Friday, February 5, 2016

BROWN TOWN

Under normal circumstances, creeks, rivers—bodies of water—usually give sufficient warning before they reveal themselves to a wandering angler. An analytical eye on the terrain while driving slowly towards a perceived destination, chest leaning slightly up on the steering wheel, is all it takes—unless you’re in the downtown district of a major city.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Looking down at the water from the overgrown and crumbling parking lot of an abandoned building, I wasn’t surprised I had almost missed it. A small freestone creek, no wider than 10 feet across, gushed over river rock 10 feet down in a gully that navigates a hodgepodge of residential lots, industrial facilities, and businesses. Even the short bridge that I drove over failed to harness enough of my attention to signal the proximity of the stream.

    My mind questioned by what device there could be a viable population of wild trout occupying the water below. Machine shops, abandoned car washes, and other impenetrable surfaces bordered the stream’s course for miles, surely keeping it stocked with a hefty supply of automotive chemicals and other pollutants. Lawns and roads took up the remainder of the immediate bank, contributing still more chemical pollutants, as well as novel trash items like pizza boxes, onion sacks, and wire fencing.

    “There’s no way,” I thought.

    Still, the creek had a reputation for fish, and so I returned to my car, and suited up.

    Fishing a favorite double nymph rig, my first cast landed in the head of a small run that spanned the width of the creek. Within a few seconds of hitting the water, the fly line stopped suddenly, and a quick hook set pulled a bottle rocket from the white water and sent it careening downstream. I let slack line slide from my line hand, and started my downstream chase.

    My opponent’s energy was running out, and I had him folding under the influence of my long rod in the tail of a long run. Guiding his head towards me on a short line, I plunged my net underneath its form and scooped.

    What superficially appeared to be a roadside ditch creek, accented by the occasional oxygenating riffle, had rewarded my preliminary effort with a sizeable wild rainbow, taping at about 15 inches—one I’d be proud to have pulled from even some of the larger streams and creeks in the vicinity.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” passed through my mind, prompting me to take a more critical look at the water. Small patches of water cress colored the bank in a few spots. Tree cover was marginal at best. If the cress did indeed indicate the presence of springs throughout the creek’s course, they play an important role in keeping the stream cool year-round. Still, though, I couldn’t rationalize the success of the wild trout population in front of me when considering the chemical and domestic pollution I can all but guarantee plague the water quality.

    “Maybe it’s a fluke,” I thought.

    An hour and a half later, after catching 12 small to average wild rainbows in a single run under the confused gaze of two brothers playing catch with a football in their backyard, the thought that my first fish was a “fluke” had fled my mind and dissipated into the background traffic noise.

    The brothers’ own house caught my eye as I glanced upstream, planning my next attack. From the back door of the house, concrete steps descended to ground level where they met a large concrete slab, presumably the foundation of the house itself. The tip of the structure extended into the water along the bank, catching a short pocket of water in its tail and creating a dynamic eddy.

    My formal training on the Shenandoah Mountains’ brook trout streams has made it near impossible for me to pass up such a lie, even for its small size. From head to tail, the pocket was no more than two feet long.

    My nymph found its head and stopped abruptly. My rod doubled on the hookset, the captured yielding no ground. A long, brown back breached, facing upstream, and kicked itself out of the pocket to roll downstream with two labored fans of its tail.

    Positioned for the cast sharply downstream, I kept my rod tip high, handled my net, and waded to midstream to collect the trout on its run downstream. The battle expired shortly, as I had current and tool working for me, and the weight of a brown trout of about 18 inches sagged in the silicone basket of my landing net.

    As I ungloved my hands to handle the fish, I glanced nervously upward at the house towering over me. I can be a nervous guy in the city, but for fish, I can make an exception.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginia

Thursday, January 28, 2016

SNOWFLAKES IN SHENANDOAH

Snowflakes stippled the barren-gray scene, tossed by a corkscrewing breeze tumbling down the gauntlet of a mountain hollow, following the track of a frigid mountain stream. I opposed its course, head into the wind, eyes watering, mind set on a deep pool upstream.

The author with a large Shenandoah brook trout taken in the snow. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Clouds set the tone for the landscape, casting a cold, flat light on rock and trunk, granting a frozen appearance to even what was not. Brown leaves, long since fallen and captured by a stiff layer of frost, were static features, even in the wind, and finalized the atmosphere of harsh rigidity about the place. The bone-chilling threat of nearly-frozen mountain water resounded.

    The natural world stays inside on days like these, or so it seems. Gray squirrels may not show themselves in the absence of a mid-morning sun to loosen their limbs. Save for perhaps a solemn march for carbs, the majority of their day is spent dreaming of sunlit explorations of the treetops, curled up, veiled by a thick, bushy tail.

    Deer find thermal refuge in thick lowland pine groves, legs curled under their tawny brown coats, metabolism slowed, fighting tooth and nail for spring. Hunting pressure from the expired season has trained them to sit tight in daylight, and venture forth at the moon’s height (if there is a big moon) or in the respite of dusk for safety.

    Even the parking lot on the fringe of the Shenandoah backcountry, typically jammed with automobiles for its proximity to Charlottesville, is devoid of all but three vehicles, owned, of course, by humans who have engineered their own nutritions outside of the seasons’ environmental demand, and think nothing dangerous or wasteful of a two-mile hike in sub-freezing weather.

    One of those cars is my own, and I passed the owners of the other two on my way up the mountain trail, stride rustling in a pair of weathered waders, my fly rod gripped through a thin glove on my right hand.

    The first was a college-aged girl, presumably from UVA, or otherwise on Christmas break, like myself. As she approached, her covered head bobbed up to see me, as it was previously fixed on the ground, keeping pace with her swift stride. She drew attention to the cold--the weather, as is a cliche among brief trail encounters--and then passed, returning her gaze to the path, hands jammed into her pockets, without breaking stride.

    Surely her business in the mountains was of fitness, as her visit was quick (I saw her depart from the parking lot as I geared up), and seemingly devoid of observation or enjoyment, which might have been hinted at through a slower stride and exploring gaze.

    The second driver followed shortly behind, accompanied by his female of unknown relation, and canine, who, more than any of the humans I had yet encountered, seemed to be enjoying himself. The owners, both clad (as was I) in winter coats, hats, gloves, and sunglasses, whisked by at a hurried pace, hardly breaking their gaze from the course ahead to acknowledge my passing.

    It occurred to me that their being there must have been tied to the needs and desires of their furry companion, though I should think it not entirely fair to consider their motives totally polarized from a respect for nature. Why else, then, would they choose to walk their dog in the mountains and not down their own street?

    That is not to say that there is a right or wrong reason to be in the mountains on an exceptionally cold, and snowy and windy, afternoon. Just that I seldom encounter an angler so taken by the spirituality of the chase as to cross paths with one in the dead of winter, and that I naturally find my mind coming to rest on the question of why that is, and how that makes me different when the creeks turn cold. Am I crazy? Perhaps.

     My own motive comes clear when I reach the trail’s third ford in the creek and moves on, up the mountain, affording a view of the water tumbling through the woods. I leave the trail and make a short trek to the creek to find a large hole with current bordered by a large volume of slack water.

    I ply the water with a large fly, and entice a handful of lethargic, delicate brook trout, and hoist them only momentarily from the icy water, conscious of the air temperature and its effect on them.

    It’s in that cold mountain scene, harsh and rugged in winter, that I feel content, classically pleased. To me, the action is as important and as relaxing as reading a book by the fire or tying flies to music and hot chocolate.

    But everyone lives for different things. I just happen to live for this.□

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

FRIENDS BEARING (DEAD) GIFTS

I have this problem.

    As a “monetarily-challenged” undergraduate who sees no option but to lead a lifestyle tempted by fly rods, flies, fish, and travel; whose desk has seen more flies come to life than words written; and whose mind chronically comes to rest on a trout stream (if ever it can be truly captured and imposed on an academic task), I have, like so many before me, come to travel the “resourceful” road. For fuel for tying the flies that keep me in business, I have excitedly scavenged in chicken coops and turkey dust bowls, perused the trash cans of bird-cleaning sheds, spent way too much time examining the subtleties of nail polish, claimed parts of long-expired furred and feathered animals for my own, and gazed at grizzly hackles woven into my female classmates’ hair with jealousy and contempt. Though there are no official testaments to my sanity, similarly outlying actions observed within a member of another species might easily be interpreted as rabies-induced confusion.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Likewise, anyone who cruises the drug store’s cosmetic aisle in mud- and fish slime-stiffened garb seeking inspiration on a late-summer night, who derives addictive, blissful, supremely-fulfilling wonder through the process of engineering combinations of animal parts, fixating them on a hook, and feeding them to fish, is both someone generally “too-far-gone” by societal standards, and someone of the type I call “friend.”

    The consequences of my own affliction I’ve long come to terms with. However, it still hurts me to see the characters of those who care for me compromised by my addiction.

    Fellow anglers commonly come to rest their eyes on my dorm room’s thread collection, prompting the inquiry, “You sew?” After scaring them by countering that I “sew dreams of fish,” should they remain interested in my obsessive art, I lay before them the reality of it. Sparing them the empty promise of “saving money,” I detail fly tying as “the other half of fly fishing,” “more fun and versatile than fishing store-bought flies,” “an inventive haunting of my favored streambeds in my absence.” If they remain unfazed, I welcome them to a new world, and they come to terms by doing.

    Then, seeing my preoccupation with this activity, there are those friends and family members who do not tie flies, but wish to come to terms by giving. Faced with a massively diversified lexicon of materials lists, they arrive at the (altogether not untrue) conclusion that anything can be used to tie flies. This conclusion has led to their generous deliverance of clumps of human hair, synthetic stuffing from various household items, mounds of cat and dog fur, vacuum cleaner lint, plastic wrappings, packing foams, drink mix containers, and dead birds—and my subsequent reflection upon what this says about me as an individual.

    One particular afternoon, I received a call from a friend from home, as I was away at school. She had just found a dead (for quite a while) woodpecker—a northern flicker—with beautiful feathers. Did I want it for fly tying?

    I knew from similar past offerings from others that the fine breast feathers from a male flicker make wonderful wet fly hackles. I further reflected on the apparent gullibility of the species, as I had been offered more flickers than any other federally-protected bird. Nevertheless, conforming to societal norms, I respectfully declined.

    A few days later, I returned the call. Screw “societal norms,” free hackle in bulk is hard to come by and I bet a day’s worth of meal swipes at the cafĂ© that a “Flicker and Yellow” would make for a damn fine fly on the South Holston. I’ll take it. I apologized for dragging her into this pursuit, and said goodbye, assuming I’d collect the goods upon returning home.

    To avoid unnecessary incrimination, I’ll avoid mentioning the means of transference. For, much to my surprise, the end of the week found me suspiciously weighing a Christmas-wrapped shirt box, markedly light as a feather.


    A wake of World Wildlife Fund wrapping paper and festively colored tissue paper is all there is to account for the creation of a handful of “Flicker and Yellows” waiting to be swung in “Browntown,” thanks to friends bearing (dead) gifts.□

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian, rewritten from Hatch Magazine

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

EVERY DOG HAS HIS DAY

As morning light threatened, we abandoned the house in practiced silence, save for a shrill whistle and the rhythmic clinking of a field collar. Its owner, Tucker, a sprightly, peppery English setter, rode the truck’s back bench-seat well. Curled in a ball of muscular fur and tradition, his position was suggestive of the grit that often characterizes upland hunting and its participants. I diverted my gaze.

    The winter sun was veiled by clouds and fog, presenting the day in a melancholy haze. A half-hour drive landed us on the brushy banks of the James River, at a boat landing in the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area. The lot was empty, and with reason. Migratory woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom for the swampy groves of the Old South, squirrel and deer season had withered, and February’s biting personality had fishermen frightened from the banks of the meandering river. For the season, the secrets of the almighty James seemed secure under a thick haze.

An early bird hunt.
    Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly. Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, wispy ears. Few words were uttered before the morning commenced with a locating beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon frost-bitten cut corn.

    The weather on such days is enough to draw my thoughts inward and leaden my tongue in meditation, but there was something more spiritual at play in the bottomland. We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused. A cottontail dashed from cover. Tucker ignored it from good training. We took little note, our reflexes jaded by thought.

    The communal element to bird hunting was as clouded as the sun, as Dad looked forward to Tucker for conversation. I understood. More than a decade’s share of memories tied the companions. From cool Minnesotan nights, to fast-paced grouse shooting in the snow-blanketed forests of the upper-Midwest and Virginia highlands, their relationship was one of mutual dependency. Second only to a common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his habit of filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years working for each other.
Training time, with a harnesses bobwhite quail.
    Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as nostalgia. My relationship with Tucker was different. He was introduced to our household just months before I. It was he who provided much of my transportation in my pre-walking years, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna County home by the stocking feet of my pajamas, and hauling my saucer-sled over fresh powder by a leash fashioned as a harness. I hunted over him—rather, pointed over him, with my training cap shotgun—as a young boy. Still, most memorable was his good-natured spirit that established him as a childhood friend and shot-gunning companion.

    We entered the fourth in a chain of linked, riparian corn fields when we made the decision to turn back. Our halt lit the flame under the hooves of a 12-point buck bedded on the field’s edge. The morning’s first audible words were spit in reflexive excitement.

    The shadow that loomed over us soon returned, our hunt half over.

    Tucker’s senses roped him from the intricacies of the field to the cover of the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing methodically, he uncovered the magnificently large shell of a river cooter. I dusted it off and found it a place in my pack.

    It was New Year’s Day the last time Tucker yielded me a prize of his own industry—a chukar taken on the wing from a game preserve in Southside Virginia. That was a different hunt—one lively and filled with comradery. He zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the frosted sun, feet treading deftly, on track to a bedded bird. At dusk, we collected our party and turned back. 

    Tucker plodded exhaustedly in the lead, but caught our immediate attention when he froze mid-step, convulsing briefly.


    As we approached the truck, the oppressive haze seemed to lift. Conversation emerged and colored our unloading and packing as a statement of burdensome acceptance. With the fading light in the riverbottom, yet another Virginia grouse season would be retired to the pages of sporting memories in the mountains—but we were not hunting for grouse. There is no grouse season this far east. We were hunting for a memory. All three hunters recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved setter with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a final chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

PROPOSED WASTEWATER DISCHARGE AT BREMO THREATENS JAMES

On Tuesday, December 1, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) hosted a public hearing at Central Elementary School in Fluvanna County to permit the “dewatering” of coal ash ponds at the Bremo Bluff Power Plant on the banks of the James River, not far from Fork Union. The proposed permit would allow Dominion to discharge arsenic, hexavalent chromium, selenium, and several other metals into the river with little or no prior treatment.

    Previously Virginia’s oldest coal-fueled power plant, the Bremo Bluff operation was converted to a natural gas-powered facility in June of 2014, which brought an improvement to the Commonwealth’s overall air quality.

    Now, just over a year later, the proposed wastewater treatment practice promises to harm the water quality of our nation’s river.

    The process of “dewatering,” simply, is the process of removing liquid from solid substances in wastewater mixtures. As it stands, Dominion’s draft permit is a reissuance of a previously-existing permit that now proposes to release cooling water and treated industrial wastewater associated with the fallow coal ash ponds from the plant’s coal-burning years into the James River at Bremo Bluff.

    In a press release by the James River Association (JRA) advertising the results of the hearing, a few concerns were voiced.

    First, the draft permit is in violation of the Clean Water Act. JRA brings further attention to the fact that the permitting limits established by the VDEQ are significantly higher than those set in other states, and are inefficient in preserving the aquatic ecosystem and public health. The James River supports nearly a third of Virginia residents living in 39 counties and 19 towns and cities, who depend upon its water for drinking.

    Second, there is no mention of endangered species considerations in the draft plan. The Endangered Species Act, as it has the power to influence regulations for land- and water-use practices that even slightly impact the vitality of a struggling species, is a major player in many environmental protections cases, and will likely be a popular arguing point for commenters on this issue.

    It is worthy of note that the James River, in the most recent State of theJames report, was given a B- rating for overall ecosystem health, pooling several contributing factors. Furthermore, wastewater pollution control, specifically, was given a rating of over 100 percent, citing facility upgrades and the resulting improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reductions, which places the James well ahead of schedule for goals set as part of the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.

    Still, in its most recent State of theBay assessment, the Chesapeake was rated a D+ for overall health, with a slow pattern of improvement.

    Though, according to these popularized reports, the James is a relatively healthy environment from a water quality perspective, as always, it is important that we think progressively. The James River scores higher than the Bay, but far from perfect. There is still work to be done, and setting beneficial, responsible precedents in environmental policy is an important first step.


    The public comment period on this draft permit will remain open until December 14, 2015. Written comments may be submitted to Beverley Carver at Beverley.carver@deq.virginia.gov. Letters may be mailed to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, company of Beverley Caver.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

REDISCOVERING THE HOLIDAYS

The holiday season, among other things, reminds us of the intrinsic values of the finer things in life—friends, family, health, peace. However, alongside that humble tradition, we’ve incorporated a more destructive cultural practice.

    America writes its shopping list in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the floodgates are opened the Friday following Turkey Day—Black Friday, a marketing ploy both loved and hated to a high degree.

    The infectious lifeblood of frenzied consumerism that courses through our country’s veins is unleashed, sweeping away Thursday’s reminders of the importance of the simpler pleasures with sale prices and limited time offers. You should take this description with a grain of salt, though. I never was much of a shopper.

    Particularly these days, as a “financially limited” college student who spends the majority of the year a few hundred miles from family, long-time friends, and all the aesthetic features that characterize home, when I am granted an opportunity to revisit and enjoy those things, there is little more on my mind. I have a lot to be thankful for—among them, family, friends, opportunity, and passion—and I believe it essential in recognizing that to control zeal and further material gain.

    Last year, somewhat on accident, my older brother, Phillip (whom I used to write about more frequently), and I established what is becoming a tradition of spending Black Friday on the water together.

    Black Friday, 2014 was an absolutely frigid day. It was easy to question whether or not we were actually behaving in a more sensible manner than the shoppers of O-dark-thirty. Nevertheless, we convened in a frosted parking lot in Charlottesville at dawn and made tracks towards a trout stream over the mountain.

    As the first day in a steep cold snap, the fishing was slow, though I did manage to seal the deal on an 18-inch brown, while Phillip capitalized on a few of the stream’s smaller residents.


    Noon arrived, and the mercury hadn’t evaded the biting 20s, so we called it a day and found comfort a few centimeters in front of the car’s blasting heat vents.

    2015 brought a more temperate day. After a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, I passed out on the couch to rise early the next morning and place a bead on the Highlands. The drive was colored with meaningful, spirited conversation (as we no longer get to spread it out throughout the year) and was far from exhausted when we reached our destination.

    Recent rains had the creek running strong, though not high. Taking turns on pools and pockets, we passed the morning and afternoon casting dry flies and nymphs to native brook trout and telling fish stories from our time apart not yet relayed.

    Though our fingers are numb and our feet frozen from standing in barely-above freezing waters, these days end warmly. It’s a feeling fueled by neither greed nor desire, but by the feeling of progressive nostalgia that comes with practicing classic things, by the idea that family and memories and passions will continue to be perpetuated, year after year, even after the last of the flatscreens have been purchased and the Christmas music fades into the background for another year.


    This is what the holidays are about.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

LEAN FORWARD, PADDLE HARD

Finally relaxed, nose mechanically plugged and eyes squeezed closed, I pushed my hands past my ears and over my head, tracing the rim of the cockpit for a nylon loop attached to my skirt. As quickly as I found it, I formed a fist and ripped it over my head, twisting, pushing free, and bursting from cold river water into a seasonably warm early fall afternoon.
Public Domain photo.
    Knee deep in slack water, the South Fork of the Holston River dripped from my traumatized face. I had just completed my second ever “wet-exit” from a whitewater kayak, as a prerequisite for my first run down one of southwest Virginia’s domineering rivers. I was green, to say the least.

    Whitewater kayaking, on all counts—from the construction and maneuverability of the craft to the safety precautions and nature of the game—, is a different sport entirely from flatwater kayaking or floating a moderate river in a sit-on or sit-in boat. It’s a win-lose battle with hydrologic currents in which every stroke, every tilt, every pressure point, is a decisive action.

    Luckily, there’s one hard-and-fast rule that I was repeatedly offered—lean forward, paddle hard, even if you’re backwards.

    Jim Harrison, Director of the Emory & Henry Outdoor Program, whose boat I followed like a distressed duckling down the first rapid, echoed this advice from ahead.

    The first piece of whitewater I was up against was a choppy rapid I would be tempted to dub a “narrow” as a fisherman. A multitude of large rocks studded the riverbottom as the river’s width halved, resulting in a frothy water slide 200 feet in duration.

    From an upstream position, I did my best to center my weight in the boat, lean forward, and dip short but powerful strokes at the bow, managing to keep a straight course, even when falling into the holes behind larger boulders. The bow would dip, get drawn down by tumbling water, and pulled forward, until the hull met the system and bucked the whole craft upright, and over the bulge, each rapid paddle stroke an anchor point.

    Covered in spray and pumped with adrenaline, I battled through to the tailout upright and oriented, until I hit the tailout, that is. Relaxing, I must have put more weight on the left side of the seat, because the bow swerved to the left while I still had a good amount of speed. Luckily, I remembered to paddle, and saved myself from a coldwater swim.

    A few hundred yards of flat water provided me opportunity to practice. Consistently tracking a straight path remained a difficulty. I couldn’t solve the left-hand spin.

    Regardless, the next obstacle was up, this time, complete with a belligerent name—“The Fist.”

    The others in our party, seven students from the College, took turns shooting the famed rapid, one at a time, each aiming to trace the same “line” through the system.

    When at last it was my turn, I was still skeptical of my sub-novice ability’s suitability for the task at hand, but, determined to give it my all, went forth anyway.

    “The Fist” is a rather tight rapid, the safe and preferred currents of which run tight to the right bank, under several overhanging tree limbs, and finally through a choppy froth near the tail, which quickly meets an outward jut in the bank.

    Leaning forward and paddling hard, I managed to save myself from flipping through to the end. Still, I had built up enough speed to make the approaching jut dangerous. Human instincts being what they are, my eyes were locked on the danger zone (a recommended practice when rowing a driftboat or raft), influencing my balance and keeping me straight on towards collision. Thankfully, I managed to shift my weight and avoid conflict with the trees.

    Light was fading fast from the river valley as we approached takeout. Only one obstacle was left to conquer. “Triple Drop” is a relatively straightforward rapid, save for the three sudden drops of a few feet, and the eddies that accent the current seams. Maintain a straight course, and avoid the back eddies, and you’re golden.

    I was second in line this time, behind a friend of mine. Our line ran at first tight to the left bank, under overhanging limbs, then towards the middle of the river where the drops started. Drop one spat me out disoriented—sideways. A few paddle strokes corrected the issue, just in time to take on the second.


    However, at the last second, an eddy grabbed my bow and swung me backwards. Still straight, although in reverse, I was pushed over the second drop. The third drop came, and the story was the same—backwards, but leaning forward, paddling hard. I landed intact, redirected my course, and found takeout.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian