Sunday, September 7, 2014


Life is nothing but a series of adventures; and it’s a good thing too.  I’ve learned over the past several years of my life that it is not without those adventures and the challenges and new situations that they bring that we as people mature.

    When I say “mature,” I’m not referring to that rather forced growing-up kind of development like moving out of the house or getting a job and driving to work every day.  I’m referring to the situational exposure of one’s own individual core, when experiences shed the superficial, globalized, herding-induced shucks we have all called home at one time or another.  When faced with adversity, the things that truly matter to us emerge, and areas of fuzzy thought become lucid as the waters of a mountain stream.

    For that, I’ve set myself a course untraditional, and the subject of both disapproval and hearty encouragement.  In lieu of a first semester at college, I’ve deferred to pursue and focus on my talents, interests, and habits—what I call writing, photography, and the outdoors.  In the coming months, my car treads, boots, wading cleats, and tent pegs will cover ground from Maine to Florida, the Kennebec to the Keys.  Selfish?  Maybe.  Irresponsible?  Not if you can make it work.  I call it reflective and stimulating.
    My writings, both essays and news pieces, with occasional allusions to my adventures abroad, will continue to appear in these pages, as I foresee them to for a long time to come.  Whether I am home or not, squirrel season still opens in my home state of Virginia, and I will be reporting.  For those interested, updates on my experiences outside of Virginia, and whatever other media that results, will appear regularly on my blog,, and on my more recently-developed website,

    Now this is not entirely a personal update (though I’d like to believe that anyone still reading does take interest!).  With my mind in this stage of my life hyper-focused on the issue of college and a degree and future jobs and careers, I’ve come to notice, if only in passing instances in local sporting goods shops or boat ramps, people who have seemingly lost the dogged fervor for the outdoors that they once held.  I don’t pretend to hold the answers, or claim to hold mature insight, and I am by no means attempting to judge, but it seems a shame that so many put passions on hold for the more secure and “realistic” paths that consume their time.  Life is too short not to live a deliberate life striving for dreams and goals and not settling for the average.  Part of my gap semester decision was fear of that trap and moving too quickly into it.

    So if this column is too out of character, I apologize; and I hope that I have not appeared at all big-headed to any.  I will keep it brief and singular.  But I hope that readers will take from this inspiration to find exodus in nature and the sporting life, and that, in doing so, it will cleanse their eyes and soul and help those with the need to slow down and realize what it is that is important to them, be it the outdoors, or something altogether unrelated.  I suppose that is what I write for each and every week.

    I will keep you posted on my findings.  I hope that you will do the same.


Saturday, August 30, 2014


On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into effect the Wilderness Act, a federal law that has, since its initiation, preserved more than 100 million acres of primitive land in 44 states and Puerto Rico.  This year, we celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act and the bounds in conservation it has made possible.

    Pooling the vast number of sporting personalities I have grown to know and call friend, I feel I can safely make the generalization that sportsmen and women are of a tastefully simpler breed.  They long for the rustic life of our heritage, when sporting traditions, such as those recounted in the dusty pages of antique outdoor writing bibles that we all own and cherish, held much firmer ground, and were readily and easily enjoyed in the countryside and on the periphery of rural society.

    But today, in the reality that we live in, we learn the definition of development every day.  Now, I am no tree-hugger, but I recognize the age told in my parents’ memories.  They say, there was a time when Charlottesville, Virginia was not a city but a town, when Walmart, Lowes, and Sam’s Club had not yet taken their anarchical perch above Route 29, and Farmer Matheny still tended to his cows behind an endless row of black fence board and the illusion that things might never change.  The Rivanna River coursed like a river blue with snowmelt, untapped by Lake Monticello and the neighboring municipality; and fish finned its waters in untold numbers.

    From those recollections I feel regret, and momentary fear.  What will happen in my lifetime that will erode at the natural landscape?  Will I have somewhere to pursue my solitary sporting passions in relative isolation?

    To escape these stresses I have formed a habit, a fetish even, of chasing after the settings where the noise pollution from highways and roads is overcome by expanses of trees and outspoken Chick-a-dees; where I can walk and walk, fish and hunt, camp without bending to the regulation of private property and baying dogs; and where I can pretend for a day or two that there is nothing else.

    In 1964, when the Wilderness Act was signed, that habit shared by thousands of like-minded Americans was ensured forever.  Its signing established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which works to dub unspoiled lands across the country into eternal protection and public use.

