After a few months of planning, praying, saving, and fly tying, I finally returned to fish the delayed harvest waters in the mountains of North Carolina. Luckily, I was not alone in this endeavor as I had the company of 16 other members of my club, the illustrious Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers. Typically in a group this size, you can expect a lot of alcohol, food, and laughs to be had. This would definitely become the case.
The trip started the day before with giddy anticipation as I planned what gear I’d bring with me, my provisions, and various “just in case” measures. My fly vest sat packed and loaded and hanging on the back of my office chair for weeks. I was regularly hitting the gym and concentrating on back and shoulder exercises for a few weeks prior to ensure that I could spend as much time on the water as possible without becoming overly fatigued (I would be glad that I took the time to do this later, believe me.) I crammed boxes full of flies so that I would not go without on the water. As an aside, most experts would say to bring only a few patterns you know work, but that’s a luxury for those who have close access to trout and fish the same beats over and over again. This was not the case for me, as our home base of Hot Springs North Carolina was 5.5 hours away from my doorstep. I needed to be prepared.
The drive down was as pretty as you can expect, with large mountains in the vista and a mixture of small homes along the side of the roadway. Some areas along US 25 past Knoxville such as Del Rio and Newport have definitely seen better days, but the scenery is beautiful nonetheless. Luckily I had plenty of caffeine (a constant on this trip) and an SD card loaded full of my favorite music so the drive was completely bearable and actually fairly pleasant.
I arrived at 7:00 p.m. and drove past the Hot Springs Tavern, seeing my crew on the veranda just sitting down for dinner. As I had actually planned to be down around 8:30, I had already eaten a sandwich for dinner so I drove by and went to the lodge to unpack my things. After a quick call to my wife to let her know I was safe, I unpacked my bags and cracked open a few good beers. The crew eventually showed up, we built a huge fire, and started in on the Bourbon (we are from Kentucky by the way.)
The next morning I got up incredibly tired. Unfortunately, I slept very little mostly because I don’t rest well in new places the first night I visit and I couldn’t figure out how to get the damn futon unfolded. I was also pretty hungover. After taking a hot shower and chugging some coffee, I started to feel better. Soon the entire house was up and we were feasting on an enormous breakfast. I had talked some friends into hitting the Tuckasegee with me as an exploratory trip, and seeing that only one branch’s power station was scheduled to generate that day, we decided to say screw it and head out. The other members of the club stayed back to fish more local water and were uninterested in accompanying us knowing what the flows could be like, but we are brave and hardy souls and know no limitations.
After getting lost a few times, we finally found our way to the river. Wide and fast moving, the Tuckasegee is gorgeous. However, these two factors make the Tuck hard to wade. To be honest, the wading was very difficult. You really had to be careful in how you moved through it, making sure to walk sideways to limit your profile in the water and to use a wading staff. My advice is to at all times keep two points on a surface, whether it be two feet or one foot and your wading staff point. As always, the wading staff should be behind you as a prop against the current, not in front of you, where the force of the water renders it useless.
We worked as a team relaying the location of suitable runs and flies that worked. I was slow to catch fish at first and honestly felt out of my element. I am used to slow moving warm water creeks when it comes to wading, and having not been down that way in 7 years, I wasn’t sure I could pick out a good trout run either. After finding out what the fish were hitting from one of my compatriots who texted me the winning formula of wooly bugger and Tellico nymph, I knew I could at least eliminate that variable and concentrate on discovering the right indicator length and split shot to use if I could just find the right piece of water to fish. At this point I remember things slowing down for me, and much like the scene in the Matrix when Neo starts seeing the code that makes up his environment, I noticed a gorgeous run just up from me and everything fell into place.
This is what I love about fly fishing. To be good at it you have to be deliberate in your actions and calm in your delivery. There’s nothing more frustrating than clipping off the wrong end of a double surgeon’s knot or immediately throwing a wind jam into your leader after you’ve just tied up a new rig. As such, moving slowly and purposefully, which forces yourself to focus and calm down, can put you into an almost Zen like trance where simplicity in motion is the key to success. In short order, I caught a brookie, brown, and rainbow, and thus hit my North Carolina grand slam. More importantly, I got the skunk off of me.
That night back at the lodge I ate a light dinner and crashed into bed. I had planned on staying up with the group but I was completely exhausted. I figured out how to unfold the futon, took a hot shower, pounded some Alleve, put in my ear plugs and fell asleep instantly. I woke up feeling refreshed, which was what I honestly needed.
The next day I took off by myself to fish the Laurels. To be honest, I needed some time alone to think through things that were bothering me at home, namely some big changes at work. I also wanted to spend some time clearing my head so I could focus on developing my next set of goals that I want to achieve now that I’ve met some short term ones. To me, being alone is the only way I can process the world. The last time I was able to sit down by myself for some time was way back in June of 2016, when I decided it was time to find a new job and new line of work after receiving a lay off notice. Now that everything has worked out in my favor, I wanted to regroup and decide what to do next. Luckily, I caught some fish that day too.
My run of strong mojo coming off my success on the Tuck transferred itself to the Big Laurel and Shelton Laurel. After switching to a 12 foot 6X leader and pink weenie fly, I began taking fish everywhere that looked like it held something. Honestly, I had a blast even though the weather got incredibly lousy that day. Lots of wind, a drop of temps down to the 40s, and biting rain drove everyone else back to the lodge. However, I had a fleece and a down jacket in the car, and I put on an oversized rain jacket over all of it. I was nice and toasty and just decided to brace it out.
After my long day fishing the Laurels, I went back into town and ordered a soak at the Hot Springs Resort. For $25 you can get a nice soak in a tub of mineral water for an hour. It was amazing. Since I was by myself I was able to fully immerse myself up to my ears and just really relax. Yes, the sun burn that I picked up on the Tuck the day before stung a little, but other than that it felt awesome. About 55 minutes of sitting in the water it hit me and I immediately felt like I was high or something. I can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed. My sore back and shoulders and knees felt totally rejuvenated, so I decided to spend the last hour of sunlight driving around the mountains and taking pictures.
The next day my only goal was to fish Spring Creek in town and catch a trout on my Tenkara rod. Spring Creek is absolutely perfect for Tenkara. The big stones in it don’t make it any easier to wade, but the pocket water is easily reachable without having to make a ton of movement. After entering the water following a lively discussion with some Appalachian Thru Hikers in town for the upcoming weather event (we were supposed to get 4 inches of snow that night), I started working my way upstream while methodically drifting a Renegade fly through each likely holding spot.
Fishing was slow at first until I reached a nice hole with some monster fish in it. After tying on a size 16 pink Top Secret Nymph and finally learning how to set a proper drift with the braided leader, I tied into a nice brook trout. Fighting the fish was a ton of fun and very novel as without a reel you’re really at the mercy of the fish. I watched as it tried wrapping itself around a stone and breaking off, however, I was able to turn its head and horse it towards me. However, I had to break down the rod and line it in by hand for fear of over tiring the fish. Overall a fun experience.
After catching this fish, I literally walked up onto 25 and through the town of Hot Springs in search of hot coffee, as it had started snowing fairly heavily and the temps were down in the thirties. I finally found a cup at ArtiSun and stayed there for awhile talking to the barista and some locals. It was a good time.
Later that day I went back to the lodge, ate a steak for lunch, and left for home with a friend who wanted to get back that evening too. It was an awesome time and I can’t wait for next year. I believe this is going to be an annual pilgrimage for me.