Saturday, July 27, 2013


    The temperatures and the sky have confirmed that we are well into the “Dog Days” of summer.  

While smallmouth action will increase proportionally with the heat, rivers can be unpredictable in flow this time of year—the skies seeming to open every afternoon.  However, nothing reeks of the lazy, sticky sweat of summer in the Old Dominion more than panfishing and a small farm pond—and the opportunities are endless.

The Players

    Several species of sunfish inhabit Virginia waters, and are readily available to the angler.  Redear, redbreast, pumpkinseed, and bluegill all sport names equal in simple flare to their character and habits.

A hard-fighting, bottom-feeding redear on
the fly.  Photo by  Matthew Reilly
    Redear are the lone bottomfeeders of the scrappy bunch, and thus tend to age larger and meaner.  They prefer cleaner lakes and ponds with plenty of bottom cover, where they can be caught with bottom rigs as they feed on small shellfish, worms, and insects.

    The similarly-named redbreast sunfish are primarily stream dwellers, and are common catches on rivers such as the James, Rapidan, and Rivanna.  Skinny, shaded water along river banks and grass beds suit these characters best, and are usually smaller than their stillwater cousins.  Small spinners, grubs, and poppers fished in prime habitat are choice lures for these fish.

    The pumpkinseed and bluegill often inhabit the same waters, feeding on small crustaceans, insects, and worms.  Both too remain very active in the heat of the summer, though pumpkinseed have a higher tolerance for sunlight and will dwell in shallow, sun-lit coves throughout the day, while bluegill will migrate to escape the sun during the day before and return to the shallows in the evenings.

The Locations

A hefty bluegill taken from a mill
pond.  Photo by Matthew Reilly
     To view a patch of the Piedmont from the sky, what appears is an expanse mottled green and tawny—forest and farmland—marbled with the varied pockets of blue, black, and brown.  No farm pond is the same; and that uniqueness in water qualities is what is most striking about each appearance.  Rich, rocky, wooded ponds reflect black; pebbly, pure, spring-fed impoundments show blue; and meadow farm ponds are muddy brown—all hold panfish.

     Rivers broad and narrow slither across the state in their journey to salt, and they, in the slow stretches and the powerful runs, too hold panfish.  The creeks and streams that undermine your drive to work or school, with a depth measured in inches, also hold panfish.

     Almost any piece of water, from the mountainous highlands to the meandering cypress swamps of the Tidewater, all hold panfish, where they are easy to catch and, often, plentiful.

The Tackle

     If you can remember your first fish, chances are it was a species of sunfish.  If so, you’ll probably also remember the desperate fight that dunked and enlivened a red and white bobber placed within reach of the greedy sunnie.

     Greed in the case of the sunfish is probably the foremost cause for their reputation as easy targets.  

     Coupled with the natural association of a bobber and nightcrawler, the sunfish are often neglected by those fishermen who have come of age, but have moved on to “bigger and better” things.  That’s good for those of us who value our pride, but sacrifice nothing in indulging in some good old-fashioned “perch-jerking.”
An ultra-light spinning combo, 4-lb
mono, and a black Joe's Fly make up
the author's favorite sunnie rig.
Photo by Matthew Reilly
      The gear required is simple.  An ultra-light to medium rod spooled with two to four pound monofilament is enough to handle most fish. 

      In many cases, a simple clip-on red and white bobber or foam peg float is practical, but in the event that you find yourself fishing deeper water, I recommend investing in floats that utilize bobber stops to minimize casting issues.
      This, topped with a snelled baitholder hook, size four—or two, for smaller fish—loaded with red wigglers, crickets, mealworms, or small crayfish or minnows is deadly.

       For those “above”—eyes rolling—bobber fishing, or for those that just want an added challenge, sunfish will readily take artificial lures and flies.

From left to right:  Joe's Flies, Mepps Spinners, and
Panther Martins are all great panfish lures.
Photo by Matthew Reilly
       Beetle Spins, Panther Martins, Mepps spinners, Roadrunners, and my favorite, Joes Flies all have their place in the panfishing world.  Small grubs in white, yellow, and natural olive and brown colors; shad spoons; and the simple yet effective Trout Magnets also take their share of sunnies, both in still and moving waters.

        Fly anglers should fish small nymphs, wet flies, dry flies, and flashy streamers.  My favorite technique is casting a small, thinly-dressed popper to underwater grass beds in July and August.  On an average day, shooting fish in a barrel would be tougher, and much less fun!

        Availability, excitement, and a willingness to bite, even during the Dog Days of summer, all combine to make the sunfish quality fish worthy of your time and efforts.  So sit back, relax, and search for some sunnies this summer.  Heck, even keep a few.  They’re called panfish for a reason! 

First published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, July 20, 2013


Due to the growing number of perturbed liberals within the populous, fishermen no longer exist in Washington State.

Yes, to enjoy the sport of fishing in the Pacific Northwest, you’re now required to ditch the “gender-specific” “men” and conduct yourself as a “fisher,” which may illicit some ill will from the like-named furry rodents being reintroduced.  Evidently, someone was offended.  However, though this slight amendment to the local dialect changes little, I can still think of more offensive terms being tossed around the fishing community.

One exceptionally hot May morning, my brother and I, looking for respite, moved west into the mountains for a day’s fishing on the South River.  The spring creek browns the river has become famous for had eluded our grasps on our previous trip, and we were serious.  Stepping out of the truck, assembling rods and choosing flies, a middle-aged man in waders, a tasteful oxford, and leather Stetson made his way from the river towards his car.

“Catch anything?” My brother intercepted his stroll.

“Not unless you count two chubs,” the man tossed back snootily.

What the man had brought to hand were chubs, but more specifically and appropriately, a species known as the fallfish, simply.  The man had struck a nerve.

Suckers, redhorses, fallfish, and the chubs are often kicked to the curb, to be joined by the larger drum, bowfin, gar, sauger, and carp, and dubbed collectively “trash fish.”  The reason being their supposed futile potential as game fish and scrap existence alongside their more “sporty” bourgeoisie cousins in the aquatic world.

Ironically, in the case of the larger members of the “trash” bin, what seems to ultimately earn them this title is their prowess and intellect that combine to shape a fish of great challenge to net.  Many would rather chase more susceptible prey.  Those who see past the less-than-perfect appearance and stubborn feeding habits behold fish relatively unknown as fish of rod and reel, and are intrigued by the challenge.

The others, the chubs and suckers, are beat up purely because of their looks and because they often inhabit the same waters as trout and bass, but carry a bit more zeal for a meal than their selective hazers, which they fight for equally as well.  An unfortunate subspecies of fisherman seems to believe they are royalty, and that these fish belong under their feet because they don’t carry a similarly selective palate.

While I do understand the anticlimax that comes with setting the hook on what you believe to be a 10-inch native brookie, only to find a silver croaking fallfish defecating in your hand, my encounters with the fish are a bit more forgiving than others’.

I’ve managed to refrain from indulging in chub slander mostly out of respect for a fine-fighting fish, but also out of appreciation.  Whether it’s different for kids coming of age on the slopes of the Rockies or the Sierras, or even those more imbued in the Appalachian’s blue ridges than I, I don’t know.  But when I was learning the ways of the rivers and streams of my home, the Piedmont, fallfish and chubs were my trade.  Any of the small creeks I was allowed to explore on my own were filled with such fish, and they often made the difference between a 10- and 100-fish days, for which I was grateful.

Fallfish were my favorite, but horneyhead chubs provided a quirky change of pace, and the suckers always managed to elude me.  They were my means of learning to those small streams and creeks and the lessons that came with them.

14 inches was my personal record in one creek near my home—wadeable, and fishable with a rod and reel.  As an even younger kid, I still can remember the five-inch monster chub I fooled from a neighborhood trickle with a rusty snelled #2 baitholder, a foot and a half of line, and a stick.

Though very modest catches, these were fish I’ll always remember; and I do my best to show others the value of a fish that values their lives enough to fight for it, no matter their looks or habits.

Watching as my brother caught and admired his first horneyhead chub, I tried to remember my first catch, I could not, but found empathy for a thing well established in me.  Thus, when I pull a writhing chub from a mountain trout stream, my attitude is droll but deeply appreciative.

So, if Mr. McDonnell were too so inclined, I would urge him to leave freshmen alone.  I’ll soon be one and could deal without the added confusion.  I believe the largemouth’s popularity far outshines the hurtful “Bigmouth;” but trash fish have yet to see justice, and I would appreciate seeing their struggle alleviated. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


    It was quite an experience sitting on Florida’s Gulf coast as a tropical storm delivered inch after inch of inundating rain.  When I returned home, the effects of the same system were tailing out, but the rain continued.

    Thus, when making fishing plans for the weekend, options were limited.  As I motored over the Rivanna River, its chocolaty-orange lifeblood running several feet high ruled the smallmouth haunts out.  My mind wandered to trout.

    One of the beautiful characteristics of freestone mountain streams is their ability to filter water, offering fishability even after heavy rains.

    Noted especially for its angling quality following torrential weather is the St. Mary’s River.  And so preparations began.

    I made the return trip from a family function early Saturday morning, with the windows down, enjoying the cool, cloudless weather.  Even the truck’s dash thermometer read 78 degrees—a cool spell by Virginia’s trending temperatures.

    My brother was waiting for me at home; and I unpacked and repacked as quickly as possible.
Having no idea what to expect, we left the house with packs complete with medical supplies; food, water, and bug dope; camera; GPS; and, of course, fishing gear.

    An hour on the highway dropped us into the small town of Greenville.

    The St. Mary’s River traverses a wilderness area by the same name.  At 10,090 acres, surrounded by the George Washington National Forest, it would seem that those undertaking the challenges offered by the Saint Mary’s Wilderness would be few.  Contrarily, the wilderness attracts many hikers and swimmers, many claim, because of pristine waters and waterfalls, and the delicacy hinted at through its name.

    But these wilderness-goers often remain within a short distance of their vehicles, and a little sweat and a few brier cuts will separate the adventurous from the cliff-dwelling canonballers.
Photo by Phillip Morone

    The St. Mary’s Falls trail is fairly well maintained, but meanders across the river occasionally.  If begin wondering whether you’re actually on the trail, retrace your steps and look for more obvious routes.  

    Because of the heavy traffic below the falls, there are several worn-down “shortcuts,” which may become seriously dangerous in an instant.

    Upon surpassing the mass, we rigged our rods— my brother with a beetle, and I with a cricket pattern.
With packs shouldered and rods rigged, we were faced with a gorgeous stream—pristine and pure as its name.  White frothing torrents poured unrestrained from the head into the heart of each pocket, carving a deep bowl and scattering oxygen bubbles like tiny shards of broken glass down into the turquoise depths.

Photo By Phillip Morone
Such waters, when stumbled upon, make the heart flutter; and the first contact with the dazzling fish of green and orange and white that is the native brook trout is a humbling experience each and every time.
The both of us experienced that excitement within the first pool.  For my brother, Phillip, it was his first—the first of many.

    Leapfrogging each other in the normal fashion, we continued catching brookies in almost every run, riffle, and pool.

    For sport, I swapped my terrestrial for a dry fly.

    The largest fish were always five to six inches, until I got a wave from Phillip upstream, who had just plucked a “three-incher” from a run, spooking a larger specimen downstream.

    With a searching drift, my fly rose the fish from a shallow riffle, and I brought the “9” (inches) to hand.
After taking that fish and several others of slightly smaller size from similar water, my attention turned to smaller pockets. 

    The next bend in the river revealed a chain of riffles, and after studying them for a few minutes my eyes landed on a bobbing, dun-colored nose.  After sipping at the surface, the flaming, white-tipped fins returned to the pebbly bottom, only to bounce and carry the nose skyward for a meal.
A beautiful mountain brookie from a beautiful mountain
brook.  Photo by Phillip Morone.

    Guiding my fly carefully on course, I solicited another rise, only to strike too early, and spook the trout for good.  Such is the nature of trout fishing.

    Soon the pocket water tapered out and gave way to shallow riffles.  The canopy receded and gave way to lowland flora.  Friendly waxwings flitted playfully about.

    More fish were caught, and we had many chances ahead, further up the mountain.  But the sun was beginning to sink past the canyon’s surrounding peaks, and, as we were unfamiliar with the hike, we turned back in the interest of safety.

    After reveling in its bounty only once, the St. Mary’s Wilderness revealed itself to me as a place worthy of protection.  I would urge all who fish its waters to return anything caught, and to leave no trace.  What enjoyment, and creatures, we reap from the environment is a renewable resource as long as we remain responsible stewards of the wilderness.

Originally Published in the Rural Virginian