A Long Pool on the Mountain

The hike begins near Charlottesville and brings you to the Shenandoah National Forest. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe stream is full-flowing but surprisingly clear, considering the fact that nearly two inches of rain had poured down on Virginia the day before and turned many waters into muddy broth. The stream temperature is a cool 50 degrees F., not surprising, since the April night had brought back freezing temperatures to the region.

It’s a beautiful afternoon with blossoms on the ground and on the limbs of trees and bushes. You’re glad for another chance to cast for brook trout in these mountains far from home. The water pushes forcefully against your waders and you’re thankful for the cleats on your rubber soles as you step with care and head upstream.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail crosses the stream again and there you rest and study the pool. A Louisiana water-thrush pipes a shrill, sweet song from somewhere on the cliff. A long cast with a Hare’s-Ear nymph connects with a small brook trout, and you admire it briefly before returning it to the pool. Then you see it up ahead– a rise in the deep flow where the waters push against the wall of rock.

The fish rises again and again to what you’re certain is a mayfly. Your imitation is aOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA floating pattern known as the Quill Gordon. You cast the fly repeatedly and find the problem– conflicting currents between you and the fish do not allow a decent float. The fly drags quickly and threatens to put the trout away for good.

You consider lengthening the leader to allow a better float, but you repeat a longer cast and drop the fly beside the rock. The trout rises and takes the fly, at last.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe struggle is a strong one on the three-weight rod but the fish arrives at hand. It will measure close to 12.5 inches along the rod, the largest brook trout of a year. The fish is a good one for this mountain stream that’s still recovering from floods occurring in the 1990s. An hour’s walk back down the mountain is an hour filled with peace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

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To Rapidan Camp

(The Rapidan Camp) is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility, and of human frailty– for all men are equal before fishes.– President Herbert Hoover

From Milam Gap at Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, we descended the foot trail 1.8 miles to the camp. The Rapidan Camp, also known as Camp Hoover, was the presidential retreat of Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st President, 1929-1933.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The early afternoon was warm and cloudless as I carried my four-piece, seven-foot fly rod and my rolled-up waders with me on the trail. Richard, my brother-in-law, carried my wading shoes, in addition to water bottles. Before long, we reached the first of three stream crossings, our introduction to the several “prongs,” or tributaries, that would converge at Rapidan Camp to form the excellent Virginia trout stream known as the Rapidan.

A raven flew noisily among the steep mountains looming nearby. The first spring wildflowers, bloodroot and hepatica and trout lily, bloomed along the trail. Soon I saw the first small sign for anglers, saying we had reached the uppermost boundary of the catch-and-release section for native brook trout in the Rapidan watershed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Rapidan Camp has been restored to its 1929 appearance and contains three of its original 13 structures: the President’s Cabin (the Brown House), the Prime Minister’s Cabin, and the Creel. The original Camp Hoover, serving a man who “appreciated the isolation of remote accommodations,” was a precursor of the current presidential retreat, Camp David, located in Maryland.

Hoover had wanted a retreat within 100 miles of Washington, D.C., one whose minimum elevation of 2500 feet above sea-level would minimize the impact of mosquitoes and, most importantly, he wanted something with immediate access to quality trout fishing. Rapidan Camp fit the bill, and more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALocated on remote Doubletop Mountain on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, Rapidan Camp features the convergence of the Mill Prong and Laurel Prong to form the Rapidan. Native trout are plentiful in these streams. The U.S. Marine Corps built 13 assorted structures including a lodge, two mess halls, a “town hall,” cabins, hiking trails, stone fountain, trout pools, and a miniature golf course.

In 1929, the Commander in charge of construction wrote, “It would have been easier to have moved an army of 10,000 men across the Blue Ridge than to have built this camp. I have been amazed to find so wild an area existing here so close to eastern cities.” Indeed, the camp included electric lights and telephone, and had its mail dropped off by an airplane.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was more amazed by the fact that the Rapidan’s water temperature was already 56 degrees F., that a small hatch of Quill Gordon mayflies was occurring, and that, by casting a dry stonefly pattern, a Stimulator, I was able to connect with trout after trout, wild brooks that were mostly small (approaching nine or 10 inches long), and wonderfully colored.

I gladly lost count of all the trout I carefully released. Rich enjoyed the rugged stream OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbank, the beauty of the pools and their fish, not to mention poking around the camp site and speculating on its history.

