Sunday, June 29, 2014


We lost cell service completely several miles north of Harrisonburg, but the GPS kept trudging along militantly, through country roads, wide open highways, and mining boomtowns native to the Appalachians.  Bloomington, Maryland, the junction of the Savage River and the North Branch of the Potomac that lies in the periphery of I-81 and the greater Ohio River Valley, wasn’t far off, yet relatively, we would lie down our heads in a whole new world come nightfall.

    As the network of roads vein north-westward into West Virginia and on towards Maryland, the topography changes.  Gone are the grassy meadows of the Shenandoah Valley.  Abrupt mountains, rock cliffs, and steep gorges take control of the landscape. 

    The western portion of Maryland is indistinguishable.  Small town after small town, each built around a seemingly timeless trade or business, seem to play a game of connect-the-dots in the riverine hollows and valleys at the feet of overseeing mountain peaks.

    Bloomington is such a town, little more than a settlement serving a paper mill, and defined by the borders of the Potomac and Savage Rivers.  The latter tumbles 30 miles down through a gorge created by Big Savage Mountain, through an impressive reservoir before reaching its confluence with the North Branch.  Pocket water exciting to the trout angler typically characterizes the Savage, but scheduled whitewater releases pepper the summer months.  The river’s optimal PH supports massive insect hatches, creating excellent year-round dry fly action.

    We arrived after dark at a campsite on the bank of the upper river, set up camp, and headed into town in search of dry firewood.  Rain had soaked the understory of the forest even to the hearts of the logs I split with a maul; and the presence of the invasive emerald ash borer gave the DNR cause to regulate the import of firewood.  So we resorted to buying some.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    What was said to be the only firewood vendor in town was closed for the night.  But a friendly clerk put us on the phone with her husband, who suggested we go door-to-door asking to buy firewood from personal stacks--the only warning being not to approach 4217 Spooktown Road because of unrestrained vicious dogs.  We reluctantly attempted this method to no avail, not before nabbing a generous amount of cardboard from the dumpster at the Dollar General.  So, with this unique impression of local culture, we returned to the campsite upon Savage Mountain, the thick precipitating insect hatches spattering the windshield as we climbed. 

A smathering of insect hatches coming off on a Savage River evening.
March browns, sulfurs, PEDs, and caddis speckle the landscape.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    The next morning we set upon the upper Savage with our fly rods and high hopes.  The water was obviously high from a recent rain, and was running swiftly, so I elected a heavily-weighted stonefly nymph to do my dirty work, and produced several nice native brook trout by working it carefully around the now-submerged boulders.  My brother came upon two solid rainbows in a more relaxed pool capped by a sweeper in the tail.  We were both content with our success.

    Further up, the river opened up with more eddies and runs—deeper, and with more obstacles.  Having had success with a stonefly, I tied on a heavier one accented with a fluorescent green underbody while eyeing  a productive looking logjam.  A drift down, almost under the structure triggered a strike from a much larger rainbow, but the hook did not hold, and the fight was short-lived.

    At mid-day we hiked back to camp and drove down the mountain to a small fly shop we’d noted the night before.  Dirty water told us that the river was high, but having never seen the river before, we would not have recognized what the shop owner called flood-stage waters—more water, and more kayakers, than during even one of the scheduled whitewater releases.  Comforting.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    We had limited time, however, and there was no need to be discouraged by the bad news.  We found a pulloff on the lower river, below the dam, strung our rods and went to work.

    Working a very heavily-weighted streamer through the soft seams, still present in the high water, I hooked the first fish of the afternoon—a soulful wild brown trout just surmounting 12 inches.  I snapped a picture, and immediately began scanning the riverbank for similar holes to fish.
A beautiful brown trout from the flooded Lower Savage River
Photo by Matt Reilly
    Skipping from productive hole to productive hole, I picked up seven more fish, ranging from 12 to 18 inches—all wild browns, a rarity for our part of the state.

14 inches of wild brown trout from the Lower Savage River tailwater.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    As the sun set on our first day in Western Maryland, I could feel accomplished at having succeeded in catching a fair number of trout, revealing the river’s true colors, even as it roared by disguised as a whitewater beast. 

Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


The sun beats down in heavy rays; the world hums with the sounds of dragonflies, cicadas, grasshoppers, and frogs, like the radiating drone of a heating oven that grows all the more intense until those brave enough to be out and about are fully cooked and the day begins to cool into night.

Photo by Matthew Reilly.
    The local river offers a refreshing sojourn, and a soothing place to cast a line.  Its fish are predictable, hiding beneath the shade line, waiting for falling insects, waiting for me to slide in and lose myself in the passage of time, throwing flies rhythmically as the trance of the river flows around my bare legs—calling me its own, if only for a little while.  I may very well indulge myself in its cool water on many an afternoon covered in damselflies and sunshine—but even this iconic scene does not complete or define the summer season.

    No, in the summer time I go to play with my farm ponds—the ponds of my youth and my upbringing, where I learned, and where I still do learn.  These beloved, nostalgic settings are puddles, are an acre, are five acres.  They hold the “southern mix;” the “summertime grab-bag—largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, pickerel, and catfish.  When temperatures soar, they grow lily pads and grass, as I cut my hair short; and grass grows up around them—a jungle of broom sedge, blackberries, and nettles—and ticks.

    The rivers of my memory have fish tales and runs and riffles of wonder and tradition.  But the stillwaters of my past are storied with nostalgic stories of fish lost, caught, and mysteries still unsolved.  With every outing, more of the mystery is shaved away.  Yet, when a storm boils the glassy surface; when a fiery sunset stains it orange and yellow and purple; and when I gaze into the translucent, teasing depths, the imperceptibly-booming voice of a mystery still unsolved screams back.

    Summer in the south is slow.  Even the rivers that run turbid and aqua-colored from runoff in the spring slow to a crawl when the sun claims a portion of its body to dump over the landscape come afternoon.  And so the lazy evenings spent afloat on a canoe, hoping to bring back to life one of those long-retired mammoths of personal fishing lore, become unofficially-official periods of thought; for it is a rare time when one is so lucky as to be capable of pure, unrestrained, prolix philosophy.

    Farm pond fishing is not difficult.  The fish that fin below you, along the grassy edges, and that pop the surface to take insects are relatively unpressured by anglers; many techniques and approaches will catch fish, and that’s all that matters.  For me, it’s a popping bug and a long rod.  Plugging along, I think little of the technical aspects of the fishing, and more about the essence of the act.  As long as fish are being caught steadily so that there is a real chance of encountering one of the characters of our fishing heritage and lore, and there is enough leisure to warrant meditation, your have succeeded.

Photo by Matthew Reilly.
    Farm ponds of summer hold a special place in my heart.  They require little concentrated effort to successfully catch fish; and, to me, are the perfect settings for premeditated unwinding.  Spend the evening with one of these beauties, catch fish without a worry, and ride home through a cool sky, fireflies, and the heavy chirping of peepers, and your summer is completed and defined, and your soul truly enriched.   

Originally published in the Rural Virginian