Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Many people have a favorite president.  I won’t say I do.

I have a love-hate relationship with Herbert Hoover.  Stock market crash aside, Hoover shared my love of the magnificent brook trout of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  However, this led to an exposé that made the Rapidan River, where Hoover built his cabin in 1929, one of the most popular trout streams in Virginia.  And for that, following a recent trip to the mountains, I pondered what the river might yield today if it weren’t for the press the president earned it.

        A light rain fell in the night.  Just like the day before, partly-sunny skies were forecast; but the sky forecast something different—heavy clouds, fog, and drizzle—typical November.  Under this cover, my brother and I loaded the truck with waders, rods, and daypacks, and headed north towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Photo by Matt Reilly
        After hiking a few miles through rugged country, we slipped down through an aged laurel thicket, over rocks and deadfalls. 

        The river was in good condition, running full, thanks to recent rain.

        Water in the mid-50s, and overcast, drizzly weather had me searching for my favorite nymph pattern—the CK nymph.  I found the smallest, buggiest imitation, with stray hackle fibers and a meager body, and tied it on. 

        With this weapon ready for action, I did my best to assume the role of a predator.  On hands and knees, I edged towards a sizeable boulder overlooking the tail of a promising pool.  The first cast landed somewhat sloppily in the current rushing past a smaller, undercut boulder.  Nothing.  I sent a second cast, more refined and floating, to the deep channel in the middle of the pool where the current began to relax. 

        My fly line hesitated in the current for a split second, and a raised rod tip excited a brilliantly-colored brook trout, maybe five inches long, and lifted him from the slick water.

        My reaction was fast, and my body warmed with the excitement of my first brook trout in several months of absence from the water.  I netted the fish, and admired his spawning colors—the white-banded fins bordered with black, the fiery belly, the red and blue bulls-eyes on his flanks, the marbled green back that makes him invisible from above.

        After releasing the fish, I moved on until I came upon a pool worthy of careful prospecting.  Water fell heavy into the head of the pool, as it was split in two by a sturdy boulder.  The water carved a two-foot deep pocket there, and ran out into the tail, after wrapping around an undercut rock submerged in the current.  I got into position.

        “There has to be a fish on that rock,” I thought.

        But as I was taught, I placed my first casts carefully in the tail of the pool, to avoid lining any cruising fish with the colorful fly line.  After meticulous picking, I focused on the rock that tugged at my attention.  Four casts, five, six, seven—nothing.  After several casts, the current gripped the line as it hovered over the rock, dragging my nymph into the undercut ledge.

        An underwater flash jolted the line!  My rod tip rose with my arm high into the air; and I sprung from my hiding place behind a log as war ravaged. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
        I wiped my hands on my wader-covered thighs to moisten my hands, and guided the fish into them.  He went 11 inches, easy—11 and a half—almost 12 inches.  It was then, holding a veteran of the mountain stream, that I thought of Hoover, and those that enjoyed such bounty before I was here to do so myself. 

        It’s a foreign concept to many outside the world of fly fishing, to consider the gaunt brook trout of these small streams to be worth the energy, briar cuts, and twisted ankles they demand.  They’re precious gems in small, discreet packages; and it’s a testament to their allure that the most powerful man in America, living in relative proximity to the Adirondack trout streams, the wilderness streams of West Virginia, the spring creeks of Pennsylvania, and the steelhead of Lake Erie tributaries, chose a seemingly insignificant being in Appalachian Virginia to be his host in his home away from home. 

        After several brief seconds, I slipped the fish back into his icy domain.  He left my hand with a flick of his tail, as stately and as bold as the river tumbling down the mountain.  The spirit of such a fish cannot be tamed, not by the President of the United States, nor any that came after him; but its existence can be threatened, and I can rest easy knowing that the popularity of the Rapidan River has bred respect for its native trout.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, November 21, 2013


    It’s no secret that winning writing contests are a great way to ramp up your writing credentials.

So if you have a tendency towards outdoor writing, or a notion of one day participating in the profession, this is a contest for you.  For me, it has provided a professional start in the industry, numerous valuable contacts, and endless other opportunities for growth and education.

        For 21 years, the Virginia Outdoor Writer’sAssociation of Virginia (VOWA) has sponsored the Annual High School WritingCompetition.  The object of the competition is to reward high school students for excellence in communicating their experiences in the outdoors.  Submitted essays should convey a memorable experience.  Hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, boating, wildlife watching, or other general outdoors topics are all acceptable subject matters.  Athletic events and competitions are not eligible themes.  Public-, private-, and home-schooled students are all eligible to participate.

        Bass Pro Shops has once again agreed to co-sponsor this contest, and will provide $150, $100, and $50 Bass Pro Shops gift cards for the first, second, and third place winners.  Also to be awarded are sponsor packages from other outdoor retailers and supporting members of VOWA.  Winners will be contacted by Mr. Terry Lewis via email, and invited to the annual membership conference in Charlottesville, VA on February 22, 2014, where students will read their winning entries.  (For more information on how to submit, visit

        While the membership meeting may at first seem like an unfit gathering for a high school student, I encourage any attendant with a true interest in outdoor writing to listen intently and participate with an open mind and confident air.  The men and women that comprise this association are truly passionate people, not “in it for the money, by any means,” as many of them will joke.  The high school writing contest is the product of this passion and a genuine interest in the next generation for the continuation of our unique and threatened niche in the communications industry.

        It was at this annual meeting in 2012 that I first found myself lost and without direction.  That is, until Terry Lewis found me.  I shook hands with some well-known names, and got to socializing.  Several informative seminars later, and after a few hearty meals, my wallet was bulging with business cards. 

        On one was printed the name David Coffman, Editor of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ e-newsletter, The Outdoor Report, and a previously unknown Fluvanna neighbor.  It was he who sponsored my invitation to the 2013 Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers AssociationVirginia Outdoor Writers Association joint conference, and who later began re-running the columns I wrote for the local paper.  The same relationship gave me the opportunity to participate in the Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament on the Rose River as a photographer and media member

        Coffman introduced me to Mark Taylor, then president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, who soon opened a membership category for high school students and sponsored my induction.

        Another name in my wallet was Beau Beasley’s.  Beau has been the source of some valuable bits of information over the past two years, and inspired my volunteer participation in the annual Virginia Fly Fishing Festival in Waynesboro of which he is the Director. 

        Within a week of the conference I sold my first magazine feature to Chris McCotter, editor of Woods & Waters Magazine; and I sold two more by June.

        After my last feature, I was contacted by the local paper, the Rural Virginian, to see if I was interested in becoming an outdoor columnistTerry Beigie, the editor, was thenceforth a constructive, forgiving, and altogether positive blessing in the beginning stages of a writing career that is riddled with rejection and failure.   She is still a very willing wealth of knowledge on journalism and photography; though it is with the submission of this column that I make my last to her, as she moves on to fulfill other opportunities.

        I don’t normally “wax nostalgia,” as McCotter would say, and on a normal day I would claim humility, but in reflection, I believe strongly in this contest and the group that sponsors it.  I firmly believe that you will get out of chances what you put into them; and this chance believes in you.  So if you are a high school student and have any interest in outdoor writing, I urge you to take up this opportunity.  Shake a few hands, share a few stories.  Submit an essay, and you might even win something!  Heck, even if you don’t win, go anyway.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Conversing with classmates in middle school, hunting was defined by “treestands,” “30/06s,” and “deer.”  My background was different.  I learned to shoot with a 20-gauge, behind a dog with a nose for birds and a Dad with an aim for them.

The author with his first deer.  Photo by Chris Reilly
        It wasn’t until my family settled in Fluvanna County that deer and I became acquainted.  We purchased property in a developing subdivision, where the woods impressed on me the aura of the “big woods” of Maine that I’d mused over in Field and Stream, if only for my size.

        Dad had long-since split from traditional deer hunting.  Maybe it was my birth, and the convenience that bird hunting afforded for the infant-toting parent.  Whatever the reason, we lacked roots in the sport, and hunted from the ground, against goliath oaks in the woods of the subdividing property.  A 12-guage—a carry-over from pheasant hunting—full-choked and loaded with buck-shot was the weapon of choice.  We saw deer on several occasions, a bobcat once; but none ever came close.  Still, when the sun receded behind the black curtain of pines on a distant ridgeline, the shadows that emerged were enough to suggest a mystery worth coming back to solve.

        Two years later, Dad promised to take me to a friend’s local farm.  There were 40-acres, lots of deer, clover fields, and a tripod stand; and we were invited to hunt.  I was allowed any deer I had a chance at.  It would be my first; and the friend was more than willing to chip in.

        Five hours into the third Saturday in November, my alarm clock barked, and I was up, open-eyed, adrenaline fighting off drowsiness.  Backpack, clothes, food, hat…license—everything was where it was piled the night before, under my tireless, opening-day eyes.

        We braked for deer crossing secondary roads for almost an hour before slowing, turning, bouncing, and parking.  Backlit three-pronged pine crowns were my only perception of place.  I was sweating slightly from the heat in the car and the layers on my body, which were promptly misted with a metallic-smelling liquid.  I was given the padded case of Dad’s Ruger .243 and a cartridge to load.

        “Watch the safety.”

        Away from the truck, we marched through the new moon sky, through tall grass, me in the rear, stumbling, head down.  We were swallowed by trees, but the sky opened up again, and my hands were touched by a cold ladder.  At the top was a cylindrical dome.

        Following directions, I unloaded, climbed to the top, and reported when I was seated.  Dad took a seat in the brush below.  Only one seat sat up top.

        Communication ended for several hours, while the sun peeked out from under the horizon, birds came alive, a breeze lit, and rabbits and chipmunks zig-zagged the lush field of clover that emerged below my perch.

        When my eyes had consumed all of the literature engraved on the barrel, scope, stock, and butt of the rifle, I pointed its lens to the field edges, simulating shots in my head.

        I found new reading material in the tags of the canvas covering when two brown figures emerged at the field edge.  I stuck my head out the side window, angled to the ground.

        “Two does…over there!”

        Dad nodded in approval.

        I slipped the barrel out the window as practiced.  I settled the scope on the lead deer, my heart ricocheting about my rib cage, breath spewing out in gusts.  With confidence, as much as I could bear, I squeezed the trigger.  The deer rolled, and the other bounded away. 

        Relief swept in, and suddenly it was very cold.  The rifle’s barrel rattled in my hand against the frame of the stand.  I had to wait several minutes for my knees to regain the strength needed to descend the ladder.

        On the ground I got a proud high-five, and the indispensable “watch your safety.”  We took a walk towards the animal, down a lane of clover.  It was further than it seemed from the stand—maybe 80 yards. 

        We had another round of high fives, after making sure the deer, now realized to be carrying small bony buttons atop his head, was totally expired.  But the congratulations didn’t last long.  We had work to do—I had work to do.

        The pride felt at having taken my first deer was not completely different from other firsts, but not without a certain feeling of remorse.  It’s a mind-expanding experience, when such a large animal is taken for your own sustenance, one filled with a sense of control and participation in the greater scheme of life, and the understanding that death is a significant part of it.  It’s a mature endowment of practical sufficiency, a rite of passage—one that I will never forget.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian