Alex Bell can’t resist striking up a conversation with fellow fishermen he encounters on the Tuckasegee.
But lately, he’s had a motive behind his friendly banter. As an author of the new WNC Fly Fishing Trail, Bell is eager to know just who is flocking to fish mountain waters.
One day in May, Bell was sitting on the tailgate of his truck having lunch when 14 anglers with a fly fishing club from Florida came clambering up the river bank.
“As we struck up a conversation one thing led to another and I mentioned the fly fishing trail map and one said ‘Yeah, we got it right here’ and pulled it out of their vest,” Bell recounted.
The trail guide was the brainchild of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, so Bell knew luring tourists was the whole point. But as he calculated the economic impact of 14 people spending three nights in Jackson County who came here just to fish the trail, it sunk in.
“It came full circle just how good this is for everybody,” he said.
The fly fishing trail leads fishermen to 15 different fishing spots in Jackson County, from narrow mountain streams to wide rivers. Julie Spiro, executive director of the Travel and Tourism Authority and Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, said the fly fishing trail has taken off better than she ever imagined.
“I think it has had a good positive affect on tourism here,” Spiro said. “It gets people into Jackson County to fish and spend the night and eat dinner out and enjoy some time here in the mountains.”
A testimony to its success, Spiro keeps running out of the trail map brochures. The first print run of 1,500 were gone in just two months. She ordered a batch of 5,000 in early May, but those were gone by the end of the month. In all, she’s gone through almost 9,000 in just six months.
“We mailed out thousands of maps to interested fisherman,” Spiro said
While it’s hard to know exactly how many of those ultimately make the trip, some stop into the visitor center and announced their arrival, like a man and his buddy on a recent visit from New Burn, N.C.
“He said ‘You mailed me this map and I’m here to fish,’” Spiro recounted.
The fly fishing trail has been featured around the country, from an outdoors radio show in California to a travel article in the New York Times. It’s also landed on the UNC-TV series North Carolina Now twice. Bell, 54, who runs AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, has booked several trips for clients who came to Jackson County after discovering the trail guide.
Spiro credits Craig Distl, a public relations specialist with the Jackson chamber, as the instigator behind the trail. Spiro has actively marketed Jackson County as a fishing destination for several years, but Distl suggested they “step it up a notch.”
The idea of a fly fishing trail is a first for the region and positions Jackson as the first county to actively capitalize on the image of a fly fishing destination.
“A lot of people are very interested in fishing all 15 spots on the trail,” Spiro said. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment that they have fished the entire trail.”
Indeed, Bell has encountered fishermen on the water checking off their maps as they go. Some said they plan to fish a few spots each year, making return trips each summer until they finished them all.
The concept of themed-trails are growing in popularity among visitors looking for a more interactive vacation. There are several themed-trails in the region: a Cherokee Heritage Trail, a Craft Heritage Trail, a WNC Farm and Garden Trail, a Birding Trail — and now a fly fishing trail.