Hooked on Haywood: County’s expanded outdoor programming offers new ways to explore
“My name is Tommy Thomas. I’ve been fly fishing 30, maybe closer to 40 years now,” says the man wearing a reel of fishing line as a necklace, by way of introducing himself to the couple dozen people gathered for a morning fly fishing class May 7 at Lake Junaluska Dam.
It’s easy to believe him, and not just because the fishing line necklace is accompanied by a black angler’s hat, a multi-pocketed tan long-sleeved shirt and a pair of scissors — like the reel, he wears them around his neck — presumably ready to snip through fishing line at a moment’s notice.
Rather, it’s easy to believe him because of the ease with which he strings together instruction, advice and lore for the group of novice anglers taking in the first installment of a four-part fishing course offered through Haywood County Recreation and Parks. Thomas had met nearly everybody now straining to hear him over the roar of the dam mere minutes before launching into his lesson, but he speaks as though they’re longtime neighbors meeting up for a chat about fishing, and he does so with an earnestness that implies their discovery of the pastime’s inherent pleasure is to him the most important thing in the world.
“You’re going to find that 95 percent of the people who go fly fishing don’t realize that it’s not the fish that they seek,” he says. “It’s the solitude that they seek. Once you cross over that threshold, it’s like Santa Claus at Christmas time. Once you cross into that 5 percent, you’ll find that this is probably one of the most soothing sports that you’re ever going to want to get involved with.”
Learning the craft
Thomas proceeds to cover the basics of fly fishing — the equipment (as a beginner, he avers, less is more), the licenses and the local waters, all peppered with stories and sayings gleaned from his decades in the sport — and then breaks out a rod, showing the group how to assemble, string and cast it. Point it forward to 10 o’clock, pull it back to 2 o’clock, then bring it forward to bow to the fish, he says, demonstrating under the scanty shade of a barely leafed-out maple tree. Don’t slam it forward too hard, or else the fish will peg you for a predator and hide out, remaining invisible beneath the rocks for half an hour or more.
If that happens, he says, “You might as well go back and sit on the couch.”
He demonstrates again, slowly, a bright pink fuzzball tied on the end of the line in lieu of a hook. Then he releases the students to each grab their own rods — identical black kits courtesy of Haywood Recreation that he praises as “the essence of frugality” — and disperse on the lawn to practice.
The lines stay dry as the students, nearly all retirees or visitors who have the time for a weekday morning class, spread out on the grass to perfect their cast, staying away from the water for now. White lines sail through the air, traveling forward, back and forward again to the ground, over and over and over again.
“It’s very rhythmic and relaxing,” says Jennifer Cracciolo, 39, who is taking the class together with fellow New York City resident Alan Shih, 43.
She has visited Haywood County many times over the years, and they found the fly-fishing class through Haywood Recreation’s website while searching for active ways to spend their stay.
At $10, they considered the two-hour class a steal, but when they signed up, they didn’t realize that $10 fee actually covered the entire four-session course. Over the next two Fridays, the class will reconvene to learn about fly tying and reading the water, and to keep working on casting. Then on Saturday, May 22, Thomas will take them to the West Fork of the Pigeon River to put their trout-catching skills to the test.
Cracciolo and Shih will be back in New York before the next class is offered, but now they’re considering returning to the area sooner than planned.
“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Can I get back out here for the one at the West Fork?’” said Cracciolo. “I’d love to be here for all four. It’s such a great program that they’re offering.”
Instructor Tommy Thomas introduces his class to the basics of fly fishing. Holly Kays photo
Outside the box
This spring marks Thomas’ third season teaching fly fishing for Haywood Recreation, and the beginning of Haywood Recreation’s third year focusing on outdoor recreation programming.
“We’ve done recreation events and activities outside, but up until 2019 nothing that really played to the strengths of the natural resources in the county — the abundant streams and creeks and trout waters and hiking trails,” said Assistant Director Ian Smith.
The shift in direction came under duress. Back in 2019, county commissioners were seriously considering a proposal to dissolve the county’s recreation department and contract for services with the Town of Waynesville. The proposal didn’t go through, but leaders in the recreation department realized that they’d have to change the way they do business.
So, they shifted their gaze outdoors.
“I think the mission statement we have for the hiking course best sums up our entire departmental approach, which is to educate and inspire people to get outside,” said Smith. “Whether that’s about hiking or fly fishing, the main goal with a lot of our programs, especially the outdoors programs, is for people who come through them and the citizens of Haywood County to realize what all is in their backyards.”
This spring, the agenda is full.
There’s Thomas’ beginning fly fishing course this month, and then a similar course for intermediate anglers in June. Throughout the season, anglers Ray Sugg and Reid Warren will lead three-hour Saturday morning expeditions into Haywood’s pristine trout waters. Meanwhile, Kevin Burke and Howard Browers are taking on a schedule of bird watching trips that will venture to all corners of Haywood County. A roster of experienced local guides will fuel a robust schedule of hikes, usually four or five a month and offered on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
There’s a cost for all activities, but it’s miniscule when compared to the dozens or hundreds of dollars similar activities would command when offered through a private guide service. The county now pays 15 to 20 seasoned outdoorsmen and women as part-time staff to lead these excursions.
“Normally we just about fill up on everything that we offer,” Smith said. “We have developed wait lists for numerous hikes already this year and a lot last year. The expeditions either fill up or get close to it, so there’s been a really good response among the community.”
Meanwhile, the department has been able to keep most of the programs it had in place before launching its outdoors courses. The 2021 Senior Games season starts this week, and the department is keeping its recreational basketball program for youth 5 to 12. However, the department had to pause its adult soccer league, a “horrible, hard decision” that was necessary to free up space for outdoor recreation and adventure programming, said Smith. To help fill the void, the department will offer pickup soccer for people 16 and older every Tuesday at Allens Creek Park, starting May 25.
Only the beginning
Smith is also working to continue expanding the department’s outdoor offerings. This year, Haywood Recreation bought a fleet of bikes to launch a mountain bike club for youth in eighth through 12th grades. The group is meeting three times a month, with one of those meetings held at Bent Creek Experimental Forest in Buncombe County.
“Mountain bikes can be really expensive, and it can be dangerous to just grab a road bike or something that doesn’t have the right shocks and suspension and go down a mountain biking trail,” Smith explained. So, the department bought a “small fleet” of bikes with more on the way, so that youth without access to a mountain bike can give the sport a try.
The goal of the programs goes beyond offering participants a momentary diversion from their everyday lives. Rather, they’re about presenting a lifestyle — a lifetime sport, coupled with the knowledge needed to keep it accessible for lifetimes to come.
“When I was a little boy, Richland Creek coming through Waynesville was a different color every day of the week,” said former N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, casting his line on the grass below Lake Junaluska May 7. “I mean, it was the most polluted downtown stream. Now it’s a certified trout water.”
Thanks to the cumulative result of decades of work, Richland Creek is now a clear and beautiful mountain stream, appealing to the eye — and to the fish. By fostering the development of new anglers, new hikers, new birders, new bikers, Haywood Recreation also stands to foster the development of new advocates for those resources, keeping them beautiful for future generations.
“We’re only about two years into really tapping into our potential as a department,” said Smith. “I would say this is really only the beginning.”