Gaze out across pristine Smoky Mountain views, hear the serene sound of cool river water trickling over slick rocks and feel the gentle nudge from a swallowed fly snapping a tight line in a fat rainbow trout’s lip. That’s when you know you’re wading in the heavenly fishing waters of Jackson County, N.C.
Just ask one of two U.S. National Fly Fishing team members, who have honed their precise fishing skills on the county’s creeks and rivers for more than 50 years combined.
Josh Stephens, 39, was born and raised in Sylva and attended Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, and currently resides in nearby Robbinsville, N.C. Stephens first made the U.S. National Fly Fishing squad back in 2005/06 and after missing only one two-year term in 2014/15, he recently qualified for his ninth and 10th years on the prestigious team in 2016/17.
Alex Boyer, 15, is a native of Sylva and attends Smoky Mountain High School. He is making his first appearance on the USA Youth Fly Fishing Team.
“I was pretty confident that I could make the team, but I was surprised whenever they called my name,” Boyer admitted. “I was surprised I made it.”
There is no coincidence to two Jackson County natives making the national teams. Boyer and Stephens have fished the same waters for years now, sometimes together, despite their 24-year age difference.
“It helps,” said Boyer about learning how to master the rod and reel under Stephens’ tuteledge. “I’ve met him and fished with him a couple of times at the N.C. clinics.”
Stephens said Boyer has a bright future ahead, as he has seen the 15-year-old rising sophomore improve tremendously since he saw him fish the first time six years ago when Boyer was just nine-years old.
“To be honest with you, I helped coach the youth team and I’ve helped for the last six years,” explained Stephens. “I saw Alex do his first one. Every year we’ve done youth clinics and I was there when he came to his first one. To see him grow, it’s just amazing and I’m so proud of him. There are a lot of great young fishermen fixing to come out of Jackson County.”
Boyer said even at his ripe young age, he appreciates having one of the most beautiful places to fly fish in his backyard.
“It’s just special because I’m in a beautiful part of the world and there are lots of good healthy fish to catch and practice with,” said Boyer, who admitted a lot of his competitors don’t have nearly the fishing opportunities he does. “I have a little advantage over them.”
Boyer qualified for the team at the National Youth Fly Fishing Championships in State College, Pa., June 24-26, 2016. Previously, he made noise in the fly fishing ranks through regional clinics and tournaments. Next up, he will be going to Colorado in August for a clinic with the team. From there, he will compete in tournaments between now and next summer, when he will try to qualify for the U.S. World Championship in Slovenia.
Stephens, who didn’t compete in the 2014/15 national fly fishing two-year cycle, said he never intended to be back on the team.
“I wasn’t trying to make the team,” said Stephens. “When you want to make the travel team, you go in talking about your credentials and you sell yourself. This year, I stood up and said I’m not your guy. It’s one thing to go to a tournament and fish and another to go put a U.S. flag on your back and compete. You don’t want to be a slacker. I’m going to give it my all.”
Talking about the benefit of having years of experience reeling in the big ones on Jackson County waters, Stephens said diversity is the key.
“What is unique about Jackson County is you‘ve got a lot of different kinds of water to fish. Like you can fish for wild trout on Caney Fork, which is challenging being covered with heavy brush and rocks, or you can go to the Tuck (Tuckaseigee River) and just wear ‘em out in the open stocked waters,” Stephens explained. “Within 30 minutes, you can be in Caney Fork or Rough Butt and be in the wilder streams. That’s the great thing about fishing in Jackson County. You can put people on top of the fish on the Tuck or you can focus on wild fish.”
Stephens added that Jackson County’s lakes, like Glenville, Wolf, Bear and Tannassee, are also great fishing locations and a great place to train young, up and coming fly fishermen. He said lake fishing is actually one segment of the competition at the world and national levels.
Stephens was a 2006 bronze medalist at the National Fly Fishing Championship, and in a silver medalist in 2007. As a member of Team USA, Stephens has been to five World Championships and finished 20th at the World Championships in New Zealand in 2008.
Competitions involving the U.S. team are catch-and-release. Anglers get a chance to fish five different sessions (with a length of three hours each) and scoring is based on the number and size of fish caught. U.S. team members are also counted on to grow the sport through youth clinics.
Stephens qualified for the team after excelling at the 2015 Southeast Regionals in Cherokee, and the America’s Cup in Vail, Co., those two qualified him for the National Championship in Lake Placed, N.Y., in June of 2016, where he made the team. He may go to the World Championships in Vail, Co., this September to help, but not compete.
The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and community partners created the WNC Fly Fishing Trail in 2009. The chamber spearheaded an effort in 2016 to have Jackson County proclaimed the N.C. Trout Capital. In April, county commissioners proclaimed the county the N.C. Trout Capital and in June the N.C. House and Senate designated Jackson County as the Premier Fishing Destination in the state. The official designation of N.C. Trout Capital could come as early as Jan. of 2017.
Jackson County is the proud home of the state record rainbow trout ever caught. Jackson has 31 public access points for fishing; supports fishing classes for children, is home to the nation’s largest river cleanup day in the country; and plays host to its own chapter of Trout Unlimited.
For more information contact the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce at 828-586-2155, visit www.mountainlovers.com, visit www.wncflyfishingtrail.com, or visit
. All three entities have Facebook pages as well.