Wednesday, February 25, 2015


A new chapter of my life’s story began on the year’s second weekend as I rolled south down I-81, towards Emory, Virginia—my new hometown for the four years to come.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Town” is a generous classification of Emory.  Emory & Henry College, a few quiet residential streets, and a post office comprise its bulk, a fact that consistently elicits a grumble from a proportion of students—“There is nothing to do here.”

    On the contrary, I’d be lying if I claimed that E&H’s location carried no weight in my college choice.  Southwest Virginia’s “Mountain Empire” is a mecca for outdoor recreation.  The school’s stellar reputation only justified my decision, assuring me of the wonderful experience it would offer. 

    I spent my previous semester acquainting myself with the East Coast, not in the common sense detailed in rest stop brochures, but by experiencing natural communities and interpreting them with pen, camera, tent, and rod.  The move to Emory was an extension of that pursuit, with added promise of formal education.

    It was a challenging transition—pivoting from a lifestyle that allowed me to be outdoors all day and every day to one that required schoolwork.

    However I realized shortly when my free time would be and where I would use it.  A tip from Bruce Wankel, owner of the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop, sent me into the mountains with confidence.  The concept of starting anew accumulating knowledge of local waters excited me, and I steadily began picking apart a small, special-regulations, spring-fed headwater stream.

    My first trip began at mid-morning on a cold January weekday.  The sun beamed through the trees and onto the water coursing through the hollow, inspiring marginal insect activity.  My first fish came on a weighted nymph—a red-banded, rosy-cheeked, leopard-spotted wild rainbow trout of about 9 inches.

    I began subsequent trips above the pool that concluded my last; keeping my eyes open; noticing the presence of insects; adjusting weight, tippet, and flies as needed--all to solve the puzzle. 

    The first three trips saw increasing numbers of fish—15 to 25 to 35.  Local intel informed me that a 14-inch rainbow was a trophy specimen.  This was encouraging, having netted several such fish on my outings. 

    My fourth trip began early on a weekday in early February.  The temperature dipped into the teens overnight and remained there, the sun shielded by clouds.  15 MPH wind gusts drove the chill deeper.
Under Armour, wool socks, flannel, outer layer, gloves, beanie—with each layer I pushed temptation to stay home back, and the icy river regained its allure.

    The river snaked through thick bottomland as I followed it from the road, my mind’s eye recalling the last pool from the week before.  A sharp bend caught my eye.  I pulled over.

    As my boots crunched over frozen leaves, I estimated the amount of river left to fish.  Fishing all day would land me at the uppermost boundary of the special regulation water, and I would have completed my exploration of the upper river.

    The day began slow, maybe a function of the overnight temperatures.  I summoned all of my patience and diligence, ensuring with painstaking adjustment that my offering retained contact with the riverbottom at all times.  At last, the first fish of the day flashed at the end of my leader.

    The day offered many small fish.  All but one out of 35 taped under 12-inches upon the hour that declining temperatures and loss of light hinted that my time was short.

    Around the next bend, a metal sign hung from rusted cable spanning the river—the end of public water—my destination.

    The sign commanded a bend in the river—a narrow, deep channel sweeping over large chunks of rock.  I took my time in plying the bottom, adding split shot and achieving effective drifts.  A last pool deserves such treatment; and this one, a particularly elevated reverence, as the last run of my month-long exploit.

    The soft glow of the sun behind winter’s gray mask was sliding behind the hills.  Frost chewed at my fingertips and nose, tempting me to secure my fly and begin the hike back.

    One more drift.

    An overhand lob of an awkward double-nymph rig weighted with several split shot landed high in the shallow head of the run and tumbled slowly along the bottom to the depth of the bend.  Rod horizontal, line tight, I bounced the flies past a submerged rock.  The line hesitated.  I swung for the sky.

    Warmth reclaimed my extremities.  Sweat sprouted from my forehead.  A rolling silver flash threatened to tear the long rod from my hands.  Moments later, an arm-length fish painted as a rose bush took to the dim sky, turning the page on the first chapter in the frozen mountains of southwest Virginia.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginia

Saturday, February 21, 2015


If someone were to survey outdoorsmen on their least favorite month, a strong case would likely be made for February.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    Though a multitude of sporting opportunities might be pursued in the second month, everything from trout, bass and musky fishing to snow tracking, predator calling and skiing, February is a time of relative slowness in the out-of-doors. The calm, however, precedes the rapid changes that will occur across the Old Dominion come spring. Thus, February is a logical time to make preparations for the upcoming season.

Tackle Care

    In my pre-driving years, when I was still entirely dependent upon my elders to transport me to the water, I became a master at organizing, cleaning, honing and reorganizing my gear. Even for those with the freedom to take off to fish at any given moment, this is a worthwhile chore to undertake at least once a year.

    Start with your reels.  With both spinning and baitcasting reels, remove all moving parts, clean them and apply a small amount of reel grease to help keep them lubricated and smooth. Don’t apply to much — an excessive amount will stiffen the reel’s movement. Apply an anti-rust protectant such as WD-40 to the outer surfaces. Wipe down, air dry and reassemble.

    Rods can be given the same care. Windex and a paper towel rubbed on the cork handle is a good cleaning solution. Wipe down the rest of the rod blank for good measure.

    It’s a good habit to replace weathered lines every season, depending on their use. A few dollars is a small price to pay to guarantee that your connection to the fish is at peak performance. A clever alternative to buying new line is to strip the current line from the reel spool and reverse it. This places the effectively new line that was at the very core of the spool on the outside. This line will have lots of memory, but applying a product such as Blakemore’s Real Magic will eliminate memory and clean the line for increased casting distance.

    Fly lines can be cleaned with the same product, or with a fly line-specific product. Though lines should be cleaned regularly throughout the season, a thorough pre-season cleaning is essential to starting out on the right foot.

    Inventory should be taken of your tackle boxes, too. Depleted lures should be replaced, and every piece of your fishing arsenal should be put back where it belongs (I know it won’t stay there for long), as this will only save you time on the water.

    Treble hooks on lures should be replaced and sharpened.

    When all is said and done, there are always flies to be tied and more fine-tuning to be done.  Fishing is an art, so take care of your tools.

Blustering Bass

    Unfailingly, every year, spring peeks out from behind the gray sky of February. For two days — maybe three — sunshine and temperatures in the 60s replace snow, sleet and cold, and fisherman go mad for winter’s temporary disguise.

    Underwater, bass feel the change, too. Winter has slowed their metabolisms to an all-time low. But as water temperatures heat up, so do their metabolisms.

    Larry Largemouth puts on his feedbags, and the urge to spawn pulls him progressively shallower, creating a unique window of opportunity for fishermen.

    It was on a February weekend with such weather that I rounded up my younger brother, Connor, and pleaded with our mom to drive us to a local farm pond I had acquired permission to fish.

    The sun was blinding as it beamed down onto the open field and the glimmering pond into our soft, wintry eyes. Wind swept the broomsedge and pines — March’s lamb-like temperament was early.
With Connor tagging along, I was more than happy carrying my Nikon and coaching him on his casting and retrieval, more than confident that we would find some fish.

    We first set up on a main point, adjacent to a known spawning cove where the water temperature was in the low 50s.

    Bass will use these sloping points as underwater elevators when altering their position in the water column for temperature gains. In the summertime, the cove’s mouth is choked by a weedbed, so with the wind in our faces, I attempted to commentate what was happening subsurface. 

    As the wind blew micro-invertebrates with the water current toward the point, small baitfish would follow and with them, larger predatory fish.

    No sooner had I said this, a small minnow broke the water’s surface ahead of a charging V-wake.
Connor, rigged with a white, three-inch plastic swimbait, cast into the wind and retrieved it with subtle twitches, rod tip up. 

    I grabbed my Nikon when his retrieve was interrupted, and he excitedly set the hook on a chunky four-pound late winter largemouth.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, February 12, 2015


In early February, the out-of-doors can be an inhospitable place, and with deer season long concluded, many outdoorsmen hang their hat and dream about spring by the fire.  However, thanks to last year’s regulation amendment, squirrels remain in-season with rabbits, until the last weekend in February.  Pursuing either may provide enough adrenaline to ward off winter’s chilly advances.

Photo by Matt Reilly

Two Triples

    After a 25-fish morning on a Blue Ridge brook trout stream with my older brother, Phillip, I embarked on my drive home with the sun in my eyes.  The warm mid-day sun had raised the mercury almost 20 degrees since dawn, and I knew the woolly bushytails in my favorite woodlot would be drawn up into the hardwood canopies to soak up the rays.  My trigger finger itched, and I pressed a little harder on the gas pedal.

    Dead oak leaves crunched under my boots with just a few hours of daylight left.  I couldn’t blow any shots and expect to leave the woods with my limit of plump squirrels.  Luckily, I thought, with the winter mating season in full swing, my quarry would be a bit distracted.  Sneaking to within range of a playful bunch might present multiple shots for my 20-gauge scattergun.

    I crossed a small creek at the base of a ridge and paused, listening for activity.  Nothing.  Continuing up the ridge on heel and toe, I made two steps before a gray missile bolted from the trunk of a white oak and began scaling another.  I shouldered my shotgun and landed the bead on the hesitating, spread-eagle gray.  A squeeze of the trigger cashed #6 shot for the evening’s first bushytail.

    I hadn’t shucked the spent shell before two more squirrels fled from the creekbottom.  One made an acrobatic attempt to find safety in an adjacent tree, and a report from the 20-gauge dropped it as it struggled for footing.  The other made an athletic departure along a fallen oak tree, but the third and last shell in my chamber stopped it short. 

    A half hour later I found myself running out of light.  At the base of the next ridge, I could hear the scampering of multiple squirrels in the dense creekbottom, hidden only by a small rise.  When I was sure they were distracted with each other, I closed the distance to a wide oak trunk over the rise in quick bursts, imitating the sound of a pouncing bushytail.

    The first shot was presented when an alarmed gray jumped from the trunk of an oak into the branches of another.  Peeking around my temporary cover, I took aim and sent it tumbling.  The next peeked around the base of another oak, presenting a head shot that didn't go unclaimed.  A third held tight on the forest floor for several seconds before making a mad dash up the nearest hickory tree.  I ran forward ten feet before he began his assent up the trunk and, taking a quick knee, fired a rising shot for a second triple and the last of my limit.

Rabbits in the Open

    It was in the final week of the 2012-13 deer season that I was perched high in a tripod overlooking a food plot of clover, radishes, and alfalfa.  The green lanes were cut from the surrounding pine and rose thicket, which I knew to hold scores of cottontails.  In fact, it was rare that I made the walk to my stand without jumping a rabbit or two, and any time spent in the camouflaged perch was likely to see regular bunny traffic coming to the wood’s edge to feed on leafy greens.
    A .22 in the place of my .243 would have filled the pot, but instead, at a later date, I approached the thicket with a shotgun and small game loads.  Countless rabbit trails emerge where the pine-needled edge meets grass, so I surveyed for concentrations of traffic before diving into the tangle.

    Once inside, potential rabbit hide-outs are easy to spot.  Bent over cedar trees, hollow logs, rose bushes, tree piles—each should be approached, gun at the ready.  I proceeded in this manner for two hours, and jumped a total of five cottontails.  In each case, it escaped without injury with no shots fired.

    It is typical of spooked rabbits to return to their individual piece of cover when danger has moved on.  However, keeping a tight eye on return routes, I could detect no movement after several minutes of waiting. 

    Regardless, there is no better way to jump-start your heart in the frozen February woods than with the spirited exodus of a fleeing rabbit.  With any luck, next time’s score will lean in my favor!

Originally published in the Rural Virginian 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


And there it was—the feeling that all had not been explored, that there is potential for virgin country in our American backyard.  Modernity lends us this injustice, that six centuries after the age of exploration, we must strive to escape an urbanized globe and find ourselves outside the reaches of roads, noise pollution, and fellow wanderers to achieve a consensual ignorance in which we lead, if only for an afternoon, an exposed, wild existence.  And then it hit me, as a kiss from an overhead stalactite.

    Below the bi-state city of Bristol, a small tributary to the South Holston River gurgles out from a rocky bluff in a hardwood hollow.  Rural countryside greets its escape from the hollow—a landscape that fails to suggest what lies in the trickle’s headwaters.

    That particular headwater I, along with a group of nine, traced into the mountain—or rather under it.  A wall of warm, stagnant air hit our faces as we ducked beneath a low ceiling.  With that, donning hard hats and headlamps, we were inside the best natural spelunking cave east of the Mississippi.  Exploration was not lost.

    As we were warned prior to takeoff, the setting is a living, wet cave, still forming as minerals drip from the cave ceiling and stalactite canals to the floor, creating pillars and mounds and a generally muddy surface composition.

    Old clothing is the uniform of champions here.  Not in the “wear old clothes in case they get dirty” sense, but in the “they will be ripped, punctured, shredded, soaked, and muddied beyond belief” sense.  Old work pants and a cheap sweatshirt or long-sleeve t-shirt are prime choices.  A synthetic base layer is optimal, along with your choice in synthetic socks.  Shoes should provide adequate protection and traction.  Boots and old sneakers are good choices.

    Within seconds we were on all fours.  Mineral formations don’t oblige body types or skeletal structures.  To progress, we were forced to take shapes, to solve the problems faced, physically.

    After much ducking and crawling, we came to a cliff—an underground mountain of sorts.  Our guide promptly climbed the boulders to the peak, where the chamber continued deeper into the ground, tied off a rope to a triangular rock, and tossed down the hand line.  We repeated this process twice, over two rises, those in the rear chocking the feet of those ahead and spotting as they made the ascent gripping the hand line.

    Because of these situations, being guided as a first-time spelunker is strongly-encouraged.  As one might imagine, spending time underground is dangerous--even more so without any prior experience or training.  Thus, the best way to explore a living cave is through a guide service or caving club, or “grottoe,” associated with the National Speleological Society.  They will be informative and skilled, warning against harming the fragile cave ecosystems and helping to prevent the spread of issues such as white nosed bat syndrome.

    At that time, we had reached the upper level of the cave.  Along the way we took our time in exploring tight spots, which did and did not lead to other rooms; most passed through walls or under the floor to reemerge again. 

    When in such a position, where one can literally not move to the left or right, but difficultly forward and backward, it’s surreal to attempt to observe the scene out of context.  To the average earth-dweller, who inhabits a house or apartment, who exists in the sunlight each and every day, and who makes their tightest squeeze when passing through a door jam or cars in a lot, a two-foot tunnel of living rock below a river and fathoms of earth and mountain is a foreign place to wind up.

    Yet, adrenaline seems to limit reflection or fear in such places.  For, with your arms stretched forward over your head, it’s amazing what crevices a human can navigate.

    As we began our descent, we came upon a hole.  Though hidden by a 12-foot mound, it was perhaps five feet in diameter, and extended downward a few hundred feet.  Crawling over the mound, we crab-walked down the chute until the slope grew steeper and sliding became the effective motive of transport.  One steep downhill turn, and we landed knee-deep in an underground river!

    In the dark, wading perception becomes difficult, particularly with others clouding the water.  So we remained in a straight line, sending clues up and down the line.

    After nearly a half mile of river channel had been covered, we found dry (ok, muddy) land again, and promptly climbed into a slot roughly 10 feet wide by two feet tall and 80 feet long.  An 80-foot roll commenced, and when we were finally upright again, a foreign light penetrated the darkness in our dizzied state.

    The sun.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian