Tuesday, August 25, 2015


As I wound my way through Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, traffic slowed to a stop. 

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The Northern Tier is a mostly rural landscape, similar to that of the Shenandoah Valley--traffic is relatively non-existent.  Corn fields and dairy cows cover the rolling countryside in a studded patchwork falling off the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.  At the center you’ll find the Pine Creek Valley, the artery which carves the mountain gorge that earned the area the Grand Canyon likeness.  At the heart of that valley you’ll find a beautiful freestone creek, finned by the speckled forms of shouldered brown trout.

    When I came to a halt in the line of cars strung along the single road that follows the creek through the mountains, the obstacle became apparent.  Despite a bluebird sky and no wind, a thick pine tree rooted a few feet from the roadside had met its end and splintered, coming to rest across both lanes of the mountain highway.  Travelers applied insufficient brawn to the trunk, while resigned onlookers crowded the scene.

    Luckily, an ax lay in its place in the back of my car.  A few minutes of sweaty swinging split the branches from the trunk and severed the crown.  The resigned onlookers helped clear the road.

    Despite the delay, the fallen pine tree was not altogether inconvenient.  The mountain air was thin, crisp, but warm and dry.  No rain had fallen in weeks, and the creek ran low.  Perhaps “ran” is an inappropriate verb.  Even the pools and riffles were at a relative standstill.

    I fished the morning with no reward.  Crystal clear water and a bright sky were my foremost opponents. 

    And so in an effort to “switch things up,” I visited a friend in the local fly shop for direction.
October caddis were on the water and thick in the air.  So I left the shop with a few Elk Hair Caddis in my pocket, aimed at a stretch of river rejuvenated by a few small tributaries.

    It was 4:00 in the afternoon by the time I reached the parking area where I planned to enter the water, and the early fall sun was oppressive as it hung just above the western wall of the canyon.  

    Wet-wading would suit, and the river water refreshed me as I waded downstream in search of trout in a recommended location, nicknamed “Monster Pool.”

    A sharp bend in the creek channel and visible riffles just downstream from a creek mouth signaled to me my arrival.  A gravel bank was exposed by the low flow on river left.

    As a matter of stealth, I crossed the creek to prepare my attack on the bank.  I examined my leader.  5X had proven itself ineffective against finicky risers in the present water conditions.  So I converted my tippet to a size finer, and lengthened it by three feet.  A caddis found its way on the end.

    As I edged into the water towards the rising forms of wild brown and rainbow trout, a bald eagle erupted from the bank opposite me.  Cast after delicate cast brought no interest from the fish, despite the cloud of October caddis on the scene. 

    Eventually my fixation on fish lost hold.  A red fox trotted over the ridgeline on the opposite bank, scaring a rather hefty groundhog loafing about the rocky crags half to death.  The predator halted at the commotion caused by the rodent, turned, and followed the creek out of sight. 

    Moments later, my backcast caught on grass peeking up through the gravel to my rear.  I turned to see a black bear cub sniffing curiously about the ground, pausing only to stare confusedly at the flailing angler in his watering hole.  The light of day escaped with the beast as it meandered its way out of sight.

    Suddenly, barely visible in the fading light, rises became audial, no longer delicate.  To a pod of several fish, I fired a short cast dropping my caddis in their feeding zone.  Immediately, it was slurped up and I was fast to a 14-inch rainbow trout. 

    I continued picking off fish, and the action grew faster, more aggressive and indiscriminating, as night settled in.

    My fifth fish was a solid brown, caught in the head of the riffle on a blind cast to noise.  I chased it down to land it in the riffle it inhabited.

    As I handled the fish, plucking the fly from its mouth and admiring its strong form in the dark, the discarded fly drifted with the current between my legs.  A familiar sound caused me to find the fly line tangled in my hand and pull.  And just like that, I released the fish in my left hand, grabbed my rod and turned, tight to another trout in the dead of night.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


In a moment—a flash in time—a decision was made. A portion of the cobblestone streambed broke free, sprouted fiery wings, and, in a twinkling second of serendipity, broke the water’s surface and engulfed the disheveled form of an olive-bodied Elk Hair Caddis that had fallen out of my vice the night before.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I look back on that moment often, never embellished, but as it happened on a favorite, medium-sized native brook trout stream in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The water was running low and slow through a thick August afternoon in Virginia. I could not have been older than 13, but a devoted and starry-eyed fly tyer and fishermen thrilled to have taken my first fish on a self-tied fly.

