Fire & Rain on Hazel Creek

The terrain around Hazel Creek requires fly fishermen to make precise casts in order to hook the trout that inhabit the water.

Local fishing club treks each year to a remote mountain fishing camp

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part story chronicling the annual journey a local fishing club has made for over 30 years to a remote mountain stream in the mountains of North Carolina. The first part can be found here.

By Harold Ross, Jr.

We made it to our campsite!

After a seven mile trek up a steep old logging road we reach our home for a week. A backcountry campsite is just that – a flat place in the woods with maybe remnants of a fire ring from previous campers. That’s it! Close by we can bathe in a deep translucent pool. Each day we fill a seven-gallon jug from a freshwater spring that flows straight out of the side of the mountain. 

After unpacking the carts, putting up tarps, tents, kitchen and building the “great ring of fire,” we all grab a chair and sit down to take a load off our feet. “Ahh …the great outdoors,” one member states as he inhales and exhales the scent of green floral aroma of this little Garden of Eden.

This year will mark our 34th trip to Hazel. What makes this year even more special is this particular campsite has been closed for the past two years because of “aggressive bear activity.” This is the park’s name given for bears that have lost their natural fear of humans and will come into camps to terrorize campers in search of food. Yes, over the years we have had many run-ins with bears. Luckily no one has ever been harmed, but there have been some close calls with some of the hungry beasts.

Each year has its own stories – some hilarious, some downright scary. In 1999, Phil Scharfstein joined our group for his first trip, and we quickly learned his dislike of thunderstorms. It was the second night of the trip when a good old-fashioned severe thunderstorm rolled in, and Phil asked, “Where do you go when a bad storm hits?” We all laughed as we were digging trenches and pushing bulges out of the tarp to combat the torrential rain as lightning popped all around the campsite.

On another trip in 1995, we had an aggressive bear that kept coming back to our camp over 27 times over a three day period. We pelted him with rocks time and time again to no avail. The only thing that gave us relief was when another less experienced group of campers came in and set up. By the next morning, they were hightailing it back down the mountain after being harassed all night.

After making the treacherous climb up to the Bone Valley campground, the reward is a seat around the ‘great ring of fire.’ From left, David Anderson, Jim Hunter, Owen Thigpen, Jim Thigpen and Bryan Averett enjoy some time around the campfire.

On a trip in 2006, we were all settled in around the campfire after a long day of fishing. Our bellies were full from eating a big meal of fresh fried trout, hush puppies and good ole macaroni and cheese. It was a full moon around 11:30pm, and we all had a case of quiet content when out of the blue we hear a God-awful scream coming off the ridge above camp.

Just happens there is a graveyard about 200 yards away on a ridge above our camp, which made our minds wonder even more. We were all questioning if we really heard anything – and what it might be if we had heard something – when another scream came off the ridge even closer to camp. This was a scream that could only be described as someone skinning a 90-year-old woman. To say the least, no one slept very well that night. When we got back home, we found out that this was a noise caused by a bobcat searching for a mate.

“You’ve got to love the great outdoors and have an appreciation for Mother Nature, because you are at her mercy.” Other members of the Hazel Creek Fly Fishing Club include David Anderson, Jim Thigpen, Jon Henry, Bryan Averett, Jim Hunter and Ross Bradshaw, who will make the trip this year. 

There is an abundance of wildlife that we see each year in this most remote area of the Smokies, including bear, deer, coyote, turkey, grouse, wild boar, rattle snakes, copperheads and an abundance of bird and insect life. The variety of insect life is so vast we see bugs each year that we have never seen before.

Each day we wake up at sunrise to the melodic call of the Wood Thrush. The first person out of the tent has the responsibility of putting a pot of fresh coffee on the stove. As the sun kisses the ridges above and the fog rises off the creek each fisherman grabs a cup of joe and settles in around the morning campfire while the aroma of sizzling bacon in the iron skillet drifts across camp.

After finishing a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, coffee and Tang, the group decides where everyone is going to fish for the day. Around 9:30 a.m., day packs are filled with peanut butter crackers, trail mix, beef jerky and fresh bottles of spring water, the members pair up for safety to head out to their favorite sections of the creek.

Over the years our goal has changed as far as this fishing is concerned. In the early years, it was how many fish you could catch in a day. Some of the club members have caught as many as 200 fish after a short rain shower clouds the water. Cloudy water gives the fisherman the edge because he can get closer to a particular spot for more accurate casting without spooking the trout.

