Anyway… the gist here is that springs and groundwater are not being replenished like they used to be. “What have been historically reliable spring flows are disappearing, droughts are becoming a regular phenomenon with increased temperatures,” according to the draft report presented to the county’s Board of Supervisors.
It gets worse for us fans of brook trout fishing. The article states that according to Shenandoah National Park personnel, “numerous springs are experiencing greatly reduced flow and that some have dried up entirely.” I noticed this two months ago when I fished the North Fork of the Thornton River from the bottom up into the park. It looked like this:
Not what I was expecting. And this past summer was not as bad as some recent summers. This is not a good thing at all but may be something we are going to have to get used to.
If you’re thinking about combining a hike, taking in some fall foliage and of course maybe dapping a dry fly on a stream in Shenandoah National Park, be sure to check out the National Park Service’s fall colors report (updated weekly) and their leaf color cam (updated throughout the day). The image you see on the cam looks like a panorama from Skyline Drive. The image on the right is mine, from the Appalachian Trail almost a year ago.
Well, it’s been a month since I fished here and it’s the first time I’ve tried it during the summer. When I got there I did not expect to find a mostly dry boulder strewn spillway with some scattered puddles of stream. How can fish survive a summer in something like that? But survive they do. I ran across a couple walking their dog and they said it looks that way every summer. I know I’ve caught some nice brook trout in this river on two occasions (both springtime) so they are in there somewhere. And I managed to find a few.
I parked on the side of the road at the bottom of the stream and hiked into the park. It’s tricky figuring out how to walk in without trespassing. Hikers are definitely not encouraged with all the no parking and towing warnings, and you have to walk by a couple houses right at the park entrance but it’s all legal. I always make an effort to be quiet and move quickly past residences in these spots, which is not uncommon throughout the lower reaches of Shenandoah National Park. If I were living there that’s what I would appreciate, so I try to operate that way and be unobtrusive and as invisible as possible.
Cedar Run in Shenandoah National Park is a tough stream in the section above the falls. It is very steep, boulder-strewn pocket water with the thing fish love and anglers hate — tight cover. There are definitely brook trout here but presenting a fly to them is a major challenge.
Cedar Run, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Humid, 80 degrees, mostly cloudy.
Mid-50’s temperature, medium high flow.
Steep, rocky, muddy from recent rains; tight cover.
3.5 miles, 3100 feet elevation change round trip.
Winston WT 7 foot 3 weight, double taper line, 9 foot leader, Mr. Rapidan size 16 and an Irresistible size 12.
Poor. Three brook trout hooked, one landed (about six inches).
Best Part of the Trip
Barbless hooks pull out of fingers easily.
Millipedes crawling around everywhere.
I feel like I was over-gunned pitching dries with a seven foot three weight on Cedar Run. A six foot or even shorter two weight (or lighter) is probably ideal for this stream. I was bow and arrow casting into a lot of the tight spots. When you’re casting like that, the stream is kicking your butt. I think had shots for fish in places I could not cast to — logs and low foliage all over this stream — but a lot of those places were difficult even for unconventional casting. On the other hand, there are quite a few deep pools. I could have tried nymphing some of them but many had very visible and sandy bottoms and were right next to the heavily used trail. I did fish a few deeper pools (with no luck) but the ones near the trail I passed by with my dry fly rigged up.
For some reason, whether due to natural barriers or thin water, there is always a line on every stream above which you find no fish. You usually realize you’ve found this line after you’re well past it, because you stop catching anything. Sometimes you never find the line, maybe because it’s getting dark, or you started too far downstream and you eventually have to head home. I have gone pretty far up many streams and not found this line when I expected to, and that’s a pretty cool discovery. But it’s always there, and if you keep going you will cross it and the action will cease. There should be a name for this place where the fish stop living. Maybe there already is, but this seems easy — the “fish line.” Like the tree line in alpine environments, fish are not found above it. Unlike the tree line, fish could still live above the fish line if they were put there and given the chance. Sometimes you find the fish line and it comes much earlier than you expect. You might think you’ve just run into some poor pools, so you keep trying the next one and the next. At some point, you grudgingly realize it’s not you. It’s the fish line. Your casting hasn’t fallen apart and no other flies are going to work. You’ve reached the line. You’re done.
