Tuesday, December 20, 2016


I don’t like killing things.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    That may come as an unexpected confession from one who loves the sport of hunting, and has a somewhat precipitous body count in the area of squirrels and deer. I’ve got a lot of blood on my hands—not in the least figuratively. No more, though, than any regular consumer of meat. I don’t like killing things, but I don’t think twice about it.

    Every year, there’s a first blood. The hunting seasons take a siesta for the summer, and I join them, wet-wading the creeks and farm ponds of Central Virginia, casting flies and spinners for the usual warmwater varieties. The return of autumn and crisp days brings the annual opening days, and the ensuing fight between life and death that rages in the woods between man and beast, in the dying embers of hardwood trees. Some years it’s a squirrel. Some a bird flushed from cover. Some, a deer that gives its life and welcomes me back.

    This year, it was a deer. A six-point buck, built like a race horse. I took its life in the young of a harsh October morning. Squirrels danced haphazardly in the limber crowns of sweet gums, and resident geese onk-or-ed on high, on their way to splash-down in the nearby pond. He was relaxed, munching on clover in the gray shadow of a pine thicket, as the sky illuminated a bluebird sky, before beams of sunlight could get a direct shot at the ground. He was preparing for the day with a trip to the clover patch.

    My shot was good. He rolled over in his tracks, before the foul effect of adrenalin could marinate his muscles with the taste of death. I have no precise body count, but the cosmic tally he marked was one of several. My nerves are considerably calmer prior to the shot now than they were years ago with my first. I don’t like killing, but I understand it, and I embrace it. And I’ve learned to do it with dignified purpose.

    A sliver of guilt flashed through my mind as I approached the buck and took a knee. Of course, his spirit had long since departed, but it’s a motion I require of myself, to pay respects to the dearly departed.

    Dearly? Perhaps if I enjoyed the act of killing, I would not be so attached to the animal, so profoundly touched by its passing. But Dearly? The offensive voices of a defensive, out-of-touch society scream at me: What reasons have you for killing this creature? Is your life worth more than its?

    It is not. I know that there is no hierarchy in the value of lives. There is only predator and prey. In that moment of sustenance acquisition, I thought of the coyotes and the rabbits that probably jumped at the echo of my rifle shot through the pine thicket. One’s existence is dictated by the other in a series of checks—the coyotes’ by the health of the rabbit population; the rabbits’ by the vitality of the coyote population. I thought of the rearing of a pup coyote, and the rite of passage that was its first kill—the rite of passage that was my first kill—and the realization that in order for one to live, another must die.

    This realization I revisit annually, in some holy October arena lit by the dim light of a waning or waxing day. And though I do not enjoy killing, I have come to cherish the emotional consequences. To take a life and stare into the inanimate eyes of a fellow being is to declare one’s own mortality, to claim a culturally forgotten equivalence within the ecosystem, a clear position within the food web.

    These consequences I hold as advantages over the faction of humanity far-removed from the drama of nature—to experience in their rawest form remorse for loss of a life, respect for a departed champion of their environment, integrity as a steward of the Earth, thankfulness for a bounty endowed unto me, human for my inclusion in all of it. And I promise my continued participation to the animal and to the Earth in repayment for the perspective.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Friday, December 16, 2016


I caught a beaver once. Rather, I almost did.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    One summer evening I was bass fishing a small farm pond when I eyed hopefully a beaver hut in a few feet of water. I delivered a plastic worm to the doorstep, let it sink, and gave it a small lift off the lake bottom with my rod tip. Animated resistance brushed the hook and jumped through the line into my hand, and I set the hook with gusto. The hook didn’t drive home, but an ovular, chocolate mat of hair breached at the end of my line and slammed the door with its paddle tail—communicating its lack of enthusiasm for my housewarming gift and sending water a story into the air.

    A similar thing occurred another summer while dry fly fishing a promising run on the Moosehead Region’s Roach River. My gaze hadn’t yet found the hut on the far bank when a coffee-colored submarine (that would have quadrupled the state’s brook trout record) rose out of the center of the run towards my stimulator as I stood by dumfounded and struggling to react. It of course bypassed my fly and headed for cover, but not before I had time to reflect upon its bizarre choice of behavior. Had I been nymphing, I surely would have had him.

    Both occurrences are memorable and, I often think, might have been more so had I succeeded in placing a hook in beaver flesh. But I’ve seen—and heard at midnight in a swamp—what kind of power those oversized rodents can command with their tail, in a pinch—not to mention their infamous caramel incisors—and I count my lucky stars it didn’t end up that way.

    Surf casters know a kindred issue, especially if they’re doing it right. Birds and predator fish both chase bait, rolling in a dizzying tornado of adrenaline that the surf caster is charged with threading a weighted object dressed with treble hooks through from a distance. Thus the star-crossed gull occasionally finds itself smacked into a downward spiral by the spoon-shaped hand of God and subsequently skittered over the surface and sharks onto the beach to be toyed with by a herd of bumbling humans.

    I’ve known a handful of individuals to have completed the feat and released the seagull to return to its position as bowling pin of the surf—an honorable accomplishment given the general temperament of a hooked gull. And though it’s a conversation starter in some briny circles, it’s hardly a pleasant undertaking in the moment.

    Likewise, loons patrolling the more heavily fished brook trout ponds of Maine have decided their role in catch and release. As accomplished swimmers, they’ll dive from a safe spectator’s distance to nab the struggling brook trout produced by a canoe and a fisherman’s bent rod.

    This understandably incites some frenzy in the fisherman, and though I’ve never personally been faced with the task of removing a fly from the gullet of a loon, I can’t imagine them to be ideal canoe company.

