Fly fishing a river tunes you into its water, bugs, and trout.
You gain a sense of the moment, hopefully catch a few trout, and walk away with what amounts to a frozen snapshot of what you think the river is all about, though most of the time we’re wrong about that.
Hazel Creek through the trees. Pretty, pretty stuff.
If fishing a river delivers a snapshot, living alongside one for a few days tunes you into much more; the animals, the weather, the river’s moods, history — even how it reacts to sun and rain.
That’s why — when Ian and Charity offered me a chance to piggyback a backpacking trip onto their outfitted trip to Hazel Creek, I jumped at it.
They (and their outfitter) ferried a group of nine anglers across Fontana Lake, where they set up camp.
Light action 8′ 5wt and a few flies — all that’s needed on Hazel.
Calling it a “camp” is a little misleading; they slept like royalty (cots and big tents), ate like kings (fresh-made Blackberry Cobbler, steak, shrimp kabobs, pancakes, margaritas — the list goes on), and fished like demons.
It was a lavish production, and judging by the the number of anglers who said they were ready to sign up for the next trip, the whole enterprise is bound to be repeated.
The hike up Hazel Creek was flat, easy, and carpeted with wildflowers.
Because I’m prone to fits of isolation and self-denial, I packed my backpack with instant oatmeal and Top Ramen, and hiked five miles up the drainage.
I enjoyed being alone on Hazel Creek, but admit that being served great food while you focus on fly fishing isn’t the kind of thing I should reject out of hand.
Still, I think I made the right decision. I was hoping to lose weight, not gain it.
More Hazel Creek, farther up. Beauty, eh?
Still, there I was, five miles from the lake and setting up my ultra-lightweight “one-man” tent, which frankly felt more like a coffin.
Naturally, it started raining almost right away, and the Coffin Tent became less an abstract thought and more a temporary home.
For the next 11 hours, this is home; the inside of the Coffin Tent.
Still, the next day (Friday) dawned wonderfully clear, so I hiked up the Bone Valley — so named because an April blizzard trapped 100 cattle in the tiny valley and killed them, leaving bones strewn everywhere.
That was in the late 1800s, so the bones are gone. What remains is a perfect little valley, complete with historic cabin (built in 1880).
The cabin in Bone Valley, which is bigger than a coffin.
The fishing was slow until 11:00, when the rainbows started hitting my dry. I don’t think fly selection was particularly important, though I believe a yellow fly improved the odds a bit (there were many yellow stoneflies flitting about).
Not unlike the trout back home, except he fought with an accent.
All the fish were small, and after a couple hours, I hiked back to camp, made a late lunch, contemplated the river, and eventually headed a short ways down Hazel Creek.
It was a beautiful evening, and I was getting lots of eats on the small stimulator dry (lots of yellow stones in the air).
The fish included a couple of nice brown trout, the Tennessee version of which are so brightly colored that I marvel each time I catch one.
The red dots are bright, and the fins are orange. Gorgeous.
Later, I came to a large pool and didn’t get a single bite. I thought it was strange until I discovered one of Ian’s group had stuck a 26″ brown trout there only minutes before.
Later in the evening, I stumbled on a Sulphur hatch (with spinner fall) and managed a few more fish.
A good day. A very good day.
I also stumbled across a snake that Ian later said was harmless, though I reminded him that I could have jumped back in fear, fallen and hit my head.
Harmless my ass.
That night, it started raining again (more hours in the coffin), and the next morning the creek picked up considerable color.
Still, it was falling and clearing, and reasoning that the rain might wash the yellow stones off the leaves and into the water, I threw a small yellow stimulator.
And yes, score one for intuition.
A frog (or toad, I can never tell which) overlooking Hazel Creek.
For a while I hammered fish — until it started raining hard. The water rose, it muddied, and the bite shut off.
Damn. I sloshed my way back to camp, and was confronted by the fact that I had nothing to do for the next 20 hours — and no dry place to do it.
By that point, the Coffin tent smelled like wet feet, which wasn’t all bad as I needed something to distract me from the wetness (and yes, next time I’m bringing a book).
One of the true joys of backpacking is when things get wet, there’s no way to make them dry until it stops raining.
And typically, everything gets wet.
The next morning, the sun came out, so rather than pack a bunch of water down the trail, I spent an hour trying to dry my gear.
Everything was wet, so it looks like I’m holding a wilderness garage sale.
Somehow, all the gear in the picture above fit into the pack below. (Never underestimate man’s ability stuff.)
It only looks light. It’s heavy.
I hiked down the trail back to the lake — going fast and losing elevation all along the way — and encountered members of Ian’s group.
First came Charity and her client, then I stumbled on Ian fishing alone.
Ian Rutter pottering about on Hazel Creek.
Finally, I was at the lake, and for all intents and purposes, the trip was over.
Of course, I’m leaving out a ton of stuff, including the contents of eight pages of notes I made in a small notebook.
Rather than fall too far behind my blog posts, I’ll cover the basics here and try to write an “end of the trip” wrap-up post that will be fraught with meaning and laden with deep thoughts.
Otherwise, you’d be reading this in October.
Hazel Creek Trip Fun Fact #1
On the trip over I drank a large soft drink, then drove over “The Dragon” — a stretch of road so twisty and curvy (330+ turns in 11 miles) that motorcyclists come from miles around so they can test themselves against it. I lost the test. Even though though I was driving, I attained a state of advanced motion sickness, pulled over, and barfed on my own shoes. Nobody was more surprised than Ian.
Hazel Creek Trip Fun Fact #2
The first night in the campground I met Larry K — who owns property on the Holston River, which Ian, myself, and some Nameless Guy had floated the day before. Amazingly, he saw us go by, correctly identifying Ian’s boat, Ian, and the fact that I lost a fish right in front of his house. Ahh, Lost Fish — the ties that bind.
Larry the boat watcher.
Hazel Creek Trip Fun Fact #3
Thought I took a couple of rods, I mostly fished my 8′ 5wt Diamondglass rod — a fairly flexible, slow tapered rod that was largely perfect for Upper Hazel Creek and its tribs. You want a rod able to throw big flies if needed, but soft enough to work at leader-only ranges.
Hazel Creek Trip Fun Fact #4
Hazel Creek is a fascinating area, home to a truckload of history, including logging operations that largely leveled the area, the eventual loss of those jobs, the reversion to a rural society — all of which was displaced when Fontana Lake was built and cut the area off from the rest of the world.
Some remnants remain: cabins, cemeteries, and even a rusting old iron headboard at my campsite.
Though I was ready to get dried out (and yeah, a warm shower wasn’t entirely outside my realm of thought), it was hard to leave Hazel, knowing it’s entirely possible I won’t make it back there again.
Look for a wrap-up post on my Tennessee trip (I’ve got two days of fishing yet to blog), where I plan to write more about Hazel Creek. It’s worth a few more words.
See you up the creek, Tom Chandler.
[tags]fly fishing, fishing, hazel creek, bone valley, tennessee, smokies, great smoky mountains, gsmnp, backpacking[/tags]