For the lifetime bulk of my summers, North Carolina has remained a cool, refreshing mountain Mecca for curing the hot weather weariness of June, July and August. Whether my parents drove us from the North or South — or later, I alone (or with companion) — the western part of the Tar Heel State offered changed environs. The flat roads rose up with the mountains, lifting the car into a green coolness as the freshest air was exhaled out of a million healthy trees. Periodically, the power of stunning vista overlooks forced us to stop the car and gaze in awe.
But the lands offered even more — lakes, creeks, rivers brimming with bass and trout, rich muddy earth that gave up bits of rubies, sapphires, garnets, and rutile, and fine valleys that simply begging to be hiked and horsebacked through. And the locals of the region as well as their cuisine offered a wholesome simplicity that turned visitors and tourists into new residents. For so many years, travelers were quick to focus their passions on this region — and they still do.
My family bought a farm in Franklin, smack dab in the middle of all this mountain magic. Our earliest forays centered around antiques, great country food, wildlife watching, swimming and camping. When I hit my teens, the draw of the streams started my trout fishing (first with corn kernels) and the alluring lakes managed to convince my dad to buy me my first canoe. The years spun on, and the farm was sold about eight years later, and by that time fly-fishing, and running the rapids with beefed-up inflatable rafts had taken a firm hold on the bulk of fresh water adventurers coming to the region.
You Can Go Home Again
Whatever inner or outer forces that govern angling dreams, travels, and opportunities came together to produce a weeklong chance to prowl the summer streams around Bryson City for trout on fly. My memories of such half-forgotten pleasures stepped forward and made it clear this was a "must-do". I contacted photographer Art Blank to join the project, and as usual, he happily accepted.
Art would be making the trek southward with his wife entirely by car from Pennsylvania. I, on the other hand, planned on flying north from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta and driving the balance of the way by rental car. My research indicated that Watershed Cabins would be an excellent choice in providing us with a huge selection of assorted high-end cabin rentals throughout the area. The biggest dilemma was to choose from such a marvelous spread of scenic locations and cabin types. My wife and I decided on an incredible two story cabin with a hot tub, fireplace, entertainment center, pool table, with huge rooms and every appointment possible — all this in a log, glass and stone dwelling perched on the side of a lush mountain.
I was able to book my fly-fishing through the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), who at the time had a fly fishing program. I enlisted the services of NOC's Cory Sutton, an expert local guide who knew the streams of this area like the proverbial back of his hand. When I spoke with him, he told me that he'd be supplying all the fly tackle, flies, and wading gear. Better yet, Cory would be able to pick up Art and I right at our cabin for the two days of fishing. All we had to bring was our excitement.
NOC also offered an astonishing array of whitewater rafting experiences seemingly all over the rivers of western Carolina region. Their Outdoor School is reputed to be amongst the best and National Geographic Adventure lauds them as "one of the best outfitters on earth." I was also interested in their four restaurants, particularly Relia's Garden Restaurant. So, all we had to do was go...and we did.
Trails and Tales
We had a quick "clean" flight to Atlanta and after we gathered up our luggage, we went to the rental car counter and picked up our pre-reserved sedan with onboard G.P.S. I made sure to get an early flight to Atlanta so our trip north to Bryson City would have us at the famous Dillard House in north Georgia around lunchtime. It had been far too long since we dined here and today would be the day.
The sky was sunny and the driving conditions were excellent. Soon enough, Dillard House lay in front of us. Here's what we had- fried chicken, country steak, Virginia sugar cured ham, BBQ chicken, rice and gravy, green beans, corn on the cob, cabbage casserole, parsley potatoes, fried okra, baked acorn squash, tomatoes and onions, cole slaw, melon, yeast rolls, cornbread, and cobbler a la mode. Despite the small portions of each dish that such a feast demands, we left the place stuffed and happy as two fat cats.
We made a seamless arrival late that afternoon with the abundant help of our GPS and continued sunny weather. Art and his wife were already there. We unpacked while appreciating the fine lodgings and savoring the adventures yet to come. We went into Bryson City for dinner and turned in around 10 p.m.
A Challenging Grail
The next morning came quickly and Cory was knocking at our door at 7 a.m. Art and I both piled into his SUV. And our young but facile guide brought me into a fishing adventure of two days that all my flats experience and old recollections of these regions' streams left me totally unprepared for. It soon became clear — as it should have that — fly fishing for trout was not the bar room brawl of fly casting to breaking jacks or bonito. Nor was it the one or two backcast simplicity of parachuting a fly near some small tailing bonefish thirty feet away.
Indeed, it rather demanded the mastery of roll casting in tight quarters surrounded by trees into compact gurgling streams featuring lightning-fast strikes from small but highly colored trout. Macho was set aside in favor of subtle single-motion presentations, mending the line while making a super-aware float with the hopes of quick hooksets and delicate battles. It was more like painting a tiny porcelain cup. This was something I was barely a beginner at and I needed Cory's help often.
Compounding the challenge was the footing below me. Rather than the flat deck of a skiff or the mildly rolling expanses of huge sand flats, my booted feet had to learn a brand new way of moving through fast, cold waters where bottoms were carpeted by endless algae-covered rocks and boulders.
The first day was spent strictly learning new forms of casting, walking, and stalking. I missed a few strikes, but I was satisfied with my progress when that day was over. Day two was easier thanks to Cory's prior teaching. Late in the afternoon, I solidly hooked my first trout and brought it to the net. I would have never thought I would have been so proud of a fish of barely a pound. But of course, it really wasn't about the fish. It was about having some success at a new form of angling.
As the afternoon sun dropped over the Smoky Mountains, I promised myself I wouldn't wait so long to return to such a magical and wonderful fishery.
Bryson City/Swain County/Great Smoky Mountains Facts
- Bryson City population: 1,400; Swain County population: 15,000.
- Roughly 40 percent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is in Swain County.
- The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the nation's most visited national park.
- AT 6,643 feet, Clingman's Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies.
- Fontana Lake provides 238 miles of shoreline and 10,230 acres of water surface for recreational activities.
- Fontana Dam is the highest dam east of the Rockies.
- Swain County has four distinct seasons. January has an average high of 48 degrees and a low of 6 degrees. July has an average high of 84 degrees and a low of 62 degrees. Average rainfall is about 47 inches. The average relative humidity is 70 percent in the summer and 66 percent in the winter.
- 87 percent of Swain County belongs to either a national park or forest.
- The air quality and soil quality is superior to much of the state of North Carolina.