    The snapping turtle would argue its superior displeasantry. It’s my theory that the Old Man was in the beginning stages of snapping turtle sculpting when serpentina opened its beak with an aggressive hiss and was flipped down into the farm ponds of the world pissed off.

    I have a grandfather who caught one measuring over two feet long with rod and reel, once, from a john boat on the lake in Tidewater Virginia where he built his home. It was “landed,” so to speak, and the shell promptly spray painted orange so as to be seen from a distance, and avoided at all costs.

    I remember it vividly, as I do the evening I spent casting dry flies to rising rainbows and browns on a very low Pine Creek in north-central Pennsylvania. The sun was dropping below the horizon and I was praying for a trout to have a moment of poor judgement. As I reached out further, to another rising fish, my backcast tipped a shoot of broomsedge on the bank behind me. Only when I turned to take stock of the situation, the perked ear of a black bear was frighteningly close to that waving grass shoot.

    I counted my lucky stars as the bear cursed my foul casting ability, and pondered the consequences of landing a #14 brown caddis a job as an earring. Today I tell that story with pride, though it could have ended in tragedy. And I go on my normal way, casting to trout and smallmouth, avoiding the oddities at all costs.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, December 15, 2016


It's been a while since I put fly in water. A while by my standards.

    The southwestern corner of Virginia has been experiencing a drought that's run on since early September. And once the smallmouth fishing slowed in October and trout fishing would have theoretically taken over, streamflows bottomed out. So, for lack of ideal opportunity, I yielded to my duties to academics, to my freshmen residents, and to writing, disheartened by the environmental condition, and chivalrous towards the fish in their stressed state.

    Dare I say, it's been the better part of a month since I've strung up my four weight and felt the chill of mountain water and the slime of a wild trout on my hands. A sharp contrast to my summer's industry, fishing darn near every day, pausing to hear what carries me in the mountains, and fulfilling passion as often. Despite the weight of final exams mashing pedal to metal and the oncoming roller coaster of the holiday season, time has slowed to a crawl, like the flat, meandering trudge of the South Fork of the Holston creeping through defoliating hollows. I’ve grown less tolerant of daily disturbances. Life, through my eyes, is less rich without the regular return to nature.

    It's been nearly a month and in that time there have been several deadlines. Several deadlines that were not met clacking excitedly away at the computer, eyes still sparkling, translating the majesty of brook trout and a mountain stream explored over the weekend, or the sense of accomplishment at duping a sex-crazed brown from the South Fork into tearing into a streamer before class. In these periods of real-time inspirational drought, I dive into reflection, focus on a memorable or defining moment, and celebrate it. For what means bounty without shortage?

    It's been...24 days since I last set foot in my home water, but today I'm breaking the streak. Such a hiatus constitutes an emergency, and I have to tend to it, regardless of reward. I've long been proud of my ability to adjust to different angling situations, and have regarded time on the water as a powerful exercise in realignment and realized identity. After all, what means a singing stream without the whisper of drought?

    The water is cold, despite its level, as I slosh my way upstream through the familiar vein that slices through thousands of acres of national forest land. The sun pulls the barren forms of hardwoods over its face. My mind expands into the hills and then sounds inward like the rapidly branching plot of a soul-striking novel. I am home again.

    The usual riffles and runs are choked, empty and exposed, but the deeper holes retain promise. A small black stonefly nymph dropped quietly at the head of a large aqueous bowl rouses the spirit of a wild rainbow typical of this stream.

    Mine is roused, too. It's been a while.

    In that time, we, the American people, elected a new head of state. There were struggles before him—against the movement for federal land transfer, for action on climate change, for a healthy transition to a more sustainable future—but they were catalyzed by a statesman who believed in such things. The newly elected has made clear his intentions of slamming shut that policy window, with interest in coal and oil over the health of the Earth, favoring impolitic lust for capital over survival. Progress is always hard. Sometimes it’s harder. But what is a movement without opposition? Passion without test?

    It is admittedly difficult to maintain hope in light of these events, standing in the stagnant nature of autumn-thus-far in the Southeast. In a puddle of a river once coursing. In 70 degrees in November. In a drought egged on by the hottest summer on record. Watching the fall brown trout season evaporate, and the story potential of my favorite season squandered. Such stressors even the river can’t save me from, and so my stimulus-starved mind rages, hungry for action. I could give up. But I can’t.

    It’ll be a while—that much I’m sure of. Winter, probably, before the return of seasonal rainfall, and the restoration of a healthy fishing pattern and flow of stories to write. Four years, at least, before the majority of representative government stands faithfully on the side of the Earth and the rivers and streams that support the sporting lifestyle we live.

    The water will rise, once again, and the fishing, the writing, the fighting will be easier. But integrity keeps on when the going gets tough. So in the meantime, I’ll be at the river, persisting, waiting. For what means victory without struggle? 

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Friday, November 4, 2016


There is urgency in the air, while the world slumbers. The sun is rapidly approaching the horizon line. My eyes flash open, tipped off by an alarm clock and without a thought to flicker. Predetermined getup is taken on. A hastily prepared bite is consumed laboriously in dim kitchen lighting. Sharp cold and the aroma of coffee sting my nose as I push through the door outside. The hot liquid pours down my throat and warms my body.

    The truck is preloaded and grumbles to a reluctant start. Cab lights make the world darker, but can’t fight sunrise. It’s on its way. I’ll beat it to the clover field. Dutifully, I throw the vehicle into gear and head out into the world yet-to-stir.

    White pine crowns, silhouetted by a growing gray haze in the sky, guide my approach. Feet crunch on the stubble of a recently hayed field. I’m an intruder in the world, under cover of darkness, hoping to make my stand before the first whitetail makes the short amble from bedding thicket to field edge.

    Stakes are highest as I creep carefully to the back corner of the clover field, and enter the woods via a whole in the brambles I’ve previously cleared. I find my blind how I left it, though its weathered a few days and become a part of the landscape—no longer an item of distrust for the local wildlife community. I unfold a small stool, settle my bow in my lap, and begin my vigil over the awakening world.

    Darkness turns to gray and gray to white. The temperature drops noticeably a few degrees with the peeking of the sun over the horizon, as the day laborer turns a defiant shoulder to their alarm clock. It’s deafening, the calm.

    In this moment, this moment of raw possibility and wonder, I come down from my cloud. As these days clog my spiritual pursuits with schoolwork, conducted hours away from the woods I know, scouting is an activity necessarily, though unwillingly, scrapped from my process. Will I get lucky? My hunting effort is not premeditated. There are no likelihoods.

    But more importantly, there is tradition.

    Whether on opening day or some equally as nominal first bout with deer season, there is the remembering of hunts passed, and the nostalgic rediscovery of the sights, smells, and emotions that came with them. There is the physical admission of inclusion within the food web, and an intention to remain.

    There is anticipation of hunts to come, of skills to learn and classical ambition to please. There is a legacy of adventure and grit, a lifestyle perceived as nothing more than necessary habit.

    There is a home in the mountains, and the farm that goes with it. There are autumn days when working outside is comfortable and the willing slavery to a livelihood of passion is reflected upon with a rose-colored lens. There is thankfulness.

    In the wide-eyed world of chirping woods and sugar gums crashing under the weight of a spunky bushytail there is the profundity of morning and a renewed chance at living. There is the ritual of coffee and prayer, and two dogs in the front yard, going through the same motions, but with unrestrained lopes and wind-whipping ears.

    There is a squirrel hunt like I used to, and the preparation of the harvest and the resultant tie to the land. There are two kids to help, filled with questions and burgeoning passion for the world.

    There are first hunts that remind me of my own. And in that there is heritage, and the scrappy morning hunts of my youth to refuel the tradition.

    And in it all, there is comfort.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


A fire burned on jagged mountain crests above the landscape of a reclaimed strip mine, from within the crimson and apricot leaves of expiring hardwoods. The setting sun painted a halo of orange on the pointed peaks, topped by the glowing pale blue sky of an early-to-rise hunter’s moon, casting silhouettes of mountains and coal fields spanning west into Kentucky, north into West Virginia, and south and east into the more populous regions of southwest Virginia’s Mountain Empire.

5x5 bull elk taking stock of his field in Buchanan County, Virginia. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After glassing from an opposing mountain vantage point and driving hurriedly over gravel and tall grass, John Taylor of Vansant, Virginia, a volunteer with the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), brought his lifted, dark emerald Excursion to a grumbling halt, eyes fixed on a few dozen hide-colored bobs populating a rolling fescue field.

    I’d been there before, and recognized the terrain bathed in clear moonlight and the palpable feeling of natural history in the making. Only this time, the mood was much wilder. My previous visit was two and a half years ago. At 2:00 in the morning, I stood in the company of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) staff and RMEF volunteers—their eyes glued to an enclosure, on which headlights born of Kentucky would soon appear hauling a livestock trailer containing 45 of the hide-colored bobs.

    That young April morning of 2014 marked the last installment of a three-year plan to restore elk to the state of Virginia. A subspecies of elk, the eastern elk, is native to western Virginia, but was extirpated by early human inhabitants—the last individual killed in Clarke County in 1855. Since then, in recent history, there have been a few failed attempts at reestablishing a viable herd in the Old Dominion, but each met a calculable end. However, the 72 Rocky Mountain strain individuals trucked in from Kentucky to the reclaimed strip mine site in Buchanan County, and protected within the designated “restoration zone” of Buchanan, Dickinson, and Wise Counties, has shown tremendous success, and now boasts a herd of 160-165 individuals.

    Camera cradled, I climbed from the Expedition, followed by Taylor, and stalked quietly behind a screen of brush to subtract twenty yards from the distance separating us from the elk. Light was insufficient for my camera, but I already had pictures. I found more light through the glass of my binoculars.

    The hide-colored bobs grew hide-colored ribs and shoulders; cinnamon bellies and legs; and shaggy, chocolate manes. Some grew antlers branching once, twice, three and four times from each main beam. All grew wild eyes.

    Then an old, stately bull emerged from a treeline just over a fescue knob.

    “I’ve never seen him before,” Taylor breathed. “He’s not one of ours.”

    His eyes fell on me, then on the dozens of cows grazing in the field. The rut is winding down, but the need to breed is still in their psyche, and he likewise began rounding up a few stray females. He was shaggy, totally chocolate—almost black—with a 6x6 rack, beams and tines dark, save for ivory tips.

    A few satellite bulls milled about the field, paying more attention to the dominant bull than to the females in the herd. One younger bull—a lanky 4x4—was left behind, once the chocolate bull had rounded up his harem. The dominant bull turned to face him, and slowly began walking towards the bull, occasionally throwing his rack back and extending his neck, as if to bugle, but without sound.

    The gap between bulls was closed to a few feet. The 4x4 looked puzzled, and the chocolate bull passed him by without incident. As if told to keep up, the 4x4 then trotted towards the treeline where the group of cows were exiting the field. The chocolate bull followed suit, and in the fading light, made a few attempts to mount one of the trailing cows.

