Gunning for Trout in western North Carolina

A vacation had been in the cards for some time. Memorial day offered another 24 hours of opportunity past a rare, open weekend, and with a few extra days off of work just prior and a proper trip was in the making.

It was going to be my first opportunity to try some real fly fishing on real trout in real trout rivers that could have graced the cover of Field & Stream, but I had a lot to learn before wading in, like how to do it, where to do it, and what with.

We were situated somewhere between Bravard and Hendersonville, West by South, on a remote property used for growing hydroponic lettuce and lavender beneath the ghostly traces of long-haul power lines. I’d already packed my old fiberglass fly rod wound with its original fly line and a newly glued tip eyelet, along with a handful of other spinners, mostly for the kids. $75 later and I was strolling out of the outfitter with half dozen flies, leader, tippet, and a North Carolina license.

Over the course of the next few days, I practiced in a nearby pond, thick with lily pads and crawling with blue-gill waiting for the drop of green larvae from the trees or water striders or in the very least nightcrawlers. That’s what I imagined, anyway, though it seemed they found mostly what they sought in the dark slime beneath the lilies. Made for some easy practice, though I tangled many a line in the roots just below the surface. The boy caught more than I did, some on purpose, with his two-foot push button, hook and split-shot, cast twice as far as I ever did.

I’d make several trips into both Pisgah National Forest and Dupont State Forest, wading into the Davidson as it snaked through the former, and seek out the dark, rhododendron-laden alleys of the latter, those leading to loneliest bends of the Little River. I managed to get out twice a day most days, usually early in the morning and then later in the afternoon when both kids were napping. The most easily accessible parts of both parks were overrun by late morning, with the stretches of river lawfully posted for trout (either for keeps, delayed harvest, or just catch-and-release) predictably the most popular. Few others were actually fishing in one form or another, most likely out on borrowed time between gullywashers and other more steadfast springtime rains.

I had my moments, times when all I could hear was the garble of the river and the wind through the leaves, forgetting to think or sometimes watch my line as the crows overhead island-hopped from pine to poplar. I caught two small ones on accident, one brown trout and another I couldn’t identify, both hooked while I stood untangling a bird’s nest or fixing the reel while the tippet laid downstream.

The days went by slowly, the hours spent on the river less so. The morning before we left, I hiked out early in search of a hole I’d discovered two days prior, one in whose translucence I watched a dozen trout, some the size of my forearm, slink around and ignore the dries I was dropping from overhead. I was forced to leave without a hit and had returned this final morning in a drizzle, wading from farther upstream after overshooting the turn-off that had been too obvious to a brood of pre-pubescent boys in bucket hats and cheap cologne.

The water was muddied and, as far as I could tell after two hours of directionless casting, devoid of any fish. Nearly content with the weekend’s experience, I walked the mile or two back to the parking lot down away from Triple Falls waving to the cascades disappearing behind me, rumbling and elemental. At the last minute I swung left just past the footbridge and eyed the shallow rapids not 50-yards down trail. Stepping out onto the rocks, I cast into one of the pools next to the bank and hooked a brookie almost right away. Gently reeled and led back to the shallows on the opposite bank where I’d set my bag. In the stillness of that small pool he hovered, ten or twelve inches, painted like the topside of Messerchmidt, beautiful. I easy the hook out and watched him dart off to the rapids downstream, returned to my rock, and repeated the act. Another brook trout, similar size.

An older couple appeared just down the bank and the man clambered over to watch. A singular moment. We all eyed the trout as it swam off, smiling.

Fishing and other Thoughts

I never intended to pick up another hobby. But I suppose anyone that knows me well enough could easily concede it’s one of my more or less endearing qualities, depending on your point of view. Makes Christmas and birthdays easier, though it also means I’ve accumulated a lot of crap over the course of my life.

Most of these interests come and go, victims of life circumstance, while some just wax and wane with my changing tastes, dwindling free time, and aptness for inspiration from unexpected sources. They’re often chosen pursuits, a clear decision, an opportunistic purchase. But the angling thing crept in, slowly, steadily.

It probably began with the canoe – a willful grasping at the outdoor life I often wished I had – that became something I practiced without remorse or loss of interest. It was an endeavor I could share with my son, and often, something that helped to clear space in my mind, to lose myself in my environment, out on the open water literally a block from my front door.

The Elizabeth River became my wilderness, its squared shoreline tracing either side of the thoughtful, urban aesthetic of Norfolk, the stark steel and gunmetal gray of the Portsmouth shipyards, the rows of colonial Old Towne houses, the Naval Hospital complex. For a time, a cheap fishing rod with a push-button reel from the thrift store just seemed to do the trick. A couple of successful night escapades with a seasoned fishing friend, and little by little it became something on which I can spend a few guiltless hours, when it was conducive, and sometimes when it was not.

As with the luck that usually finds me in some form during another Craigslist perusal and then thirty-some dollars later, I’ve now found myself in possession of a dozen and a half old rods, nine castoffs from the dark corner of a storage unit, all but one with the open bail-type reels. I’ve matched reels to rods in the way that seemed most functional to my amateur sensibilities and swapped the handles to my preferential right side, disassembling only one and oiling them all. Not a bad haul – three shorter fresh/saltwater rods (as best I can classify them) including an old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck 535, two surf rods, and the real gem – a vintage Garcia 2637-A fly rod.

The “fly” niche of the fishing world once evoked for me images of old men in hip waders and wicker baskets, thigh deep in forest streams casting off thick line as if with a bull whip. The unexpected coupling with distance trail running had tugged at my fascination not all that long ago and sparked an interest in the sport too weak to justify the investment in all of the requisite gear. A few months and a not-so-serendipitous purchase later, I’m staring at this beat-up little piece that I hope will offer a fitting introduction to it. I marvel in its simplicity – the fiberglass rod, two-piece aluminum Martin reel, faded green fly line. I’m still intimidated by all the components I don’t yet have, but all in time. At least for now, opportunities for fly fishing will be scarce relative to the ease with which I can cast into the brackish water of the Elizabeth.

Hopefully I’ll be headed out early tomorrow morning to try out a few of the smaller rods. I’ve already set them up with some simple bottom rigs, and with my modest tackle and some experimental bait, decent weather and a little luck, my hopes are high.

Report from the next day:

I caught the changing of the tides sometime just after twilight, paddling in the cool stillness of early morning as the mist collected over the Norfolk skyline. For nearly four hours I sat in near silence. H joined me for the last two, deftly casting his simple float rig from a 30″ pole, reeling it all back in as soon as the bobber hit the water, over and over, a strange discipline borne of the natural impatience of a three-year-old.

I used the old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck rod with cork grips, quickly noticing the marked difference in responsiveness, the flex and give of the rod as compared to any of newer, cheaper setups I’d used previously. For something that was surely consumer-grade, it was still manufactured in the USA, and is just as functional to me now as the day it was made (not unlike my Harmony H-62).

By the end of the morning jaunt, I’d caught nine or ten Croaker, all throwbacks, and paddled home as the sun climbed from the South-East, beating now from a cloudless sky.  It was nearing lunchtime and both H and I were longing for ice water and a sandwich, midday respite following a morning that was itself a reset from a more frenetic life.

First Landing State Park hike & Spanish Moss Tinder Experiment

Despite its proximity to greater Virginia Beach civilization (Shore Drive is the nerve center of summer revelry during tourist beach season), the park has the feel of someplace far more remote. Composed mostly of rolling trails, swamp, and gum, pine, magnolia, and cypress trees, dirt and gravel single track, First Landing offers a generous helping of outdoor relief smack in the middle of one of Virginia’s most populated areas.

With the kids and dogs in tow, and equipped with little more than a daypack, a baby carrier, and snack lunch, we set out on what was a little less than two hours in the woods – time well spent pointing out red-bellied woodpeckers, identifying trees, and making polite conversation with the many others out for similar ends and similar means.

Later that afternoon, at home (no starting fires in within the confines of the park), H and I set about attempting to summon a few qualifying flames from the handful of Spanish moss I’d stuffed in my pocket. The conditions outside, even within the relative safety of our backyard, were poor. We were on the verge of a rainstorm and the wind was already gusting enough to blow some of the tinder and kindling materials out of the fire pit. Strike One.

The moss itself was still green; it felt dry to the touch, though the color hinted that it still retained a fair bit of moisture (for what it’s worth, I never found anything but green moss, even the stuff that had already fallen off of the trees). So I suppose that’s Strike Two.

Upon close inspection, I had estimated that the fiber distribution wouldn’t be dense enough for a given “volume” of moss (as opposed to a bundle of dry grass) to light easily, so in the end I surmised it would likely come down to how dry it was and how long it could retain a flame. Of course, these are the two primary jobs of the humble tinder: turn a spark into a flame and hold that flame long enough to light your kindling.

Known (and from my limited experience) good tinder materials:
– birch bark
– dry grass
– fine wood shavings

First things first, I tried to light the Spanish moss bundle with the ferro rod, resulting in short-lived embers or single flames, but nothing that would catch for any longer than a second or two. After about five minutes, I moved on to the regular lighter. Still no go. I couldn’t get it to light even when subjected to direct flame. So, for the sake of comparison, I whipped up a few quick feather stick shavings which lit up almost right away.

Long story short, Spanish moss would not be my first choice in tinder material while out in this type of environment, at least not until I improve my ability to locate drier, more suitable fiber or perhaps better construct my tinder bundle. As always, practice and/or experience may simply be what is lacking. I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there has had more success.

Winter Camping with H

The addition of our second child to the family had certainly slowed the pace of my getting out into the woods, even for an overnight. Fall and winter have always been my favorite seasons to camp, each bringing their own special pleasures, their own challenges. The beauty of the mountains during autumn goes without saying (though I just did) and there’s always been something restorative about the crisp air in winter. But the extra gear and clothing needed to deal with the elements when camping becomes a serious consideration, more so when adding a child to the equation.

Some might call it irresponsible. Taking my three year old son out into the national forest in sub-freezing temperatures is not something I take lightly. Preparation is everything, as is expectation management. But the key is always balancing our collective enjoyment of the experience with the probability of discomfort or hardship at the hands of the elements. We stand on the precipice of Type II fun.

Anyone who knows my son should also know that, even at his age, he’d self-identify as an “outside kid” who nearly always jumps at the chance to go camping and understands the difference between pitching a tent in the living room and sleeping in the woods. His favorite YouTube channel is Ray Mears and, as a result, his preferred campfire fare are a gutted fish, pine needle tea, and “marsh-mars” (marsh mellows).

The plan was simple but subject to change. I wanted to return to the National Forest (George Washington) perched just on the eastern edge of the Appalachians, camp off-trail, practice a few bushcraft skills, gauge my son’s enjoyment of any or all of these things. Some light snow was in the forecast for the following morning, an added bonus for both of us. We hiked in from a spot just off the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles south of I-64 and stumbled on what I later learned was Humpback Rocks trail. The pace was slow, our gait increasing slightly when I obliged to carry H on my shoulders.

I chose a campsite in the fading light some 200 yards off-trail, having crossed a stone wall and the parallel Appalachian Trail, on the windward side of flat-faced boulder perfect for reflecting the heat of a small campfire. With the tent erected I set about splitting the driest wood available, starting the fire, and heating our dinner. I’d elected to forego the camping stove and its associated accoutrements for this specific trip, choosing instead the simplicity and admittedly more difficult method of “cooking” over an open fire.

With our bellies full and warm, we cocooned ourselves in the warmth of my sleeping bag layered on the inside with a surplus, German-Army wool blanket. I read him a few children’s books and we both drifted off to restless sleep sometime before 8pm.

When we awoke just before 7, the condensation inside the tent had frozen, so had most of the water in our bottles. But it hadn’t yet started snowing outside, much to H’s disappointment. I set about rekindling the fire for breakfast and immediately wished I had processed a little extra firewood the previous day (note to self). The snow finally began to fall, lightly at first, just as we started eating sometime between 8 and 9. I hurriedly packed away the tent and sleeping bag already dusted in snow as they hung loosely from nearby branches.

My first steps back toward the trail were met with an unexpected sadness on H’s part. As a few tears streaked down his face he told me that he didn’t want to “leave our good camping spot.” I reasoned as best I could, in the way that parents with toddlers often attempt to straddle that blurry line between adult logic and an unapologetic coloring of the truth. “It’s OK, bud. We’ll find another good spot later [whenever ‘later’ was, it was anybody’s guess]. But that’s part of the fun of going camping  – you get to pick out a new good spot each time.”

After repeating some version of that argument a few times over, he acquiesced and followed me back toward the small cairn I’d stacked on the Appalachian Trail so I’d know where to cross back over to the Humbpack Rocks Trail, toward home.