These days it is more about the quality of the fish and the total fishing experience. When fishing in the Smokies, an angler is required to have a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license. The Hazel Creek watershed is a wild stream and basically means the stream is self-supporting with no stocking programs. The first seven miles contains mostly all rainbow and brown trout. If you head upstream from our campsite on Hazel Creek or Bone Valley Creek, you will start catching brook trout. The brook is the most colorful and the only native trout of the Smokies. These trout can only survive in the coldest and most pristine of aquatic conditions. 

Fly fishing on this stream can be one of the most relaxing experiences one can imagine for a seasoned angler. Standing knee-deep in a long run looking upstream you must choose the location where you would think a trout may be holding. Stripping line off your fly reel, you start the methodical 10 o’clock, 2 o’clock casting until there is enough line out to softly drop your fly in just the right spot.

Bam! These wild trout rise and suck in the fly with the intensity of a fish five times its own size compared to a stocked fish. Some of the favorite dry flies for streams in the Smokies would include the Elk Hair Caddis, Yellow Cayhill Dunn, Yellow Quill Dunn, Parachute Adams and the traditional Royal Wullf. During April, May and June, terrestrials like the Black and Cinnamon Ant, Black Beetle, Grasshoppers and the famous Green Worm all work fantastic. The average fish size is going to be 6 to 12 inches, but when you hook into one of the wild trout you will think each catch is much larger. 

Over the years there have been many larger fish caught. A trophy fish for these waters would be an 18 inch fish or larger. Most of the larger fish are caught in dark water late in the evening (6 p.m. until dark). Dark water is anywhere the water runs deep and is sheltered by large structures in the water or covered by overhead canopy of trees and Mountain Laurel. In the 25 years we have been fishing, a 21-inch brown still holds the record for the largest beast caught in these wild waters. 

Every evening, a 500-pound cart full of firewood must be collected in order to keep the ‘great ring of fire’ roaring. Harold Ross (foreground) Bryan Averett, Jon Henry, Ross Bradshaw, Roger Catlette, David Anderson and Jim Thigpen help complete the task.

Around 5 p.m., all the guys start drifting back into camp. Before anyone can get comfortable for an evening of cooking, storytelling and laughing, we all grab the saws and axe and head out for firewood duty. I and another seasoned woodsman act as the spotters of the best dead hardwood to cut for the evening fire. This may seem like a simple act in camping, but to this day I am amazed at some of the wet decaying crumbling wood brought back to camp as firewood. The amount of firewood needed for an evening is like purchasing asphalt sealer for the driveway. You think four five-gallon cans will cover your driveway but after you put down two you realize you need twelve five-gallon cans. To say the least, we get a 500-pound cart full of wood for the evening’s affairs.

After cutting wood and arriving back at camp hot, sweaty and just plain tuckered out, it’s time for the Hazel Creek spa bath! Yes folks we strip down to our fishing boots and a towel for a refreshing 58-degree plunge into a new realm mountain washin’. Upon disrobement one plunges into the 10-foot deep pool with childlike screams. One emerges from the creek back up on the beach shuttering with goose bumps from head to toe. You soap up and then it’s time for one more plunge into the icy water for a rinse. The creeks polar water not only refreshes but also brings one’s body temperature down to an invigorating level of cool comfort.

The evening’s five-course dinner starts with some famous deer summer sausage made by my father-in-law, Jim Hunter. We slice the delicious sausage onto a Ritz cracker with a slice of cheddar cheese and a dab of mayonnaise to top it off– mmmm good! The second course for the evening consist of sliced potatoes deep-fried in the iron skillet, making some of the best Hazel Creek tater chips you ever sunk your teeth into. We make a special dipping sauce of ketchup and Tabasco sauce that makes these delectable treats slide down with a spicy bite.

Meanwhile, the fire is roaring to make a good bed of coals to be used for the main course of beef filets, baked potatoes and baked onions. My mouth is watering just typing this menu. Bryan Averett cuts up some garlic, onions, mushrooms, salt and pepper with a stick of butter. He places all this into a handmade aluminum foil boat to roast and melt near the fire. This will be the most unbelievable sautéed concoction that will be poured over our baked potatoes when ready for eating. Dinner is topped off with some homemade Key lime or Kahlua cake made each year by my wonderful wife Jennie.

The last course of the evening is made up of storytelling, laughing and rekindling of friendships, which fills a man’s soul full of wonderful memories. The fishing is always the common denominator, but the beauty of this trip is to remove all the distractions of life, go “off grid” and get back to enjoying the peace, beauty and serenity that God has to offer in the natural world. I think Henry David Thoreau stated it best in his quote, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”

And come September, the tradition continues.


About Author

Comments are closed.