By Jeff Samsel

With light just creeping into the gorge and lighting the surface of North Carolina’s Nantahala River, my son Asher and I hurried to tie on lures and then scurried to the edge of a big pool I’d parked near. He chose a Rebel Middle Wee-Crawfish. I started with a Tracdown Ghost Minnow. Both lures had the trebles removed and were rigged with a single hook on the back split ring.

Seasonally, only single-hook artificial lures may be used on the stretch we were fishing and all fish must be released. I’d chosen a Delayed Harvest stream section because the catch-and-release season had only opened a few weeks prior (Oct. 1), and I knew the trout had been heavily stocked a week or so into the season. Asher and I figured it would be an easy opportunity to enjoy catching trout and get good photos.

We were right!

Asher connected first – maybe five casts into the morning, and I had one hooked before he unhooked and released his fish. Both were 11- or 12 inch brook trout. We ended up landing two more trout from that stretch and had a couple of others hooked and several others hit or swipe behind our lures. When the trout in that run seemed too used to our offerings we returned to the car, moved to another pull-off and started fresh in new water.

Excepting a couple of hours in the middle of the day, when we left the river to get lunch and try a few casts at another stream, we repeated same process all day, and by day’s end we both tallied pretty good fish counts and managed “slams” (brook, rainbow and brown trout), with a few larger fish mixed in with the standard stockers.

We caught some fish throughout the day, but the best action, by far, occurred early and late. That was no surprise. Like many sport fish, trout tend to feed best under low-light conditions. As significantly, though, most Delayed Harvest waters are very popular, and through the middle of the day, when you start fishing a pool, someone else probably just left it. Ironically, crowds typically start thinning mid- to late afternoon, and the action only gets better through the end of the day.

North Carolina manages sections of 32 mountain streams and two small lakes under Delayed Harvest regulations. The single-hook/catch-and-release season runs Oct. 1 through the first Saturday in June, at which point they all revert to general regulations, meaning bait may be used and a harvest is permitted.

Waters in the program vary enormously in size, character and the nature of the access. The common denominator is that all offer very good trout habitat through the cool months but with habitat quality that deteriorates during the summer. Delayed Harvest management makes the most of both conditions, creating a fabulous catch-and-release opportunity when the streams can support the most fish and then allowing a harvest and serving a different user group about the time the habitat quality starts to diminish.

The catch-and-release season is far more popular with fly-fishermen than spin fishermen, which probably serves spin-fishermen well when streams get crowded. Trout that see daily parades of Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears, Prince Nymphs and Wooly Buggers can get somewhat wise to those but will still react to a wobbling or darting Ghost Minnow, Wee-Crawfish, Hellgrammite or Micro Minnow. Also, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission always stocks some “quality trout,” which can range from about 15 inches to multi-pound retired brood stock fish, and I think the meatier offerings increase odds of getting a big one to bite.

All of North Carolina’s Delayed Harvest waters get stocked in early October, November, March, April and May. October and November offer some of the most dependable fishing, with the fish still very active and highly competitive. Fishing slows some through mid-winter, as trout feed less and numbers gradually decline from poaching, mortality and dispersion into other sections. Numbers get replenished from spring stockings and fish get active again, but they also tend to get more bug oriented as spring progresses.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while dates and specifics of regulations vary slightly, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia also use Delayed Harvest management on some of their streams.