Winter nymphing the Catawba River

Anglers can get by with only a few flies on them throughout winter. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Catch western NC trout all winter with this tailrace tactic

North Carolina isn’t known for famed blue ribbon tailraces like Tennessee is. But a few are here, and they can produce some excellent trout fishing. 

A tailrace is a river that flows out of the base of a lake to generate electricity. The good thing about tailraces is that they are generally colder year-round, and the water is usually very fertile.  

Fertile water grows fertile insects, which grow fertile trout. In the foothills of western Burke County lies such a trout stream full of promising angling opportunities.  

The Catawba River below Duke Power’s Bridgewater Dam is a long-known secret that is slowly getting out. It is known as a great fishing spot throughout the year, and the winter months can offer some fishing that’s just as good as any other season.

It doesn’t hurt that the NCWRC has been stocking thousands of fingerling brown and rainbow trout over the years. Combined with the area’s special regulations, trout grow to better-than-average sizes. 

Putting a mend in the line is a necessary skill for anglers on the Catawba River. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Know the regulations

Anglers need to pay attention to where they’re fishing because from the Bridgewater Bridge to the confluence of Muddy Creek, they are fishing under general regulations, which is closed in the month of March until the first Saturday in April. From there down to the Morganton Intake Dam, these waters as designated as Special Regulations and can be fished year-round with no lure restriction, and a limit of two fish over 14 inches.    

Winter is a perfect time to chase trout in the Catawba, simply because freestone streams are hovering around the freezing mark. The fish’s temperature is the same, therefore they’re not nearly as active. You almost have to hit a trout on the head with a fly to get a strike there. But the water in this tailrace river is around 40 degrees, so trout here are much more active.   

The insects tend to be more active as well. Simply put, warmer water equals more active insects and more active trout. The chance of catching fish here is greatly increased over those cooler waters. Also, winter is preferred by anglers wanting to evade some crowds.    

For starters, nymph fishing is the way to go. Due to the size of this river, an angler may need to make casts of 20 to 30 feet to a particular piece of water. This makes the nymphing system, made up of a strike indicator, split shot with one or two nymphs, work very well.  

The ideal setup has the angler standing parallel to the trout or even slightly upstream, say 30 degrees or so. Casting the nymph rig above the riffle or run, then allowing it to drift down through it, creates an outstanding offering that many trout can’t resist.

One trick anglers use when casting parallel to a likely-looking spot is to throw an upstream mend in the fly line. Hopefully this will give the flies another foot or two of drag-free drift. As the flies drift, other currents may pull the flyline that’s resting on the water. Then the angler may try to throw an additional upstream mend. Don’t get alarmed if that causes an unnatural drift for a moment; it may trigger a strike.  

Catching trout like this is always a possibility on the Catawba River this month. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Popular flies

In some waters, an angler may have to drift the nymphs down from an upstream position to the trout. Given the limited access of some particular pools, this is sometimes the best option.     

A very effective nymphing system is a rig about 4 feet from the indicator and bottom nymph, with a split shot in the middle. Since this river has a large number of stone flies, a bead head stone fly imitation is a good choice, because they tend to be heavier and sink quicker.  

If an angler wants to offer up another good choice for trout, a bead head prince nymph in 10 or 12 will do. An angler can tie the nymph on with 4x tippet about 3 feet down from the indicator. Tie another piece of tippet in the eye of the prince nymph about 15 inches down and knot the stone fly nymph, and pinch on a No. 4 or 6 size split shot between the two. Anglers may have to lengthen or shorten the distance between the indicator and bottom nymph, or pinch on a larger split shot, depending on water speed and depth.  

A large population of caddis live in this river, so nymphs like bead head Zug Bugs, bead head Caddis Pupaes or bead head Olive Hares Ears in sizes 10 to 16 will work fine. As for stone flies, black or brown with a gold bead head with some rubber legs are always good choices. A good indicator is the teardrop style, 3/8-inch version that is pegged with a broken off toothpick.

A small box of flies, some strike indicators and tippets make up the essentials of tailrace nymphing. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Don’t wait until spring

Another trick that produces strikes is allowing the nymph or nymphs to drift through the particular run or riffle, then throwing a mend in the flyline in order to extend the drift. Often, the drift actually isn’t extended because too much line is usually on the water. This creates a little extra movement for the flies. It gives the nymph the appearance that it’s trying to emerge to hatch. During this time of year, nymphs are vulnerable and trout know it. Fortunately for the angler, the fish often hooks itself. Try this technique when things are slow.    

Fish usually don’t hesitate when they take these nymphs. Once a fish takes either nymph, the indicator simply goes under. If the indicator does anything out of the ordinary, anglers should set the hook. 

Sometimes, if an angler sees that one fly is working exceptionally well, it may pay to fish two of the same nymphs. Double hookups are very possible when doing this. 

An 8- or 9-foot fly rod loaded with a 6- or 7-weight forward floating fly line will usually turn the flies, split shot and indicator over. Keep in mind that it helps if the flyline is new or at least cleaned before doing this. It really helps when mending line.

It’s a long wait until spring. For anglers that can’t wait that long to try and catch a few fish, nymphing the Catawba River in the middle of winter just might be the answer. 

January is a great month for catching trophy-sized trout on the Catawba. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Know the generation schedule

One of the most important pieces of information anglers should know when fishing a tailrace is the schedule for generating power. This information is available at Here, anglers can learn what time of day the dam is scheduled to release water, which obviously has a big impact on water levels and access points for wading and floating.

For anglers that are wading, it’s important for them to know where all the access points are for getting in and out of the river. These areas can look completely different depending on the water level.

The powerhouse generally blows a horn just before releasing water, but depending on how far downriver an angler is, they may not hear it, so knowing the schedule, and keeping track of the time is key to staying safe. 

During winter, anglers should always keep a change of clothes in their truck, just in case of a mishap. 

Anglers fishing this river for the first time should consider going with a guide, which will help them in many ways, including finding access points, learning what flies to use, and for getting to areas that have limited availability. 

Matt Evans of The Catawba Angler in Marion, (828-460-23909) offers full day trips here, as well as other rivers in the area. He said this tailrace offers excellent brown trout opportunities from October through May, along with chances of catching trophy fish.  

About Jeremy Grady 4 Articles
Jeremy Grady lives in Morganton, N.C. and is an avid hunter and angler. He’s been writing about his outdoor adventures for years.

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