Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Finally relaxed, nose mechanically plugged and eyes squeezed closed, I pushed my hands past my ears and over my head, tracing the rim of the cockpit for a nylon loop attached to my skirt. As quickly as I found it, I formed a fist and ripped it over my head, twisting, pushing free, and bursting from cold river water into a seasonably warm early fall afternoon.
Public Domain photo.
    Knee deep in slack water, the South Fork of the Holston River dripped from my traumatized face. I had just completed my second ever “wet-exit” from a whitewater kayak, as a prerequisite for my first run down one of southwest Virginia’s domineering rivers. I was green, to say the least.

    Whitewater kayaking, on all counts—from the construction and maneuverability of the craft to the safety precautions and nature of the game—, is a different sport entirely from flatwater kayaking or floating a moderate river in a sit-on or sit-in boat. It’s a win-lose battle with hydrologic currents in which every stroke, every tilt, every pressure point, is a decisive action.

    Luckily, there’s one hard-and-fast rule that I was repeatedly offered—lean forward, paddle hard, even if you’re backwards.

    Jim Harrison, Director of the Emory & Henry Outdoor Program, whose boat I followed like a distressed duckling down the first rapid, echoed this advice from ahead.

    The first piece of whitewater I was up against was a choppy rapid I would be tempted to dub a “narrow” as a fisherman. A multitude of large rocks studded the riverbottom as the river’s width halved, resulting in a frothy water slide 200 feet in duration.

    From an upstream position, I did my best to center my weight in the boat, lean forward, and dip short but powerful strokes at the bow, managing to keep a straight course, even when falling into the holes behind larger boulders. The bow would dip, get drawn down by tumbling water, and pulled forward, until the hull met the system and bucked the whole craft upright, and over the bulge, each rapid paddle stroke an anchor point.

    Covered in spray and pumped with adrenaline, I battled through to the tailout upright and oriented, until I hit the tailout, that is. Relaxing, I must have put more weight on the left side of the seat, because the bow swerved to the left while I still had a good amount of speed. Luckily, I remembered to paddle, and saved myself from a coldwater swim.

    A few hundred yards of flat water provided me opportunity to practice. Consistently tracking a straight path remained a difficulty. I couldn’t solve the left-hand spin.

    Regardless, the next obstacle was up, this time, complete with a belligerent name—“The Fist.”

    The others in our party, seven students from the College, took turns shooting the famed rapid, one at a time, each aiming to trace the same “line” through the system.

    When at last it was my turn, I was still skeptical of my sub-novice ability’s suitability for the task at hand, but, determined to give it my all, went forth anyway.

    “The Fist” is a rather tight rapid, the safe and preferred currents of which run tight to the right bank, under several overhanging tree limbs, and finally through a choppy froth near the tail, which quickly meets an outward jut in the bank.

    Leaning forward and paddling hard, I managed to save myself from flipping through to the end. Still, I had built up enough speed to make the approaching jut dangerous. Human instincts being what they are, my eyes were locked on the danger zone (a recommended practice when rowing a driftboat or raft), influencing my balance and keeping me straight on towards collision. Thankfully, I managed to shift my weight and avoid conflict with the trees.

    Light was fading fast from the river valley as we approached takeout. Only one obstacle was left to conquer. “Triple Drop” is a relatively straightforward rapid, save for the three sudden drops of a few feet, and the eddies that accent the current seams. Maintain a straight course, and avoid the back eddies, and you’re golden.

    I was second in line this time, behind a friend of mine. Our line ran at first tight to the left bank, under overhanging limbs, then towards the middle of the river where the drops started. Drop one spat me out disoriented—sideways. A few paddle strokes corrected the issue, just in time to take on the second.

    However, at the last second, an eddy grabbed my bow and swung me backwards. Still straight, although in reverse, I was pushed over the second drop. The third drop came, and the story was the same—backwards, but leaning forward, paddling hard. I landed intact, redirected my course, and found takeout.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Mountains are the world’s best hiding places. They can shield you from what’s immediate and threatening and place you closest to what’s most important in a single breath. This, I am certain, was God’s intention; to move or alter one should be a sacrilege. The communities and cultures that emerge at the end of the roads that navigate the folds and ridgelines, and cross the creeks that animate them, are, by design, strongholds for old-world values and charm. Thus my soul is pulled down secondary roads that lead up and away.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    For a few hundred miles, as they dive into the southwest corner of Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains find girth. The highlands to the west begin to expand from the narrow crest that mounts in the central part of the state, and continue to do so as they roll into western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee—the Great Smokey Mountains. Ridges and fertile valleys take turns striping the land to the east, giving rise to a number of small mountain towns that once dotted a railroad that wandered the valleys and hollows.

    Taylor’s Valley is one such destination. Nestled in the palm of the southwest Virginia highlands, the village is as far removed as you can get in just a 15-minute drive from Damascus—affectionately dubbed “Trail Town USA.” Fork Mountain, which separates the two populations geographically, pushes the traveler south into Tennessee along a mountain highway before a ramshackle, faded, wooden sign directs him northward along a pot-holed road back into the state from whence he came.

