A quick one about catching brook trout near a road…
The Michaux State Forest sits at the very northern end of the formation that is known further south as the Blue Ridge. Other than that, I had little idea where I was going.
I’ve driven past this area dozens of times over the years, between my home in Virginia and points north to visit family in the Poconos and New Jersey. The May/June 2013 issue of Eastern Fly Fishing had an article by Dusty Wissmath about trout streams near the Lincoln Highway and Chambersburg, PA, and it highlighted this state forest. Trouble for me was that I was on my way back to Virginia and didn’t have the article in hand. So, I winged it, found a stream near the road, parked, and rigged up.
The water was low for a mid-May day. When I first took a look, I almost got back in the truck and drove away. Small water, skinny and crystal clear. It looked more like a mid-summer day, and it was in fact in the low 80’s.
Well, what the hell… I had detoured off I-81 and was wasting time, might as well try it. So I tied on a size 14 Royal Wulff, and caught some fish. Pictured at the top is the first and best brookie I caught. Next is only other one I landed. I fished for maybe twenty minutes, and spent about three minutes “hiking” from my car to the first pool with the first fish, then meandered another ten minutes upstream, saw some splashes and missed a few before the I caught the second. Then I headed home.
After casting to fish cruising in a good-sized run for an hour and a half, I gave up. It should not be this hard. These are brook trout, damn it! It’s never like that… it’s usually like this:
Sit down and scope things out
Keep low so the fish don’t see you
Avoid putting the shadow of any hat, appendage, fly rod, line, cigar or whatever on the water
Pitch a short cast upstream, tail of the pool first, work left and right then up, hit the corners and pockets
Drift the fly down each seam, keep as much line off the water as possible so the fly doesn’t drag
Strike quickly, land the brookie
Don’t get discouraged, they are at least big in their own minds
Hickory Run State Park has been on my hit list for quite some time, so I finally prioritized some things in life and got there. And despite the challenge of what turned out to be an atypical brook trout outing, it was a great afternoon.
The ranger at the park HQ pointed me to the access point for one of the streams I had asked about. The thing about Hickory Run State Park is that there are several streams and all of them have good fishing, so I am told. So I simply picked one, got the intel about where to park, and went for a little hike.
So no, this was not typical small stream brook trout fishing. The water itself was quite a bit larger than the small mountain brooks I’m used to fishing in places like Shenandoah National Park, and the fish were not the usual desperate creatures that hammer anything that looks buggy.
That one pool I worked for an hour and a half crushed me. I watched a couple of good trout (in the twelve inch range) cruising and rising periodically. Everything I threw at them was refused. A Royal Wulff, and parachute Adams, a two fly soft hackle rig, a bead head Hare’s Ear… I added weight, removed weight, drifted again and again and again. Maddening. The soft hackles seemed to generate the most interest. One fish nosed the fly on several passes but did not eat it.
So there I was, kind of pissed. Which was stupid. After all, I was fishing on a beautiful wild trout stream and, regardless of the supposed lack of success, what is better than that on a lovely spring day? But things accumulate over time, and it had been a couple weeks since I had caught a fish. And this was not for having avoided trying — the Shenandoah River a few nights before, a canal in Fort Lauderdale a couple weeks ago, and despite limited success on the Occoquan catching some shad last month, this was all adding up to mediocrity, at best. And now this. I was starting to think I could no longer figure it out. When you fail at something for a stretch, and you know you’ve given it your best shot, it’s more than perplexing. You start to sulk.
I headed upstream, hiking a hundred yards or so above a wide waterfall with a very deep pool at its base, probably a good ten feet deep. The stream here was about twenty feet wide, pretty big water for this area. The run above the falls narrowed and thinned quite a bit. I did the same thing I had done initially at the lower pool, just sat and watched and waited for a while. Finally, I saw a few rises. A fish on the far side of the main current seam was splashing at things. I tied on a size 12 Elk Hair Caddis. He hit but did not take it. More rises directly upstream, a few casts, and no takes. I switched to a size 14 parachute Adams with a neon green post I tied a couple winters ago. Two casts and the fish on the far side of the run ate it. A very nice brook trout, fourteen inches. Outside of Maine or Canada, not sure I could be much happier.
If Johnny Cash or the Grateful Dead had sung about Big Run, well, maybe it wouldn’t have gone like that. But for lyrical amusement, it’s all I got for this stream in Shenandoah National Park, and the water level was just fine in late April.
First, need to rewind a few months…
In January, I had gone to a talk at the Somerset Fly Fishing Show by Colby Trow from the Mossy Creek Fly Shop in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The room had originally been scheduled for a guy from Iceland, who was going to talk about salmon fishing. However, he had to cancel and so Colby stepped in sort of last minute to do his Shenandoah Valley fishing talk. I was one of five people in attendance. It’s funny how the valley seems to evade people’s radar. When you think about it even a little, this area has tons of great fishing, from small mountain trout streams to well-known spring creeks to warm water fishing on the Shenandoah and James. Anyway, Colby covered several spots in the park and Big Run was one of them. Tales of fisheries biologists shocking fifteen-inch brook trout from one particular pool there put it on my list.