By the time we’d made it the car, the snow was falling more heavily and, after some careful thought, a few unexpected slides on the road, and a three minutes back out in the cold, we (I) decided to forego the morning hike up to Humpback Mountain we had planned. Another time, maybe in better conditions, maybe with the rest of the family. And with that, we headed home.


PRACTICAL NOTES BELOW (for the few of you who might be interested.)

Items that didn’t make the cut:

  1. Second sleeping bag – I considered it, but for nearly equal bulk and weight I chose to take my surplus wool blanket instead. Scroll down for that rationale.+
  2. Thermal sleeping pad – I kept this at home mostly because of the added weight and bulk and I wanted to achieve the same effect (warmth and padding) with leaves or pine boughs.
  3. Camp stove with fuel, stand – The stove weighs almost nothing, but the weight of the and bulk of the fuel bottle and aluminum stand are non-trivial. I was planning on cooking over the fire anyway.

Items I’m glad I brought:

  1. Wool blanket – It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s a pain to pack. It’s also extremely warm, durable, and perfect as a makeshift outer shell while sitting near the fire (it won’t melt or burn from stray embers).
  2. Wetterlings Camp Axe – This 19″ small axe/hatchet is becoming one of my favorite all-around woodcraft tools. Those of you familiar with hand-forged Swedish axes already know the Wetterlings brand, but it’s versatility and effectiveness in the field make it well worth the added weight in certain circumstances.



  1. Tent (2-man, dome, Mountain Hardwear)
  2. Sleeping bag (20-deg, Mountain Hardwear)
  3. Wool blanket (100% wool, German army surplus)
  4. Wetterlings Camp Axe
  5. Mora knife
  6. Swiss Army knife (I needed the can-opener)
  7. Topo map
  8. few paper towels
  9. few baby wipes
  10. grocery bag, trashbag
  11. Water filter (Sawyer)
  12. assorted cordage
  13. Trekking poles
  14. Skillet/pot w/ the following packed inside:
    1. small roll duct tape
    2. first aid kit
    3. contact solution
    4. 2x spoons
    5. backup lighter
    6. detachable handle for pot
  15. 20+ oz aluminum cup
  16. rainfly for backpack
  17. 2x flashlights and one headlamp
  18. 1L water

The dog carried:

  1. 2x 1L bottles of water
  2. 2x bags dogfood

H carried:

  1. Small osprey  backpack with filled water bladder ~1L
  2. small blanket

Fastpacking on the AT – Amherst County, VA

Trip Report for my first fastpacking overnight on the Appalachian Trail in beautiful Amherst County, VA. As is usually the case, I could only spare the time for a single overnight and, being as it is that I live at least three hours from the mountains, a six hour minimum drive needed to be factored in. My reasoning was as simple as the plan: try out my new UD Ultra Vest, pack as minimalist as possible, cover as many miles as was reasonable, and bring my cattle-dog mix, Ollie, along for good measure.


Day 1:

I realized within the first two miles or so that Ollie was not going to be able to maintain the pace necessary to do 20 miles each way. He would often lag so far behind as to be out of sight but never “whistle” range. While he was unable to remain tangled in my heels (as would be most comfortable for him under almost any other circumstances), he never completely let himself fall back to some unrecoverable distance. Out of my own sense of caution and so as not to feed his sense of impending abandonment, I stopped every few minutes on that first day, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, to allow him to catch up.

Within a few hours, it became clear that we were not going to reach the James river before dark. Perhaps that goal had been a bit quixotic, but add the slow pace with the fact that we had started somewhat late in the afternoon and the inevitable became.. well, the inevitable. Moreover, our water was running dangerously low by mile 10.5ish and, according to the topo, the remaining portion of trail was almost entirely ridgeline (ie water scarce). It was about this time that we reached the turnoff for the “Punchbowl” Shelter and, with an air of disappointment, I decided to play it safe and stop for the night. The aptly named cabin actually proved to be a pleasant spot, situated at the bottom of a shallow valley, punctuated by several felled trees, a small pond, and lots of open space.

Day 2:

I had packed up camp and was ready to hike by 6:45. Ollie seemed no worse for the wear, albeit a little sore (as was I). Not quite ready to return to the car and, by extension, admit that our trip was already halfway complete, I decided to continue south for another 1-2 miles to see the peak of Bluff Mountain before finally turning around and heading home. Within the half-hour or so it took to get there, I was certainly glad I did (again, see photos above).

