Tom Jefferson’s River

Back in D. C., I was ready to flyfish for shad on the Potomac but I wasn’t prepared foOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAr this. I found a dead shad along the Rivanna River in Charlottesville where I was staying for a few days. The dead fish made me realize I was farther upriver from the coast than I had thought. Shad run up the James River when the water temperature hits 50 degrees, and now that the Woolen Mills Dam in Charlottesville has been removed from the Rivanna, they’re able to swim up to the northern edge of town where I was staying.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEaster morning was cool and rainy as I stepped from the house and walked down through the woods to the Rivanna. I was less than 10 river miles north of Monticello where Mr. Jefferson experimented with agriculture and democracy, with the help of his slaves. I had never cast for shad before, but if a dead fish was any sort of indication, I hoped for the best– tying on a small weighted fly, brightly colored, and let it drift through the deepest currents.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was looking forward to an outing in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, casting for native trout, but the old Rivanna River, flowing so close to where I laid my stuffy head at night, was irresistible. If shad were in the neighborhood, I wanted to know a little more about them. The birds were singing and tapping mightily from the river woods– titmice, cardinals, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina wrens. I caught a whiff of wild garlic or onion from the warming ground, and I felt pretty damned good now that I’d finally put winter at my back.

The sinking fly line paused in its drift; the short, quick motions of the fly stopped and I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfelt the weight. A hefty smallmouth, my first of the year, fought valiantly and made a pleasant substitute for a shad. Shortly after releasing the fish, the rain intensified and I quit for a while.

Late in the evening I returned to the river and tried again. This time there was no sign of fish, although the body of the dead shad remained at water’s edge as if to say, “Keep at it fella; water’s still cold, but you never know.” Migrating shad figured so dominantly back in Jefferson’s day, but times had changed in more ways than I could fathom.  Hiking back to the house at dusk I passed a  little pond where the peepers were ringing so madly there was no question of what was in charge today.

Hyla crucifer is the real name of the small spring peeper. Their ringing can draw you to the water’s edge. It quiets down as you peer in for a view, then rings like hell when you continue into the night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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13 Responses to Tom Jefferson’s River

  1. If I had to leave Florida, I think Virginia, Vermont or Maine would be great places to be. The scenery is just beautiful and I would love to fish on those streams. Thanks for sharing, Walt.

    • Jim, I agree those would be good choices, though I’ll have to admit I much prefer being here in VA during the springtime than in summer. I have difficulties dealing with both heat and humidity. But yeah, I think you’d enjoy the Blue Ridge waters. Happy spring to you in the Sunshine state!


  2. stevegalea6953 says:

    I love the end of this entry Walt. The post ifinishes so beautifully. They do ring like hell…

    • Thanks Steve! Those little hyla are incredible ringers aren’t they? As soon as the evening temperatures in Ontario hit the 50 degree mark, you’ll be hearing them again. It won’t be long.


      • Bob Stanton says:

        Nice post Walt! Say, have you ever read John McPhee’s “The Founding Fish”? It’s over four hundred pages of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about shad and the importance of shad to the fabric of American history. A very interesting read, told as only McPhee can do it. Hope you get to land one of the “poor man’s tarpon” while you’re in the Old Dominion!

      • Bob, It’s a funny thing, I somehow lost track of what McPhee has published over the last dozen years or so. I’ve enjoyed some of his earlier books but hadn’t heard of “The Founding Fish” until the other day when I learned I’d have an opportunity to cast for shad. A little research on the subject turned up McPhee’s book, and now that you’ve recommended it, I’m definitely putting it on my reading list. Tonight I think I’ll have another look for the migrator. Thank you!


      • stevegalea6953 says:

        I can hardly wait They, to me, chime in spring.

  3. Looks like a great day- even if the fishing wasn’t going to match.

    • Peter, Yes, it was a pleasant switch, a sudden one, from cold to warm, with a rise in expectations. New England will get the same thing in a few days, methinks. Anyway, thank you commenting!


  4. Joseph Hord says:

    I’ve been hearing the peepers around home lately too. Good luck with the shad, we have some good runs in the eastern part of the state, but I’ve not yet had the chance to fish for them. It’s good to see all these signs of spring!

    • Thanks Joseph. It’s my first shot with the shad run, which is interesting to learn about, and maybe I’ll even get a hook-up. Anyway, it’s great to be seeing spring!


  5. Ken G says:

    I used to cruise to Virginia and Maryland all the time years ago, never did fish any of the rivers. I should have taken the time, but there was solitude and lakes out there waiting for me. They were beautiful rivers.

    • Ken, Don’t feel bad; I lived a stone’s throw from the Shenandoah River for four years back in the 70s and never fished this smallmouth bonanza even once! Fished none of the trout streams either. Now I’m trying to make up a bit for lost time. Got on a couple of fine trout streams in the last day or so. No matter where we are, there’s always more to be discovered and enjoyed.


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