Road Trip: Dry River, Skidmore Fork, Monongahela National Forest

This is from a mid-April trip…

Breaking camp on a frigid Friday morning, I heard a deafening roar about a second before the fighter plane appeared. It shot by directly overhead and startled the crap out of me. If that’s how suddenly a warplane can be on you before you hear it, I’m glad I’m not one of the enemies.

The Route

I camped at this beautiful spot along the banks of the East Fork of the Greenbrier River, somewhere in the Monongahela National Forest in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, because I had been given the name of a single stream, supposedly loaded with brook trout, of course. This was the start of my second and final day of a short road trip, a mild adventure, to find fish in some places I had never been. I had read a few things about the area and this particular stream before heading out and figured, no sweat, I’ll find it, catch a boatload of brookies, and frolic in the wilderness like an irresponsible adult.

I never did get to that stream.

IMG_6791My lack of preparation in this state where I’ve done limited traveling was thorough. I had no maps, got off to a late start, and by the time I had arrived it was already 4:30 in the afternoon. To make it more frustrating, the Forest Service road to the stream I was targeting was closed. I did manage to hook a brook trout right next to where I pitched my tent, but that was the extent of the action for what was left of the day. So I set up camp, built a roaring fire and, appropriately, cracked open a can of Old Chub. And then another… maybe I was somewhat prepared for this trip after all.

IMG_6785The bloom in the highlands of West Virginia was probably two weeks behind where we live on the Blue Ridge. Not a single tree in the Monongahela National Forest had any leaves and the red bud was just starting to blossom. The water temperature in this small river was a slightly shocking 49 degrees, about a half dozen cooler than Shenandoah National Park streams and not ideal for my stubborn, dry-flies-only approach to small stream fishing. Given all that, I decided that morning that I’d had enough of the Mountaineer State and would head east, back towards Old Virginny.

Back to Virginia — The Good Parts…

So the West Virginia portion of the trip turned out to be kind of a waste, and I didn’t take the chance I had to salvage it, because I left. The weather and the scenery were spectacular, though, and a good road trip is a worthwhile way to spend a piece of your life. The beautiful landscape and cloudless weather continued as I headed east on Route 33 into Virginia. I was doing fine.

IMG_6806mAfter arriving at the Dry River and driving past all the turnouts along the road, I circled back and parked near the Skidmore Fork. Turns out this is a wonderful little brook trout stream. Despite the low, crystal clear flow, the fish were jumping out of the water at hatching mayflies. They did the same for my imitations. You could easily spend a couple days here in the spring if you’re into hiking it all and really fishing it.

Moving downstream to the Dry River brought me to a larger stream and fussier fish. The trout here see more than their share of flies, and they act that way. Still, I managed to catch several on Adams and Mr. Rapidan patterns.

The Dry River also brought me closer to more people. While I am not a misanthrope, I ended up getting some practice.

…And The Bad Parts

IMG_6810mIt was hard to find turnouts along Route 33 by the river that were empty. I almost kept going past all the spots, most with pickup tricks matted with mud and fishing stickers, and some strewn the trash. Sharing water with that many people does not appeal to me. It feels too much like what friends who golf describe about the setup at tee time. But this was a prime stream on my hit list, and a two-hour drive puts it on the edge of reachable water for a day trip. I had to do it.

Anyway, I managed to find some water for myself. Little brook trout were taking my dry flies, and all was right with the world for a while. Then, I was reminded why I seek out remote trout streams, despite stuff like this from Greg Thomas in his Upfront Notes in the Spring 2016 issue of Fly Rod & Reel:

…most of us (and I’m not immune) would like to see the doors closed behind us once we find our favorite waters. Get real – that’s not happening any time soon… And the next time you show up and find a guy fishing your favorite run, consider that he might not be a bad guy after all.

I had that in mind as I experienced what happened next.

So I was happily fishing this pool, and this guy, probably in his early to mid–30’s, crashed out of the woods and onto the bank about ten yards upstream from me. My first thought was actually admiration. Bush whacking to this stretch, exactly as I had done a half hour earlier, elevated him slightly in my estimation. Any good feeling, however, was outweighed by my knee-jerk reaction to him being an intruder. But maybe he deserved some consideration. He might not have been a bad guy after all, right? In fact, he waved. He could clearly see I was fishing, so that all seemed very polite. My disdain of strangers fishing the spots I covet really may have been misplaced.

Or maybe not. He paused, and I figured he was doing what I would have done – deciding where to move, and far enough away to give me a courteous berth to continue upstream for a pool or two. There was enough water on the Dry River for each of us, plus a few dozen more.

Turns out that was not his plan. Instead, he started fishing, right there in the fucking pool I was about to ease into. Clearly it was a mistake to have briefly considered him not-a-bad-guy… Greg Thomas. Had he fallen right there, hit his head, and floated downstream, one step to the right or left of where I stood, I might have retrieved his body and called 911. Two steps? Don’t think I would have made the effort. Besides, that pool would have become vacant, and it was only ten steps away.

But it got better, which means, unsarcastically, worse.

I headed downstream on the overgrown trail until I found a nice looking run. I bush whacked to an opening, popped out on the bank, and started plotting my approach. Then, I realized I hadn’t noticed the two college-aged guys just downstream, spin fishing and smoking a joint. I shouted a “hey, what’s happening,” then retreated back into the undergrowth.

Downstream again… A couple hundred yards below the two-dudes-smoking-a-joint pool, I found a nice run, and was into rising fish with some long casts — really fun. Then, one of the two dudes smoking a joint appeared at the head of this run, took a look at me and, without any hesitation, cast into the pool I was fishing. Two casts, in fact. Then he went back to partying with his friend.

It was high time to seize some new water. I bashed my way up to their spot and started into the stream. “Hey, mind if I fish here?” They were nice and said sure, told me they hadn’t had any luck but saw fish rising everywhere. Then they packed up and left. I caught two brook trout. All good, right?

So the Dry River… a nice brook trout stream, but even on a weekday you might find some traffic, some wary fish, and be elbowed out of some spots. Though I’m sort of bitching about these two encounters, it all ended up being a fun day. Any hard feelings, such as they were, really were minor. I’m not sure I’ll be heading back there enthusiastically, though, unless I’m in the area. If you are down that way, the Dry River and its tributaries, including the Skidmore Fork, are definitely worthwhile. Just be prepared to socialize.


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