The remainder of the day proved to be extremely pleasant hiking/jogging. It was mostly downhill and Ollie actually performed a little better (it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t stop to wait for him as much and he didn’t let himself fall too far behind).

Post-trip highlights and lessons learned:

  • Sunny, upper-80s both days (a little cooler in the woods)
  • Could’ve gone without gels, but CLIF bars were great
  • Anything put in those belt pockets was felt through the straps – needed to ensure comfortable before running
  • Trekking poles were awesome (knee-savers), but needed to remove straps from top (flop around when carrying poles while running)
  • Holy spider webs, batman – strung across trail any time there were branches 4 ft apart
  • Tent/sleeping recap:
    • with tent/tarp edges off ground – great place for cold wind to blow through
    • trashbag ground cloth didn’t do much except (maybe) reflect heat
    • colder than expected by midnight – had to put on UA rain jacket rather than use as blanket
    • used emergency blanket (foil/reflector) for legs; helped somewhat
    • used backpack rainfly I found in shelter as pillow stuffed with anything else “soft” I had on hand
    • ** overall, did not sleep well
  • Insect repellent was a necessity
  • Enjoyed having calf sleeve/gaiters – may not have been doing a lot of compression but was nice to keep crap off my legs
  • Sunglasses were not necessary (glad I didn’t try to bring them)
  • Ate a lot of semi-mashed potatoes in car before hike – satiating and easy on the stomach
  • Carried only 2x 20 oz water bottles
    • Appreciated trade-off of carrying less water weight but needing to be more conscious of water sources throughout hike

Here is my complete packing list (see first photo):

1x UD/SJ ultra vest
2x UD water bottles, 20 oz
2x newspaper dog bags
2x grocery bags (1 bear, 1 trash)
1x 39G trash bag for ground cloth
4x baby wipes in ziplock
1x iphone 4s
1x “wallet”: cash, license, credit card, insurance card, rubber band
1x small notebook w/pen
8x small zipties
1x small swiss army knife (knife, file, scissors)
1x topo map
1x travel towel, quick-drying
1x parachord for bear bag
1x emergency blanket
1x small roll medical tape
1x Saywer water filter with reservoir bag
1x headlamp
1x contact solution (1/4 full) in ziplock
1x insect repellent (1/4 full) in ziplock
3x paper towels in ziplock
1x plastic spoon
2x 4oz(?) homemade gels
4x clif bars
2x granola bars
2x instant oatmeal packets
1x instant coffee packet
1x homemade granola in ziplock
1x package instant potatoes
1x 1 lb bag dried apricots
1x 4oz bag dried edamame, lightly salted
1x lighter
1x extra ziplock (cell phone?)
1x UA rain jacket/outer shell
2x trekking poles (Goode supermax 7101 ski poles, hastily acquired from local thrift shop for $5) w/ tent cord tied to one
1x tent kit:
1x footprint from Mountain Hardwear tent
4x lengths paracord
6x aluminum stakes

1x dog pack
2x 0.5L bottle water (lighter than nalgene)
2x ziplocks, each w/1 cup food
1x small plastic bowl, cut from chinese fast-food soup container

Total carry weight (loaded pack w/water/food and trekking poles): 11 lb
Total pack weight (w/ water/food): 10.2 lb
Total trekking poles weight (w/ cord): 0.8 lb

Photo Album: Camping near Humpback Mountain, VA with H

–A photo recap from a brief overnight in George Washington National Forest with my son, H. But first, a few thoughts on camping with a one-and-a-half year old:

EVERYTHING will go more slowly. He can only walk at a quarter of my speed and that’s when he’s focused enough to walk in one direction, or even walk at all. And when he doesn’t, I should prepare to carry him if I want to cover some distance on the trail.

MANAGE my expectations. It’s not going to be the kind of hiking and camping that I’m probably used to, and that’s OK. Move slowly, take notice of everything around us, use each opportunity to teach him something – about being in the woods, about treading carefully, about remaining conscious of our resources (those that we brought and those around us).

REMEMBER that this is still a foreign experience to him, as different from the comforts of home as dehydrated milk is from the real thing. Be patient, be reassuring, be empathetic. A good snuggle and warm blanket are better comfort than the thin veneer of nylon and a hung bearbag when night finally settles.

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