Fishing Life As It Happens

A meditation on fly-fishing

Buying tomatoes

So there I was at the Lansing, North Carolina farmer’s market, buying tomatoes from the nice Rose Mountain Farm lady.

Before the farmer’s market people set up their pop-ups

“Where are y’all located?”

“We’re up Big Horse Creek Road.”

“I’m headed up there this afternoon to go fishing.”

“That’s the main reason that anybody goes up there. Do you go for the meditation, or to catch fish?”

Well, let me think about that for a moment. It was 27 years ago that I first tried fly-fishing, thanks to my dear departed cousin Dean C. Jones. Once you’ve had a trout take a dry fly off the top the water, man, you’re way more hooked than the fish is.

But I’m not a studied fly fisherman. I don’t read the books, watch the training videos, take the classes, any of it. Because the truth is that it really is a meditation for me. A few days earlier, I was chatting with the fellow at the Old Orchard Creek General Store and Café, and told him that I was headed out to go fishing.

“I hope you catch some.”

“If I’m standing in a trout stream on a day like this, and I’m not blissfully happy, then that’s on me.”

“Well, that’s right.”

I find myself settled just looking at this picture. Imagine actually being there.

So I was tempted to tell the lady that it’s all about the meditation. But then I had an interesting thought, and relayed it to her:

“The more I meditate, the more fish I seem to catch.”

In the last year or two, I’ve started to have some real success catching fish. On this current trip, I’ve caught a handful of trout in Little Horse Creek, right here in front of my AirBnB.

I don’t stop to take pictures, but I promised my AirBnB hosts one pic. He went right back in.

This is significant because N.C. Wildlife doesn’t stock Little Horse Creek. They do stock Big Horse Creek, of which Little Horse Creek is a tributary. Some fish make it up there, but fewer than in the stocked streams. And maybe they get a tad smarter after being up there a while. So I’m particularly proud of myself for catching fish in a stream they don’t stock.

Here’s the thing: when I go out for a few hours of fly fishing, I’d like to catch one trout. The difference between getting skunked and catching one beautiful fish is enormous. After that, my cup overfloweth. But on this trip, and the last couple, I seem to catch 6-8 fish every day. That’s after years of thinking that if I caught two fish, it was an extra special day.

October 14th, 2023

I headed up to the northern end of Big Horse Creek, to the catch-and-release section. From there to the Virginia state line, you can’t keep any fish. I never keep any anyway, but it’s particularly beautiful and fishy water.

I also have a theory that the fish are a bit smarter. A lot of people in this county fish for dinner, so the stocked fish go from stream to pan. But in this stretch, they get put back. Where maybe they learn their lesson and don’t bite at every single buggy-looking thing that floats over.

I dunno if that’s true or not, but I sure had a tougher time getting strikes than when I was down on the lower part of the creek. Still, I managed to land three rainbows and one beautiful brown.

Around 5:30pm, it was getting dark-ish, and there was a light rain falling. I had determined I was going to have to scale a fairly steep hill up to Big Horse Creek Road to return to my car (it’s just a whole lot easier than clambering back downstream to my entry point).

I was pretty proud of myself for catching four fish in the “tough” section of the stream. And darn proud for climbing out of that canyon back up to the road without too much exertion. All that walking and jogging pays off.

Then a thing happened. I stood up at the top of the hill, and looked down the road, back to the car. Saw this:

I wanted to find the Rose Mountain Farm lady, and tell her I’d been mistaken when we chatted that afternoon. The correct answer is, “Yes ma’am – it’s all about the meditation.”

P.S. On most browsers, you can right-click on any image and open the image in a new tab. No picture will properly convey the beauty of the scene that awaited me when I reached the top of the hill. But you’ll do your heart good by filling your screen with that for a minute and just taking it in.

