Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Maybe it was the wonder of wetting a line in a world-class fishery, the hours of fishing with just one encounter with a fish, or the pure size and strength of the steelhead holding before us in the current.  Perhaps it was a combination of factors that had me standing on the bank of the Salmon River, shaken and hot with adrenaline, soaked—my waders filled—with 35-degree icy water.
        In honor of spring break, my dad and I headed north to Pulaski, New York, where spring is evidenced by the Salmon River swelling with snowmelt and the newly-arrived steelhead spawning in its waters.  The drive up began early in the morning, under a light drizzle.

        North of Charlottesville drizzle turned to sleet.  A quick glance at the weather radar threatened to prolong our 10-hour drive.  450 miles of heavy snow and sleet added two hours.
        Our tires hit gravel in Pulaski, at Whitaker’s Sports Shop and Motel.
        The next morning, after purchasing licenses and taking in a late breakfast at a local diner, we identified a point on the river map and followed the highway to the Schoolhouse Pool, on the upper river.
Upstate New York woods.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
        The first thing that strikes anglers new to the Salmon River is the intensity of its flow.  It’s a serious river, where wading can be dangerous.  At that, the water level is controlled by dams on the upper river; and conditions can change drastically overnight.
        Wading into the tail of the Pool, the water was relatively low.  Nevertheless, the current lived up to its reputation.  I stripped line from my reel.

        What happened next was almost attitude-shattering.  When I grabbed my fly to clear my leader of the rod tip, three feet of the rod tip shattered like a brittle twig!  Just as I had swallowed the initial shock, icy water began trickling down my left leg.  I glanced nervously down, to see a puncture in my waders.  So much for being prepared…
        We purchased a cheap replacement rod and wader repair kit at another local shop.  An hour later, we had a renewed shot at fishing.
        We located a small-but-fertile tributary to the Salmon, parked, and hiked to its mouth.  The mile-long walk prevented many from fishing the confluence pool, which we had to ourselves.
Steelhead roe means we're on the right track.
Photo by Matt Reilly
        Anticipating the deeper water of the main river, I tied on a bead-headed tri-colored Woolly Bugger of my own creation.  I added more weight to the line, and slid into the river on the edge of a promising run.
        Keeping my rod high and fly line off the water, the fly trailed bottom, promising the fly was in the strike zone.  After several good drifts, the line stopped, and I lifted my rod to check its source.

        The line went tight and nosed upstream before rocketing out towards the opposite bank!  A chrome steelhead weighing almost 15 pounds thrashed at the surface twice in front of me, turned, and began a long run downstream.

         Two logs extended into the river from the bank just downstream of me.  My line was angling beneath both as I sloshed towards the obstruction, rod doubled.

         Cold sweat sprouted on my forehead.  My line was wedged in the crevice of a knot on the log.  So with the cork of my rod in my mouth, I straddled a submerged tree and edged out into the river to grab the line.  Line in hand, I hand-lined the fish in several feet, cut the line from the log, and spliced the pieces.   
Backing trailing from a logjam...
Photo by Matt Reilly.

         The first obstacle cleared, I edged towards the second along the river’s bank, watching my footing carefully.  The line was more simply caught on the second log.  I crawled onto a stout overhanging tree, and edged towards the snag, pausing briefly to test the line for sign of life on the end—still there.

          I grasped a shoreline sapling tightly, as I worked forward.  Suddenly, I lost my footing.  My feet swung, the water rising to just above my chest waders, soaking my chest and legs in freezing water!  Enduring, and too far to turn back, I plunged my rod and arms into the water at my feet and passed the rod under the log.  The line popped free and connected tightly with a fish one hundred yards downriver.

          But the direct pressure inspired a violent headshake in the fish.  With that, the fish was gone, and the line sagged.

          I crawled out of the water, soaked, but warm with adrenaline, disbelieving.  My own fly had produced my first encounter with a Great Lakes’ steelhead—a fish awesomely hardier and larger than any trout I’d ever seen.  The water seemed eerily quiet as adrenaline shakes set it and I shed layers of wet clothing.

          The day had turned around, but ended in a lost fish.  The trip is still young.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, March 20, 2014


        As days lengthen and snow melts, outdoorsmen and wildlife alike prepare for the arrival of spring.  The former takes stock and organizes his gear, waiting for the bass fishing that traditionally kicks off the new season.  But as water temperatures climb out of the 40s and rise towards 60, an overlooked game fish, a true predator with a temperament as lion-like as March’s prevailing winds, is lurking in the shadows of more “sporting” fish in impoundments across the state, ready to spawn, and eager to take a lure or fly.

The Fish

        The chain pickerel, Esox niger, is a native of the eastern United States’ rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps, marshes, oxbows, and backwaters.  The smallest member of the pike family and the only member found throughout Virginia, the pickerel is a long, articulated swimmer with sharp teeth and an oversized gullet. Similar in appearance to the northern pike, its distinguishing feature is the vertical black mark through its eye.

The author's brother shows off a  nice late-winter pickerel.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
        Pickerel spawn in the early spring—March—when water temperatures stabilize around 50 degrees.  From their staging grounds in shallow water (two to four feet deep), the females broadcast ribbon-like, adhesive eggs onto emerging vegetation, brush piles, or logs, where they remain attached, unguarded until they hatch one to two weeks later.

        This brief window before and during the spawn can draw jolting strikes from the slender submarine.  As ambush predators, pickerel will relate strongly to cover such as grass and wood and engulf passing meals with a flick of their articulated bodies. 

        Pickerel are opportunistic feeders, and will ingest anything that will fit in their wide mouths, making them excellent targets for fishermen looking for sport early in the year.  They feed mostly on small fish, but crayfish, snakes, worms, mice, ducklings, birds, and frogs have all fallen victim to the pickerel’s toothy vice-grip.

        For that very reason, many farmers and property owners who permit anglers to fish their farm ponds require the immediate disposal of pickerel caught and landed, to protect the future generations of other more “peaceful” game fish.  This opinion is a cliché, in my mind, but one that should be rightfully followed if fishing such a landowner’s waters.

        As a native species, pickerel have inhabited Virginia’s waterways for ages; and it is the humble opinion of this writer that such a balance is disrupted by the presumably constructive management technique of disposing of the fish.

Fishing Techniques

        My first encounter with a pickerel was as a young boy.  I was fishing a local lake with my dad and one of his old friends when a small spinner tossed to a shallow bank drew a vicious strike.  The line went tight and rocketed out from the bank towards deeper water; but by the time I could bend my rod under the weight, the line fell limp, and my spinner was lost forever to a mystery fish.

        I lost that first fish to the pickerel’s sharp teeth; and though I would like to say I have not repeated the tragedy since, I cannot; for it is a risk involved in the pursuit of such a fish.  Therefore, line choice should be the foremost concern of a pickerel angler.

        Six- to eight-pound line on a medium rod is strong enough for a pickerel’s fight; but a strong, abrasion-resistant leader in the 10- to 20-pound range is a must. Even wire leaders intended for big game “toothy critters” like musky and barracuda aren’t out of the question.  A pickerel ambushing a lure will often engulf its faux meal completely, leaving the length of line immediately above the lure susceptible to its sharp teeth, often resulting in a cleaning-severed line.

Hairwing flies like the Mickey Finn in sizes 4-8 are very effective on pickerel.
A wire leader will prevent line break.  Photo by Matt Reilly.  
        Lures and flies for targeting pickerel are a secondary concern.  Any pattern or imitation that adheres even slightly to the fish’s wide and indiscriminate diet is effective, though the most productive imitations will resemble baitfish.  Attractor patterns such as spinners, spoons, and brightly-colored jigs are also top-producers in the pickerel world; and fly anglers will do well with bucktail streamers and poppers. Swimbaits, wacky-rigged stickbaits, and in-line spinners are regular members of my pickerel fishing arsenal. 

        Work these lures close to submerged logs and weed beds in waters inhabited by pickerel before and during the spawn, and you might just raise a fish looking for a fight.  After the initial strike, the fish will utilize their long bodies and powerful tail to evade your efforts, but fight them carefully—their teeth amplify the threat of excessive pressure on the line.  Once landed, be prepared with a pair of hemostats or pliers for extracting the hook while keeping your hands and fingers clear of the needle-like incisors.

        While the bass spawn traditionally signifies spring, pickerel spawn now, and provide unsurpassed sport on light tackle.  Don’t overlook this worthy and sporty game fish.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Monday, March 17, 2014


I'd like to take a moment and dedicate a post to one of my favorite, and one of the area's more relevant and popular, outdoor blogs, written by friend and associate Ed Felker of Northern Virginia.

        Ed began writing Dispatches From the Potomac in December of 2011, and has since gained quite an impressive and dedicated following, as well as several sponsors.  As a graphic designer and artist, Ed fills the site with quality, visually-appealing content.  Expect regular story updates regarding all aspects of the outdoors in Virginia--especially kayaking, fly fishing, and hiking--each featuring his two favorite K-9 companions, Finn and Winnie, affectionately known as "Team Orange."

        In his "free" time, Ed serves as a Director on the board of the Mason Dixon Outdoor Writers Association, but is also quite active within the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association.  After first shaking hands with Ed at the 2014 annual Virginia Outdoor Writers Association membership conference, I was struck by the man's welcoming personality.

        Check out his blog by clicking on the link above or in the left sidebar.  Look for my "Guest Blogger" post.

        Thanks again, Ed, for helping me grow my audience.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


        Cabin fever sets up its final blow.  It’s been cold, snowy, dreary, for two months.  The fisherman that holds the reins in my brain is facing impending implosion, when, for a brief spell, the clouds lift.  30s turn into 60s, and the resulting breeze turns the air crisp and comfortable.  It seems as if spring is right around the corner, and, to those residents of the underwater world, that means calorie-packing for the approaching spawn.  This spells good fortune for my fish-craving psyche.

        Every year the same pattern is repeated.  A warm snap in the third or fourth week in February signals a seasonal change for bass and other spring-spawning fish as the water temperature begins climbing towards 60 degrees.  With every day of warm weather, they are reassured that the spawn is indeed approaching; and they take their staging positions on ledges with access to deeper water adjacent to flats and shallow coves.

        The fish know they must eat.  Spawning rites expend valuable energy—energy fish don’t have after three months of winter lethargy.  Their posterity depends on a ravenous diet.  This makes late winter one of the best times to catch a big largemouth.

        At first, I found taking advantage of this pattern easy—accidental.  When the air turns warm in February, I know I have to fish.  After a winter of tough, intermittent fishing opportunities, my sanity depends on it.

        This seasonal event is the beginning of the bass fishing season, and, likewise, spring, on my calendar.  Every year that date finds me on the banks of my favorite farm pond.

        Cumulous clouds billow in an evening sky that keeps me cool as it flows through the open windows of the truck, bumping over a long dirt road in rural Fluvanna County.  The pond shimmers when it comes into view, as a slight breeze blows from the west, against a shallow point where grass mats in the summer.  Wind traps small aquatic shrimp and plankton in the emerging grass, which attracts baitfish and, in turn, predator fish.  An abundance of food makes this staging ground perfect for the fish and a hot spot for my fishing efforts.

        I make a point of bringing someone along on such occasions, to prove to them that the largemouth’s year begins in late February, soon after “ice out.”  My brother, Phillip, was my subject this year.

        In less than 20 minutes of fishing, the first fish had revealed itself.  Phillip tossed a small swimbait to a submerged log.  In short order, the water erupted with the mouth of an oversized bass.  With a violent headshake, the fish freed himself of the hook and left my brother expressionless and convinced on the grassy bank—the bite was on.

        Without hesitation, I pitched a soft plastic finesse worm tight to the log, in settling ripples.  Tick, tick.  A sweep of my spinning rod brought the lakebottom to life.  After a short, lively fight, I lipped a feisty largemouth and lifted him from the water.  Spring had sprung.

        We continued fishing the banks of coves three to six feet deep, each of us landing several fish.

        The breeze ceased as we approached the shallow point that’s choked with grass in warmer months.  From past experience, I knew where several submerged stumps speckle the periphery of the grassbed.  I placed a cast far out along the edge and began a slow retrieve.

        I crawled my lure over a stump and let it flutter down to the lakebottom, but it was intercepted on its descent.  As my line trailed out into the water, I set the hook with a sweep and grunted at the power returned from the end of the line.  A hefty fish boiled in the shallow water, surged for deeper water, then headed for the surface.  I kneeled and exerted downward pressure on the fish.  His head wouldn’t break the surface if I could help it.  He surged right.  I steered his head left.  Throwing the fish off balance, I gained line to the reel, and Phillip landed a thumb in his mouth.

        We traded.  I got the fish, Phillip got the rod.  A camera caught my “grip and grin;” and I lowered the first big fish of the year to the water.

        Many will leave their hats hung and their rods unstrung, claiming that bass fishing is a sport for warm spring days and summer evenings.  Late winter can be one of the most productive times of the year to target big bass.  But this time of year, timing is everything.

Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Monday, March 3, 2014


It's been a crazy week.

        I have been truly blessed by many over the past few days, and have had the opportunity to meet countless friendly new faces, ones that I know will remain friends and associates for a long time to come.  I owe deep thanks to the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association and the members of the Sportsmen For Responsible Energy Development (SFRED) coalition--Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the National Wildlife Federation.

        Starting last weekend, the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, a wonderfully supportive group of which I have remained a part for the past three years, selected my essay entry as a winner in the VOWA-Bass Pro Shops High School Essay Contest; and I was invited to the annual conference, along with four very talented student writers.  This honor I have received for the second time now, first for "The Homecoming," and most recently for "Every Dog Has His Day," and I can not begin to describe my genuine gratitude.  Many of the members of VOWA are true icons in Virginia's outdoor literary tradition.  Their approval is truly humbling.

Left to right:  Victor Harangozo, Michael Gates, Matthew Reilly, Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Joseph Ward, Khoa Tran, Caroline Armstrong.  Photo by Rob Thomas.

        I attend the annual VOWA meeting every year for the excellent speakers and networking opportunities that it offers.  The majority of my opportunities for growth have been products of this meeting, and I would urge anyone interested in outdoor communications--be it writing, photography, blogging, videography, etc.--to surround yourself with and learn from this group.

        Among the acquaintances I made this year were Clarke C. Jones, author of Virginia Wildlife's Off the Leash; Phil James, local Albemarle County historian and columnist for the Crozet Gazette; Ed Felker of Dispatches From the Potomac; and Sally Mills, editor of Virginia Wildlife.

        Next up, a trip to the Nation's capital sponsored by the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development (SFRED), with three high-caliber teenagers--Rebecca Brown of Conrad, Montana, Haley Powell of Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Jarred Kay of Flagstaff, Arizona.  Our hosts were charismatic, enthusiastic SFRED leaders Chris Wood, Brad Powell, Corey Fisher, and Keith Curley of Trout Unlimited; Ed Arnett of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Kate Zimmerman of the National Wildlife Federation.  

Left to right:  Haley Powell, Jarred Kay, Matthew Reilly, and Rebecca Brown.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Brown.

        In this context, we were swept through Washington's bustling infrastructure, always on schedule.  Influential conservation officials awaited our arrival at various corners of the city.  Mary Wagner, Associate Chief of the US Forest Service; Sally Jewell, US Secretary of the Interior; and congressmen from each represented state were all generous enough to sacrifice time from their complicated schedule to receive who they so emphatically dubbed "the next generation of leaders in conservation."  From socializing with the others, I feel I can speak for all involved--the pleasure was all ours.

Haley Powell (left) and Rebecca Brown (right) with Secretary Jewell.
Photo courtesy of DOI.

        Chris Wood, CEO of Trout Unlimited, and his wife Betsy hosted the last evening's wrap-up dinner in their warm and welcoming home.  What do a bunch of conservation biologists and outdoorsmen talk about at dinner?  Fishing was the main subject, but elk hunting had something to do with it.

        Thanks VOWA and SFRED, the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, and thank you Woods, for inviting us into your home.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014


As this column is being penned, Governor Terry McAuliffe awaits the arrival of a bill that will legalize Sunday hunting on private land in Virginia—a bill he previously indicated he will sign into law.

        House Bill 1237 (HB 1237), which has a twin in the Virginia Senate (SB 154), was introduced and passed by the Virginia House of Delegates last month by a vote of 71-27 and moved on to the Senate for approval.  On Feb. 18, the Senate responded with a vote of 28-11 in favor of the bill.

        Governor McAuliffe, whose signature represents the last obstacle for the bill, has been a supporter of Sunday hunting during his term, and revealed through a spokesperson that he intends to grant his signature to either bill when they land on his desk.

        The ban on Sunday hunting historically belongs to a group of regulations called “blue laws,” laws that restrict certain activities on the Sabbath day, such as operating a retail store or the sale of alcohol. The blue law on hunting was established in Virginia in the early 1900s, and has seen growing opposition in recent years.  Finally in 2012, Sunday hunting activists had a breakthrough, as a bill was passed in the Senate, only to be shot down in the House by an opposing subcommittee.  Heading into 2014 with a fresh batch of executive and legislative officials taking seats in Richmond, and with legislation already being passed, the future for Sunday hunting looks promising.

        With the bill’s passage, more hardworking Virginian’s will be able to find the time and energy to hunt on the weekends, rather than have to sacrifice a time-honored tradition to recuperate and prepare for the week ahead.  More kids will become involved with hunting, as their parents find the time to introduce them.  This will in turn result in the sale of more hunting licenses and increased funds available to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for managing and improving game populations and habitat.

        On the contrary, the majority of the bill’s opposition comes in the form of non-hunters.  Trail runners, bird watchers, horseback riders, and other non-hunting outdoorspeople argue that Sunday is a safe day to be in the woods during hunting season, and has been traditionally in Virginia for the past 100 years. 

        While I certainly understand this position, and recognize regrettably that not all hunters are safe hunters, by my experience, the majority of hunters are quite responsible and courteous.  Just as the deer and bear hunters of the national forests and wildlife management areas sometimes must share the woods with fishermen in the fall, fishermen, small game hunters, hikers, equestrians, and photographers all too must learn to respect the others’ space and right to the woods.  They must don blaze orange in recognition of that seasonal relationship, and do their best to maintain a safe and effective cushion.  Those that hunt on public land accept in doing so the possibility of crossing paths with another sportsman.  If that doesn’t satisfy, consider private land or public areas where hunting is prohibited.  It works for the majority of the country.

        Overall, if (or when) this bill is signed into law, I firmly believe that both the sporting public and wildlife will benefit.  

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, February 20, 2014


It's THIS weekend!

        The 27th Western Virginia Sports Show at Augusta Expoland this Feb. 21-23 will bring to Virginia an increased number of TV celebrities, including R.J. Molinere and Jay Paul Molinere of Swamp People, Mike Stroff of Savage Outdoors, and Paul Butski of Turkey Thugs.  Have you ever seen a grizzly bear up close?  Welde's Big Bear Show features six trained grizzlies that have appeared in TV shows and commercials across the country.  Howard and Jason Caldwell will showcase their "Raptors Up Close" exhibit to inspire an interest in falconry and promote their conservation.  Acclaimed wildlife artists Ken Schuler, Lisa geiman, and Melissa Ball will provide unique and masterful artwork for show and purchase.

        Other attractions include the Annual Big Buck Contest and South River Taxidermy's Top 10 Whitetail Mounts display.  The annual Virginia Open Championship Turkey Calling Contest held at the event every year has been renamed The Dennis Campbell Classic in honor and memory of a lifelong supporter of the show and a passionate promoter of the outdoor sports.  Countless vendors will offer the opportunity to browse hunting and fishing gear, book a guide trip, enter contests, and purchase food.  Local pros will conduct seminars and demonstrations.  Kids are invited to cast their line in the trout pond and take home their catch.  Visit for more information.

        Hope to see you there!