DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Catawba River in North Carolina

The Catawba River in western North Carolina is a diverse trout fishery that includes wild brook trout in its headwaters to trophy brown trout in the tailwater below Lake James.

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With this guide, you’ll have all the information that you need to plan your own perfect getaway to the Catawba River. All you’ll have to do is kick back, relax, and wet a line because we’ve done the hard work for you. Happy fishing!

Fly fishing the upper Catawba River in North Carolina

The Catawba River is a destination for many anglers who enjoy fly fishing. North Carolina is a fly fishing destination itself, but this river is one of the most popular choices. Located about an hour from Hendersonville and just about 40 minutes from Asheville, the special regulation tailrace, a portion of which is actually the Linville River, is the big draw among anglers in the area.  

While in the area you want also want to check out Wilson Creek which is one of one of bigger tributaries to the lower Catawba River and offers excellent wild trout fishing in the it's upper reaches.

The River offers miles of fishing, but the tailwater below Lake James is managed to create a trophy brown trout fishery where you will find some of the most impressive browns in the state. The river’s width makes it ideal for float fishing, so a drift boat will be a helpful.  Options for wading and shoreline fishing in the tailrace are also limited due to a lack of public access. 

Because of the lack of access and the need for a drift boat, a lot of people default to hiring a local guide, but you’re not stuck with that option, thanks to our handy guide.

The upper Catawba River near Old Fort is a different ball game. Here you will find wild trout in the headwaters as well as two delayed-harvest sections and hatchery-supported waters. The waters are pristine and free-flowing in this area, albeit slightly limited in access for fly fishing.

The tailrace, perfect for drifting and float fishing, is really where the majority of the action can be found.

Catawba River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing spots on the upper Catawba River in North Carolina
map of boat ramps on the Catawba River tailwater in North Carolina

Get directions to fishing access points and real-time stream flow data with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Catawba River

As mentioned above, there are several different areas that provide access in this river, including the smaller Upper area that offers wade-in access.

The most popular area is known as the Catawba Tailrace below Lake James where the trophy brown trout can be found. It spans about eight miles and offers plenty of opportunities.

The trailrace is best fished from a boat. While guided fishing trips are plentiful, anglers can bring their own boat or rent one if they want to fish this area. 

The draw of catching a big brown trout in the tailrace is both a blessing and a curse-- you’ll find good catches, but only if you’re willing to deal with the crowds. Of course, depending on when you go, you might not have as much competition. Consider visiting during the week to avoid weekenders if you’re coming from out of town. 

The areas along I-40 are expanding with increased access and parking, so it is likely that we will update this information in the future with additional options for fishing locations on the Catawba River.

Best Time to Fish the Catawba River

The best fishing in the Catawba River is found just after stocking, usually in the late fall and early winter months. The spring is also popular when aquatic insect hatches kick into gear, although March is off-limits in several areas of the river due to stocking. Be sure to check local fishing regulations before you go so that you’re not fishing in a restricted area. 

Seasonally, North Carolina is fairly temperate. There might not be a lot of fish biting in the summer because of the warmer temps and the lower water levels, but throughout the rest of the year, people have pretty good luck. The months of October and November are popular, as is April, thanks to the hatches. 

In the deeper areas of the river, you’ll be able to fish during warmer months without much issue. Shallow areas and wade-in access usually mean the water gets too warm, so consider that, as well. 

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Catawba River. The USGS stream gauge at Pleasant Gardens, NC provide a good indication of current conditions in the upper Catawba River.

The graph below shows the stream flow (discharge) for the past 7-days. If flows are considerably above or below historical norms (yellow triangles on the chart) then fishing conditions maybe not be ideal.

USGS Streamflow Graph: CATAWBA RIVER NR PLEASANT GARDENS, NC
USGS Streamflow Graph: CATAWBA RIVER NR PLEASANT GARDENS, NC

The USGS stream gauge below Lake James provides is the best for monitoring dam releases and current conditions in the tailrace.

USGS Streamflow Graph: CATAWBA RIVER AT SR1223 BL LK JAMES NR BRIDGEWATER, NC
USGS Streamflow Graph: CATAWBA RIVER AT SR1223 BL LK JAMES NR BRIDGEWATER, NC

Fly Box - What You'll Need

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Catawba River:

Dry Flies

  • Yellow Sally (#12 - 16)
  • Yellow Humpy (#10 - 18)
  • Parachute Sulphur (#14 - 18)
  • Parachute Adams (#12 - 22)
  • Light Cahill (#10 - 18)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (#8 - 16)
  • Yellows Stimulator (#8 - 14)
  • Chernobyl Ant (#8 - 12)
  • Griffith's Gnat (#16 - 24)

Nymphs

  • Pheasant Tail (#12 - 20)
  • BH Hare's Ear (#12 - 20)
  • Rainbow Warrior (#14 - 22)
  • Pat's Rubber Legs (#4 - 12)
  • Golden Stonefly (#6 - 10)
  • Tellico Nymph (#12 - 18)
  • Zebra Midge (#16 - 22)
  • WD40 (#16-20)
  • Y2K Egg (#12 - 16)

Streamers

  • BH Wooly Bugger (#2 - 6)
  • Sculpzilla (#4)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 4-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Catawba River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Catawba River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Catawba River fly fishing report and update on current conditions are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of North Carolina requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available.

You can purchase a North Carolina state fishing license and learn about the most current regulations through the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Trip Planning Tips

Just minutes from I-40 and easily accessed from Hendersonville and Asheville, this river is a prime spot for a day trip or a weekend getaway. There is not much parking available at the time of this writing, but some report construction is underway.

Visitors can find some lodging in the area, especially along the I-40 corridor. Preserves and parks also offer camping for those who want an even more budget-friendly option. 

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in North Carolina

Feature image by The ed17

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