DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Nantahala River in North Carolina

There is a lot to love about a good fly fishing trip, but what makes a trip “good”? For some, it’s the opportunity to plan for themselves and not have to pay a guide to show them around. For others, it’s the chance to have a true getaway to one of the best trout streams in the country.

No matter which way you’re leaning, this DIY guide will help you plan the perfect fly fishing trip to the Nantahala River. We’ll cover the details of the river, as well as where to go and when to go for the best catches, and even what you need to bring along. By the time you’re done, you’ll be on your way to a perfect trip with ease.

Fly fishing the Upper Nantahala River in North Carolina

This river is one of the best known in the state, but not just for fly fishing. The Nantahala River is one that is famous for its whitewater rafting and kayaking opportunities. And despite having some great white waters, it also offers great trout fishing. In fact, the Nantahala River is listed in Trout Unlimited's Guide to America's 100 Best Trout Streams.

The river flows through the Nantahala National Forest, starting at Standing Indian Mountain.  The upper part of the river is home to a number of creeks and streams that are part of the wild trout waters program and are managed by the Forest Service as such. 

Excellent trout fishing can be found in most parts of this river including the headwaters above Nantahala Lake, the Upper Nantahala below the confluence with Whiteoak Creek, and the Lower Nantahala down through the Nantahala Gorge. We’ll get into the details of that more below. 

Located in the western part of the state, the river is close to Franklin and Bryson City, offering easy access for locals and visitors alike. There are rainbows, browns, and brook trout that are wild throughout much of the river, as well as areas of the lower river where stocked fish also reside. There are plenty of campgrounds and natural preserves that this river passes through, as well. 

Fly fishing the Lower Nantahala River in North Carolina

There is an area below the powerhouse that, when the dam isn’t running, the water offers a moderate flow that’s ideal for wading and has a lot of holdover fish. There are also plenty of main roads and Forest Service Roads that provide easy access up and down the river. 

Bear in mind that there are select areas that are closed during March for hatchery operations, so that may affect the planning of your trip. The rest of the river is either open year-round or part of the general fishing season for North Carolina.

Nantahala River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Nantahala River fishing map

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

Best Places to Fish the Nantahala River

As discussed above, there are several great access areas on the Nantahala River. There is an unpaved service road, Forest Road 67, which follows the stream for about six miles from Mooney Falls. This is a canyon-like area that offers camping and plenty of wading and shoreline fishing. You’ll also find some tributaries in the area.

Warning: The area near Nantahala Lake is mostly private property and you should avoid fishing in the area when signs are posted or if you are not certain about public access. Most residents are friendly, but still don’t like unannounced guests on their property, after all.

If you’re willing to make the trek (access is difficult), the fishing at the headwaters where all the smaller streams come together is a great place to catch some wild trout. Below the dam and powerhouse, you’ll also find plenty of great trout fishing and ideal water conditions when the generator isn’t running and pumping water into the stream.

Jarret Creek and Buck Creek, near the lake, both have a great selection of wild rainbows for those who want a quiet shallow stream that isn’t part of the main river for a slower pace. The area from White Oak Creek that runs to Powerhouse falls is part of the Delayed Harvest regulations of the state. This is a very popular place to fish and for good reason - there are lots of fish here!

Best Time to Fish the Nantahala River

The seasonal availability changes depending on which area of the river you’re in, but most offer year-round access or only close for a month or two out of the year. Be sure to check with the North Carolina fishing regulations before you plan a trip. Also, don’t forget that we mentioned that hatchery-supported waters are closed during March for their operations to take place. 

You’ll find the best fishing during the other spring months, thanks to abundant hatches of midges, mayflies, and caddisflies, among others. There is some good fishing in deeper areas during the summer, but that can be hit or miss. The fall is another peak time to visit, especially on the lower river where you have the chance to hook-up with some large holdover browns. 

Winter does offer some fishing, in particular on the lower Nantahala, a tailwater where the the water is a consistent 45-degrees (F) year round.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Nantahala River. The USGS stream gauge near Hewitt, NC provide a good indication of current conditions.

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.

NANTAHALA RIVER NEAR HEWITT, NC

  • Flow: 94.4 ft³/s
  • Water Level: 1.42 ft
.
USGS

Fly Box - What You'll Need

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Nantahala 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 Nantahala River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Nantahala River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Nantahala 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

This river is popular for whitewater activities, so make sure that you’re not looking to those areas for your fly fishing destination. Search specifically along the areas of the river discussed here for the best fishing.

The Nantahala River is also a bit far from most major cities, with travelers usually flying into Asheville or Greenville, SC, and driving into the National Forest area. Fortunately, easy highway access and plenty of camping mean accommodations abound.

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

Feature image CC by Jeff Heard

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