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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


The sun beats down in heavy rays; the world hums with the sounds of dragonflies, cicadas, grasshoppers, and frogs, like the radiating drone of a heating oven that grows all the more intense until those brave enough to be out and about are fully cooked and the day begins to cool into night.

Photo by Matthew Reilly.

    The local river offers a refreshing sojourn, and a soothing place to cast a line.  Its fish are predictable, hiding beneath the shade line, waiting for falling insects, waiting for me to slide in and lose myself in the passage of time, throwing flies rhythmically as the trance of the river flows around my bare legs—calling me its own, if only for a little while.  I may very well indulge myself in its cool water on many an afternoon covered in damselflies and sunshine—but even this iconic scene does not complete or define the summer season.

    No, in the summer time I go to play with my farm ponds—the ponds of my youth and my upbringing, where I learned, and where I still do learn.  These beloved, nostalgic settings are puddles, are an acre, are five acres.  They hold the “southern mix;” the “summertime grab-bag—largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, pickerel, and catfish.  When temperatures soar, they grow lily pads and grass, as I cut my hair short; and grass grows up around them—a jungle of broom sedge, blackberries, and nettles—and ticks.

    The rivers of my memory have fish tales and runs and riffles of wonder and tradition.  But the stillwaters of my past are storied with nostalgic stories of fish lost, caught, and mysteries still unsolved.  With every outing, more of the mystery is shaved away.  Yet, when a storm boils the glassy surface; when a fiery sunset stains it orange and yellow and purple; and when I gaze into the translucent, teasing depths, the imperceptibly-booming voice of a mystery still unsolved screams back.

    Summer in the south is slow.  Even the rivers that run turbid and aqua-colored from runoff in the spring slow to a crawl when the sun claims a portion of its body to dump over the landscape come afternoon.  And so the lazy evenings spent afloat on a canoe, hoping to bring back to life one of those long-retired mammoths of personal fishing lore, become unofficially-official periods of thought; for it is a rare time when one is so lucky as to be capable of pure, unrestrained, prolix philosophy.

    Farm pond fishing is not difficult.  The fish that fin below you, along the grassy edges, and that pop the surface to take insects are relatively unpressured by anglers; many techniques and approaches will catch fish, and that’s all that matters.  For me, it’s a popping bug and a long rod.  Plugging along, I think little of the technical aspects of the fishing, and more about the essence of the act.  As long as fish are being caught steadily so that there is a real chance of encountering one of the characters of our fishing heritage and lore, and there is enough leisure to warrant meditation, your have succeeded.

Photo by Matthew Reilly.

    Farm ponds of summer hold a special place in my heart.  They require little concentrated effort to successfully catch fish; and, to me, are the perfect settings for premeditated unwinding.  Spend the evening with one of these beauties, catch fish without a worry, and ride home through a cool sky, fireflies, and the heavy chirping of peepers, and your summer is completed and defined, and your soul truly enriched.   

Originally published in the Rural Virginian  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Virginians residing in the center of the state are fortunate to live within a short drive of the Shenandoah National Park and a wealth of maintained hiking trails.  So to gear up for National Trails Day on June 7, we’ve rounded up seven of our favorite local Virginia hikes--listed from shortest to longest--for the adventurous soul to tackle this summer.

The view from Humpback Rock.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

Humpback Rock

    At milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the base of the Mountain Farm Trail, sits a 19th Century interpretive farm setup—this marks the trailhead for reaching Humpback Rock.  This is a short trail of modest difficulty, roughly a quarter-mile round-trip; but the view from the large rock outcropping at the trail’s end, looking west over the Shenandoah National Park, might tie you up for the entirety of the afternoon.  If you don’t mind rising early, make the ascent before sunrise and enjoy the sun’s appearance from on high.

Whiteoak Canyon

    If waterfalls are your thing, Whiteoak Canyon is for you.  This is easily one of the Park’s most popular hikes, and it has six gorgeous waterfalls to thank.  Access the trail from the lower end off route 600 in Syria, Va. or from the Skyline Drive at milepost 42.6.

    From the bottom, the climb is very steep, and a 6-mile round-trip hike.  From the Skyline Drive, the way in is easier, but the latter half of the 7.3-mile round-trip hike is much steeper.

Crabtree Falls

    Need more waterfalls?  Crabtree falls boasts the longest vertical-drop cascades east of the Mississippi River; and the first showing of five major falls starts just 100 yards away from the parking area.  The trail is moderate in difficulty and, like any other hike, should be tackled with the appropriate footwear.  The last overlook sits about 3.5 miles in, making this a 7-mile hike.

    Access the trailhead from Crabtree Falls Highway in Montebello, Va.  A $3.00 fee is required to use the parking area. 

Mount Rogers

    Seen enough waterfalls and white oaks?  Take a break and visit a unique Virginia ecosystem reminiscent of New England and southern Canada found in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  Mount Rogers is Virginia’s highest peak (5,726 ft.); and the trail to its summit features grassy balds with breathtaking views of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  Begin your hike at Elk Garden Gap and hike 9 miles east along the white blazed Appalachian Trail to reach the summit.  Tackle the hike in June or July to enjoy a fantastic display of native flora.

Strickler Knob

    The Strickler Knob trail is not maintained and includes some sharp, rocky scrambles suitable only for those in good physical condition.  But the trail’s end rewards for its hardships with a stunning 360-degree panoramic of the Luray valley.

    This 9-mile hike is more appropriately called a “bushwhack” than a “trail.”  So consult a guide for directions.  It can be reached from the Massanutten trailhead on Crimson Hollow Road.

Old Rag Mountain

    This hike can’t be left out with its reputation as one of the Shenandoah National Park’s most popular hikes.  “Old Rag” is a strenuous, nearly 9-mile hike with a serious rock scramble near the summit.  No pets are allowed on the trail, a hiking partner is recommended, and ample water is a requirement.  Access the trail by parking in the parking area off SR 600, Nethers Road, and hiking the easy 1 mile to the trailhead.    

    Because of this trail’s popularity, it might be worth a little less sleep to arrive early before the summertime crowd.

Whitetop Mountain

    The Appalachian Trail runs through Elk Garden Gap in between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.  Proceed west from Elk Garden Gap to reach the meadow summit of Whitetop (Virginia’s second highest peak).  Equal in length to the Mount Rogers hike, this nine-mile counterpart is a strong competitor in scenery and abundance of wildlife.
    With thousands of miles of trails veining the Old Dominion, including the longest chunk of the Appalachian Trail in a single state, it would be pretentious, and a lofty compliment, to name the aforementioned hikes as Virginia’s best.  That said, none of them lack in scenery or physical challenge.  So, lace up your boots, throw together a pack, and check these trips off your summer to-do list.  Then go find some favorites of your own!

Originally published in the Rural Virginian