So the second to last weekend in April had me heading south to Lexington to watch my son play in an off-season college soccer tournament. I figured that was close enough to turn part of the weekend into a brook trout expedition to a new spot. I stopped at the Mossy Creek Fly Shop on the way, bought some flies and tippet and spoke to Colby. He pointed out where to park to hike down to Big Run, and remarked that not many people stop by the shop with reports from there, probably due to all the other good spots nearby.
That’s fine. Leave all the brook trout to me.
I thanked Colby and drove south to Lexington. After the day’s games, I headed back north and spent the night in Harrisonburg, which was a good place to 1) get a meal with a good beer and 2) jump to SNP in the morning.
Turns out the beer was more than good. Through the Google I got the top umpteen hits for “beer Harrisonburg VA.” When traveling, I’ve discovered that searching for good beer is the way to find not just good beer but also good food. Anyway, I landed at the Capital Ale House, which was great. Had a big chimichurri steak salad and a couple big beers — a local Brothers Brewing Admiral Imperial IPA, then a slightly less local Lickinghole Creek Vanilla Virginia Black Bear. Big salad, big beers… ready for Big Run.
Next day, I drove up to Skyline and headed south from Rt. 33. Parked at the Doyle’s River lot and headed downhill. I probably hiked way past where I needed to to start fishing but I wanted to explore the place. This was the first time I’ve ever been this far south in SNP. Since I live north of the park, my normal haunts are in the northern and middle sections. My PATC map of the park’s south district still looks crisp and shiny.
I found lots of fish, and they smashed bushy dry flies. For some reason I had terrible luck with a Mr. Rapidan as well as the parachute version, and a parachute Adams. The fly that worked was a big Royal Wulff, size 12. No big surprise, big fly… Big Run.
It was all coming together.
The hike downhill was long but easy. Therefore, the hike back out was going to be a bitch, so I decided to just keep fishing. I figured it was better to avoid hiking out as long as I could. Of course, that made no sense, but catching fish for way longer than I normally would was fine with me. That ended up making what would have been a slog back to the car much more pleasant.
So is Big Run worth it? I’d say yes. Not only is it a beautiful stream, but the numbers and sizes of fish I landed made it worthwhile. It’s not dramatically better than other streams I’ve fished in the park, but it’s one of the better streams there for sure. If you go, keep in mind that the only public access to this stream is from Skyline Drive or the trails in the park, so cutting out some effort by accessing it from below is not doable. But like many of the good streams in the park, that’s not unusual.
Looking back now, back over the long winter, past the worst of the weather, past the longing for warmer climes, past the bazillion flies I tied, past the trip to the Bahamas and the ten pound grouper I landed and the single bonefish I hooked and lost on our unguided not-a-fishing-trip trip… Past all that to a day on a small stream in Shenandoah National Park in early February. The forecast said temps of forty-something, which was a warm-up but still a cold and stone gray day. Snow was on the ground. The hike down from Skyline Drive was a slog. The water was cold, dry flies didn’t work, and so I did something I had never done before in the park, something that made this trip a first for me. I turned to the dark side.
I tied on a freaking nymph. And damn if that nymph didn’t work like magic.
I’ve nymphed before, and it’s worked before, but I’ve never tried nymphing for brook trout in SNP. I did catch a brook trout on a nymph once. It was on a stream in one of the state game lands in Pennsylvania two and a half years ago, and the nymph was the venerable pink weenie. I had parked right next to the stream and walked to the water about thirty feet from the car. Pitched a short cast upstream on a tight line held high, drifted it through the likeliest seam right next to my feet, and repeated this unsavory practice two more times. That third cast got me the biggest brook trout I had ever caught to that point. It was a beautiful twelve inch male. I could almost hear his disdain as he wriggled and tried to spit the tungsten-headed, pink chenille abomination with the name I can never quite bring myself to utter to certain family members. The shame welled up inside of me. A nymph. The pink weenie. Both fish and I thought it was in poor taste, and borderline cheating.
Still, I was so happy.
But that was it. Literally EVERY other time I’ve fished for brook trout, it was, is, and — damn it — will be with dry flies! So if nymphs dredge up some nice fish pretty regularly, why do I shun nymphing? Well, because dry fly fishing is the best thing ever. And because nymphing, frankly, kinda sucks.
So maybe I’ve become unprincipled. This was now the second time I’ve nymphed for brook trout, and only because I was desperate. An hour drive and an hour hike each way, and when you’re standing on the edge of a stream in that beautiful park and nothing’s working, you do things you’re not proud to do.
The fish were in deeper pools mostly. I had stalked up to these spots and figured stealth was still in order despite the depths at which many seemed to be holding. In many pools, the fish were acting very territorially. In fact, it was that aggressiveness that made this whole shameful business of nymphing work great. I saw at least fifteen trout holding near the bottom of one pool, and my first cast drifted the bead head, rubber leg monster right to one of them. He snatched it without hesitation. The cool thing about it was that it was pure sight fishing. I guided the fly right to their noses when the current allowed. Others came from a few feet away to follow and ultimately eat it. Several of these brookies I caught more than once, and it was at that point that I realized this was getting unsportsmanlike and I moved on upstream to the next spot I could find, nymph still fully secured to the tippet. It went like that all afternoon.
Well, it’s springtime now. Thank God this nymphing stuff is over for a while.