By Lauren D. Ragland
Special to The Inter-Mountain
Editor's note: This is the third in a regular series called "On the Porch," which will feature interesting people throughout the area.
The Inter-Mountain photos by Lauren D. Ragland
Bill Harkness has been fascinated with fishing since he was 4 years old, and he says the secret to fly fishing is to ‘match the hatch.’ He looks out for the insects that have hatched that day and tries to match his tie to those insects — and tricking fish looking for a bite.
The Inter-Mountain photos
by Lauren D. Ragland
Bill Harkness, who works at Elk Springs Resort, loves to be out on the river, sharing his passion for fly fishing with visitors.
The Inter-Mountain photos
by Lauren D. Ragland
Bill Harkness, who works at Elk Springs Resort, gives casting lessons, teaches entomology and shows how to tie flies at the resort’s fly shop.
"See that? It went right past you!"
Really? I had been looking at the water for fish - I'm good at this. What was he talking about? The answer: flies.
That is why this sport is called "fly fishing." It is all about flies not so much the fish, especially since you usually release them to freedom, not the frying pan.
Today we need to be a stone fly, local fishing expert Bill Harkness says. They seem very large in flight with their square black wings, but caught between your fingers, they are actually very small and delicate and a favorite food for the fish.
It is all about tricking the fish, in a way. You pretend to be the particular type of fly that the day and the water have brought to your specific bend of the river. Your illusion lures the hungry fish swimming by to your fake fly. Harkness calls this "match the hatch.""
"That is the secret. You must 'match the hatch.' You check the spider webs and see what the particular fly of the day might be," he said, explaining how to tell which insects have hatched recently on the river.
"It is a zen-like moment, it is a zone," Harkness added. "You listen and see what's going on. It's a mental thing; you watch quietly and look for flies on top of the water. You look around for cobwebs to see who has been caught. That is the fly you want to pretend to be - the fly of the day.
"You get into the tempo of the spring, or the river, of the moment. You feel what is going on - and then you fool them with a manmade fly."
He is fascinated with the art of tying flies.
"Flies can be a work of art. They can impressionist, realistic or surrealist - or just look like food!
"Some flies are made perfectly, others are made roughly - and they both catch fish."
Harkness said he first knew that fly fishing was his passion when he was 4 years old. He was mesmerized with his grandfather's lighter, which was see-through and had a bright red fly floating inside that was made of red feathers on a small gold hook.
"There was just something so really cool about that red fly. ... I would look and watch it, and it was floating there. I wondered and wondered how it worked." Harkness grins and shakes his head.
"I knew at that moment that my life was in some way going to involve catching fish."
He said his first big catch was a perch. "It stretched across the length of my entire chest. I was 7, in Michigan. (It's) a great memory - a big day for me."
As he grew up, his passion became more spiritual.
"I would listen to people talking about trout. The conversation always seemed mystical. Trout are such complicated fish," he said.
Harkness' life has been organized into three 24-year cycles. His first 24 years were spent in the Detroit, Mich., area. He graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in anthropology. At the age of 24, he moved to the area of Ashville, N.C., and founded the Town Pump Tavern in Black Mountain, N.C. He owned and operated the landmark for 24 years before moving to Montreville.
A gift of a fishing vacation package that included a visit to Elk River Trout Ranch brought Harkness to the heart of the Appalachians and the exact place that he calls his permanent home.
In 1999, he purchased an unfinished cabin, secluded deep in the woods near Point Mountain. He said he was semi-retired. "One day I was fishing and the next day I wasn't!"
He started helping out at the Elk Springs Resort.
"I am the type of employee who shows up and works hard. I felt appreciated - and well, that was eight years ago!
Elk Springs Resort is located on Dry Branch Road in Montreville, at the corner of Webster, Randolph and Pocahontas counties. It's owned by Daron and Lisa Dean, owners of Black Top Industries in Canova, who purchased the Elk River Trout Ranch in 2000.
Harkness wears many hats at the Elk Spring Resort.
"I'm the glue that keeps things together. I do everything from bartending, maid duties, maintenance. I'm a Renaissance man - I do everything."
One day he might be pulling a Yeungling for you, and next running the fly shop. He also gives casting lessons for fly fishing; teaches entomology, fly tying, whatever.
He calls it "one-stop shopping to learn fly fishing!"
The resort features a spacious, 2,700-square-foot, fully stocked Orvis fly shop. On display are thousands of flies that might show up on the Elk River, and just outside, visitors can experience some of the best year-round trout fishing in the Eastern United States.
The resort also features the 52-seat Ellie May's Ole Mill Restaurant, which offers homestyle cooking from Head Chef Jerry Strawderman, a graduate of the International Culinary Institute. Food is served 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Breakfast and lunch are served all day!
I hope you join me next week and sit "On the Porch." I will continue to share interesting stories about interesting people - you might be next!