Successful trout anglers go with the flow on Catawba River

CorrespondentMarch 26, 2014 

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    Contact Scott Cunningham, On the Fly Guide Service, by calling 828-659-0059. Besides rubber rafts, the river can also be accessed by kayak or canoe, but dam discharges can create hazardous flow conditions. Wade fishing is not possible for the general public because of lack of shoreline access. For daily flow conditions, visit

— The morning was rainy, with air temperatures in the 40s, not exactly the type of weather most anglers consider prime for fishing.

Even a green-and-white, diamond-shaped sign posted at the Bridgewater Public Fishing Area appeared unwelcoming because it said the season for Hatchery Supported trout waters was open only from the first Saturday in April until the last day of February. Today was in between those dates, March 23.

“A lot of anglers won’t fish in this weather, but overcast days are best,” said Scott Cunningham, a fishing guide from Marion. “In the Catawba River the section downstream of Muddy Creek has a Special Regulation designation. We are going to float down through the Hatchery Supported section to Special Regulation section before we begin fishing.”

From their launching point at Bridgewater to the takeout point at the Morganton water intake constitutes a trip of 8 miles, a long day of fishing in a boat propelled only by the river flow and steered with carbon fiber oars. Duke Energy’s powerhouse at Bridgewater has two hydropower generation turbines. One or two might operate, or, as was the case on this morning, neither may run, creating the river’s lowest flow conditions.

“We might have to push the raft through a rapid or two, but we will get to the good fishing,” Cunningham said. “We should catch a lot of brown trout today.”

The stretch of river they would be fishing is the only Special Regulation trout water in the state. The designation’s goal is growing outsized brown trout in what anglers call a “tailrace” fishery.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocks the river with rainbow, brook and brown trout. Brown trout grow rapidly in the swiftly flowing, highly oxygenated waters downstream of high-elevation power plants.

“Flooding in 2004 hurt the fishing,” Cunningham said. “But it has recovered, thanks to the Commission’s stockings.”

In the other boat were Chad Stevens, a fishing guide from Marion and Marshall Kirksey, a Clemson student from Morganton. The anglers stowed their fly rods and shoved off.

At the mouth of Muddy Creek, Cunningham began casting a Catawba Bugger, a variation of the popular Wooly Bugger fly pattern. It is a large, black fly with lead wire tied around the hook shank to orient the hook, point up.

“It keeps it from snagging bottom,” he said. “To a trout, it looks like a hellgrammite.”

A hellgrammite is the larval stage of the Dobsonfly. Trout eat many species of flies and their larvae. Kirksey fished a nymph pattern fly beneath a hot pink strike indicator.

“I’ve caught lots of trout in this river,” Kirksey said. “I enjoy fly fishing because it is the most effective way to fish it. It is also the most fun.”

Initially, the anglers caught bass and yellow perch. However, the farther downstream they drifted, the more the dingy waters of Muddy Creek gave way to the clearer waters of the Catawba River and the more the trout bite spiked. They cast to eddies created downstream of rocks and logs, as well as to overhangs and seams along the steeper drop-offs. They hauled in many brown trout before they came to a bridge.

Anchoring the boats, the anglers waited for the rain to slacken. Cunningham cast around the bridge supports and caught three trout, including an 18-incher.

“We catch quite a few trout that long, along with dozens of 10- to 12-inchers,” he said. “In a typical day, we catch 30 trout per boat and one or two will go 18 to 21 inches.”

After breaking for lunch, the anglers continued downstream. Eventually, they arrived at their takeout point where one of their vehicles was waiting with a trailer. As they loaded their rafts, the sun finally burned through the clouds.

The anglers had caught dozens of brown trout weighing up to 4 pounds. They released all the fish they caught.

“Every trout we release will grow bigger and we want to be able to catch them another day,” Cunningham said. “People are beginning to find out about the exceptional tailrace fishery in the Catawba and we want to keep it that way.”

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