It’s been an unforgettable spring, and not in the best way. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached East Tennessee, the tourism industry came to a screeching halt. The timing couldn’t have been worse. March is when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its surrounding cities come back to life after the winter season wanes, when the weather is finally slipping out of freezing temperatures and Dollywood is preparing for an onslaught of spring breakers.
Likewise, Charity and Ian Rutter had been making plans to kickstart their 18th season of taking locals and out-of-towners into the national park to go fly fishing.
“March and April are our come-back months,” says Ian. “We had to cancel and refund trips when the park closed. Being a permit holder, we learn things a little sooner just by being in the loop.”
It was a first for the Rutters, as it was for many business owners, to figure out what happens next. What do you do when you’re ready to work but told to close? They did what everyone else did - stayed home and helped their kids, Willow and Boone, manage their schoolwork online. They had already started putting safety measures in place before the park closed, such as telling customers to bring their own refreshments instead of the Rutters providing them as a courtesy and being careful not to wade too deeply into the water so as to minimize the need for human contact. Also, instead of riding together in the same truck to a trailhead, clients needed to follow behind in their own vehicles. However, when the park closed, R&R Fly Fishing went back into hibernation.
Now the park has reopened, and the Rutters couldn’t be more ready to get back in the water.
The pair met in 1998 through a mutual friend and a shared interest in fly fishing. Ian, a Lenoir City native, became a fly fisherman by being a hiker first and seeing trout in mountain streams. By 1995, he was a local guide. Charity grew up on a farm in Oklahoma but frequently visited her brother and sister-in-law in Knoxville. When she had the chance, Charity moved to Knoxville full time and immediately started enjoying the great outdoors. Eventually, as she puts it, “Our career and path converged in a fly fishing shop.” The two soon married - in the national park, no less.
In 2002, Ian wrote and published Great Smoky Mountains National Park Angler’s Companion, followed by Tennessee Trout Waters: Blue-Ribbon Fly-Fishing Guide in 2003. He’d already been a sought-after guide, and Charity had earned a solid reputation as a fill-in guide. The phone was ringing often enough that the Rutters decided it was time to go out on their own. By the spring of 2003, R&R Fly Fishing was official.
As a casual hobby, rod-and-reel fishing is an easy way to enjoy nature and immerse yourself in the environment, the lush green of the woods, the gentle lapping of lake waves. Whether successful or not, fishing calms the spirit. You can spend hours sitting lakeside or on a dock waiting for that bobber to bounce below the surface.
Fly fishing, however, requires more than casting a line in the water and waiting for a bite. Much more, and the Rutters are eager for more anglers to try it.
“The food that trout eat don’t live long and are relatively small. They only last a day or two before they reproduce and die,” Ian explains. “Trout flies are made with feathers and are really small. You’re casting that mast with a fly on the end. To top of that, the fly has to be exactly where the fish is. It’s not random. Cast so you don’t cast into a tree, focus on walking and not falling. It has to drift, not drag. It takes a lot of concentration.”
“You come completely connected with nature,” adds Charity. “It makes my senses come more alive. I notice more. I’m looking for things moving in the water, where bugs are moving on the surface, how to imitate them. You have to be really aware and tuned in. It’s an escape mentally from everything in your everyday life. You hear things in the woods, you notice the birds overhead. You have to see where the fish settle. There are all kinds of things to think about.”
At R&R Fly Fishing, everyone is welcome, whether you’re an experienced angler who’s looking to discover the best-kept mountain stream secrets in the GSMNP or someone who’s never cast a line in his life. The Rutters have been doing this long enough to gauge what works and what doesn’t.
“We interview them before we take them fishing. People think they need to already know what to do, but we love to help people figure it out. We love to teach and create independent anglers,” says Charity.
“We get a sense for what the person enjoys,” adds Ian. “Hiking? All day? Half-day? We figure out what the person can do. We don’t go on brutal hikes unless that’s what they request. If you need instruction, then that’s where we start. The equipment, what you’re supposed to do, learning basic terms - you might think we’re speaking a different language. Within an hour to an hour and a half, we get you in the water. Hopefully, by the time the day is over, you’ve seen some fish and caught a few as well. Getting a fish to believe it’s a fly is a success.”
The Rutters focus on the experience, a service that’s earned a positive reputation among anglers from all over the country and across the world. (Ian says Europeans especially love coming across the pond to fly fish because they appreciate the abundance of publicly-owned lands.) Still, Ian and Charity can’t guarantee the fish count - that’s for charter boats with bait. There are a few local guides who get you in and out of the water in enough time to take the kids to Splash Country, but Ian admits they aren’t the go-to guides for a rushed afternoon.
“One of the most frustrating things is when someone asks how much fish you caught,” he says. “Don’t base [the experience] on that.”
Their passion for fly fishing extends beyond the day’s excursion with new and experienced anglers. Fly fishing is their livelihood and passion in equal measure. Even family vacations center around fishing, be it in New England, the Pacific Northwest, or their favorite retreat, the Everglades. Willow and Boone have grown to enjoy fishing too, even when it’s just around Tellico. The Rutters insist there is always something to learn.
“You can’t fool mother nature,” says Charity, “unless you’re a fly fisher.”
As East Tennessee settles into a new normal thanks to a novel virus, the Rutters are ready to take new and experienced anglers into the Great Smoky Mountains. They have the skillset and know-how, but they also have the desire to be responsible to their community. Safety measures are still in place so as to minimize human contact while enjoying all the park and its streams have to offer.
For more information on booking a wade trip, or to learn more about Charity and Ian, visit RandRFlyFishing.com.