Alex Bell’s cup of coffee is within reach, and life is good. It’s 6:30 a.m., the sun has yet to fully rise and the retired high school principal will soon be out the door for another day as a fly fishing guide.
With rods, tackle and waders in tow, Bell is set to lead a group to one of the 15 spots on the Western North Carolina (WNC) Fly Fishing Trail. The only one of its kind in the country, the trail lays claim to some of the more popular trout waters in the Great Smoky Mountains. It encompasses Jackson County, from Cashiers in the south up to Cherokee in the north.
“I can’t tell you how many people have told me they wish they would’ve known it was so nice out here,” said Bell, the owner and operator of A.B.’s Fly Fishing Guide Service. “If they had, they wouldn’t have been making all of those fly fishing trips out West.”
Bell has known about the area for decades. After a taxing day at the schoolhouse, he says fly fishing was his therapy. Bell would keep his gear in the back of his truck. The stress would soon evaporate, courtesy of the rushing waters, cascading waterfalls and mountain scenery around him. The serenity would often be replaced by the thrill of the catch as a trout tugged on the other end of the line.
Both newbies and advanced anglers are discovering these same waters and the picturesque surroundings located on the WNC Fly Fishing Trail. They should thank Jackson County native Julie Spiro.
The trail was the brainchild of Spiro, the executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. She enlisted Bell, fly fishing enthusiast Bobby Kilby and public relations rep Craig Distl to help choose the spots along the trail.
The team culled together the best of these experiences, and the trail was launched in February 2009. Anglers looking to explore the area can request a complimentary water-resistant map of the trail by mail. According to Bell, approximately 70,000 maps have been given away to date.
The WNC Fly Fishing Trail website provides even more detailed information. Prefer fishing in a stream, or would you rather hit the river? Looking for rainbow or brook trout? More concerned with fish size than quantity? The website points you in the right direction, complete with access points and GPS coordinates.
Bell said just two months after the trail maps first went out he noticed a bit of a boom in business. In April 2009 he guided folks from 20 different states. The draw, he said, is the fact the trail boasts a wide range of fly fishing in one general area.
“We’re very blessed to have public access to a variety of different waters, which offer different experiences,” Spiro said.
This includes massive rivers, and smaller creeks and streams. Map holders can find themselves wading in the Tuckasegee River, which runs the length of Jackson County, or casting in the Raven Fork trophy water in nearby Cherokee. If you’re fishing in the latter, trout measuring 20 to 30 inches in length are common. Others swear by Panthertown Creek with its picturesque rocky bluffs.
Boone Walker, a guide at Brookings’ Cashiers Village Anglers in Cashiers, has a go-to spot along the WNC Fly Fishing Trail. It’s a four- to five-mile stretch of the Tuckasegee that runs from the NC 107 bridge to Dillsboro Park in Dillsboro. That’s where you’ll find the delayed harvest section of the river that’s stocked twice a year. From October 1 until the first Saturday in June, it operates under catch-and-release regulations.
“During this time fish can usually be caught, and it’s guided pretty easily,” Walker said. “It’s a guide’s dream.”
Bell continues living his own dream as a fly fishing guide, and is preparing for a flood of fishermen to hit the WNC Fly Fishing Trail in the coming months. When the warmer water temperatures of August and September slow down the feeding habits of trout, hungry fish can still be found in several of the smaller streams in higher elevations, such as the Panthertown Valley area during mornings and evenings. Plus, he said, there’s great fishing for smallmouth bass during that time on the lower Tuckasegee River from Dillsboro to Whittier.
Even more visitors descend upon the area in October and November because of leaf-watching season and because the Tuckasegee becomes stocked with trout. Additional activities such as rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking amid the mountain setting lure tourists like bait on a hook.
“The best thing is trout don’t live in ugly places,” Bell said. “It’s always someplace pretty. If you’re just standing out there it would be relaxing. But the rhythm of the fly casting, the sound of the water, the saying about the stream carrying your troubles right down with it. There’s a lot of truth in that.”
To request a map: 800-962-1911, www.flyfishingtrail.com.
Some fly fishermen bring their fly rods from home. Guide services include rods and other fly fishing gear. However, that’s not all you’ll need. Experts say don’t approach fly fishing on the fly. Be prepared. Consider the following suggestions before hitting the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail:
Made in the shade: Although any pair of sunglasses will suffice, polarized are best, Bell says. They help cut through the glare of water and allow you to see the fish. Most importantly, they protect the eyes.
Under cover: Wear a hat, either a wide-brim or a baseball cap, to protect yourself from the sun. Don’t forget the sunscreen and insect repellent.
Stay earthy: Guides such as Bell and Walker suggest wearing earth tones in order to blend in with the surroundings. Leave the white T-shirts and 1980s pastels at home.
Stay dry: Fly fishing often requires wading in the river. Bell says, “There are two kinds of people who have never fallen in: beginners and liars. If you do it long enough, you’re going to catch a rock or something.” Make sure you have an extra pair of clothes in your vehicle.
License to chill: A valid North Carolina fishing license and trout stamp are required. Spiro says WNC
Fly Fishing Trail waters are part of the Mountain Heritage Trout Waters program. This special three-day license is available for $5.