
Best Flies for the Lower Nantahala River
The lower Nantahala sees some of the better hatches in North Carolina. Mid spring caddis and blue wing olives being the most prolific hatches. From late November through March BWOs will hatch consistently with only a small lull during the coldest months of winter. Warmer or overcast days see the best hatches beginning around mid-late morning. Flies in the 18-22 range work best with the larger sizes being more prolific during warmer periods. Don't overlook emerger patters as trout will be feeding much more on emergers than the spinner falls after the insects begin to expire. The caddis hatched from mid March through May can be outstanding. Early mornings and late evenings see the best hatches on the river. Size 14-18 caddis imitations work best around the hatches. Sulphurs in mid-late spring, larger mayfly patterns in early summer, and terrestrials from late spring to fall can all be productive when the times are right and the trout are actively looking up. Productive nymph patterns vary throughout the year. It is much more important to keep your presentations consistent and close to the bottom. Cycle flies consistently until you find one or two that maximize your strikes.
For more information about America's best trout streams and others in North Carolina, our Fly Fishing North Carolina, Fly Fishing the Tuckasegee River, Fly Fishing the Davidson River, and Fly Fishing the Chattooga River articles will give you other ideas for places to visit in the area.