Saturday, March 30, 2013


Less than two months after The Homecoming was published in the Outdoor Report, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' online newsletter, Adventures Afield broke professional in printed media as a weekly column in the Rural Virginian, due in large part to the inspiration and supportive voices present at the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) annual conference where the essay was recognized as a contest winner.

Now, following the joint annual conference of VOWA and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association, Adventures Afield has expanded a little more, again, due to the many generous members willing to help a growing writer.  Mr. David Coffman, editor of the Outdoor Report, who has agreed to run Adventures Afield in the Report from time to time, has been particularly friendly and helpful to me in this period.  Thanks, David.

The Outdoor Report is a twice-monthly email newsletter that features Virginia's upcoming game seasons, regulation changes, wild events, and fishing reports submitted by local guides.  The Report also asks for story submissions from young writers, as well as photos of game and fish taken around the state.  So, in addition to sharing your stories and pictures on here, forward them to Mr. Coffman!

Two back issues of Adventures Afield ran in the March 27th edition, one under Chris Dunnavant's The Fishing Spot--read here--and one under "Winning Outdoor Adventure Stories from Young Writers"--read here.  To subscribe to the Outdoor Report, click here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


    It was the first real week of spring.  The warm sun bathed the world in light, warming the water in local streams and allowing the dormant frames of trees to make considerable progress towards green, lush life.  I was 12 years old and out of school; and Winter’s grip on the fishing action was finally beginning to slip.

    My closest fishing hole was a dynamic warm-water creek, brushy and impenetrable about the margins, which just brushed the outer boundaries of our rural subdivision.  From the inside, the subdivided world was veiled, and an adventurous boy and happy-go-lucky black lab were free to fish and explore in what seemed a vast wilderness.
    Perhaps I was slightly optimistic, for the fish were absent from the frigid waters on that first trip of the year.  However, just before packing up for home, sunshine illuminated the tip of an ivory jewel shaded by a streamside root wad and caught my eye.  I quickly made my way over to half of an old “mountain eight’s” headpiece, and my bounding companion came over and inspected it with like enthusiasm.  I was awestricken and inspired by the thought of such an animal inhabiting those woods, and the course of the rest of the day was set.

    According to the DGIF, bucks began dropping antlers in mid-January, and some may have.  But reports from across the state suggest that many bucks may have either just recently dropped their racks or are still clinging to them, which was likely the case surrounding my first find.
    When deer shed their antlers is a concept dependent upon several variables, which effect individual animals differently, and make it hard to calculate just when the majority will fall.  However, there are some hints and facts to help guide you in your search.
    A male fawn will show indications of gender within several months of birth.  What hunters refer to as “buttons” atop these yearlings’ heads are called pedicels, and the thin layer of skin that covers them serve as the starting points for antler growth when certain hormonal triggers occur.
    Coming with the hormonal catharsis that follows the mating season, and in response to lengthening days, a layer of bone at the base of the antler and above the pedicel begins to weaken.  Eventually, the antler will fall away altogether.
    Therefore, good places to concentrate shed hunting efforts include fence and creek crossings—anywhere a powerful leap or landing might compromise a buck’s frail crown—and areas of thick cover traversed by game trails, where bucks will retreat to in hiding from late-season hunting pressure, and where the mass of branches and briars make it difficult to hold onto a pair of fleeting antlers
    Still, not all antlers are lost at these “pinch-points.”  Your goal should be to cover as much high-percentage ground as possible.  In doing this, take into consideration where deer are likely to spend the majority of their time.  South-facing slopes make great expansive locations to scour because they receive the most sunlight—think, warmth—over the course of a cold winter day.  Bedding areas, key winter food sources, and popular watering holes are also prominent potential resting places for antlers by the same line of reasoning.
    It falls to reason, in deciding on a general location to hunt for sheds, that you seek an area with a high-density deer population.  While this is not always true (high-density doesn’t always mean lots of bucks), it’s a good piece of logic from which to build.  If you question that even a single deer has set foot on your hunting lease by the end of the season due to high hunting pressure, consider areas nearby that may serve as a haven for wary bucks.  Landowners are more susceptible to a sportsmen asking for property access for shed hunting than those asking to hunt and carry a firearm, so don’t let nerves deter you from asking.
    In terms of public land, federal- and state-managed properties are great habitats to walk, but don’t rule out the smaller overlooked tracts.  Little, tucked-away natural areas or public parks with lots of wooded cover likely harbor a large deer population because they prohibit hunting, but are also less likely to attract other shed hunters.

    A piece of land inhabited by deer, a map, and a backpack prepared for a day’s hike are the only necessary ingredients to successful shed hunting.  Keep in mind the habits of whitetails and their movements, and focus heavily on areas of high promise.  Walk slowly, and be thorough.  Shed hunting can be a great way to experience the woods as they come alive, and can provide insight into the life of a much sought-after animal.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Seems this viral trend is getting headway all the way out in Bozeman!  Just a middle of the week video to lighten the mood.  Enjoy!

Saturday, March 23, 2013


The author with a 5-pound early spring largemouth
caught on a lipless crankbait.
Photo by Phillip Morone.
The big snow of 2013 is behind us, and if the weather report is right, there may be yet another one on the way.  But the warming air has brought water temperatures into the 50s; the action will begin to pick up across the region--we're in the home stretch.

My first outing of the spring brought tell-tale success, and what I hope to be an indicator of what is to come. The water and air temperatures today made wet hands comfortable, rather than numbing, and the kayaks were due for some exercise.  So my brother and I put them on a local reservoir around noon, hoping the warmer temperatures of the afternoon and the impending cold front would turn on feeding fish.

We caught three fish.  The first was a decent 5-pounder still holding onto a winter belly (pictured on the right).  The others were much smaller.

March still hasn't metamorphosed into a lamb in Central Virginia, and we fought a slight breeze throughout the day.  Still, the weather is on the upswing, and so is the fishing.  Get out and enjoy the action as it warms, and send us pictures of your catches!  You may find yourself on the site or in the paper!


Flies undergo the worst kind of hazing.  

Every fly box has its out-of-place, ambitious, yet unproven member, and it is he who is relentlessly subjected to every hungry fish's temperament until he has proven himself and finds himself equal with his buggy peers, all because of a difference in status.

Such is the tale of The Swamp Donkey.

Photo by Matt Reilly
Anxious for spring, and in preparation for the oncoming pickerel bite that arrives as a foreshadow, I sat at my fly tying desk, occupying my mind with the task of creating a fly with the right combination of gross, creepy-crawly, creature-from-the-abyss qualities to attract Old Chainsides, but that still retained an attractive punctilious structure as to also be capable of fooling hefty smallmouth, who seem to dine with the demeanor of a fine food critic.

Just as often happens when you've no idea what the end goal is, what formed in my vice was a creation unique in my eyes.  I dubbed it Swamp Donkey (though no dubbing was used and no rabbits harmed in the process, save for the ones that offered up their hides).

One slump-busting attempt at a fish on one of Fluvanna County's reoccurring snow days yielded nothing but a few rose bush cuts and cold hands.

Photo by Matt Reilly
My next chance to initiate the fly came on a much warmer day, the third of spring.  Air temperatures were comfortably clinging to the 50s, and the water temperature too was making its way there at 51 degrees.  The light at the end of the tunnel was becoming visible, and the fish had just made the landmark decision to eat throughout the day.  Swamp Donkey was there.

Though small specimens, I managed to pull two largemouth from a local reservoir, both caught on the Swamp Donkey.  After a long winter, my confidence in this creation of mine has been established, and I, with the willing participation of all species of fish (yet hopefully greater in size), hope to experiment with the pattern in the coming season.

Tie flies with confidence, and experiment with your own patterns tailoring to your local conditions.  Send/post pictures if you've got 'em!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


    In Central Florida’s Lake Weir, what has come to be known as the Largemouth Bass Virus (LMBv) was discovered in 1991.  Four years later, in Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina, the first related incident of fish mortality was reported, and the virus proved itself to be one worthy of state department attention.

    In 2001, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries first tested impoundments for the presence of LMBv, many showing no signs of infection or otherwise low exposure rates; but the virus’s presence was nonetheless realized in Virginia.
    Because LMBv is a potential threat to America’s favorite game fish, panic and dismay surrounded the initial discovery.  However, the course of the disease, as studied in southern waters, supports biologists’ assurances that LMBv poses a relatively insignificant effect on infected fisheries.
    Fishermen first noticed only a decrease in the catch rate of quality fish—defined as being three pounds and larger—as a result of a decrease in fry survival and growth rates.  Now, 12 years since the initial discovery, it seems the worst has passed, and some of the early detection sites are returning to post-infection fishing conditions.
    Testing resumed in Virginia waters in the summer of 2010.  Of the three impoundments tested, all returned positive for the virus, and two replied with notably significant exposure rates—Kerr Reservoir (Buggs Island) showing 41% exposure, and Briery Creek Lake showing 30%--both of which also tested positive in 2001.  Both “big fish” fisheries, Buggs and Briery became the martyrs for the cause.
    A year later, 16 bodies of water were tested across the state, ranging from small, department-owned lakes to large impoundments and major rivers.  All locations showed signs of infection, save for the tidal James River.  From this, VDGIF fisheries biologist Dan Michaelson can infer that “LMBv will probably be found in most of the water bodies in Virginia.  Some will be impacted by the disease and others may never show indications that the fish have been exposed.”
    There is a silver lining, however.  In the 2011 tests, Briery Creek and Buggs Island showed exposure rates of 30% and 23%, respectively, indicating that, as compared to results from 2010, the virus in those fisheries has surpassed its peak of potency, and is now on the decline.
    According to Dan Michaelson, “the southern states that experienced this outbreak in the late 1990s showed about a 3-year recovery cycle after LMBv was detected.  Considering Virginia’s cooler temperatures and slower growth rate, he speculates that “the cycle will be about five years in Virginia.”
    For those fish that do survive the initial exposure, immunity can be developed.  “Unfortunately, they do not pass the resistance on to their progeny,” says Michaelson.  However, the good news is that states that met the virus early on, like Texas, Mississippi, and Florida, no longer observe noticeable impacts of the disease.  Most biologists predict that in Virginia, too, LMBv will become little more than a means of population control, similar to old age.
    As for what causes the virus to emerge, biologists again claim little knowledge.  Outbreaks and the few small mortality events that have occurred are most frequent in the warmer months of the year due to stress that may be linked to low oxygen levels, high water temperatures, and increased tournament pressure. 
    Effected fish usually show no signs of the virus, but may suffer from loss of equilibrium or the inability to stay below the surface due to an over-inflation of the swim bladder.
    But despite the large presence of LMBv in Virginia, most of the infected areas still maintain exceptional angling opportunities for the angler, which will only increase in status as the virus runs its course and shrinks into the background of biological issues.
    Still, it is important to help stop the spread of the virus which, as it is not known exactly what causes an outbreak, includes a wide range of responsible practices.  Using common sense boat hygiene, like cleaning trailers and not emptying water from a livewell into a foreign water body, is an effective measure for stopping the spread of both LMBv and invasive species.  Also, it is encouraged to limit the practice of bass tournaments in the hottest months of the year, and to handle fish delicately and briefly.  To help prevent the spread of the disease and other biological issues, the transplantation of fish into foreign impoundments is discouraged.  More information concerning preventative measures can be found on the Department’s website.
    Considering the facts, LMBv carries little long-term threat for Virginia’s bass anglers, and the end of the tunnel is in sight.  Biologists continue to monitor bass fisheries and educate anglers to help stop the spread of the disease.  Michaelson assures anglers, “we fully expect all of these fisheries to recover.”  There is no cause for concern. 

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


    Despite the occasional snowmagedon, thermometers across the state are showing increasingly more red.  

March is rolling in like a lion; the shadbush is budding; and the fact remains that our furry friend, Punxsutawny, found himself alone by his groundhog hole on that prophetic February morning.  Spring is almost upon us.

Organize and Simplify

    Winter offers a perfect time for anglers to take stock of their fishing tackle and prepare for the upcoming season.
    Reorganize that terminal tackle box that was shaken to chaos over the course of the summer; and replace the items that are running out.  Return all lures to their homes—whether organized by color, type, or target species--, for they were surely mixed up for convenience’s sake.
    Take critical inventory of all lures, paying attention to those that were put to good use in the previous season and those that were not.  Those that were could be considered confidence baits—those that you turn to when times are tough—and should be amply replaced.  Exclude or pack away any lures that were neglected last year—they were for good reason.  The freed space will provide more room for the lures that continually produce for you, and will make your tackle box altogether more effective.

Time for Shad

    The annual migration of anadromous shad is the first rite of spring in the angling world.  Sexually mature adults begin their run up Virginia’s large coastal rivers when tidal temperatures approach 55 degrees, and offer great sport for the light-tackle angler.
    There are two species of shad to be caught from Virginia waters, the hickory shad and the American shad, the first arriving first and the latter arriving last.  Spawning hickory shad often weigh one to two pounds, smaller in comparison to the larger American shad that average in the three to five pound range.
    Small, flashy minnow imitations like the shad spoon and famed Shad Dart are time-tested shad lures, and routinely yield the most fish.  The angler will be well-equipped with one of these lures rigged with a light spinning rod and six-pound line; but don’t go much lighter.  Spawning fish frequent strong currents and use them to their advantage in a fight.  A fisherman wielding a traditional ultra-light setup would be outmatched against a five-pound fish in heavy current.
    Favored fishing spots include the tidal James River at Richmond, the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg, and the Potomac in the far northern region of the state.  Brackish tributaries to these major waterways, like the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nottoway, and Pamunkey rivers, also provide good action.
    Blueback herring and alewife follow the migrating shad on their own spawning runs, but responsible anglers should note that, as of March 2012, it is illegal to have in possession either of these two river herring.

Time for Big Bass

    Shad aren’t the only fish feeling the urges of the spawning season this month.  Largemouth bass, too, will begin to move from their stable wintering waters to the spawning coves where they will spawn this time in April, when the water temperature climbs past 60 degrees.
A solid largemouth taken by the author's 
brother from a grassy point on a windy 
march day.  Read more at Blustering Bass.  
Photo by Matt Reilly
    Many anglers prefer this period.  As nature instills a common goal in the bass’ movements, they become very predictable; and, still stocky from their winter lethargy, this pre-spawn window is often recognized as the best time to catch big bass.
    In lakes, these bass will relate to long, sloping points on the main lake that lead to shallow coves.  These points provide transition zones for fish to move along as the surface temperature warms.  In true reservoirs, a similar point providing access to the main feeder creek is a hotspot.  Still, movement is largely dependent upon water surface temperature; likewise, northern banks, provided they have the correct structure, will be the most productive because they receive the most sunlight.
    Productive lures include Texas-rigged soft plastics, swimbaits, jigs, and spinnerbaits.  Working a lure slow, but covering water quickly and taking note of the depth at which you get strikes will help in putting together a fishable pattern.

    Stay organized about your tackle and your plans, and the end of this month could hold many memorable adventures afield.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

New Photo App

    Not quite fitting with our "Apps for Outdoorsmen" list, but pretty stinking awesome nonetheless, the Tangled FX app from Orange Qube can do some cool things to your fishing photos.  Rose River Farm featured this app on their Facebook page last week with good response, and turned me towards the purchase.  The download comes at a price of $1.99, but for a lover of photography and fishing, it's well worth the price.  Here are a few examples!

    If you've got some of your own, post 'em!
Photo by Pat Clayton

Photo by Matt Reilly
Photo by Matt Reilly

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tie Flies with Confidence/Everyone's a Critic

    “That’ll fool any self-respecting trout.” The sentiment was repeated often by my proud father at the sight of the early turnouts from my fly-tying bench—at that time, a length of 1x6 plank screwed to a4x4 block, caught on the edge by a rusty vise.  My supplies were relatively aged, non-traditional, and hardly organized; and their clippings precipitated about my bedroom as the ash erupting from a fiery ambition.  However, I held doubts about my flies’ fish-catching potential, and with good reason.  My renderings were hardly representative of the professionally-tied species I had fished, which dampened my confidence in them.            
    The same words were repeated to my brother several years later when I took him to a tying seminar at a local fly shop.  The featured pattern was a Bugger-style streamer.  Upon completion of a pair of peach-colored specimens, a shop employee remarked, “It’ll fish.”  My brother, as I had, took this as a slight aimed at a novice’s first hand-tied fly.
    Nevertheless, he kept tying the pattern, but, as I had promised to take him pickerel fishing when the warming water triggered their spawn, followed my suggestion and switched to a pearl-colored variation.
My birthday arrived, and, in a box of other fishy gifts, he tossed one of his Crystal Buggers as an afterthought, with the disclaimer that “it may not catch fish.”  Still, it was a fine fly, and deserved no disclaimer.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Besides, it’s an art!  Everyone may be a critic, but the only ones that matter are scaled, slimy, and indiscriminate, and reward generously for acceptable pieces.  This was one such.

    February was still in existence, and snow and sleet were still regular occurrences on cold days.  It was, indeed, a cold day that I decided to pack up and head to a local pond.  My brother’s fly was one-of-a-kind in my pack, but not an unlikely candidate for the day’s fishing; so I resolved to tie it on first.
    The fly that fooled my first fish taken on a self-tied fly was tied with a year’s experience.  It was early June, and the summer heat had made itself evident enough to trigger the hatches of sulfur mayflies in the mountain streams but not quite so much as to whisk away the water where they lay their eggs.  The fly I tailored for the occasion was an Elk Hair Caddis—yellow to match the hatch--, and the trout I caught gave me a feeling incomparable to any I’ve felt since.
    The fly that was now tied to my tippet was much more “primitive” on the timeline of the fly-tying learning curve, but I was confident in its ability.
    My first casts were to submerged grassbeds where I knew the pickerel to lurk.  The water was cold, 44-degrees (the spawn occurs around 50-degrees); and with a cold front blowing over, I recognized how slow the action would be.  Doubt flashed across my mind.
    Speed of retrieve is a fine point in fishing artificial lures.  The more time you allow your quarry to inspect your offering, the more likely he is to reject it.  Therefore, theoretically, flies that trigger biological reactions, such my baitfish imitation, as opposed to reaction flies aimed at the quarry’s curiosity and temper, must be of superior quality than those fished in moving water.  Fish in rivers hunt with quick decision-making skills from eddies and slack water, and have only an instant to evaluate the legitimacy of a potential meal.  Finding the perfect balance between slow and fast—slow enough to will the fish to chase, and fast enough to limit his observation—will bring more fish.
    The next grassbed was deeper.  After letting the fly sink to rest on the submerged mat, I began a retrieve—quick and erratic, with long, sinking pauses between.
    On my second cast to the bed, as the fly reached the edge, my fly line jumped forward, and I set the hook on a fish.  A small, lethargic pickerel emerged from the grass-stained water. 
Photo by Matt Reilly
    Perhaps it is the feeling of surmounting a self-depreciating doubt that results in the pride of taking a fish on a self-tied fly--when a fish assures the enterprising angler that his craft is, after all, adequate.
    So I took this fish, appreciatively, but as an expected guest from the dreary pond; for I had come with the confidence of knowing I could justify the fly I had been given, and prove that even a beginner’s fly has fish-catching worth—that one doesn’t need a degree in art to tie a fly that will fool a fish with a degree in evasion.  It is true that lures of confidence are the most productive, so tie it in at the core, under hackle and hair, and above all, have faith.  

*First published in The Rural Virginian

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

SNP Youth Conservation Corps Now Accepting Applications

    This summer the Shenandoah National Park will be offering its Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program. The program will run a period of eight weeks, between the dates of June 1 and August 9 2013. Applicants will work 40-hour weeks, learning about the conservation of the Park's natural and traditional heritage through trail and campground maintenance, and earning a pay of minimum wage. Applicants must be age 15-18 at the time of participation.
    Applications are now being accepted. More info can be found on the SNP's Facebook page,or by logging onto the Park website.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tying the Elk Hair Caddis

    Pennsylvanian Al Troth's classic pattern made it's entrance into the commercial world of fly fishing in 1978 via The FlyTyer Quarterly.  Tied personally as an adult caddis imitation for western waters, variations of hackle and dubbing color and hook size can mold the pattern to cover the appearances of spent caddis or small hoppers, while maintaining a simple design and buoyant frame.  The Elk Hair Caddis is a staple dry fly for trout, and makes for a great beginning tier's pattern. 

* The following pattern is a classic color combination, suitable as a caddis or small hopper pattern.*

Photo by Matt Reilly

Hook:          # 18 - 8 Dry Fly Hook
Thread:       Brown or tan 3/0
Body:          Yellow Poly-dub or natural dub
Rib:             Fine gold wire (optional)
Wing:          Elk or deer body hair
Hackle:       Brown


  1. Clamp hook in vice and wrap thread to the bend of the hook.
  2. Secure a length of fine gold wire at the bend of the hook and bend out of the way.
  3. Tie in a 5-inch length of poly-dub (my preference), or create a dubbing rope from a natural hair and wind forward to the eye to create an even under-body.
  4. Select a piece of brown hackle and clip the base of the quill free of fine under-feathers.  Tie in, and wind in even wraps towards the bend of the hook.
  5. Secure the quill with a few wraps of gold wire, and cut off the tag end.
  6. Wrap wire forward towards the eye, taking care not to trap any hackle fibers.  Secure with wraps of thread at the eye.
  7. Select a pinch of deer or elk body hair, and, using a hair stacker, even out the tips.
  8. Behind the eye, tie in the clump of elk hair with a few wraps of thread.  When secure, create a head of thread at the eye under the hair butts.  Trim the tag ends to create a tight, even tuft.
  9. Make a few last, solidifying wraps over the hair, whip finish, and cement the head.