Tuesday, October 6, 2015


There’s a fire-breathing dragon in our mountains.  Should you request a photograph, he is invisible, but breathes his torch upon our coldwater flowages, ever more intensely as years progress.

Pine Creek, PA suffers from early autumn low water.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    You’re skeptical?  Scientific academies the world over confirm his existence; and should you, being biologically inquisitive, wish to know where such a creature was birthed from, I would inform you that those very same scientists are in concurrence that you and I are the culprits at large. 

    A brute of such stature and appetite, you reason, must have some significant impact on his environment.  This is true.  However, I will counteroffer that he is a habitat generalist, omnipresent.  His impact is slow, yet steady—relatively undetectable to the untrained eye.

    Still, this intangible monstrosity of Sagan speciation affects quantifiable damage.  Our very own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken note (as of last summer) that his very existence on planet Earth results in rising water temperatures and altered streamflow so significant that 62 percent of coldwater fisheries habitat is projected to be compromised without intervention by the year 2100. 

    In layman’s terms, our dragon has the life ambition of forcing our trout and salmon from Appalachia, the continental lowlands and hills, and all but the highest elevation streams of the Rocky Mountain West.  Any individual concerned with ecological diversity, recreational fishing, or economics should consider such an antagonist a cold-blooded murderer.

    Still, he can neither be touched nor seen, and thus we have a decision to make.  Either we intervene, or we refrain, on faith that the dragon is merely a figment of our imagination.
Greg Craven, author of What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, an innovative, rational response to the climate change debate, offers a model that fits our dilemma quite nicely.  In reality, there are four possible actions and outcomes to this question.

    First, our dragon does, in fact, exist, but we decide not to intervene.  As a consequence, 62 percent becomes a very real number, and our trout and salmon are ravaged by a destructive reptile.

    Second, our dragon exists, and we decide to oust him.  As a result, we invest greatly in destroying the invasive fire-breather and save the majority of coldwater fisheries from slow death.

    Third, the dragon is actually make-believe, and we decide not to pursue his execution.  In this case, all is well that ends well.

    Finally, our dragon is, after all, a figment of our imagination, and we do decide to act.  Unnecessary economic downturn is the result, as we invest in dragon-killing measures that are effectively a wild goose chase.

    Mere days following the release of the EPA’s dramatic statement, I was having lunch with a handful of coldwater fisheries conservation professionals, employed by Trout Unlimited, delivering the comprehensive State of theTrout report—a critical look at the risks posed against coldwater fisheries, and the proposed solutions to those problems.  Many of those problems are related to climate change.

    In that setting, the aforementioned model would have served useful, as an aged gentleman sitting in on the discussion dug his heels into the dirt. 

    “Why are we focusing on climate change when the real problem is the health of our coldwater fisheries?” he questioned.

    “Because their decline is tied to climate change,” it was countered.

    The conversation hit a wall.

    What failed to be recognized is that failure to act, based on the claim that climate change is not occurring, gambles with the viability of the ecosystems in question.

    Within our four real options, two require action and two don’t.  Of the two that don’t, the only positive outcome relies on the premise that our dragon doesn’t exist (an idea which is strongly and collectively opposed by the international scientific community), while the worst results in the loss of over half of our coldwater fisheries.  Of the two that do require action, the positive result is a country of relatively healthy salmonids, while the worst reality is an unnecessary investment.

    Thus, it is irresponsible to get hung up on the question of whether or not a scaled beast inhabits our hills.  The question that should be asked is whether or not we should act; and the steward’s answer is “yes.”

    And so we are called to make an assumption:  there is a fire-breathing dragon in our mountains.  For should at last his unhindered wreckage be permitted to culminate, skeptics will see and believe, and all will mourn the loss of our finned protagonists, begging to trade a blinding societal ego recognized for an irreplaceable ecosystem so ignorantly sacrificed.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Monday, October 5, 2015


As I write this, on the first official day of fall, the change of seasons is evident.  The morning suggests a sweater, the flaming embers of maples’ limbs lie lightly atop shoots of green summer grass, and the air smells of a few mornings I’ve experienced from a treestand.  With sunrise this Saturday will come a familiar fall tradition, what is probably the most anxiously awaited on the sportsman’s calendar—the opening of the early archery deer season, the first in a series of new beginnings to come.

The Facts

    Saturday, October 3 marks the beginning of the early archery season that will run through November 13 statewide.  The entire six-week period is designated “either-sex,” during which hunters are permitted to take either a buck or a doe.

    Midway through the season, a window opens for the gun-toting variety of big game hunters.  The early muzzleloader season extends from October 31 right through the heralded general firearms season opener, November 14.  Hunters are permitted to take a deer of either sex throughout the length of the muzzleloading season as well, unless specially noted in the VDGIF deer hunting regulations for the 2015-16 season, which can be accessed at www.dgif.virginia.gov.

    East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, except on National Forest Lands in Amherst, Bedford, and Nelson Counties, the daily bag limit rests at the historical number of two.  Hunters are permitted to take six deer per license year, provided at least three are “antlerless,” which is defined as a deer with no antlers protruding above the hair line.  Bucks with small “buttons,” or pedicels, that don’t break the skin or hair line are considered antlerless.

Four Eyes

    The falling leaves and half-bear trees that come to mind when one visualizes bowhunting in the autumn woods are often not reality during the front end of the early archery season in Virginia.  Such was my dilemma one early October evening in a familiar creekbottom.

    Evidence of a relentless summer was slipping away as dusk and the coolness of an October night settled in, when the growing sound of footsteps materialized from the peeping of birds and the trickle of a small stream in the background of my thoughts.  Still-green leaves blocked any chance of a long-distance ID.  From my position in a ground blind facing a hollow dominated by a small tributary, the noise was diffused, irregular, and hardly audible. 

    However, as the noise grew, I came to understand why.  There were two sources.  One seemed to originate from my right; the other, from my left.  Each bore different characteristics.  One was steady, soft, deliberate; the other, erratic, quick, and careless.

    The first source materialized first, on my right.  A mature doe browsed methodically down the slope of a ridge that ended at the creek’s confluence in front of me.

    My hand tightened around the handle of my compound bow as my heart rate quickened.  The deer moseyed behind the veil of a wide hickory tree.   I saw my chance.

    As I raised my bow, ready to draw, the second source strutted into view—a jake, a young turkey, seemingly with the intention of meeting my white-tailed quarry at the confluence.  Their paths ran into each other.

    But as the bird strutted into view, he froze and cocked his head at the foreign camouflage box in his turf.  Turkey have exceptional eyesight, so the fact that he didn’t bolt and send my chances of taking anything home to the table over the next ridge surprised me.  Nevertheless, I remained frozen, though my muscles were strained in the beginning stages of drawing. 

    Nervously, the bird sidestepped, still cocking his head inquisitively. 

    “If he just makes it a few more feet, that small beech might give me a window,” I breathed nervously. 

    My wish came true after several sweaty moments.  Naturally, at that time, the doe’s head had popped out from behind the hickory, still apparently oblivious to the tense moment at hand.  I saw my second of opportunity, and drew. 

    As subtle as I could be wasn’t subtle enough.  The doe swung her head up, her body still shielded by the hickory.  I had a fresh opponent in the staring game, and now I was at full draw. 

    Meanwhile, the jake continued his nervous dance, edging ever closer to the blind.  The doe twitched her ears, though her body remained solidly in place, teasing me.

    After what seemed an hour, I began to shake under the weight of the bow.  The jake had finally had enough, wheeled around, and trotted out of the scene.  The doe shot out a wheeze and bolted.  I relaxed, exhausted from the tension of a close encounter.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


“Still little guys.”

Bob Ackerman’s voice grumbled over the static of engine noise and river spray as Captain Chuck O’Bier idled his 46-foot “Sea Fox” by a small flock of seagulls engaged in a choreographed feeding ritual above the lower Potomac River. Bluefish were breaking all around, exploiting the same panicked balls of baitfish from all angles. The sun sat low on the horizon in a Tidewater haze, colored around by warm streaks of light.

Sunrise over the lower Potomac River.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Several fish had been boated after only a few casts, but O’Bier, who operates Chuck’s Charters out of Lewisetta, Virginia and boasts 35 years of experience fishing the lower Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, knew there was more to be had. Ackerman, an experienced boat owner and successful tournament angler himself, put that knowledge into words.

To the four outdoor writers and friends aboard, it was simply a pleasure to have found willing fish so early. Nevertheless, we retrieved our metal spoons and topwater plugs and stowed our rods on faith.

On our way to a limit.  A collection of blues.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
September is for bluefish in Virginia. Summer drought and temperatures draw the pelagic predators north into the Chesapeake Bay and tidal river mouths. As autumn approaches, cooling weather and rain events push the fish to more salinated waters as a prequel to their winter migration south.

We know them by many names:  Silverside, glass minnow.  Bluefish know them as "food."  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Finding them is easy. Voracious bluefish corral baitfish--commonly glass minnows, or “silversides”--into tightly-packed balls and then “blitz” their prey--pushing the schools towards the surface and tearing through them mouth open, chomping their razor-sharp teeth, in an adrenaline-soaked frenzy. Swirling flocks of seabirds, locked on to the bite-sized minnows and diving, are the above-water clues. When occurring in unison, the scene is chaos defined, and observable from a distance.

A crazed bluefish with a mouthful of glass minnows.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Years of searching the horizon has taught O’Bier to utilize a quality pair of binoculars, and when they came down from his face and retreated into the cabin with him, it was evident he was on to another localized blitz.

A few minutes of motoring put us in contest with another, smaller vessel with the same quarry, which had edged in too close to the school and put them down.

Within seconds, the school reappeared on the port side. The telltale gulls had dissipated, temporarily losing the bait as it fled from dispersed blues, but surface water bubbled up, and fish could be seen making runs at bait just beneath the surface.

Almost every cast produced a fish between one and three pounds for each of the five fishermen, prompting Tee Clarkson, friend and outdoor writer from Richmond, to break out his 8-weight fly rod and rig it with a popper. Several fish fell prey to the long rod, and we took turns stripping flies from pumped-up bluefish until the action wore out.

The 8-wt. pulls an all-but-resigned blue to the surface.  Photo by Tee Clarkson.
This routine was repeated several times. It was quickly discovered that topwater (save for mylar poppers fished with the fly rod) was losing out to the silver spoon that I casted all morning.

By 9:00 we had our five-man limit of 50 fish. By noon, we were tuckered out and looking towards shore.

It was on our ride back to the dock when Ken Perrotte, friend and outdoor writer from Fredericksburg, proudly represented outdoor communicators everywhere by asking Clarkson to catch just one more fish so he could get some photographs with the fly rod doing battle. Though reluctantly, Clarkson submitted.

In seconds we were up to our armpits in fish.

Clarkson made the first cast to a busting school of fish, and suddenly we were surrounded by birds, bait, and blues. Bait balls were yards wide and opaque with the brownish tint of blood.

Clarkson plays a bluefish that smashed a popper to the boat.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Everyone ran for rods. Clarkson was engaged in a game of cat and mouse with a popper and several bluefish. Each fish would take a swipe, knock the popper into the air, causing Clarkson to set the hook, pull the fly away, and upset the fish even more.  

For 20 minutes, every cast had a two- to three-pound bluefish on the end of it--a fish strong enough to strain your arm and suggest rest. And because they were so caught up in the blitz, they fought all the way to, and in, the boat, at one point throwing a treble hook and planting it into O’Bier’s helpful arm. Another fought me so doggedly that it lost its jaws and returned lip-less to the chaos. One of Clarkson’s fish took a bite out of his shirt.

Double? Triple?  I lost count!  Photo by Matt Reilly.
When at last the action had slowed, we left the fish feeding and headed for shore. On land, O’Bier and his wife treated us to a blue crab feast, complete with corn on the cob and fried bluefish and hush puppies as hors-d’oeurves.

A bushel of fresh blue crabs.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

A feast!  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Over dinner, we called the day’s catch conservatively at about 350 fish.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


As I wound my way through Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, traffic slowed to a stop. 

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The Northern Tier is a mostly rural landscape, similar to that of the Shenandoah Valley--traffic is relatively non-existent.  Corn fields and dairy cows cover the rolling countryside in a studded patchwork falling off the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.  At the center you’ll find the Pine Creek Valley, the artery which carves the mountain gorge that earned the area the Grand Canyon likeness.  At the heart of that valley you’ll find a beautiful freestone creek, finned by the speckled forms of shouldered brown trout.

    When I came to a halt in the line of cars strung along the single road that follows the creek through the mountains, the obstacle became apparent.  Despite a bluebird sky and no wind, a thick pine tree rooted a few feet from the roadside had met its end and splintered, coming to rest across both lanes of the mountain highway.  Travelers applied insufficient brawn to the trunk, while resigned onlookers crowded the scene.

    Luckily, an ax lay in its place in the back of my car.  A few minutes of sweaty swinging split the branches from the trunk and severed the crown.  The resigned onlookers helped clear the road.

    Despite the delay, the fallen pine tree was not altogether inconvenient.  The mountain air was thin, crisp, but warm and dry.  No rain had fallen in weeks, and the creek ran low.  Perhaps “ran” is an inappropriate verb.  Even the pools and riffles were at a relative standstill.

    I fished the morning with no reward.  Crystal clear water and a bright sky were my foremost opponents. 

    And so in an effort to “switch things up,” I visited a friend in the local fly shop for direction.
October caddis were on the water and thick in the air.  So I left the shop with a few Elk Hair Caddis in my pocket, aimed at a stretch of river rejuvenated by a few small tributaries.

    It was 4:00 in the afternoon by the time I reached the parking area where I planned to enter the water, and the early fall sun was oppressive as it hung just above the western wall of the canyon.  

    Wet-wading would suit, and the river water refreshed me as I waded downstream in search of trout in a recommended location, nicknamed “Monster Pool.”

    A sharp bend in the creek channel and visible riffles just downstream from a creek mouth signaled to me my arrival.  A gravel bank was exposed by the low flow on river left.

    As a matter of stealth, I crossed the creek to prepare my attack on the bank.  I examined my leader.  5X had proven itself ineffective against finicky risers in the present water conditions.  So I converted my tippet to a size finer, and lengthened it by three feet.  A caddis found its way on the end.

    As I edged into the water towards the rising forms of wild brown and rainbow trout, a bald eagle erupted from the bank opposite me.  Cast after delicate cast brought no interest from the fish, despite the cloud of October caddis on the scene. 

    Eventually my fixation on fish lost hold.  A red fox trotted over the ridgeline on the opposite bank, scaring a rather hefty groundhog loafing about the rocky crags half to death.  The predator halted at the commotion caused by the rodent, turned, and followed the creek out of sight. 

    Moments later, my backcast caught on grass peeking up through the gravel to my rear.  I turned to see a black bear cub sniffing curiously about the ground, pausing only to stare confusedly at the flailing angler in his watering hole.  The light of day escaped with the beast as it meandered its way out of sight.

    Suddenly, barely visible in the fading light, rises became audial, no longer delicate.  To a pod of several fish, I fired a short cast dropping my caddis in their feeding zone.  Immediately, it was slurped up and I was fast to a 14-inch rainbow trout. 

    I continued picking off fish, and the action grew faster, more aggressive and indiscriminating, as night settled in.

    My fifth fish was a solid brown, caught in the head of the riffle on a blind cast to noise.  I chased it down to land it in the riffle it inhabited.

    As I handled the fish, plucking the fly from its mouth and admiring its strong form in the dark, the discarded fly drifted with the current between my legs.  A familiar sound caused me to find the fly line tangled in my hand and pull.  And just like that, I released the fish in my left hand, grabbed my rod and turned, tight to another trout in the dead of night.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


In a moment—a flash in time—a decision was made. A portion of the cobblestone streambed broke free, sprouted fiery wings, and, in a twinkling second of serendipity, broke the water’s surface and engulfed the disheveled form of an olive-bodied Elk Hair Caddis that had fallen out of my vice the night before.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I look back on that moment often, never embellished, but as it happened on a favorite, medium-sized native brook trout stream in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The water was running low and slow through a thick August afternoon in Virginia. I could not have been older than 13, but a devoted and starry-eyed fly tyer and fishermen thrilled to have taken my first fish on a self-tied fly.

    I have since (as I would advise all to do) made many more new memories on this favorite stream—casted to familiar rocks and plunge pools, and even found familiar fish in homey haunts. But as they say, “a man never steps into the same river twice,” for he is a changed man for the experience; and I never did.

    Rivers change, too—constantly. High water and flood events, and even the daily coursing of normal water flows, alter the streambed—moving gravel, debris, stones, and sweepers. Bedrock and boulders are eroded. The Grand Canyon itself is the life’s work of the once-strong Colorado River. It is the nature of flowing water.

    When I look back upon that treasured memory, I can vividly recall the physical geography and divine design of the pool where it occurred. It sits at the foot of a steep bank, just a small pebble’s throw from a cobblestone trail. An oak tree towers over the pool’s middle, its sprawling roots creating an undercut bank that sits three feet above the water’s regular height—a product of springs, rainfall, and runoff.

    The pool begins as many do in the Appalachians, with two stones that split a current into four seams—the first of which runs along the steep bank, while the other splits the pool long-ways. The two run a good distance—maybe 20 feet—before converging in the tail and spilling over into the next. It is best approached across from the steep bank, on a gravel bar inhabited by sycamore saplings and mountain daisies.

    That image stays fresh in my mind because the scene is revisited at least once every year, and while the rocks and the bank and the oak and sycamore trees are all still in their place--as I am when I return--the river is, alas, different. The water that grazed the flanks of that five-inch brook trout when it rose to my poorly-presented fly, and that swirled around my ankles as I released it, was fleeting.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    In a flick of the trout’s tail, the river water escaped with the moment, downstream, to mix with warmer water and brine, and flush the gills of smallmouth and striped bass and mackerel, leaving its gentle impression wherever it roamed.

    The impression it left on me is romantic, inspiring, and all-consuming. It inspired a musing that found its way with words, which eventually served as a springboard for a writing career and a growing passion for fly fishing that have together carted me all over the East Coast in search of a similar high.

    Today, I have been blessed to have fished a variety of waters in locations near and far, including many places I call “home,” where I often share the passing of time--and the riffles, runs, and eddies about my feet—with the riverbed and cobble stones. And while I continue to spout words of fish and rivers and wildernesses, the river has etched its own words into the rocks as part of the continuation of the story of creation and nature.

    For that very reason, one of the places I have visited on this ongoing adventure, the Catskills Fly Fishing Center in the Catskills Forest of New York, features a path paved with stones from visitors’ home waters as a celebration of such journeys through water and time; for all of us that have known the romantic relationship with rivers and fish have a story to tell much like this one.

    This summer, one of the stones from that favorite stream of mine in the Blue Ridge made its way into the Catskills to gather with others to tell a story. Such a story is not to be read, but comprehended through an intimate relationship with nature. And in that it will be known that part of that story is our own, written on our souls by the very same current patterns that touched the rocks in a moment shared on a freestone mountain stream where it all began.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


The death of an iconic Zimbabwean lion at the hands of American dentist James Palmer has instigated an international backlash and anti-hunting cries—as if we needed another reason to hate the dentist. However, Palmer may not be deserving of his horrendous media attacking in the aftermath. 

Cecil was popular with tourists largely because he was easily-distinguishable by his black-fringed mane.  Public domain photo.
    On July 30, a black-maned African Lion, nicknamed “Cecil” was wounded by an arrow shot by safarist, James Palmer, who allegedly paid $50,000 for the trophy, according to USA Today. Palmer was hunting with hired professional hunting guide, Theo Bronkhurst, over bait on private land owned by Honest Ndlovu adjacent to Hwange National Park. Upon wounding the predator, caution ruled and the party let the animal rest over night.

    On July 1, Cecil was tracked, found, and killed with a rifle shot. 

    Outrage ensued.

    Cecil was named after Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman and Imperialist who founded the aptly-named Rhodesia in 1895, which became Zimbabwe in 1980. He had long been a favorite of visitors to the national park, largely because he was easily distinguishable by his black-fringed mane. But tourists also note Cecil’s trust in people, often getting as close as 30 feet to cars. 

    Moreover, Cecil wore a radio tracking collar, a symbol of an ongoing research project by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. The 13-year-old Cecil had been under study his entire life.

    So when the radio went silent, the news of Cecil’s death was already known internationally, and hate started flowing Palmer’s way. The typically over-the-top PETA lost no opportunity to label hunting as a “coward’s pastime,” and called for Palmer to be “preferably hanged” if found guilty of killing Cecil.

    Now, I will entertain the outrage:  if there was a living-and-breathing Smokey the Bear, Americans would take offense if a rich Brit staked Jelly donuts outside the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park and took Smokey’s head and hide across the pond to be replicated. 

    However, while Cecil’s death made front page headlines in five major British news outlets, and featured on BBC, Sky News, and CNN, the incident went largely unnoticed in Zimbabwe.

    Maybe that’s because Zimbabwe has yielded an average of 87 trophy lions annually in the past five years, rarely meeting a federally-assigned quota of about 100 cats per year, according to stats compiled by USA Today.

    In fact, foreign trophy hunters are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an opportunity to take an African Lion—one of the “Big Five” African trophy species, along with the African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard, and White/Black Rhinoceros, that are widely held as the most difficult to hunt on the African continent. Approximately $20 million per year—3.2 percent of tourism revenue--enters the Zimbabwean economy because of trophy hunting.  Many would argue it’s a vital trade.

    But because of the lion’s popularity among tourists and researchers, legal investigation followed. According to Lion Aid, a charity dedicated to lion conservation, in Zimbabwe, it is legal to bait lions, and to kill lions—even collared ones. However, the animal must be taken in safari areas, forest areas, or game ranches where a quota is in effect. Bronkhurst and Ndlovu were promptly taken into custody for allowing the lion to be killed on Ndlovu’s private farm where no quota exists, and could face fines up to $20,000 and up to 10 years in jail.

    Meanwhile, a White House petition to have Palmer extradited to Zimbabwe to be tried has surmounted its threshold and should receive executive attention. While the misfortunate Palmer is cited as stating “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” Dr. Palmer’s fate will only be told in time.

    Still, the bigger question (at least for me) is whether or not trophy hunts for lions should be conducted in Zimbabwe. It is well documented that the African lion population has shrunk approximately 82 percent over the past century, and there is no law requiring animals of a certain age to be taken, yet hunting is still entertained. At least Cecil was, at 13, a mature animal. 

    Though immoral, tens of lions are killed illegally every year in Zimbabwe, and are rarely investigated. As a legal shooter, Palmer should be able to rest easy. His guides, on the other hand, who should be concerned with responsible wildlife management, have gotten what they deserve. In all, it is clear that the very fact that “Cecil” bore a name and was the “pet” of the Park has fueled the media bonfire that has followed his death—which is why Farmer Brown doesn’t let his daughter name the chickens.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, August 8, 2015


It may seem strange, coming from a kid who grew up fishing in rural central Virginia within minutes of the Rivanna River and the almighty James, but catfishing is a discipline that evaded my interests and feeble efforts throughout my childhood. It isn’t a family tradition, as is trout fishing or deer hunting; I had no teacher.  And though I had countless trout and bass to my name by the time I achieved adulthood, the number of whiskered fish remained grounded in the single digits, many of which were caught by accident.

Kyle with a small channel cat taken from the Rivanna River
    For that reason, good friend, Brian Bodine, owner of Razorback Guide Service based out of Scottsville, Virginia, offered to facilitate my formal introduction to the cats that fin the James River. A heavy rain swelled the river the day before to a light brown.  Debris was running thick.  The creeks were being flushed of baitfish.

    Marginal action colored the daytime hours, but as the sun set, we found ourselves positioned downstream from a creek mouth, four bait-casting rods fanned behind the boat.  As the last bit of light faded from the sky, talk of coyote hunting, shooting, trail camera pictures, and family took over.  The sound of a clicking drag was an anticipated interruption. 

    Unfortunately, that sound didn’t surface.  Instead, a raucous splashing broke us off in mid-sentence.  A head lamp shined behind the boat revealed a surge of whitewater, and so I sprung to grab a bent rod.  Several cranks on the reel handle confirmed that the fish had taken the bait and swam towards the boat and to the surface.  Luckily, he had hooked himself.

    Brian’s net job brought into the boat a small channel catfish of about three pounds.  Nevertheless, such a tasty morsel was relegated to the cooler.

Kayak Kitties

    Just a week later, Kyle Jenkins, a childhood friend of mine of more than 15 years, and I got together to explore a spot on my home river, the Rivanna, that I had long suspected to sport a thriving catfish population. After work, we loaded two kayaks into the back of Kyle’s Tacoma and headed for the river, which was, like the James, slightly inflated in flow. 

    Spending many summer days on this river with my kayak and no one to shuttle me taught me to paddle upstream.  It provides a workout and a fun way of fishing.  Moreover, water just a few miles upstream from public landings are often much less-pressured than water downstream, and the paddling is usually not too difficult, save for the initial takeoff from the landing.

    Our target was a major creek mouth about two miles upstream where I knew there to be large schools of baitfish holding, as well as some large carp and smallmouth—a place I had visited a hundred times.  However, due to the temporarily high flows, paddling was a bit harder than usual.  

    We paddled and pushed and sweated for a half hour before reaching the slow water that is the tailout of the creek junction. 

    There, I optimistically tied on a small yellow Beetle-Spin to begin my bait-catching efforts.  We didn’t need much.  A small bluegill would do. 

    In just a few casts, a small bluegill answered my call, and blindsided the lure in heavy current, forged downstream, and soon was captured in my hand. 

    Kyle had fallen behind a bit in the upstream paddle, and came up on me as I was landing the fish.  We beached our kayaks on the sandbar at the creek mouth, and I utilized an old, washed-up tire as a cutting board, scaling, filleting, and cutting the bluegill flesh into strips.

    A single strip was used to tip our Carolina rigs, and we once again took position in our crafts, this time pointing downstream.

    A logjam caps the tailout of the run on one side of the river, and we wedged our kayaks against the bank there, making casts straight out and across the current. Feeding slack line, I felt my egg sinker hit bottom, and flipped the bail closed.  Kyle followed suit, and we were set up.

    Catfishing is a change of pace in that it is very social.  In fact, waiting for a fish to present itself in a bouncing rod tip is perhaps the best venue for conversation I’ve encountered.  And often, such conversations don’t last long.

    Kyle’s rod tip was the first to direct attention away from the topic at hand.  Small vibrations turned to a steady pull, and as the line straightened out towards the center of the river, a sweep of his rod secured the fate of a small channel cat of about a pound and a half—his first “on-purpose” cat.

    Just minutes later, my own rod dropped, and we finished the night out with a double.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian