Nestled in the mountains is one of the jewels of North Carolina trout fishing, the North Toe River, and one of the shiniest baubles as the section that flows through the town of Spruce Pine. Access is outstanding; you can park on a paved lot, and there are lots of trout.
A section of slightly more than two miles, from the US 19E bridge east of town to the NC 226 Bridge north of town is managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission as delayed-harvest waters. Heavily stocked — with plenty of big trout — fishing is catch-and-release, with only single-hook, artificial lures allowed from Oct. 1 through the first Saturday in June. The rest of the year, regulations are the same as other hatchery supported waters: seven fish per day, with a seven-inch size minimum and no lure or bait restrictions.
But it’s during the winter that the fishing can be outstanding, with the waters cool enough to provide great habitat for trout.
Jim Kramer, an orthopedist from Greensboro, fishes the North Toe regularly, concentrating his efforts on the stretch that runs through Spruce Pine, the delayed harvest section that is designated by black-and-white markers along its banks.
“I know from talking to the guys at the (Commission) that this section is one of the most heavily stocked sections,” Kramer said. “The stocked fish are mostly rainbows, brookies — often with large brood fish — and browns.”
Over the course of the year, the Commission stocks this section with around 19,000 trout: 40 percent brookies, 40 percent rainbows and 20 percent browns. Stockings are split evenly between March, April, May, October and November, and a certain percentage are larger fish.
Kramer said the Spruce Pine section of the river can be intimidating.
“This section is surprisingly big water; it is quite deep. Almost all of the fishing I do there is sub-surface nymphing with weight. Caveat here: get flies down to where the fish are,” he said, pointing out that most fishermen don’t fish deep enough. “On the North Toe, I find fish in pools more often than not, and most fly fishermen who are not successful are fishing above the fish. On this river, the deep, slow water holds most of the big fish.”
Some of the pools in this section of the river are deep, Kramer said.
“The river is easily accessible and wadeable. Pools can be eight to 10 feet deep, at least, and it is, at times, surprisingly big and heavy water. Intimate it is not.”
When fishing nymphs, Kramer knows he needs to get deep. He said, “In stained water, I use a 2X or 3X Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. In more normal conditions I use a 4X Seaguar fluorocarbon tippet and plenty of weight, with a Thingambobber as an indicator. I typically use a double-nymph rig set-up, with the top fly being a Y2K. The trailer fly could be an egg, stone fly nymph, San Juan worm, squirrel nymph, Beadhead Prince or Pheasant Tail, or various blue patterned nymphs. Really, this is the typical assortment of delayed harvest fare.”
For stone fly nymphs, he uses larger sizes, around No. 10. For mayfly and caddis nymphs, he drops down to Nos. 16-18.
In addition to pools, Kramer also finds fish in other spots.
“I also focus on downed trees, log jams and deep banks, as these tend to hold a lot of fish,” he said.
Big water, according to Kramer, calls for big gear.
“I use a 5-weight Sage XP rod with a Bauer reel or a 6-weight St. Croix Bank Robber rod with a large-arbor Sage reel. At times for articulated streamers in deep pools, I have even used my Sage VXP 7-weight. In most cases, a 5-weight will suffice.”
An articulated streamer, a type fly often used by steelhead and salmon anglers, is one with two hooks tied one behind the other and with the front barb and bend cut off. Use a length of braided casting line to make the connection. In order to get a streamer close to the bottom, Kramer said, “If I am throwing a streamer, especially in off-color or high-water conditions, I will use a sink-tip.
“The one downside to this river is it gets blown out easily and turns color and stays off-color after it rains.”
Sonny Greene, a fly-fishing angler and guide with nearly 50 years of experience, often takes clients to the North Toe. He fishes both the delayed-harvest section near Spruce Pine and a number of so-called “private waters.”
“I use rods from 8½- to 9-feet. My favorite is a 9-foot, 5-weight. It is perfect for the size of the river and a perfect rod to cast two fly rigs with indicators and a split shot. And those are the rods I recommend to my clients,” he said. “As for reels, either a disk drag or a click-and-pawl works fine. I prefer one with a disk drag to handle the occasional big fish.”
Greene readies his clients with classic double nymphs under a strike indicator, comparable to the rigs Kramer uses.
“I like using a two-fly nymph rig fished under a strike indicator and split shot to get the flies down. As for leaders and tippet, I recommend 3X to 5X depending on the clarity and depth of water,” he said.
Stained or turbid water permits use of a heavier and shorter leader and tippet. Greene said, “I like a 7½-foot leader with about 14 inches of fluorocarbon added before I tie on my first fly. This saves the original leader, and the fluorocarbon helps get the nymphs down quicker. And the knot keeps the split shot from sliding down against the lead fly.”
From the lead fly, Greene ties a second nymph pattern.
“The trailing fly is tied off the bend of the first with a clinch knot and about 14 inches of fluorocarbon. I put the strike indicator about three feet from the split shot,” he said. “And I vary the weight to get the flies down to the fish. Ninety percent of what a fish eats is sub-surface.”
A common rule of thumb, he said, is the length of leader below the indicator should be about twice the depth of the stream.
Greene’s fly selection is typical of trout anglers in the North Carolina mountains.
“My three favorite top flies are San Juan worms in pink, red or brown, eggs in assorted colors or girdle bugs,” he said.
Some anglers contend two-tone eggs patterns are most effective because the dark spot in an otherwise bright egg suggests the “eye” in a maturing egg. For the lower fly on the two-fly rig, Greene uses an assortment of nymphs: Prince, Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Copper John or caddis pupa.”
Streamers, as also suggested by Kramer, also find their way into Greene’s fly boxes.
“The Toe has a large population of minnows and crawfish, so don’t forget larger patterns, either stripped or my favorite way: under a strike indicator,” he said.
For crawfish imitators, he said it’s tough to beat Whitlock’s NearNuff Crayfish in brown, tan, orange or olive. Streamers abound, and a wooly bugger is a good place to start. Consider streamers and crawfish in No. 6 through No. 2.
HOW TO GET THERE — The North Toe River runs through Spruce Pine, which is at the intersection of US 19E and NC 226 in Mitchell County. One of the best ways to access the Delayed Harvest section of the North Toe is from Riverside Park, which has a large parking area.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Sonny Greene, FlyFishn Outfitters, 704-904-3199. Rivers Edge Outfitters, Spruce Pine, 828-765-3474.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Richmond Inn Bed & Breakfast, 51 Pine Ave., Spruce Pine, 828-765-6993; Pinebridge Inn, 207 Pinebridge Ave., Spruce Pine, 828-765-5543; Spruce Pine Motel, 379 Oak Ave., Spruce Pine, 828-765-9344; Lemon Tree Inn, 872 Greenwood Rd., Spruce Pine, 828-765-6161; Pine Valley Motel, 11827 South Highway 226, Spruce Pine, 828-765-6276. For camping: Black Mountain Campground is in the Pisgah National Forest on South Toe River Rd. off SR 80 north of Busick, 828-675-5616.
MAPS — Delorme’s North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105, www.delorme.com; U.S. Forest Service, www.nationalforeststore.com/merchant.mvc?Screen=CTGY&Store_Code=NFS&Category_Code=NC.