Hidden Helton

Trout species stocked at Helton Creek include 40 percent rainbows, 40 percent brook trout and 20 percent brown trout.

A small Ashe County stream that’s stocked regularly by the WRC is one of the jewels of the state’s delalyed harvest system.

Helton Creek, nestled in the hills of Ashe County, cheek-by-jowl with Virginia, is a jewel of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources delayed-harvest trout program.Delayed-harvest is an annual program, running from Oct. 1 to June 1, during which trout are stocked heavily during the cooler months.

Many of the streams in the delayed-harvest program become too warm during summer to sustain a year-round trout fishery. Yet, they offer prime conditions for trout during cooler months. During the eight-month period of delayed-harvest only single hook artificial lures are permitted and all trout caught must be released.

“A total of 26,600 catchable size trout are stocked in the delayed-harvest section of Helton Creek each year,” said Doug Besler, WRC regional research coordinator. “Approximately 3,750 catchable trout are stocked in October, November, March, April and May.”

That’s a lot of trout. Besler’s definition of “catchable size“ is 10-inches and above.

Not only that, the stocking trucks carry some real lunkers.

“On each stocking truck approximately 4 per cent of the trout will be larger than 14-inches and can easily range up to 20-inches,” Bestler said. “This provides anglers with the opportunity to land a large trout and is a very popular part of the delayed-harvest program.

“The species composition of those larger trout varies by truck and is a function of availability from our hatcheries at any given time. I guess the statistical odds an angler will catch a large trout would be 4 per cent of the time, assuming of course those larger fish have the same catchability as the smaller trout.”

Besler said the species distribution of trout stocked in Helton Creek is 40 per cent rainbows, 40 per cent brook trout and 20 per cent brown trout.

During the delayed-harvest period, Helton Creek is subject to the regulations from the Virginia border to the junction with the New River.

Thus the harvest of the stocked trout is delayed until the warmer months. To supplement the trout stocked during the delayed-harvest period, Helton Creek gets an additional 1,850 trout during July.

The purpose is “to provide additional fish for anglers when the regulations revert back to ‘hatchery supported,’ ” Bestler said.

A Guide’s Approach

Rob Domico, owner of the Madison River Outfitters in Cornelius, is a frequent visitor to Helton Creek.

“One advantage of Helton Creek during the delayed-harvest period is that it’s one of the longest stretches of delayed-harvest stream around,” he said. “It’s not just a little bit of water. There could be lots of folks fishing and an angler still doesn’t need to feel crowded. Look around a little, and you can find your own stretch to fish.

“Helton Creek is pocket-water fishing.”

Pocket water is found in streams which tumble down relatively steep gradients. From the Virginia border to the New River, Helton Creek falls nearly 500 feet. In much of the stream, though it is not “white water” or difficult to wade, the current is too swift to contain trout other than momentarily.

Rather trout hold in pockets, spots where the current is broken by rocks. Ahead, behind, and at the sides of rocks, the current is slowed. The pockets are obvious and should be fished hard.

“What works well at Helton Creek are big dry flies on the top of a two-fly rig. Big flies like a Stimulator, a Madam X — something which creates a big surface presence,” Domico said.

Another favorite pattern is the Tarantula. The flies Domico recommended don’t really imitate a particular hatching insect.

In “Trout Flies,” author Dave Hughes said of the Stimulator: “… it extends to so many other situations that it deserves a prominent place in your searching-fly boxes. It has plenty of flotation and is easy to see, both for you and for the trout.”

The Stimulator, Madam X and Tarantula are buoyant flies made of bulky deer hair which attract lots of attention. A size 10 or 8 will meet the need.

“The big dry fly serves as a strike indicator,” Domico said. “It’s not so much that the dry fly is the fly the trout will hit, though they do grab it periodically.”

Many tiers add a yellow, orange or chartreuse piece of foam on the top of these patterns to enhance the visibility of the fly as it dances down the current.

Below the big dry fly, Domico recommended a suspended fly on a dropper.

“Because those are stocked trout at Helton Creek, an excellent choice for the suspended fly is some sort of egg pattern,” he said. “Hatchery trout are accustomed to eating things which look like eggs.”

Upstream or upstream and quartering across are the optimum directions for the cast with this rig.

An alternative Domico recommended is a dual dropper.

“I like to show a dual dropper,” he said. “On the front, I use something bright, an egg or a San Juan worm, as examples … something that yells to the trout, ‘Eat at Joe’s.’

“Most of the delayed-harvest period, Helton Creek runs high and ‘green.’ So I think the front fly should be something bright.

“Then behind that, something which looks natural, maybe a flashback or a Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear, a Pheasant Tail or Prince. The natural-looking fly should be a size 16 or 14.”

A bead-head on the lower fly helps it reach the bottom where the trout are most likely to hide.

