Watching the water: Top fly fisherman compete in Cherokee at U.S. Nationals
“The good ones always get wet.”
That, says Ben McFall, is how he tells a decent fly fisherman from a fantastic one.
McFall is a veteran fisherman and also a judge at the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championships, held this year from May 20-22 in Cherokee for the very first time.
Sitting on the bank, waiting for a competitor to haul in a trout, is where you can really tell the good from the great, he says — the great will swim, sprint or crawl through the rushing water, fish in hand, to reach the judge’s ruler before heading back out for another catch.
And milling around outside the Holiday Inn in Cherokee early on the morning of final competition, it’s easy to see what he means. The field for this competition is limited to 60, the top 10 from the country’s six regions. They’re a pretty athletic-looking crowd, but the more impressive display is the staggering array of gear. There are nets and rods and reels, of course, but also insanely complex carrying cases, neoprene suits, shirts with neck gaskets favored by elite whitewater kayakers, and are those knee pads? What does a fly fisherman do with knee pads?
Tucker Horne is one competitor who’s jumped on the gear bandwagon. When he qualified for the nationals, he was so thrilled he found it impossible not to gear up. He had to be ready for such a prestigious event.
Horne is a recent college graduate, picking up a bachelor’s in journalism from Western Carolina University just a few short days ago. He calls himself a retired college student. It sounds nicer than unemployed.
Horne is on what is officially known as Northeast Regional Team 2, a nod to the tournament he fished to qualify in State College, Pa., earlier this year. Having spent the last few years at WCU, he’s a regular in most of the waters being fished in the tournament, but none have been very kind to him this weekend.
The contest is split into five different sessions — two a day on Friday and Saturday and one on Sunday — and Horne has turned up little but what anglers call trash fish. In fly fishing, it’s only the trout that count for anything, and the scoring rewards quantity over inch count.
Each fish is worth 100 points, with 20 points tacked on for each centimeter.
Horne isn’t glum about his luck in the tourney, though. Perpetually jocular, he’s rosy-cheeked, bespectacled and what one tournament volunteer jokingly called ‘roomy.’ If the championships had a class clown, Tucker Horne would be it. And he’s thrilled to be competing in such a stacked field at all.
“I’m the worst of the best. It’s like, OK, I went to the Olympics. I’m not going to bitch about not getting a medal. And if Charlie Sheen is winning, then so am I,” he quips.
Competitors are broken into groups for the weekend, making the rounds to all five locations — the upper and lower sections of the Nantahala River, the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County, Cherokee Trophy Waters on the Raven’s Fork River and Calderwood Reservoir in east Tennessee.
This balmy Sunday, Horne and his 11 compatriots are on a bus, rumbling to the Upper Nantahala, to try their hand at the trout one last time.
Watching the water
Though on the surface it would seem otherwise, competitive fly-fishing can be an exhaustingly physical sport. Apart from the intensity of the catches and river fords that McFall mentioned, the format of the competition itself is fairly grueling.
Each session is three hours long, with a 45-minute window on the front end for competitors to scope out their section of lake or river. These sections are called beats, and they vary in size depending on the water. Here on the narrow, sinuous Upper Nantahala, they’re anywhere from 250 to 300 yards.
So hiking through 300 yards of rushing water, toting armloads of gear and trying to entice skittish trout can be a taxing experience.
That’s what Jenny Baldwin says is the most difficult thing about a high-level competition like this.
She, too, is angling the Upper Nantahala today, and she’s the only female competitor in the tournament.
“It’s exhausting,” says Baldwin. “The amount of focus it takes to try to fish every session excellently — well, by the end of three hours, you’re tired.”
Baldwin is Swedish, with the blond hair, blue eyes and tall frame to prove it. She moved stateside 14 years ago and now lives in Boulder, Co., where she’s a horse trainer.
And, she says, for purposes of full disclosure: this is her first fly-fishing tournament ever. Her boyfriend is a competitor, so when a member of their team dropped out and they couldn’t find a replacement, they called Baldwin into service instead of just taking zeros for every session with an open spot.
She’s no novice angler, though. She’s been fly fishing for 10 years, and fishing in some capacity for most of her life. She doesn’t know many other women in the sport, apart from her best friend. But she says they both love getting out on the river.
“It’s the only thing that makes time stand completely still,” says Baldwin.
But even if she didn’t qualify like the rest of the contenders, her presence is still notable. When the bus stops to pick up some competitors, a female judge — they’re called controllers — sticks her head on the bus to say she’d heard about Baldwin, and she’s so pleased there’s a woman in the ranks this year. She, herself, is a fly fisher.
And they’re becoming more common fixtures in the water, according to a survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. It estimates that 35 percent of fly fishers are now women.
The competitive arena, though, is still dominated by men, and back on the river, the competition is pretty fierce. In fly-fishing, unlike other sports, there aren’t just the other players to beat, there’s the clock, the water, the fish and whoever else chooses to be in the water that day.
This particular morning is a sunny, warm May Sunday — in short, the perfect morning for anglers of all stripes to dust off their winterized rods and reels and head to the river. And while most will acquiesce and move to another slice of water when they hear a national competitor is wading in, some don’t. One local fisherman — improbably dressed in drenched cargo shorts, dress socks and loafers — spent most of the morning wandering the riverbank, apologizing to everyone he met for interrupting the competition. But another group of wizened elder Floridians met a controllers’ request that they move with a polite “good luck” and then kept on fishing.
Back at the second beat, Tucker Horne says it’s this uncertainty that he loves about fishing. And does he ever love fishing. Horne is from Davidson, and turned down lucrative scholarships elsewhere to come to WCU so he could fish in the plethora of renowned waters that dot the surrounding mountains.
“I mean, what makes it fun is that you’re also fishing against the fish. If the fish aren’t there, you’re not going to catch them,” says Horne. But what he and many others relish about being in such talented company is watching the real masters prove that adage wrong, pulling trout upon trout from seemingly fishless waters.
“It’s amazing to see a good fisherman,” says Horne. “Those people are just fishy. They just know where the fish are. They pay really explicit attention to detail — they can pick up on little stuff and then use it to their advantage.”
And in that way, fly-fishing for fun and fly-fishing to win are two quite disparate things, say most of the competitors and controllers. A real contender is there to read the water, to mentally navigate the current, watching the swirl of the surface, looking for pockets and deep holes and then working them methodically, pulling fish from each one. An amateur fisherman will chase a fish, says Ben McFall, while top-notch anglers pursue the water.
Devon Olson is one of those guys. He took home second place in the contest and has been on Team USA since before his 21st birthday. He’s a Utah native and in this trip on the Upper Nanty, he pulled a fish about every 7 minutes. So is Coloradan Chris Galvin, who finished the weekend in the top third. He says this level of love for fishing just isn’t teachable.
“Trying to explain why you like fishing is almost impossible,” says 41-year-old Galvin. “It’s like it’s genetic. I have the gene.”
But at the end of the day, all say it’s the camaraderie, not the accolades, that keep them coming back.
At the end of three hours, they strip off hip waders and slink from the mottled shadows and glittering surf of the river, sharing beers and swapping stories on the bus ride home.
Jenny Baldwin pulled in three fish. Devin Olsen caught about nine times more. And no one seems to care too much.
“We did a lot of tree rescues for my flies,” says Baldwin with an easy laugh. “I air launched a few, too.” Shouldn’t she get credit for those? she chuckles.
Of course there are fish stories — “man, he’s convincing sometimes when he’s lying,” said one angler, after another jokingly bragged of his 37-fish haul — but mostly there’s collegial friendship. And when they disembark and snap a final picture, the same sentiment is ubiquitous: we’ll have to do this again next year.
Landing the big one: National Fly Fishing Championship coming to Cherokee
Want to see some of the best fly-fishing imaginable? The 2011 U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship will be held May 19 through May 22. It will be headquartered in Cherokee with fishing held on several waterways in the region
The event is hosted by the N.C. Fly Fishing Team, in partnership with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Fish and Wildlife Management and the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
This is the first time the event has been in the Southeast. The championship will see 60 of the top fly fishermen from around the U.S. Competitors for the 2011 National Fly Fishing Championships first had to qualify at regional competitions around the country.
Numerous businesses, organizations and volunteers have worked together to host the event here.
“There has been a true partnership with everyone doing what they can to help make the event successful,” said Matt Pegg, Executive Director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, who is excited about the exposure the event will bring.
Catch some of the action
Spectators are welcome to watch the competition. Competitors are split into groups and dispatched to one of five rivers. They then rotate over the course of the competition. Each river is divided into sections, with anglers assigned a specific section so they won’t be bumping into each other.
• Lower Nantahala River from just above Little Wesser Falls to the double bridge at Winding Stair Road.
• Cherokee Trophy Waters of the Raven’s Fork River, from the Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge to the pedestrian bridge at a campground.
• Tuckaseegee River, from the N.C. 116 bridge in Webster upstream to the N.C. 107 Bridge
• Upper Nantahala River from the confluence of generation canal just beside the Duke Energy Power Plant upstream to White Oak Creek.
• Calderwood Reservoir below the Cheoah Dam.
Anglers will be practicing on other area waters all week, but are barred from fishing on the competition sections until the competition day.
Fishing out of water
Gary Mann was working as a mortgage banker in Philadelphia when he read Cold Mountain during a trip to the beach. The book, written by his second cousin Charles Frazier, made his heart ache for Haywood County.
“About the second day after reading it, I told my girlfriend I was moving back,” said Mann.
Mann, who grew up moving every three years because of his father’s work, attended Tuscola High School, and his mother’s family has lived in Ratcliffe Cove for a couple centuries.
Having decided to leave the mortgage industry and move back to his mountain home, Mann was in the market for a new line of work. Eager to get in some fishing while he figured it out, he pulled up the Waynesville Fly Shop’s website looking for flow schedules on local rivers controlled by dams. That’s when he noticed the business was for sale.
“It was basically a done deal when I saw that,” Mann said.
And that’s how Gary Mann, a local boy who had wandered in search of his fortune, came home to buy up a fly.
If you walk into the Waynesville Fly Shop, you’ll notice a long plastic folding table with a fly tying vice on it and three or four men sitting around talking. At any given time, you could be in the presence of more than 200 combined years of fly fishing experience. The table is the heart of the Waynesville Fly Shop, and in many ways it’s the heart of Haywood County’s fly-fishing scene.
Rex Wilson, 70, a regular at the shop, has been using dry flies to fish for trout since 1962, the year his father-in-law Gary Smith took him on a trip to the Davidson River. Back then you could fish Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and after checking in and paying a buck, you were entitled to 10 fish.
Wilson and shop manager Doug Mitchell grew up fishing Haywood County in that era, when the mills were everyone’s line of work and fishing knowledge was kept close to the vest.
The two men now carry on the fly tying traditions of Frank Coffee and Benny Jo Craig, two men who standardized the region’s most distinctive fly-tying patterns.
“Way back it was kind of a secret how to tie flies,” Wilson said. “People wouldn’t just tell you.”
Wilson earned his stripes filling orders for Coffee, who sold to distributors in East Tennessee and Asheville. He remembers tying his first dozen and looking on nervously as Coffee went over each fly with his magnifying glass.
“I reckon I could use these,” Coffee had said.
Since then, Wilson has tied thousands of dozens of flies and is still the primary local source for the Coffee Stone Nymph — or sometimes referred locally as the “Dayco Nymph” in reference to the rubber factory in Waynesville where the materials for the fly originated.
“Rex won’t tell you this, but he is a master fly tier,” said Mann.
Mitchell, now 56, grew up in Hazelwood. He first went fly fishing on the West Fork of the Pigeon River as a 7-year-old with his uncle and has been fishing for everything from large and smallmouth bass to wild trout since then.
Mitchell ran guided trips for the shop’s previous owner, Matt Rosenthal, and was a regular at Roger Lowe’s fly shop in Waynesville before that. Lowe raised the bar for the fly fishing industry in Western North Carolina and served as an important generational link in the chain of mountain fly tying traditions.
Mitchell got hooked on tying flies at Tuscola High School, where his biology teacher Pat Powell initiated him to the mysteries of the art.
“My biology teacher was a fly fisherman and a fly tier, and I asked him to show me,” Mitchell said. “I might have flunked biology, but I passed fly tying.”
For Mitchell, being a mountain fisherman is about upholding a code and refining a skill that takes a lifetime to perfect.
“True mountain fisherman are so good with a dry fly, they can catch anything, but these are humble people,” Mitchell said. “They don’t go around telling people everything they know.”
Another regular at the Waynesville Fly Shop, Rodger McIntyre, was born and raised near Pine Bluff, Ark., and started work at the Canton Paper Mill in 1966. He floats Lake Junaluska with Mitchell regularly, and after 50 years, still marvels at the thrill of watching his quarry rise.
“It’s just seeing that little fish come up and take a dry fly. You see that once, and you’re hooked,” McIntyre said.
For McIntyre, the fly shop is a place you can act like a fisherman.
“You see what’s going on and you get new ideas,” McIntyre said.
Jason Van Dyke, 36, started fly fishing when he was 14 and runs guide trips for Waynesville Fly Shop. You can hear the reverence in Van Dyke’s voice when he talks about the other guys in the store.
“A lot of shops aren’t like this anymore. They don’t have a hometown feel. It’s a rare thing these days,” said Van Dyk, who likes to sit at the table and mine for knowledge about tying patterns, local hot spots and hatch schedules.
While the Waynesville Fly Shop may be the last best repository of local fishing knowledge, it’s also a community exchange for a host of fishermen who have come to the area later in life.
CFOT stands for Codgers Fishing on Tuesday, a group of men who frequent the shop and fish together every week. The group’s name is self-explanatory and owes its origin to the fact that member Dick Morgan has Tuesday off work.
William “Billy” Lamar III, 71, originally from the South Carolina low country, has been fishing “since Moby Dick was a minnow,” having gotten his first bamboo rod at the age of 6. Lamar is CFOT’s historian.
“We fish a little, but we kibitz a lot,” Lamar said.
Tom Hopkins, 69, another CFOT mainstay, started fly fishing for bluegills at 10 years old on Lake Schaeffer in northern Indiana. He met Lamar at the Waynesville Sub Shop and asked him about a fly-fishing pin in his hat. Lamar invited him fishing.
“I knew him for about 90 seconds, and he invited me into his world of fishing,” Hopkins said. “I’ve never had the nice, close relationships I’ve had since I moved here. I guess it’s a Southern thing, and I do appreciate that.”
Barney Neal, who recently moved up from Tampa Bay, Fla., full time, is the newest addition to the Tuesday fishing gang. Neal spent 35 years as a golf professional and picked up fly fishing last year after taking a few out of town guests on one of the shop’s guided tours of the Cherokee trophy waters. Now he fishes every week in good company.
“All of my fishing companions have at least 50 years of experience. How could I go wrong?” Neal said.
Lamar recently returned from a fly-fishing trip in Yellowstone National Park during which he fished the Lamar River, named for his ancestor Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The experience, while thrilling, didn’t hold a candle to his experiences in the wilds of Western North Carolina.
“I prefer living where I live and fishing where I fish,” Lamar said.
The reason, according to Lamar, is the community at the Waynesville Fly Shop.
“You know what this table really is?” Mitchell said. “It’s fishing out of water. More fish have been caught at this table than any stream in the mountains.”
“And the fish are getting bigger every day,” Lamar said.
The Waynesville Fly Shop offers guided tours on rivers throughout the region, fly tying materials, and all the goodies and gear that come with the sport of fly fishing. But it also offers knowledge and community to those with the patience to appreciate it.
“I think it’s one of the few industries left where you need people to tell you what’s going on,” Mann said. “Otherwise people would just go to the big box stores. The reason we’re competitive is because of the knowledge.”
For Mann, the effort of keeping a tradition alive is especially rewarding because he dropped everything for a chance to come home to his family tree.
“Having a deep-rooted history here just makes it mean much more to me personally,” Mann said. “It’s important for me to carry on the tradition of the fly patterns of the Smoky Mountains.”
Cherokee outfitter store to offer premium guide service
Cherokee’s trout streams have earned their reputation as the crown jewel of North Carolina’s trophy waters, and now the area has an outfitter shop of the same quality. Business partners Joe Street, Chris Anderson and Steve Mingle, building on the success of their Spruce Pine store, believe their new all-purpose outfitter shop will help make Cherokee a national trout Mecca.
“Our goal is really to be the best fly shop on the East Coast,” Street said.
Joe Street’s ambitious plans for River’s Edge Outfitters Cherokee were incubated during a 20-year corporate career at UPS in Atlanta. An avid fisherman who used his guided trips as a pressure release, Street retired to his home in Spruce Pine two years ago knowing where he wanted to put his passion.
“It had always been a dream of mine to open up a fly fishing shop, and in the world’s worst economy, we decided we would go for it,” Street said.
The Spruce Pine store offers a full range of top-of-the-line gear and a two-mile stretch of private trophy water. With the tourism economy lagging in general, Street said he was only a little surprised that River’s Edge did so well.
“Rather than people doing elaborate vacations, they’re spending more time within a three-hour ride from home,” Street said. “The store’s had a lot of success.”
With some of the best trout water in the nation, less than three hours from Atlanta, and only a little ways down the Blue Ridge from their Spruce Pine store, the partners kept track of what was going on in Cherokee.
“We’ve been watching Cherokee for a while and saw how well they managed the fishery. We did some market research and we felt the area needed an outfitter shop,” Street said.
Spruce Pine only gets about 200,000 tourists per year and Cherokee, as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and home to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, beats that number by about 3.8 million.
Add to that fact Cherokee is centrally located within striking distance of the Tuckasegee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee, Watauga, Little Tennessee, French Broad and South Holston rivers and the thousands of miles of streams that flow into them, and you’ve got a formula for success.
Street wants the shop’s outfitter trips to spread the joy he felt when he was still in the corporate trenches.
“It was my getaway, my stress reliever,” Street said. “When I left UPS to move back to the mountains, I wanted to share that with people.”
Street, Anderson and Mingle are newcomers to Cherokee, and they relied on strong local connections to execute their plan. They had made friends with television fishing host Curtis Fleming.
Fleming brought his Fly Rod Chronicles to Cherokee last year, and he had already built relationships with local guide Eugene Shuler. Street said Shuler supplied the missing piece of the puzzle.
“We knew no one guide-wise, so we hired Eugene to direct our guide operation and he has a network of guides, so it’s a perfect fit,” Street said.
An experienced local guide, captain of the North Carolina Fly Fishing Team, and creator of the Southeast Fly Fishing Forum, Shuler had a network of friends with decades of on-the-water experience in the area.
“It’s kind of a neat thing,” Shuler said. “I knew their abilities and skill levels and the way they were on the water, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to put a team together.”
Shuler said his team of 12 guides will emphasize customer service and friendliness, but the focus is still going to be the abundance of prime fishing water.
“The Southeast is slowly becoming the West in terms of fly fishing,” Shuler said. “Our rivers may not be quite as wide as some of theirs, but we just have great water and great fishing.”
With that kind of water and a steady supply of tourist passing through Cherokee because of its casino and other draws, a large-scale outfitter was the only thing missing.
River’s Edge Outfitters in Cherokee will model itself after the biggest full-service outfitter shops in the West. The shop will offer a full range of gear with top of the line brands like Sage, Simms, St. Croix, and TFO, as well as every kind of trip from all-day floats and wading trips to week-long backcountry adventures.
They’ve even got partnerships in the works with local bed and breakfasts and cabin rentals to create a seamless fishing vacation experience for beginners and experts alike.
“Sometime fly-fishing comes off as being stiff to folks, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Shuler said.
Joe Street said the Spruce Pine shop has been successful making fly fishing approachable for groups by providing features like catered lunches and specialty trips for women.
“It’ll be something you won’t find many places,” Shuler said.
River’s Edge Outfitters Cherokee, located on the west side of N.C. 441 a few miles south of NC. 19, opened Saturday, Feb. 27, and the guide service will be ready in time to launch trips for walleye during their spring run.
Shuler said his guides will harness their experience in creative ways to go after white bass, walleye, carp, smallmouth bass, and, of course, the mammoth trophy trout that make Cherokee’s waters so spectacular.
On April 17, the shop will hold a grand opening to celebrate its involvement with Healing Waters, a nonprofit fly fishing program for injured war veterans.
River’s Edge Outfitters Cherokee will also offer free fly fishing clinics every Saturday at the shop. For Street, that’s just part of spreading the word.
“Trout only grow in beautiful places, and it’s a great way to get outdoors and relieve the stress for a while,” Street said.
For info, visit www.flyfishcherokee.com.
NOC to hold fly-fishing tournament with a twist
The Nantahala Outdoor Center will hold its first ever fly-fishing competition Oct. 17 and 18 on the Nantahala River in Swain County.
The first day’s events will be held at the Nantahala Outdoor Center on U.S. 19 in the Gorge and will include a lineup of unique casting events.
“The first one is going to be this thing where competitors have to hit targets that are floating down the river,” said J.E.B. Hall, fishing programs director at NOC.
It’s not unusual for fly-fishing contests to have a qualifying round involving accuracy, but it is usually done on dry land with targets set up in a large field. The floating targets at the NOC contest will each be a different size and carry a different point value.
In the qualifying rounds, competitors will also try their luck casting for distance — again with a twist.
“They can’t use a rod and must use their hands,” Hall said.
The top 10 competitors go on to compete in the second-day, fishing part of the competition, held on the river from the Swain County line downstream to Little Wesser Falls. Fishermen will only be allowed to use one fly.
“There are a lot of fishing tournaments out there, but we wanted to make something different,” Hall said.
The NOC is known for its rafting trips, but the business has also begun offering fly-fishing trips from Asheville to east Tennessee.
“It [fly-fishing] is such a big thing in that part of North Carolina that they wanted to have their own fishing tournament,” Hall said.
The NOC hopes to make this an annual event. It was spurred this year by an early end to the rafting season.
“The river’s not running for the month of October, so we wanted to have some events throughout the month that would kind of fill in for that,” Hall said.
During October, Duke Energy is doing some work on its powerhouse on the lower portion of the river. That work will prevent the company from releasing enough water for whitewater rafting.
While the river may be too low for rafting, the natural flow should provide plenty of water for fishing, he said.
Ben Wiggins, who lives in Bryson City, said the natural flow of the river should make for some good fishing.
Wiggins has been fly-fishing for 12 years, but this will be his first competitive event.
“I think it’s going to be more of a lighthearted event,” Wiggins said.
Angling for attention: New fly-fishing shop hopes to fill void in Waynesville
When Matt Rosenthal opened the doors of a new fly-fishing shop in Waynesville last week, word spread quickly among the fishing community. All week, fishermen moseyed through the new Waynesville Fly Shop, sizing up the owner Matt Rosenthal as much as his wares.
Working on the fly
By Michael Beadle
Wintertime may not offer the best opportunities for fly-fishing, but that doesn’t mean fly fishers aren’t busy.
Filming on the fly
By Sarah Kucharski
Standing in the shallows of the Tuckasegee River between Webster and Dillsboro, cold water flowing around the ankles of his waders, longtime fisherman Steve Henson asked fly-fishing guide Roger Lowe what they could expect from the day’s upcoming fishing trip.
Winter Fishing is more than it gets credit for
By Eugene Shuler
Winter is a great time to go fishing. Don’t believe me? Just look at what you don’t see this time of year, and that’s other people on the water fishing your favorite spot.
Cherokee reels in North Carolina Casting Championships
Top fly and bass fishermen will be coming to Cherokee to show off their skills at the North Carolina Casting Championships scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 4.
The casting competition will be held at the Cherokee Fairgrounds. Fishermen will compete for both accuracy and distance.