I found the fish line on Cedar Run earlier than I expected. In between the falls where the trail crosses the river and the line, I managed to hook three fish, losing two — a single fish away from a skunking. There is always one fish that cooperates on days like today, and these are the worst days for me in this park if you measure them by the numbers. The only times I’ve come here and caught nothing were in both cases (I’m pretty sure) because there were no fish. The first time, on Indian Run, I am convinced I was above the fish line which was probably outside the park boundary on private property. Had to be the case. The other time, on Overall Run, I still think it was because there are no fish in that stream. I will race down to either of those streams if I find I was mistaken. For now, I’m convinced.
I did hook a good sized brookie in one pool on Cedar Run. Hooked him twice, in fact, but failed to get him. I know he was much bigger than normal because of the tug on the 3 weight rod. That may have been the best and the worst part of the day. I gave the pool a rest and returned but he was not having any of it. And that was the last fish I tangled with all day. He was at the fish line.
One thing I was not expecting was the huge amount of millipedes. Supposedly nocturnal, the North American millipede (narceus americanus) was crawling all over every dead tree trunk and rock. They were everywhere! In one spot I had pulled myself up by grabbing onto a large dead log and had forgotten that best practice of hiking and climbing — look at what you’re pawing before you grab it. Gladly I did not mash one of these guys, who can secrete some junk that can irritate your skin and cause temporary discoloration at the affected spot. Not as bad as I had thought before I got home and read about them — I was thinking it could have been certain death by their highly venomous mandibles. Not to worry, that is quite untrue.
If I get back to Cedar Run I will try from the bottom. When the water comes down that could be the better end of this stream. In the meantime, there are lots of other places and I think better streams in the park. But if you want a challenge and don’t mind demonstrating some fly fishing to the many hikers who use the trail, Cedar Run is worth checking out.
The Gunpowder River in Maryland. Ah, yes. That was the plan one day last week. I was really looking forward to it since I’ve never fished there and have heard nothing but good things about the Gunpowder. The trip was being organized by the guys at the LL Bean store in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, perfect for a Gunpowder newbie like me. So the night before, I tied some nymphs, packed my stuff and put a 5 weight sink tip line on the old Pflueger Medalist reel I got off eBay, just in case the water was a little high after all the rain we had last week. That reel was a good buy for $20. I had to take it apart and give it a little rehab — a good cleaning, lube and adjustment — but now it looks fine and the spool spins without rubbing the frame. In my haste to fix the reel up I didn’t realize there were two tiny springs in there — one for the pawl and one for the cam release. So when it didn’t go back together so well I realized pieces were missing. Thankfully I found both tiny springs under my chair. After an hour of scratching my head and trying everything I could think of I finally figured it out. The next test of wit and equipment will be when I call on this thing and its slightly slick drag mechanism to stop an actual fish of some size. But the old reel deserves a shot, or maybe another shot — maybe it’s seen and done this and more with its previous owner. If it proved itself then and still got kicked to the eBay auction curb, it’s deserving for sure.
So… I was ready to roll. The Gunpowder and its wild brown trout were to be assaulted by my enthusiasm, vintage reel and didymo-free wading boots. Unbeknownst to me that night before while I was the fly tying reel-fixing trip-packing maniac, the weather reports started coming in predicting hell was to break loose in the morning. I got an email saying it was off due to dangerous lightning and high winds. Good plans for my day off, completely scuttled. I am thankful, though, that it did not end up worse. This was part of the storm system that destroyed Tuscaloosa, Alabama and took hundreds of lives, including eight in Virginia. It ended up being a dangerous storm and it was a wise decision to stay put.
What do you do when a well-planned day on the river comes apart? Well, the sky cleared up nicely and I had the time blocked off so figured I should go fishing anyway. The Shenandoah River was pretty high and muddy from all that rain, so I decided to catch some brook trout in Shenandoah National Park in a stream I had not yet fished. There was one I’d been eying on the map not too far away that looked promising — Overall Run.
And it stunk.
I’ve never heard of anybody fishing Overall Run, but that didn’t matter. There are plenty of streams you never hear about people fishing, even in a national park. It looked like a good long stretch of water inside the park, starting above 2000 feet elevation, with the park’s highest waterfall, 93 feet high. Had to be good, right? Well, I feel kind of stupid now. Had I read before I left that Overall Run Falls dries up in the summer, I would have realized that this stream probably warms too much, runs too low and does not support brook trout. That would explain things. I could have read about the seasonal flow of Overall Run here, too. A little internet research would have saved me a trip.
