Wednesday, February 26, 2014


As this column is being penned, Governor Terry McAuliffe awaits the arrival of a bill that will legalize Sunday hunting on private land in Virginia—a bill he previously indicated he will sign into law.

        House Bill 1237 (HB 1237), which has a twin in the Virginia Senate (SB 154), was introduced and passed by the Virginia House of Delegates last month by a vote of 71-27 and moved on to the Senate for approval.  On Feb. 18, the Senate responded with a vote of 28-11 in favor of the bill.

        Governor McAuliffe, whose signature represents the last obstacle for the bill, has been a supporter of Sunday hunting during his term, and revealed through a spokesperson that he intends to grant his signature to either bill when they land on his desk.

        The ban on Sunday hunting historically belongs to a group of regulations called “blue laws,” laws that restrict certain activities on the Sabbath day, such as operating a retail store or the sale of alcohol. The blue law on hunting was established in Virginia in the early 1900s, and has seen growing opposition in recent years.  Finally in 2012, Sunday hunting activists had a breakthrough, as a bill was passed in the Senate, only to be shot down in the House by an opposing subcommittee.  Heading into 2014 with a fresh batch of executive and legislative officials taking seats in Richmond, and with legislation already being passed, the future for Sunday hunting looks promising.

        With the bill’s passage, more hardworking Virginian’s will be able to find the time and energy to hunt on the weekends, rather than have to sacrifice a time-honored tradition to recuperate and prepare for the week ahead.  More kids will become involved with hunting, as their parents find the time to introduce them.  This will in turn result in the sale of more hunting licenses and increased funds available to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for managing and improving game populations and habitat.

        On the contrary, the majority of the bill’s opposition comes in the form of non-hunters.  Trail runners, bird watchers, horseback riders, and other non-hunting outdoorspeople argue that Sunday is a safe day to be in the woods during hunting season, and has been traditionally in Virginia for the past 100 years. 

        While I certainly understand this position, and recognize regrettably that not all hunters are safe hunters, by my experience, the majority of hunters are quite responsible and courteous.  Just as the deer and bear hunters of the national forests and wildlife management areas sometimes must share the woods with fishermen in the fall, fishermen, small game hunters, hikers, equestrians, and photographers all too must learn to respect the others’ space and right to the woods.  They must don blaze orange in recognition of that seasonal relationship, and do their best to maintain a safe and effective cushion.  Those that hunt on public land accept in doing so the possibility of crossing paths with another sportsman.  If that doesn’t satisfy, consider private land or public areas where hunting is prohibited.  It works for the majority of the country.

        Overall, if (or when) this bill is signed into law, I firmly believe that both the sporting public and wildlife will benefit.  

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, February 20, 2014


It's THIS weekend!

        The 27th Western Virginia Sports Show at Augusta Expoland this Feb. 21-23 will bring to Virginia an increased number of TV celebrities, including R.J. Molinere and Jay Paul Molinere of Swamp People, Mike Stroff of Savage Outdoors, and Paul Butski of Turkey Thugs.  Have you ever seen a grizzly bear up close?  Welde's Big Bear Show features six trained grizzlies that have appeared in TV shows and commercials across the country.  Howard and Jason Caldwell will showcase their "Raptors Up Close" exhibit to inspire an interest in falconry and promote their conservation.  Acclaimed wildlife artists Ken Schuler, Lisa geiman, and Melissa Ball will provide unique and masterful artwork for show and purchase.

        Other attractions include the Annual Big Buck Contest and South River Taxidermy's Top 10 Whitetail Mounts display.  The annual Virginia Open Championship Turkey Calling Contest held at the event every year has been renamed The Dennis Campbell Classic in honor and memory of a lifelong supporter of the show and a passionate promoter of the outdoor sports.  Countless vendors will offer the opportunity to browse hunting and fishing gear, book a guide trip, enter contests, and purchase food.  Local pros will conduct seminars and demonstrations.  Kids are invited to cast their line in the trout pond and take home their catch.  Visit for more information.

        Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


        As the sun threatened to deliver morning, we abandoned the house in 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 hardiness and sophistication that often characterize upland hunting and its participants.  I diverted my gaze, trying not to focus on his being more than was necessary.

        The sun was smothered by the 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 parking lot was empty, and with reason.  Woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom, 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 James seemed secure under a sheet of thick fog.

        Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly; and Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, stringy ears.  Few words were spoken before the morning commenced with a beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon 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.  We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused.  A rabbit 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.  In past years, the two had enjoyed much together.  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 their common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his preoccupation with filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years in the field.

        Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as stories.  My relationship with Tucker was different.  He was introduced to our family just months before I; and we shared a common age.  It was he who provided much of my early transportation, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna home by the stocking feet of my pajamas and hauling my saucer sled over fresh coats of 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; but most memorable was his playful, omnipresent attitude that established him as a childhood friend and lifelong 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 first solid words of the morning were uttered in reflexive excitement.

        The shadow that had loomed over us soon returned.  Our hunt was half over.

        Tucker’s attention was diverted to the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing about, he uncovered a magnificently large turtle shell.  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 filled with camaraderie and joy.  Tucker zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the 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.  His movements that followed were a series of drunken, left-handed arcs.  A nervous silence ensued.

        As we approached the truck by the river, the clouds seemed to lift.  Conversation colored our packing and unloading as a statement of burdensome acceptance.  With the setting of the sun yet another grouse season would expire in the mountains.  But we were not hunting for grouse.  In fact, there is no grouse season this far east.  We were hunting for a memory.  All three in attendance recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved companion with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a last chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Monday, February 17, 2014


Many of our Presidents have been outdoorsmen--Theodore Roosevelt, of course, being the shining example--and have done much to ensure the future of our sports.  Of course, that street is two-way.  With gun control issues looming and king's grants and private property owners swallowing up river miles across the country, some heads of state are more harmful to our natural resources than others.  In any case, in honor of President's Day and our Nation's most celebrated leaders, here is a throwback post from last November.  


        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.
        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.

Photo by Matt Reilly

        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.

        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. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
        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.   

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


        I’m cold, wet, and tired; and I’m staring at the younger end of a day’s fishing trip.
        In a stumble at the truck, while fitting my wading boots to my feet layered double with wool socks, I planted my bare hands firmly on the icy ground, priming them early for the cruel wind flowing through the trees in the hollow.  Most would say it’s too cold to fish.

        Wading through a slow stretch of river to reach the trailhead is more than most would even consider on a day forecast to remain in a frozen dormancy.  Waders, two layers of Under Armour, gloves, a wool buff, and a waterproof shell grant me courage, and my body begins to regain warmth.  I knock the last trace of chill from my blood with hands tightly clasped around a coffee-filled thermos, with life-saving, heat-retaining qualities.  I drink slowly, and return it tenderly to my pack.

        The cold discovers another way to cling to my body and make its presence known.  The absorbent soles of my felt-soled wading boots collect water and cohere and freeze to the snow beneath my feet.  40 yards into the trek up the mountain, I’m trudging with 4-inch platforms, and the amount of fresh snow is increasing with elevation.

        Now, I’m not naïve.  I’ve fished long enough to judge by weather patterns and forecasts when fishing is less than ideal.  Though I have enjoyed bitterly-cold winter days when catch numbers came in double digits, that is not the norm, nor is it an easy accomplishment.  I am, however, human—one with needs.  And although my sanity is often questioned by concerned friends and family, sometimes I just need to go fishing.  My goal is typically to catch a single fish, to prove it’s possible, if only because the same people who question my desire to subject myself to wind, ice, snow, and cold meet me at the door on my return.   “Did you catch anything,” they ask, with a slim grin.  It’s a cruel game—one I do not like to lose.

        I laugh when the trail grants me the first observation of the water I’m after.  My brother lumbers up beside me, smashing the ice from his soles on a rock.  The tails of the slow, deep holes where I would expect to find feeding fish are all frozen, generously—almost a foot of ice covers some pools, enough to walk on and fish the main runs, at least.

        Winter fishing in small mountain streams is a game of pick-and-choose; and with clear water being the norm, careful casting is a must.  Deep pools are often times supplemented with direct spring water, keeping water temperatures at a stable 40-45 degrees along the river bottom, which is more favorable than the freezing water in skinny riffles influence by air temperatures. 

        We walk the trail, studying pools with a watchful eye and descending into the riverbed when an opportunity arises.  My brother sees a fish; I lose one.  We move on.

        Late in the afternoon, as the air temperature begins to drop noticeably, the trail leads us to a large, deep plunge pool cutting through the mountain’s bedrock.  I estimate it to reach around 16 feet, and its diameter exceeds that of a moderate-sized above ground swimming pool.

        Running a weighted fly deep along the bottom, under floating ice pods, I quickly tie into a first fish—an average-sized rainbow trout.  Several more similar presentations dredge up three more of equal size.

        The sun finally won the battle with the clouds just an hour before it was scheduled to set, bringing with it warmth.  After the last fish, we turned back down the mountain, knocking snow from our boots and drinking hot coffee from our cups, cheerfully.  For a day to begin wind-swept and bitter, I am content to make the return hike in 35 degrees, knowing the cold could not stand in the way of a few fish and a good time.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, February 1, 2014


"Only the River Knows"is a tale of a young Scandinavian bumming around New Zealand's South Island.  When he discovers a journal, left by a previous fisherman, Lars Lenth, in a cabin by a river of great bounty, the stories within lead him to idolize Lenth and his adventures on the island two decades before.  But what happened to Lenth after abandoning the journal and leaving the cabin and the island?

        More literary in nature than other fly fishing films, "Only the River Knows" is a story of perseverance, idols, and fishing, but not without the excitement and wonder that comes with fishing unseen rivers full of giant brown trout in the rainforests of New Zealand.

        It's still not above "Eastern Rises" in my book, but it is a great film, and one worth watching!  Check out the trailer below!