We were only the latest in a long line of visitors and guests. We hoped that the rustic OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbeauty would remain as such and offer peace and solitude to hikers. Although there had been many notables at the camp throughout its heyday, including Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Winston Churchhill, it was good to think that we were equals in the eyes of trout.

A natural democracy rules, perhaps. It seemed to, if only for a little while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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Virginia Fly-Fishing and Wine Fest

These words are not a promo or objective report for the 14th annual Virginia Fly-Fishing and Wine Fest (April 12/13), billed as the largest outdoor event of its kind. It’s simply a reflection of my wanderings through the first day of this two-day affair.DSCN4045

Generally speaking, I am not one to travel any distance to a fly-fishing show, but this extravaganza in Waynesboro happened to be in the neighborhood of my wanderings so I checked it out. Although one might consider the $20 entry fee and various prices a little steep, the whole experience of visiting the southern festival is a pleasant affair with potential for some real education.

DSCN4039The Waynesboro setting suffers a bit from Dupont-Investa factory pollution, but the otherwise lovely mountains of Virginia make it a grand walk through a park-like atmosphere. And through it all flows the South River, a tributary of the South Fork Shenandoah.

I didn’t yet mention the wine-tasting (free with entry) and micro-breweries, but suffice it to say that sampling the products of half-a-dozen local wineries helps to put a smile on your face and to interact with the hundreds of vendors and fly-fishing personalities under the big tent and among the smaller set-ups near the river bank.

Among the festival speakers, whose names I already recognized, were Beau Beasley, EdDSCN4043 Jaworowski, Lefty Kreh, Tom Sadler, Tracy Stroup, Fishy Fullum, and Matt Supinski. There were numerous others representing the fly-fishing trade in its various aspects. Subjects covered were Fly-Fishing for Beginners, Fishing Tennessee’s South Holston River, Beginner Fly-Tying, Professional Casting, Women’s Group Casting, Tenkara, Kayak, Spey, and a whole lot more…

It was fun wandering around with my wife and son, getting a wine buzz with a soothing April sun on my back, conversing with tyers, suppliers, and guides, not buying much of anything, and just relaxing.

Recommended.DSCN4048DSCN4054DSCN4069DSCN4067

family matters w/wine

family matters w/wine

talkin' with Lefty

talkin’ with Lefty

 

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Vince’s Meadow

The heavy rain let up completely by the time I arrived at Letort Spring Creek in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The famous stream’s parking lot, at a meadow near Spring Garden Street, is also located just south of busy Interstate 81. It’s the heart of an idyllic wild spot in an otherwise urban atmosphere.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ninety minutes just isn’t enough time for an outing on this southern PA limestone water. The LeTort is considered one of the toughest wild trout streams to fly-fish anywhere, on par with England’s Test. Ninety minutes is barely enough time to remove your hat at the memorials to Charlie Fox (riverkeeper and author of Rising Trout) and Vince Marinaro (author of A Modern Dry Fly Code), to acknowledge you’re on sacred piscatorial ground. Hell, it’s hardly enough time to study the tiny Blue-winged Olives sailing above the currents (relatively clouded by the rains) and to experiment with a dry fly or a nymph rig.

DSCN4031I rigged up a long leader tippet with a #20 dry fly, for tradition’s sake, if not for an actual hook-up. Nothing doing. Next came a tandem rig with a midge pupa and a tiny Pheasant-Tail. That helped me land a small brown, along with another brief hook-up, my only fish of the day. When I switched to a larger soft-hackle and beadhead Pheasant-Tail, the wild browns simply ignored me. As I said, ninety minutes (en route to metro-DC) isn’t time enough to fish a special place like this.

“The LeTort is a hard task master…” said Vince Marinaro. Indeed. Many anglers from DSCN4034around the states, and even the world, come to pay respects at the stream but then go to fish the nearby Yellow Breeches instead. They go where the fishing is considerably easier and more productive.

“A man is the substance of the things he loves…” wrote Charlie Fox, LeTort master and, along with Marinaro, one of the most famous and revered fly-fishermen since Izaak Walton.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA naturalist or angler or outdoor lover connects with mountain, stream, ocean, desert, or other environment. He or she loves the world that nurtures the soul, and wants to live most fully with particular places. If you walk Vince’s Meadow, or fly-fish its wonderful stream, you too will feel the substance of something reaching out pleasantly in your direction.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSCN4036

 

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It’s A Beautiful Day (For Fish)

Day 1 (for steelhead)

The Lake Erie trib was flowing high and muddy, but the sun was out by mid-morning OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the sky was April blue. The air temperature would rise into the 50s today, and the water temp would reach a mild 43. There was hope for success, even though the stream was as high and muddy as I’ve ever seen it, even though the last few steelhead seasons for me have been minimal affairs.

