Thursday, April 16, 2015

SPORTSMEN--TOGETHER IN A WORLD OF WOUNDS

A sense of distant familiarity filled the brisk mountain air as my brother, Phillip, and I sliced a path through it with boots and fly rods, following rocky switchbacks and clambering over fallen trees along a footpath aimed at an intimate Blue Ridge hollow.  Irrigating the gorge 1,000 feet below was a favorite and well-known brook trout stream, but our sense of adventure was renewed, our minds overtaken by anticipation, as our feet treaded a course to a foreign stretch.  Fishing together has been rare since the pursuit of a college education relocated me 200 miles to the south, and so it seemed fitting to choose a venue of tradition for the day that we broke the fast.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Gurgling Appalachian Mountain water joined our downward venture when a narrow gut nuzzled the hillside trail.  An unnamed creek, a tributary beaded by lucid, globular pools, captured our passing fancy and required an impromptu plying with flies. 

    We split up.  Shortly, the modest trickle yielded a half dozen fiery-flanked brookies of respectable size, and I retired my preliminary efforts to the overlooking path, excited and ready to continue on to the main event.  Phillip was still fishing as I took a standing perch atop a rock mound to reflect and wait.

    A bluebird sky illuminated the forest floor, warming the ground and lighting diamonds on the riffles and runs of the brook trout’s home.  The warmth of spring tugged at young hardwoods, at the ground, drawing renewed life and its tell-tale buds of green from the ragged nooks of an otherwise harsh landscape.  There was not a road in sight, nor a human who was not diligently cracking away at a hungry trout.

    The air is stimulating and humbling in such places, tucked away in the folds of the developing world.  For a moment, I was comfortably engulfed by the emotions of wilderness, the unstudied potential of new water, and the impression that their influence was unrestrained. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Yet, I know too much.  As Aldo Leopold explained, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”  The water we were scheduled to meet by afternoon is plagued by the adverse effects of acid rain deposition, by no fault of the fragile brook trout or the caddisflies or the equally iconic black bears of the mountain setting, but by fault of humans in the adjacent, polluting, coal-producing region.  Regular water quality monitoring and treatment loan the native trout their health.

    Less than 24 hours prior, a press release landed in my inbox detailing the recently sealed fate of the Ozernaya River in Russia’s Kamchatka.  Gold was discovered in the headwaters of the river in 2004, and in 2013 plans to develop access roads and a road mine were made, stealing the “pristine” designation from the largest spring creek valley in the world.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate voted to support a budget resolution that would allow state governments to take over control, auction, or sell all federal public lands, except for national parks and monuments.  Sportsmen and women are undoubtedly the strongest advocates and defenders of our public lands.  Following the announcement that the number of Americans involved with hunting and fishing had dropped from approximately 40 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2006, this recent bout of immorality in the Senate is particularly ominous for the future of America’s outdoor heritage.

    On a more local level, New Mexicans are engaged in an ongoing, fist-clenched battle against Senate Bill 226, which threatens to eliminate their access to public waters.  Should the amendment, which contradicts the rights to public waters spelled out in the state’s constitution, be passed, New Mexicans will be stripped of their right to wade, float, or fish navigable, public waters which are bordered by private property.

    Incomparable and dwarfed in “ecological education” to Leopold, my foundational education mirrors his own.  I am an outdoorsman, and in reflecting upon the deeply personal relationship that I have with the outdoors I know one thing—that the stewardship and the quest for ecologically sustainable systems that I challenge my purpose in life with is a direct result of that foundational outdoor education, and that the future of our sports, our public lands, and our Earth rely upon the ongoing recruitment of such passions.


    Between the lines of the tense reports on issues that threaten the health of our environment and the access we currently enjoy to our woods and waters are the voices of sportsmen.  We know there are no “quick fixes” for these short-sighted, progress-guised adulterations, and understand our obligation to defend our natural resources tooth and nail against such baneful human activity.  Hope for the future resounds in those voices, united in a world of wounds.        

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, April 11, 2015

THE 2015 SPRING GOBBLER SEASON LOOKS PROMISING

Spring is an experience of rebirth, an exercise for the senses.  Rich aromas and dramatic sounds clutter the landscape, but none is more impressive and melodramatic than the thunderous boom of a gobbler announcing its presence to the countryside.  His intended audience is a willing mate, but the loving echoes beckon hunters to the woods, and this year they are liable for great success.

Photo by David Coffman.
    This year, the spring gobbler season in Virginia opens on April 11 and runs through May 16.  During the first part of the season—from April 11 through May 3—legal shooting hours span half the day, from a half hour before sunrise till noon.  The latter portion—starting on May 4 and running through the end of the season on May 16—offers hunters the full day, from a half hour before sunset until sunset, to chase gobblers.

    Despite the 2014-15 turkey hunting seasons’ 44-percent deficit over last year’s seasons’ harvest numbers, DGIF Wild Turkey Project Leader, Gary Norman believes the Commonwealth’s wild turkey population to be in excellent condition, as participants in the annual August Brood Survey reported record numbers of broods and birds.  The population has exhibited a consistent annual growth of two percent throughout the last decade.

Photo by David Coffman
    This is positive, considering the potential for much more dramatic population variances.  Because wild turkey lay and incubate 10-12 eggs after mating, the weather during the month-and-a-half-long period during which the eggs are incubated and the chicks are growing and learning to fly--beginning sometime in early May--is the crux of population growth.  Wet, humid conditions improve scenting conditions, thus increasing predation opportunities for nest-robbers and poult-nappers like raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats.  After the chicks are hatched, extended periods of moist, cold weather are dangerous until the newborns are old enough to maintain their body temperatures.

    Hunter success rates have been proven to reliably mirror these variables with a two-year lag time for maturation.  Such was the case in 2013, when a record harvest number of 19,265 birds correlated directly with a record poult recruitment estimate in the spring of 2011.

David Coffman with a big bird!
    Looking ahead to the coming season, one can only speculate about the weather.  However, in studying the reproductive success of Old Dominion turkey in 2013, hunters can confidently expect to observe a great increase in gobblers afield in 2015.

    Of even greater encouragement are the potential consequences of last fall’s heavy mast crop, which made deer hunting difficult.  Biologist popularly hold that turkey gobble more frequently and enthusiastically when they are in peak physical condition.  Given the density of high-energy acorns present through the fall and early winter, and the relatively short-lived bouts of winter weather, the Commonwealth’s turkey population should be feeling vocal and ready for love this spring. 

The 2015 Virginia Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt


    The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia invite hunters and outdoor enthusiasts to the First Annual Virginia Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt to be held April 17 and 18—the second weekend of spring gobbler season—based out of downtown Richmond.  The inaugural event is designed in celebration of turkey, hunting, and the rich spring sporting tradition that is an integral element of Virginia’s heritage. 

    The festivities begin Friday night at the brand new VDGIF headquarters building located at 7870 Villa Park Drive in Richmond, where hunters and guides will pair up and make plans for Saturday’s hunt.

    Hunter-guide teams will hunt a variety of private properties across the state loaded with gobblers until noon on Saturday.  The event will draw to a close Saturday night with dinner, music, and an auction at the NewMarket Pavilion in downtown Richmond.

    The registration fee for hunters is $1,000 and includes all activities for you and a guest, as well as some great gifts.


    Come out and be a part of this long-awaited inaugural event that is sure to become a treasured tradition!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian


Friday, April 3, 2015

TACTICS FOR MORE SUCCESSFUL SHED ANTLER HUNTING

Trodding deliberately through an oak grove and the dynamic air of a fading season, swollen neck and tined, bone-white crown extended in hot-blooded search, the majesty of a mature, rutting whitetail buck commands a certain level of reverence.

As an unshakeable characteristic of our animalistic nature, we calculate a buck’s stature as a product of that mesmerizing, ivory headdress.  Yet, such materialistic obtainments are fleeting, dropped after their mating purpose is served and testosterone levels dip post-rut.  Yes, deer also suffer from losses of manhood—yearly, in fact.

    In the mid-south, this period of antler-dropping typically occurs in late winter, while bucks exhausted from the reproductive ritual aim to consume scarce food while expending as little calories as possible.

    Luckily for us, shed antlers allow us to continue to indulge our infatuation with bone long after the season ends and well beyond what a typical big game license affords.

Local shed hunter Bill Weigold with a couple of
impressive 1/2 headsets.
    Over the past decade, it seems, the practice of taking to the woods after the last of winter’s snow melts in search of these dropped treasures has taken off.  Popularity has grown particularly in the Midwestern states, where food plots—late season feeding stations—concentrate deer movements and provide clutter-free arenas for searching.  In the East, where expansive oak forests generally replace food plots and agricultural fields, shed antlers can be a bit harder to come by and spot, and the game become even more about covering ground. 

    Utilizing a tactical approach and some basic knowledge of season deer behavior can substantially up your bone count this spring.

Check the Weather


    Bucks will drop their antlers as early as December and as late as April, depending on a host of hormonal and chemical factors within an individual animal’s system.  However, most bucks in Virginia drop their racks between January and late March on intermittent snow cover.

    Seasoned local shed hunter, Bill Weigold, recommends timing your hunts when snow is no longer present, simply for ease of sighting white antlers among brown leaves with no distraction.

    Other times, melting snow can influence deer movement by providing a rare feeding opportunity, providing hints as to where shed antlers might lay.  “One particular winter we had quite a bit of snow and a couple warm days cleared out some hillsides.  I figured the deer would go where the food was available, and I found quite a few there,” Weigold remembered.

Weigold with an impressive collection of large
shed antlers.
    When snow is finally out of the equation for the season, Weigold looks for certain weather patterns to create optimum shed hunting conditions.  “My favorite time to look for sheds is on a cloudy day after rain,” he said.  “The lack of sun eliminates distracting, bright glare on the ground.”  Moreover, leaves dark from rain and light antlers contrast much sharper than dry leaves illuminated by bright sun.

Go Small


    Shed hunting in the eastern, heavily-forested states is a challenge because of the distribution of deer across a wide range and because of a cluttered forest floor that distracts the eye.  So instead of covering miles and miles of ground aimlessly, it pays in antlers found to search small wildlife havens. 

    Several of the best shed antlers in my own collection were rummaged from a narrow swath of creek bottom forest pinned between a busy state road and my childhood subdivision.  Deer hunters also know these small woodlots to be concentrated with deer.  Human dwellings displace deer, pushing them into these areas of relative seclusion.  You’ll be surprised what you might find in close proximity to development.

    Shed hunter and outdoor writer, Mark Taylor, of Roanoke has likewise reports success in scouring the small urban lots and parks of his home city. 

Search Escape Cover


    Like any species of wildlife, prime habitat will be comprised of feeding stations, transitional bedding and nesting grounds, and escape cover.  Because late winter bucks are weak from the rut and wary from months of hunting pressure, thick escape cover in relative proximity to available food—such as grass in a field or on a hillside—will house bucks during the antler-dropping period. 

    Naturally, areas where bucks spend the most time this time of year will be the shed hunter’s best bet for success.  Weigold, who holds quite a collection of finds, says, “I go to the thickest stuff I can find!”

     Search escape and wintering cover thoroughly and if you’ve got bucks, you’ll probably find antlers!

Weigold with his complete collection 
     As with other outdoor pursuits, shed hunting can be quite rewarding, and even an unsuccessful hunt is nothing worse than a walk in the awakening spring woods!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"GET INSPIRED TO GET OUTDOORS" AT 1st ANNUAL ROGaFF

Backpackers, hikers, campers, mountain bikers, cyclers, boaters, trail runners, and outdoor gearheads, looking for a new, exciting way to welcome the long-awaited spring season?  Mark your calendars for the second Sunday of spring to attend this exciting local event!

    The 1st annual Rivanna Outdoor Gear and FilmFestival (ROGaFF), sponsored by Great Outdoor Provision Company, will be held on Sunday, March 29 at Fluvanna County High School, from 1-4 PM.  A suggested donation of $7 is requested for admission to support the FCHS choral department, and children 10 and under will be admitted free of charge.

    Virginia’s newest outdoor film festival is the brainchild of FCHS choir director and avid outdoorsman, Horace Scruggs.  “Fluvanna County has a lot to offer when it comes to outdoor activities.  We have Pleasant Grove and three rivers—the James, Hardware, and Rivanna.  The Blue Ridge is very close, as well as the Rockfish River.  With these assets, ROGAFF will be a great way to introduce these activities to a wider audience,” said Scruggs.  “The ROGaFF theme is "Get Inspired to Get Outdoors" and I know for those who are coming it will happen.”

    The festival’s film lineup includes three short filmsWalk on Water, the story of a paralyzed skier-turned-whitewater kayaker; Church, focusing on a trio of friends’ love for mountain biking; and Set Free—Loving Life on the Trail, a spotlight of ultra-marathon runner, Kristie Elliot.  The featured film is The Appalachian Trail—An American Legacy, which brings to silver-screen life the mystic nature of America’s most revered foot trail, and features insight into the Trail’s history along with interviews with AT hikers and personalities.

    An easy, 6.5-mile morning hike of Fluvanna County’s Pleasant Grove Park, adjacent to the high school, will be led by Andy Willgruber of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club starting at 10 AM to kick off the event.  Hikers should bring boots and be prepared for mud; the Grove can get sloppy with snowmelt and rain! 

    Doors open at 1 PM, and from 1-3 PM visitors will have the opportunity to listen to presentations by Great Outdoor Provision Company, Ragged Mountain Running Shop, and other local groups.  An array of camping, backpacking, cycling, and boating gear will be on display from a host of vendors, providing visitors a chance to educate and outfit themselves for the coming season.  The film showings will commence at 3 PM.

    “My dream is to have [ROGaFF] as a yearly event, which would grow over the years into a truly regional event,” Scruggs said.  “This will be a great family-friendly event for Fluvanna and Central Va., and as far as I know the only one of its kind in the area.”


    So, fellow outdoorspeople of Central Virginia, mark your calendars for this inaugural event.  Shuttle your canoes and kayaks to float the Rivanna River before the festival.  Take advantage of the trails and open spaces at Pleasant Grove.  Visit Scheier Natural Area just west of Palmyra.  Lastly, come out to ROGaFF and celebrate Central Virginia outdoors!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, March 14, 2015

VDGIF RELEASES DEER, BEAR, & TURKEY HARVEST DATA

Winter is coming to an end and the memories of the past year’s hunting seasons are beginning to fall victim to the looming anticipation of spring.  Soon, this seasonal, expired fad we call snow will disappear into moist earth, sprouting daffodil shoots and lighting dogwood and redbud blooms.  Rivers will run deep and blue, turkey will throw their bold voices about the countryside, and the woods will radiate with the warmth of renewed life.  But before we commit to a new season, as per tradition, DGIF has released the summarizing data of last year’s deer, bear, and turkey harvests to reflect upon.

Deer


    The 2014-15 deer seasons saw 190,745 deer harvested, a 22% reduction from 2013-14’s 244,440, and an 18% shortfall of the last 10-year’s average of 233,350.  88,148 of deer harvested were antlered bucks, while 14,592 were antlerless.

    The youth-apprentice deer hunting day in September resulted in the harvest of 1,890 total animals.

    The steep overall reduction in harvest numbers did not go unnoticed by area hunters, particularly in the counties of central Virginia.  Though levels were down statewide, hunters east of the Blue Ridge harvested 24% fewer deer than in 2013-14.

    The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers as an explanation that, over the past five to 10 years, the primary focus of the Virginia Deer Management Plan has been to increase the female deer harvest in an effort to stabilize the deer population, particularly on private lands.  Still, the decline in harvest rates in 2014-15 is larger than expected, largely due to a liberal allowance of doe days since 2008.

    Such regulations aimed to thin the herd and, thus, the harvest numbers, even without the added effects of hemorrhagic disease (HD)--a general depiction of several viral strains transmitted by small biting midges that typically results in a 20-35% reduction in kill numbers.  Outbreaks of HD are fairly common, and herds usually recover in 2-3 years.  HD was found in at least 28 Virginia counties in 2014-15.

    A more common and natural reason for the past season’s decrease in harvest numbers is the bumper mast crop enjoyed by wildlife statewide.  Widespread plentitude of mast reduces game’s need to move to feed, and thus reduces hunter success rates.

Bear


    An all-time Virginia record of 2,405 black bears were killed during the 2014-15 season, a 4% increase over last year’s 2,312.

    Youth-apprentice hunters killed 109 bears, one less than in 2013-14.

    Strong mast crop typically increases the firearms bear harvest in Virginia, and this year was a prime example, seeing a 40% increase over last year’s kill number.  Hunters who ran bear hounds west of the Blue Ridge were unsurprisingly the most successful, bagging 970 bears, 40% of the total harvest.  Collectively, bear hunters west of the Blue Ridge took 68% of the total harvest, though bears were harvested in 76 counties and cities across the state.

    The first year of Sunday bear hunting resulted in 119 bear harvests, roughly 5% of the total.  

    Though this number represents a minimal impact on bear populations, biologists will continue to monitor the effects of Sunday hunting on black bear numbers in years to come to quantify the long-term impacts of this new piece of legislation.

Turkey


    Hunters reported a total harvest of 2,988 turkeys killed during the fall and winter seasons in 2014-15, a 44% deficit of 2013-14’s number.

    Numbers were reduced statewide, though those east of the Blue Ridge noticed the most substantial reduction, with 49% fewer birds bagged.  Those hunting west of the Blue Ridge still suffered a 36% drop in harvests.  Nevertheless, the turkey harvest numbers relative to area remained almost perfectly uniform across the state.

    Youth-apprentice hunters took a total of 29 birds, as opposed to last year’s 50.

    The two-week turkey hunting season in January instituted four years ago accounted for 179 birds, down from last year’s 265.  Hunters taking to the woods in January enjoy a period of light-pressure hunting with the added bonus possibility of being able to track birds in snow.
Sunday hunting only accounted for 5% of the total turkey harvest, as opposed to Saturday’s dominant 27%.  Again, this suggests that the new legislation has little effect on overall populations.

    Again, lowered hunter success rate is credited to a high mast production juxtaposed with a very poor mast crop in 2013, which resulted in higher-than-average harvests.  DGIF Wild Turkey Project Leader, Gary Norman believes the Commonwealth’s turkey population to be in excellent condition, as participants in the annual August Brood Survey reported record numbers of broods and birds.


    Even with harvest numbers significantly down in 2014-15, a large portion of the deficit can be attributed to natural phenomena.  Game populations appear to be in good and bettering conditions. 


    Come on, spring!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

THE PICKEREL SPAWN IS APPROACHING--VA STATE PARKS AMEND CAMPING SEASON

Those that follow this column may have recognized that I carry an affinity for the chain pickerel.  The reasons are numerous.  They can be a very aggressive ambush predator capable of athletic battles thanks to a muscular, snake-like build.  They rarely turn their noses up at a well-presented meal; and they can be found conniving in lazy, weedy waters within a short drive of most anglers in the Commonwealth. 


    However, the pickerel’s reputation as a cold-water species is, in my mind, the fish’s winning trait.  Pickerel prefer water temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees, which can be found in Virginia from early fall through late-spring.

    As the weather warms and water temperatures break the 50-degree mark, pickerel move from their peripheral, mid-depth winter haunts into shallow areas marked by woody or weedy cover.  There they broadcast tens of thousands of adhesive eggs onto cover and then take up position along the weed edge. 

    In some instances, pickerel become inspired by currents and migrate into lakes via spillways or into smaller tributaries from larger rivers.  All in all, if you locate a body of water with a relatively slow or still flow with some amount of woody or weedy cover, odds are good pickerel can be found marauding its shallows.

Small fish, big fight


    It was mid-spring in my eleventh year when I stumbled upon a large creek that brushed the boundary of the subdivision I once roamed.  While bluegill fishing in a small impoundment overlooked by the last cul-de-sac, I found myself staring off into the woods at the sharp topography that the pond’s outflow penetrated.  An upbringing featuring plenty of aimless driving and fish scouting hinted to my trained eye that the ridges were worth exploring. 

    After beating my way one hundred yards through brier bushes and thick successional growth, the woods began to mature, and nature’s background track grew into a profound roar.

    My eyes first saw it as a wide, deep elbow pool.  Perhaps 15 feet across and three and a half feet deep at the widest point, the creek was far superior to the modest trickle that navigated the edge of our lot.  No, that water was a discovery worth more investigation.  I returned home wide-eyed, to return again.

    The next weekend the sun was bright and the trees glowed with the green of newly-sprouted spring leaves.  Middle school was winding down; and my cares, with it.

    I toted my weapon of choice—a weathered Shakespeare ultra-light spinning rod—shouldering a daypack filled with snacks, water, spinners, and a camera.  I didn’t know quite yet what my newfound haunt held fish-wise, but I had all day, and I was going to get to the bottom of it. 

    My bike fell in a heap at the edge of the woods and I followed my beaten path through the woods to the crest of the hill that provided me my first glance at the water.  It was more glamorous then to a boy in the sixth grade allowed to explore the woods and waters near home all by himself than anything else I could have wished for.  It was all mine. 

    My first cast was in the tail of the long elbow pool that I met initially.  Deep undercuts commanded by complex, old oak roots claimed both banks.  My Joe’s Fly first met the left bank, past the oak.  

    Working the lure slowly, finessing it through the currents just fast enough to manipulate the small gold spinner blade, I slid the faux meal into the dark tannic waters under the bank.

    When at last the glint of pulsating gold slipped out of perception and into possibility, the sensitive tip of my ultra-light jarred, and I swept the rod into the weight of a fish.

    After the initial surge, my nerves were no less shattered when the fish refused to relent.  Rod tip high, fingers poised cautiously on the reel handle, I was forced to allow my adversary to convulse and strain out of sight.  At last, I gained favor, and turned the fish’s head towards the tail of the pool. 

    In a last-ditch effort to escape, it unleashed a frenzied head-shake as its toothy jaws broke water.  
    
    Relieved, and drawing the fish ever closer, I collected the fish’s lengthy form in a cupped hand to behold 12 inches of small stream pickerel.

Virginia State Parks camping season changes


    In order to better serve campers, Virginia State Parks will open campgrounds on the first Friday in March—this year, March 6—instead of the historical March 1. 

    Exceptions include Lake Anna, Staunton River, Pocahontas, and Smith Mountain Lake State Parks where camping will open March 1.


    Because of its high-elevation location, Grayson Highlands State Park will be open to primitive camping March 6 and full-service camping May 1.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

WINTER ROSE

A new chapter of my life’s story began on the year’s second weekend as I rolled south down I-81, towards Emory, Virginia—my new hometown for the four years to come.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Town” is a generous classification of Emory.  Emory & Henry College, a few quiet residential streets, and a post office comprise its bulk, a fact that consistently elicits a grumble from a proportion of students—“There is nothing to do here.”

    On the contrary, I’d be lying if I claimed that E&H’s location carried no weight in my college choice.  Southwest Virginia’s “Mountain Empire” is a mecca for outdoor recreation.  The school’s stellar reputation only justified my decision, assuring me of the wonderful experience it would offer. 

    I spent my previous semester acquainting myself with the East Coast, not in the common sense detailed in rest stop brochures, but by experiencing natural communities and interpreting them with pen, camera, tent, and rod.  The move to Emory was an extension of that pursuit, with added promise of formal education.

    It was a challenging transition—pivoting from a lifestyle that allowed me to be outdoors all day and every day to one that required schoolwork.

    However I realized shortly when my free time would be and where I would use it.  A tip from Bruce Wankel, owner of the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop, sent me into the mountains with confidence.  The concept of starting anew accumulating knowledge of local waters excited me, and I steadily began picking apart a small, special-regulations, spring-fed headwater stream.

    My first trip began at mid-morning on a cold January weekday.  The sun beamed through the trees and onto the water coursing through the hollow, inspiring marginal insect activity.  My first fish came on a weighted nymph—a red-banded, rosy-cheeked, leopard-spotted wild rainbow trout of about 9 inches.

    I began subsequent trips above the pool that concluded my last; keeping my eyes open; noticing the presence of insects; adjusting weight, tippet, and flies as needed--all to solve the puzzle. 

    The first three trips saw increasing numbers of fish—15 to 25 to 35.  Local intel informed me that a 14-inch rainbow was a trophy specimen.  This was encouraging, having netted several such fish on my outings. 

    My fourth trip began early on a weekday in early February.  The temperature dipped into the teens overnight and remained there, the sun shielded by clouds.  15 MPH wind gusts drove the chill deeper.
Under Armour, wool socks, flannel, outer layer, gloves, beanie—with each layer I pushed temptation to stay home back, and the icy river regained its allure.

    The river snaked through thick bottomland as I followed it from the road, my mind’s eye recalling the last pool from the week before.  A sharp bend caught my eye.  I pulled over.

    As my boots crunched over frozen leaves, I estimated the amount of river left to fish.  Fishing all day would land me at the uppermost boundary of the special regulation water, and I would have completed my exploration of the upper river.

    The day began slow, maybe a function of the overnight temperatures.  I summoned all of my patience and diligence, ensuring with painstaking adjustment that my offering retained contact with the riverbottom at all times.  At last, the first fish of the day flashed at the end of my leader.

    The day offered many small fish.  All but one out of 35 taped under 12-inches upon the hour that declining temperatures and loss of light hinted that my time was short.

    Around the next bend, a metal sign hung from rusted cable spanning the river—the end of public water—my destination.

    The sign commanded a bend in the river—a narrow, deep channel sweeping over large chunks of rock.  I took my time in plying the bottom, adding split shot and achieving effective drifts.  A last pool deserves such treatment; and this one, a particularly elevated reverence, as the last run of my month-long exploit.

    The soft glow of the sun behind winter’s gray mask was sliding behind the hills.  Frost chewed at my fingertips and nose, tempting me to secure my fly and begin the hike back.

    One more drift.

    An overhand lob of an awkward double-nymph rig weighted with several split shot landed high in the shallow head of the run and tumbled slowly along the bottom to the depth of the bend.  Rod horizontal, line tight, I bounced the flies past a submerged rock.  The line hesitated.  I swung for the sky.


    Warmth reclaimed my extremities.  Sweat sprouted from my forehead.  A rolling silver flash threatened to tear the long rod from my hands.  Moments later, an arm-length fish painted as a rose bush took to the dim sky, turning the page on the first chapter in the frozen mountains of southwest Virginia.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginia