There is almost a mystique that seems to draw many would-be anglers into the world of fly fishing. Part of the alure comes from the panoramic beauty and picturesque settings where the fish can be found. There’s a longing to make a connection to something beyond ourselves—a creature that lives in a watery world completely alien to ours. Just the prospect of reaching through that veil and bringing to hand something as ancient as the Earth itself sets fishing apart from most other pursuits. But for many fly anglers, part of what has drawn them in are the many legendary anglers, both past and present, that have made the sport of fly fishing what it is today. It is one thing for someone to be fortunate enough to follow closely in the footsteps of a legend, but another to become a true legend themselves. Kevin Howell has had the privilege to experience both.
Kevin is the owner of Davidson River Outfitters (DRO) in Brevard, North Carolina, and was fortunate enough to be born the son of legendary angler and fly tyer, Don Howell.
Although he can’t remember exactly when he fell in love with fly fishing, Kevin says there are old photographs of him with a fly rod in his hand at 4 or 5 years old. Some of Kevin’s most memorable trips growing up were the times he spent fishing with his grandfather. When he was in his early teens, Kevin would spend a couple of weeks in the summer with his grandfather under the pretense that they were going to be trimming Christmas trees on the farm. “That lasted for about a day,” Kevin says, “then he and I would go fishing, and he would hire somebody to trim Christmas trees.”
Together, the pair would fish the Linville or Elk River all day.
“Throughout the course of the day he would be pretty bad to nip on his little flask of whiskey that he kept hidden in his vest,” Kevin says, “so, we’d get to the end of the day and he’d say, ‘well, you’d better drive us home.’ So, there I was, 12, 13 years old, driving 40 miles back to town!” Kevin thought it was great, but his mother, on the other hand…
But among all the anglers that influenced his life, Kevin’s father was the greatest. Don Howell and his brother Dwight were (and still are) well-known for their accomplishments as fly tyers and innovators in the sport, and one would be safe to say that Kevin learned from the very best. Kevin’s father operated Dwight and Don’s Custom Tackle from 1970 until the time he passed away in 1998.
Kevin had made quite a lucrative career of designing and building houses in the Brevard area in the late 90’s. But as time went on, he decided that the fishing industry was where he truly belonged. “I just decided that I was putting houses in places that maybe God didn’t mean for a house to go,” he says. He realized that spending more time on the water and focusing his attention in the fly fishing industry was where he truly belonged.
The owner of DRO at the time, Larry Hall, offered the shop to Don Howell. But by that point he was battling cancer and was unsure if he would be able, not knowing from day to day how he would feel. Kevin worked out his schedule so that he could help run the shop. “I took about a $50,000 a year pay-cut,” Kevin says. He eventually bought the fly shop, and after Don passed away, Kevin took over operation of Dwight And Don’s Custom Tackle and in 2000, merged it with DRO.
“Davidson River Outfitters went from being open three days a week and doing about 40 guided trips a year to running thousands of trips a year nowadays.”
Kevin is carrying on the family legacy in many ways, especially when it comes to tying flies. He was tying for the family tackle business by the time he was a teenager and continues the craft on an even greater scale today. Kevin no longer ties commercially, but he does design and development for Montana Flies. He has several patterns with them, and they have their own staff of tyers mass-produce his creations for retail all over the country and beyond.
Kevin is also the author of Favorite Flies for the Great Smoky Mountains: 50 Essential Patterns From Local Experts. This book is a great resource for new and experienced anglers alike. He was also instrumental in the production of his father’s book, Tying and Fishing Southern Appalachian Flies, a guide to tying original Appalachian fly patterns and expert advice from one of the true greats in the sport. Kevin not only helped finish the book while his father was fighting his battle with cancer, he found a publisher to help preserve this valuable knowledge.
The amount of time and resources that Kevin Howell invests into the fly fishing industry, and in the future of the sport is quite impressive. Kevin and DRO work with Project Healing Waters and Casting for Recovery. On Veterans Day, Davidson River Outfitters closes their private waters to everyone but veterans, who can fish the trophy waters for trout, free of charge when they sign up. He also works with Conserving Carolina, an organization that buys land in order to protect and preserve riparian rights-of-way.
Kevin mostly guides now only when another guide is sick or otherwise unavailable, or an extra guide is needed for a larger trip. It has become increasingly difficult for Kevin to be in all the places he needs to be at once. Among all his other responsibilities, Kevin sits on the board of the Outdoor Youth Engagement Council for the state of North Carolina and is often travelling to Raleigh for meetings. It seems in everything he does, he is in some way helping the fly fishing industry and numerous outdoor programs.
Another impressive thing about Kevin and his staff at Davidson River is how conscious they are of the environment. Their goal is not merely to keep the business booming by the number of fish caught on their guided trips, but instead the focus is on being protective of the streams and the fish. In hot weather when it’s too hot to catch trout, they will direct anglers to bass fish instead.
Kevin Howell’s story is truly inspiring, and it is no wonder he has become such a well-known figure in the fly fishing industry. He is one of the true living legends in the sport. To learn more about Kevin and Davidson River Outfitters, or to book a trip, you can visit their website:
or email Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org