Beyond the river: Fly fishing camp builds confident, conservation-minded kids
Rods, reels, and wader-clad teenagers dotted Big East Fork’s meander to Lake Logan through the warm summer mornings last week, a picture of mountain tranquility framed between green-shrouded banks backlit by the mountain-bordered reservoir downstream.
“It’s pretty relaxing,” said Gabby Dilemme, 14, of Brevard. The rod she grasped was her own, an instrument she’s used before when fishing with friends. But at Rivercourse, the annual four-day fly fishing and conservation camp organized by N.C. Trout Unlimited, she was hoping to dig a little deeper into the sport.
“She’s doing really well,” said John Davis, the seasoned angler accompanying Dilemme that morning. The cast-fly combo Dilemme was rolling with is “not the easiest thing in the world for a beginner,” he said, “so I’d say she’s not a beginner.”
That’s a phenomenon that seems to happen at Rivercourse, a program now in its 15th year. If past years are any metric, the 18 kids attending — some of the 13- to 15-year-olds have never cast a line before, while others have been tramping through streams since childhood — will be bona fide fishermen and fisherwomen before they leave. That’s something to be proud of, but it’s not exactly what the camp is about, said one of its founding leaders Bob Doubert, 75.
“The objective of the camp is not to make fly fishermen,” Doubert said. “The objective of the camp is to help kids appreciate cold mountain streams, and hopefully in the future they’ll work to protect them.”
Fly anglers love nothing more than to snag a giant trout on the line, but beautiful trout tend to live in beautiful places. So, preserving the tradition of fly fishing necessarily includes preserving the environments where fish live.
And trout can be picky. This warm, dry June season is a good example, Doubert said.
“Trout have a very high metabolism, and as a result of that they need a lot of oxygen,” he said, adding that it’s easy to see that this June’s lower stream flows and higher temperatures have depressed the fishing.
While half the campers had lines out in Big East Fork, the rest of them were clustered around tables in the air conditioned hall, tying flies. A few minutes spent questioning them was enough to confirm that Rivercourse had driven its message home rather solidly.
“I feel like this camp is going to benefit the environment by teaching us about conservation,” said Anthony Anderson, 14, of Charlotte.
Anderson hopes to become a marine biologist one day — though he lives in an urban area, Rivercourse has given him the chance to learn about aquatic ecosystems firsthand.
The Rivercourse curriculum includes a lot more than just casting and fly tying. Campers got to travel to the Bobby N. Setzer Fish Hatchery in Brevard, where they saw fish ranging from tiny hatchlings to mature brood fish. They got to see a fish dissection. Biologists from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park came by to do some electrofishing, a technique that uses an electric shock to temporarily stun all fish in an area for analysis. They even got to see a raptor demonstration and let the huge birds eat meat from their hands.
“They should let more people than just 18 come,” said Sarah Anderson, 12, of Georgia.
Anderson raved about the food — so much better than at her school cafeteria — and about the cabins they got to stay in. But she also effused enthusiasm about the environmental side of things — seeing a bald eagle, for instance, and having the satisfaction of hooking a trout with a fly you tied yourself.
“It’s fun to tie your own fly and catch fish because you get really happy,” she said. “Because of all the work you put into it, and you get something good out of it.”
The all-volunteer staff at Rivercourse is there in large part because they love fishing and want to pass it on to the next generation. That’s a core desire for Rex Wilson, 76, of Candler, who’s in his second year working at Rivercourse. Wilson learned to tie flies with the legendary Frank Coffey and hopes to see those techniques live on far into the future.
“If you don’t teach these kids, it’s going to die out,” he said. “To me that’s one of the most important things.”
But the mission of Rivercourse in some ways transcends fishing. Those who have been working the camp throughout its 15 years of existence have seen their fair share of tear-jerking turnarounds.
For instance, Doubert said, years ago the Pisgah Chapter of Trout Unlimited gave a Rivercourse scholarship to an area Boys & Girls Club.
“The director said to me, ‘I have this one girl who is ready to drop off the edge. I hope you can do something for her,’” Doubert recalled.
The girl proved to be a “delightful” camper, Doubert said, and when she returned home after Rivercourse, the director was amazed at the completely different outlook she brought with her. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans afterward, that same girl led a group of Boys & Girls Club members to go help.
Steve Herring, of Saluda, is another long-time Rivercourse volunteer who remembers a similar story, about a different girl from a different Boys & Girls Club.
Upon arriving to Rivercourse, he said, “she was a wallflower. She was scared of her own shadow.”
But something changed during the course of the week.
“She went back to the Boys & Girls Club, and she was a leader of that club,” Herring said.
Many of the kids who attend Rivercourse pay for the experience — though the camp has no paid staff, the cost of operation places tuition at $595. But some kids get to come on scholarship, experiencing the camp even though their families might not have the means to pay. Nobody except the kid knows who paid and who’s on scholarship, so campers go through the week on equal footing.
“The most important thing is to teach them to be compassionate with their fellow campers and share with each other,” Herring said — whether that’s sharing equipment, fishing spots or tips about where to spot a bald eagle.
Compassion comes from the adult leaders as well, and that’s a force that Herring attributes to the transformations he’s witnessed in Rivercourse campers.
“A bunch of adults will sit down and spend time with them, and they’re not even getting paid for it,” he said of the kids’ perception of the staff. “They can’t even believe that.”
The experience allows trust to build in teens who may not have experienced many trustworthy adults in their lives.
Which takes the impact of Rivercourse even further. It’s not just about fishing — it’s about environmental stewardship. And it’s not just about environmental stewardship — it’s about bolstering kids’ confidence and widening their outlook on life.
“It’s a beautiful way to give back to the community,” said Ron Gaddy, of Jonathan Creek. “For me, there’s nothing I can do that is more important than this.”
Give a hand
Rivercourse, a fishing and conservation camp organized by N.C. Trout Unlimited, has just wrapped up its 15th year but is already looking forward to the next.
Financial donations help keep the camp’s future secure and can give kids from low-income families the chance to attend on scholarship. Hundreds of volunteer hours go into planning and executing the program each year.