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

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