It was a good hike, though, but it’s too bad about the fishing since it’s a very pretty stream — a classic SNP mountain trout stream, just without the trout. I tried the triumvirate of go-to flies — Adams, Royal Wulff and Mr. Rapidan. The water level was good. I was casting like a champ, getting drag free drifts, hitting the corners of the pools, right up against the boulders — doing everything right, the things that workevery timeI’vegone this year, and in years past. I got no strikes, got no looks, saw no fish — nothing. Maybe it’s not conclusive, but coupled with the nature of this stream, it surely is. A day like that would have raised a couple dozen fish on a stream that had any.
Oh well. Like the last time I tried a questionable stream, Indian Run, I had to go hit the money spots for a few weeks after that to salve the wounds. Same thing now. The month of May is prime time brook trout fishing and I’ll be hitting the best streams in the park. No more of this experimental, optimistic exploratory crap. At least not for a few weeks.
It occurred to me that I don’t know much about the trout stocking program in the state. I’ve sort of assumed that most of the trout stocked are rainbow trout, with some browns. The places I’ve fished that are stocked by the state are typically rainbows as far as I know (Big Stoney Creek, Passage Creek, the Jackson River, etc.). I just did a Google search and found a couple references to Virginia stocking both rainbows and brook trout in the Robinson and Rose Rivers near Syria, Virginia (see here too).
Nick Karas, in his seminal work Brook Trout (seminal for those interested in the species, anyway) mentions how programs in Virginia to stock brookies may have impacted the populations I once thought were purely native. He writes, “Virginia’s waters have been stocked with domesticated brook trout for so many years that the integrity of the wild strain has probably been compromised. However, those brook trout populations at the highest elevations are probably little changed genetically from the original [native] stock.” And for better or worse (mostly worse), what’s left for us to catch is almost all in the higher elevations — Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Alleghenies, etc. In a recent Trout Unlimited interview Mr. Karas again mentions the detrimental effect of stocked brook trout on native populations. It’s been an unfortunately common story throughout the brook trout’s historic range in the east — not just state-run stocking programs but introductions of invasive species by “bucket biologists” are a huge problem in many places, maybe most famously in the Adirondacks. Throw in a little acid rain and other environmental factors and things get bad very quickly for brook trout. In the Adirondacks only 3% of the known brook trout waters remain inhabited by these fish. Three percent.
The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture’s website is one place where you can see the gory details on the state of brook trout in the eastern U.S. Trout Unlimited’s Conservation Success Index is another. What is apparent is that stocking streams with invasive fish is just one item on a long list of things conspiring to slowly decimate native trout. From the TU CSI (with my emphasis added): “Like other salmonids in the char genus, brook trout are intolerant of water pollution and non-native fish, and are classic indicators of water quality and ecosystem integrity.” And the CSI’s stark summary of the state of the eastern brook trout:
62% of subwatersheds in the historic range are currently occupied (3,282 out of 5,278)
1.5% of subwatersheds with brook trout had a Total CSI score > 75 (out of a possible 90)
Median Range-wide Condition score = 15/25 for extant populations only (range 9-24)
Median Population Integrity score = 7/15 for extant populations only (range 6-15)
Median Habitat Integrity score = 13/25 (range 5-24)
Median Future Security score: 18/24 (range 10-24)
8% of subwatersheds priority for protection
12% of subwatersheds high priority for reintroduction
62% of subwatersheds priority for restoration
Overall, it’s not encouraging. “Non-native fish” are mentioned as threats five times on the CSI’s main page (and “exotic species” is in there at least once, too).
To the left is a map showing the CSI scores for the east coast’s historic brook trout population areas. Anything blue is really good (that’s just 0.5% of the total, all in Maine), green is pretty good (5.1%, and in Virginia we have some of those areas), and the other colors show bigger impacts. Note that gray means extirpated, also known as local extinction, or according to Merriam Webster, “rooted out and destroyed completely” — that may be a good description of people “fishing out” watersheds over the centuries. The main colors that jump out at you when you look at this map are red and orange, the lowest scoring areas, which together comprise 70.2% of the total. These are the areas most affected by “[e]xtensive land use alterations, the establishment of competing non-native fish, and heavy urbanization…”
Anyway, here in Virginia I’m not always sure what to believe now. You hear about native fish in many places, and they are out there. But you can’t be certain that the streams rumored to have native fish have only that, and this is of course because of our long history of stocking domesticated and invasive fish mostly for recreation. Unless you’re a brook trout or a big fan, most would say stocking catchable invasive trout is not all a bad thing. Nevertheless, the impact on native fish is significant.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a little vague on the types of fish they raise. The VDGIF hatcheries page does mention one hatchery specifically, Wytheville, that raises brook trout. However, it indicates that “trout from Wytheville are stocked in the waters from roughly Grayson County north to Bland.” All other mentions of trout on that page say only that — “trout” — without differentiating which types of trout are reared, and the stocking schedule doesn’t say anything about what species are stocked, either.
