Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
Meet Banner Elk’s High Country Boats: Custom-built drift boats utilizing unique designs guaranteed to make your lake and river excursions as memorable as they come.
Les Vance and Matt Maness, the two owners and builders of the High Country Boats line of custom watercraft, grew up within a half hour of each other in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet they never knew each other until later in life, when they had a chance encounter on a stream that flows off of Grandfather Mountain through Wilson Creek Gorge, here in Western North Carolina.
Many people who live in our region come from somewhere else and often forget that this beautiful part of the country really is a destination for folks around the United States and the world. That is the case for Vance and Maness, whose families traveled west and then up in elevation to vacation in the mountains surrounding the towns of Boone and Banner Elk.
What brought the two together was a love of fishing, drinking beer, and finding a way to make a living in the mountains, which can be a daunting task. But their entrepreneurial spirit led them to yet another level once they joined forces and then set about designing and building custom-made drift boats of a high quality.
Now, after years of trial and error, a desire to constantly improve on their designs and ideas, and the feedback of customers who love what they build, Vance and Maness are making their drift boats that are comfortable, utilitarian, durable, and innovative.
The end result is a custom, made-to-order boat vessel that is a little over 16 feet long and six feet wide at the beam, plus 452 pounds in weight, yet can carry three people over less than five inches of water.
The Accidental Career Pt. 1
Les Vance developed a love of fly fishing as a kid, yet his early fish species of choice were not the trout that he knew were in the High Country mountains, some 200 miles away.
“I grew up in Fuquay-Varina, which is about 20 minutes south of Raleigh,” recalls Vance. “I grew up fishing on farm ponds, fly fishing for bass and bluegill starting when I was about eight years old. I was self-taught and I fumbled through it at the beginning, reading a lot about it. There, a summer camp that I went to taught fly fishing and that piqued my interest.”
Vance also had a familial link to the High Country mountains.
“Eventually, I would come up here to Western North Carolina in the summer and trout fish a lot,” he says. “My Dad grew up there in Pineola, in Avery County, so I always had a connection to the area. His dad, my grandfather, was the doctor there in Avery County, simply known as ‘Doctor Vance.’ My dad was a graduate of Crossnore School. But my Dad is not a fisherman. My granddad did have an old fly rod, however, and I started flailing around with it. It was an old bamboo rod that should have been on a mantle, as it was not really meant to be fished with, although he also had some old lures and flies, but they were all rusty.”
After Vance graduated from high school, he moved to Boone to attend Appalachian State University, where he became a parks and recreation management major. After college, Vance moved to Colorado and became a fishing guide in the rivers found amongst the majestic Rocky Mountains.
“I took that job as a reason to go and play around for the summer, and I never had any ambition to be a fishing guide,” says Vance, outlining his gradual evolution as the proverbial outdoorsman. “I had to do an internship for my major and I found a ranch in Colorado that was hiring fishing guides for the summer. They hired me over the phone, but I went out there a month early and fished the rivers and learned the terrain. With fish guiding, you learn a lot as you go. I did it for that summer; then one year faded into the next; and then I got into the seasonal life, as in a ski bum in the winter and a fishing guide in the summer.”
There are still people in the eastern part of America that have never seen the West and the Rocky Mountains, and doing so can be a life-changing experience.
Vance agrees, saying, “The first time I drove across the country, you hit the Colorado line on I-70 and it still looks like Kansas. All of a sudden, you get within sight of Denver, and there is just a wall of mountains. It is pretty spectacular. Everything was brand new and awe-inspiring. As I have gone out there for years now, you kind of get used to it. However, there are still days when the view is pretty amazing. But whenever I come back here to the Western North Carolina mountains, the green is what blows my mind, and I forget how pretty it is here. Both mountain ranges have their charms, and I definitely have a love for both of them.”
The Accidental Career Pt. 2
Matt Maness also fished the waters of Western North Carolina as a kid, and that is how he and Vance met.
“I met Matt up here when I was in high school, and he was four years older than me,” says Vance. “I was fishing and we were both camping on the same river, so that was kind of cool.”
“We were camping behind Grandfather Mountain by Wilson Creek,” says Maness, taking up the narrative, “and Les came over and started stealing beers from us, and we have been stuck with each other ever since,” said Maness, laughing.
As an adult, Maness became a fishing guide in the Carolina High Country full-time, based in Foscoe and working the many rivers that flow off of Grandfather Mountain and other mountains. But, like Vance, it was a job that he never intended to pursue.
“I went to North Carolina State for a while and wanted to transfer to Appalachian State, but had to catch up on some credits at Caldwell College,” says Maness. “I worked at a lot of outdoor resource stores, including at Footsloggers and at Mast General Store. One of the people that I worked with, her husband was a fishing guide, and they needed some help covering some trips one day. So, I started doing some half-day fishing trips, and then I did a few more, and then they needed help with river rafting float trips.
“And, here I am, still a fishing guide 15 or so years later.”
Maness was the one who first began to build boats as a young man, although with a rather humorous and auspicious start.
“I started out building wooden canoes and kayaks,” he explains. “I got a couple of really good instructional books like CanoeCraft—An Illustrated Guide to Fine Woodstrip Construction, written by a guy named Ted Moores, who also wrote the book Kayak Craft. The first boat I ever made was built in my bedroom. I pushed my bed up against the wall and built this boat in the bedroom, and then we couldn’t get it out through the door [of the house]. So, we had to take the sliding glass doors out to bring it outside. I had to sleep on the couch that whole winter as the smell of the glue in my bedroom was bad. It was a wood and fiberglass boat kit—it came out pretty good, actually.”
Vance continued to be a fishing guide out west, but he became interested in Maness’ boat building projects during the winter months back here in the Tar Heel State. Eventually, something clicked as their goal of producing a unique boat design came into focus.
“I built my first drift boat around 2006 and I realized that even with kits, you were still building the boats from scratch,” says Maness. “That is when I decided to build one of my own making, truly from scratch. That is when we began to change our materials from wood to more modern day composites. From then on, every year we would research materials and designs and would change something to improve our designs. We designed a hull that had to be Coast Guard approved, and once that is done, the hull can’t change. But everything else, the interior layouts, space and capacity, rowing efficiency, and everything else were things we could innovate.”
Once their designs caught fire, Vance and Maness started High Country Boats without financing, letting their quality-designed boats build up an organic following.
“We built the boats for ourselves first,” admits Maness, “and used them on the water for several years—and then sold them. Once the word was out, people began to ask for them. But, now we do use Instagram and Facebook and social media in general.”
“We are basically walking advertisements because we were using them on the water, and people would see them and would say, ‘I want one!’” adds Vance. “Since then, it has basically been a snowball effect. It started slow, but each year we have found more and more momentum. It has been an organic thing as we haven’t done a lot of advertising. It has been more word-of-mouth. We are also big on using social media. Our online content is a mixture of boats and fishing. At its core, this business is all about fishing. We combine boat photos with fishing photos and lifestyle pics, and we include a lot of boat construction pictures as well.”
These days, every boat that Vance and Maness make is made to order, and the end result of their custom small batch production approach is a waiting list that is now about two years.
On the Fly
Both Vance and Maness keep raising their profile as fishing guides, which has the additional benefit of keeping their boats on the water for all to see, both here in Western North Carolina in Maness’ case, and on rivers such as the Rio Grande, the Animas, and the San Juan out west with Vance.
“Matt and I have fished New Zealand together,” adds Vance. “We have also fished in Patagonia, in Mexico, Belize, and more. New Zealand was beautiful, the fish were big, and you can do sight fishing there. It is more of a high-stakes fishing experience, as you don’t see a lot of fish because they see you [due to] the clear water, so you only get so many shots at the big ones. In many cases, you get one cast, one try, and that is intense.”
Ultimately, according to Vance and Maness, their summer guiding gigs complement their boat building. As their reputation as craft builders continues to rise, the future possibilities for High Country Boats is exciting and unlimited, although their love for fishing and being on the water will not fade for this pair of Tar Heels lure slingers.
“There are always new flies that are hot in any given year, but it comes and goes in phases,” says Maness. “People will fish [with a popular new] fly hard, and the fish will eventually get used to it. But there are tried and true flies that have been around for years, like the Woolly Bugger, the Prince Nymph, the Pheasant Tail, and the Parachute Adams fly. Those flies will always work. I mean, they may not work every day, but if I had to pick just one fly that I had to have, or if I could only have one fly, it would be one of the four I just named.”
It should be noted that, when it comes to fishing, for as long as men and women have been doing it over the eons, they always try to keep their secret places just that—a secret. In the mountains, it could be wild and edible mushroom hunters who find amazing hillsides full of chanterelles, chicken of the woods, or morel mushrooms after years of searching and they don’t want these areas to be destroyed or over-harvested. So, they keep those trophy areas a secret. It could be a farm pond that you found with a friend as a teenager that has giant largemouth bass, crappie, or bluegill in it, or simply a certain tree, cove, or drop-off in a public lake that produces big fish time after time. In these cases, it is human nature to stay quiet about their location as honey holes are passed on to close friends or family members, and even over the generations.
The same is true with trout fishing in the Western North Carolina mountains. That kind of information can be what separates the everyday fishermen and women from professional guides, who spend countless hours finding these hot spots. Vance and Maness are not snobs about their sweet spots and they are happy when other guides are successful. They do have a sense of humor about it, however, calling various honey holes they’re partial to “Trout Creek” or “Mountain River.”
“Sometimes, people will watch where our trucks are parked, or try to see how our rods are rigged at the boat ramp, or they just ask us about what stretch we are fishing,” says Vance. “But it’s all good, as no one is following anyone else or anything like that. But the rivers are very busy these days, and that is why we are tight-lipped with our spots. It didn’t used to be like that. Now, there is a lot of fishing pressure because things are so accessible on the internet—people want to write about their adventures.”
One reason for the additional fishing pressure on trout streams these days is the surprising fact that Millennials have fallen in love with fly fishing and have become the surging angler generation of late. They are buying up fishing gear and lifting up guide services all over Western North Carolina with their desire to get on the water.
“Fly fishing has exploded, especially with the younger crowd,” states Vance. “The New York Times even said in an article in October that fly fishing is ‘the new bird watching’, that it’s an old hobby that has become trendy again. We have seen an increase in young folks on the water—and in women anglers as well—and that is good!”
R&D On the Horizon
With the kind of demand High Country Boats is currently experiencing, the next move, of course, is to increase production in a way that keeps the quality of their watercraft at a high level, something clearly paramount for Vance, who describes their boat selling process as “very personal. Every boat we make is to order, and our customers are in the loop. We talk to them on the phone and text them, asking them, ‘What do you want here? Do you want to change this?’ It is very interactive and we send them photographs of their boat along the way.
“It is not like [the customer] just gives us money and they show up and get their boat. They are a part of the process. Due to our success, thoughts of ramping up the boat-making-process is definitely in the works.”
Making more boats and ramping up production inevitably means hiring more employees who also have the same goals.
“We will probably bring in a couple more people soon, and we have one full-time employee already,” says Maness, nodding. “Usually our most time-consuming day is when we are fiber-glassing a hull, using epoxies, and more. It is a long and messy day, and it helps to have a lot more hands doing it. A lot of the folks that help us out are also fishing guides.”
Right now, custom boat production only happens in the winter months, as both Vance and Maness continue to guide in the summer. But thoughts of year-round production and increased sales are on the minds of these two entrepreneurs, especially as the word continues to get out per the acknowledged excellence of their custom crafts.
“All options are on the table at this point,” says Vance. “We are not afraid to go bigger, but we don’t want to lose our identity, either. That is why we have always grown slowly and stayed within our means. Every year, we are brainstorming. We have our basic design, but we are always thinking about things we can tweak for the better to make the boats more user-friendly or tougher under different nature conditions.”
In the boat business, explains Vance, research and development is clearly an ongoing and necessary process. “We have improved the interior layout as far as how weight is distributed in our boats, as well as improved rowing ability and storage options. We are also looking for higher-tech materials. So, we do a lot of research, and there are always merchandise reps that we talk to who have new, hopefully innovative products they want us to try out. There is a tried-and-true way to build boats, but we also don’t want to get in a rut, as there are new products out there to consider if you want to give them a go. We want to be lighter yet stronger, so we use more expensive materials when possible.
“Our niche,” he concludes, “has always been about pushing the boundaries of how boats are built.”
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