    While I refrain at all costs from writing about secrets, Taylor’s Valley is none such. In fact, visitors—hikers—en route from Springer Mountain, Katahdin-bound on the Appalachian Trail, pass through shortly after making their collective favorite stop in Damascus. Perhaps Virginia’s most popular bike trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, drives dozens of bikers through town daily. A single-lane bridge spanning Whitetop Laurel Creek—arguably one of the highest quality trout streams in the Southeast—is the town’s welcome mat.

    Gardens are plentiful; gas stations, nonexistent. Churches outnumber restaurants, which are few; and on a pleasant fall morning it would not be a surprise to find the majority of residences vacated for the comfort of nature. The Game Department’s regular stocking of the creek throughout fall and spring makes the retired man sporting hip-waders, creel, and limber spinning rod a common character—canine companions are optional, but largely endorsed.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    It’s a homey place. That’s the impression I got when I opened my car door in a small gravel shoulder by the creek to find my very own dog waiting for me, like a housewarming present for my sojourn. Perky ears and friendly eyes stared me down, a wet nose implored my hands for attention, as I shouldered waders and strung my fly rod, intent on sampling some of the Valley’s aquatic villagers, but not without satisfying its four-legged one.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Golden leaves barreled down the creek pecking at my fly line, catching my fly on occasion. Patience and persistence payed out, though, in the form of four chunky brown trout, flamboyantly adorned with spawning garb.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I released the last fish and looked up to notice an elderly man fishing a good way above me. I stepped out of the river to explore upstream and give the man some space to enjoy the morning, but happened upon him leaning by his aged red pickup, retired from fishing.

    “Seems every time I looked you were doubled up with one of them!” he exclaimed.

    “The jury’s still out on the luck part of it,” I returned politely.

    “Any browns,” he inquired?

    “All browns,” I replied,

    “Huh,” he returned, hoisting a stringer of four rainbow trout. “They looked pretty good sized. Last year the state did a questionnaire asking people if they’d have lots of small and average fish or fewer bigger fish, and I think they settled on bigger. Works out good for me. I come down here when I can, but I don’t fish any of those other creeks. This one is the prettiest.”

    “There’s something to be said for that,” I said. “They say ‘trout don’t live in ugly places.’ Those are some nice fish.”

    “Tell me, are you a Christian?” he asked.

    “Yes, sir,” I said.

    “I thought I could tell it on your person,” he replied, smiling. “Most folks here are. Some of ‘em opened up their home as a cafĂ© for the bikers. Their chocolate cake won some award in one of them southern magazines.”

    Talk of family and fishing petered out after a snack and a wave. I moved upstream to explore, caught a dozen more trout, exchanged waves with the bikers and hikers, and thought a familiar thought: These hills are home. And everything in them.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


The George Washington-Jefferson National Forest—covering over 1.8 million acres in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, it is one of the largest blocks of public land in the eastern United States, however non-contiguous and geographically tattered.

    In May of 2014, a portion of that map—the Old Dominion’s legacy of public land access—was filled in. Thanks to the land ethic and cooperation of the Campbell family—private landowners from Nelson County—317 acres surrounding Spy Rock were purchased through the National Park Service with funds provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Consequently, a portion of the Appalachian Scenic Trail and the scenic view from the Rock were preserved while providing opportunities to better wildlife management and access for outdoor recreationists.

    Over the course of its 50-year history, the LWCF has effectively leveraged the preservation of over 5 million such acres.

    Unfortunately, in September of 2015, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman, allowed the LWCF to expire, representing anti-federal leanings present in parts of the West where the majority of the country’s federal public land is located.

    Conceived in 1964, the LWCF embodies Congress’ bipartisan promise to work to preserve public natural areas, water resources, cultural heritage, and other recreational spaces in the American image—and at no cost to taxpayers. A small fraction of revenue generated from oil and gas companies drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf has historically provided Congress with up to $900 million dollars to be funneled into the Fund annually, though in recent years, about two thirds of that money has been rerouted to fund other, unrelated projects, and is untraceable. 

    The funds that are allocated to the Fund are divvied up into federal and state pools, to benefit an array of different spending projects. On the federal side, funds are utilized to purchase inholdings—swaths of privately-owned land within or adjacent to federally-owned public land. Interested landowners are offered fair market value by a land trust or group like the Nature Conservancy, and the land is then sold to the state or federal agency.

    State-allocated money is utilized more broadly. “State dollars flow to each state to spend on state parks, greenways, county parks, ballfields, trails, etc.,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “There is also a powerful part of the program called Forest Legacy that purchases conservation easements from working forest owners. They get to stay on the land, own it, timber it—Forever. It’s a great program that helps the local timber industry and families. Land gets protected and the government has no maintenance cost.”