As gear for Helton Creek, Domico recommended a 9-foot, 4-weight rod, a nine-foot leader tapered to 5X or 6X with a fluorocarbon tippet. Fluorocarbon sinks more rapidly than nylon monofilament, thus permitting the fly on the dropper to get a little deeper on the drift.

“When the water is low and clear, you may want to go to 7X, but that’s not usually necessary,” he said.

Shaffner’s Style

Marty Shaffner is a guide who plies his craft throughout the N.C. mountains, including Helton Creek.

“I usually fish a two-nymph rig, with a strike indicator,” he said of Helton Creek trout lures. “On the upper fly I use something big and bright, say a size 12 San Juan worm or egg pattern.

“On the lower fly, I use something smaller, usually a size 18 or 20. As the delayed-harvest period goes on, some of those trout get pretty well educated. They’ve been caught a time or two.

“Good selections for the lower fly are a Pheasant Tail or a midge pupa. There are lots of natural-looking nymphs.”

At fly shops, midge pupas often are labeled chironomids (the Family name applied to them by entomologists). If your shop doesn’t have midges ask for chironomids — same thing.

Strike indicators may be bits of yarn, tiny Thill bobbers or rubber core indicators. Yarn is more difficult, in my experience, to adjust the depth of the rig than either the Thill bobbers or rubber core indicators. Clearly, the tiny models should be selected.

Shaffner arranges his two-nymph fly rig somewhat differently than many anglers. The typical method is to tie the upper fly to the leader and the lower fly to an 18- to 24-inch tippet attached to the bend of the upper fly hook. A small weight is attached to the leader a foot or so above the upper fly.

“I use a No. 6 split shot between the two flies,” he said. “Helton Creek is typically fairly fast. If your flies are not down next to the bottom, you are not where you need to be.”

If a single shot is not sufficient, he adds another. Shaffner’s method varies in the location of the split shot, between the flies rather than above the upper fly.

Where Helton Creek turns and wends its way downhill, there are periodic runs which hold trout in the deepest water.

Runs are sections of stream below a riffle where the current slows before hitting another swift portion. Outside bends usually are the deepest portion of a run. And those spots need careful attention. Shaffner’s two-nymph rig is particularly deadly in the deep runs.

Shaffner prefers an 8 1/2-foot, 4- or 5-weight rod, a floating line, and a 9-foot leader tapered to 5X. He attaches a strike indicator above the flies. The strike indicator both serves to signal a strike and to control the direction of the drift. The distance between the strike indicator and the flies should be about twice the depth of the bottom.

Casts with the rig recommended by Shaffner should be across the current, perhaps a little upstream. With the strike indicator and the weighted flies, a roll cast may be the optimum method. In some places this outfit is called “chuck and duck” as the unwieldy combination may knock an angler in the back of the head.

The long rod and the floating line are used to minimize drag as the two-nymphs drift with the current.

Keep the rod tip high to lift as much line off the water as possible. As necessary, mend the line to prevent the current from catching the line. Follow the strike indicator downstream with the lifted rod tip.

Shaffner also fishes streamers during the delayed-harvest period at Helton Creek.

“A big black Wooly Bugger is a good choice,” he said. “Toss it up and across the current and let it drift.”

A size 8 or 10 streamer would be appropriate. Good colors for Wooly Buggers include brown, olive, and purple. Comparable-sized Clouser’s or Muddler Minnows are also good choices.

According to Shaffner, there is not much top-water action during the delayed-harvest period at Helton Creek. Insects don’t hatch as regularly as during the summer. There are not as many terrestrials — crickets and ants primarily — falling in the water. Consequently Shaffner and his clients rely on subsurface offerings

Hot Spots

Shaffner recommended the section of Helton Creek downstream from the N.C. 194 bridge to the New River. Besler, when asked for the best sections of Helton Creek.

“The actual areas stocked are any publicly accessible areas from the Virginia state line to the confluence with the New River,” he said. “Any obvious points anglers could get legal access to the stream within that boundary would be a great spot to hit.

“Given the length of the delayed-harvest season some trout do move out of the obvious locations so anglers that might want to walk a little might be rewarded with nice catch rates.”

Check out as well places where smaller streams enter Helton Creek. Little Helton Creek comes in from the north about half way between the spot where N.C. 194 leaves Helton Creek and where N.C. 16 does. There are several other unnamed small streams flowing into Helton Creek.

Incoming water often gouges out a deeper hole than the adjacent water and trout like those deeper spots.


Helton Creek is a dandy spot for Tar Heel trout anglers.

During the delayed-harvest period, there are plenty of trout, including a substantial number of lunkers.

I caught my biggest N.C. trout, a 3-pound brown, out of Helton Creek a couple of winters ago.

You can bet I’ll be back.

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