Gary Mann was working as a mortgage banker in Philadelphia when he read Cold Mountain during a trip to the beach. The book, written by his second cousin Charles Frazier, made his heart ache for Haywood County.
“About the second day after reading it, I told my girlfriend I was moving back,” said Mann.
Mann, who grew up moving every three years because of his father’s work, attended Tuscola High School, and his mother’s family has lived in Ratcliffe Cove for a couple centuries.
Having decided to leave the mortgage industry and move back to his mountain home, Mann was in the market for a new line of work. Eager to get in some fishing while he figured it out, he pulled up the Waynesville Fly Shop’s website looking for flow schedules on local rivers controlled by dams. That’s when he noticed the business was for sale.
“It was basically a done deal when I saw that,” Mann said.
And that’s how Gary Mann, a local boy who had wandered in search of his fortune, came home to buy up a fly.
If you walk into the Waynesville Fly Shop, you’ll notice a long plastic folding table with a fly tying vice on it and three or four men sitting around talking. At any given time, you could be in the presence of more than 200 combined years of fly fishing experience. The table is the heart of the Waynesville Fly Shop, and in many ways it’s the heart of Haywood County’s fly-fishing scene.
Rex Wilson, 70, a regular at the shop, has been using dry flies to fish for trout since 1962, the year his father-in-law Gary Smith took him on a trip to the Davidson River. Back then you could fish Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and after checking in and paying a buck, you were entitled to 10 fish.
Wilson and shop manager Doug Mitchell grew up fishing Haywood County in that era, when the mills were everyone’s line of work and fishing knowledge was kept close to the vest.
The two men now carry on the fly tying traditions of Frank Coffee and Benny Jo Craig, two men who standardized the region’s most distinctive fly-tying patterns.
“Way back it was kind of a secret how to tie flies,” Wilson said. “People wouldn’t just tell you.”
Wilson earned his stripes filling orders for Coffee, who sold to distributors in East Tennessee and Asheville. He remembers tying his first dozen and looking on nervously as Coffee went over each fly with his magnifying glass.
“I reckon I could use these,” Coffee had said.
Since then, Wilson has tied thousands of dozens of flies and is still the primary local source for the Coffee Stone Nymph — or sometimes referred locally as the “Dayco Nymph” in reference to the rubber factory in Waynesville where the materials for the fly originated.
“Rex won’t tell you this, but he is a master fly tier,” said Mann.
Mitchell, now 56, grew up in Hazelwood. He first went fly fishing on the West Fork of the Pigeon River as a 7-year-old with his uncle and has been fishing for everything from large and smallmouth bass to wild trout since then.
Mitchell ran guided trips for the shop’s previous owner, Matt Rosenthal, and was a regular at Roger Lowe’s fly shop in Waynesville before that. Lowe raised the bar for the fly fishing industry in Western North Carolina and served as an important generational link in the chain of mountain fly tying traditions.
Mitchell got hooked on tying flies at Tuscola High School, where his biology teacher Pat Powell initiated him to the mysteries of the art.
“My biology teacher was a fly fisherman and a fly tier, and I asked him to show me,” Mitchell said. “I might have flunked biology, but I passed fly tying.”
For Mitchell, being a mountain fisherman is about upholding a code and refining a skill that takes a lifetime to perfect.
“True mountain fisherman are so good with a dry fly, they can catch anything, but these are humble people,” Mitchell said. “They don’t go around telling people everything they know.”
Another regular at the Waynesville Fly Shop, Rodger McIntyre, was born and raised near Pine Bluff, Ark., and started work at the Canton Paper Mill in 1966. He floats Lake Junaluska with Mitchell regularly, and after 50 years, still marvels at the thrill of watching his quarry rise.
“It’s just seeing that little fish come up and take a dry fly. You see that once, and you’re hooked,” McIntyre said.
For McIntyre, the fly shop is a place you can act like a fisherman.
“You see what’s going on and you get new ideas,” McIntyre said.
Jason Van Dyke, 36, started fly fishing when he was 14 and runs guide trips for Waynesville Fly Shop. You can hear the reverence in Van Dyke’s voice when he talks about the other guys in the store.
“A lot of shops aren’t like this anymore. They don’t have a hometown feel. It’s a rare thing these days,” said Van Dyk, who likes to sit at the table and mine for knowledge about tying patterns, local hot spots and hatch schedules.
While the Waynesville Fly Shop may be the last best repository of local fishing knowledge, it’s also a community exchange for a host of fishermen who have come to the area later in life.
CFOT stands for Codgers Fishing on Tuesday, a group of men who frequent the shop and fish together every week. The group’s name is self-explanatory and owes its origin to the fact that member Dick Morgan has Tuesday off work.
William “Billy” Lamar III, 71, originally from the South Carolina low country, has been fishing “since Moby Dick was a minnow,” having gotten his first bamboo rod at the age of 6. Lamar is CFOT’s historian.
“We fish a little, but we kibitz a lot,” Lamar said.
Tom Hopkins, 69, another CFOT mainstay, started fly fishing for bluegills at 10 years old on Lake Schaeffer in northern Indiana. He met Lamar at the Waynesville Sub Shop and asked him about a fly-fishing pin in his hat. Lamar invited him fishing.
“I knew him for about 90 seconds, and he invited me into his world of fishing,” Hopkins said. “I’ve never had the nice, close relationships I’ve had since I moved here. I guess it’s a Southern thing, and I do appreciate that.”
Barney Neal, who recently moved up from Tampa Bay, Fla., full time, is the newest addition to the Tuesday fishing gang. Neal spent 35 years as a golf professional and picked up fly fishing last year after taking a few out of town guests on one of the shop’s guided tours of the Cherokee trophy waters. Now he fishes every week in good company.
“All of my fishing companions have at least 50 years of experience. How could I go wrong?” Neal said.
Lamar recently returned from a fly-fishing trip in Yellowstone National Park during which he fished the Lamar River, named for his ancestor Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The experience, while thrilling, didn’t hold a candle to his experiences in the wilds of Western North Carolina.
“I prefer living where I live and fishing where I fish,” Lamar said.
The reason, according to Lamar, is the community at the Waynesville Fly Shop.
“You know what this table really is?” Mitchell said. “It’s fishing out of water. More fish have been caught at this table than any stream in the mountains.”
“And the fish are getting bigger every day,” Lamar said.
The Waynesville Fly Shop offers guided tours on rivers throughout the region, fly tying materials, and all the goodies and gear that come with the sport of fly fishing. But it also offers knowledge and community to those with the patience to appreciate it.
“I think it’s one of the few industries left where you need people to tell you what’s going on,” Mann said. “Otherwise people would just go to the big box stores. The reason we’re competitive is because of the knowledge.”
For Mann, the effort of keeping a tradition alive is especially rewarding because he dropped everything for a chance to come home to his family tree.
“Having a deep-rooted history here just makes it mean much more to me personally,” Mann said. “It’s important for me to carry on the tradition of the fly patterns of the Smoky Mountains.”