North Carolina Fly Fishing 5 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Thompson River in North Carolina

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

March 20, 2021

High Falls on the Thompson River in western North Carolina

The Thompson River in western North Carolina is one of the most remote and difficult to reach destinations. If you enjoy a challenge, are in good shape and like catching small to medium-sized wild brown trout in a gorgeous mountain setting, read on.

If you’ve been looking for a new hobby, or even if you’re just trying to find new places to cast a line, planning your own fly fishing excursion can be a great choice. Fly fishing is relaxing and most of the best trout streams are in some of the most beautiful country that you’ll find– what’s not to love?

Fortunately, you also don’t have to spend a small fortune on a guide or deal with seeing what someone else wants to show you. With this DIY guide, you’ll learn everything that you need to know to plan a great fly fishing trip to the Thompson River in North Carolina.

About Thompson River

Trout fishing the Thompson River in western North Carolina

The Thompson River is a small-to-medium freestone stream that features wild rainbow and brown trout flowing from Bearpen Mountain across the border into South Carolina and Lake Jocassee. This is one of the most remote streams that you’ll find in the state line region, but it does offer some good access points and good angling for those willing to make the trek. 

Near Highlands, this river also has several waterfalls like the majority of the rivers in the greater Gorges State Park region such as the Whitewater River. This river is often better known for its waterfalls than the trout fishing, but there’s still plenty of fishing to be had. Because it’s so remote, some of the fish in this water may have never seen a single fly. 

This can work to your advantage when fishing because you probably won’t have to worry so much about fly selection, but we’ll get to more on that later. This river has several small tributaries, but access is limited and not well-marked. The Thompson River Trail that follows the river for about five miles is an old logging road that isn’t well-kept. 

This is a wild trout stream that follows state regulations for wild trout fishing. It offers plenty of catches if you’re willing to put in the work. There are also some random stocked trout that may make their way up into the creek by way of Lake Jocassee but they quickly assimilate with the wilds to survive. 

The Thompson River offers plunge pools, riffles, and runs, and there is little cover for the trout to hide during the day. Stick to fishing when there’s good cloud cover or early or late in the day when you can be under the cover of darkness. With hardly any fishing done on this river, it might present a challenge but it also presents a great opportunity.

Thompson River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing spots on the Thompson River in western North Carolina

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Thompson River

You are going to have to work a little harder to gain access to this stream. Although there are approximately 75 miles of trails in the area, almost all of the options require a long hike to find good fishing spots. There is easier access found near Highway 281. 

The area above 281 where the river crosses the road is heavily fished, but you can still find days where there isn’t a lot of pressure. Many people also head into Gorges State Park to gain access to this stream, but that requires a lot more hiking. 

Trails are also poorly marked on most of the river, but if you’re in the Gorges State Park area, you might stumble across this stream even unintentionally. You can make an effort to hike into the river, but there is limited road access and all of the waterfalls require hike-in access, as well. 

From State Road 1152 near the headwaters, there is a small section of fishing available that flows downstream to Reid Branch. If Musterground Road is open, this gravel road can provide access to the stream. However, it’s closed from time to time as part of the Bad Creek Project but it also offers the shortest hike of about three miles to the water.

Best Time to Fish the Thompson River

For starters, spring is always the best time to fly fish the Thompson River because of the aquatic insect hatches that attract the trout. Of course, you’ll also want to consider what we discussed in the overview about fishing in the darkest conditions possible, either at dawn or dusk or during days with good cloud cover. 

You can find decent fishing in the summertime here and there, but you’ll have to look for deeper areas where the water doesn’t get too warm. As with most North Carolina streams, the Thompson River puts on a great show during the fall months, and that’s when you’ll find the biggest browns coming out to spawn and feed. 

Trout fishing is also good during most of the warm winter days. Of course, you may find it difficult to access certain areas of the river if there is snowfall or other inclement weather. This isn’t usually an issue this far south, but it’s been known to happen. 

The fall spawning season is when the fish put down their guard and often you’ll find the best catches right before the spawn. However, with the lack of fishing done on this stream, anytime could prove to offer good angling.

Best Flies for Thompson River

The fish in this river are spooky due to lack of cover, but most have never seen a fly cast in their lifetime and many never will. Therefore, you have a lot more wiggle room when it comes to the flies that you bring along provided you are stealthy. 

Dry flies are going to do wonders with the smaller trout but you’ll want to consider some small streamers and nymphs if you want to entice the large browns out of there hiding places.

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Thompson 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)


  • 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)


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

Gear Recommendations

A 7.5-foot 3-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Thompson River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Thompson River Fishing Report

There aren’t any area fly shops, guides or websites that regularly provide a Thompson River fly fishing report.  The fish are there, and as long as there hasn’t been any heavy rain recently you will likely catch some.

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

The Thompson River is very remote. Aside from the couple spots where it crosses roads like Highway 281, it won’t be easy to come by. However, it’s located in the Highlands area and not far from State Route 28, US 64, and other major throughways. 

Lodging and accommodations can be found in Highlands. If you’re flying in, you’ll want to look to Asheville, Greenville, SC, or even Charlotte or Knoxville, although the latter are both about three hours’ drive.

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

Feature image by Waterfalls Hiker