Rivers and restaurants: TV crew falls for Jackson County through its trout, tables and people
The sun is lowering toward a perfect spring evening as the crew from Fox Sports’ “Anglers & Appetites” pulls onto a gravel patch alongside the Tuckasegee River.
“This is what spring is supposed to feel like,” says the show’s co-host Dave Zelski.
For Zelski, the angler in the show’s title, and Phil Proctor, who represents the “appetites” half, the drive north from Atlanta is half the joy of filming in Jackson County, watching the temperature drop and the humidity fade.
The show’s now in its third season, and this is the third time Proctor and Zelski have made the drive to Jackson with filming in mind. With any luck, they said, they’ll be back again next year. The show often repeats locations from season to season, but Jackson County is the only place they’ve filmed for all three years of the show’s existence.
The reason is simple, Zelski said.
“We’re not running out of material. There are so many fishing spots along the (Western North Carolina Fly Fishing) Trail, and we haven’t even hit them all. But there’s also bass spots,” Zelski said. “And the thing about this show is it’s not just fishing, cooking — we’re also a destination show.”
Hitting the trifecta
Jackson County fits the bill. Plenty of water, plenty of quality independent restaurants, and lots do to destination-wise, especially if you like the outdoors.
Zelski does. At least judging by the enthusiasm with which he and Kyle Fronrath, owner of Fontana Guides, waded out thigh-deep to the middle of the river. But not before a short intro segment, in which Zelski had Fronrath explain where they were, what equipment they’d be using and what kind of fish they were after. Zelski asked the questions, Fronrath provided the information, and then Zelski made the suggestion: “How about I quit talking and we start catching?”
“Let’s do it,” Fronrath replied.
This segment was Fronrath’s first time appearing on “Anglers & Appetites.” His name had gotten passed along to Zelski somehow, and Fronrath said he was just excited for the chance to show an audience of 25 million how amazing the fishing is on his hometown river. The best outcome for this filming session, he said before Zelski and Proctor arrived, would be for them to pull one of the big browns that swims this section of the river.
“But you can’t snap your fingers and make that happen,” Fronrath said.
Maybe not, but the fish seemed in the mood to accommodate. First came a brook trout, then a brown, both moderately sized. But the third jerk on the line came from a 20-inch brown, trophy size. Even standing on the bank, it was easy to see the excitement playing out in the middle of the river.
Though signs of calm pervaded the space around it. A pair of geese led their five goslings across the river and then sat on the opposite bank to gawk at the wader-clad anglers. A swallow scalloped through the air. The shadows lengthened and the warm air developed a crisp underbelly.
By the end of the night, the anglers had hit the trifecta — pulling in at least one each rainbow, brown and brook trout. Though they were racing sunset with a 6 p.m. start time, they pulled in at least eight fish using three kinds of artificial lures on a spinning reel.
“I’m happy that they get to see that there’s great trout fishing here in the Tuck,” Fronrath said.
An emphasis on relationship
Trout fishing certainly abounds in Jackson County. But that’s not the only thing that keeps Zelski and Proctor coming back.
Of course, there’s the food — Proctor’s domain. Before arriving at the evening’s fishing spot on North River Road, he’d spent the day cooking trout with chefs from City Lights Café, Lulu’s on Main and Guadalupe Café in Sylva. Each chef got to choose their own meal to cook, and Proctor was impressed with the results. They all did trout, but all the dishes came out remarkably different, with fish prepared grilled, fried or in a taco. Proctor had nothing but good things to say about the eating in Jackson County.
“To have all that talent within the same block on Main Street is just amazing,” agreed Nick Breedlove, director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.
But for Proctor and Zelski, the people are a driving force behind the filming experience.
“When we go into an area, it’s not just to do a show,” Proctor said. “We go in to build relationships, and while we’re there we do a show.”
After three seasons of filming, Zelski said, “I feel like I’m getting to know people here.”
Having filmed a session with fishing guide Alex Bell for a previous season, for instance, Zelski tapped the angler to teach his kids how to fly fish. Zelski had no trouble naming off a reel of other film subjects who have become something more like friends than professional acquaintances.
“It’s a business relationship, but it’s turned into a friendship at the same time,” he said.
The emphasis on relationship mirrors Zelski and Proctor’s own evolution into their respective roles as the angler and the appetite. The two had worked together for years before getting the idea for their current show, collaborating on projects ranging from politics to public affairs to travel. Currently, both shoot for the TLC show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
“I always loved fishing, but I knew I wasn’t a guide,” Zelski said. “Phil was never a professionally trained cook, but he always loved eating.”
Nothing sounded better than fitting those interests together into their own show. And somehow, they made it happen.
“It sounds easy, but it was a lot of work over many years and a lot of investment,” Zelski said, “but eventually it works out.”
It’s a show that runs with a pretty lean crew. Everybody knows how to use the camera, everybody edits. Zelski does most of the writing. A core team of three people puts the whole thing on. Those facts, plus the reality that filming a destination show requires traveling to destinations, mean that the team gets pretty tight.
“When we roll, we roll as a family,” Proctor said.
They have rolled all over. Last time they were here, Proctor said, it was nearly over the side of a mountain, a remote area that was about as hard to get to as anywhere he’s had to access for a filming segment. They’ve been to Montana, where Proctor witnessed the biggest, bluest sky he’d ever seen, and during a trip to Fort Stewart in Georgia they got to watch a soldier catch his very first fish.
“Reality shows, they sell. People like them, that’s great. Our show is real,” Proctor said.
Spotlight on Jackson
Real also is the spotlight the show has brought to Jackson County’s treasure trove of angling opportunity, Breedlove said.
“The show’s been wildly successful in generating tourism and overnight visits,” he said.
Jackson County’s Fly Fishing Trail, a map showing the best spots to cast a line in the county, is the first and only fly fishing trail in the nation. Promoting it through television screens playing to 25 million people, Breedlove said, represents an amazing opportunity to show people just what Jackson County is all about.
“This further feeds that desire to get out of the city,” Breedlove said. “It shows a more relaxing way of life.”
During the four days that the team spent in Jackson, they got more than a taste of that way of life — and more than enough fish to brag about on the end of the line. With any luck, they’ll be back again next year.
“That’s our goal, coming back for season four bigger and better,” Proctor said. “The whole concept of fishing and eating and cooking — it’s American. People like that.”
Watch the show
Jackson County’s restaurants and trout waters will appear in two episodes of Anglers & Appetites this summer, scheduled to air in late June or early August, with exact dates yet to be determined.
The show airs across seven states on Fox Sports South and is also available on iTunes.