For information on fishing season in North Carolina and obtaining a license to fish legally in Jackson County, check www.ncwildlife.org
• Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail: www.flyfishingtrail.com
• Jackson County tourism: www.mountainlovers.com
• Alex Bell, AB's Fly Fishing Guide Service: 828-226-3833, www.abfish.org
SYLVA, N.C. - Taking a cue from the world of golf is paying off for anglers as well as the tourism industry in North Carolina's Jackson County.
About a three-hour drive from Chattanooga, the county is known for good trout fishing almost year-round.
Seeking to expand their visibility, county business leaders began looking for an angle to promote their streams to anglers outside the area. Using the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama as their model and working with local fishermen and guides, the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail was created in 2009.
The only fly-fishing "trail" in the United States has 15 locations in Jackson County -- plus one spot on the Cherokee Indian Reservation -- for anglers of various experience levels. The 2012 season opened last Saturday.
"What we were looking at was something that was of interest to everyone," said Alex Bell, a guide and retired high school principal in the county. "Some people like the bigger water and easy access, while others like small streams that you hike back into.
"So we've tried to incorporate some of all of that into the trail, and we also wanted to distribute it over the county so that it wasn't all located in the north end or the south end or east or west. So it's pretty much spread throughout the county."
And its popularity continues to spread, with increasing participation every year.
Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, said the trail concept has benefited local businesses in the four years since it was launched.
"It's exceeded our expectations," she said. "And it continues to not only grow in popularity, but I also think we're getting repeat fishermen.
"It's nice that they come back because they bring their buddies ... and they're using our local guides and eating out and spending money here."
An almost-eight-mile section of the Tuckasegee River is designated as "delayed harvest," which means fishing is allowed year-round on a catch-and-release basis, and the waters are stocked by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. This results in plenty of trout for anglers of all abilities and a good place for first-timers to learn how to fly-fish.
"It's just an absolute wonderful fishery," Bell said of the Tuckasegee. "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. And when you go farther downstream below Dillsboro in the summer, it's a great smallmouth bass fishery."
Bell, a former Western Carolina University basketball player, travels throughout the country speaking to fly-fishing clubs and other groups about the WNC Fly Fishing Trail. He said he's seen interest grow.
"I get to see it more in addition to being a guide," he said. "I serve on the travel and tourism authority and just became chairman of that, so I get to look at how many phone calls come into the Chamber. ... Right now I think the telephone inquiries [to the tourism authority] run about 30 percent for the fly-fishing."
"That helps everybody. It helps my business, but it also helps brings people to the county who in turn spend the night and spend money."
Jackson County officials have worked with Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee to promote Raven Fork on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, the only spot on the trail not located in Jackson County. Spiro and Bell said the partnership has proved beneficial to both groups.
"I think we offer a variety of streams and rivers that a person of any ability can navigate and have a great experience," Spiro said. "We have a beautiful setting that's very serene, but you're not too far away from the creature comforts of home.
"Our rivers and streams are close by, so you're not having to spend a lot of time traversing through the woods to get to where you need to go to fly-fish and enjoy your day."