Thursday, May 28, 2015


The outdoor lifestyle is ruled by the seasons, and the seasons by traditions.  There is no tradition that enraptures me more than spring on a native brook trout stream.

A sprightly Virginia brook trout.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Trout do, on occasion, live in ugly places, despite the popular sentiment.  Sewage-contaminated rivers and spillways thick with ground up baitfish and full of big brown trout come to mind.  Brook trout, however, do not—at least in my experience. 

    Their necessary fondness for clean, healthy, and cold water predetermines for them a life in the Appalachian Mountain streams, where they serve as groundskeepers of natural beauty and ecological vitality.  Their absence from such streams is a sure sign of a declining environment.  They are a product of their surroundings; and so it is no wonder that they are the most beautiful of fish. 

    In the dead of winter, when trees lie dormant, the ground hardens, the air chews at your extremities, and the vibrant color of a mountain empire is a faint memory tumbling somewhere downstream, brook trout hold fast to the pigments of God’s generous paintbrush from the bottom of the streambed.  Life resides within the river.

A picturesque plunge pool in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    As spring arrives, the air livens and color springs from water.  Dogwood, redbud, rhododendron, magnolia, mountain laurel, trillium, bluebell, and bloodroot take over the understory, accented by the faint green of budding hardwoods.  Grass, mountain daisies, and ferns cover the sunlit stream banks as the water warms.  Insects hatch and embark on their life’s journey; the brook trout become more active.

Mountain Daisies.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Anglers from Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge, and all over dream of these first signs of spring.  For spring is a strong emotion in the mountains—a sharp contrast to the doldrums of winter.

    It is during the spring months that brook trout will readily take a well-presented dry fly, and it is perhaps experiencing the combination of such pleasant purity and the overbearing gamut of hues and aromas present in the mountain landscape, culminated in the brilliant flanks of a quivering trout, that so accurately summarizes our reason for being anglers in the first place.  It is, at least, why I declare the beginning of the year on a brook trout stream.  I hold few stereotypes, but I can safely assume that where there are brook trout is home to me.

    Those with brookie fever are many, varied, and seemingly unlikely. 

    It is no secret that brook trout are a small quarry.  Three and four weight fly rods are common tools.  Streams are often just a few feet wide, and the fish rarely exceed 10 inches in length, though there is the ever-alluring opportunity for fish in excess of 12 inches.

    Regardless, it is mostly true that anyone with an inkling of Appalachian heritage has a fondness for the sprightly brook trout.  Even the most dedicated of big fish nuts can find excitement in the fish, both for the challenge and the opportunity.

    Though they are not especially selective feeders, brook trout are renowned proponents of the old Reverend Maclean’s philosophy on fishing, allowing no person lacking the particular set of skills required to catch them to do so.

    These skills include--first and foremost--stealth.  The vast majority of brook trout streams are skinny, clear, and full of pockets of water holding several fish.  Keeping a low profile, minimizing false casts, maintaining drag-free drifts, and walking softly are necessary skills.  Successful brook trout fishermen are bona fide Blue Ridge ninjas first, anglers second.

Approaching the fish from behind a boulder shield.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    The typical brookie fisherman spends more money on flies and tippet material over the course of the first two months of spring than the total worth of his or her own rod.  The tightness of cover and challenge of presentation is just another aspect of small stream fishing that adds to the fun.  There are no official testaments to my sanity, but I have often caught myself (on a good day) chuckling when my fly wraps around a limb on my last false cast.

    Gas and energy are equally expended resources.  For the small trout, a dedicated angler’s vehicle is stocked with marked gazetteers and guidebooks detailing even the smallest of mountain trickles, and the “good” fishing often doesn’t start before at least a half-hour hike upstream over rugged terrain.

Wild, beautiful fish in a wilderness setting is the essence of brook trout fishing.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Brookie fever is an affliction difficult to justify or explain except by the emotions experienced in the act of discovering it.  Such an unlikely target is the drive behind hundreds of miles of anxiously explored dirt roads; miles of rough mountain hollows navigated on foot; countless around-the-next-bend expeditions; and bruises, skinned knees, stubbed toes, thorn bushes, and mosquito bites sustained.  It is the focal point of our momentary distraction from civilization, and the medium through which we comprehend the grace of the natural world as it was meant to be.

*Originally published by The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


As of this week, I am officially released from the grip of school.  Summer is officially here, and if you’re anything like me, your soul craves nothing more than river mud- and sand-crusted feet, a timeless journey down a coursing river, and tangling with the resolute will of a river smallmouth.  So, in honor of National Safe Boating Week and everything that summer is, I’ve put together a short list of tips—a refresher—for keeping your float trips safe and enjoyable.

The iconic Massanutten Mountain from Low Water Bridge on the Shenandoah River.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

Check the Weather, Plan for the Worst

    Three years ago I was floating a short piece of the upper South Fork Rivanna River with my brother after work.  It was a last minute plan.  We were just going to be out for a few hours.  The skies were bluebird.  We didn’t even glance at the forecast.

    In this case, what we didn’t know bit us—hard.  We had paddled about a mile upstream and were just about to stop and begin to fish on our float back when an audible roar started to grow in the air.  I rounded a bend in the river to see--like black and white—dark, roiling storm clouds pushing back quickly on a bright sky that had previously seemed unconquerable.  As fast as we could paddle back wasn’t fast enough.  The storm overtook us in a matter of minutes, bringing branches tumbling haphazardly into the water along our path.  We made it back to the truck unscathed, albeit soaked, frightened, and humbled.  Read about that encounter HERE.

    The moral of the story?  Check the weather—always.  Summer is characterized by late-afternoon low pressure systems caused by warming air over land.  Know that, and plan and pack accordingly.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

    A study conducted in four southeastern states concluded that alcohol is a contributing factor in about 51 percent of motorboat fatalities in those states.  If your summertime boating activities involve operating a motorboat, understand that it requires dexterity, awareness of boating traffic, and the ability to make and execute quick decisions. 

    Alcohol also increases the danger of drowning by decreasing one’s ability to swim by reducing their ability to hold one’s breath and by disorientation. 

    Moreover, alcohol should not be utilized as a source of hydration, as its consumption can lead to dehydration.  Alcohol limits the body’s production of an anti-diuretic hormone, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb water.  Putting your body in this situation while on the water, in the sun, is not a healthy choice, and can lead to minor dehydration or a more serious illness.

Know Your Course and River Conditions

    It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time required for a particular float.  I have listened to many a story from people who fallaciously equated the length of the paralleling road to the length of their intended float, or otherwise bit off more than they could chew in a day and ended up on the river much after dark, to ever consciously make that mistake. 

    If you plan to tackle a new stretch of river, do your research.  Know its length in terms of river miles.  On average, eight to 10 miles makes for about four to six hours of relaxed floating.  If you plan to fish, cut that time in half.  Current speed should also be taken into consideration.  An eight-mile float on a fast-paced river will go by much faster than on a slow, meandering river.

    Similarly, it pays to do research on the water type present along the stretch you intend to float.  For instance, the Shenandoah River is a river of many ledges and a few rapids, namely Compton’s Rapids, while the Rivanna River has little in the way of sharp ledges in its lower reaches.  Know these character traits so that you can be on the lookout for them and know how to handle such obstacles when they are encountered. 

    Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, always check streamflow levels before floating a river.  The US Geological Survey maintains a detailed, real-time set of tables fed by river gauges across the country that serve as an invaluable resource for river-goers and fishermen alike.  Utilize that resource to avoid the stretches of slow, flat water where you might have to drag your craft during low water; the tight rapids that will be more dangerous during high water events; and to know when to stay home when the water is at flood stage or a remarkable low.

     Keep these tips in mind while planning and enjoying your times on the water this summer.  Nothing puts a hamper on a great day on the water with friends like an accident, and most can be easily avoided with forethought.

    See you on the water!

 *Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


My eyes snapped open mid-morning.  The previous night found me restless—scouring charts, tables; interpreting the forecasts; weighing my options.  Tides were slight; and the weather, poor.  “Cold spell” complaints were being tossed about Southwest Florida tackle shops like lies since the day I arrived.  At 86 degrees and breezy, I found no quarrel with Florida’s sunny disposition.  Had I met the coast with an inkling of prior knowledge of fly fishing saltwater or the area, I might have.

Matlacha backcountry on a sunny fall day.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    As I rolled from my sleeping bag on the concluding day of my sojourn, the mercury was reduced to 40.  The sky was dismal.  The air carried a briskness that rendered my featherweight Florida fishing garb useless.  The snook that finned my dreams would be stressed.

    Doubt flickered as I shouldered my kayak, and chilled water from a nocturnal storm met exhaustion.  Its weight depressed me.  I pushed on, slinging it atop the car. 

    I met slack tide at D-&-D marina in Matlacha.  A doorbell chime welcomed me to pay my launch fee to a gruff gentleman in a stained gray t-shirt. 

    “You might try it.  Tough day.

    Unstrapping my craft, I toted it to the water’s edge.  An anchor and PFD smacked the gravel with a ceremonial thud.  A milk crate took on fly boxes, Boca grip, leaders, and a dry bag.  A paddle was assembled.  I was a week-old tourist, but my routine was seasoned.

    Every moment of flux is opportunity.  The tide was rising, submerging the shoots of the tangled labyrinth of mangroves where predatory snook would take up vigil over unsuspecting prey.  My plot relied upon a northwest-oriented course winding through the backcountry.  Fighting for every inch of my kayak’s advancement north along the Gulf edge, I was reassured that the gusts would assist me, moving my craft south as I fished.  I needed only to reach the north end of the cut.

    In the tight, winding water trail, the wind was shielded.  I reached my destination inside a half hour.  Rod rigged, anchor secured to the trolley, I slid into a standing position--rod at my feet, anchor boated, paddle in-hand.

    The gloom afforded no chance of sight-casting.  Blind-casting would rule the day.  I poled to a position fifty feet from the mangroves and dropped anchor.

    Drizzle spawned rain and wind slanted it harshly.  Many fruitless casts turned me to gliding upright through an open lake at the confluence of two creek channels. 

    I heard the fish first.  Amid the timid roar of gray static stippling the tannic water of the backcountry, a beast woke and fed.  Billows of an angry sea breeze shrouded the hint and challenged my balance atop my kayak.  The brisk frontal haze thinned temporarily, permitting my strained eyes a quick study of the mangrove edge.  Dark water swirled again beneath arms of green.  My eyes brightened.

    Sixty feet separated me from the fish, and I feared clamoring to adjust my position would spook it.  I stripped line from reel and awaited my moment.

    At once, the wind reduced.  Raindrops thinned.  Losing no time, I flexed my 8-weight.  One, two, three false-casts and I punched my thumb through the cork.  A CK Baitfish uncurled, miraculously, between leafy limbs, tight to the shoots.

    The fly sank for two seconds.  Twitch.  The line went tight before my strip was through.  A surge of whitewater and unseen energy engulfed my fly.  I swept the rod outward, flexing the butt, stripping, driving the hook.  Tug-of-war ensued.  Then, the fish tore parallel to the edge, wrapped the leader, and severed the leader with a flare of her razor-sharp gill plate.

    My legs and arms shook.  Minutes passed before I could sit without tipping.  Ecstatic for fooling a snook into eating, I reconstructed my shock leader, retied my fly.

    My hopes were escaping with the tide.  The perfect ending to my story flashed before my eyes, fleeting.

    But it would be out of character to admit defeat.  The outgoing tide would pull the fish from their hideouts into the troughs adjacent.  I abandoned the lake, and poled on to another location. 

    Around the next bend, a deep drop-off grazed the mangrove shoots.  Ambitiously, I pushed a long cast out parallel to it and let the fly sink.  A few strips turned the water behind the white fly black.  
    My rod hand began to sweat.  The hallmark gill flare sucked in my offering.  My arm reached skyward, coming tight to a fish in the open, with nowhere to go.

A small backcountry snook taken just in the nick of time.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Somehow, I found the grace to kneel.  Raising the rod tip, I reached out and seized the Line-sider by the jaw. 

    On my knees, I gazed into a bronze eye as a warm emotion swallowed me—a summary of my experiences thus far.  I laughed, shakily, and shouted, triumphant.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian 

Friday, May 15, 2015


Last weekend, while camped beside a river in southwest Virginia with the guys--a bachelor party for one of my good friends--I made the overly sarcastic comment that "brook trout only eat flies #16 and smaller."  It should be well known that I regularly fish nothing smaller than a #12.  Ironically, it was during my first week back from college that I put any imagined sliver of legitimacy belonging to that philosophy to the chopping block and slashed it for good.

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    It was a mild day for mid-May--the kind that begins and ends with a sweater and only reminds you of summer as you're hiking to or from a fishing spot.  The water in the Shenandoah National Park streams was low.  It seems that just as we began praying for the end of twice-weekly downpours and the salvation of the smallmouth spawn, our prayers were answered.

    I was fresh home from my first semester at Emory & Henry College, and wanted to waste no time in reacquainting myself with the brook trout of Shenandoah that I had missed during my time there.  The parking lot at the bottom of a favorite mountain hollow, and the hoard of cars that were parked sloppily over boulders and oak roots, welcomed me home like a front door mat.

    Summer showed its warm face as I hoofed it up the trail, determined to out-sweat the flock of visitors.  

    After an hour of walking I set into my groove.  Stimulator.  5X tippet--wait, low water.  6X tippet.  Dozens of average brook trout were coming to hand.

    About two hours before sunset I came upon a long, deep pool.  The head was tight, issuing a two foot wide current down the far bank, tight against a sharp rock ledge.  I could see a few crevices in the rock along the bottom that looked exceedingly fishy.  Grass draped over the rock.  

    Almost instinctively I changed my attractor dry fly for a dense foam hopper pattern.  I checked my backcast--clear--and rolled out a long, overpowered (to created a "plop" with the fly) cast.  Without hesitation, a 10-inch stud of a brook trout rose and sipped the fly from the near seam.

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    I netted the fish carefully, eyes firmed fixed on the target--its head.  As I slipped the fish head-first into the rubber basket, I noticed something in its gullet.  After removing my fly, I probed with my hemostats, and removed a five-inch-long piece of flesh, which I can only surmise to be a small eel.  On top of that, was a large black ant--perhaps a half inch long.  

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    I laughed, knowing fully the veracious appetite of a brook trout, and had to save the evidence in a picture.  For not only had the fish eaten an eel roughly half the length of its own body, within the previous few minutes, the same fish had also eaten a large ant and my beefy hopper.  Now that's a hungry fish!  The evidence suggests that as even these fish, which are typically smaller than 10 inches, get bigger, they become more and more reliant upon meat and large prey.  Use that knowledge while fishing, and you'll see an increase in the number of big fish caught.

    Tight lines.