The practice of stocking domesticated brook trout seems less of an issue for the native fish, rightly or wrongly, than the practice of stocking what are really invasive species — rainbows and browns. In Shenandoah National Park I have caught rainbows well inside the park boundary on both the Hughes River and the South Fork of the Thornton River. But officially, it is the brown trout that is the villain. The National Park Service has special brown trout regulations that are kind of goofy (also clarified on the VDGIF website). Any brown trout caught must be disposed of, but there is a seven inch minimum size to harvest brown trout. So if you catch a six incher, you can’t “harvest” it but you have to kill it. OK, but at least the message is clear — do not return them to the stream. Why aren’t there similar regulations for rainbows in the park (i.e. “dispose of them when caught”), since they are also known to compete with and often out-compete brook trout? The NPS website has a page about rainbow trout in the park, and it even notes how they do in fact compete with brook trout. This really begs the question of why the NPS does not treat browns and rainbows the same way, and the bigger question of why Virginia stocks these fish at all in streams inhabited by mostly or totally native strains of brook trout. It’s all especially curious when they tout “National Park Service policy mandates that exotic species will not be allowed to displace native species if displacement can be prevented.” Seems like stocking invasive rainbow trout can surely be prevented.
I should mention here that I am not a biologist, naturalist, fisheries manager, activist or expert on this subject. The folks who do this know more than I do about managing these resources. However, a lot of the concern I read comes from exactly these people. And it just doesn’t make sense that if you want to preserve a native fishery you would stock aggressive invasive species, whatever the type, just downstream.
The NPS website specifically mentions the Rose River, Hughes and Brokenback Run as having browns, and big ones. “Large adult brown trout over 18 inches long with weights in excess of two pounds have been captured within the park in traditional, wild brook trout habitat.” I don’t like the thought of these fish displacing our native species, but catching an 18 inch brown trout on a small stream in the park sounds like a hoot. Then you have to take it home for dinner. I can think of worse things in the name of conservation. There’s that not-all-bad attitude, even with me.
So is it all terrible news? Well, it sort of is. The overall trend is decidedly downward for these fish. There are pockets of effort to reintroduce brook trout populations (see Trout Unlimited’s Shenandoah Headwaters Home Rivers Initiative, for example) but overcoming centuries of damage while human population increases, development continues and climate change is occurring makes it tough to see how things will ever improve for brook trout. We can restore streams and preserve habitat, but what’s gone is probably not coming back and most of the rest is slowly getting ruined. Stocked trout, while providing fun recreation for many of us, is just one factor but may be a lot worse for our native fish than anyone wants to admit.
Jeremy’s Run on a Saturday. What I was thinking was stupid. Hitting not one but two popular brook trout fishing spots in Shenandoah National Park in the same week was going to make this an odd week for me, and this second trip was… what? I was heading to the day hiker superhighway on the west side of the Blue Ridge. Trying to catch fish that have seen every Orvis and LL Bean fly ever sold. Walking past miles of pools infested with pasty old fly fisherman too feeble to hike into the “real” spots to fish. This was stupid.
Screw it. I went anyway.
I had just a few hours to drive somewhere, so Jeremy’s Run was a prime spot. But when I left the house I still was half thinking I would bail and head somewhere else, knowing that this could be an inane idea on a weekend. So I drove down 340 talking to myself the whole way. Really… Jeremy’s Run? You think you’ll pull up to the trail head and have it to yourself? If you get there and see ten vehicles, what’s your plan B? Drive back home? Really.
My preconceptions about the fishing pressure, which are based on things I’ve heard from a lot of people, has always made this place verboten for me. I did hike down Jeremy’s Run trail from Skyline this past winter, but I didn’t bring a fly rod and that hike was strictly recon. Just in case. This stream might have the easiest access of all the better streams in the park, and everyone has been to Jeremy’s Run, so yes… I pictured a line of cars and pickup trucks nose to tail on the shoulder next to the sign warning to stay on the trail (it’s on an easement over private property until it crosses the park boundary, like a lot of trails here). I imagined hiking a few miles to find real solitude. Mumbling to myself the whole way, too, and turning into a crotchety bastard with hair growing out of my ears as I went.