Family Fishing

Elena in the Mountains

Dear Elena,

A little history

My dad’s parents, Hunter (senior) and Mattie, grew up in a tiny little community called “Helton,” in northwest North Carolina, just a few minutes from the Virginia state line. They ended up moving to Charlotte, and that’s where my dad grew up. But in 1951, they bought some land and built a summer home (“the cabin”) in the community where they’d grown up.

They would spend as much time up there as they could, during the summers. My parents visited them there, even before I was born. So I was going to “the cabin” in a stroller.

As I got older, Helton and the cabin was my favorite place in the world. At first, it was just the creek to play in, the sound of the water rushing over the dam, and the seeming endless forest that surrounded us.

I got a bit older, and became obsessed with fishing in Helton Creek. At first it was just chubs and other “rough” fish. But after I caught my first trout, well, I was hooked.

The years passed, and I went to Helton whenever I could. I’ve got 6-7 generations of ancestors buried in the family cemetery behind the white house across the creek from the cabin, going back to the early 1800’s. I call them my “friendly ghosts,” and they make me feel welcome and happy whenever I’m back there.

So when you were born, I always had a dream of taking you to the cabin, and introducing you to Helton Creek. I also wanted my friendly ghosts to get a look at you, and see what an extraordinary grandchild I had gotten in the inimitable E-blast.

Some years ago, Ana and I ended up owning half of the cabin, but because we lived in California, it was really hard for us to look after it. Fortunately, in 2020, we were able to sell it to my cousin, Greg Pool, who lives in the Greensboro, NC area. Greg and his family moved into the cabin during Covid, Greg taught from there, and his kids (Liam, Avery, and Lily) went to Zoom school there.

Once I’d met the Pool family, I wanted you to meet those cousins too – they’re pretty cool people.

Elena goes to the mountains

This year, your parents were kind enough to let us arrange a visit to the mountains for you and your dad. Ana joined us too, so we had a group of four of us, staying at a house in a place called “Fee’s Branch Road,” about five minutes from the cabin.

I flew in a couple of days before everybody else, got the AirBnB opened up, and groceries in the refrigerator. Then I drove down to the Charlotte airport and picked you two up. It was time to head up to the mountains!

It was about a 2.5 hour drive up to the AirBnB from the airport. You played on your tablet most of the trip, but as we got to the mountains, you rolled down your window. “There’s so much to smell!” Yes, a lot to smell up there.


That evening, we outside and fished in the pond right next to the house. It was full of very stupid largemouth bass.

You didn’t catch any fish that evening, because we didn’t have any worms, but you got a couple of strikes, which was super cool.

The next day, Ana was going to be coming in from Charlotte in her own rental car, so you, your dad, and I had the morning and early afternoon to ourselves. We drove down into West Jefferson, the nearest real town. We needed a few grocery things, water shoes, and worms!

We got you the coolest water shoes ever, and then went to a store where your dad could get some local beers. This is you and me sitting outside that store.

We also found you an excellent ice cream cone of “orange dreamsicle.” Then we went to Wal-Mart. We split into two teams: Team Hot Sauce (David), and Team Worms (you and me). We found our worms immediately:

I think we won the contest.

Then we drove back up to the house, and pretty quickly headed back to the pond. We put a worm on a hook, and pretty soon, you had hooked your first fish – a largemouth bass! You got it to the shore, but you wanted me to hold it while you got the hook out. We did that one just fine.

The second one you caught, you couldn’t get the hook out, so you asked me to get the hook out of it. I was working on the hook, when I felt a hand up on my shoulder. It was you reaching up to grab the hemostat that sits in a magnetic clip on the strap of my fishing bag. You wanted the hook out of the fish, and the critter back in the water right now. I was so proud of you. Pretty quick, I had the hook out (we had squished down the barb of the hook) and the bass was back in the pond.

“Thanks buddy!” you said. My heart leapt with joy.

Ana arrives

Ana arrived that afternoon, after flying out from California. She got lost on the road that runs by our AirBnB, so we were sitting on the porch, talking to her on the phone, and could see her car going back and forth past our driveway. “No Ana, turn around and go back 100 feet!” you said.

Ana finally found her way to the house.

The Pools and the cabin

Our next day was a play date with our cousins, the Pool family. We got to the cabin, and I asked Avery if she could give you a tour. Y’all were out the door and gone. We visited with the Pools a little, and ate some lunch, but then it was creek time!

You and Avery Pool looking for crawdads. You found plenty.

I cannot express how much it meant to me to see you playing in Helton Creek. I played in that same creek, that same place, 60 years ago when I was a kid. And 60 years before that, my grandmother, Mattie Perkins, played in the same creek, in the same place – I’ve seen an old picture of her standing in it with her sister, Clara. That was in the early 1900’s – over 100 years ago. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s quite possible that her grandmother played in that creek.

Just like my grandmother and her cousins, 110 years ago.

You had such a blast playing in the water, as I knew you would. It was especially fun because the Pool’s dog, Figment, thinks of Helton Creek as his own private swimming pool.

Elena Haupert and Figment Pool living their best lives

After that, we all sat on the bridge and just “visited.” Well, you stayed there for a little while to see if your dad would catch a trout (he did) but then you and Avery disappeared to go explore.


The next day was blueberry picking with the Pools. We drove out to Old Orchard Creek blueberry farm…

If I was a bear, I’d just live here.

We ended up with so many blueberries that we froze them. Then after you left, I made blueberry jam. I still have a few jars of it at our house in San Leandro.

Swimming hole

The next day was your last up in the mountains. The four of us had a quiet morning, and then went to the “swimming hole” on Helton Creek. For two hours, we did nothing – and everything – in the creek. Your dad decided to send a giant log floating down the creek, and spent 20 minutes maneuvering it into position so it would float.

But mostly we just waded around enjoying being in the creek on a warm summer day. At some point, I found a crawdad with just one claw. I lifted it out of the water so you could see it. It was a female, and she was covered with eggs on her underbelly. This blew your mind. You looked at her for a few seconds, then said we had to get her back in the water.

I put her under a rock, and then for the next minute or two, you stood right next to the rock to be sure none of us stepped on her.

Somehow, two hours flew by and we never noticed.

Time to go

The next day, we all drove back to Charlotte. You and your dad flew back to California, while Lisa and I drove up to Asheville to visit a friend.

Elena, I don’t know if you’ll remember much of this trip, but that picture of you playing in Helton Creek is the wallpaper on my computer. And the image is stored in my heart forever.

And somewhere, those old friendly ghosts, my grandmother among them, are smiling. “You got a good ‘un there, Lee,” they’re saying.

Yep, I got a good ‘un.


A Day on Helton Creek

There will be a time and place to give the origin story of me fishing Helton Creek, but this isn’t it. This is simply a time to chronicle a day I was out there.

It is the last few days of my 2.5 week residency here in Ashe County, NC. I’d scheduled this to be a day of fishing – nothing else on the calendar. Furthermore, I wasn’t going far afield to do it. First, I didn’t want to drive any significant distance. But just as importantly, I wanted to be in familiar waters. If I caught a trout, that was great, amazing. If I didn’t, to paraphrase John Starling, I’d be wading through my creek of memories.

I got in touch with Brian Stewart, who had taken me fishing over toward Chilhowie on Thursday. Is there any good fishing on Helton? He started talking about Mount Rogers School, and the memories flooded back. Decades ago, Dean C. Jones and I would park his old Ford Bronco right there and fish down to the bridge where Route 751 heads down into North Carolina, then up to the Lutheran church.

We’d also walk up 751 the other way. His brother-in-law had a homestead behind the school. The creek ran right between the two, and got no fishing pressure because it was on private land. I mean, except the odd brother-in-law and his much younger cousin.

