Displaying items by tag: fly fishing

out frWhen I finally roll up Pavilion Road for my casting lesson, I’m nearly half an hour late. A wrong turn had set me back, but Mac Brown seems pretty unperturbed. He’s standing in the field uphill from the Swain County Pool, directing a bright orange fly line in swirls and waves that look alive against the green lawn. 

“This isn’t any accident,” he says as the line lands without a kink. “I can do this a thousand out of a thousand times. Why? Because I’ve practiced it so much.”

fr flyfishingThe path to a new fly fishing museum in Cherokee has been cleared of a final hurdle after the Cherokee Tribal Council last week upheld a contract to lease the old Tee Pee Restaurant building to the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. The Cherokee Business Committee had signed the lease earlier this spring, agreeing to let the chamber of commerce use the building for $1 per year for 25 years.

out frThere’s nothing abnormal about the pair of armchairs in Jim and Baraba Mills’ living room, or about the television — the old tube kind — and wooden entertainment center that they face. Typical, too, is the hodgepodge of DVDs and VHS tapes filling the shelves and the pictures of kids and grandkids covering the top. 

But even a cursory glance reveals Jim’s true passion. A trio of mounted trout — one rainbow and two brown — hang on the wall above the TV, and a fly-tying station crammed with every color and weight of thread imaginable stands in front of the ceiling-high shelf filled with old glass medicine bottles from Jim’s days as a pharmacist with the U.S. Public Health Service. Fly rods, either sheathed in protective cardboard tubes or laying out to dry on a jerry-rigged rack of cardboard boxes, fill every corner of the room, and a stool sits in front of the pair of thread spools that Jim is using to create the wrappings on his most recent angling project. It’s more than a living room: it’s a fly rod shop of the most unique variety. 

out frBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent 

Each year, an estimated 50,000 people visit Cherokee looking to hit it big, but instead of casting lots at Harrah’s, they’re casting lines into the miles of stocked and protected streams that flow through the Qualla Boundary. 

While the casino remains the dominant moneymaker in town, the town’s reputation as a fly fishing destination is gaining an economic toehold in the tourism business here. With fishing waters open year round, tournaments and derbies to choose from in every season of the year, and a stock of 400,000 trout poured into the ponds and streams annually, Cherokee can offer more than a few incentives to entice a fisherman seeking a new venue. 

travel fishingLike New York is known for its basketball legends, and Texas is known for its football stars, Western North Carolina has become one the big names in a slightly less conspicuous sport: competitive fly fishing.

Fly fishing was long dominated by regions in the Rockies and Sierras out West. But the sport has seen a shift in both interest and talent to the Southeast — and specifically the Smokies.

out frMore than a third of the tourists who come knocking at the Jackson County visitor center these days have trout fishing on their mind.

A push in recent years to market the county as trout paradise is clearly paying off, and now the string of towns in Jackson County that claim the Tuckasegee River as their backyard have yet another tool to lure fishing aficionados.

coverLike New York is known for its basketball legends, and Texas is known for its football stars, Western North Carolina has become one the big names in a slightly less conspicuous sport: competitive fly fishing.

Fly fishing was long dominated by the western territory of the Rockies and Sierras. But the sport has seen a shift in both interest and talent to the Southeast — and specifically the Smokies.

A local fly-fishing guide and recreational therapy students at Western Carolina University teamed up recently to provide a fly-fishing outing for children with autism.

Jennifer Hinton, WCU associate professor of recreational therapy, organized the event. Alex Bell, retired principal of Smoky Mountain High School and the owner of AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, served as “coach” on the project, working with the class throughout the semester.

Through the Adaptive Fly Fishing Institute, Bell teaches adaptive fly fishing and also teaches fellow instructors in the practice. There is limited research on adaptive fly fishing, Hinton said, but the WCU students theorized it would benefit children on the autism spectrum physically, psychologically and socially.

The fly fishing was adapted to the children’s abilities. For instance, when teaching the children to cast, the instructors asked them to aim for hula hoops on the ground rather than the more typical method of using numbers on an imaginary clock face.

“It was amazing the difference once we put down a visual cue. It improved their focus so much,” Bell said.

Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function, according to the National Autism Association. Individuals with autism can show marked differences — thus, they are on the “autism spectrum” — but typically they have difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities. The NAA reports that the disorder affects one in 150 people in the U.S. and is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls.  

In honor of the event, staff of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocked a section of Cullowhee Creek with about 40 brook trout from the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery in Brevard.

“We’re here to provide angling opportunities for various people, and we were proud to step up and make that happen,” said David Deaton, a WRC fish production supervisor.

A week later, Kathy Ralston said her son Isaac was still talking about it.

