Thursday, January 28, 2016


Snowflakes stippled the barren-gray scene, tossed by a corkscrewing breeze tumbling down the gauntlet of a mountain hollow, following the track of a frigid mountain stream. I opposed its course, head into the wind, eyes watering, mind set on a deep pool upstream.

The author with a large Shenandoah brook trout taken in the snow. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Clouds set the tone for the landscape, casting a cold, flat light on rock and trunk, granting a frozen appearance to even what was not. Brown leaves, long since fallen and captured by a stiff layer of frost, were static features, even in the wind, and finalized the atmosphere of harsh rigidity about the place. The bone-chilling threat of nearly-frozen mountain water resounded.

    The natural world stays inside on days like these, or so it seems. Gray squirrels may not show themselves in the absence of a mid-morning sun to loosen their limbs. Save for perhaps a solemn march for carbs, the majority of their day is spent dreaming of sunlit explorations of the treetops, curled up, veiled by a thick, bushy tail.

    Deer find thermal refuge in thick lowland pine groves, legs curled under their tawny brown coats, metabolism slowed, fighting tooth and nail for spring. Hunting pressure from the expired season has trained them to sit tight in daylight, and venture forth at the moon’s height (if there is a big moon) or in the respite of dusk for safety.

    Even the parking lot on the fringe of the Shenandoah backcountry, typically jammed with automobiles for its proximity to Charlottesville, is devoid of all but three vehicles, owned, of course, by humans who have engineered their own nutritions outside of the seasons’ environmental demand, and think nothing dangerous or wasteful of a two-mile hike in sub-freezing weather.

    One of those cars is my own, and I passed the owners of the other two on my way up the mountain trail, stride rustling in a pair of weathered waders, my fly rod gripped through a thin glove on my right hand.

    The first was a college-aged girl, presumably from UVA, or otherwise on Christmas break, like myself. As she approached, her covered head bobbed up to see me, as it was previously fixed on the ground, keeping pace with her swift stride. She drew attention to the cold--the weather, as is a cliche among brief trail encounters--and then passed, returning her gaze to the path, hands jammed into her pockets, without breaking stride.

    Surely her business in the mountains was of fitness, as her visit was quick (I saw her depart from the parking lot as I geared up), and seemingly devoid of observation or enjoyment, which might have been hinted at through a slower stride and exploring gaze.

    The second driver followed shortly behind, accompanied by his female of unknown relation, and canine, who, more than any of the humans I had yet encountered, seemed to be enjoying himself. The owners, both clad (as was I) in winter coats, hats, gloves, and sunglasses, whisked by at a hurried pace, hardly breaking their gaze from the course ahead to acknowledge my passing.

    It occurred to me that their being there must have been tied to the needs and desires of their furry companion, though I should think it not entirely fair to consider their motives totally polarized from a respect for nature. Why else, then, would they choose to walk their dog in the mountains and not down their own street?

    That is not to say that there is a right or wrong reason to be in the mountains on an exceptionally cold, and snowy and windy, afternoon. Just that I seldom encounter an angler so taken by the spirituality of the chase as to cross paths with one in the dead of winter, and that I naturally find my mind coming to rest on the question of why that is, and how that makes me different when the creeks turn cold. Am I crazy? Perhaps.

     My own motive comes clear when I reach the trail’s third ford in the creek and moves on, up the mountain, affording a view of the water tumbling through the woods. I leave the trail and make a short trek to the creek to find a large hole with current bordered by a large volume of slack water.

    I ply the water with a large fly, and entice a handful of lethargic, delicate brook trout, and hoist them only momentarily from the icy water, conscious of the air temperature and its effect on them.

    It’s in that cold mountain scene, harsh and rugged in winter, that I feel content, classically pleased. To me, the action is as important and as relaxing as reading a book by the fire or tying flies to music and hot chocolate.

    But everyone lives for different things. I just happen to live for this.□

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian


I have this problem.

    As a “monetarily-challenged” undergraduate who sees no option but to lead a lifestyle tempted by fly rods, flies, fish, and travel; whose desk has seen more flies come to life than words written; and whose mind chronically comes to rest on a trout stream (if ever it can be truly captured and imposed on an academic task), I have, like so many before me, come to travel the “resourceful” road. For fuel for tying the flies that keep me in business, I have excitedly scavenged in chicken coops and turkey dust bowls, perused the trash cans of bird-cleaning sheds, spent way too much time examining the subtleties of nail polish, claimed parts of long-expired furred and feathered animals for my own, and gazed at grizzly hackles woven into my female classmates’ hair with jealousy and contempt. Though there are no official testaments to my sanity, similarly outlying actions observed within a member of another species might easily be interpreted as rabies-induced confusion.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Likewise, anyone who cruises the drug store’s cosmetic aisle in mud- and fish slime-stiffened garb seeking inspiration on a late-summer night, who derives addictive, blissful, supremely-fulfilling wonder through the process of engineering combinations of animal parts, fixating them on a hook, and feeding them to fish, is both someone generally too far gone by societal standards, and someone of the type I call friend.

    The consequences of my own affliction I’ve long come to terms with. However, it still hurts me to see the characters of those who care for me compromised by my addiction.

    Fellow anglers commonly come to rest their eyes on my dorm room’s thread collection, prompting the inquiry, “You sew?” After scaring them by countering that I “sew dreams of fish,” should they remain interested in my obsessive art, I lay before them the reality of it. Sparing them the empty promise of saving money, I detail fly tying as the other half of fly fishing, more fun and versatile than fishing store-bought flies, an inventive haunting of my favored streambeds in my absence. If they remain unfazed, I welcome them to a new world, and they come to terms by doing.

    Then, seeing my preoccupation with this activity, there are those friends and family members who do not tie flies, but wish to come to terms by giving. Faced with a massively diversified lexicon of materials lists, they arrive at the (altogether not untrue) conclusion that anything can be used to tie flies. This conclusion has led to their generous deliverance of clumps of human hair, synthetic stuffing from various household items, mounds of cat and dog fur, vacuum cleaner lint, plastic wrappings, packing foams, drink mix containers, and dead birds—and my subsequent reflection upon what this says about me as an individual.

    One particular afternoon, I received a call from a friend from home, as I was away at school. She had just found a dead (for quite a while) woodpecker—a northern flicker—with beautiful feathers. Did I want it for fly tying?

    I knew from similar past offerings from others that the fine breast feathers from a male flicker make wonderful wet fly hackles. I further reflected on the apparent gullibility of the species, as I had been offered more flickers than any other federally-protected bird. Nevertheless, conforming to societal norms, I respectfully declined.

    A few days later, I returned the call. Screw “societal norms,” free hackle in bulk is hard to come by and I bet a day’s worth of meal swipes at the cafĂ© that a “Flicker and Yellow” would make for a damn fine fly on the South Holston. I’ll take it. I apologized for dragging her into this pursuit, and said goodbye, assuming I’d collect the goods upon returning home.

    To avoid unnecessary incrimination, I’ll avoid mentioning the means of transference. For, much to my surprise, the end of the week found me suspiciously weighing a Christmas-wrapped shirt box, markedly light as a feather.

    A wake of World Wildlife Fund wrapping paper and festively colored tissue paper is all there is to account for the creation of a handful of Flicker and Yellows waiting to be swung in “Browntown,” thanks to friends bearing (dead) gifts.□

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian, rewritten from Hatch Magazine