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Search for Solitude and Fish in the Great Smoky Mountains

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GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS — The morning clouds seem to keep the mountain peaks from tearing holes in the Carolina sky. The valley below funnels crystal clear water through the granite base.

Sitting on a rock in the middle of it all is adventure guide Steve Claxton. "To me there is no more beautiful place in the world than the Smokies, especially streams like this one," he says.

Today, Claxton is taking three fishermen into the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. They are hunting trout and searching for solitude.

"Oh it's perfect today. You couldn't ask for better weather," says Claxton, crossing the wooden bridge over Hazel Creek. He scans the fast water and points his disciples in the direction of the fish. "These eddies right here, the rainbow are hanging out right in the edge of the ripples."

"I grew up in this area. I've been exploring the mountains for the last 35 years or so," says Claxton. A few years ago he decided to explore making a living with that adventurous attitude. "This is my office, there's no better office in the world," he says.

If his office is perfect, then his job description is euphoric: Introduce people to the wilderness, teach them to fly fish, allow them to experience the peace and quiet of this rocky heaven.

"We bring people from all walks of life," says Claxton. "We bring your doctors, attorneys and that sort of thing. We bring people who just want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. We bring people like Jim here who just want to take up a new sport."

"I've been fishing for forty years," says Jim Costello as he stands waist deep in the rushing water of Hazel Creek. "Mostly in the surf and I've just taken up fly fishing. It's a lot different from surf fishing."

Costello awkwardly throws his line toward the edge of the creek's banks in hopes of finding a hungry trout. "I came down here for the experience. I'm just getting into fly fishing, and I'm hoping to learn some good habits and maybe lose some bad ones."

Joe Selip flicks his fly rod with a bit more expertise. He has been fly fishing for 20 years, catching trout in streams up north. But his greatest catch seems to be his new bride who surprised him with this mountain trip.

"My sweet wife Lisa called me at work and asked if I would take two days off. I said 'Yeah, no problem... for what?' She wouldn't tell me," he says. "Finally she told me, 'I booked you on a trip for two days to Hazel Creek in the Smoky Mountains.' I said, 'I know why I married you!'"

Bobby Ellis is by far the most experienced of all the fishermen on this trip.

"I've fished all kinds of fishing, but mostly I like to trout fish."

Ellis is diligent, determined, and defined as a fisherman.

"I like to fish, whether I catch fish or not." Sitting on the bank, he holds up two Rainbow trout, small, but keepers. "This is what it's all about!" he says, satisfied.

In a scene set for nearly any episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the fishermen head down the trail back to camp before the sunset leaves them lost in the wilderness. The campfire greets the worn outdoorsmen with an invitation to sit and talk. Claxton mans the Coleman grill and guides the conversation toward fish tales.

Over a hearty dinner of steak and potatoes, corn on the cob and baked beans, and a side salad to remind the men of a healthy attitude, the conversation is introspective.

"I feel relaxed, I feel very relaxed. I had the opportunity to fish the cares away," says Selip.

Ellis stands over the fire, warming the night away and fading fast. "It feels good. I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep," he says.

The tent flaps close, the rain taps out a gentle lullaby on the nylon fabric. Soon the sun will rise and another day of mountain wilderness will hide the outside world.

For the next few midnight hours, Claxton's wisdom will hang over the campsite like the morning clouds over the mountain peaks. "Any day out in a place like this is better than any day in the office."

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Richard Adkins, Reporter
Richard Adkins, Photographer
Michelle Singer, Web Editor

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