Western North Carolina
The mountains of western North Carolina lure those far and wide seeking higher elevations, stunning views, waterfalls, and verdant forests. However, it is the copious streams, creeks, and rivers lying within these mountains that draw fly fishermen of all levels and skills, year-round. North Carolina’s waterways are abundant with wild or stocked rainbow, brown, and brook trout, as well as smallmouth bass in midsummer.
When asked what attracts them to the sport, many fly fishermen find it hard to put into simple terms. The collective agrees there is no easy formula in making “the catch,” for an angler is challenged before even stepping into the water. The sport requires thought, instinct, and strategy. Great consideration goes into understanding the fish on that particular day, on that particular stream, since it varies day-to-day, stream-to-stream, season-to-season. Sometimes it varies hour-to-hour. One must consider the fish’s relationship with its environment, the weather, water temperature, level, and current. The answers are key in crafting a cunning approach to the day’s journey.
“There is an art to fly fishing,” according to Ben Elmer, an avid fisherman, prominent local guide and manager at Brookings Anglers in Highlands. “The draw for me comes with chasing the fish and convincing them to eat my fly.” With tens of thousands of artificial flies to consider, wisely choosing a fly that best matches the current bug hatch creates a greater opportunity for this to happen. Equally as important to an aspiring fish catcher is mastering casting techniques where the fly mimics the actual habits of the “bug du jour.”
Elmer describes the scene on the river. An angler first strategically scopes out an ideal location where the fish might be found. He then chooses his fly, not just any fly, the right fly that will tempt the fish. After quietly wading into the water, he fortifies his stance, chooses his cast, and delivers his fly. Patiently he waits. Feeling camaraderie with nature and perhaps his fellow fisher friends nearby, he enjoys the whip and grace of his cast as his fly dances on the surface. There is no impatience in the wait as the rewards are great, and then suddenly, possibly many casts later, STRIKE! He hooks one. A rush of adrenaline courses through his veins as he works to keep the trout or bass on the line. His skill at properly setting the hook will hopefully secure the catch as the duel plays out. However, stalking and catching the fish is only part of the game. “It is not over until the fish is successfully in the net,” says Elmer, “and that is a challenge in itself.”
Gail Bell, a ten-year veteran fly fisherwoman from Scaly Mountain, North Carolina says, “Fish are spooky and smart. Stealthiness is always your mantra. Imagine, now the fish has his choice from tens of thousands of natural food floating by. What are the odds he will choose your artificial fly? But when he does ... POW ... lights out awesomeness! It can be spiritual and technical with a little luck thrown in.”
“You don’t have to catch a fish though to have a good time,” Elmer shares like a secret. Fishermen vary in the experiences they seek. Some choose to float rather than wade, some want private over public waters, and some prefer to fish in the quiet winter months when they can take their catch home. Finding a peaceful experience grounded in nature is ideal for some who want to “get away from it all,” while others seek the thrill of the chase.
American author Norman MacLean who wrote A River Runs Through It equates fly fishing to a piece of music that slowly builds to an exciting crescendo. Maybe this metaphor best explains the growth of the sport and its captive audience of all genders and ages. Regarded as being meditative and therapeutic, restorative fly fishing retreats are plentiful and hosted by groups such as Casting Carolinas for cancer survivors and Project Healing Waters for military personnel and disabled veterans.
Brookings Anglers, with locations in Cashiers and Highlands, is a trustworthy resource for finding the best experience. Their guided trips are a terrific way to learn, grow, and perfect techniques. In addition, they offer fly-tying courses, licenses, and full or half-day packages for individuals, couples, and groups. Packages start at $200.
It’s early morning and my senses are tuned to the quiet of the world around me. As I sit lazily on the dock in my Adirondack chair sipping my morning coffee, I watch the mist slowly rise off of the pristine lake before me, Lake Glenville in Western North Carolina. Hues of green and blue emerge as the soft water becomes dappled in the morning light. You cannot beat the tranquil sound of lapping water as it slowly rolls to shore. My family and most of my neighbors are still asleep with the exception of a few anglers in canoes off in a distant cove. The only significant signs of stirring are the tall trees caressed by a soft breeze and the gossiping birds that fill them. With each breath I take of clean, fresh air, the sun gains altitude and slowly shows itself over the blue mountain range in my view. The warmth of the sun soothes me. My cozy plaid wrap slips off my shoulders as I ease deeper into a meditative state of relaxation. Ah, this is the life—lake life in the early morning.
With each hour of the day, this lake takes on a different personality. In the early morning, it supplies fuel to the soul for early-risers. Shortly thereafter, the paddle boarders and kayakers emerge to take on the glass-like waters. Once the day warms, the powerboats pulling skiers and giddy kids on inner tubes arrive. In the early evening before sunset, you’ll see friends and family lounging in pontoon boats idling along the shoreline exploring the lake one neighbor at a time and waving along the way. As darkness descends, the smell of charcoal wafts through the air as people fire up the grill for a summer supper under the stars. Laughter fills the air as groups gather, and the happy sound ripples across the water.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, second homeowners flock to these parts in the summertime for the cooler temps this altitude affords. It is a tough choice when buying a home here between mountain or lake views, although there are those lucky enough to have both. If you seek a low-stress life with a deep sense of peace, adventure, and community, then lake life might just be for you.
A lake community is a deeply woven place centered on fishing, water sports, family time, and barbeques. Neighbors come together for cocktails on the dock, impromptu dinners, and toasting marshmallows on an open fire. Life is good on the lake.
Although there are many pristine bodies of water in the Highlands-Cashiers-Sapphire Valley area to consider, there are several lakes that have a great allure to many. A public lake offers lots to do and see all day, while private lakes cater to those looking for a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere with less distraction. Regardless, each area lake is unique with its own vibe, and the trick is finding the one that fits your dream of life on a lake.
The largest public lake in the area and the only one that allows gas-powered boats, Lake Glenville is an emerald gem offering a dynamic lifestyle. With the highest elevation of any lake east of the Mississippi River, a vast size, and tremendous depth, there is much to be found on this public lake aside from water sports. Packed with islands, beaches, fishing holes, and waterfalls, this reservoir calls to those who want to live in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains while overlooking an unspoiled body of water. Residents marvel in the richness of flora and fauna, the landscape contrasts of mountains sinking into the water and the glorious sunsets glistening across the surface of the lake.
Signal Ridge and Lakeshore are two marinas that help supply the fun for the community and visitors with boat and equipment rentals. From jet skiing to wakeboarding, one can find plenty of adventure on the water along with boats of all sizes and speeds. For anglers, Lake Glenville has a bevy of fishing holes teeming with bass, trout, catfish, and perch. Explorers will love the three big waterfalls and a hiking trail that leads to a fourth one (High Falls) with a breathtaking 150-foot drop.
Golfers who have dreamt of living on a stunning 18-hole championship golf course while enjoying lake and mountain views have found their wish at Trillium. This private residential club is adjacent to part of the lake and offers a multitude of recreational diversions and amenities.
For all lake homeowners, events of all kinds support the community including a season kick-off cocktail party hosted by Friends of Lake Glenville, barn dances throughout the summer, and the immensely popular Fourth of July fireworks show on the lake.
It is important to note that as a public lake there is an active recreational park, campground, and beach on the northern end where day-trippers and vacationers enjoy quick lake access.
This historical 55-acre plus lake completed in 1896 was once land Cherokee and Creek Indian Tribes called home up until the early 1800s. Later in the nineteenth century, the land became the country’s primary mining site for gold and sapphires (word has it Tiffany & Co. once mined here). Just after the lake was created, a Victorian-style inn called Fairfield Inn on the National Historic Register was built and had a life on the lake, serving as a vacation resort for families looking for rest and relaxation in the mountains. Despite the diversified history of the land where the lake now lives, the sheer granite rock face of the beloved landmark, Bald Rock, has remained a constant. Standing watch over the lake, this magnificent natural sentry makes living near this lake all the more spectacular.
As part of the Sapphire Valley Resort, Fairfield Lake is an exclusive attraction only for its lucky members. You can find anglers fishing for bass and bream, kayakers, sailors, and swimmers. A boathouse offers rentals of fishing gear, kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards, sailboats, and electric motor boats. Residences high above overlook the gentle lake and have magnificent views of Bald Rock, the surrounding national forest, and/or the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are three miles of hiking trails around the lake and one steep trail leading up Bald Rock. Nearby are waterfalls, mountain bogs, Camp Merrie Woode (where the gem and gold mine once stood) and an old Wishing Well that was once considered a “healing spring”.
Sapphire Valley has other private lakes such as Sapphire Lake and Hogback Lake. The latter, known for its fishing, is 35+ acres of pristine water surrounded by forest and Hogback Mountain. Charming residences and home sites are nearby with direct lake access.
The largest private lake in North Carolina laced with million-dollar homes is Lake Toxaway, a charming Southern hideaway for the country club set. Steeped in a rich history dating back to the late 1800s, prominent families like the Fords and the Vanderbilts summered on the lake for relaxation, fresh air, and golf.
In the 1960s, the Lake Toxaway Country Club was founded with the same high standards in mind for family and friends to socialize in the mountains while living on an unspoiled lake. Members enjoy the 18-hole championship golf course with dramatic fairways created by Master Architect Kris Spence and a Tom Fazio Learning Center where golfers can perfect their practice. In addition, club amenities include a pro shop, clubhouse, fitness center, tennis courts, croquet, and dining.
The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests and mountains such as Hawk, Panthertail, and Mt. Toxaway surround the lake. Its high elevation with long and short-range views creates a beautiful landscape to enjoy outdoor leisure including hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. While much of one’s life here is spent outdoors, there is an active social calendar filled with soirees, social clubs, and events throughout the season.
North Carolina's mountains are well known for pristine lakes, world-class golf courses, and scenic hiking trails. But less visible is the rich literary underbelly known to the lucky readers among us.
Perhaps it's the isolation of life in the mountains, or the spirit of hundreds and hundreds of ancestors and their stories that seem to come alive in the quiet of the woods. Whatever the source, the mountains of North Carolina abound in literary history.
Thomas Wolfe, arguably the most famous of North Carolina writers, grew up in Asheville, the son of a stonecutter, before beginning his writer's life in New York City. The locals knew him to be an able wordsmith...he had, after all, edited the Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina's student paper. But when Look Homeward, Angel was released to enthusiastic reviews and sales, it caused an uproar among the town, as apparently some of the characters in the best-seller seemed all too familiar. Wolfe called the town “Altamont” and says in the book, “The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life...They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”
Those mountains, of course, have been the setting for countless significant events in our country's history, most notably the Civil War and the institution of the “Trail of Tears” by which native Americans were banished to Oklahoma.
Charles Frazier's award-winning fiction is firmly planted in the local mountains. Did you realize there really is a Cold Mountain for which his novel Cold Mountain is named? Just southwest of Asheville, the 6,000-foot peak is the tallest in the wilderness area and was the home of the protagonist Inman's wife, to whom he struggles to return after serving in the Confederate Army. Inman's character is based on stories handed down—in true mountain tradition—by Frazier's father about his great-granduncle named Inman.
His second novel, Thirteen Moons, is also set in the North Carolina mountains and tells the story of a man's experience with the Cherokees during their removal from the area.
Kaye Gibbons, who grew up in rural North Carolina, is a prolific contemporary writer mostly about complex women with layered emotions. She draws on her hardscrabble upbringing in Nash County and many of her characters have similar struggles, especially as they attempt to push back against a restraining Southern culture. Her voice apparently rings true, as evidenced by her best-selling status, innumerable awards, and selection for Oprah's book club.
Ron Rash, who has been hailed by New York Times' Janet Maslin as an “elegantly fine-tuned voice”, grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and received a master's degree from Clemson University. A former professor and part-time resident of Sapphire Valley, Hallman Bryant, regrets that “Clemson let him get away.” Seems he applied for a teaching job there but was turned down because he didn't have a doctorate but only an “ABT” (all but thesis). He concedes it was their loss and Western Carolina University's gain, as Rash spent years on WCU's faculty.
Rash went on to become a prolific novelist and short-story writer. He is perhaps best known for his 2008 novel Serena, which was a finalist for the famed PEN/Faulkner award and was eventually made into a feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Wiley Cash, who made his debut with A Land More Kind Than Home, has more recently published The Last Ballad, a critically acclaimed story of a single mother's fight for rights in a North Carolina textile mill. Based on a true story, Cash, who has been called by Vanity Fair magazine “a charming North Carolinian”, illuminates a dark period in Appalachian history and breathes life into it through his rich, intriguing characters. He was the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2018.
Perhaps it is the incomparable scenery that stirs the creative soul.
Laura Lane McNeal sought solace in Cashiers, where her parents lived, following the 2005 upheaval of Hurricane Katrina in her hometown of New Orleans. The quiet winter in the mountains was a useful backdrop as she spent the time here writing Dollbaby, a Southern take on coming of age, which was published to enthusiastic reviews.
“I spent countless hours with my dog Max taking hikes in the fiercely beautiful landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says. “The gorges and waterfalls, the hidden streams, the fresh smell of cedar and hemlock, the way the earth and sky came alive after the rain, the ethereal sunsets that reminded me there would be light after the dark...”
Though she and her family did eventually rebuild in New Orleans, the mountains had claimed them, and they now own property in the Cashiers area and spend some of the season here. And, Laura has written two more novels following the best-seller success of her Cashiers-inspired debut.
Deanna Klingel is one of the more prolific writers to set up shop in these mountains. She didn't seriously get down to fiction until she had raised seven children. Her stories, which she describes as being for the young and the young at heart, include civil war historical fiction and another called Blue-Eyed Doll which is based on a doll exchange that her elementary school class conducted with students in Japan at a time when there existed a deep mistrust of all things Japanese. Not surprisingly, she is a frequent guest at schools throughout the country, where her stories are enthusiastically received. “Maturity,” she says, “is a blessing when it comes to writing.”
But best-seller status is not required to take a stab at creative writing.
That many local residents are inspired by the environs is supported by the popularity of the Highlands Writers Group, a collection of short story writers, memoirists, novelists, poets and journalists who gather each Tuesday at the Bascom Center for the Arts to engage in writing exercises, readings, and critiques. Highlands has always beckoned writers to visit the area...Walker Percy, Cassandra King, Pat Conroy, and Sandra Brown are examples...and the local literary culture even spawned a Writers Group anthology.
Even if you're just a passionate reader, you can indulge in a bit of literary sightseeing in this part of the world. Start in Asheville, at the Thomas Wolfe House, located in downtown Asheville. It was actually a boarding house, run by Wolfe's mother, and the setting for Look Homeward, Angel. Built-in 1883 in the Queen Anne style, the 29-room home is now a National Historic Landmark, and offers visitors an introductory film and guided tour. Meticulously curated, with many of the furnishings from Wolfe's time there, the museum even displays each holiday season a copy of his original handwritten letter to Santa Claus.
The Grove Park Inn, also in Asheville, has been the backdrop for lots of literary action. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent summers there in the 1930s and each year on a weekend near his September birthday, the Inn hosts an “F. Scott Fitzgerald Weekend” whereby visitors are taken on a tour of the author's favored suite and treated to insights of noted literary critics. Sadly, Fitzgerald's wife Zelda died in a tragic fire at a nearby psychiatric hospital.
Another literary road trip could be made to Carl Sandburg's farm in Flat Rock, near Hendersonville. Sandburg spent the last 22 years of his life in the bucolic setting where his wife was known for the cows she raised. Visitors may tour the farmhouse, visit the dairy barn where some descendants of Mrs. Sandburg's herd reside and hike over five miles of trails. In the summertime, visitors may enjoy live performances of Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and other adaptations of his work at the farm's amphitheater.
But perhaps the best place to celebrate the literary culture of these mountains is from your favorite chair on your private porch with a book in hand. Let everyone else rush to make their tee times!
Which begs the question: Have you had a chance yet to pick up Charles Frazier's latest novel? Varina is the story of Jefferson Davis' wife and the reviews, so far, are excellent. •