I'm awake much earlier than I'm used to, standing hip deep in freezing water while the sun beating down on my hands and neck is making me increasingly aware that I should have packed sunscreen.
I couldn't be happier.
After a three-hour drive from Chattanooga, I'm fly fishing for trout on the Tuckasegee River near Sylva, N.C., experiencing the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail - the only fly-fishing trail in the United States.
Community leaders and anglers in Jackson County developed the trail in 2009 to highlight the area's wealth of streams which offer some of the best trout fishing available.
Patterned on the same concept as the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, the WNC Fly Fishing Trail features 15 locations in Jackson County (with one spot on the Cherokee Indian Reservation) for fishermen of various experience levels.
Through the Jackson County Tourism Authority and a website dedicated to the trail, anglers can view a map as well as GPS coordinates to help get visitors to the fishing spots as quickly and easily as possible.
After arriving in Sylva, the county seat, I stopped by the local tourism authority to get my bearings and speak with executive director Julie Spiro about the trail.
"I grew up fishing and my parents have a house on the Tuckasegee River," said Spiro, who is a native of Jackson County. "I think we have the best rivers in the southeastern United States."
After a night's sleep in a cabin on the banks of the Tuckasegee River, I met up with my fishing guide, Alex Bell, a former basketball player at Western Carolina University and retired high school principal.
An almost 8-mile section of the Tuckasegee River is a delayed-harvest river, which means fishing is allowed year round on a catch-and-release basis, and the waters are stocked throughout the year by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. This results in plenty of trout for anglers of all abilities.
After being fitted with waders and boots, we hit the river. Despite growing up fishing for bass and bluegill, I was not familiar with fly fishing. After wading well into the current of the Tuckasegee, Bell gave me a quick lesson on how to cast and retreive my line. He also instructed me on the finer points of "mending" lines and placing the fly where trout are likely to lurk.
No doubt most of the credit goes to Bell and his patience with my efforts, but I had a successful day, catching about 15 trout of various lengths. I caught rainbow and brook trout, but was unable to complete the "trout slam" by landing a brown trout. I even caught a decent-sized river redhorse, which is a not a trout but a bottom-feeding fish native to rivers in the Carolina mountains.
Hooking and landing a trout on a fly rod is a delicate process, which took some getting used to.
Even smaller trout will put up a good fight, but their tiny mouths and the smaller hooks used in fly fishing dictate a somewhat gentler approach to setting a hook and patience when bringing one into the net. A few fish were lost due to my inexperience, but I did fairly well for a beginner.
At lunch, Bell explained how the Tuckasegee is the perfect river because of its diversity and versatility.
"It's just an absolute wonderful fishery," he said. "The way it's set up, it's very wide - 60 to 70 yards across in places - and pretty easy wading. So it's great for beginners who can get out in the middle and not worry about being tangled up in tree limbs all day long. But it's also challenging no matter what your skill level.
"You've got all three species - rainbow, brown and brook trout - and each of them are unique in their own right."
A full day on the Tuckasegee certainly had me hooked on fly fishing, and the next day Bell gave me a more challenging experience.
The only spot on the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail not located in Jackson County is Raven Fork on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee has helped the reservation form a partnership with Spiro and officials in Jackson County to help promote the WNC Fly Fishing Trail, which benefits both groups.
Also known as the Cherokee Trophy Water, Raven Fork - along with the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers - hosted the 2011 U.S. Fly Fishing Championshps, and several large fish can be caught in this river, including the uniquely colored golden trout.
The narrower Raven Fork wasn't as kind to me as the Tuckasegee had been the day before. With more trees and obstacles to negotiate, I lost more than one fly in the trees or on rocks in the river. I managed to hook into a couple of good-sized fish, but none of them made it into the net. Still, it was a fun river to fish, and showed me how much more I have to learn before I can really call myself anything close to an expert.
If you're an experienced fly-fisherman or just want to see what all the fuss is about, a short drive through the North Carolina mountains and a few days on the rivers of Jackson County is worth the trip.
Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail: website flyfishingtrail.com
For information on fishing season in North Carolina and obtaining a license to legally fish in Jackson County, check the website of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at ncwildlife.org
Alex Bell, AB's Fly Fishing Guide Service: Phone 828-226-3833, website: abfish.org
Lodging of all types can be found in the Jackson County area, from hotel rooms to cabins. Smoky Mountain Getaways (www.smokymtngetaways.net) offers a variety of vacation homes for rental, some right on the Tuckasegee and other rivers on the WNC Fly Fishing Trail.