Plans unfold for fly fishing museum

out frBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent 

Each year, an estimated 50,000 people visit Cherokee looking to hit it big, but instead of casting lots at Harrah’s, they’re casting lines into the miles of stocked and protected streams that flow through the Qualla Boundary. 

While the casino remains the dominant moneymaker in town, the town’s reputation as a fly fishing destination is gaining an economic toehold in the tourism business here. With fishing waters open year round, tournaments and derbies to choose from in every season of the year, and a stock of 400,000 trout poured into the ponds and streams annually, Cherokee can offer more than a few incentives to entice a fisherman seeking a new venue. 

All in the family — Sunburst Trout Farm

coverA crisp wind blows through Haywood County. Gazing upward, dark clouds slowly take over the sky while a few ominous raindrops are felt. For many, it may seem to be the official death knell to summer. But for Sally Eason, it’s a sign of great things to come. 

“We love this weather, and we’re probably the only people around here that do,” she chuckled. 

Bringing back the brookie: Successful restoration paints bright future for native trout

out frIn the early 1900s, Florence Cope Bush, author of Dorie: Woman of the Mountains, described native brook trout as being so numerous that it was near impossible for her mother to dip a wash pan in a mountain stream without it filling with their small, brown and orange speckled bodies. Bush’s mother grew up on land that was taken to form the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but her experience with the fish is common to the region.

Jackson towns tout new ‘trout city’ status

out frMore than a third of the tourists who come knocking at the Jackson County visitor center these days have trout fishing on their mind.

A push in recent years to market the county as trout paradise is clearly paying off, and now the string of towns in Jackson County that claim the Tuckasegee River as their backyard have yet another tool to lure fishing aficionados.

No recourse for trout farmer in wake of menacing landslides

fr landslideHoward Brown doesn’t sleep well when there’s rain in the forecast.

His trout farm in Nantahala — teaming with $400,000 worth of rainbow trout at any given time — has twice been victim of near miss landslides from a road on a too-steep slope above him.

Cherokee Trout Hatchery back on track after flash flood

Several raceways were completely submerged in water, hundreds of thousands of trout laid dead on the ground, and the national trout hatchery in Cherokee lost nearly two-thirds of its stock. That was the picture of the hatchery in Cherokee not even one year ago when heavy rains sent a 10-foot wall of water washed over it.

“It was bad. It was real bad,” said Robert Blankenship, manager of the Cherokee fish hatchery and stocking program. “It was devastating to the staff.”

Now, after less than a year, the hatchery is well on its way to recovery. Blankenship estimates that the hatchery will once again be self-sustaining, hatching and raising all its own trout, by late May.

The hatchery plays a critical role in Cherokee’s reputation as prized fishing grounds. The sheer number and size of the trout stocked in Cherokee’s streams and rivers have led to a successful and viable fishing tourism industry — one the tribe was determined to uphold even in the wake of the natural disaster.

During the flood, the hatchery lost more than $160,000 worth of trout and 16 to 18 inches of silt sat at the bottom of each raceway — the long, narrow pools where the trout live. Employees spent the first couple of months collecting the dead trout, scrapping mud, rocks and logs from the raceways and sorting the surviving fish by type and size. Then, it was time to start rebuilding its trout supply. Since it takes a year to raise a mid-sized trout, or two years to raise a trophy trout, the natural disaster could have had long-term repercussions, affecting the number of trout being stocked in Cherokee waters for some time.

Luckily, however, a cooperative arrangement with other nationally certified hatcheries entitled the Cherokee hatchery to any surplus fish or fish eggs that the others might have. Hatchery workers traveled across the U.S. gathering them.

Had it not received aid from other national hatcheries, the hatchery in Cherokee would have spent at least two years trying to regain its composure rather than 10 months.

“We’ve had a lot of support and assistance,” Blankenship said.

Eleven national hatcheries in Georgia, Tennessee, Montana, Wisconsin, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia have been crucial to the recovery.

He estimated that the hatchery has received more than 1.5 million trout and fish eggs from the other hatcheries.