Gone were the days, not so many years ago, when a fly-fisher could hit a tributary of Cattaraugus Creek, or even the big stream itself, in early spring and catch upward of 20 steelhead in a day. Those days were gone because new landowners posted the water now, or wanted steep fees for the privilege of fishing there. And some of the problem was due to fishermen themselves, who socialized too freely on private lands and left their garbage behind.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnyway, it felt great to fish upstream in solitude for more than a mile, searching for lake-run trout in the likely holding waters. I enjoyed casting streamers with my old South Bend 7-weight while listening to the birds and finding animal tracks in the mud. In addition to coon and mink and heron tracks, I found the possible paw prints of a fisher– the furbearer, not the fly-flinger (although I saw his boot tracks, too). I enjoyed working my way to the gorge, but I never saw a single fish.

J.K. w/ 1 of Walt's fish 4/12/05

J.K. w/ 1 of Walt’s fish 4/12/05

Several young men with spinning rods raced by me to reach the falls where the fish could swim no farther. I would learn that they saw a couple of steelhead there and even had one briefly on the line. But for the most part, there were no fish being caught on this stream today. For the most part, the spring run hadn’t yet reached this tributary 40 miles above the lake.

Usually the spring run of fish is well under way by this point in April or, as in the past few years, it’s mostly over at this time. Walking from the gorge back to the car, I looked into the cloudless sky and had good news for the trout (as if they didn’t know)– we caught no fish. The water was warming. It was time to lay some eggs.

Day 2 (for kids)

On Monday morning one of my young students came to school excited about the

coon or fisher?

coon or fisher?

beautiful day he’d had (while I was out traipsing around for steelhead). On his i-phone were images of a 24-inch rainbow he had caught while fishing Cold Brook with his father. He would show these photos through the day at every opportunity.

The water had been cloudy, and no one on the stream was catching fish (sound familiar?). He’d been fishing from the rocks where the water swirled deeply and took his egg-sac (on a single hook) to the bottom. He was apparently beside himself when the fish hit, when his dad rushed over and counseled him on how to keep the line taut and how to stay cool when the big spawner leapt into the air.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I told him he did well. He did a whole lot better than me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Day 3 (for personal history)

On Sunday, while walking down the steelhead stream in excellent weather, it seemed natural to peer at the azure sky and think of the late 60s, early 70s folk-rock/psychedelic band called It’s A Beautiful Day.

DSCN4016The band’s artistry was unique among the groups that issued from the fertile San Francisco music scene of the period. Essentially a vehicle for the classically-trained violinist David LaFlamme, It’s A Beautiful Day peaked with its superb self-titled debut album of 1969 [youtube/it'sabeautifulday/fullalbum]. The album’s six-minute introduction called “White Bird” established the band as a progressive and sophisticated stand-out in a heady period of musical expression.

This song of personal freedom was often played on the FM “underground” play-lists of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe day, and I often heard it spun from college dormitories, campus center, and pubs. Four decades later, while tramping from the fishless wilds and exploring the limits of exhaustion, I heard the vocals and instrumentation of “White Bird” in my head.

It was like I’d been wrestling steelhead all day long. I felt both young and old. I had an ancient cane rod in my grip. I almost had a pair of wings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

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Backwater, Eddies and Deeper Pools

After 40 hours of intermittent rain that crystallized into snow and wind on Saturday morning, I knew the fishing would be tough, if not impossible. I drove north anyway and found that Naples Creek was clearly borderline– very high and muddy, but not quite dark enough for me to do a turn-around and go back to bed.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The air felt more like February than April as I suited up with grim determination, ready to accept the challenge. This was the first weekend of an open season on the Finger Lake tributaries, and I noticed that quite a few anglers, perhaps dozens, were out on upper Naples Creek looking for the famous rainbows that swim from Canandaigua Lake to spawn.

Wading was pretty much out of the question today, and I figured that my best chance for a hook-up as a fly-fisherman would be to focus on the backwater, eddies and deeper pools while swinging a large, brightly colored streamer along the bottom.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Backwater, eddies and deeper pools” became my four-beat phrase, my mantra, that I repeated silently throughout the mile-long hike upstream. “Backwater, eddies, and deeper pools,” I chanted, while fishing slowly with each cast, as the snow and sleet flew by, as the wind roared through the sycamore tops, and as I glanced heavenward to check for falling objects.

At one point a pair of bluebirds flew from the open fields along the west bank of the creek toward the forest of the Bristol Hills that towered above the valley on the east. A pair of bluebirds– to remind me, perhaps, that spring was somewhere in the atmosphere, and to remind me that, if I held out long enough, I might enjoy a much brighter and warmer day forecast for tomorrow….OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Focusing on the stream’s backwaters, eddies and deeper pools didn’t help me much on this occasion. No doubt the surviving wild rainbows were hanging out in those formations (I had heard that on opening day, the previous Tuesday, there were lots of nice rainbows taken for the annual derby and trout festival here), but now there was too much cloudy, turbulent water between the fly and the fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnder the circumstances I was probably fishing pretty well and had the right stuff for the task at hand (the right physical equipment, if not a balanced mind-set) but the trout were out of reach. I didn’t see anyone today with a rainbow at hand. If someone had asked me why I even bothered to venture forth, or why I didn’t wait for better times tomorrow, I probably would’ve been struck dumb for a sensible answer, assuming there was one.

After all, the calendar said that spring was here and that winter had gone under. My senses told me that the stream was flowing, that the ice was gone, and that, ostensibly, big rainbows still remained in the chaos of water. I had all the motivation I needed. It was in the backwater, eddies and deeper pools of the creek, if not just in their counterpart locations of the mind.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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A Peerless Transition

It looked like a good day to stay home from work and to check up on the trout. The temperature was rising into the 40s, and it said farewell to winter. The streams and rivers would soon be rising from the rains and snow-melt. My fishing options would be few.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I would seize the moment and try like hell to enjoy it. The river would be high and off-color, but fishable, even at 40 degrees of water temperature. This would be my first outing with the Founders’ Rod (see previous post). The robins, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, and song sparrows were singing their new territories, and I was looking forward to this evening– I would climb my hill to watch the woodcock in their “sky dance” flights against the first stars and shining planets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had the Heddon fly rod with me and it proved to be a casting machine. The cork handle seemed husky and comfortable (with reverse half wells cork). The walnut spacer looked its age, worn from years of “honorable use.” No words will describe the rod’s taper, but I loved the way the instrument could place a 5-weight Cortland Sylk line on the waters. I imagined my casting loop reflected in the circular pattern of a woodcock’s flight at dusk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trout don’t care about this rod, one way or another, and it probably makes no difference in my catch rate unless, of course, something psychological is kicking in without my knowledge. I checked my copy of John Gierach’s book, Fishing Bamboo, to see what he thought of rods like the #35 Peerless, and this is what I found: “… the top (Heddon) models– the Model 35 Peerless, Model 50 President, and Model 1000– are magnificent.” Okay, I thought, the word “magnificent” sounds… good enough to me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI felt pretty lucky wading around in the deep dark pools, but then I also felt some trepidation. I was casting someone else’s quality rod, and stepping on the knife’s edge of the moment. I would be extra careful until getting used to this. I didn’t want to strain the rod tip when the fly got snagged. If I took a sudden swim in icy water, I didn’t want the rod down underneath me. I would be a bit neurotic for a while because the first step on the road to elsewhere always seems the biggest one of all.

I saw the first few stoneflies of the season, and I tried to get the fish to take a beadhead imitation, but their preference wasn’t for the stone. They fell for a light-colored Woolly DSCN3987Bugger and a Glo-Bug.

I caught four standard rainbows and lost several others. The fishing was less than spectacular, but with a fresh new season in the air, and with a stately bamboo in my hand, the day had been satisfying. As for the prospect of watching the woodcock flights at dusk, I paused to think about the bird.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince 1973, the year I first encountered the species at their evening ritual in March, the “sky dance” flight (thank you, Aldo Leopold) has marked the true arrival of spring. I was looking forward to evenings of participation with these high and circular flights.

With the warm air and the hooting of owls from distant woodlands, the woodcock flights brush against the stars and crescent moon. The bird’s fearless notes, the twitter of air through its wings, present a peerless spectacle of beauty.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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