“I’m a bull in the kitchen, but a Buddha in the river,” says Michael Foreman, the Cordon Bleu-trained chef of Blowing Rock’s The Speckled Trout, who describes himself as demanding — “pointing and giving orders, paying attention to every detail”— in the restaurant.
But as a fly-fishing guide, he finds a different kind of flow. “The minute my feet hit the water, my shoulders relax, and my breathing deepens,” he says. “There is no greater feeling.”
With opportunities ranging from fishing and hunting to gem mining and horseback riding, visitors have the chance to experience the mountains for themselves, and to learn from — and have a blast with — the folks that know them best.
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Catch (and release) wild trout during a guided fly-fishing trip in Blowing Rock. Photography courtesy of Blowing Rock, NC
Fly-Fishing — Wade or Float Down the River
Joel Brown, a lanky hometown boy, met us at The Speckled Trout restaurant in downtown Blowing Rock before dawn. Radiating a quiet kindness that immediately put me at ease, Brown drove us north along the parkway as the sun unfurled a blanket of coral and blush behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. We wound through sleeping mountain towns and pulled off the shoulder of an overgrown road to reach our fishing spot.
There, we donned waterproof waders and grabbed fly rods. We stepped off the path into the bracing river and startled a gray heron that winged silently across the water. A pulse of adrenaline sent a nervous shiver through my body.
But I had no reason to be worried. My morning on the river was exciting and immersive. Under Brown’s patient tutelage, I learned basic fly-fishing techniques: how to move through the bush and through the water, how to rig and mend the line, false cast, tension cast, and dead drift.
But I also learned about local ecology: the life cycles of trout and the insects they eat, how to read the ebbs and flows of the water, and even practical ways each one of us can care for our environment. Speckled Trout guides regularly pick up trash on tours, and they also support local initiatives that focus on river conservation.
Other Blowing Rock businesses also offer Orvis-certified, guided fly-fishing trips. Chetola Resort, a renowned retreat downtown, hosts fly-fishing wade and float trips (on public and private land), as well as clay pigeon shooting, archery, and riflery at its sporting reserve.
At Mountains to Coast Fishing, Carl Freeman leads fishing, hunting, and clay-shooting trips. Freeman has extensive guide experience, and his team has exclusive access to private upper mountain stream headwaters.
Sift through dirt in search of precious gems on a rock hounding tour with McCoy Minerals. Photography courtesy of Blowing Rock, NC
Gem Mining — Go Digging for Treasure
Many North Carolina mountain-goers are surprised to discover that we’re the only state in the country where gem-miners unearth emeralds — and that we’re considered the gem capital of the world because of the abundance and diversity of gems found here.
Doc McCoy, of Doc’s Rocks and McCoy Minerals, aims to educate the public about these precious resources. “A big part of what we do is education,” he says. As a service to the community, McCoy works with the Board of Education to teach local students regional geology so that they know the history and provenance of each mineral and gemstone.
Doc McCoy loves to share his knowledge of minerals and gemstones. Photography courtesy of Blowing Rock, NC
McCoy is eager to share his expansive knowledge with visitors. Rock hounding, as he describes it, seems to be both science and art. In his shops and on his Rock Hound tours, McCoy and his staff teach amateur prospectors the basics: “What’s here, how it formed here, why you find it, and how to find it.”
They are also careful to encourage appropriate appreciation of these mineral resources. McCoy reminds people of a somber truth. “This is really precious stuff, and even though we can find it, our grandkids probably won’t be able to,” he says. “This is a limited opportunity and a limited resource.”
McCoy offers an enticing introduction to mining by providing buckets seeded from area mines at Doc’s Rocks. Tangible excitement ripples through the air as visitors take their positions at the indoor flumes. Guests eagerly shovel and sift soil under running water to reveal raw gemstones and minerals hidden within each bucket. The rocks clink satisfactorily as they are deposited in tin collecting pails, and Doc’s Rocks staff sort and identify each guest’s haul.
There’s plenty to discover: In the last few years, my children have found sizeable rubies, garnets, citrine, rose quartz, smoky quartz, and a solitary sapphire.
McCoy leads Rock Hound tours all summer long (two each month, with a surprise trip in September). Attracting between 50 and 150 people, these half-day adventures require guests to bring their own shovels, buckets, and pickaxes. The groups travel to various prospecting spots, and McCoy guides them as they hunt for their own North Carolina treasure. If you’re lucky enough to find a gemstone, McCoy’s Minerals is equipped to cut and set your gems in their Blowing Rock shop.
Horseback Riding — Hop on a Trail at Moses Cone
If you prefer your adventure sitting down, Tim Vines at VX3 Trail Rides knows just where to go. Vines, who has 50 years of trail riding experience, has been riding horses at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park for decades. Sprawling across 3,500 acres, the park just off the Blue Ridge Parkway — once the summer home of textile magnate Moses Cone and his wife, Bertha — is a favorite destination for all types of explorers and picnickers.
Twenty-five miles of well-marked trails — once carriage roads, now host to hikers and equestrians — wind along meadows dotted with wildflowers, through shady hardwood forests, and around sparkling Bass and Trout lakes. These gorgeous mountain views and the ease of the rides make the park Vine’s favorite destination. “You just can’t beat the Cone,” he insists, “It’s one of the best places I’ve ever trail ridden.”
The Catch Line
Joel Brown teaches beginners the basics of fly-fishing in the waters around Blowing Rock. Photography courtesy of Blowing Rock, NC
My line shimmered as it sailed through the air, and — surprise — my aim was true. The indicator landed slightly upstream of the riffle, the shallow choppy water where fish like to feed. My indicator curtseyed under the water, and I yanked my rod overhead to set the hook.
I let out an ecstatic cry as I reeled in my line, and Brown came running to see my catch. The speckled brown trout shimmied and shook on the line, and I struggled to grasp the wriggling fish. Scarlet spots danced across the top of its brown and silver body, but its belly gleamed a bright lemony yellow. Brown showed me how to hold the fish and remove the hook, and we snapped a quick photo before I tossed the trout back into the water.
Does a fish remember? I doubt my speckled beauty will remember our brief encounter, but it’s a moment I will never forget. And, with the help of talented guides like the folks at the Speckled Trout, it’s a moment I will definitely try to recreate in the future.
Guided adventures encourage each of us to be a conservationist. We can enjoy the thrill of the catch and marvel at the power and iridescent beauty of each fish before we release it to back to the wild.
“Everything we do today affects 10 years from now, it doesn’t affect tomorrow,” urges Foreman. If we carefully steward our natural resources today, he hopes, “Our children and grandchildren can enjoy these rivers years from now.”
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