Fish Species Caught in Western North Carolina

Most Sought After Fish in the Lakes and Rivers around Ashville, NC

Fishing in Western NC


The rivers of Western North Carolina are home to two imported trout species, the rainbow trout and the brown trout, and one native species, the brook trout. Check out our trout fishing techniques overview for tips on catching these exciting fish.

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow Trout - Photo US FWS - Mark Lisac

The rainbow trout is one of the most sought after and beautiful fish found in Western North Carolina. This species requires clean cold water to thrive and reproduce, therefore wild rainbows are only found in the purest and coldest mountain streams and lakes. Hatchery raised fish are also found in many stream and rivers in the area. Rainbow trout regularly exceed 12 inches in Western NC with large individuals occasionally exceeding 18 inches and 3 pounds. The largest individuals can be found on the catch and release and delayed harvest waters as these rivers receive less fishing pressure and allow the fish to adapt a more innate lifestyle and natural feeding habits. The Davison, Nantahala, Tuckasegee, Watauga Rivers are the best-known rivers for rainbow trout in the area. Click here for information in citation requirements and state records.

Brown Trout

Brown Trout - Photo US FWS - Eric Engbretson

The brown trout inhabit many of the same rivers and lakes as the rainbow trout and typically grow to a similar or slightly larger mature size. They can tolerate slightly warmer water than other trout species in the area and are therefore more likely to dwell in mountain lakes. Browns are fairly reclusive fish choosing to stay close to underwater cover, undercut banks, and overhanging trees. Smaller brown trout eat basically the same diet as other area trout species, however larger individuals are more inclined to eat other fish, including other trout, crayfish, mollusks, and other crustaceans. The tailwaters of the Nantahala River are home to the state record brown trout. Brown trout are also abundant in the Davidson, South Holston and Tuckasegee Rivers. Click here for information on citation requirement and state records.

Brook Trout aka Speckled Trout or “Specks”

Brook Trout - Photo US FWS - Eric Engbretson

Brook trout are the only species native to Western North Carolina, as rainbow trout where introduced from rivers on the west coast and brown trout where introduced from Europe in the 1800s. This smaller greenish-brown trout species has been outcompeted by the rainbow trout, and thus healthy native populations are now restricted to smaller headwater fisheries. Hatchery supported waters where captive raised brook trout have been released also contain significant numbers. Fishing techniques are similar to those used for small rainbow trout. Brook trout can be found in all hatchery-sported waters as well as in the headwaters of the Nantahala River above the reservoir. Click here for more information on citation requirements and state records.

Fishing for Trout

Trout are opportunistic predators eating a wide range of aquatic and flying insects; fish eggs and juvenile fish; land based insects and worms that end up in the water; crustaceans; amphibians; and much more. Hatchery raised trout will also eat plant based material including corn and other “natural” baits specifically designed for trout fishing. One of the most popular trout fishing methods used in Western North Carolina is fly fishing with dry or wet flies either from a drifting boat or by wading out into the river. Other methods include fishing spinning tackle with small spinning lures, or fishing from the bank with natural bait including corn, worms, or crickets. Natural bait works best on hatchery raised trout, but be sure to read the trout signs carefully as natural bait is prohibited in all waters that are designated catch and release, most rivers designated wild trout waters and for part of the year in delayed harvest waters. Small hooks and light tackle are best suited for trout fishing. Click here to get information see the NC WRC online fishing access maps, or click here to purchase a copy of their trout maps.


The lakes and rivers of Western North Carolina are home to several species of bass including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, striped bass, white bass, and several other hybrid species.

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth Bass - Photo US FWS - Timothy Knepp

The largemouth bass is a bulky predatory fish that thrives in warm water lakes and ponds, but can also be found in many of the large cold lakes in Western NC. Anglers seek this aggressive fish mainly for the thrill of the fight and typically release the fish upon capture. Adult largemouth bass typically eat smaller fish, crayfish, frogs, other amphibians, and occasionally rodents and birds. Minnows and crayfish make suitable bait for largemouth, but most anglers choose artificial bait including plastic worms and salamanders, crankbait, spinnerbait and artificial minnows and crayfish. Largemouth tend to lurk around cover including submerged trees and stumps, drop-offs, boat docks and floating vegetation. Typically mature largemouth in Western NC range from 3-5 pounds with fish in the 8-10 pound range occasionally caught. These exciting fish can be found in many of the small lakes around Asheville, and in bigger lakes including Lake Adger, Lake Fontana, Lake James, Lake Santeetlah, and Lake Summit, among others.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth Bass - Photo US FWS - Timothy Knepp

The smallmouth bass, revered for their stamina and fighting ability, are typically more slender and darker colored than their cousin the largemouth bass. Typical coloration is dark green with dark vertical bars on its side. The smallmouth prefers colder and cleaner water and is well suited to life in rivers, but is also found in deep cold lakes. Their typical diet includes small fish and crayfish and can typically be caught on live bait as well as crayfish or minnow colored lures. In Western NC many anglers enjoy fly fishing on rivers to catch smallmouth. Light spinning tackle also makes for exciting smallmouth action in lakes and in rivers when conditions aren’t conducive to fly fishing. The primary smallmouth fisheries are Lake Fontana, Lake James, Lake Santeetlah, the French Broad River, the Nolichucky River and the Pigeon River.

Striped Bass, Bodie Bass, White Bass and Other Bass Species

Striped Bass - Photo US FWS - Timothy Knepp

Striped bass are native to the Atlantic Ocean and typically migrate into coastal waters to spawn. In addition to these native populations, the NC Wildlife Resource Commission has also stocked 13 inland reservoirs with striped bass. These large pale colored predatory fish have unbroken black stripes down the length of their body. Schools of stripers will hit a variety of trolled lures including spoons and rattling crankbaits. Live baits including minnows are also used. There are several other species of bass found in Western NC including white bass, spotted bass and hybrid or Bodie bass, which is a cross between a male white bass and a female striped bass. Size and creel limits differ significantly between different lakes and rivers so be sure to check the current fishing regulations before fishing for stripers. Top area fisheries for striped bass include Lake Chatuge and Lake Hickory as well as Lake Norman, which is just North of Charlotte.

Muskellunge aka Muskie

Muskellunge or Muskie -  Photo US FWS - Eric Engbretson

The Muskellunge, also referred to as muskie or musky is a large top predator, in the pike family, that has been stocked in several rivers and lakes in Western North Carolina. They prefer dense underwater cover and feed on large pray including other fish, especially suckers; amphibians; mammals; and other large food items. Anglers typically use very heavy line and tackle when fishing for these large, toothy, powerful fish. Very large lures including spoons, crankbaits and spinnerbaits as well as live minnows are the primary baits used for muskie. They are considered difficult to catch mainly because large adults tend to inhabit very large territories, and are therefore difficult to locate. The 41 lb. 8 oz. state record musky was caught in Lake Adger. Other fisheries with muskie include Lake Fontana, the French Broad River and the Nolichucky River.


Walleye School - Photo US FWS - Timothy Knepp

The walleye is a popular game fish native to Canada and the Northern states that has been introduced into lakes and rivers in many Southern states. This olive-brown to yellowish-gold fish is known for its exceptional eyesight and is considered by many to be the best tasting freshwater fish native to the United States. Because of their excellent eyesight, walleye often feed at night or in deep or murky water. Typical baits include jigs and minnow like spoons and lures, as well as live minnows, leaches, worms and crayfish. The North Carolina state record walleye was caught on Lake Chatuge. Other Western NC lakes with walleye include Lake Fontana, Lake James and Lake Santeetlah.


Channel Catfish - Photo US FWS - Eric Engbretson

The lakes and rivers of Western North Carolina are home to several species of catfish. Smaller individuals, 2-3 pounds or less, caught in clean water are considered excellent for eating. These scavenges are known to eat a wire range of foods. Typical baits include nightcrawlers, chicken livers, chunks of cut baitfish, and live minnows. Anglers can also purchase baits designed specifically for catfish at most bait shops, superstores and hardware stores. Catfish can be found in most lakes and rivers in Western NC, however some of the best-known locations include Lake Adger, Lake Hickory, Lake James, Lake Lure, the French Broad River, the Green River and many of the smaller Asheville lakes and ponds.

Crappie - White and Black

Black Crappie - Photo US FWS - Eric Engbretson

Crappie are small headed fish with flattened, laterally compressed, bodies that resemble bream or other panfish in shape. They have small heads and large dorsal and anal fins that are almost identical. In Western NC they are found in clear lakes around submerged brush and fallen trees. Jigs and live minnows are considered the primary bait for crappie. The best lakes for crappie in WNC are Lake Adger, Lake Hickory, Lake Lure and Lake Santeetlah.

Bream, Perch, Shellcrackers and other Sunfish

Bluegill or Sunfish - Photo US FWS - Timothy Knepp

There are several species of sunfish and perch that are common in Western NC and are often loosely referred to as panfish. Some common species include the pumpkinseed, the redear or shellcracker, the bluegill, the redbreast, and the yellow or raccoon perch. Typical bait for panfish includes worms, bread, small minnows and small artificial lures.

Fishing in Western NC

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Fish Species Caught in Western North Carolina
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