    The nearly 110 million acres the Act has designated “wilderness” over the past 50 years are open for any citizen to enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, backpacking, swimming, gathering, and more, while prohibiting vehicular traffic and practices like logging and mining.

    Likewise, the 750 American wilderness areas are the source of much daydreaming; for some of the country’s most sought-after destinations have become such because of their primitive state.  Among those are the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Sawtooth Wilderness, Denali Wilderness, and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest single wilderness tract in the lower 48 at 2,366,757 acres.

    In fact, to think of one of my favorite and most “pristine” settings to explore and fish, the Saint Mary’s River comes to mind first.

    In the early 1900s, the terrain surrounding the Saint Mary’s River was mined extensively and carelessly for iron ore and manganese, polluting the mountains’ lucid waters and seriously endangering the River’s native brook trout.  In 1984 the Wilderness Act facilitated the designation of 9,835 acres surrounding the River as wilderness.  In 1999, conservationists air-lifted and dropped lime into the river bottom, remedying the acidic water quality and bringing back to life the population of native trout. 
A classic Saint Mary's waterfall and plunge pool.  Photo by Matt Reilly

    Today, the Saint Mary’s River runs crystalline and aqua blue throughout most of the year, and sports some of the finest trout fishing in the state.

    It is thanks to the Wilderness Act of 50 years that we as sportsmen and women are blessed with such places to explore and cherish.  Join me in saying “Happy Birthday!” to the Wilderness Act, and enjoy one of our many wilderness areas this September.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Rewind 82 years.  It’s 1932.  Ernest Hemingway, with A Farewell to Arms looming as suppressed musings in his mind’s periphery, sips away at a whiskey and coke on a barstool in Sloppy Joe’s Bar, bumming away with his fishing-minded acquaintances.  Outside, gin-clear saltwater laps upon the sands of Key West; and like so, rumors of elusive, uncatchable, finned, marine giants filter west from the Bahaman Islands.  There is a catalyst in the air, a catalyst for the onset of the gilded age of sport fishing, and for a self-made, inventive, American success story.

Photo by Matthew Reilly
    Frank O’Brien, an industrious man doing his best to make money to live off of during the height of the Great Depression, is selling cutlery on the streets.  A fisherman at heart, O’Brien makes the acquaintance of Jack Reynolds, a local man and owner of Florida Fishing Tackle, a company concerned largely with the sale of small hardware items—hooks, line, and sinkers.  O’Brien partners with Reynolds as a salesman—his trade and talent—and becomes imbued in the saltwater fishing trade.
    In this he came to understand the nature of fishing on the East Coast.  Big game fishing was no main stage there—the West Coast held that authority.  However, the rumors of large unconquerable game fish in eastern waters that awaited Hemingway’s adventurous spirit outside the bar did not escape his attention.  In fact, he recognized the shortcoming in tackle to handle such large fish, and made it his personal mission to solve it.
    It’s 1934, and Frank O’Brien has just split parties with Jack Reynolds of Florida Fishing Tackle.  O’Brien moves to Miami and establishes a business making heavy big game rods out of hickory, snakewood, and Tonkin cane, and selling them for $150--$2,600 today. 
    At the height of the Great Depression, such a sum was steep and unthinkable to the vast majority, to say the least; but O’Brien’s ingenuity hinged on that concept.  Fishermen—big game fishermen, more importantly—in the 30s had money.  Lots of it.  In fact, an appropriate rod was preceded on the shopping list by an appropriate boat, gas, reels, and the appropriation of a worthwhile crew.  When it finally came to choosing a rod, O’Brien’s “Bimini King” rod was the only and best on the market; and on that concept, the Tycoon Tackle brand was born.

    The very same year, 1934, 90% of all world record saltwater game fish caught were fought on Tycoon rods.  A few years later, Michael Lerner caught a world record swordfish; and Hemingway got to breaking records too, on his “rod of choice,” the “Bimini King.”
    In 1942, WWII was looming, and the Government placed an embargo on fishing tackle, effectively converting the Tycoon operations to wartime supply.
    After the war, O’Brien joined forces with Fred Grieten of Finoor Reels, but Tycoon Tackle soon sold out of the incorporation.
    Following the onset of the 70s, Frank O’Brien passed away, while his son, Tim, was still in college, and the company fell into disorder and fizzled.

    Jump back.  It’s 2014, and I’m ending my day on a soft note.  The stars are out, the crickets and peepers are singing, and I’m standing upright in a canoe, casting to the lily-padded edge of a farm pond silhouetted by the moon against dead calm, reflective water.  I have no visual cues to time my fly casting—it’s all feel in the dark.  There’s a fiberglass Tycoon Tackle fly rod pulsating in my hand.
Photo by Matthew Reilly
    Tim O’Brien, a businessman, and Frank O’Brien’s son, snatched up the unclaimed Tycoon Tackle trademark several years ago and put Tycoon rods back into production with an expanded repertoire, thus continuing the family legacy.  Behind the name now sits world-renowned rod builders and a prestigious company history.  

Photo by Matthew Reilly

     My fly lands with a splash in the shadow of a bush that I cannot see.  I strip twice, and an abrupt splash shatters the water’s surface, and I know I’ve got a fish on.  To fight a fish in the dark marries you to the rod—it is your eyes.  And when I hoist a sizeable largemouth from the warm summer water, I see a story, a faded tradition rekindled, and a future ripe with historical flavor; and I see it all through the cork of the handle.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Summer is universally known as a relaxing time for fun in the sun, on the water, or on the trail; but the dangers of the season should not be dismissed.  There’s poison ivy, snakes, and bees, but none are more dangerous than what lurks in the sky.  The sun poses a real threat during the year’s hottest month; and proper care should be taken to prevent heat- and radiation-related illnesses.  Here are a few safety precautions to consider this month.

Photo by Matt Reilly

Dress Comfortably

    Before heading out, check the weather station.  Light, breathable shorts, pants, and shirts, some that offer sun protection, are made by companies like ExOfficio, Columbia, and Under Armour.  Some are worth the slightly inflated price tag.

    Neck buffs, hats, and sunglasses also deserve their places on your hot weather checklist.  Buffs can prevent sunburn in the most vulnerable places, and sunglasses, personally, make time spent outdoors with exceptionally-bright sunlight more enjoyable, not to mention safer for your eyes.    


    It’s a cliché, but considering what the summer sun has accomplished on some of the more exposed rivers by the climax of summer, and that almost ¾ of the human body is water, I would say it’s a cliché grounded heavily in science.  Staying hydrated, drinking water or juice even when you don’t feel thirsty, is the first and most important step in keeping yourself healthy in the heat.  Even mild dehydration can leave one feeling weak and tired; and taking a break in that situation without replenishing your body’s supply of fluids can be very dangerous.

    Avoid drinking alcohol, as it’s well recognized as a diuretic that makes maintaining a healthy fluid level difficult.

    Operating a boat under the influence of alcohol is illegal, and VDGIF officer patrol state waters on the lookout for transgressors in the latter days of June through July, an establishment of the Department’s Operation Dry Water.

Take 5

    Don’t underestimate the value of taking a break, especially if doing strenuous activity like hiking or mountain biking.  Rest.  Use this time to replenish what you’ve lost in fluids. Eating small snacks not overly loaded with protein—though, with a sustainable amount—also helps in keeping cool, as it prevents an increased metabolic rate that produces unwanted bodily heat.

Be Cool

     It is not uncommon for temperatures to fluctuate 20 degrees over the course of 24 hours, with the coolest parts of the day passing in the night and the hottest in the hours following midday.  Use this information to your advantage by planning activities in the cooler parts of the day.  Going on a hike?  Wake up early to see the sunrise and make your trek when the sun hasn’t yet saturated the ground.  Fishing?  The topwater action is better in the evenings anyway, and will only improve from here on out.

Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

    No, I’m not suggesting showering—when you get home, definitely!—but rather applying sunscreen, or, more importantly, reapplying.  I’ve had my neck fried to discomfort on the first day of a beach vacation enough to have learned that sunscreen is a beautiful creation, and should be utilized as such.

    When sunscreen shopping, it pays to not just pick the highest sun protection factor (SPF) number and get out.  Not only is this number misleading, it’s also just half the story. 

    SPF is a reference to the level of protection against cancer-causing UVB rays.  The average person will be well-served by sunscreen with an SPF of 15, while fair-skinned people may benefit from SPF 30. 

    Contrary to popular belief, these numbers don’t double in potency as they double geometrically, but 30 still offers more protection than 15.

    The other half of the story, UVA rays, can also be damaging to your health, but aren’t as commonly advertised as their bold counterpart.  UVA rays are also associated with cancer, but, as researchers from the EPA found, penetrate deep into the skin to cause wrinkling, and overall, about 90% of all skin changes previously attributed to aging.  While picking a sunscreen for UVA protection, look to the ingredients list for components such as ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, or zinc oxide.

    Even with the best sunscreens, remember to reapply often.  Multiply the time it usually takes your skin to burn without protection—if you know—by the SPF number, and reapply on that interval.

    Just as in cold weather situations, there are plenty of dangers present in the elements that can slip into your body somewhat undetected—at first.  Take care, and place safety before practicality while exposed to the elements to get the most out of your time outdoors.  Dehydration and sunburn take more out of fun than most people are willing to give.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, July 6, 2014


    A few days ago I got the chance to fish with local guide Brian Bodine on the James River for world-class smallmouth.  All I can say is that this man knows the James River.  His operation, Razorback Guide Service, offers fishing for smallmouth on the James, and deer, turkey, waterfowl, and dove hunts on 2,700 acres of private land bordering the river.  To say that he knows and loves the James is an understatement.

    The river was low and slow; but we caught a few fish, and capped off the day with this citation smallie taken on a topwater lure just minutes before a thunderstorm!  

    If you're looking for a reputable guide, laid back and fun to fish with (or hunt with), and who knows his stuff, swing on over to his website,

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


My first camping trip was an accurate and fair introduction to the practice that too many do incorrectly.

Photo by Matt Reilly

I was not much larger than a bear cub and had grown adept at “powdering my nose” far from civilization when my parents packed us up and drove us to a spot in the mountains I can only remember now as Muddy Bottom.  We arrived shortly before nightfall and scrounged for firewood to fuel a fire which burned the whole night, providing us with warmth and food.  Come morning, rain beaded on the roof of the tent like a hoard of round ants silhouetted against a gray sky, and the campsite was soaked through to the bedrock.

    After sloshing all of our belongings into the car and piling in, someone muttered “that’s camping,” and closed the book on the entire experience.

    I have since tempted fate on several camping trips, in multiple states and locations, and feel I can confidently and humbly declare myself to be many strokes ahead of most campers.  The baser lot fidgets away with packing lists and agendas, details and directions.  Yet, they still foolishly dismiss the key ingredient, which I will graciously enlighten you with, as the simple yet powerful element of struggle.

    Yes, there is no more surefire way to botch a well-planned-out trip than to rule out the opportunity for struggle.  The result is a care-free, enjoyable trip that blends peacefully with the host of other camping trips, in which everyone returns dry, sane, well-nourished, untested, healthy, unscathed, and completely clothed.

    If that sounds utterly, unimaginably terrible to you, then you are well on your way to achieving status as an accomplished and seasoned camper.  But to truly nail the lifestyle, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the difference between the two kinds of struggle—senseless struggle and instinctive struggle.

    Senseless struggle is defined as dealing with an obstacle despite a clear solution.  On the whole, this is most often practiced by wanna-be experienced campers or those who are innately much more prone to struggle than the rest of us and thus impervious to any form of help.

    Instinctive struggle is a far more natural, stream-of-consciousness type of struggle, in which one’s own psyche burns all practical bridges to solving an impending problem well before the problem presents itself.  This is the kind of event that must be mentally “invited” along on an adventure, rather than planned, and its occurrence is truly a beautiful phenomenon that should be cherished once achieved.

    In our last year of high school, three of my friends and I set our sights on a bass lake a few miles south of town as a campsite for the weekend.  We divvied up a packing list came to school packed for camping on Friday.  That afternoon, while setting up camp at the lake, Jesse opened his tent sack to discover that he had left his poles at home.  Instead of driving five minutes home, the four of us chipped in enthusiastically weaving rope through the pole sleeves and lashing the ends to trees, creating a neat little limp cocoon for him and his lucky tentmate.

    To begin with, Jesse was on the right track.  His instincts forbade him checking for tent poles before leaving his house, but the decision not to implement the obvious solution sacrificed the quality of the struggle.  In the best possible scenario, he would have also left his house key on the kitchen table in his locked house, rendering the forgotten tent poles totally unavailable for use.

    After more practice, my brother and I ventured north to Maryland for a weekend’s camping and fishing.  Regulations prohibit the importation of firewood, so we approached woodless and opted to scrounge.  Little did we know that four inches of rain in a half hour had soaked the gorge we were calling home the night before our arrival, and even logs I split with a maul were damp to the heart.

    We were soon informed that the only firewood vendor in town was closed for the night, but after more inquiring, a friendly convenience store clerk, Mrs. Beavers, connected us with her husband, who directed us to knock on doors asking for wood, saying “Harold sent us.”  Either no one really knew Harold or our “outsider” appearance frightened the locals motionless.  So we resorted to smoking wet wood over cardboard we stole from the Dollar General dumpster until it lit.

    Instinctively forgetting a legal form of fire-starter and choosing a spot forecast for heavy rain lent a true element of struggle to our experience, setting it far and wide from other camping memories, and solidifying our reputation as seasoned pros.  If you can’t manage this kind of struggle, simply welcome a drenching overnight rain.  There’s nothing wrong with struggling classicly.   

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, June 29, 2014


We lost cell service completely several miles north of Harrisonburg, but the GPS kept trudging along militantly, through country roads, wide open highways, and mining boomtowns native to the Appalachians.  Bloomington, Maryland, the junction of the Savage River and the North Branch of the Potomac that lies in the periphery of I-81 and the greater Ohio River Valley, wasn’t far off, yet relatively, we would lie down our heads in a whole new world come nightfall.

    As the network of roads vein north-westward into West Virginia and on towards Maryland, the topography changes.  Gone are the grassy meadows of the Shenandoah Valley.  Abrupt mountains, rock cliffs, and steep gorges take control of the landscape. 

    The western portion of Maryland is indistinguishable.  Small town after small town, each built around a seemingly timeless trade or business, seem to play a game of connect-the-dots in the riverine hollows and valleys at the feet of overseeing mountain peaks.

    Bloomington is such a town, little more than a settlement serving a paper mill, and defined by the borders of the Potomac and Savage Rivers.  The latter tumbles 30 miles down through a gorge created by Big Savage Mountain, through an impressive reservoir before reaching its confluence with the North Branch.  Pocket water exciting to the trout angler typically characterizes the Savage, but scheduled whitewater releases pepper the summer months.  The river’s optimal PH supports massive insect hatches, creating excellent year-round dry fly action.

    We arrived after dark at a campsite on the bank of the upper river, set up camp, and headed into town in search of dry firewood.  Rain had soaked the understory of the forest even to the hearts of the logs I split with a maul; and the presence of the invasive emerald ash borer gave the DNR cause to regulate the import of firewood.  So we resorted to buying some.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    What was said to be the only firewood vendor in town was closed for the night.  But a friendly clerk put us on the phone with her husband, who suggested we go door-to-door asking to buy firewood from personal stacks--the only warning being not to approach 4217 Spooktown Road because of unrestrained vicious dogs.  We reluctantly attempted this method to no avail, not before nabbing a generous amount of cardboard from the dumpster at the Dollar General.  So, with this unique impression of local culture, we returned to the campsite upon Savage Mountain, the thick precipitating insect hatches spattering the windshield as we climbed. 

A smathering of insect hatches coming off on a Savage River evening.
March browns, sulfurs, PEDs, and caddis speckle the landscape.
Photo by Matt Reilly

    The next morning we set upon the upper Savage with our fly rods and high hopes.  The water was obviously high from a recent rain, and was running swiftly, so I elected a heavily-weighted stonefly nymph to do my dirty work, and produced several nice native brook trout by working it carefully around the now-submerged boulders.  My brother came upon two solid rainbows in a more relaxed pool capped by a sweeper in the tail.  We were both content with our success.

    Further up, the river opened up with more eddies and runs—deeper, and with more obstacles.  Having had success with a stonefly, I tied on a heavier one accented with a fluorescent green underbody while eyeing  a productive looking logjam.  A drift down, almost under the structure triggered a strike from a much larger rainbow, but the hook did not hold, and the fight was short-lived.

    At mid-day we hiked back to camp and drove down the mountain to a small fly shop we’d noted the night before.  Dirty water told us that the river was high, but having never seen the river before, we would not have recognized what the shop owner called flood-stage waters—more water, and more kayakers, than during even one of the scheduled whitewater releases.  Comforting.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    We had limited time, however, and there was no need to be discouraged by the bad news.  We found a pulloff on the lower river, below the dam, strung our rods and went to work.

    Working a very heavily-weighted streamer through the soft seams, still present in the high water, I hooked the first fish of the afternoon—a soulful wild brown trout just surmounting 12 inches.  I snapped a picture, and immediately began scanning the riverbank for similar holes to fish.
A beautiful brown trout from the flooded Lower Savage River
Photo by Matt Reilly

    Skipping from productive hole to productive hole, I picked up seven more fish, ranging from 12 to 18 inches—all wild browns, a rarity for our part of the state.
14 inches of wild brown trout from the Lower Savage River tailwater.
Photo by Matt Reilly

    As the sun set on our first day in Western Maryland, I could feel accomplished at having succeeded in catching a fair number of trout, revealing the river’s true colors, even as it roared by disguised as a whitewater beast. 

Originally published in The Rural Virginian