Fly fishing polymath Frank Smith had just savored the first bite of a large take-out cheeseburger topped with odoriferous onions when I arrived early for our scheduled 2 p.m. interview.
This was not the time to come between the man and his food. It was his territory, a small desk in the back of his Hunter Banks & Co. fly fishing store on Montford Ave. I was the invader. I thought, for a fleeting moment, that he could hook me with the burger, grab me in a net and hang me from his wall. A poor, unwitting trophy I would be for all to see.
I let him finish while I looked around the store. It is filled with fishing gear. Not just any type of gear, but good stuff, fly fishing stuff. Rods, reels, waders, boots, flies and other unnoticed but necessary paraphernalia that would be of interest or need to those to whom casting the lightest fly 30 yards to rest lightly on the water in just the right spot is the most vivid image of their dreams.
Smith, when finished, approached and discussed my knowledge of the sport. I had no ready reply as to what my skill level might be, so he suggested we cast a few in the parking lot. There wasn’t time to go down to the river, and his obvious delight in getting out from behind the small desk made me instantly agree.
The adventure had begun. On the first cast the light Nylon line landed gently on my left shoulder just as I tripped the shutter.
“Did you get it?” he asked excitedly. “Did you get it?”
Indeed. That one and a dozen just like it. Smith is so skillful, so authoritative yet gentle with the rod that he lightly lays the line exactly on target, time after time. He concentrates with the excited look of a 12-year old and clearly relishes the result. Having done some fly fishing, I rate his skill level as other-worldly. Off the chart. Like no fisherman I have ever seen.
Even in the parking lot it gives him joy. To state the obvious, if you’re not fly fishing with Frank, he’s is having more fun than you are.
Another way to look at what Frank Smith does is to visualize him as the pastor, founder and general overseer of that great church of the fly fisherman, Hunter Banks Company of Asheville. Weekend services are held anywhere he and his trout-fishing clients choose along any of North Carolina’s 4,000 miles of fly-fishing trout streams. When winter arrives and the weather is too lousy to go outdoors, Smith conducts a six-week revival in Argentina. For the past 27 years he has taken friends, family and clients on uplifting and memorable expeditions to San Martin de los Andes, where the sun always shines and the trout are just shy enough to put sport back into the game.
Smith is the great-grandson of Dr. T.C. Smith, a Civil War surgeon’s aide who opened an apothecary in Charlotte in 1869. During the war he apparently became friends with Colonel Franklin Coxe1, developer of much of early Asheville and builder (in 1885) of the original Battery Park Hotel. So close were the two men that the first telephone line into Asheville was a private line between Coxe’s office and Dr. Smith’s Charlotte home at the intersection of Tryon and Trade Streets in what now is the middle of downtown Charlotte
In 1886, being persuaded by Coxe of the health and business benefits of Asheville, Smith moved his pharmacy to the then-remote mountain city. Located at 1 Biltmore Ave, the corner of Patton and Biltmore Avenues, it was conveniently close to Coxe’s offices and no doubt saved the frugal pharmacist money on the telephone line.
Smith’s pharmacy occupied part of a structure built in 1887 that today houses a trendy indoor/outdoor eatery. His former location in Charlotte is now occupied by a very large bank. Frank Smith says he loves Asheville, “but it sure would be nice to own that land in Charlotte”.
Doctor TC Smith, whose honorific probably was given more for his war-time service than for any formal education, was an obviously smart and reasonable man. He expanded his business beyond the bounds of a pharmacy and, overcoming transportation difficulties, became the local distributor for pharmaceutical and medical supplies
Smith says that, even in the late 19th century, Asheville was a natural become a center for health care. Those were the days when of encephalitis and malaria plagued the low country and no one knew that mosquitos were the carriers. There also was no real understanding of Tuberculosis other than it responded well to the clean, cool mountain air. As those seeking healthier climes move into the area, the Dr. TC Smith company thrived.
For over 100 years the Smith family grew the business well. It became one of the region’s largest suppliers of all things sold in drug stores. Most of those years were before the iron hand of the Food and Drug Administration limited what the local druggist could compound and sell. But even as the FDA choked the local pharmacist, TC Smith expanded to carry more of the products and brands that became known as over the counter products.
“We sold everything except fountain supplies,” Frank Smith recalls. “A large part of our business was supplying products and formulations to the sanitariums and hospitals.”
Under the third-generation leadership of Frank and his first cousin, Canie Smith, the Dr. TC Smith company made several strategic acquisitions. These included Carolina Surgical Supply and its parent, the W.H. King Company of Raleigh, for whom Frank Smith had worked when he was a student at NC State in Raleigh in the early 1960’s.
Smith’s major was Applied Mathematics. As a senior, with most of his required courses well behind him, he took a Phys Ed course in angling, a skill with which he was already quite familiar.
Whatever motivated Frank Smith to become such an avid and skilled fly fisherman is unknown. Maybe it was the math in him, dealing with the time, speed, distance and mass equations we subconsciously resolve when we throw a ball or cast a line. Maybe it was the love of the outdoors and the healthy feel of the air above a mountain stream. Or maybe it was his frustration in not being allowed to take the coveted course in Farm Pond Management course at NC State. As an Applied Math major he was lacking the prerequisite Zoology courses.
“I could have owned my own backhoe,” Smith says. “Sure wish I had been able to take that course.”
In 1985, with the Dr. T.C. Smith company flourishing, he opened the Hunter Banks Company to provide fly fishing equipment and gear for WNC anglers. The first location was in a small building next door to the current facility at the head of Montford Ave. Ten years later he bought a city owned parking lot next door and built the company’s current retail store, with space for offices upstairs. Currently that space is taken by the Brite Agency, an advertising, marketing and public relations agency owned by his daughter, Stephanie Smith.
In 1992, Frank and cousin Canie completed the sale of the Dr. T.C. Smith Company to one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical distributors, Bergen Brunswig Corporation. That freed Frank to devote more of his time to growing the fly fishing business. Through the years he has successfully expanded his operations to include guided fly fishing trips virtually anywhere in North or South America.
“Fly fishing in Western North Carolina is a $140 million industry,” Smith says. “The State publishes those numbers. We don’t have a lot of that business but we do serve a pretty good market. Most of our clients are local but we have people contact us and come in from all over the world. Our Internet business drives a lot of that traffic. We’ll work months or even years in advance to set things up so no matter where they’re from or where we’re going, they have an unforgettable experience. We can provide the training they might need and all the gear that’s right for the streams we’re going to fish. And of course, we really enjoy going with them and leading them from one adventure to another. Can you think of anything that’s more fun?”
Smith says the products at Hunter Banks range from entry level to the very high end. And casting in the parking lot is an integral part of the process.
“We can sell anything a person wants,” Smith says, “but we think it’s better for everyone if we learn something about a client before he loads himself up with gear that’s too far beyond or below his needs or abilities. We can watch a client cast one or two times and know right away what his skill level is,” Smith says. “A few lessons or a day with an instructor can make a huge difference in the enjoyment a client gets out of his fly fishing trip.”
The company also operates fly fishing schools at the Pisgah View Ranch during the summer. To insure personal attention there are a maximum of three students per instructor. Training includes not only casting techniques, but also lessons in essential knots to tie, reading the water in a stream, choosing the right tackle and other gear for your trip, how to choose the best flies for various conditions, and proper catch and release techniques.
“You don’t sell a novice an $800 rod,” Smith says. “It’ll be way more than he’ll be able to use. He might grow into it but who knows what’s down the road? He might not have time to develop his skills to the highest level. Likewise, an expert fisherman isn’t going to enjoy fishing with entry level equipment even if he’s just here for a weekend. We try to recognize abilities and we also recognize that not everyone can afford the high priced gear. When we’re setting up these trips we talk about the gear they’ll need.
“Why go on a $5,000 week-long trip with a $100 rod? Or with the wrong waders for the streams you’ll be fishing? These are judgment calls that the staff has learned through the years. It may be fun to guide these trips, and it really is, but there’s a responsibility as well. We have to do everything we can to make sure our clients get the maximum satisfaction from their trip, the best possible fishing experience.”
Hunter Banks sells the major brand names experienced fishermen expect. These include (but are not limited to) Orvis rods, reels and clothes; Sage rods, Abel reels and Simms wading gear. Smith says they can’t stock everything but can get overnight delivery on anything they don’t have on hand.
Stephanie Smith probably has the final word on her dad’s passion for fishing. “He is always excited to be on the water,” she says. “Everything about him shows the passion he has for the sport. He’s an expert with a fly rod. He really can put the line anywhere he wants, even in a strong wind. He enjoys that so much. I think he’s actually a little bit disappointed when he gets a fish on his line. He can’t wait to reel it in and get on to the next cast, the next big challenge.”
Hunter Banks is located at 29 Montford Ave. A parking lot is available adjacent to the building, unless Frank or a member of the staff is using it for dry casting lessons. Fly rods have the right-of-way.
For more information go to www.hunterbanks.com; or call Frank Smith directly at 828-252-3005; or 800-227-6732.