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Popular W.Va. fishing resort started as a convenience store

By John McCoy, Staff writer
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
In 10 years, the Dean family — Elizabeth, Lisa and Daron — have built the once-abandoned Elk Springs Resort into a nationally known trout fishing destination.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail Most of the fishing at Elk Springs is on the public fly-fishing section of the Elk River, but guests may also fish a pair of pay-by-the-pound ponds or a catch-and-release private spring creek that runs through the resort’s grounds.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail Joe Lewis (left), who has more than 20 years’ experience at running fly shops in the Kanawha Valley, heads up the staff at Elk Springs’ sprawling 4,000-square-foot shop.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail The restaurant at Elk Springs features rustic dining room, a bar, and a porch that overlooks the Elk River’s famed Mill Pool.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail The resort’s six-room lodge includes a great room with 39-foot-high cathedral ceilings.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail One of the last major additions to the resort was the two-story, 8,000-square-foot building that houses a restaurant and fly shop.

MONTERVILLE — A decade and a half ago, the place where West Virginia’s Elk River rises full-blown from the ground was known only to locals and to die-hard trout fishermen.

Now it is known to anglers world-wide.

On any given weekend between April and the end of June, anglers from several states and some foreign countries might show up at Elk Springs Resort, a recreational complex that has grown from humble origins to become one of the eastern United States’ more popular fly-fishing destination spots.

Daron and Lisa Dean own the 25-acre complex, which includes a lodge, guest cabins, a restaurant with a bar, a full-service fly shop, a private spring creek, a pair of ponds and a trout hatchery. When they purchased the property in 2004, it was home only to a pair of cabins, a partially built lodge, a hatchery that paled in comparison to the present one, and a small building that served as a short-order snack bar.

“We never really had a master plan for the place,” Daron said. “We just kept adding things until we ended up with what we have now.”

Before the Deans came along, the springs and the surrounding area showed up on the maps as a place called Cowger’s Mill. Its chief claims to fame were a long-vanished grist mill site, a small private trout hatchery and the giant springs that serve as the Elk’s second source.

The river’s first source is several miles upstream near the town of Slatyfork, where Big Spring Fork and Old Field Fork join to form the Elk’s main stem. The Elk flows downstream for 3 miles or so and disappears into a hole in the riverbed. After flowing underground for 5 miles, it reappears in a series of limestone springs that discharge thousands of gallons’ worth of 54-degree water back into the Elk’s rocky channel.

In the early 1990s, retired Huntington businessman Jim Wilson and his wife, Betty, owned the property. He ran a small convenience store and bait shop near the springs and she raised goats. The Wilsons sold out to Bill and Kristen McNair of St. Louis in the late 1990s.

The McNairs decided to try to turn the place into a trout-fishing destination. They built a couple of cabins and a snack bar, and started construction on a fishing lodge. They marketed the place as the Elk River Trout Ranch.

The Deans first visited the ranch in March of 2000.

“I fished with Dave Breitmeier, who was the Trout Ranch’s guide, and I caught a bunch of fish. I was hooked,” Daron said. The experience caused Daron, who runs a successful paving business near Kenova, to think about trying to purchase the place.

“A couple of months later I went back,” he said. “I asked Dave if the McNairs might be interested in selling. He said they weren’t. And then they closed the place down in July.”

“We went back up there in October and found everything fenced off with caution tape,” Lisa recalled. “That’s when we started really pursuing a purchase.”

Eventually the McNairs listed the property with a realtor. The Deans made an offer, but it was refused. Months passed. Finally, after three years, they got a call.

“It was the realtor, telling me our offer had been accepted,” Lisa said. “Of course, Daron was in Utah on a hunting trip, so I had to wait hours for him to call in so I could give him the news.”

They closed the deal in March 2004. By April, they had reopened the little fly shop.

“It took a year to get the place cleaned up and perform all the deferred maintenance,” Lisa said. “We reopened gradually, with limited staff.”

The Deans’ second order of business was to finish building the partially completed lodge which, though under roof, had fallen into disrepair.

“Paul Barker and his crew worked 54 weeks to get the lodge finished,” Lisa said. “We had the grand opening for that in June 2006. We could have put four more rooms into it, but we wanted to preserve the grandeur of the 39-foot cathedral ceiling in its great room, so we ended up with four rooms and two suites.”

With the lodge finished, the next priority was to expand the hatchery.

“We added onto the shed so we could hatch babies in there,” Daron said. “We put in an incubator, water filters and growing tanks. Dan Miller at WVU showed us how to do it. He said the spring’s water chemistry, flow and volume made it the best place he knew of on the entire East Coast to grow trout.”

When three cabins located just across the road came up for sale, the Deans jumped at the chance to buy them. “After that, we took a rest and assessed things. We realized our snack bar and fly shop were still housed in that little shack, so we started drawing up plans for a full-scale restaurant and a full-service fly shop,” Daron recalled.

Construction of the rustic 8,000-square-foot, two-story facility took another 54 weeks.

“Daron wanted the restaurant on the first floor and the fly shop on the second floor, with a balcony overlooking the river,” Lisa said. “Some of our guests have told us we have the best-designed, best-stocked fly shop in the East.”

Favorable appearances on The Fly Rod Chronicles, a national cable TV fishing show, dramatically raised the profile of the fast-growing resort. The Deans quickly found themselves needing more guest rooms, so they had six “mini-cabins” built in what had been a nearby campground. Those cabins, completed in May 2013, were an instant hit with fishermen.

Next on the Deans’ agenda is something they saw on a cable TV show: a “man cave” themed tree house big enough to house four fishermen. “Deron’s really excited about it,” Lisa said. “As soon as he saw it, he said we had to build one.”

As the resort has grown, the Deans’ clientele has expanded. During the winter, skiers at the nearby Snowshoe resort rent Elk Springs’ lodge rooms and cabins. Families and companies hold weddings, reunions and corporate events on the resort’s grounds.

“During the peak mayfly season, people are even showing up at the lodge just to stand on the balcony and watch the bugs come down and the fish go crazy, just like watching a ball game,” Deron said. “You wouldn’t think we’d get tourists for something like that, but for the past couple of years we have.”

To cater to a broader spectrum of anglers, the Deans now offer guided float trips for smallmouth bass and muskellunge to a variety of state rivers. Deron said his long-term aspirations include an Elk Springs Fly Shop branch in Charleston, and maybe a satellite Elk Springs Resort in one of the Rocky Mountain states.

“We’ve done a lot in 10 years,” he added. “It was a process of building enough here to draw a broad spectrum of guests that, in turn, generates enough income to make it work. So far, so good.”


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