    I have since (as I would advise all to do) made many more new memories on this favorite stream—casted to familiar rocks and plunge pools, and even found familiar fish in homey haunts. But as they say, “a man never steps into the same river twice,” for he is a changed man for the experience; and I never did.

    Rivers change, too—constantly. High water and flood events, and even the daily coursing of normal water flows, alter the streambed—moving gravel, debris, stones, and sweepers. Bedrock and boulders are eroded. The Grand Canyon itself is the life’s work of the once-strong Colorado River. It is the nature of flowing water.

    When I look back upon that treasured memory, I can vividly recall the physical geography and divine design of the pool where it occurred. It sits at the foot of a steep bank, just a small pebble’s throw from a cobblestone trail. An oak tree towers over the pool’s middle, its sprawling roots creating an undercut bank that sits three feet above the water’s regular height—a product of springs, rainfall, and runoff.

    The pool begins as many do in the Appalachians, with two stones that split a current into four seams—the first of which runs along the steep bank, while the other splits the pool long-ways. The two run a good distance—maybe 20 feet—before converging in the tail and spilling over into the next. It is best approached across from the steep bank, on a gravel bar inhabited by sycamore saplings and mountain daisies.

    That image stays fresh in my mind because the scene is revisited at least once every year, and while the rocks and the bank and the oak and sycamore trees are all still in their place--as I am when I return--the river is, alas, different. The water that grazed the flanks of that five-inch brook trout when it rose to my poorly-presented fly, and that swirled around my ankles as I released it, was fleeting.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    In a flick of the trout’s tail, the river water escaped with the moment, downstream, to mix with warmer water and brine, and flush the gills of smallmouth and striped bass and mackerel, leaving its gentle impression wherever it roamed.

    The impression it left on me is romantic, inspiring, and all-consuming. It inspired a musing that found its way with words, which eventually served as a springboard for a writing career and a growing passion for fly fishing that have together carted me all over the East Coast in search of a similar high.

    Today, I have been blessed to have fished a variety of waters in locations near and far, including many places I call “home,” where I often share the passing of time--and the riffles, runs, and eddies about my feet—with the riverbed and cobble stones. And while I continue to spout words of fish and rivers and wildernesses, the river has etched its own words into the rocks as part of the continuation of the story of creation and nature.

    For that very reason, one of the places I have visited on this ongoing adventure, the Catskills Fly Fishing Center in the Catskills Forest of New York, features a path paved with stones from visitors’ home waters as a celebration of such journeys through water and time; for all of us that have known the romantic relationship with rivers and fish have a story to tell much like this one.

    This summer, one of the stones from that favorite stream of mine in the Blue Ridge made its way into the Catskills to gather with others to tell a story. Such a story is not to be read, but comprehended through an intimate relationship with nature. And in that it will be known that part of that story is our own, written on our souls by the very same current patterns that touched the rocks in a moment shared on a freestone mountain stream where it all began.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


The death of an iconic Zimbabwean lion at the hands of American dentist James Palmer has instigated an international backlash and anti-hunting cries—as if we needed another reason to hate the dentist. However, Palmer may not be deserving of his horrendous media attacking in the aftermath. 

Cecil was popular with tourists largely because he was easily-distinguishable by his black-fringed mane.  Public domain photo.
    On July 30, a black-maned African Lion, nicknamed “Cecil” was wounded by an arrow shot by safarist, James Palmer, who allegedly paid $50,000 for the trophy, according to USA Today. Palmer was hunting with hired professional hunting guide, Theo Bronkhurst, over bait on private land owned by Honest Ndlovu adjacent to Hwange National Park. Upon wounding the predator, caution ruled and the party let the animal rest over night.

    On July 1, Cecil was tracked, found, and killed with a rifle shot. 

    Outrage ensued.

    Cecil was named after Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman and Imperialist who founded the aptly-named Rhodesia in 1895, which became Zimbabwe in 1980. He had long been a favorite of visitors to the national park, largely because he was easily distinguishable by his black-fringed mane. But tourists also note Cecil’s trust in people, often getting as close as 30 feet to cars. 

    Moreover, Cecil wore a radio tracking collar, a symbol of an ongoing research project by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. The 13-year-old Cecil had been under study his entire life.

    So when the radio went silent, the news of Cecil’s death was already known internationally, and hate started flowing Palmer’s way. The typically over-the-top PETA lost no opportunity to label hunting as a “coward’s pastime,” and called for Palmer to be “preferably hanged” if found guilty of killing Cecil.

    Now, I will entertain the outrage:  if there was a living-and-breathing Smokey the Bear, Americans would take offense if a rich Brit staked Jelly donuts outside the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park and took Smokey’s head and hide across the pond to be replicated. 

    However, while Cecil’s death made front page headlines in five major British news outlets, and featured on BBC, Sky News, and CNN, the incident went largely unnoticed in Zimbabwe.

    Maybe that’s because Zimbabwe has yielded an average of 87 trophy lions annually in the past five years, rarely meeting a federally-assigned quota of about 100 cats per year, according to stats compiled by USA Today.

    In fact, foreign trophy hunters are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an opportunity to take an African Lion—one of the “Big Five” African trophy species, along with the African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard, and White/Black Rhinoceros, that are widely held as the most difficult to hunt on the African continent. Approximately $20 million per year—3.2 percent of tourism revenue--enters the Zimbabwean economy because of trophy hunting.  Many would argue it’s a vital trade.

    But because of the lion’s popularity among tourists and researchers, legal investigation followed. According to Lion Aid, a charity dedicated to lion conservation, in Zimbabwe, it is legal to bait lions, and to kill lions—even collared ones. However, the animal must be taken in safari areas, forest areas, or game ranches where a quota is in effect. Bronkhurst and Ndlovu were promptly taken into custody for allowing the lion to be killed on Ndlovu’s private farm where no quota exists, and could face fines up to $20,000 and up to 10 years in jail.

    Meanwhile, a White House petition to have Palmer extradited to Zimbabwe to be tried has surmounted its threshold and should receive executive attention. While the misfortunate Palmer is cited as stating “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” Dr. Palmer’s fate will only be told in time.

    Still, the bigger question (at least for me) is whether or not trophy hunts for lions should be conducted in Zimbabwe. It is well documented that the African lion population has shrunk approximately 82 percent over the past century, and there is no law requiring animals of a certain age to be taken, yet hunting is still entertained. At least Cecil was, at 13, a mature animal. 

    Though immoral, tens of lions are killed illegally every year in Zimbabwe, and are rarely investigated. As a legal shooter, Palmer should be able to rest easy. His guides, on the other hand, who should be concerned with responsible wildlife management, have gotten what they deserve. In all, it is clear that the very fact that “Cecil” bore a name and was the “pet” of the Park has fueled the media bonfire that has followed his death—which is why Farmer Brown doesn’t let his daughter name the chickens.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, August 8, 2015


It may seem strange, coming from a kid who grew up fishing in rural central Virginia within minutes of the Rivanna River and the almighty James, but catfishing is a discipline that evaded my interests and feeble efforts throughout my childhood. It isn’t a family tradition, as is trout fishing or deer hunting; I had no teacher.  And though I had countless trout and bass to my name by the time I achieved adulthood, the number of whiskered fish remained grounded in the single digits, many of which were caught by accident.

Kyle with a small channel cat taken from the Rivanna River
    For that reason, good friend, Brian Bodine, owner of Razorback Guide Service based out of Scottsville, Virginia, offered to facilitate my formal introduction to the cats that fin the James River. A heavy rain swelled the river the day before to a light brown.  Debris was running thick.  The creeks were being flushed of baitfish.

    Marginal action colored the daytime hours, but as the sun set, we found ourselves positioned downstream from a creek mouth, four bait-casting rods fanned behind the boat.  As the last bit of light faded from the sky, talk of coyote hunting, shooting, trail camera pictures, and family took over.  The sound of a clicking drag was an anticipated interruption. 

    Unfortunately, that sound didn’t surface.  Instead, a raucous splashing broke us off in mid-sentence.  A head lamp shined behind the boat revealed a surge of whitewater, and so I sprung to grab a bent rod.  Several cranks on the reel handle confirmed that the fish had taken the bait and swam towards the boat and to the surface.  Luckily, he had hooked himself.

    Brian’s net job brought into the boat a small channel catfish of about three pounds.  Nevertheless, such a tasty morsel was relegated to the cooler.

Kayak Kitties

    Just a week later, Kyle Jenkins, a childhood friend of mine of more than 15 years, and I got together to explore a spot on my home river, the Rivanna, that I had long suspected to sport a thriving catfish population. After work, we loaded two kayaks into the back of Kyle’s Tacoma and headed for the river, which was, like the James, slightly inflated in flow. 

    Spending many summer days on this river with my kayak and no one to shuttle me taught me to paddle upstream.  It provides a workout and a fun way of fishing.  Moreover, water just a few miles upstream from public landings are often much less-pressured than water downstream, and the paddling is usually not too difficult, save for the initial takeoff from the landing.

    Our target was a major creek mouth about two miles upstream where I knew there to be large schools of baitfish holding, as well as some large carp and smallmouth—a place I had visited a hundred times.  However, due to the temporarily high flows, paddling was a bit harder than usual.  

    We paddled and pushed and sweated for a half hour before reaching the slow water that is the tailout of the creek junction. 

    There, I optimistically tied on a small yellow Beetle-Spin to begin my bait-catching efforts.  We didn’t need much.  A small bluegill would do. 

    In just a few casts, a small bluegill answered my call, and blindsided the lure in heavy current, forged downstream, and soon was captured in my hand. 

    Kyle had fallen behind a bit in the upstream paddle, and came up on me as I was landing the fish.  We beached our kayaks on the sandbar at the creek mouth, and I utilized an old, washed-up tire as a cutting board, scaling, filleting, and cutting the bluegill flesh into strips.

    A single strip was used to tip our Carolina rigs, and we once again took position in our crafts, this time pointing downstream.

    A logjam caps the tailout of the run on one side of the river, and we wedged our kayaks against the bank there, making casts straight out and across the current. Feeding slack line, I felt my egg sinker hit bottom, and flipped the bail closed.  Kyle followed suit, and we were set up.

    Catfishing is a change of pace in that it is very social.  In fact, waiting for a fish to present itself in a bouncing rod tip is perhaps the best venue for conversation I’ve encountered.  And often, such conversations don’t last long.

    Kyle’s rod tip was the first to direct attention away from the topic at hand.  Small vibrations turned to a steady pull, and as the line straightened out towards the center of the river, a sweep of his rod secured the fate of a small channel cat of about a pound and a half—his first “on-purpose” cat.

    Just minutes later, my own rod dropped, and we finished the night out with a double.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, August 1, 2015


I get nervous when I lose sight of the mountains.  Something about the overgrown, flat, expansive terrain of the Deep South causes me to lose my bearings and bring my guard up.  

    It's a totally different world.  Last November, as I traveled south on the second leg of my East Coast Adventure, I traded blazing maples and conifers for Spanish moss and cypress trees.  As I grew closer and closer to my destination, deep in the heart of Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, the change was evident.

    That night I laid down my head on firm ground, mere feet from the swamp, but it resonated with the cuckoos and whistles of birds, foxes, and amphibians.  The distinct drone of dread emitted by spiraling mosquitoes hung in the background, and foraging gray squirrels rustled the palmettos above my tent.  Deer wandered close, but kept their distance.

    As the sun set, the temperature dropped.  November in south Georgia is comfortable--comparable to perhaps September in Virginia.  No rain or dew threatened, so I forsook my tent's fly for the first time since I left home on Labor Day.  The moon was bright; and I drifted off to sleep watching embers from a dying campfire drift across its face.

Created with flickr slideshow.

    Morning came early.  I had to reach Fort Myers, Florida by nightfall, but wasn't leaving without exploring the swamp from my kayak.

    I broke water at 6:00 AM.  The swamp was asleep, but slowly awakening under a fiery sunrise.  The creatures I encountered before takeout were foreign--toothed and armored.  Such diversity we have in this country.  Such beautiful ecological diversity.



    The world that bustles on, even along the rural county road, winds down. Though the rolling meadow and white pine veil surrounding my favorite farm pond shield the view of the paved artery from the confines of my canoe, my ears subconsciously monitor its heartbeat. The frequency of passing cars shrinks, replaced by the coming-alive of night sounds.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Whippoorwills, peepers, and crickets announce their presence as my fly rod flexes. The canoe rocks slightly. Fly line exits the craft from my feet, towed by a popping bug that lands with an intentional splat on a lily-padded edge.

    As light fades from the summer sky and the temperature begins to drop, bass “go on the feed.” Their sensitive eyes, devoid of eyelids, find solace at dusk, inspiring them to venture from their tight holdings in the grass and erupt upon frog-esque offerings on the water’s surface. 

    The tell-tale sploosh fulfills that prophecy. I set the hook in reaction, bending the long rod in my hand. After a short battle, I place a thumb in the mouth of a chunky largemouth and hoist him from the water to reclaim my fly and admire my prize. 

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    "Golden light," as it’s called, is a magical time. Wildlife of all species experience an awakening, and go in search of food and fun in the open. The fishing is good and so is the thinking. Experiencing the disappearance of the sunlit day helps to focus the thoughts on the big questions—purpose and place. At dusk, we celebrate something bigger than ourselves. 


    There is something special about a summer night, something that you don’t find in the autumn nights leaving or following a deer trail. In it there is comfort. No impending threat of chill hangs. No undertone of the end speaks. But there is reassurance in the cool of the night air of a middle-aged year, and it stimulates the senses. Time slows down in summer in the South, and the day runs into night.

    I’m still on the water, casting away at fish I know to be hungry and hunting. Despite some canoe difficulty, I am deeply pleased to notice a growing night breeze twiddling the shoots of long grass around the water.

    I am lucky. On this night the moon is rising early. I have a new lease on light, but with no sacrifice of the stars. 

    Taking advantage of the cool breeze filtering through the pond’s beaver pond origin to the west, I paddle to the westernmost bank, distance myself 40 feet from the lily pads, and store my paddle at my feet. Good balance and practice has blessed me with the ability to cast upright from a canoe, and I assume that position as I’m pushed slowly eastward along the edge.

The Tycoon Tackle Flats King under pressure.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Though I am utterly alone in the darkness I don’t feel it. The moon is a welcome fishing partner, as the canoe and my path are illuminated by its light, and the stars reference the county road passersby, now mostly safe in their homes. We’re all alone on this star together. Our troubles are insignificant, and nothing matters, if not the chugging of my popper through the stillness of the night.

    Sploosh! The moon is bright, but fails to eliminate the end of my cast to the foot of a bush. Still, I can hear the progress of my popper when it is interrupted by the ball of unseen energy that I know to be a hefty largemouth.

A hefty largemouth, caught after dark.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The stern of the canoe where I am standing swivels tightly and points towards my opponent as my rod bends deeply into the cork. I make gains on the reel only to have the fish sound at the boat and explore the water on the opposite side of the craft, forcing me to turn and guide the rod tip around the stern. 

    Again we’re in direct competition. I can feel my leader approaching as I crank the reel. The fish is not exhausted, but losing hope. A swishing sound just feet away tells me that the fish is approaching the surface. Feeling the leader with my net, I find the water and scoop.

    A largemouth of six pounds lays cradled in the net, silhouetted in the moonlight. After freeing my hook, I lip the fish and lower him to the water by the side of the canoe. There’s just canoe, water, fish, moonlight, and me. Nothing else matters. When these ingredients come together I emerge with a clean pair of eyes, and it is then that I realize that even that fish and I are in this game of life together.

    I release him from my grip, and a flick of his tail and a spray that soaks my forearm concludes our summertime moondance.