“He’s looked forward to fly fishing since we moved here,” said Ralston, who with her husband, Bill, an orthopedic surgeon at MedWest Harris, and their four children relocated to Jackson County from Kansas City, Mo., in August 2010. Though it’s unusual for children on the autism spectrum, the Ralstons have always had Isaac, their oldest child, participate in group activities such as organized soccer.

But participation has gotten more difficult as Isaac has grown older and the physical and emotional disparities between Isaac and his peers have become more pronounced. Ralston and other parents expressed a desire for more recreational opportunities for their children with autism spectrum disorder, such as the fly-fishing event.

“The good ones always get wet.”  

That, says Ben McFall, is how he tells a decent fly fisherman from a fantastic one.

McFall is a veteran fisherman and also a judge at the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championships, held this year from May 20-22 in Cherokee for the very first time.

Sitting on the bank, waiting for a competitor to haul in a trout, is where you can really tell the good from the great, he says — the great will swim, sprint or crawl through the rushing water, fish in hand, to reach the judge’s ruler before heading back out for another catch.

And milling around outside the Holiday Inn in Cherokee early on the morning of final competition, it’s easy to see what he means. The field for this competition is limited to 60, the top 10 from the country’s six regions. They’re a pretty athletic-looking crowd, but the more impressive display is the staggering array of gear. There are nets and rods and reels, of course, but also insanely complex carrying cases, neoprene suits, shirts with neck gaskets favored by elite whitewater kayakers, and are those knee pads? What does a fly fisherman do with knee pads?

Tucker Horne is one competitor who’s jumped on the gear bandwagon. When he qualified for the nationals, he was so thrilled he found it impossible not to gear up. He had to be ready for such a prestigious event.

Horne is a recent college graduate, picking up a bachelor’s in journalism from Western Carolina University just a few short days ago. He calls himself a retired college student. It sounds nicer than unemployed.

Horne is on what is officially known as Northeast Regional Team 2, a nod to the tournament he fished to qualify in State College, Pa., earlier this year. Having spent the last few years at WCU, he’s a regular in most of the waters being fished in the tournament, but none have been very kind to him this weekend.

The contest is split into five different sessions — two a day on Friday and Saturday and one on Sunday — and Horne has turned up little but what anglers call trash fish. In fly fishing, it’s only the trout that count for anything, and the scoring rewards quantity over inch count.

Each fish is worth 100 points, with 20 points tacked on for each centimeter.

Horne isn’t glum about his luck in the tourney, though. Perpetually jocular, he’s rosy-cheeked, bespectacled and what one tournament volunteer jokingly called ‘roomy.’ If the championships had a class clown, Tucker Horne would be it. And he’s thrilled to be competing in such a stacked field at all.

“I’m the worst of the best. It’s like, OK, I went to the Olympics. I’m not going to bitch about not getting a medal. And if Charlie Sheen is winning, then so am I,” he quips.

Competitors are broken into groups for the weekend, making the rounds to all five locations — the upper and lower sections of the Nantahala River, the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County, Cherokee Trophy Waters on the Raven’s Fork River and Calderwood Reservoir in east Tennessee.

This balmy Sunday, Horne and his 11 compatriots are on a bus, rumbling to the Upper Nantahala, to try their hand at the trout one last time.  

Watching the water

Though on the surface it would seem otherwise, competitive fly-fishing can be an exhaustingly physical sport. Apart from the intensity of the catches and river fords that McFall mentioned, the format of the competition itself is fairly grueling.

Each session is three hours long, with a 45-minute window on the front end for competitors to scope out their section of lake or river. These sections are called beats, and they vary in size depending on the water. Here on the narrow, sinuous Upper Nantahala, they’re anywhere from 250 to 300 yards.

So hiking through 300 yards of rushing water, toting armloads of gear and trying to entice skittish trout can be a taxing experience.

That’s what Jenny Baldwin says is the most difficult thing about a high-level competition like this.

She, too, is angling the Upper Nantahala today, and she’s the only female competitor in the tournament.

“It’s exhausting,” says Baldwin. “The amount of focus it takes to try to fish every session excellently — well, by the end of three hours, you’re tired.”

Baldwin is Swedish, with the blond hair, blue eyes and tall frame to prove it. She moved stateside 14 years ago and now lives in Boulder, Co., where she’s a horse trainer.

And, she says, for purposes of full disclosure: this is her first fly-fishing tournament ever. Her boyfriend is a competitor, so when a member of their team dropped out and they couldn’t find a replacement, they called Baldwin into service instead of just taking zeros for every session with an open spot.

She’s no novice angler, though. She’s been fly fishing for 10 years, and fishing in some capacity for most of her life. She doesn’t know many other women in the sport, apart from her best friend. But she says they both love getting out on the river.

“It’s the only thing that makes time stand completely still,” says Baldwin.

But even if she didn’t qualify like the rest of the contenders, her presence is still notable. When the bus stops to pick up some competitors, a female judge — they’re called controllers — sticks her head on the bus to say she’d heard about Baldwin, and she’s so pleased there’s a woman in the ranks this year. She, herself, is a fly fisher.

And they’re becoming more common fixtures in the water, according to a survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. It estimates that 35 percent of fly fishers are now women.

The competitive arena, though, is still dominated by men, and back on the river, the competition is pretty fierce. In fly-fishing, unlike other sports, there aren’t just the other players to beat, there’s the clock, the water, the fish and whoever else chooses to be in the water that day.

This particular morning is a sunny, warm May Sunday — in short, the perfect morning for anglers of all stripes to dust off their winterized rods and reels and head to the river. And while most will acquiesce and move to another slice of water when they hear a national competitor is wading in, some don’t. One local fisherman — improbably dressed in drenched cargo shorts, dress socks and loafers — spent most of the morning wandering the riverbank, apologizing to everyone he met for interrupting the competition. But another group of wizened elder Floridians met a controllers’ request that they move with a polite “good luck” and then kept on fishing.

Back at the second beat, Tucker Horne says it’s this uncertainty that he loves about fishing. And does he ever love fishing. Horne is from Davidson, and turned down lucrative scholarships elsewhere to come to WCU so he could fish in the plethora of renowned waters that dot the surrounding mountains.

“I mean, what makes it fun is that you’re also fishing against the fish. If the fish aren’t there, you’re not going to catch them,” says Horne. But what he and many others relish about being in such talented company is watching the real masters prove that adage wrong, pulling trout upon trout from seemingly fishless waters.

“It’s amazing to see a good fisherman,” says Horne. “Those people are just fishy. They just know where the fish are. They pay really explicit attention to detail — they can pick up on little stuff and then use it to their advantage.”

And in that way, fly-fishing for fun and fly-fishing to win are two quite disparate things, say most of the competitors and controllers. A real contender is there to read the water, to mentally navigate the current, watching the swirl of the surface, looking for pockets and deep holes and then working them methodically, pulling fish from each one. An amateur fisherman will chase a fish, says Ben McFall, while top-notch anglers pursue the water.

Devon Olson is one of those guys. He took home second place in the contest and has been on Team USA since before his 21st birthday. He’s a Utah native and in this trip on the Upper Nanty, he pulled a fish about every 7 minutes. So is Coloradan Chris Galvin, who finished the weekend in the top third. He says this level of love for fishing just isn’t teachable.

“Trying to explain why you like fishing is almost impossible,” says 41-year-old Galvin. “It’s like it’s genetic. I have the gene.”

But at the end of the day, all say it’s the camaraderie, not the accolades, that keep them coming back.

At the end of three hours, they strip off hip waders and slink from the mottled shadows and glittering surf of the river, sharing beers and swapping stories on the bus ride home.

Jenny Baldwin pulled in three fish. Devin Olsen caught about nine times more. And no one seems to care too much.

“We did a lot of tree rescues for my flies,” says Baldwin with an easy laugh. “I air launched a few, too.” Shouldn’t she get credit for those? she chuckles.

Of course there are fish stories — “man, he’s convincing sometimes when he’s lying,” said one angler, after another jokingly bragged of his 37-fish haul — but mostly there’s collegial friendship. And when they disembark and snap a final picture, the same sentiment is ubiquitous: we’ll have to do this again next year.

Want to see some of the best fly-fishing imaginable? The 2011 U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship will be held May 19 through May 22. It will be headquartered in Cherokee with fishing held on several waterways in the region

The event is hosted by the N.C. Fly Fishing Team, in partnership with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Fish and Wildlife Management and the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

This is the first time the event has been in the Southeast. The championship will see 60 of the top fly fishermen from around the U.S. Competitors for the 2011 National Fly Fishing Championships first had to qualify at regional competitions around the country.

Numerous businesses, organizations and volunteers have worked together to host the event here.

“There has been a true partnership with everyone doing what they can to help make the event successful,” said Matt Pegg, Executive Director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, who is excited about the exposure the event will bring.

More than 100 volunteers are assisting with the event. To help out, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Catch some of the action

Spectators are welcome to watch the competition. Competitors are split into groups and dispatched to one of five rivers. They then rotate over the course of the competition. Each river is divided into sections, with anglers assigned a specific section so they won’t be bumping into each other.

• Lower Nantahala River from just above Little Wesser Falls to the double bridge at Winding Stair Road.

• Cherokee Trophy Waters of the Raven’s Fork River, from the Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge to the pedestrian bridge at a campground.

• Tuckaseegee River, from the N.C. 116 bridge in Webster upstream to the N.C. 107 Bridge

• Upper Nantahala River from the confluence of generation canal just beside the Duke Energy Power Plant upstream to White Oak Creek.

• Calderwood Reservoir below the Cheoah Dam.

Anglers will be practicing on other area waters all week, but are barred from fishing on the competition sections until the competition day.

www.USNFFC.com.

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