“That is a major part of us trying to rebuild,” Blankenship said. “The more we can get, the more we can put in the river, the more it’s going to help out our program.”

The hatchery must constantly be birthing baby trout to replace the larger fish that it tosses into the river every day to maintain Cherokee’s status in the fishing world.

The tribe’s stocks 30 miles of river and stream on the reservation with 400,000 fish per year.

“For years, people have loved to come to Cherokee for vacation and enjoying the streams and rivers is a major part of their fun,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “The fishing here in Cherokee is some of the best east of the Mississippi and as more people come here to fish the better our hotels, restaurants and other retail shops will do.”

The hatchery currently has about 2 million eggs and baby trout incubating in its smaller indoor raceways and about 800,000 in its larger outdoor raceway. However, six of the usually full raceways sit empty, and the hatchery will not be self-sustaining until next month.

The hatchery is receiving about $100,000 from a federal government relief program and Bureau of Indian Affairs to help with its recovery. A portion of the money will help the hatchery help prevent such a disaster from occurring again by reinforcing already existing water barriers and adding more or larger piping to allow more water to drain away from hatchery lands.

The changes will help “but you will never be able to control Mother Nature,” Blankenship said.

Before Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, one of the tribe’s main attractions was trout fishing. The Oconaluftee River has 2.2 miles of water specifically devoted to catch-and-release, fly fishing and hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year.

And now that it has nearly recovered, the hatchery hopes to bring fishing to the forefront once again by keeping the river open year-round and using an electronic system to keep track of and issue fishing permits. Previously, anglers had to receive a handwritten permit each visit — a time-consuming task.

“We are trying to rebuild fishing here in Cherokee,” Blankenship said. “That’s our goal — to make it one of the best family trout fishing destinations.”

This year, the Oconaluftee River will be open year-round for the first time. While it only closed for three weeks each year, the hope is that the prospect of quality, year-round fishing will attract visitors who will then spend money at Cherokee’s various businesses.

“People’s got to buy gas. They got to buy snacks. They’ve got to have a place to stay,” Blankenship said.



• Cherokee's Summer Kickoff Trout Fishing Tournament: April 27, 28, & 29

• Meet Me in the Smokies Fly Fishing Tournament: May 18, 19 & 20

• US Junior National Fly Fishing Championships: June 22, 23 & 24

• Cherokee's Mid Summer Trout Fishing Tournament: July 13, 14 & 15

• Cherokee's End of Summer Trout Fishing Tournament: September 7, 8 & 9

• Rumble in the Rhododendron Fly Fishing Tournament: November 2, 3 & 4

• How long is your trout?

ongoing - Bring your trout to the Cherokee Welcome Center and have it measured for the weekly contest which will run from Saturday to Sunday. You must present a hotel or camping receipt to qualify for this contest.

The Catch & Release water is excluded.

For more information on these events, visit

Grant to help trout farm fish for new markets

Sunburst Trout Farms in Haywood County plans to add jobs and expand its operations thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The farm received a nearly $300,000 Value Added Producers Grant from the USDA to help expand its market, namely finding new customers to buy more trout. The grant will help with everything from hiring a sales person to the upfront cost of trout fingerlings, which are then raised to full size at the farm.

Sunburst, founded by Richard Jennings, is a third generation family owned and operated company that processes fresh ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat trout products.

“The main goal is to stabilize things financially here,” said Sunburst’s Chef Charles Hudson. “We couldn’t have done it without that funding.”

The project, which will begin in April, will include purchasing more trout fingerlings, hiring new marketing and processing workers and installing new software to increase ordering efficiency. The plan is estimated to cost $500,000. The company was awarded $10,000 from the North Carolina Value-Added Cost Share Program in addition to the USDA grant.

Sunburst in particular hopes to increase business during winter months. The months of January, February and March are typically very slow for everyone in the mostly tourist-dependent region. The majority of Sunburst’s customers are within three hours of its Haywood County location.

But if the company is able to spread to new states, it could see more money rolling in throughout the year. One possible market is Florida, which gets a seasonal influx from people trying to escape the winter chill elsewhere.

“They (Florida) are busy when we are slow,” Hudson said.

Sunburst does not hatch its own trout from eggs but rather purchases them from trout hatcheries in Western North Carolina. The grant will allow them to increase the number of fish it purchases and therefore the number of trout it is able to sell.

Sunburst hopes to add about 100 new customers a year with the help of the grant funding.

To market the extra fish, Sunburst will also create a new marketing sales position. The job will include extensive travel and focus on expanding the company’s current market in the Southeastern U.S. Most of Sunbursts customers are restaurants, though their products are also available at some grocery stores.

Sunburst will add another two other positions to help carry the extra workload at its facility.

Last year, Sunburst sold about 250,000 pounds of trout. This year, it hopes to sell more than 300,000 pounds, Hudson said.

“It’s going to be a really good thing for not only us but for the county as a whole,” Hudson said.

Cherokee hits the big time: Top U.S. anglers to sample reservation waters

This little slice of Western North Carolina just landed the big one when it comes to competitive fly-fishing.

The 2011 U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship will be held this spring from May 19 to 22 in Cherokee. In addition to fishing in tribal waters, about 60 of the nation’s top fly-fishing experts will test their angling skills along nearby stretches of water: the Tuckasegee River below Western Carolina University, the upper and lower sections of the Nantahala River, and a to-be-determined area lake.

This marks the first time the competition has been held in the Southeast.

“It’s a really big deal,” said an unabashedly excited sounding Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “This events puts fishing in and around Cherokee on a national stage. It puts us up with the big boys.”

Not to mention the corresponding upward spending bump expected at area hotels, restaurants and shops. Hundreds of spectators from the U.S. and from other countries are expected to attend.

The anglers will be tested in a variety of water — low, high, fast, slow.

“We’re putting them in places where we know there’s great fishing, but they have to be skilled,” Pegg said. “And these guys are the best.”

If, for instance, a raft full of tourists paddles through, or a kayaker drifts by, the competition on the lower Nantahala, so be it, Pegg said. That’s fishing, and so goes on many days the experience of fishing that particular stretch of water.

The tournament organizers and hosts are the N.C. Fly Fishing Team, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Fish and Wildlife Management Department and the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, with River’s Edge Outfitters in Cherokee a supporter of the effort.

Cherokee is well known as a trout fishing destination, due in part to the stellar stocking of creeks and rivers by its own tribal hatchery. Robert Blankenship, director of the Cherokee fish hatchery and stocking operation, said putting Cherokee on the map as the best fishing destination in the Southeast has been their goal.

They raise and stock 400,000 trout, including trophy-sized, in 30 miles of stream. Compare that to the state of North Carolina, which puts 800,000 trout on 1,000 miles of stream.

“We are putting half that into only 30 miles,” Blankenship said.

Cherokee has gotten a great response from designating a 2.2-mile stretch of the Oconaluftee as catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only waters, a move that has lured new fishermen to the area.

Blankenship agreed it was quite a coup to land the tournament.

“It’s normally held in Vale, Colorado, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or somewhere out West,” Blankenship said.

Fishermen watching the nationals might decide to book their next fly-fishing trips here instead, further enforcing the region’s growing reputation.

“It will be good for Cherokee and the surrounding area and the local economy,” Blankenship said.

Another factor that puts WNC on the national fly-fishing map: fishermen from the western counties regularly dominate spots on the N.C. Fly Fishing team, and a couple of them usually go on to claim spots on the U.S. team each year. The tournament held here will determine who gets a spot on that coveted national team this year, said Paul Bourcq of Franklin, vice president of the N.C. Fly Fishing Team of Franklin. Those who make Team USA have a shot at the world team.

Bourcq is one of the big reasons the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship is coming to WNC. He’s hosting the Southeastern Regional Qualifier for anglers this weekend (Feb. 19-20) with venues on the lower Nantahala, upper Nantahala and Queens Creek Lake in northwestern Macon County. Bourcq said this qualifier would serve to help polish organizational skills the sponsors need to pull off a great national championship competition.

Fly-fishing has long been a hotly competitive and avidly followed sport in Europe, and it enjoys a level of popularity there comparable to that of bass fishing in this nation.

“This will help make the Southeast a destination for fly fishing,” Bourcq said, who added that an angler is only as good as the water he fishes, and in WNC some of the best fly-fishing in the nation can be enjoyed.


Get involved

If you can read a ruler and measure a fish, then you have exactly the skills necessary to be a judge in the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship, scheduled for May 19-22 in Cherokee.

Organizer Paul Bourcq needs judges, and lots of them — 60, to be exact, and he has only 20 signed up. This, he said, would be an excellent service project, perhaps for Boy Scout or Girl Scout troops. Grownups are welcome, too, of course. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; or through

Smokies fish expert, Steve Moore, earns national recognition

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Supervisory Fisheries Biologist Steve Moore was recently recognized with two national awards for his leadership in native trout stream restoration in the Smokies and at national parks across the nation.

Moore recently received the Aldo Starker Leopold Medal by the Wild Trout Symposium and the Trout Unlimited Trout Conservation Professional Award.

Both awards recognize the more than 25 years of achievement by Moore’s in restoring populations of native brook trout to streams in the Smokies, and assisting with other projects including the restoration of bull trout to Crater Lake National Park (Ore.) and to North Cascade National Park (Wash.) and restoring Bonneville cutthroat trout to Great Basin National Park (Nev.).

Throughout the country, a combination of habitat degradation and extensive stocking of non-native fish species have taken a heavy toll on numerous species of native trout, which typically require cold, clear, pristine water for survival.  In many cases streams that may have been degraded by siltation or pollution have been cleaned up, but the native trout still need a helping hand to return.

According to Deputy Park Superintendent, Kevin FitzGerald, “One of the core missions of national parks is to preserve natural biodiversity which sometimes means restoring native plant and animal species which have been displaced from their historic homes by earlier human impacts,” said Deputy Park Superintendent Kevin FitzGerald.

In the Smokies, the brook trout was the only native species of trout, but they were crowded out of all but the most isolated high-elevation streams when — with the best of intentions —logging companies and early park managers released rainbow and later brown trout into Park streams in the early 20th Century.”

In the Smokies the brookies that remain in the headwaters face a double threat. They are squeezed between heavy competition from rainbows and browns downstream, and airborne acid deposition upstream that has made the water too acidic to support trout.  The key to preserving the Appalachian brook trout is to remove the non-native trout from selected segments of lower-elevation streams and then to assist the brookies in moving downstream into less acidic waters.

To be suitable for restoration, a stream segment must have a record of a pure brook trout population in the past and a waterfall or other barrier at the lower end that prevents non-native fish from returning back upstream. Restoration of each segment involves removal of the non-natives through either electro-shocking and/or chemicals.  Over the last 24 years of the Park’s Brook Trout Restoration Program, Park biologists — assisted by a small army of state fishery managers and volunteers from Trout Unlimited — have restored a total of 24.1 miles of stream to brook trout habitat.  

Restoring each segment involves close coordination of 20 or more biologists and volunteers who string nets, electro-shock and relocate the non-natives, add and monitor the chemicals used and add neutralizing agents at the lower end of the segment being restored.  

“Stream restoration is such a complex and labor-intensive process that the Park could never even attempt it without the financial support and/or hands-on assistance of all the neighboring entities such as Trout Unlimited, Tennessee Brookies, Friends of the Smokies, and the Tennessee and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissions.” FitzGerald said. “Steve has become nationally-recognized master of planning these restoration projects and brokering together a huge number of partners to get them done. We welcome this opportunity to acknowledge this well deserved recognition of Steve and show our appreciation to all the partners that he has brought into the mix over the years.”

Fish expert to deliver “State of the Trout”

Matt Kulp, fisheries biologist with Great Smoky Mountain National Park, will be speaking at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, at The Plateau Fly Fishing club meeting in Cashiers.

Kulp will discuss “What’s going on in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park — an aquatics and fisheries update including where to find the brook trout.”

A raffle will be held featuring various fly fishing accessories and an Orvis five weight fly rod.

The talk will be held the Albert Carlton Cashiers Library. Everyone is welcome. 828.885.7130.

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