13 Top-Rated Rivers for Trout Fishing in North Carolina

Written by Anietra Hamper
Updated Apr 26, 2024
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The pristine mountain streams in western North Carolina are the kinds of scenic respites that anglers yearn for in their quest for idyllic trout fishing. Brook trout are the native species. They are smaller in size and generally found in tiny streams. Rainbow and brown trout are not native to the state, but they are stocked in many creeks and rivers that suit their larger size.

Author Anietra Hamper with a rainbow trout near Blowing Rock
Author Anietra Hamper with a rainbow trout near Blowing Rock

These mountain streams are perfect for improving your casting skills no matter if you are a novice or experienced fly fishing angler. Given the diversity of waters and conditions throughout the year, it is best to hire a guide to start before going out on your own. This is the best way to learn the landscape, improve your catch opportunities, and pick up new fly presentation techniques for fast water, slow water, rocks, and structure and for navigating the tight spaces that can be challenging on some of the best trout waterways.

Most North Carolina trout fishing happens in the mountains with a variety of public and private waters that anglers can access and several types of trout fishing to try. Spring and fall are considered prime trout fishing seasons, and that's when the state stocks brook, rainbow, and brown trout, but anglers can enjoy successful outings on the water almost any time of the year.

The secret of North Carolina trout fishing is that the cold water flowing from the mountain streams and rivers creates ideal habitats for the fish to thrive, giving anglers thousands of waterways to navigate. The bonus is the stunning and pristine natural mountain backdrops.

Fishing in North Carolina
Fishing in North Carolina

Throw a fly into the quiet waters of the Oconaluftee River, located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or discover why Hollywood used the Mitchell River House, located on the Mitchell River, as the setting for the Nicholas Sparks movie, The Longest Ride.

If you want to make a few days or a week out of fly fishing, step onto the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail, where 15 streams with abundant trout opportunities are anchored by the Tuckaseegee River.

Ways to Fish For Trout

Author Anietra Hamper float fishing in North Carolina
Author Anietra Hamper float fishing in North Carolina

Given the diversity of trout waters in North Carolina there are several ways to target them. One of the most popular fly fishing options is wading, enabling you to get into the water for precise casting. Another option is float fishing in which your guide rows along the river as you cast into pools with continuous movement.

Wanting to do both on my most recent fishing trip to North Carolina, I planned several days out with Orvis-endorsed fishing instructors from Chetola Resort in Western North Carolina. One day one, we targeted large brown and rainbow trout while wading in private waters, and the next day float fishing for wild rainbow trout in the Watauga Tailwaters. These float fishing waters are accessible about an hour from Blowing Rock. These are some of the best float fishing waters on the East Coast and are some of the best fishing waters in Tennessee flowing across the border of both states.

Two less common ways to fish for trout, but that are catching on in North Carolina are Tenkara fly fishing, inspired by a Japanese style of fishing, and Euro Nymphing utilizing weighted flies.

It is not uncommon for anglers to go out with a guide to learn new skills and new sections of water, then go out on their own.

"Most of the people that come up here want to do a guided trip and then want to go public fish for the rest of their time here. That's the number one question we get is, hey, if we go out with you, will you tell me where else to go fish? And it's like, well, of course. Right? That's part of it," said Morgan Tarbutton, Outdoor Director and Orvis-endorsed Fishing Guide at Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Tips on Getting There

To get to the trout waters in western North Carolina you have several options. You can fly into Charlotte, rent a car, and drive to the Banner Elk area or Dobson in Surry County. You can also fly into Asheville or Greenville (50 minutes south of Asheville) and easily access many Western North Carolina trout waters.

It is important to note that there are different classifications of trout waterways across North Carolina, each with specific restrictions, like types of lures that can be used, catch-and-release only, and more. Anglers should be aware of those designations on whatever waterways they plan to fish and obtain a proper North Carolina fishing license and trout permit from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

1. Watauga River

Anietra trout fishing on the Watauga River with guide Matt Maness and Shannon Maness
Anietra trout fishing on the Watauga River with guide Matt Maness and Shannon Maness | Photo Copyright: Justin Chew

This river is ideal for fly anglers of any skill level because it is easily accessible from quite a few areas including Banner Elk, Boone, and Blowing Rock and it offers a wide footprint for fishing. It is stocked in the fall with 2,000 brook trout, 2,000 rainbow trout, and 1,000 brown trout. The river supports about 80% wild fish and an average of 6,000 trout per mile so your chances of catching are fantastic. The Watauga River is also ideal because of its high elevation and many cold-water feeder creeks coming off the mountains.

Access Points: Anglers can find roadside pull-offs along the Watauga River to fish but given that it flows on and off of private property your best bet is to park in approved spots for public wading. Some of the easiest of these to find are at the Lower Gorge Access, Upper Watauga Gorge Park, Valle Crisis Park, and Grandfather Mountain State Park.

A trout on the Watauga River
A trout on the Watauga River | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

The Watauga River has some beautiful iridescent rainbow trout and an abundance of brown trout which I first experienced while fishing on a stretch near Banner Elk with my guide Matt Maness, from the Foscoe Fishing Company. We started out casting in small pools on the fringe of a straight, fast-moving current. Matt's wife, Shannon, joined us and in a short time, we were pulling in two browns at a time.

Our success was likely from Maness' 15 years guiding on this river and knowing how to assess the landscape and conditions before we ever cast the line to determine what methods and flies we should use. He first looked to see if the trout were hitting the top of the water or not to decide whether we target topwater or below.

Matt turned over submerged rocks for an indication of the current hatches, which dictate the flies we select. Today, it's small stoneflies. Tomorrow, it could be completely different. We use a roll-casting technique to land the fly into a fast current near the bank. There's quick success when the fly floats through a deep pool and an active rainbow trout takes hold.

The Watauga River
The Watauga River | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

We have several more catches in the same spot before the trout are onto us, and we wade downstream a bit, this time trying a shallower pocket with slower-moving water. It does not take long to attract a hearty brown trout. Within a few hours, ending just before dusk, we catch and release more than seven brown and rainbow trout of varying sizes.

"The Watauga River is great for both beginners and experienced anglers because it is a wide stream and it is hatchery supported. I like it for guiding, but there are lots of wild waters for people who want the extra challenge," said Matt Maness, professional fly fishing guide with the Foscoe Fishing Company.

Matt suggests that anglers targeting the Watauga on their own for trout utilize a map of the area or a Gazetteer to locate the smaller waters before wading out into the streams.

The small town of Banner Elk is used to catering to anglers. In fact, it is one of the best mountain towns in North Carolina. Lodging at centrally located places like the Best Western Mountain Lodge makes it easy to head in any direction for streams, with an early breakfast available for anglers. For a taste of fresh trout after a long day on the water, stop by Stonewalls Restaurant in Banner Elk where they offer daily specials like fresh trout almandine.

Another convenient option is the Chetola Resort at Blowing Rock, the first Orvis-endorsed fly fishing lodge in North Carolina (there are two in the state), which offers a full range of lodging and guided trips. The Chetola Resort's fly fishing packages include waders and equipment. Chetola's guides go to these public streams: Wilson's Creek, Watauga River, and Helton Creek, and also have access to private trophy waters in the Boone/Blowing Rock area. See more information below about trout fishing in private waters.

2. Linville River

Author Anietra Hamper with a rainbow trout
Author Anietra Hamper with a rainbow trout | Photo Copyright: Justin Chew

Another notable river system for trout is the Linville River. It is unique for its moderate flow of water in higher elevations. It is a mid-sized waterway with both wild and stocked trout. The upper Linville River section starts at the Linville Gap near the town of Crossnore in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The river is known for large populations of rainbow, brown, and brook trout that feed especially well on varying flies and lines. The brand Perfect Flies has a collection of flies that are successful, specifically for this river.

While the Linville River is considered a top trout river in North Carolina, it is not the easiest to access or navigate. Wading is necessary, but the wild river system poses a consistently changing landscape and challenges.

One of those spots is the popular stretch of the Linville Gorge that drops 1,800 feet from the Linville Gorge Trail, which runs along the waterway and is the best access point. Anglers who want to access this spot should be prepared for a hearty hike into the gorge, which also means taking plenty of snacks, water, and clothing layers with you. This waterway is quite remote but ideal for experienced anglers who are looking for that kind of serenity.

You can fish the Linville River year-round, but the best time to go is in the fall when your chances are best for large brown trout.

3. Davidson River

Author Anietra Hamper fly fishing in the mountains of North Carolina
Author Anietra Hamper fly fishing in the mountains of North Carolina | Photo Copyright: Justin Chew

Fly fishing anglers enjoy the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest for its wild and stocked trout opportunities and its easy accessibility. It provides excellent fishing year-round, with both wild and stocked rainbow, brown, and brook trout.

The Davidson River is located near Asheville, with many public access points, and it is close to the interstate. The section above Avery Creek is a managed wild trout stream and is catch-and-release fly fishing only. Below Avery Creek the stream is regularly stocked by the state, meaning it is more heavily fished but there is also an abundance of trout to catch.

The lower section is also frequently utilized by recreational canoers, kayakers, and tubers, so anglers should take note of that possible interruption. It is considered a freestone mountain stream, so a wide variety of aquatic species and insects feeds the trout.

This gives you broader opportunities to try flies like Blue-winged Olives, White Belly or Olive Matuka Sculpin, Light Cahills, and Little Yellow Stoneflies. You can fish the Davidson River year-round, but the best seasons for trout fishing are fall and spring.

4. Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail

Rainbow trout
Rainbow trout | Photo Copyright: Justin Costner

The Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail in Jackson County is a network of 15 trout streams anchored by the Tuckaseigee River. It is the first fly fishing trail in the United States, with more than 4,600 miles of streams that have wild and stocked rainbow, and brown and brook trout. With 31 public access points, the trail is easy for fly anglers of every skill level to try.

For those visiting the region or new to fly fishing, there are many outfitters in Jackson County available for hire. The trail features waterways of varying sizes and characteristics, from several prime sections on the Tuckaseigee River to creeks like Caney Fork, Panthertown, and Raven Fork and small streams in the county.

The best way to get an overview of the locations and information about the WNC Fly Fishing Trail is to download a map and GPS coordinates. You can get fly and line recommendations from local bait shops throughout the year depending on when you visit.

5. Mitchell River

Anietra Hamper and guide Marty Shaffner
Anietra Hamper and guide Marty Shaffner | Photo Copyright: Justin Costner

Fishing on the Mitchell River near Dobson is like being in a scene from a movie, with the iconic and pristine North Carolina mountain landscapes and near-perfect stream conditions for fly fishing. Perhaps that is why the Mitchell River House, located on the banks of the river, was the backdrop for the Hollywood movie The Longest Ride.

My Mitchell River fly fishing guide, Marty Shaffner, walks me across one of many small bridges that cross the smaller sections of the river to fish the pools in shallower waters. Marty grew up fishing the Mitchell River in Surry County decades before it became a designated trout stream. He takes me to a few of his favorite spots located upstream of the Kapps Mill dam to try for rainbow and brown trout.

We are roll-casting into the deep pockets that the Mitchell River is known for and alternating our target of fast and slow currents. Marty likes to use a combination of natural and attractor lures on this river, oftentimes on the same line, with enough weight to keep the line in the deeper water.

Anietra Hamper and guide Marty Shaffner
Anietra Hamper and guide Marty Shaffner | Photo Copyright: Justin Costner

"The rig works so well because it gives the trout a choice of two flies, and I believe that even on days when the attractor fly is seldom taken by the fish, it does draw their attention to the natural imitation. In more pressured waters, the attractor fly can be a subtler attractor, such as a nymph that has flash added to it or just a large stonefly nymph along with the smaller natural imitation," said Marty.

The Mitchell River is designated "Delayed Harvest," so the best times to fish it are March, April, May, October, November, and December when you have the best chances of a good number of trout. There are many public access points, and the Mitchell River is the closest public trout stream to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Charlotte, so it offers easy accessibility, especially for anglers coming in from out of town.

To celebrate a successful day on the water, you can relax with a hearty dinner at the Harvest Grill, which has a list of nightly specials and one of the most scenic views in the county.

6. Toe River

Guide Marty Shaffner tying a fly
Guide Marty Shaffner tying a fly | Photo Copyright: Justin Costner

The Toe River in Avery County is a preferred trout stream because it is wild trout water that is not frequently fished. While there are sections with stocked trout, you can also catch wild trout, including brook trout, in its headwaters.

There is the North Toe River and South Toe River and they should be considered separate river systems for anglers who are visiting and researching local information.

The upper part of the Toe River, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a high-elevation area that collects water from Rock Creek, Upper Creek, and Lower Creek, which are also their own designated trout waters.

Rainbow trout in the Toe River are relatively small, but wild brown trout have been caught upwards of 20 inches. You might even catch a native Appalachian brook trout in the headwaters of the upper section. Access to the upper section is not easy due to the rugged landscape. Your best option is to park upstream then hike downstream and fish your way back upstream to your car.

The Toe River can be fished year-round, but spring is one of the best times to fish due to the hatches of aquatic insects.

7. Wilson Creek

Brown trout
Brown trout | Photo Copyright: Justin Chew

Wilson Creek is a beautiful trout stream, which runs through the Pisgah National Forest. The clear water of Wilson Creek runs from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Edgemont in Caldwell County. The clear water surrounded by rugged terrain offers world-class tour fishing for rainbow, brown, and brook trout.

Anglers enjoy fishing this natural scenic creek because it offers a variety of fishing conditions with its alternating riffles, pools, and runs as it flows downhill. Fish are generally stocked in large pools located just off roadway access points, making it an easy way for anglers to try this waterway. Since the trout in Wilson Creek are often located in the deeper pools, it is important to keep flies close to the bottom.

The exception is when the aquatic insect hatches bring the fish to the surface to feed, which is easy to assess as you wade in the water. Expert anglers of this creek say that fly selection should be based on the last stocking schedule. If it has been recently stocked, your flies should more closely mimic trout pellets than insects. Many hiking trails surround Wilson Creek, leading to water access points.

Wilson Creek has a popular Delayed Harvest Section that is heavily stocked. Anglers enjoy this area because of the variety of brook trout, rainbows, and browns that give them great fishing throughout the year.

8. South Mills River

Fly fishing in the forest
Fly fishing in the forest | Photo Copyright: Justin Chew

The South Mills River is located in the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County and is close to Asheville and Hendersonville. The river is Designated Trout Waters and is known for its wild rainbow and brown trout. The South Mills River is remote and scenic, but that is exactly why some anglers choose it.

The best accessibility is from the trailheads at Turkey Pen Gap or the South Mills Trail that follows the stream. The stream has many deep pools to fish, but you can land some large trout. While the aquatic insect hatch is diverse, there are relatively few that produce in abundance, so it limits your fly options.

Spring is the best time to fish the South Mills River due to hatches, but fall generally produces large brown trout. Utilize the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission hatch chart to guide your decisions on which hatches to use at different times of the year.

Since it is a remote area, be prepared to arrive with plenty of tackle due to the large number of trees, brush, and other obstructions.

9. Nantahala River

Selection of flies
Selection of flies | Photo Copyright: Justin Costner

The Nantahala River in western North Carolina is a popular go-to trout water, especially in the lower sections, because of its healthy populations of rainbow and brown trout. It is also heavily stocked.

There are a number of sections to consider when targeting the Nantahala for trout because each has its own designations: Upper Nantahala to White Oak Creek (Hatchery Supported Trout Waters), White Oak Creek section of the Nantahala to the Duke Energy Power Plant (Delayed Harvest Trout Waters) and the Lower Nantahala (Hatchery Supported). You can wade sections of the lower river or book a float trip, which will enable you to cover more territory.

Hatches on the Nantahala change by the month, so fly selection will follow accordingly. Blue-winged Olives and midges are consistent in this river as are non-insects like crayfish and sculpin, which are food for hungry trout.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission publishes a hatch chart that is especially helpful for anglers to know what flies to utilize and when. There are plenty of public access points for the Nantahala, especially in the lower sections.

10. Oconaluftee River

Fly fishing in western North Carolina
Fly fishing in western North Carolina | Photo Copyright: Justin Chew

Fishing on the Oconaluftee River in the Cherokee Indian Reservation is one of the most enjoyable trout fishing experiences you can have in North Carolina. First, because fishing on the reservation is special in its own right, and second, because there are plenty of fish to catch. The river is managed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and requires a special fishing permit.

The reservation sits in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, where rainbow and brown trout are abundant. The Oconaluftee River has more than 30 miles of clear running streams ideal for wading and fly fishing and is the longest private fishery in the eastern United States.

The high elevations cool the melting snow and rain runoff to create ideal trout habitats all the way downstream. Rainbow, brown, brook, and even golden trout are stocked, allowing anglers to experience some of the most untouched scenery in the state surrounded by the Cherokee Nation.

11. Helton Creek

Wild brown trout caught in North Carolina
Wild brown trout caught in North Carolina

Helton Creek is one of North Carolina's hidden treasures when it comes to trout fisheries. It is a large creek located in Ashe County in the northeast corner of North Carolina. One of the reasons it is a great fishery is the 11 miles of fishing opportunities along the New River to the Virginia state line, teeming with brook, rainbow, and brown trout populations.

The other perk of this creek is that it is one of the longest stretches of delayed-harvest waters in the state. In addition to wild trout, Helton Creek is stocked with more than 19,000 trout per year in the eight-mile section from the Virginia state line to the New River.

Most of the trout are stocked in the cooler months of October, November, March, April, and May. Trout are also stocked in July to support the fishery for anglers, when regulations revert back to hatchery supported under the North Carolina Wildlife Resources delayed-harvest trout program regulations.

Stocked trout sizes are generally over 10 inches, with some fish reaching 14 to 20 inches. There are a number of public access areas along Helton Creek, but some of the best pools for trout are from the Virginia State line to the confluence of the New River.

Alternate Areas: Given the popularity of this waterway for trout, there can be a significant number of anglers at certain times of the year. Some backup options to consider are Ararat River in Mount Airy, which has great public access by way of the Ararat River Greenway and is the most easterly Delayed Harvest Trout Water; Big Horse Creek near Lansing, which has three classifications of trout waters to fish; and Fish Creek near Raven Rock State Park, which has wild trout fishing, Delayed Harvest Trout Waters, and a section of hatchery supported trout waters.

12. French Broad River

A fishing boat on the French Broad River
A fishing boat on the French Broad River | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

As one of the oldest rivers in the world, the French Broad River watershed gives anglers a range of trout fishing opportunities that can net beautiful wild rainbow trout, sizable brown trout, and brook trout.

The Upper French Broad flows through Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe, and Madison Counties. Some of the easiest access to designated Public Mountain Trout Waters is in the upper reaches of the watershed in Transylvania. The river has Hatchery Supported Trout Waters in sections of the Middle Fork, West Fork, and at the confluence of the North Fork/West Fork stretching to the Island Ford Road Access Area.

The East Fork of the French Broad River from East Fork Baptist Church downstream to the S.R. 1107 bridge is one of the most popular Delayed Harvest waterways in the region. Because of its popularity anglers must be on their game and ready to try a variety of flies and presentation methods. You will want to keep an eye out for signage along this river as there are specific regulations in place for catch and release in various stretches and sections that go through private land.

If you want to fish for wild trout you can head to the higher-elevation waters in the Pisgah National Forest.

13. Private Trout Waters

Fishing on private waters
Fishing on private waters | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper

In Western North Carolina some of the best fly fishing spots are now privately owned. One of the advantages of trout fishing on private waters is that they are less frequently fished meaning that trout populations are more substantial, catch rates are better, and there are fewer anglers throughout the year.

This is especially important during popular trout fishing times like the summer and fall when public access waterways can become crowded or over-fished. With current North Carolina regulations for stocking trout and take limits, private waters are a nice alternative for anglers.

Because the private trout waters are less frequented by anglers and are catch and release it is easy to find pools even in small streams teeming with beautiful trout making the excitement of catching one even greater before you cast your line into the water.

Access to these private waters can only be obtained through a private guide, a local fishing club, or by going through a local outfitter like Chetola Resort Lodge in Blowing Rock. These entities have built relationships with private land owners for access to the waters for their clients.

Many of the private waters have wild trout, and while most have not been stocked for years, they may have been previously and still contain some stocked brown and rainbow trout that are often larger in size.

Map of Rivers for Trout Fishing in North Carolina