A Great Catch

A Great Catch: The legacy and future of trout farming in Western North Carolina
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On an overcast summer day, the clouds reflect off of the rippling waters of Raven Fork Creek. Smooth, dry rocks poke up along the crooked bed where the creek used to flow. It’s running lower than usual, the result of worsening seasonal droughts in the region. Something that has been troublesome for the nearby Cherokee Tribal Hatchery, which depends on these cool, clear waters for their trout farm.

“Cherokee have occupied this landscape for millenia,” says Michael LaVoie. As Resources Director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, he helps to look after these waterways. “Cherokee have always been identified as an agricultural tribe, but they are as much a river tribe as anything else.”
Once upon a time, you’d see large v-shaped structures built from stacked rocks in these waters—weirs designed by the Cherokee to catch trout that teemed in the river. These days, most folks just use a fishing rod.  

Decades of industrial logging in these mountains caused runoff that dirtied the waters and caused the trout population to dwindle, until in 1963 when the tribe approached the US Bureau of Fisheries—the precursor to the US Fish & Wildlife Service—for assistance in developing tourist visitation and a recreational trout fishing program. By 1983, the tribe constructed their own trout hatchery, allowing them to stock over 200,000 pounds of fish in 30 miles of waters with trout every year. These days, Cherokee sells upwards of 50,000 fishing licenses annually, and a 2013 study found that angler tourism generated $25 million for the tribe’s economy, a number LaVoie thinks is closer to a billion these days. “We’ve got folks from just about every state in the nation coming here to fish at some point. It’s a giant economic boon for our region,”  he says. 

A Lasting Legacy
In nearly every bar and restaurant in Western North Carolina, you’ll find some kind of trout, whether it’s smoked trout on a breakfast bagel at a café, trout dip as a nibble at a local brewery, or a trout filet for dinner. And while anglers may be flocking to our streams to cast their lines, the fish in those waters, as well as the fish on our restaurant menus, often come from one of a multitude of trout farms in the region.

“Trout farming is not for the faint of heart or for someone that doesn’t want to work,” laughs Debra Sloan, an aquaculture specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “[These mountains] have limited land to farm but trout farms can be built in a cove if you have adequate water, and the footprint is fairly small.”

According to Sloan—who is perhaps the region’s foremost authority on trout and trout farming—we can thank Dick Jennings and Chares Zeigler, known as the grandfathers of the WNC trout industry, for the fish we consume to this day. “Dick was raising mink for their fur and began raising trout to feed the mink,” she says. That was in the 1940s, but by the 1980s, a whole industry had spawned around them as Howard Brown founded Carolina Mountain Trout—which would become the largest trout farm in North Carolina—and Jennings’s farm would morph into Sunburst Farms, now a household name to patrons of WNC restaurants. 

“My grandfather was certainly a pioneer, it was the first trout farm on this coast,” claims Wes Eason, the grandson of Dick Jennings and a third generation proprietor of the family farm. Standing in the shadow of the dam at Lake Logan, the long, narrow concrete pools—called raceways—bubble with rushing water and energetic rainbow trout, their colorful, iridescent backs glistening with each glint of sunlight. “Our fish are swimming in the fresh river water that they would already be swimming in naturally,” he says pointing to the tubes that carry water from the river to the raceways. “They just happened to be contained so that they can’t escape.

“Basically the way it works is that if the fish are harvested from our farm on a Friday afternoon, we will drive those fish on a truck to our harvesting facility in Waynesville—it’s about a 25 minute drive,” explains Eason. “Then we empty the live haul truck into a recirculating tank, and they spend the weekend there in fresh mountain well water. Then on Monday morning we harvest anywhere between 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fish in a day and we process everything that day. So, if you eat lunch in downtown Asheville, you could be eating a fish that was swimming five hours earlier.”

For decades, the general public in America was afraid of farmed fish; media stories about overcrowding, dirty fish tanks, and overmedicated fish farms, mostly overseas, left people opting for wild caught options. But after generations of overfishing and a revolution in fish farming technology, that seems to be changing. 

“Americans haven’t taken the deep dive for actual facts; they’re armchair environmentalists,” says Sloan. “Farm raised fish are safer to eat due to being grown in a controlled environment.”

“Trout are very sensitive,” adds Eason. “If the water is funky, if it’s a little too hot, if the water isn’t clean, they are going to die before you can harvest them. These are not bottom-feeding fish that can survive in murky, dirty waters, these are trout!”

But it isn’t all smooth waters for fish farmers in Western North Carolina. An ever fluctuating climate has made for unprecedented challenges. “We’re very concerned about the changing climate and how that’s going to impact trout in the long term,” says LaVoie. “We continue to see these seasonal droughts, which have had a big impact on our production from time to time. Last fall during the drought, we had to shut down nearly 40 percent of our operations due to such low water conditions. So in the long term we’re going to have to start looking at using new technologies to maintain those stocking needs.” 

Both drought and floods continue to be a major issue for the tribe’s waterways; a lack of water can cause them to have to empty their raceways, while a wall of water from the Smokies can wreak havoc and completely wipe out production. “There are technological solutions to those things but they can be expensive,” notes LaVoie. 

In the meantime, desire continues to grow as more locals see it as a viable local option for their home kitchens, and more and more restaurants want it on their menus. “If you think about Asheville before 2007, very few of those restaurants were there back then,” says Eason. “So many restaurants have opened here that want local products, that it has really driven demand.” He says the trick at this point is simply keeping up with that growing demand. 

Sunburst Trout Farm
314 Industrial Park Dr., Waynesville
Tours available by appointment only
(828)-648-3010; sunbursttrout.com

EBCI Tribal Trout Hatchery
954 Straight Fork Rd., Cherokee (828) 359-6960

Fish Cherokee
A permit is required to fish for trout in the Qualla Boundary. Daily or multi-day passes are between $10 and $47, while an annual pass costs $250. fishcherokee.com

Photographs by Jonathan Ammons; courtesy of David Rowland; Raven Eye Photography, courtesy of ECBI; courtesy of USFS/University of North Carolina Asheville; & courtesy of Sunburst Farms