Turned out I was completely wrong. When I arrived at the trail head, there was not a single vehicle. Saturday morning, 11 am. Everyone knows the brook trout are eating now, right? So what was up?
Maybe all the fish were gone and no one told me.
Maybe it was the weather. Forties and overcast, with fog hanging just above the valley and flowing like a slow stream in the sky around the top of the Blue Ridge. Yep, had to be the weather. Aside from a group of hikers and one other fly fisherman, I saw no one. Surely a seventy degree day would have had this place crawling. Since there are so many other good spots in this park, I’m not going to find out what Jeremy’s Run is like on those days.
Like the Robinson River in White Oak Canyon, this is a nice stream. Good water and good fish. It’s also nicely shaded and has a lot of good runs and pools. It’s popular because of the ease of access, no doubt, but it’s also a really good spot. I have to be fair and admit all that. Nice, nice place.
So the first fish I caught was about six feet in front of me. I had worked my way up into the middle of a pool that had no cover and was maybe two feet deep. I saw a splash and thought it was just the current piling onto itself. But it happened again and I saw the fish. And a second smaller fish. How could they not see me? So I cast upstream with the same Rusty Parachute with which I had ended the day at White Oak Canyon earlier in the week and lifted the rod tip to keep the leader off the water. Let it drift. And BAM! I got the first one. And then I got the other. Sweet.
The water was about forty four degrees, maybe forty five. I really need a better thermometer. The one I have just has ticks between every marked twenty degree interval. But low to mid forties it had to be. So I caught several more, all decent sized, and I missed a few, as always.
Just awesome. How can you not love brook trout?
I brought the Winston WT 7 foot 3 weight I got on eBay a few weeks ago and I really like this rod. I’ve used it now on three brookie trips. Today was the first time I used it with a 3 weight line (the correct line), a double taper from Hook and Hackle. I had been using a four weight line and it casts that well so long as you keep it within thirty feet or so. Beyond that and it starts to get soft though it still throws it. The WT is definitely a medium action rod and casts a three weight fly line so sweetly. But none of this really matters much for this kind of fishing because I’m usually casting just the leader. Today I had the leader a little too long. I started with probably ten feet and 5X on the end of it. But with a size 16 dry fly and a couple changes it ended up being perfect. With the proper leader, this rod delivers it however you want provided the wind is light. Delicate drops, power or even roll casts, no fly line involved, are no problem. You just don’t want to rush the cast. Let it load and push your thumb through it. Pleasant. I’ll try to devote a post to a short review of this thing. Not that it’s some new piece of equipment, but it is a rod that seems to be overlooked these days given everyone’s obsession with ultra fast action rods. For small stream fishing, though, this kind of rod might be ideal.
So Jeremy’s Run, sorry I’ve ignored you for so long. It might be a while before I return, but at least now I know. You’re worth the trip. Unless the weather is good.
I had just finished fishing a good sized deep pool near the lower part of the falls in White Oak Canyon when this guy appeared. He was perched on a boulder upstream and above me and had just taken his shirt off. A typical day of fishing in Shenandoah National Park means seeing no one else, maybe just the occasional hiker. And the acknowledged protocol is to give anglers a wide berth. I even do what I can to not be seen at all by another fisherman when he’s on the water. After all, if we wanted to be socializing each of us would not be out here in the woods miles from any road and most people. So though I was done in that spot, I was a little miffed to look up and see someone standing over the pool I had claimed as mine for that short time.
Then the guy jumped into the water.
The Robinson River and the White Oak Canyon trail is not the secluded fishing scene I’m used to in the park. This is a very popular hiking trail, and even on weekdays you’ll run into someone. I met almost a dozen people when I fished there last week. Only two of them trampled into my stream.
The deep pool I had been fishing was beautiful and I could see why anyone would think it inviting, and I thought that until I checked the water temperature. It was about forty four degrees. So what could I say to this guy after he jumped in? He pulled himself out, looked over and saw me standing there with my camera pointed at the spot I was just about to vacate and my rod propped up against a sapling. “Man, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you fishing there.” It was no problem, and I explained I was heading upstream. He went on to say he was from Colorado and that he and his dad would go into the mountains and fish for cutthroats when he was a kid. “There are brook trout in there? I had no idea.” Most people don’t.
