Plans unfold for fly fishing museum
By 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.
Now, with a $50,000 planning grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, one more attraction can be added to that list: the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians. It’ll be a regional museum, covering the history of fly fishing in five states and pulling in support from all of them. The Cherokee Chamber of Commerce is spearheading the effort, and the museum itself will find a home in a 5,000-square-foot building nestled on the Oconaluftee River right in the heart of downtown Cherokee.
For Forrest Parker, director of natural resources for the Eastern Band and a Chamber board member, the museum will be another jewel in Cherokee’s already-sparkling fly fishing crown. Hopefully, it will entice experienced anglers and total novices alike into the region’s rivers, said Parker.
While the leases on the building are not yet signed, the chamber has a commitment from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for the space. It’s really just the next step in an effort to get behind fly fishing, which started back in 2009 when the tribe marked off some of its waters as designated-use, fly-fishing-only locations. It was an unprecedented move, said Parker, one that has paid off in spades.
“That was a groundbreaking effort on behalf of the tribe,” said Parker. “There’s less than three miles, but the impact to the community has been astonishing.”
Then, in 2011, the tribe played host to the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championships and has rolled out tournament after tournament since then. Now, the museum will give anglers — and non-anglers interested in an important facet of Appalachian culture — another reason to visit Cherokee.
“We just hope that we can capture enough of this so that someone who doesn’t know anything about fly fishing can come here and just see what a huge part of the culture it has been and how valuable it’s been to so many people in the region,” said Parker. “We want people in this region that value this to want to come down here. So whether you’re a person that has never fly fished or whether you’re a third-generation professional fly tyer, we want everyone to leave feeling like they have a better understanding of fly fishing in the southern Appalachians.”
Part of what Parker and his partners think will set the museum apart is its unique scope in the relatively small world of fly fishing museums. Though it’ll be located in Cherokee, the museum itself will be a truly regional endeavor. There are only a handful of other fly fishing museums in the country, and they’re dedicated either to the sport as a whole or to a particular river rather than a broad geographical region.
The idea sprang from conversations among some of the region’s prominent fly fishermen, who came to the Cherokee Chamber with the idea. From there, it snowballed into the plan that’s now underway for a museum that delves into the rich history of fly fishing in a five-state region and will provide educational, interactive programs that will let visitors have hands-on encounters with the Oconaluftee that flows by the museum’s back door. Even before a dime had been raised, financial and logistical support was flowing in from the region’s every corner, and Parker knew they had a winning concept.
“It started as one email, one phone conversation and in a matter of about 60 days, there’s almost 1,000 people on the email list of supporters,” he said. “All five states have pledged support in some form or fashion. There are individual private donors that are ready to cut checks as soon as the legal work is done, and the volunteers are just endless. Everything from fly shop owners to fly tyers to people that their families are deeply rooted in the fly fishing culture. They want to see the legacy passed on.”
In addition to raising awareness, however, the hope for the museum is that it’ll also continue to raise the region’s fly fishing profile and bring more business this way.
Joe Streep owns Rivers Edge Outfitters, a fishing supply business that has shops in Cherokee and Spruce Pine. He travels around the country talking to folks about the fishing in the Southeast and is sometimes surprised at how often he encounters fisherman who are astounded at the quality of fishing waters here. The museum, he said, could be another tool to draw in those who are simply unaware of the jewel hiding in the mountains.
“One of the reasons we opened is that that entire area around the Smokies has always been a fly fishing destination, so it draws a lot of fly fishermen,” said Streep. “I think the museum’s actually going to be a very good idea. There’s some great history when it comes to fly fishing around the Smokies.”
For now, the museum is only in the planning phase, but with no need for new construction, they hope to roll it out in stages on a pretty accelerated timeline. While the interactive exhibits may take longer, Parker says the tentative hope is to have a museum component up and running as early as summer or fall of 2014, of course, as always, contingent on funding falling into place. From there, they’ll continue adding more varied exhibits and programs, expanding into increasingly more diverse tourism spaces opening up in Cherokee.
“We were a destination before,” said Parker. “Now, we’re just a very well-presented destination, and people are starting to focus more of their travel efforts here, as far as the fly fisherman goes. Our goal is to keep it going.”