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Bryson City builds on fishing tourism with new aquarium

Bryson City builds on fishing tourism with new aquarium

With fly-fishing tourism on the rise in Western North Carolina, a new attraction in Bryson City will bring visitors up-close and personal with up to 50 species of freshwater fish. 

“It’s looking good — for the space we have, it’s jam packed full of display tanks and we’re putting a lot of fish in front of people,” said Alen Baker, a fly-fishing enthusiast who has helped spearhead the project. 

The aquarium — an extension of the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians housed inside the Swain County Chamber of Commerce building — has been in the works for the last couple of years. It’s all been made possible thanks to a collaboration between the county, the chamber of commerce and Tourism Development Authority and the nonprofit that founded the fly-fishing museum.



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The county owned the land along the Tuckasegee River in town and funded the construction costs of about $100,000; the chamber/TDA has provided a staff member to act as aquarium director to oversee operations and the nonprofit folks have raised the funds needed to purchase all the freshwater tanks and other equipment needed inside. 

“There have been a lot of contributors that have gone above and beyond to make this aquarium happen,” said Rita Jones, the new aquarium director.


What’s to see?

Baker said they’re still in the process of bringing in different aquatic wildlife to the aquarium, but when all is said and done, visitors will be able to see 30 to 50 different regional game and non-gamefish.

The aquarium has more than a dozen tanks ranging from 75 gallons to 620 gallons, including three tanks that make up the Mountain Stream exhibit featuring a waterfall that flows into the tank. The exhibit will contain northern and southern strains of brook trout and at times tiger trout, which is a natural, sterile hybrid brook-brown trout. 

“Once we get the trout in then we can work on the bottom fish like red horse and suckers,” Baker said.

Three smaller tanks will be home to small gamefish like dace, minnows, shiners, darters, madtoms and sculpins while other tanks will exhibit non-gamefish like sunfish, crappie, black bass, temperate bass, pike, bowfin, gar and catfish.

A pair of hellbenders, the largest salamander found in North Carolina, have already settled into their new 450-gallon tank at the aquarium. They were flown in from Minnesota where they’ve been held in captivity at a zoo for the last seven years. These particular eel-like salamanders — also known in these parts as water dog, mud puppy, devil dog and snot otter — were raised from eggs in Dallas, Texas, before outgrowing their space and being shipped to Minnesota. 

Baker said they are actually small for hellbenders — one is 15 inches long and the other is a little smaller. However, the pair will have a larger tank at the aquarium, which will allow them to grow larger. 

“They’ll get bigger. They’re small for their age because of their surroundings in the past but we’ve noticed they’re eating well,” he said. “The other day the sun hit the tank from the skylight and the second hellbender moved into the sun and was as happy as can be. They go up for a gulp of air every once in a while but at that age they’re gilled like fish and don’t really need to be on land.”

Seeing these elusive creatures up close will be a treat since they are such a rare find in the wild. Baker, an avid fisherman, said he’d only seen a hellbender a few times during his lifetime. “I’ve seen three in trout stream in 38 years — you have to fish certain places where they’re located. I saw one two years ago near the Virginia line that was 2 feet long,” he said. “In nature they live an average of 20 years if something doesn’t get ‘em, but in captivity they can live 30 years and as long as 50.”

Acquiring hellbenders is no simple task. Baker said state and federal permits had to be obtained in order to be able to transport the endangered species from Minnesota and hold them in captivity in Bryson City. 


Tourism draw

Swain County has been working to brand itself as the ”Fly-Fishing Capital of the Smokies” for the last several years. It’s a good strategy considering 87 percent of the county is federally owned national park and national forest land. 

The art of fly-fishing seems to be making a comeback in the region thanks to the efforts of Baker and other fly-fishermen hellbent on keeping it going. 

“The people that helped develop the museum saw fly-fishing as a dying sport and they didn’t want that history to be forgotten,” Jones said. 

With Fontana Lake, the Nantahala, Little Tennessee, Oconaluftee, and the Tuckasegee rivers all flowing through the county, Swain’s natural resources make it an ideal location for all kinds of fishing adventures.

Former Bryson City alderman Rick Bryson led an effort a few years ago to get the Wildlife Resource Commission to designate Bryson City as a Trout City. The town earned the designation in the fall of 2017, which allows for some bragging rights but also allows visitors to come fish on the Tuckasegee River for three days on a $5 license.

“When Rick Bryson was on the board he had Bryson City declared a Trout City so I think the aquarium is an enhancement of that,” said Swain Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead. “The aquarium shows what kind of aquatic life there is in the rivers here.”

It also ties nicely into the downtown area and improvements being made to attract tourists for more than an afternoon. Bushyhead said the fly-fishing museum has been a big draw as well as the heritage museum in the historic courthouse, the farmers market area behind the museum and now the aquarium along the river. 

“We want it to become an oasis for tourists,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a good addition and I’m excited to see the final product.”

About 15,000 people visited the fly-fishing museum last year, and Baker hopes the addition of the aquarium will only create more excitement around both attractions. 

Jones said having the fly-fishing museum located inside the chamber building will be an ideal way to direct interested visitors over to the aquarium to see more. 

“The aquarium is just going to fit in with with everything else offered in Swain County — it’s going to go hand in hand with the museum and all the other fishing resources we have here,” she said. “When tourists come to the chamber we can send them across to the aquarium and vice versa. Everyone in town seems to be excited about it opening this summer.” 

Baker says the aquarium will attract experienced fishermen, as well as those interested in learning more about fly-fishing techniques and families looking to keep their kids entertained on vacation. “Deep down I’m not sure a family could turn down coming by to see the fish — it will be another attraction for visitors and hopefully that brings business for local restaurants and hotels in town,” he said. “Fly fishermen won’t be able to resist coming to see the fish either.”

While there are several commercial aquariums in the region, this one is unique because it’s specifically focused on freshwater fish found in the Southern Appalachians. Yet, there will be species on display people of Western North Carolina might not see every day in mountain streams — like the paddlefish found in the Mississippi River Basin or the sturgeons found in Kentucky. 


Science education

The freshwater aquarium and science center will also offer plenty of educational opportunities for students of all ages. 

“We plan to have a lot of things kids will like — they can even get under the tank and see the hellbenders from below since that’s where they tend to stay,” Baker said. “We’ll also have turtles, frogs and salamanders and crayfish in the tanks.” The aquarium was built to accommodate student field trips with indoor and outdoor science class space and staff plans to work closely with the Swain County Schools system to offer programming. 

“We’re going to support the schools in doing a Trout in the Classroom project where they raise a trout from eggs and then release them into the stream,” Baker said. “It’s a partnership with a Trout Unlimited chapter and we have spare tanks and chillers to loan out to schools if they need it.”

An intern program for high school and college students is also in the works. An intern could come with with the aquatic science center to learn about the fish and the operations as well as the fish collection process and any other field work needed. 

Bushyhead said he’s excited about the educational opportunities for the community and tourists. 

“Even I learned something new the other day. The aquarium has what I used to call mud puppies, which we were always told were supposed to be dangerous and cannibalistic, but I learned that’s false information — just old folklore,” he said. “We were always told if we caught one to just cut the line and move on, but you should actually take the hook out if possible and release them. So now we have that resource of information we can offer to people coming to Bryson City from great distances away.”

Bushyhead said some species being exhibited at the aquarium — like the river redhorse — will also allow people to learn more about Cherokee culture. 

“The redhorse was very important to the Cherokee and their meals. The only thing I remember about it as a kid was that it had so many small bones it was hard to eat in anything other than a stew,” Bushyhead recalled. 


Museum fundraising

The aquarium project might not have come together at all had the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians not had to vacate the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce building in 2016. 

The museum opened in Cherokee in 2015, but the tribal government decided not to renew the lease in 2016, leaving the museum without a home. Swain County officials saw an opportunity to add more fly-fishing tourism infrastructure to the community. 

About the same time the museum was moving to Bryson City, Swain County commissioners approved borrowing $425,000 to complete several projects — $300,000 for the fairgrounds property, $25,000 to construct a stage on the property and $100,000 toward constructing the fly-fishing museum expansion project to house the aquarium on Island Street. 

The Swain County Tourism Development Authority took on the responsibility of making the $52,000 annual payment on the loan using occupancy tax revenue. The building was ready last spring and volunteer began ordering the large tanks and other equipment needed for the aquarium. The large tanks didn’t arrive until December, which delayed progress for a few months. 

“We couldn’t do anything until the large tanks were in place,” Baker said. “We’ve probably had a dozen people who’ve helped do the tanks and probably six or seven different plumbers from Upscale Aquatics Shop — where aquarium was designed — provide in-kind low labor costs.”

In addition to the county’s contribution, the fly-fishing museum is a nonprofit organization and has been working on raising funds to pay for all the equipment needed and operation costs. 

“Our goal was to raise $100,000 and we’re in the nineties now —  things left to cover are the backup systems,” Baker said. “Between the museum and the aquarium in the last five years we’ve raised over $250,000.” 

As for how ongoing operational expenses will be covered, Bushyhead said he wasn’t able to answer that question just yet. While the chamber will be in charge of providing staff, booking school field trip events and overseeing day-to-day operations, he said the chamber and commissioners haven’t ironed out a complete agreement yet. 

Jones said the aquarium will charge a small admission fee to help cover operational costs. 

Baker said donations are still being accepted to help the museum and aquarium grow. Whether it’s a monetary donation or you want to donate nightcrawlers to keep the hellbenders fed, contact the museum at 828.488.3681.


Appalachian Rivers Aquarium and Aquatic Science Center

• 117 Island Street, Bryson City along the Tuckasegee River

• Grand opening will be scheduled in June

• For more information, visit or call 828.488.3681.


Swain County fishing resources

Swain County’s mountain lake, rivers and streams are a fisherman’s paradise. Whether you are fly-fishing for native brook trout in a cold mountain stream, smallmouth or largemouth bass in beautiful Fontana Lake or rainbow or brown trout in one of the many stocked streams or rivers, Swain County hosts one of the most diverse fishing habitats in the world.

• The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest offer hundreds of miles of spectacularly clear streams. Just a few minutes from Bryson City, the sparkling waters of Deep Creek are ripe for fly fishing, and many anglers enjoy the Nantahala River just west of town, particularly the section above the powerhouse on Wayah Road (pictured).

• Delayed Harvest – Wildlife Resources Commission designated 2.2 miles of the Tuckasegee River in downtown Bryson City as Delayed Harvest Trout Waters. DH Map and regulations The DH Waters are from the US 19 bridge (at Darnell Farms) to the Slope Street bridge in town. 

• The Little Tennessee River west of Bryson City off the Needmore Road is a wide, cold, boulder-strewn river – perfect for smallmouth bass, brim, rock bass and muskie.

• The Qualla Boundary also offers a variety of fishing opportunities for the trout fisherman with regularly stocked streams, trophy waters and three trout ponds. Cherokee holds several tagged fish tournaments, a fly-fishing tournament in the trophy waters and a trout derby for children every year. 

• Jackson County also has its own fly-fishing trail and map, with information at the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce

• Fontana Lake boasts one of the most diverse fish populations anywhere in the country. With depths of over 400 feet, many northern fish such as walleye, muskie and smallmouth bass are among favorites of local fishermen.


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