The next guy showed up after I had hiked back up above the falls. I had just caught a bunch of brookies in a short stretch of pocket water, including a few good sized fish (for this area). He looked incredulous. “Are there fish in there?” Yes, I just caught about ten. “Ten?!” He was marveling at this as he stood on a boulder perched above me. Just like the first guy, he was in a perfect spot to spook the pool. “How did you get here?” He asked as though it was some trick I do. I told him I had walked. He squinted and grinned and seemed resigned to not comprehending. I told him to have fun, the only polite dismissal I could think of, and he climbed back up to the trail.
Anyway, it was a good day of fishing. I had parked at the Limberlost trail head on Skyline Drive and hiked down past most of the falls before fishing that one deep pool and then hiking back up to get serious about it.
I ended up covering 6.2 miles and over 2000 feet of elevation gain each way. It was definitely a workout, and the trail is pretty steep when you get to the start of the White Oak Canyon falls. Even if you’re not into fishing, this is a great hike and the falls are spectacular. You can perch on several overlooks and get mesmerized by the water cascading above and below.
There are good fish in this stream. The first one I caught with luck and it was a nice one. It was in a pool no wider than ten feet across and about that length from head to tail. I wasn’t expecting a strike and was pulling back to start my back cast when I hooked it. That always makes me laugh. Even when you do see a fish before it strikes it’s a little surprising, but when you’re not expecting it and you get a good one, it’s great. You fooled the fish and yourself. Genuine fun.
So I slid and climbed and gingerly waded upstream, catching fish after fish, all on dry flies. An Adams, a Royal Wulff and a Rusty Parachute (the last from the Orvis Fly Tying Guide by Tom Rosenbauer). I tied all of these over the winter, and each one worked well. The only reason I changed a fly was because it got drenched and slimed by the prey, so I tried a few different ones. Otherwise I’m pretty sure any of them would have worked. I still don’t think brook trout in these small mountain streams scrutinize dry flies a whole lot. I mean, here I am pitching them some pretty crappy looking stuff I tied myself and there was no shortage of interest. Maybe that just means they are desperate for food. Still, it’s satisfying when fish eat the flies I sat in my house tying while picturing a day like this. And it mostly played out the way I had imagined. The few exceptions were the several missed strikes and the flies snagged by low hanging branches.
Since this was my first time fishing here, I walked past a ton of good looking water in the upper section while scouting the place. Lots of runs cascading into wide pools. I definitely did not have to make this a six mile hike. The next time I come here I am going to try from the lower end and work upstream. This really is a great stream and it’s no secret. I’ve read about this place for years but have always avoided it because I prefer fishing in some solitude. So running into hikers, curious folks and a swimmer was, except for the swimmer, what I expected. And it wasn’t bad. I was kind of surprised not to have seen anyone else fishing, but even if there had been ten other people this stream stretches far enough to support that.
The Robinson River and the White Oak Canyon definitely merit a return trip.
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…
The Eat More Brook Trout blog was fishing on the Rapidan River just a couple weeks ago. Sounds like a great time, dry fly fishing in the afternoon with Tenkara rods. I’ve fished the Rapidan once, the first time I caught a brook trout. It certainly is a beautiful place. On that April trip I did not make it to President Hoover’s camp, having called it a day just downstream from there after losing count of how many trout I caught, but reading this post reminded me there is a lot to see in Shenandoah National Park, and that river and the camp should be high on any fly fisherman’s list of places to go.
This time of year, when the temperature has warmed up a bit, afternoons bring good dry fly action on the streams in Shenandoah National Park. My first brookie of the season was exactly a month ago, on a certain unnamed stream in the park, and on a day when the temps hit seventy degrees the afternoon definitely turned the fish on to dry flies. I still can’t bring myself to nymph for them. It just seems wrong even if I miss out on some action because of it. There is nothing like floating a Royal Wulff or an Adams over small pockets of water and having little native fish just slam them. Right now the Quill Gordons should be starting to hatch so the fish should be looking up.
If you’ve never fished the Rapidan and certainly if you’ve never fished Shenandoah National Park, consider signing up for Murray’s Fly Shop Mountain Trout Fly Fishing School. It’s two days of guided fishing and instruction on the Rapidan River, and you’ll learn exactly how to fish these small mountain streams.