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Trout fishing nets huge haul for WNC economy

By , [email protected] 3:57 p.m. ET May 31, 2017

ASHEVILLE – This is no big fish tale.

Rather it’s the reality that trout fishing creates big business for Western North Carolina.

A study released last week, conducted by Responsive Management and Southwick Associates for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, found that in 2014 nearly 149,000 trout anglers fished approximately 1.6 million days.

These anglers gave the state's economy an estimated $383 million boost in direct spending on items such as fishing equipment, food, gas and lodging, and secondary spending by fly-fishing outfitters and other businesses associated with trout angling and their employees.

The study, “Mountain Trout Fishing: Economic Impacts on and Contributions to North Carolina’s Economy,” also found that money spent on trout fishing in 2014 supported approximately 3,600 jobs.

Survey respondents were asked about their expenditures and numbers of days fished, as well as their opinions about access to Public Mountain Trout Waters and their satisfaction with trout fishing.

Overall, 76 percent of anglers surveyed were satisfied with their trout fishing experience in North Carolina in 2014. 

From March through May 2015, Responsive Management, a firm specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues, surveyed 2,113 randomly selected licensed anglers 18 and older who fished for mountain trout in 2014. Surveys were done by phone, postcard or email.

Southwick Associates, a market research and economics firm specializing in the outdoor recreation markets, analyzed the data. The commission funded the study with money from the federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration program.

The study looked across the state, but most trout fishing occurs in the mountains, which provide the higher elevation and cool, clean waters that trout need to thrive.

"We want to understand what’s happening. It is so important to the wildlife commission and to the economy as well as biology and socioeconomic economic factors, to inform our best fisheries management decisions,” Rash said.

The agency works in partnership with other land agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Blue Ridge Parkway, state parks and forests and local towns and private landowners to ensure access to fishing, he said. At least 80 percent of stocked trout water access is privately owned, Rash said.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission manages roughly 2,200 acres of impoundments or lakes. along with 5,300 miles of public mountain trout waters, including 1,100 miles stocked annually with brook, brown and rainbow trout, and a few thousand miles of wild trout waters, said Jake Rash, coldwater research coordinator for the wildlife commission.

He said reasons for the increasing popularity of trout fishing vary widely, from those who want to make a tasty trout almandine to those who want to admire a colorful rainbow trout before releasing it to swim again, to those wanting to get outdoors and try something new.


The diversity of topography, from small creeks to high mountain lakes to large trophy trout waters, are also a lure, especially for out-of-towners.

Studies vary but fishing still strong

A 2009 study showed that nearly 93,000 trout anglers in North Carolina spent almost $146 million on trips and equipment, with a total economic impact exceeding $174 million.

it appears the trout boon to the economy might have jumped about 100 percent, but Rash said the two reports cannot be compared that easily.

“We likely underestimated the impact in the 2009 study," Rash said. "This time we’re capturing more of the angling public."

Simons Welter, a fly-fishing guide with Brooking's Anglers in Cashiers, shows off a rainbow trout catch on the Davidson River in Transylvania County. (Photo: Courtesy of Bill R. Chiles)

The 2009 study – the first time such a survey was conducted – focused on people who purchased licenses in that calendar year. It did not take into account that people might have had fishing privileges in two years, Rash said.

Licenses are good for one year from date of purchase, for example, if someone bought a license today.

Lifetime license holders were also incorporated in the new study, Rash said, making the count more accurate.

Short-term licenses for 10 days are $7 for N.C. residents and $18 for nonresidents, with an additional $3 for trout privileges. Annual licenses are $20 residents/$36 for non-residents and $13 for trout privileges.

“We’re treating the study on its own value at this point. It shows a net impact of $353 million to our local economy. These numbers are really significant, not only to our local economy but to our state as well. These reports give us a snapshot in time of what’s going on,” he said.

The national trend in trout fishing, made popular by the sport of fly-fishing, has ebbed and flowed over the years since the explosion after the release of Robert Redford’s 1992 seminal fly-fishing film, “A River Runs Through It,” which drew some 29 million anglers.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study in 2011, national participation in fly-fishing took a dip in the late ‘90s, after the glow of the movie wore off, down to 25 million in 2006. Participation has been on the rebound since the Great Recession, when people started to fish more local waters rather than making more expensive trips to Montana and Colorado.

Throughout this time, trout fishing in WNC seems to have been swimming steadily upstream.

WNC guides see double-digit growth

Shane Buckner, a longtime fly-fishing guide for Hunter Banks, one of the first fly-fishing outfitters in the region, said he can see the love of trout spawning before his eyes.

“We have grown immensely in last three years. I can’t remember us being this busy this quick in the season,” Buckner said. 

The business opened on Montford Avenue in 1985 with two or three guides. A few years ago the shop that sells everything fly-fishing, from clothing to rods to flies, doubled its size by expanding into space next door. It offers one-day and weeklong classes such as fly-tying and casting, and guided trips on streams within 100-mile radius of Asheville. The business now contracts with 10 guides a day.

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Colorful lures on display at the popular Asheville fly-fishing shop Hunter Banks, located on Montford Avenue. (Photo: Maddy Jones/[email protected])

Hunter Banks CEO Thomas Weldon said business has tripled in the past three years, with clients coming from across the Southeast.

“This is the southernmost region where there is cold water habitat for trout,” Weldon said as one of the reasons he sees for the exploding interest in WNC trout fishing.

Weldon said the shop gets lots of calls from tourists who are in town, hear about fishing and decide to take a trip the next day. He said the shop has guides on hand to accommodate last-minute business.

Starr Nolan, a psychotherapist from Greenville with a lifelong love of fly-fishing, answered an ad in the Asheville Citizen-Times in the late ‘90s from Brookside Guides, which was searching for a female fly-fisher, a novelty at the time.

Nolan might well have been the first since there is still a dearth of female fly-fishing guides today. She took over the business in 2000 as the only guide, taking anglers to the Mills River and Davidson River.

Hunter Banks, located on Montford Ave, has been selling all things fly-fishing since 1985. (Photo: Maddy Jones/[email protected])

Now she contracts with three guides on just about every trout water in the mountains. She said her business has doubled in the last five years.

She believes the not-always-conscious healing, health effects of being in touch with water might be a reason for the strong growth, as people are starting to pay more attention to their health.

She also runs Casting Carolinas, a nonprofit that takes women in any stage of breast cancer on a free, weekend-long retreat to learn the mechanics and mind and body healing effects of trout fishing.

“People’s moods are lifted from being outdoors, in the sunlight. There is research that shows the positive ionization of standing in and around water decreases depression and anxiety,” she said. “Water by its nature generates ions, and especially running water. The effects are very healing.”

Simons Welter, one of the other few female fly-fishing guides, began guiding about 12 years ago. She lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but guides for Brooking’s Anglers in Cashiers.

“I’m seeing an increase in interest from women and kids and families are coming, not just the fishing buddies anymore,” Welter said. “I think people are putting more of an emphasis on experiences instead of just buying things.”

Welter is also on the board of Casting Carolinas and volunteers her time to teach women with cancer to fish. She said those women often return to fish, and get their families into the sport as well.

Kevin Howell gave up life as an engineer to take over Davidson River Outfitters in 1998. The shop and guide business sits on the banks of the Davidson River in Transylvania County. His father was one of the premier fly tiers of his generation and Howell followed in his footsteps.

When Howell began, he had one other guide who worked three days a week. Now he has 11 guides who work seven days a week. The shop also offers classes from rod building and repair to fly-tying classes, casting and fishing and intensive two-day “schools.”

The business has had double-digit growth for the past several years, he said.

A day on the river for two people ranges from $375-$500, including all gear, except state fishing license.

“People love the solitude and peacefulness of fly-fishing. It’s a great way to escape, to get your mind off work, and get outdoors. The saying goes that catching a fish is second and being outdoors is first,” Howell said. “It’s about a lifestyle and getting outdoors and not feeling the pressures that society puts on us.”

Ray Fleming of Augusta, South Carolina, a retired health physicist, started fishing with Davidson River Outfitters in Pisgah Forest six years ago at age 70. He now comes several times a year.

He said he loves to explore new places where fish hide, and to improve his casting and catching skills.

“I just love being outdoors. I’m not a beach person. I love the mountains. I love standing in the streams,” Fleming said. “I was out early one morning, I looked downstream and there was a canopy of trees on both sides of the river and the sun was shining through on the rippling water. I thought, ‘how lucky am I?’”

More study findings

  • Resident and nonresident trout anglers spent $239.8 million in North Carolina in 2014.
  • The total economic effect of trout fishing is estimated at $383.3 million.
  • The industry supports nearly 3,600 jobs.
  • Hatchery Supported Trout Waters were the most frequently fished waters (710,665 days), followed by Delayed Harvest Trout Waters (390,085 days) and Wild Trout Waters (276,804 days).
  • In the mountains, all trout anglers spent $210.7 million in 2014. The total economic effect of trout fishing is estimated at $334.3 million, supporting nearly 3,200 jobs.
  • Hatchery Supported Trout Waters were the most popular in 2014. All trout anglers spent $89.7 million fishing these waters. The total economic effect of trout fishing is estimated at $141.3 million, supporting nearly 1,300 jobs.
  • All trout anglers spent $66.3 million in Delayed Harvest Trout Waters. The total economic effect of trout fishing is estimated at $108.4 million, supporting over 1,000 jobs.

Source: "Mountain Trout Fishing: Economic Impacts on and Contributions to North Carolina’s Economy"

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