Sunday, June 21, 2015


Last fall, during a gap semester before college that I personally dub my "East Coast Adventure,"  I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with the intriguing world of fisheye lenses.  Thanks to friend Gary Farber of Hunt's Photo and Video, based out of Melrose, Massachusetts, getting my hands on one was no problem.

The fully-stocked Nissan Versa in Fontana Village, North Carolina.  My first application of the Sigma fisheye lens.
Photo by Matt Reilly

    My tool of choice was the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 autofocus diagonal fisheye lens that fits the mounting ring on my Nikon D3200.  It performed well, with little in the way of a learning curve due to the fixed focal length and auto-focus features.

    While the Sigma Fisheye Lense was tucked away safely in my Lowepro camera bag, another field-test product was enjoying a position as my new favorite and go-to fly rod--the Scion Series Tycoon Tackle fly rod in a 9' 4-wt. model.  The Sigma lens enabled me to capture a few quality shots for my review, while emphasizing one of the novel considerations that shooting with a fisheye lens poses.

The Tycoon Tackle Scion riding shotgun.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    In case you didn't notice in the photo above, the photo above has dark corners, and when I tried to crop them out using Photoshop, it negatively altered the composition of the photograph.  This taught me a valuable lesson about fisheye lenses.

The Scion flexin' on a Rose River rainbow.  Photo by Mat Reilly.

    There are two types of fisheye lenses--circular and diagonal (or "full-frame").  Both lenses achieve the same end--a wide-angle, barrel distortion to images.  However, they achieve this end by different means.  A circular lens features an image circle that is smaller than the sensor.  A diagonal lens's image circle is larger than the sensor, and thus the resulting image is captured with dark edges.  I had the latter.

Marabou Roadrunner jigs made for an exciting evening of fall crappie fishing, and a tasty dinner too!  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Now I know.  After a full-immersion crash course in fisheye lenses, I now have a slight clue as to what I'm looking for and how to use them.  Regardless of what lens I purchase in the future, the Sigma is a solid option and performs well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Modern society has convinced the outdoorsman in me that I was born too late.  The rivers that I frequent are suppressed in spirit, their wonder restrained to their actual dimensions by urban sprawl, highways, and water treatment plants.  When I take to the field, I thirst for the refreshing experience of new waters; but I lust for those places tucked away, out of sight, lost in nature—where their essence extends for miles through some black hole of the mind, never threatened by development or the idea that they might, in some dimension, end.

The mighty Saco River at low water, crawling through a White Mountain valley.  Photo by Matt Reilly

    Development.  My parents know what it means.  Their age is told in their memories.  There was a time when Charlottesville, Virginia was not a city, but a town.  Before Walmart and Sam’s Club took their anarchical perch above Route 29, farmer Matheny tended to his cows on the grassy pasture behind a blackboard fence and an illusion that things might never change.  The Rivanna River, in the gulley behind Walton’s culturally-obese babies, coursed higher and stronger through the rolling hills of the Piedmont, its lifeblood not yet stolen by the host of housing developments to come, its finned inhabitants still unrestrained by dams.

    I hear these memories as a young child.  Fear briefly enters and exits my mind.  What will the world look like when I am grown?  But at 8 years old, as far as I know, things don’t change.

    I eventually learned my lesson.

    The woodlot that was destined to be subdivided behind our newly-furnished house was just large enough to be reminiscent of Maine’s “Big Woods” that I had learned of in Field and Stream.  If I walked along the length of the creekbottom, in the shadows of towering ridges, I could escape with the perception of total isolation.

    One spring, I happened upon a stream of moderate girth.  I returned countless times in following seasons, slinging spinners and flies to feisty panfish and pickerel. 

    One day I was startled by the sight of two houses.  Both were under construction; and their backyards had torn into the woodland veil protecting my secret gem, revealing it for all to see, eroding the banks, and slowing the current.

    Sour and cynical over the soiling of my stream, I retreated into my mind to a place where rivers run free and woods seem endless, where constant human activity does not hamper the wildlife activity, and the flora is ornamental by God’s design, rather than that of a landscaper.  It was from this experience that I began to crave wild lands removed from human occupation.

    By the time I earned my driver’s license I was a passionate fly fisherman, completely lost in the sport; and my search for new water took me to where my childhood fantasies existed in actuality—the Shenandoah National Park, where my dad had taken me to grouse hunt and trout fish at a very young age.  Now, with the means to transport myself, I set off into the Blue Ridge when I yearn for the tug of a sprightly brook trout.

    I drive west; and as the roads turn from pavement to gravel to dirt to nothing, and the hardwoods close in above my head as I’m intertwined into the deep, meandering hollows where the freestones run, the shackles of society and modern, complicated life disintegrate into the air.

    I can fish my way through the gorge that the Rapidan River flows through in consensual ignorance.  In my mind, the Park does not end, but extends forever in every direction, as does the river; and the fish in its watery depths are virgin natives—refugees, like me.

    When a brook trout comes to hand, my suspicion is upheld.  The fiery brilliance that adorns its belly and pectorals, the olive river rock along its back, accented by strong blue and red bull’s eyes make me believe that they are a purity in nature, a stronghold of all that has been lost in the world, safeguarded, hidden in the bottom of a mountain stream. 

    But alas, I know this illusion is false.  The trout in my hand is a species endangered by a host of man-made threats; and its range retreats into the mountaintops yearly.  However, unlike the Piedmont stream of my childhood, this one is protected, forever sealed from peripheral development by 197,000 acres of federally-protected land.  To the brook trout, and to me, that thought is full of hope; as it is a symbol of like-minded individuals concerned with the state of the environment doing their best to secure recreational areas and wildlife havens for future generations, to preserve our spiritual haunts.  In a word, it is a promise:  For as long as I, and my children, live, places like Shenandoah will be protected and cherished by sportsmen.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, June 7, 2015


As I pen this column, Virginia’s trails are no doubt overrun by Memorial Day hikers, and for that very reason I have resisted the urge to visit my favorite spot in the Shenandoah National Park.  Next weekend should be no different; as the first Saturday in June is officially designated “National Trails Day,” a celebration of the wonderful system of paths veining our beautiful country.  In honor of this event, I’ll detail a few places I’ve developed a soft spot for in and around central Virginia.

Saint Mary’s Wilderness

    The Saint Mary’s is a special place to me and a popular and well-known destination for hikers and fishermen alike.

    This federally-designated wilderness of almost 10,000 acres is situated in southeastern Augusta County, surrounding the upper Saint Mary’s River.  About 17 miles of trail negotiate the rugged gorge that guides the river, from the lower end of the property near Raphine up to the southern edge of Big Levels at Green Pond.

    The Saint Mary’s Falls Trail begins at the lower parking lot, accessible via Forest Service Road 41, and, moving northeast, fords the river before dead-ending at the wilderness’s dominating feature—Saint Mary’s Falls.  This is by far the most popular hike; the plunge pool below the falls is usually full of cliff-divers during the warmer months.

    The Mine Bank Trail descends into the gorge from the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Fork Mountain Overlook near Milepost 23, following one of the River’s largest tributaries, Mine Bank Creek.  Roughly two miles of downhill trekking will land one at the intersection of the lengthy Saint Mary’s Trail, just within striking distance of the river.  There are a handful of quality camp spots at the base of the hollow where the waters converge, making this trail popular among backpackers.  Keep in mind, though the hike in is relatively easy as it is all downhill, the reverse trip is strenuous.  Plan time accordingly. 

    The Saint Mary’s Trail—the property’s longest trail—begins at Green Pond.  Forest Service Road 162 branches north from the Parkway at Milepost 22.2 at Bald Mountain Overlook and leads to this trailhead, which is probably the least-utilized.

Sugar Hollow, North Fork of the Moormans River

    I’m not giving away any secrets here.   Much to the chagrin of Charlottesville’s brook trout fishing crew, the parking lot at this trailhead near the upper end of Charlottesville’s Sugar Hollow Reservoir is rarely devoid of a car, but it has earned respect from me, both for the experiences I’ve had in the Hollow and for its closeness.

    Follow Garth Road west from Charlottesville and continue on Route 614 until reaching Sugar Hollow Reservoir.  The trail departs from the parking lot at the upper end of the reservoir.

    Three river fords and 2.3 miles of trail separate the parking lot and the Big Branch spur trail on the left that ascends to the Skyline Drive at Black Rock Gap in 3.7 miles.  The main trail continues past the spur, generally following the river.

    If you arrive at the trailhead and the parking lot is slammed, you may achieve a bit more solitude by opting to hike the South Fork of the Moormans River instead.  A yellow iron gate bars the head of this trail on the downstream side of the parking lot.  Ford the river in the first few yards, then continue up the trail to the famed “Blue Hole”—a seemingly bottomless swimming hole.

Humpback Rock

    Again, this is no secret.  The Humpback Rock trail is easily one of the most popular hikes in Virginia thanks to the beautiful panoramic view of Shenandoah’s west slope and the Shenandoah Valley, but if you’re looking for a short, fun hike with a great reward, you can’t beat it.

    At Milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the base of the Mountain Farm Trail, there is a 19th Century interpretive farm setup.  This marks the trailhead for reaching Humpback Rock.

    This is a short trail of about a mile that gains roughly 800 feet in elevation.  The first portion of the trail is graveled and very steep, but the remainder is rugged, steep, and somewhat muddy.

    The namesake outcropping at the peak is well worth the expended energy, though there is an astonishing amount of writing on the rocks from past hikers. 

    Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the trail, pack your headlamp and camp out on the peak to watch the sun set over the Valley.

    Now that I’m through with this column, I’m excited to go exploring in the days to come.  I’ve only named three, but there are countless other hikes of equal or greater challenge and reward within a short trip from Charlottesville.  Get out and take advantage of the miles of trail within our very own Shenandoah National Park this weekend!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian