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A New Cast

In a small river town in West Virginia, one CPASS alum and her partner are carving out a business that caters to more than just your typical angler.

Ann and Kim fly fishing in a rambling brook.

Building A Business

In early 2014, Mark E. Mitchell, a Pocahontas County native and 1979 graduate of the WVU School of Business and Economics, called his daughter Anne to pitch an idea. He wanted to start a trout lodge business out of his childhood home along the banks of Knapps Creek. And he wanted Anne, a 2012 CPASS graduate, and her partner Mark Hengemihle, also a WVU alum, to run it. 

Four years later, Anne and Mark H., both seasoned outdoor recreation professionals, have established Knapps Creek Trout Lodge within a unique, niche market in the West Virginia and outdoor recreation industry, reporting 30 percent growth in bookings, and developing special programs to support veterans and the local community. “It’s difficult, but fulfilling,” Anne says. “It’s a good feeling to try to add to the West Virginia economy. The scenic landscape that supports fishing is one of our greatest assets.”

The Mitchell family are no strangers to entrepreneurial adventures, or adventures in general. Anne’s grandfather, Harry Reid Mitchell, was a 1955 WVU Business Administration grad, himself. Commissioned into the Army the same day he graduated, Harry later bought an idyllic piece of property along Knapps Creek in Marlinton. After serving his country, he built the family home on the land in 1973. An entrepreneur at heart, he also founded Mitchell Chevrolet in Marlinton — which he later passed to his sons. Mark M., ran his own exterior renovation company in northern Virginia for almost 30 years.Anne and her partner had both been traveling back and forth between West Virginia, Teton Valley, Idaho, and the coasts of North Carolina working in the outdoor tourism industry when Mark M. called, hoping to tempt his daughter into the entrepreneurial family tradition. It was no surprise it worked. Anne and Mark H. moved back to Pocahontas County not long after agreeing to spearhead the project and, following minor renovations to the property, opened the Lodge in 2015 with her father’s help and guidance. 

Hooking The Audience

The Lodge’s appeal is simple, but unique. Anne and Mark wanted to create a comfortable environment where customers could relax for a weekend or more and learn the art of fly fishing while unplugging from a stressful, modern life. But their biggest hope was to attract a broader audience than typically found at a trout lodge — with an emphasis on bringing more women and families into the world of fishing. 

This new audience was an exciting prospect for Anne. “A lot of times, first-time female fishermen progress more quickly than men. Women naturally have more finesse than men. Men try to use their muscles, like throwing a baseball, whereas women are more fluid and gentle with their movements. A woman’s natural inclination lends itself to the sport of fly fishing,” she says. The new focus is working. The Lodge has increased its bookings of women and families year over year.

A big part of that outcome has been creating the right environment, one that feels more accessible for women and families than the traditional, male-oriented, rustic trout lodge. The experience starts at the front door, where guests are greeted by a crisp white arbor draped in vines and a hand-lettered sign welcoming them in. Just beyond the entrance, a massive oak tree separates the Lodge from the quiet rush of Knapps Creek, bordered by a bright green lawn and a white stone wall that stretches gracefully along its banks. A lush garden and bustling chicken coop further help to disconnect visitors from the chaos of modern life.

The Lodge is instantly warm and welcoming, no matter the weather outside, with coffee and tea always at the ready, and oversized chairs and couches creating intimate conversation areas near the crackling fireplace, perfect for chasing away the morning chill. In the main space, wide windows and the constant murmur of the creek lure families outside to enjoy the countryside — and uninterrupted time with each other. For guests in search of quiet, alone time, an intimate reading nook off the dining room offers plush chairs and shelves of books.

This was crucial, Anne says. “When we host families, we understand that this is most likely a first-time experience for their kids. Out here, kids can’t be on electronics, due to limited mobile service within the Green Bank Observatory quiet area. As a result, their time at the lodge develops into a positive family experience.”

Even in the seperate tack room, Anne and Mark H. have added special touches to make it a relaxing experience, from providing space to spread out equipment and personal belongings to the cushioned chairs, allowing guests to sit and get dressed, avoiding the awkward process of struggling with waders and boots.  

Food is also an important element. From surprise touches like teatime with snacks and drinks served in hearty earthenware mugs to a spacious kitchen with its bench-style seating, perfect for large groups, music and boisterous conversation — the Lodge is perfectly suited to help families decompress. Anne prepares menus ahead of guests’ arrival and sends out the final itinerary to the group organizer. She is even sensitive to dietary needs. “Tick off yet another detail that guests don’t have to worry about,” she says. In addition to getting some of their produce from the garden and free-range chickens, the Lodge makes use of local farms. “We collaborate with area farmers and businesses to improve food quality,” Anne says.

Capturing An Experience

One reason the business has been so successful is the way the pair have structured their partnership. Anne is the general manager. She is detail oriented and manages bookings, itineraries, “big picture” planning, promotional items, marketing and website design. Mark, on the other hand, is the business manager. He oversees social media accounts, handles accounts payable, receivables, website maintenance, memberships, subscriptions and maintains the equipment. 

Anne and Mark act as buffers, through a group management concept, offering instructions and guidance to guests. Both interact with guests once they are on site, taking turns or providing tandem instruction and guide services. Positive motivation is an important part of getting people on vacation to relax. Both instructors are able, thanks to their WVU education and experience in the outdoor recreation and education industry, to tweak their teaching styles and approaches to help people succeed at what is often considered a challenging activity. 

“Fly fishing is intimidating at first. It involves a lot of information, then shifts into an athletic flow,” Anne says. “[But] you find a rhythm and discover it’s relaxing. For therapeutic groups, the value of fly fishing involves the process: casting, controlling your line, managing slack, reading the water. There’s only so much that you can control. You can’t make the fish bite. It’s not like baseball, where you might miss the ball. In fly fishing, the fish are out there. You just have to find them.”

From their training and experience, Anne and Mark understand that a guest’s first-time experience is key. The more positive that first time is, the more likely guests will walk away feeling confident and self-sufficient and will return again and again. “We see a broad range of professions at the lodge. Some guests are accustomed to being serious in their careers. Once they arrive at the lodge, people can let their guard down. They are learning something new. They are vulnerable.” 

Anne ran cross country in high school. She says she had a fantastic coach who had a big impact on her own confidence. Her coach had studied sport and exercise psychology and encouraged her to go into the same field of study at WVU. While at WVU, Anne researched the importance of recreational physical activity. “[Sport and exercise psychology] was a good fit for me. I liked the courses. It offered a broad base, incorporating psychology, physiology, biology and sociology. It made the connection between the disciplines. It’s a unique major.” She says she still uses many of those concepts today in her current venture with the Lodge. “[It] helped me to identify external and internal factors of a situation. This is an important concept in understanding how to effectively instruct and guide, while creating a comfortable environment.” 

While drawing professionals, women and families to the Lodge continues to be an important goal for Anne and Mark, they’re also making an impact on military veterans through Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a support group that offers physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel and veterans through fly fishing and related activities. 

Anne started working with chapters of the organization based in Virginia and West Virginia to create personalized group and individual outings. She records the expectations and needs of guests to anticipate their needs and, from her psychology training at WVU, is able to read cues and observe the dynamics of each group to prevent problems, respond appropriately and provide support — all while working in the water.

Serving The Community

The future of recreational tourism looks bright for West Virginia, Anne says. And graduates of CPASS are well positioned to lead and influence the industry. “There is a huge opportunity for growth in the state. Grads are well suited for this moment. They can help identify expectations and successful outcomes and can help people discover how to have a positive experience.”

Her advice to the next generation of recreation professionals? “Get comfortable being your own best salesman. Understand your transferable life skills. Apply as many concepts as possible to your life, such as motivation, teamwork and moderating difficult personal situations. You should feel comfortable telling someone how you can help a group succeed,” she says. “Focus on a specific industry and a job that you like. Anytime you are working with groups of people, you can use your skills.”  

Visiting The Lodge

Knapps Creek Trout Lodge, located in Marlinton, offers guided fly fishing, lodging, fishing excursions and lessons. Everyone from amateurs to fishing enthusiasts can catch brook, rainbow, brown and golden trout in spring and fall and small mouth, rock bass and sunfish year-round. Guests may stay at the Lodge or purchase a day trip. Experiences range from a relaxing day of fishing on Knapps Creek to hiking the Monongahela National Forest and searching for brook trout on the Cranberry River.