Dean C., man. There’s a whole story there. But suffice to say that a thread of my best life runs through the times he and I were chasing trout around Grayson and Smyth counties in Virginia, and Ashe County in North Carolina.

The man who taught me to fly fish. And that fishin’ was great even when catchin’ wasn’t

This morning at 11:00, I parked here. I put a #14 Adams on my fly rod and climbed in the creek…

I was perfectly prepared to get skunked – I was content. But it wasn’t ten minutes before there was a solid splash at my Adams and I was tied into a fish. He got off, but I knew they liked what I was offering.

Just a few minutes later, another splash and this time I got the 7″ wild rainbow trout to me. I dipped my hand into the water to wet it before I held him (it avoids damaging the protective slime on their skin), slipped the barbless hook out, and gently put him back in the water.

They all looked just like this one. Except the one that didn’t.

He looked just like that, but that’s not him. I’m not going to keep them out of the water longer than necessary.

That’s how I spent the next two hours. I’d float the Adams over a likely looking spot, and more often than not, a trout would appear out of nowhere and smack it. The fisherpeople reading this will understand me when I say it seems impossible. The water is clear, and you can see to the bottom. But you float the fly there because, well, there has to be a trout there. Even though you can see that there isn’t one.

But there is one, and it smacks your fly.

Relatively few of those strikes resulted in hooked fish, but a trout striking a dry fly on the surface is half the fun of fly fishing anyway.

I think the biggest one I landed was 9″. Oh, but I hooked a big one. It was in a gorgeous sun-dappled hole just above the bridge where 751 crosses over the creek. I knew there was probably a handful of fish in there, so wasn’t surprised when the Adams got smacked. But it wasn’t so much smacked as it was smashed. My rod doubled over. The fish dove, then came straight up, a foot out of the water. When it hit the water, the fly went the other way. Critter was probably 12″. Maybe a hair bigger.

“I fooled you – you outmaneuvered me. Fair enough,” I said.

After 90 minutes I stopped getting strikes. It was sunny but cool, and the stream is well covered by rhododendron and other foliage. I didn’t think it was the mid-afternoon doldrums. I took a look at my fly.

Note the torn up tail

This rarely happens to me, but the fly was literally worn out. It had been chewed on by too many trout.

I put on a fresh fly – it looked Adams-y to me. I’m sure my serious fly-fishing buddies would be able to tell me the difference. [1] Anyway, it started getting strikes again, so that must have been the problem.

One of the trout I caught looked a bit different as I pulled it in, and sure enough, it was a wild brown.

Also not the fish I caught, but neither of us could tell the difference.

After a while, I decided it was time to call it an afternoon. “After the next one I land.” That took 15 minutes.

As I looked around, I realized that I was likely on the edge of Gayle Price’s (Dean C’s brother-in-law) old homestead. I didn’t recognize it because in the days we fished there, Gail mowed right up to the creek bank. But I could see a big house being remodeled across the field from the creekside brush.

I climbed out – sure enough, it was Gayle’s old place. A middle-aged couple came out the front door. Obviously they’re remodeling/restoring the place themselves. The woman called out, “This is private property!” Which, fair enough.

So I walked across the mown portion of the field. Turned my hat backwards so they could see me, and introduced myself. Talked about Dean C. (“Oh, Dr. Charles Jones’s dad!”), and next thing you know, Bob and Sue Revels were telling me the stories of how they got the house, and one of Gayle’s dogs, to boot. They’re fine folks and were awfully gracious about some random guy climbing up out of their creek and wandering across their yard.

Eventually I let them get back to their flooring, and I walked back to the road and my car.

Yeah, I stopped at the bridge and tossed my fly in. Landed another rainbow, but the big one wasn’t having any of it.

Single best solo fishing day of my life – today, June 18th, 2022, right here on Helton Creek.

Look behind me. There’s old Dean C., just grinning

[1] I really hope there’s a dry fly called a Morticia Adams