Trout Capital, North Carolina: Jackson County pushes to land unique designation
Jackson County is on its way to becoming the trout capital of North Carolina after county leaders unveiled a plan last week that’s been in the works since last summer.
“Anything that we can do to encourage tourists to come to Jackson County we ought to try to do, and I think we already recognize that we have this remarkable resource in Jackson County — the public waterways. It’s already being utilized and is such a treasure in Jackson County,” said County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan, who spearheaded the effort with Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Director Julie Spiro. “It just makes sense to try to do what we can to further enhance it and to promote it.”
Jackson County has 4,600 miles of waterways within its borders and receives more than 92,000 stocked fish from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission each year — more fish than any other county. Jackson also contains three of the 13 towns in the state designated as a Mountain Heritage Trout Water City. Those are Sylva, Dillsboro and Webster, which are joined in the far western counties by Bryson City, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
“All of the things that come together, it just seems to me like it’s a perfect fit for us to be the trout capital of North Carolina,” McMahan said.
County commissioners voted unanimously to pass a resolution declaring itself as such, and now the document’s been passed along to Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, to introduce at the state level.
“I’ve been a big advocate of our Heritage Trout Cities across the mountains, but this is a special opportunity and special initiative for Jackson County, so Jim (Davis) and I thought it was highly appropriate to support them with it,” Queen said.
“I will be glad to introduce it,” agreed Davis.
Jackson County isn’t waiting for a General Assembly vote to start promoting the title. Last week Spiro unveiled a new website, www.nctroutcapital.com, and a Facebook page to assert Jackson’s eminence for anglers.
The site includes everything from fishing reports to information on where to fish and what to catch to listings of restaurants and attractions for visitors to check out while they’re in town. It also links to the website for the WNC Fly Fishing Trail, an initiative the Chamber completed in 2009 to give visitors a single source to find the best fishing spots in Jackson County.
The trail is here to stay, Spiro said. Since its inception, the Chamber has printed 175,000 maps — it’s proven popular.
“This is not meant to be a replacement to the fly fishing trail,” Spiro said of the trout capital initiative. “This is meant to be an enhancement and a complement to an already-successful tourism product.”
In fact, Spiro said, the Trout Capital initiative could lead to further expansion of the fly fishing focus in tourism.
“I foresee our community embracing this in many ways, from the creation of a new festival, to restaurants expanding their menus with more trout offerings, accommodations creating packages with guide services, outfitters and restaurants,” Spiro said. “This potential designation bolsters the success of the WNC Fly Fishing Trail and gives us another way to brand our area.”
Trout fishing has already been proven to be a powerful economic driver in the mountains. A 2009 study commissioned by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission used 2008 data to find that 93,000 anglers spent an estimated $146 million on mountain trout fishing trips in the 24 western counties, supporting 1,997 jobs and providing $56 million in income.
“It really helps everybody,” Queen said. “All the boats rise as we promote Western North Carolina as a trout destination.”
The Trout Capital initiative has widespread support in Jackson County, but discussion was kept closely under wraps until leaders were ready to announce it last week. The announcement was timed to land right before the General Assembly’s short session began, with hopes that other counties eying the Trout Capital title for themselves wouldn’t have time to cobble together a case for the designation before Jackson County’s resolution found passage in the legislature.
“It’s been a long, painstaking process, and probably the hardest part was keeping it close to the vest — the fly fishing vest of course — before it got out because we have other places close by that had tried to copy the (fly fishing) trail and that sort of thing. I’m sure if the word got out, there would be others who wanted to try for trout capital,” said Alex Bell, a fly fishing guide who’s a board member of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.
Of the announcement itself, McMahan said, “timing is of the essence.”
With passage by the county April 21, the resolution can be one of the first that Queen and Davis file with the start of session this week.
The county has support letters in hand from Dillsboro, Webster, Sylva and Trout Unlimited’s Tuckaseigee Chapter, so there’s widespread cheering behind the initiative. But a couple members of the public asked commissioners to consider the responsibility to maintain fishing conditions that would come with the designation. In particular, the speakers wanted to see the county work with Duke Energy to keep water flows from getting too high during peak fishing times.
“Currently scheduled releases favor boating, not fishing,” said Terry Walker, co-owner of the Dillsboro Inn. “There needs to be a balance in water release.”
When the river flows with force, paddlers have a field day, but anglers are essentially blasted out of the water, Walker said. Especially during the shoulder season, when the water is too cold for most paddlers but just right for anglers, flow levels should be lower, she said.
“There needs to be an effort to achieve a balance in recreational releases so in the shoulder season months of November, December, April and at least half of May we are not blowing fishermen out of the water on weekends,” concurred Linda LaBelle, reading comments written by Terry Walker’s husband, T.J. Walker, the inn’s other owner.
Overall, the feeling surrounding the potential trout capital designation is one of excitement and enthusiasm for the opportunity it might bring to boost Jackson County’s tourism potential.
“There are more fish in Jackson County than in any other county in the state, and I think that speaks for itself,” McMahan said.