NCtrend: Reeling it in
For two and a half hours on a July afternoon, Alan Burchell has been instructing, philosophizing and otherwise immersing himself in the sport of fly fishing on an idyllic stretch of the Linville River in Avery County. “It’s exactly like cleaning a paint brush, shaking the water off your brush,” he tells a novice angler, mimicking a quick forward whisking motion with his right forearm. “Nice and slow, elbow high, pause at the end of your lift — that’s very important — then accelerate to a stop. Feel the lever do all the work.”
Teaching the art of fishing is a brave new world for Burchell, who ran a homebuilding company in Boone for more than a decade before hitting the skids during the 2007-09 recession. Since then, he’s remade himself, landing a dream job as the outdoor programs director at Linville’s historic Eseeola Lodge.
A 1988 graduate of Appalachian State University with a bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation management, Burchell bounced around after college in a variety of jobs, including a year in Idaho as a fishing guide. In 1995, he joined Eseeola as an assistant tennis pro. The resort, owned by Linville Resorts Inc., dates to 1892 and is adjacent to the Linville Golf Club, ranked 22nd best in the state this year by a panel of golf pros and journalists. Sensing money to be made in mountain living, he started Burchell Construction Inc. in Banner Elk and by the mid-2000s was building about three new homes a year, priced at $1 million to $2 million, mostly in Boone and Blowing Rock, and employing as many as 17 people. “We got in at the beginning of the wave and rode it hard for 15 years,” he says. “We used good architects and good artisans and built custom homes, a few spec houses. I loved having my own business and being an entrepreneur. I had great rapport with my clients and little turnover in my staff.”
It wasn’t enough to avert the recession, which slammed purchases of second homes. “We had a lot of older craftsmen who were paid well because they were worth it. But now younger guys were coming along doing production work,” Burchell says. “The numbers didn’t work anymore.” He finished his company’s jobs, paid his bills and closed the business in 2011.
In March 2011, he saw an article in Garden & Gun magazine about the outdoor recreation director at Blackberry Farm, a luxury hotel in Walland, Tenn. “That’s the perfect job for me,” he told his wife, Sonya. “I would love to find a job like that. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life: fishing, shooting sports, hiking, all of it. I was always an outdoorsman at heart.”
Sonya suggested he call John Blackburn, Eseeola’s general manager since 1983, and discuss an outdoors program to dovetail with its golf and tennis activities. Blackburn had been considering the idea, but didn’t know whom to hire. “You’re the guy,” Blackburn told Burchell. “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but do it well.”
Burchell now works six days a week, from the lodge’s opening in early May through its closing in late October. He’ll take one or two guests on fly-fishing trips, teaching them if they’re beginners or want to learn more. Half-day trips cost $195 for two anglers. He also takes guests on half-day hikes in nearby Pisgah National Forest. Other guests use the resort’s target-shooting site. “It was divine intervention. Serendipity. I don’t know what to call it. John was looking to start a new program, and I needed a change. We found each other — just in time, I might add.”
During the off season he travels to fly-fishing and outdoor-equipment shows to promote Eseeola. “A lot of people know we’ve got a great [famed architect] Donald Ross golf course,” he says. “They don’t know we have 5.5 miles of private river and a covered 5 stand where we can shoot sporting clays.” This year, Eseeola is running more than 120 fishing tours, more than double the number of Burchell’s first year. The first 10 callers seeking reservations to the lodge in 2015 asked about fly fishing, he says. The sport’s popularity has grown since 2008, when a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission study showed 93,000 anglers spent $147 million on equipment and trips. (An updated study is due this month.)
Linville Resorts was formed in 1944 by regular summertime visitors and nearby property owners concerned about the resort’s financial health amid World War II. Today the company owns 3,000 acres in the Linville Valley, approximately 3,200 feet above sea level. The resort includes the lodge, golf course and clubhouse, tennis courts, swimming pool, spa and fitness center. “I wanted to start an outdoor program because it’s something a lot of resorts don’t have,” Blackburn says. “Alan just happened to walk into my office at the perfect time. I bit. It’s been good. He’s brought us lodge guests and club members. Kids like him, older folks feel comfortable around him. We’ll continue to grow the outdoor program.”