I don’t know if the temperature hit forty degrees on Skyline Drive this past Saturday due to the latest cold snap, and so I had expectations for a mediocre day of brook trout fishing in Shenandoah National Park. A change of weather can slow a stretch of good fishing, and that was part of my pessimism. The other problem was the time of week. On weekends, SNP is not my favorite place.
Weekends on Skyline are always kind of questionable if you’re seeking some solitude. In good weather any time of the year, the place is a playground for visitors from all over the world. On nice weekends, it can seem to me like the entire DC area suburbs are transplanted here. The outdoorsy Subaru driving twenty and thirty somethings are out hiking, the hardcore dogs are powering down the trails with their Komperdell trekking poles and tourists from all over the world are driving no faster than two thirds of the speed limit (that’s two thirds of 35 mph). “Not a weekday, stay away” makes sense for me, and no matter the weather. So besides the cold, it was even worse to think that others might be fishing out there.
None of that mattered on Saturday. I ended up throwing all that wisdom aside and headed to the Piney River and parked the truck around 11:30am. I think this is the third time I’ve fished here, and it’s been almost two years since the last time. Glad I gave it a go.
To access the stream near its headwaters, enter Shenandoah National Park at Front Royal ($15 per vehicle for a one week pass, or $30 for an annual pass to the park, or even better, $80 annually for access to every national park) and proceed south on Skyline Drive. Across the road from Matthews Arm campground is a ranger station on the left, just after mile marker twenty two, with a small parking area. The Piney Branch trail starts here and runs down the mountain toward the stream. Once it crosses the Piney (the first time, at the crossing closer to Skyline), the trail turns right and parallels the stream. You can get to the “larger” part of the Piney when the trail crosses it again a couple miles below, but there are other options if you’re willing to improvise.
The Piney River is a great place to fish, but be warned. This is not the thing to do if you’re pressed for time. Driving to the park is itself a journey unless you live nearby, and once you’ve reached the trail, it’s roughly a two hour round trip hike. It’s also not your thing if you don’t like bushwhacking and climbing up and down some gnarly, overgrown slopes anywhere from fifty to one hundred feet above the river. But you, as an aficionado of pursuing small native fish, are no doubt into getting away from it all to practice this pastime and have already accepted that there won’t be cell phone service, people in shouting distance or a place for the MedEvac to land. It’s a typical outing for the lunatic fringe brook trout fly fisherman. So if you have time, a fair bit of energy and the desire for a very small bit of adventure, here you go.
Even in early spring with the trees still naked from winter, there is not much of a view on the hike down the Piney Branch trail to the stream. The good spots to fish begin after around ten more minutes of hiking past the first crossing, but you will probably want to head further downstream and fish back up, filling in as much time as your schedule allows. The first time I fished here I hiked all the way down to where the trail meets the stream at the lower crossing, about two miles past the first crossing, and fished back up from there (I have not yet fished downstream from that spot). On the downhill stretch of trail paralleling the Piney is where you can think about improvising.
What I did today and have done before is to find a place where the vegetation is a little sparser and where there is a clear shot down to the water. Along this stretch there are several sheer cliffs between the trail and the river, so find the spots in between where the slope goes all the way down to the stream and head down there to fish. Easy to do in March, but not so fun in early May and later.
The Piney is loaded with trout. All except one I caught today were small, but I have caught brookies over nine inches here. One challenge when you’re on the stream (and a good thing if you’re a trout) is that there are a lot of dead falls on this river. So not only will you hike a lot and do some scrambling down and up steep slopes, but you’re going to do a fair bit of climbing over and scooting under fat tree trunks and lumber and scaling some large boulders with your fly rod in your teeth. You could avoid much of that in exchange for not fishing much — it’s part of what you have to do here.
The water temperature today was a steady forty two degrees. This seems about the minimum temperature for dry fly fishing, and it was mostly the small guys that were willing to risk their lives to eat my dries. I did not tie on a nymph today, not once. As I’ve written before, my preference for catching brook trout is on dry flies, though you may recall that I resort to nymphs when it’s called for. I’m sure I could have hoisted a few larger trout today with a Hare’s Ear. But… I… Just… Won’t… Do… It! Still it was a fun day. I caught at least a couple dozen brookies.
I did see a some mayflies, probably Quill Gordons. The two flies I used were a size 14 Royal Wulff (my go-to fly on these streams, and I caught the big daddy of the day on that… but no photo) and a size 16 Mr. Rapidan. The latter caught way more fish today, though that might be because 1) I tied the Royal Wulff myself and I’m, uh, still learning how to do that well and 2) the Wulff got slimed and abused early on. I ended up trimming some hackle off the top and cropping the tail a bit (the tail was way too long) and got it back into pretty good shape, but the Mr. Rapidan was the fly the fish wanted to eat today.
So yes, it ended up a good day. I fished with a Winston WT 7 foot 3 weight I got off eBay. Really nice rod and I’m going to have a little review of that shortly. Stay tuned…