MORTIMER — North Carolina's newest National Wild and Scenic River, which tumbles out of the Caldwell County mountains, this month fittingly became the state's newest catch-and-release trout stream.
On Oct. 1, the shimmering, rushing waters and limpid green pools of Wilson Creek got an initial stocking of 4,700 trout, mostly rainbows and brooks with a scattering of browns. And, within hours, fly anglers were casting into the stream, trying to entice the hatchery-raised fish to take an artificial fly as they explored their new homes.
Anglers Carl Freeman of Blowing Rock and Kevin Bernard of Hudson in the morning helped fishery technicians distribute trout along 3.5 miles of Wilson Creek, then picked up their fly rods in the afternoon to feel the tug of frisky fish that they had poured into the fast waters.
"I already caught a half-dozen," Freeman said. "One was a 20-inch rainbow. Caught it on a beadhead hare's ear [a wet fly that's fished below the surface]."
He later hooked a vibrantly colored 14-inch brown. The water temperature was in the 60s, perfect for trout.
This section of Wilson Creek and a 0.7-mile stretch of Mill Creek near Marion are the state's 21st and 22nd "delayed-harvest" trout waters. Delayed-harvest streams open Oct. 1 each year for catch-and-release fishing only. The season ends the first Saturday in June, at which time fish may be caught and kept on the premise that they would die anyway from summer's heat. Hence, the name "delayed harvest."
Novice anglers like the streams because of the abundance of fish; the Wilson Creek stocking averaged about 1,500 trout per stream mile. Experienced anglers seek them to hone their skills before heading for a wild trout stream for warier, but often smaller, fish.
"I did learn to fish on delayed-harvest stretches," said Dave Maeda of Apex, chairman of the N.C. Trout Unlimited State Council. "I learned principally on the East Prong of the Roaring River.
"If I have the inkling to go fishing, they make the list. Ten to 20 fish is certainly a good day on a delayed-harvest stretch. I've had a couple of 30- to 40-fish days."
Maeda's favorite delayed-harvest stream is the Little River in DuPont State Forest near Hendersonville, a 10,000-acre forest renown for its spectacular waterfalls.
"I was very impressed with the scenic value of the river and the fish I caught," he said.
The delayed-harvest streams nearest Raleigh are the Mitchell River in Surry County and the East Prong of the Roaring River and Stone Mountain Creek in Wilkes County.
Marked with black-and-white signs, delayed-harvest streams forbid natural-bait fishing. Anglers must use only single-hook, artificial lures and must release alive all fish. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocks the streams in October, November, March, April and May. Typically, each stream gets 40 percent brooks, 40 percent rainbows and 20 percent browns in the 10- to 12-inch range. Four percent of the fish are 14 inches and longer. (Wilson Creek received a 50-50 mix of brooks and rainbows with larger brooks, browns and rainbows making up 4 percent, commission spokeswoman Jodie Owen said.)
Wilson Creek will get a July stocking as well because water temperatures stay cool enough to keep trout alive into the summer, district fishery biologist Jacob Rash said. But catch-and-keep rules apply from June 5 to Oct. 1. They allow natural-bait fishing, no minimum size limit and a seven-fish-a-day creel limit.
Bordering the Pisgah National Forest, Wilson Creek in 2000 received protection as a National Wild and Scenic River, one of just five in the state. The 3.5-mile delayed-harvest section runs from the game land boundary downstream of the Lost Cove Creek bridge on N.C. 90 and follows state road 1328 to the Phillips Branch bridge.
The delayed-harvest section previously was bounded by private property. The designation for public fishing became possible when the state acquired 722 acres along the stream corridor for $7 million, and, in May, the commission added the property as a state game land. Rash said the commission put in three parking areas, providing easy access to the water.
Bernard, a part-time guide for Barrett's Guide Service, predicted Wilson Creek will quickly become a fly anglers' destination.
"I've dreamed of this ever since I moved to North Carolina [in 1980]," he said of the delayed-harvest designation. "I love this because it's right in my backyard."