    The woods just inside the opposing treeline were torn apart as a massive 7x7 bull charged into the field, pounding the ground with hooves driven by 700 pounds of muscle, gleaming rack thrown back in aggressive trot. He charged into the center of his harem, reclaiming ownership, and booting the chocolate bull from the field and into sexual and social exile in the hollow below.

    Turning to take a visual survey of his territory, his cows swirled around him as he tossed his headgear back and, with shaggy mane outstretched, hurtled a piercing, cocked-jawed, guttural screech into the night that rattled my heart on its arteries like a yellowing leaf blasted by a November wind. There was crashing and hoof stamping where there hadn’t been for almost two centuries, and a home-again drama of the autumn woods disappeared as quickly as it unfolded into the moonlight-cloaked thicket.

*Originally published in the Rural Virignian

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I’ve worked at two different kinds of jobs in my brief 20 years—one that stimulates my mind and soul and satisfies the curious outdoorsman in me, and retail. And I haven’t worked retail much—just long enough to learn to despise it and that the biosphere is headed for the gutter. Let me explain.

    One particular day, during the few months I was employed by The Orvis Company in Charlottesville prior to college, a woman entered the store with her black lab. As she perused a shelf of gloves, I approached her and asked if I could do anything for her. She asked a series of piercing questions, to which I confidently provided answers I’d previously prepared by reading the garment’s packaging. She became incredulous and irate at my ineptitude after asking whether or not the gloves would conform to her hand over time and, having never worn that particular pair of women’s gloves for multiple seasons, I had to admit I didn’t know. She left the store silently, leaving behind a fresh pile of scat on the pebbly floor that I confidently identified as a black lab’s.

    After sifting through some strong adjectives, I got to thinking about the implications of her actions. Had she returned during my employment, I likely wouldn’t have greeted her so cheerfully. But what if she treated others the same way? I for one would think twice before allowing my dog to defecate on my barber’s floor, before insulting a potentially vengeful chef. But in an era when goods and services are acquired easily and impersonally, the motivation to respect the origins of such things is voluntary at best. The social ethic is weak.

    In a simpler time, when small businesses ruled and globalization hadn’t yet broken communal webs to bits, a respectful relationship with a farmer would ensure that you and your family had quality food when he had his. Loyalty to a mechanic or horseshoer would mean continued transportation and help in a fix.

    Small towns and the writing trade mimic this. Respect intel entrusted to you by a fly shop owner in humble Roscoe, New York, and you’ll get more. Betray that trust, and you’ll be the most hated individual in the Catskills. Consistently meet deadlines and turn in quality, well-researched writing, and editors will come to rely on your name. Fail to meet deadlines or make a habit of using copyrighted materials or faulty facts, and you’ll be blacklisted and your career will end before it began. These people talk.

    Rewind to a time even longer ago, when asphalt paved no inch of this continent, when people wore skins after eating what was inside. Hunting enabled eating, and was directly tied to forest health. The Shawnees of the Shenandoah Valley knew their fishing success depended on their relationship with the river, and that the vitality of their agricultural crop was a factor of soil health, which could be bolstered by applying fish for fertilizer.

    I hadn’t quite been born to experience those times, but I have a sneaking suspicion that any individual so blind to even think about clear-cutting a mountain, or dumping human waste into the Shenandoah River—or, God forbid, Naked Creek—would have been dutifully shunned. It’s most likely, however, that such transgressions were committed only by angry, rogue individuals. It’s downright dumb to think it inconsequential to torch your food supply.

    Despite it being lawfully looked down upon, a modern person of even base intelligence would comprehend the negative social impacts of burning down the local grocery store or poisoning the water supply. But the reality is that, though we’ve grown perceptually further apart from nature over the course of industrial human history, our dependence on the greater world ecosystem has remained static.

    Maybe it’s not everyday news for someone to burn the grocery store or poison the well, but acts like littering, spraying volumes of pesticides and fertilizers, and even the occasional (and totally preventable) oil spill achieve the same ends. Declining water quality due to contamination breeds declining soil quality, which requires farmers to pump more chemicals into their fields, lowering the nutritional value of our food, and killing the soil, requiring increasingly larger volumes of chemical correction. These acts often go unpunished, fly completely under the radar of the general public, or are hardly thought of as harmful. Or, the effects raise a temporary eyebrow, soon lowered with the idea that humans, in their fallacious, God-like reign over planet Earth, can engineer their way to a happy ending.

    Such thinking is irresponsible and short-sighted. Our social contract with Mother Nature is weak, and until we recognize this, and learn that we can’t poop on her floor without consequence, we will destroy ourselves as a species, and the earth on which we live.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


My dictionary features a perpetual list of definitions for the word “success.”

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    One is manifest by the personal discovery of large, wild fish in an otherwise humble setting.

    There’s a river in southwestern Virginia that fits the bill. I didn’t discover it. That honor belongs to Daniel Boone, or one of the uncelebrated pioneers of central Appalachia. I didn’t discover the tremendous smallmouth bass fishery that exists there, either, though I’ve discovered it personally this summer, and have likewise reaped the rewards.

    My success has come in its upper reaches, where the channel stretches no more than 30 yards across and winds quietly southwestward through the Valley and Ridge to rendezvous with its sister rivers in Tennessee. During the low, slow flows of late summer, an angler of average height can wade for an afternoon without wetting his thighs, should that be their wish. And so the game becomes identifying those holes and runs that would wet a thigh—and the shady banks of sufficient cover—and approaching them stealthily through ankle-deep water to present a fly.

    On one such afternoon, when I was indulging myself in just that challenge, I encountered a hole chest-deep under the solar protection of an overhanging riparian canopy. A riffle headed its body and supplied it with the rich supply of dissolved oxygen that doesn’t go unclaimed in late summer, and three current fingers carried little foam saucers like rafts upon a quaking sea down into the tail.

    From it I pulled three smallmouths of several pounds—each respectable and seeming novelties for the size of the river. Their spirits were strong, but hampered by the oppressive season, but I fought them quickly and released them to rebuild their spirit, as I have countless bass before them.

    I recall that afternoon while standing idly on that river’s bank, crouched in a sea of reeds.

    The Native Americans themselves, who inhabited and thrived in these river valleys for centuries, also constitute a definition of success in my dictionary.

    It was during my pre-teen years that I learned of the Natives’ practice of turning river reeds into arrow shafts, obsidian into arrowheads, and the trunks of sapling basswood and elm into longbows to be strung with woven hair or sinew from harvested game.

    I tried to replicate the process using raw materials from my backyard—shale in place of obsidian, beech limbs instead of river reed. The attempt failed, and I retired my efforts to the sound industry of crayfish trapping, and took on a new, practical appreciation for Native Americans and the skills they developed to succeed and thrive while leading a naturally sustainable existence.

    Beyond the river reed, the river ran lower, slower than when last I visited, exposing the brown scaled back of yet another of my definitions of success. In just six inches of water, the pulsing body of a common carp of about 14 pounds inched along a gravel bar just feet from dry land.  Every few inches of upstream progress would bring a gill flare and the flashing of a pale pectoral fin as it sucked in water to digest a tiny morsel found on the streambed.

    Omnivores, they eat anything. As large, spooky adults, they have few predators besides man. And as generalists hailing from the sluggish waters of the Old World, they can reside just about anywhere, and have come to do so the world over. Their attentive eyes distinguish more effectively than our own, and their highly efficient hearing mechanisms can detect the sound of monofilament vibrating in the wind.

    An aesthetically humble species, sure, but the carp is a master of its environment, and thus, a worth adversary.

    I hide in the reeds, watching the fish’s forward progress, playing a game with myself to see if I can predict its next movement. I analyze its body language. Is it feeding? Yes. Has it seen me? Perhaps.

    The fish’s track has taken it several yards upstream of an overhanging sycamore, and I decide to make my approach. Fly rod in hand, I dip a timid toe into the river, cringe at the gritting of gravel, and pause. The fish goes about its business unfazed.

    Not wishing to take any more steps than necessary and risk detection, I see my opportunity and I take it. A 50-foot cast unrolls and places a leader and tippet just a foot to the right of the fish. The fly plops down softly a few feet ahead of it.

    The carp’s head encounters my fly and jerks towards mid-river. With a firm thump of its tail, it disappears to hide among mid-river structure, and success evades me once again. I grit my teeth and my heart sinks. Next time, perhaps a bit more observation from the reeds and success will be mine.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


As one with knowledge only of a life spent outdoors, I arrange my memories by seasons. By morning dew and the reflection of warm genesis on fresh leaves, I remember days casting dry flies to feisty brook trout and wild rainbows. By thick, starlit nights and the chug-chugging of a popper I recall extended summer evenings fishing for heavy bigmouths from a canoe. By the first chilly, gray morning in September, and the sight of yellow leaves adhered by mist to the rocks of a Blue Ridge Mountain hollow, I remember those days spent toting a .22 long rifle, ears perked to the sound of bushytail toes on bark. That morning is fast approaching.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    This Saturday, September 3, Virginian small game enthusiasts will be given the annual go-ahead to target their favorite quarry—gray squirrels, and the less prominent red and fox squirrels.

    The season on red squirrels and the widely distributed gray squirrels will run through February 28, statewide.

    Fox squirrels are legal game only through January 31, and can only be taken in the counties west of the Blue Ridge, and in the counties of Albemarle, Bedford, Culpeper, Fauquier, Franklin, Greene, Loudoun, Madison, Orange, Patrick, Prince William, and Rappahannock.
The traditional bag limit of a combined six bushytails remains in place.

Three Different Seasons

    Dedicated squirrel hunters enjoy pursuing game with a wide range of implements. Muzzleloaders, riflemen, shotgunners, archers, and airgunners all set their sights on bushytails, both from carefully scouted stands and conveniently located saplings during a still hunt. The right method for you is largely up to preference and ability. However, the Virginia squirrel season is a long one, and so it is worth noting the limitations and strengths of different tactics during the three distinct seasons the squirrel hunter will face between September and February.

    The month of September and early October I call the “early season”. Leaves and acorns still cling to the forest canopy, and squirrels haven’t yet been shot at. Often, this makes finding squirrels easy. They are loud, shaking large bunches of foliage while mining acorns from the treetops, and the foliage somewhat robs them of their bird’s eye view of the forest floor.

    I rarely hunt squirrels in September. In Virginia, the weather is generally still quite warm. However, when I do, I rarely stand-hunt. The squirrels are occupied and relatively stationary high in the treetops. Thus, my favorite way to hunt is to simply wander the woods with an eye on the sky, looking for roiling bunches of foliage. Once a squirrel is located, an easy stalk is usually all that separates one from a shot.

    The length of that shot varies by the cover you hunt, but keep in mind that it can be difficult due to foliage to get a clear shot with a small bore .22 rifle or an airgun. A 20 gauge with a modified choke can be an excellent choice for sorting through all those limbs and leaves, and is often my first choice in the early season.

    I call the “mid-season” that period starting in the latter days of October, and lasting until most of the fallen mast has been used up and there is snow on the ground—usually sometime in mid- to late-December. During this season, the squirrels have been educated a little, but they spend a significant portion of their day on the ground, scrounging for acorns. The forest canopy has thinned, and a longer, more precise shot it possible.

    During this period, stand hunting can be quite effective. Locate areas where there is a concentration of fallen mast, like a hardwood creekbottom or flat oak grove. White oaks tend to drop acorns earlier than red oaks, so know your local hardwood species, and pay attention to their mast-producing tendencies.

    A longer line of sight makes a .22 or air gun very valuable, and will provide more shots from a stand. The subtle crack of the rifle is also less alerting, compared to the invasive boom of a shotgun, enabling a shorter recovery to seclusion.

    The doldrums of winter I consider to be the “late season.” Food is scarce and the woods are bare. Squirrels are spooky and ranging wide. Leaves are crunchy due to cold. What’s more, groups of squirrels are often spotted chasing each other as a mating ritual.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    These reasons make me partial to a very slow still-hunt with a shotgun. Educated squirrels often stick tight to cover when approached, and make mad dashes for cover, making moving shots common. You may be lucky enough to have several squirrels chase each other to within range, in which case, multiple quick shots can pay dividends.

    Keep these variables in mind when planning your days afield this fall and winter chasing Virginia’s favorite small game species.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I awoke in the early morning hours to the clacking of bighorn sheep hooves on dry ground. Or was I going to sleep? I poked my head from my tent to find a gray haze hanging in the canyon, sheep no longer visible. Wisps of warm sunlight occasionally and increasingly found their way into the understory as I made breakfast of oatmeal and coffee to shove back the chill.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The woods are bright, in the Lolo National Forest, even behind a dawny veil. Amber trunks of lodgepole pines laced chocolate protrude heavenward in open groves amid a green forest floor. Cedar waxwings flit and chirp about them. Dramatic raveling mountains serve as their backdrop and hint at the presence of the as-yet unseen novelty of bighorns and the elusive mountain lions that prey upon them. A fawn wades through dew-wet grass as Rock Creek dances by joyously, singing to all with enough care to listen—the very same who notice the waxwings and the pines and find spiritual rejuvenation in them.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Now I hold no prejudices against eastern Montana, and the prairies and the mountains and their canyons that populate it. In fact, I’ve developed a rather strong infatuation with the crystalline, cold creeks that run there, and the willing trout who have seen and consumed live grasshoppers frequently enough to have developed a reckless appreciation for them. But it occurred to me among that awakening Eden that the landscape where I had pitched my tent the night before, in the western part of Big Sky Country just a few miles short of Idaho, was not created by God in the same motion. I’d be more inclined to believe that God promised Israel a homeland and then, in an act of fairness, did the same for fly fishermen.

    As such, Rock Creek and the Lolo National Forest is no secret among anglers. Before the sun establishes a clearly visible position above the canyon, the Creek’s banks will be lined by the God-fearing.

    I’ve carefully planned my sleeping for when I’m dead, though, and not in Montana. So before those warm wisps of sunlight became the majority and broke the canyon of night, I discovered by foot and gravel road a promising-looking stretch of water to explore.

    Before my eyes, a strong, tight run a hundred yards upstream flattened out into a rather flat tail, and rolled over in pockets over rock shelves. Current seams were a dime a dozen, each one strong in character and potential.

    Small cased caddis blanketed the cobble river bottom. I broke one open to discover a gray larvae inside, and then returned him to the water to find the stomach of a hungry trout. Spruce moths were hatching, leaving the firs and spruces to live another day, and dappling themselves on the river’s surface to restart their lifecycle and contribute to the fish’s.

    Taking visual cues, I rigged a large stimulator with a caddis larvae dropper and began stripping out line. Three false casts and an aerial mend laid a 40-foot length of line on the water, and the fly at the head of the nearest current seam.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The stimulator disappeared. It quickly reappeared as a feisty brown trout of about 14 inches leapt from the lie with my caddis in his mouth, then bore downstream against the flex of my modest four-weight.

    I released the brown safely, keeping his body in the water. Several dozen more casts yielded about half as many fish—a healthy mixture of shouldered browns, rainbows, and cut-bows. Each had a preference for the nymph, though one large brown, rising rhythmically, made a dash for the stimulator when it touched down inches in front of his nose.

    The fishing slowed as sunlight took over the visible scene. The moths disappeared, and so did the shadowy corners of pockets in the body of the river. It was then that I looked upstream to see a fisherman and his guide taking a casting vigil upon the upper reaches of the pool, along the whitewater in the head. Another team strung rods, shut the car door, and stepped into the river 40 yards below me. The world was finally awake, and the dream over, only to recur when once again the light fades to gray and the spruce moths come out to play, and I’m alone in the canyon, again, to dream.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


A group of passionate outdoorsmen and Backcountry Huntersand Anglers (BHA) members gathered at the Backroom Brewery in Middletown, Virginia on Saturday, August 6 to discuss important public lands issues in the East and the formation of a local chapter to include Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. The group, unofficially dubbed the “Capital Region Chapter” of BHA, once voted into existence by the organization’s national board, would become the first chapter in the American Southeast.

Backpacking in the Monongahela National Forest, almost one million acres of forested habitat in WV, within a few hours' drive of D.C. Photo by Matt Reilly
    Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is an organization of sportsmen devoted to the conservation of our public lands, and the subsequent continuation of our outdoor heritage. Founded upon an appreciation for wilderness, BHA speaks for those who benefit spiritually from the opportunity to hunt elk on foot or horseback in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, spend a week fishing for smallmouth bass in the Boundary Waters, and stare into a fire miles from the nearest road and feel what true wilderness really is.

    BHA is an organization brawny by individual passion and, likewise, is effective only because of the existence of local chapters. “BHA's success is built on our boots-on-the-ground volunteers and members,” said BHA President, Land Tawney. “Not only do they have deep passion to carry on our traditions, but they also have an intimate knowledge of their place and what needs to be done to protect it.” As such passionate people mobilize, influence increases dramatically at the state level through interactions with state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, and officials.
    Until rather recently, all of those state chapters have been solely in the West, owing mostly to the fact that public lands come in much greater volume West of the Mississippi. “While the majority of public lands are found in the west, public lands in the east are just as important,” said Tawney. “It is imperative that BHA expand its reach in the east to not only influence policy at a national level, but to also make an impact on the ground to make sure we have access to local public lands and the fish and wildlife habitat found within.”

    It’s celebrating public lands in the East and taking a stand on the issues that oppose them that has James Revercomb, member at large (there are not official titles within the group, yet) and owner of Roanoke MountainAdventures, excited about the burgeoning chapter’s future. “There are lots of people in this part of the country who don’t utilize the public lands we have,” he said. “So it’s exciting to see people getting behind this in the East. The more people—the more interest—the better”

    The group’s meeting in Middletown, which was open to BHA members and non-members both, went fairly informally. Attendants started off telling hunting and fishing stories, but quickly became enraptured in discussion issues such as habitat fragmentation, poaching in D.C., off road vehicle land abuse, and the Sunday hunting ban on public lands.

    “The energy was great,” said Tom Hartland, another member at large and meeting attendee. “When you meet other BHA members, you already know they share the same values, and you get along great.” That energy is contagious and likewise growing. “Some people even overheard us talking and expressed interest in what we are doing,” said Hartland.

    Another meeting is being planned for early in 2017, but for the time being, the Capital Region BHA group hopes to grow its numbers with flyers and word of mouth. Interested members and non-members should visit the “Capital Region Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Members” Facebook page, and check out the BHA national page, www.BackcountryHunters.org. The BHA national board will come to a vote on the proposed Capital Region chapter in the spring.

    Despite the vast majority of public land being in the West, as Tawney pointed out, the public lands we have here in the East are just as important, and need boots-on-the-ground volunteers to protect them. It is clear that there is a substantial number of passionate backcountry hunters and anglers within the capital region. However, there is currently no established BHA chapter to harness that passion and potential influence. The establishment of the Capital Region BHA chapter will be a contribution of existing resources to the national voice of sportsmen who care about the management of our public lands, which uphold and serve as an arena for the passing on of our classic traditions of hunting and fishing.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Thanks to the persistent, concerted efforts of local anglers, the South River Fly Shop, and the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of TroutUnlimited (SVTU), Waynesboro’s urban trout fishery currently awaits the August 18th Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) board meeting, where votes will be taken on two proposed regulation amendments that will alter the river’s fishing opportunities and potentially improve an evolving fishery.

South River Fly Shop guide Reed Cranford with a 25" brown from the South River Delayed Harvest Area.
    One amendment would replace the existing delayed harvest designation on two miles of river from North Park to Wayne Ave., with catch and release regulations.

    The second would adjust the existing 16-inch minimum size limit for trout and artificial lure-only restriction on the 5.5 miles of the South River Special Regulations Area, extending from the North Oak Lane bridge to a point 1.5 miles above Rt. 632 (the Shalom Road bridge), to a 20-inch minimum and a fly-fishing-only designation, more than doubling the amount of fly-fishing-only water in the state.

    Virginia’s delayed harvest system limits anglers fishing waters designated as such to artificial lures only, and requires catch-and-release, except for a window from June 1 through September 30 –when waters are too warm to hold stocked trout—when harvest is allowed and bait is permitted. So the question of delayed harvest versus catch-and-release year-round is dependent upon water temperature and quality.

    The proposed amendments’ position on DGIF’s schedule is a result of several years of advocacy from the local angling community, mobilized by SVTU and the South River Fly Shop. In 2012, the groups approached DGIF with the suggestion of making the proposed regulation adjustments to the South River. In defense of the existing delayed harvest management system, they were met with the argument that the river becomes too warm in the summertime to effectively hold over stocked trout populations.

    In response, SVTU and South River Fly Shop hatched a plan to mobilize their voice.

    “After a while, we decided to show public support by drawing up a proposal and getting signatures from anglers,” said Kevin Little, co-owner of South River Fly Shop. “That got us on [DGIF’s] radar.”

    Right on cue, in September of 2013, Tom Benzing of James Madison University presented at the Mountain Stream Symposium II a five-year (2008-2013)water temperature study of the South River aimed at assessing the river’s potential as a sustainable trout stream.

    In 2011, while the study was ongoing, Rife-Loth Dam, which was installed in 1884 above what is now Wayne Ave. and the upstream boundary of the South River’s delayed harvest stretch, was bulldozed.

    “The old dam was backing up and warming cold spring water coming in from upstream,” said Little. “And because it was a top-release dam, it was overflowing warm water.”

    Benzing’s study shows that the removal of Rife-Loth Dam restored normal daily fluctuations of water temperatures downstream, buffered by the restored influx of cold spring water. Furthermore, it proved that the water temperature from springs in and above downtown Waynesboro were suitable as thermal refuges for trout.

    In the spring of 2016, DGIF took notice.

    “There is a strong proposal in downtown for changing the delayed harvest designation to catch-and-release,” said DGIF Region 4 Fisheries Manager, Paul Bugas. “And we’re noticing increasing demand for more fly-fishing-only water.”

    After several years of static, this nudge from the public is getting DGIF on board.

    “We’ve sampled at the end of May and before stocking begins in October and found a good number of holdovers in downtown, which leads us to believe that some better holdovers under new regulations,” said Bugas. “We’re trying it.”

    Bugas also recognizes the potential benefits of the minimum length increase on the upper South River above North Oak Lane, which he says has few fish over 20 inches long, currently: “It will [essentially] make it illegal to take fish from an area that is still under development.”

An angler prospects the banks of the upper South River in the summer. Photo by Matt Reilly

    The debate over the appropriate regulations to spur growth in the trout fishery within the South River could be called unanticipated by those with historical perspective on the river. “If you told me in 1975 that we’d be haggling over trout regulations in downtown Waynesboro, I’d laugh in your face,” said Bugas. “Back in the ‘70s, a doctor from Virginia Tech was investigating fisheries downtown, and he found sunfish, a couple carp, and some suckers, and that was about it.”

    Needless to say, the folks that call the South River dear like the change they’re witnessing.
“This river could be every bit as good as the Elk River in West Virginia,” said Little, a West Virginia native, himself. “God alone did 90-percent of the work. We’ve just gotta’ do the 10-percent to finish it.”

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


I make a habit of ending an adventure with a capper that’s worth the distinction.
Bow pointed towards Mt. Katahdin, headed for camp on Crystal Pond. Photo by Matt Reilly.
Whether it’s truly a conscious effort, or simply a last ditch attempt to milk the most opportunity from every day, I can’t say. Regardless, as the Independence Day weekend threatened to dewild the gravel roads of central Maine’s Baxter State Park with flatlanders and other vacationers, I had one such capper on my mind.

    From my point of view, the crown jewels of Maine’s interior are the countless remote brook trout ponds that play host to some of the last strong populations of native brook trout in the country. The 200,000-acre Baxter State Park serves only as a sample platter of these fisheries; thousands more exist throughout the region.

    One such pond had captured my imagination from the moment I got my hands on a map. For confidentiality’s sake, I’ll call it Crystal.

    A hike of about two and a half miles separates Crystal Pond from the nearest road, thinning the crowd of those not willing to work for their fun. Primitive camping is not permitted on the road-side of the pond. However, a few maintained primitive sites dot the shoreline opposite the trail’s terminus. 
A boat is required to reach them, thus thinning the crowds further. Luckily, in a phone call two days before, a friend revealed to me the combination to the canoe he, like many Mainers make a habit of doing on their favorite ponds, keeps on the banks of Crystal.

    According to pond survey maps, Crystal is quite large--as backcountry brook trout ponds go in the state of Maine—with one very prominent piece of shoreline structure. Halfway up the east bank is a long, skinny point, the tip of which, shot directly up the same bank to a similar point, marks a drop-off from four feet to almost 40 feet in depth.

    Stillwater brook trout are very structure-oriented creatures, and so having structural features like this drop-off present and easy to locate is a huge advantage to the angler.

    The weather had been unseasonably warm, bringing little rain. The famed Hexagenia mayfly hatch, which brings brook trout in numbers to the surface to feed on the giant, emerging insect, was proving to be a non-starter. So, depth chart in hand, canoe combination memorized, the romantic vision of my great New England capper drew me to the trailhead.

    For the majority of my New England expedition, I carried with me a Water Master Grizzly one-man pack raft (Read the review HERE), which comes in a dry bag built as a backpack for mobility. Not needing the boat, I emptied the backpack and refilled it with overnight, boating, and fishing gear, and hit the trail.

Canoe forest. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Approximately an hour of navigating craggy ridges and buggy bogs placed me sweaty and fly-bitten on the banks of Crystal Pond, amid a glimmering canoe forest. Crafts of varying makes, colors and conditions lay strewn about the pine-needled forest floor. Some were chained to trees. Others were left unfastened by anything but a cultural expectation of respect. Mainers are serious about their canoes--Old Town canoes originating in Old Town, Maine--and the sight that greets hikers to Crystal Pond is hardly a novel one.

    I quickly found, among the dozens, the canoe whose use had been granted to me. Chained to two logs, each lashed perpendicularly as a makeshift rack to two pine trees, sat cradled a red canoe, faded to the point of being described as pink, and with so many patches along its hull as to make the original material the minority.

    Sliding the craft down off its rack, I loaded it with my gear and dragged it a short distance to a gravel bank along the pond’s shoreline. Mount Katahdin and Baxter Peak illustrated the skyline and threw its impression upon the glassy surface of the pond, moreover populated with the mini-peaks of partially submerged boulders.

    Twenty minutes of paddling landed the canoe’s stern squarely on my campsite. I made camp, ate a quick dinner, and repacked my gear for an evening’s fishing.

    The sun was falling behind Katahdin’s domineering figure by the time I reached with paddle the prominent point mid-pond. A few casts killed time before the pond’s surface was broken by the rising form of a brook trout to my right. A reflexive cast and a short strip of a muddler minnow through the ripple produced a quick strike, and strong 14-inch northern brookie was soon to hand.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Emerging rise-forms grew more numerous as light faded, and the song of the willowing loon bounced off the walls of a shrinking world. Soon the light of an early moon was all there was, save for me, the loons, and the brook trout, and the memory of my last day of summer in Maine.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian