Three River Fly Fishing Festival
By Christa Miller
Winners of the Jack Cabe Cup in 2019
Just the Facts
What it is: A casual, two-day tournament bookended by social gatherings
Who it’s for: Fly-fishing enthusiasts and their families
Where it’s at: Lullwater House, downtown Highlands —and 2,000 miles of western North Carolina waterways
When it is: September 23-25, 2021
How to do it: Secure your two-person team spot at Highland Hiker. Be sure to also secure your accommodations and a guide if you want one!
Looking for good food, good fun and great fishing?
Join fly-fishing enthusiasts from all over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard—from Alabama and Georgia to New York and Pennsylvania—as they gather with western North Carolina locals for the two-day Three River Fly Fishing Festival in Highlands, NC.
“Everybody's there to have a good time, to enjoy being outdoors, to celebrate the nature around Highlands and the fishing streams,” says organizer Hilary Wilkes, who also co-owns host store Highland Hiker.
Founded in 2010 and celebrating its 10th year, the tournament-turned-festival offers fun for all ages. “The entire community comes together to participate,” says Wilkes, pointing to the event’s opening reception and closing banquet, lunches, happy hour and a free children’s casting clinic.
This year for the first time, the musical comedy duo Trout Fishing in America will play at the Highlands Performing Arts Center on Friday night.
Why “Three River”?
The main event—the fishing—still takes center stage. To be eligible for prizes, two-person teams have to catch at least one fish each from a hatchery supported, a delayed harvest and a native stream (hence the festival’s name).
Each day fishing is open from sunup to sundown. With more than 2,000 miles of streams included in the tournament boundary, though, “A lot of people will end up driving upwards of an hour between here and where they're going to fish,” says Wilkes.
To that end, strategy counts. Teams could have a personal favorite spot or a guide. (Wilkes says to book one now if desired.) Competition categories exist for both guided and non-guided teams.
The competition is good-natured, and the prizes are coveted: the grand prize is usually an overnight hotel stay with dinner for each team member and their plus-one. Other prizes include high-end fishing equipment, especially rods.
And every participant gets a gift bag with gratis items donated from local vendors. Hats, t-shirts, koozies, and of course, flies are included. “We give out Jack Cabe hopper flies,” says Wilkes.
Supporting local lifelong learners
The prizes are “lures” to draw civic-minded fly-fishing enthusiasts, whose entry fees and participation in the event’s silent auction all benefit the Town of Highlands Scholarship Fund. Each year, about two dozen scholarships are awarded to graduates of Highlands High School—regardless of when they graduated or what stage of higher education they’re in, be it a four-year, two-year, trade or graduate program.
One hundred percent of the festival’s entry fees and proceeds from its silent auction are directly contributed to the fund. “The ninth annual festival and tournament [in 2019] raised over $20,000, which was a significant record for us,” says Wilkes. Over ten years, the tournament has raised about $75,000.
What to expect
First-timers can expect a well-run event that offers a great time and the chance to meet other fly-fishing enthusiasts. Returning participants will again be able to enjoy the hospitality at the beautiful Lullwater House and grounds and a closing night banquet dinner in town.
For herself, Wilkes looks forward to the festival’s post-pandemic return to Highlands and the chance to honor the “long list” of people who make it possible—especially, she says, those who “have been a part of the tournament from the beginning.”