    Now that the LWCF is in limbo, so are the projects scheduled for the 2016 fiscal year. In Virginia alone, over $8 million dollars was on schedule to purchase land within the Washington-Jefferson National Forest. Still another $15 million was set to protect critical resources within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the New River headwaters. While this money will still flow towards these projects this year, most of these deals will require more than a year’s time, and will likely outlast their monetary resources.

    Likewise, the expiration of the LWCF on September 30, earlier this year, was certainly counted as a loss within the sportsman’s community. However, no time has been lost in launching a campaign to reauthorize it with full funding.

    Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana told Backcountry Hunters and Anglers that reauthorization of the LWCF has “a higher probability if we attach it to another piece of legislation.” Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, a local champion of the LWCF, continues to seek out that vehicle bill. Current candidates include the currently-proposed omnibus spending bill or a highway bill that will fund the Highway Trust Fund. Regardless, LWCF advocates must first convince Congressional leadership to allow the amendment of such a bill with the LWCF reauthorization provision.

    On the morning of November 5, Rep. Bishop presented a bill including his own changes to the LWCF, among them a call to limit federal land and water acquisition at 3.5 percent. He is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill on November 18—just three Congressional work days following this publication.

    It is critical to the future of public land and conservation that the LWCF be reauthorized (preferably, with full funding). Virginia’s own Rep. Rob Wittman, R-VA, currently sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, and has historically been in favor of the LWCF. As Virginia sportsmen, this is our point of contact. Make your voices heard.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


“Just show ‘em something they’ve never seen before.”

    When it comes to traveling and fishing, this is a piece of timeless advice that I increasingly give, am given, and practice. Local knowledge imparted by fly shops and marinas across the country is invaluable, but the very fact that it’s accepted knowledge implies the idea that such patterns are widely and frequently implemented. The same goes for fishing your home waters. Patterns that fish see time and time again eventually lose effectiveness as fish learn. Yamamoto grubs and Wooley Buggers will always take fish, but not like they used to.

    About two years ago, one of my high school teachers who lives on the lower Rivanna River found a fly box full of rusty flies washed up on his island after a substantial rain. As I was the only one he knew in the area that could put the flies to use, he brought them to me one school day.

    Inside was a collection of streamers, foam dry flies, and poppers—all unique. At least I had never seen the likes of them before. Most had rusted hooks, but all found their way into my fly boxes, nevertheless.

    The following winter, sometime in late December, my brother and I headed over the mountain to fish a well-known trout stream. We fished hard from late-morning through early afternoon.

    The upper boundary of public water was in sight, when I got into position to fish what would be the last run of the day. Feeling the need to switch up tactics, I was excited to tie on one of the mystery streamers that washed up on the banks of the Rivanna several months earlier.

    It was essentially a Woolley Bugger, tied with a webby hackle, lots of flash, and mottled marabou. In no way was it a revolutionary design or concept, but I would not be able to reproduce the complimentary rusty and dirt matted in the fibers of the fly at the vise, nor could a replacement be found at the fly shop.

    In about twenty minutes, 12 stocky rainbows fell prey to the mass of feather and dirt. The rusty hook posed no issue upon hookup.

    Also in one of the weathered corners of that washed-up fly box was a foam grasshopper pattern, complete with realistic rubber legs, eyes, flash, and wing. Of this fly, however, there was only one copy, and I could not, no matter how much I searched, find a replica for sale.

    Because of its density, and therefore the splat it made on the water when it landed, I am convinced, this fly is extremely effective on larger brook trout during the terrestrial season, which typically runs from mid-summer through early fall.

    On one particular night, while fishing a well-known brook trout stream near my home, I came upon a large pool edged by grass that hinted at the presence of grasshoppers. I lost no time in clipping off my attractor dry fly pattern and swapping it for the meatier foam hopper.

    Splat. On my first cast, a healthy 10-inch native brook trout rose from the depths and hammered the fly. Upon landing and examining it, I discovered the remains of a large ant and a five-inch centipede in the fish’s gullet. An ambitious fish, no doubt about it.

    A few plying casts later, my fly landed at the head of the run leading into the pool and was gulped down and pulled to the bottom by a brute of a fish. A few tense moments later, my biggest brook trout to date was hanging heavy in my net.

    Over the course of its two-year life in my box, this fly has caught several species of fish, and big ones at that. It is a go-to when fish are feeding on the surface, and continues to reproduce, even after losing legs and chunks of foam. I guess some flies are just “fishy.”

    Both of these patterns have often placed me in (in retrospect) dangerous positions I probably shouldn’t have assumed to retrieve them. I have chased the hopper downstream after breaking it off on multiple occasions. And when these patterns are finally gone from my box, they will be just that, never to return. Perhaps that is why they are so effective, because they are irreplaceable, unique. I can only hope I’ve harvested some new good luck charm from the bank of some river or branch of some snag when that time comes.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian