Tuesday, February 23, 2016


February is a hard month to love. The most ardent endure her harsh temperament--her changing moods--with some success, rarely without sacrificing self, in the form of numb fingers or wind-chapped cheeks.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    February is a time of change, one without which the climactic arrival of spring would be of muted contrast. Snowmelt, under the typically warmer-than-winter closing days of the month, floods rivers and streams with cold, dirty water, while small game seasons peter out. But if February offers any consolation, it’s that taking it by the horns and experiencing the true end of the outdoor year makes spring all the more grandiose.

High, Cold, and Dirty

    Six inches of snow fell over the weekend, and promptly melted, unleashing inches of 36-degree, muddy water on the landscape. If there’s a type of water that warrants hanging your hat up for, it’s this—but when the going gets tough, I find it unacceptable to accept defeat.

    When I arrived at the roadside pull-off, I could hardly recognize the creek that brushes the road. Under normal circumstances, a well-defined run-pool complex passes tranquilly under the shadow of a hemlock-lined bank. With the right angle of sunlight to facilitate, a half dozen or so dark, elongated forms can be seen waving in place like submerged grass in the lucid blue belly of water, fins grazing cobble below.

    This time, however, the scene looked and sounded of chaos. Green-brown water capped with foam rolled and chopped like ocean waves, ignoring the serpentine borders of the creek, and challenging the quiet forest highway adjacent to a contest in violent white noise it was sure to win.

    I learned a lesson in high-water trout fishing in western Maryland three years prior. That river was running roughly four times its typical flow. Wild brown trout filled the river, and I had considerable success fishing soft water behind big boulders along the flooded bank with a large, dark fly. That was mid-June.

    A third odd was stacked against me on that February day—cold water. I knew I’d have to fish slowly, and very thoroughly.

    When a creek jumps its banks, holding and feeding lies are tossed in the air. The food chain scrambles to reestablish footing in the changing system. Small fish are tossed around, and large, predatory fish cruise harsh current breaks, looking for a feeding opportunity.

    A few hundred yards upstream, I found the setting for the scene I prophesized in my mind. A long, hard run ran over chunk rock, tossing water in crests and pits. An abutting slab of bedrock calmed the churning, and pooled a few feet of calm water.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Several casts with a heavy crayfish-imitating fly into the seam ended with a hard stop and the turn of a massive female brown trout that ran downstream, broke me off, and became my latest heartbreak.

Two Triples

    A crisp, sunny afternoon in February beckoned me to the squirrel woods, amped with adrenaline, 20-guage pump shotgun in tote.

    Late season bushytail hunting, in my mind, speaks of delicate walking, skittish squirrels, and quick shots—a game tailored to the indiscriminate, somewhat forgiving reach of a boom-stick.

    Just barely inside the treeline, as I stood mid-way up a hardwood ridge, sun to my back, three squirrels busted from cover, nervous from my prolonged pause, and darted for independent cover. Swinging, and operating the pump-loading mechanism instinctively, I dropped all three on consecutive shots—a triple, for half a limit.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Another 45 minutes of still hunting landed me in position to take another bushytail. From a creekbottom, I closed the distance between me and the rustling I could hear near the top of the ridge, hopping and skipping in bursts, imitating the sound of a pouncing gray squirrel.

    The first shot was presented when an alarmed gray pounced from the trunk of an oak tree into the branches of another. As it was scrambling to establish footing, I dropped it with a swinging report from the 20-guage.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    A second bushytail peeked out from behind the trunk of a neighboring oak, curious, presenting a headshot that didn’t go unclaimed. Down went another batch of meat for the pot.

    A third held tight to the forest floor for 30 seconds before making a mad dash for a nearby hickory tree. I ran forward ten feet as the squirrel began its ascent of the trunk, and interrupted it, taking a quick knee, and firing a rising snap-shot—a second double, for a limit of late season bushytails.

 *Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


If ever I were to sojourn in nature and not wonder, not revel in the mysteries hidden by daylight, overridden by my intrusive presence, I fear I would no longer value my experience there. For it is the integral fondness for such intoxicating musings that I have come to realize to forebode and upkeep a fervent outdoor passion and adventurous spirit.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    However, naturally, the inquisitive, scientific minds of humans, and the wonder that pours from the heart of nature into our own, raises a great contradiction. Science, both as published field work, popular concepts, and the citizen science today so easily conducted, slowly chips away at the unknown, replacing raw wonder, then, with known, factual truths. Scientific tools, like trail cameras, scuba gear, and fishfinders, enable us to explore the natural world beyond our human limitations, comfortably. Mystery dissolves.

    Before the advent of popular science, natural mystery ran deep in local lore and culture. “Monsters” were regular literary characters. Indeed, many place names are colorful results.

    Virginia folk lore recounts the naming of Dragon Run, one of the Chesapeake Bay Area’s more ecologically significant ecosystems, as occurring more than two centuries ago. A man was spending the afternoon fishing from his canoe among the cypress knees of the peaceful coastal swamp, when a winged beast, spewing a devilish, raucous warning, tore through the understory on a chariot, erupting thunder and lightning. Knowing he had seen a dragon—a manifestation of the devil—the man was so startled, it’s recorded, that he paddled furiously to shore and was found dead in his bed the following morning.

    This literary account of an airborne, thunderous chariot brings to mind the emotions associated with an unforeseen flushing of a grouse or bobwhite. My experience with coastal swamp dragons, however, suggests the identity of one of the many heron species native to Virginia’s Coastal Plains, and the rasps they shout through the swamps.

    Nevertheless, the legend persisted, and still does in the toponym. For in that day, the existence of dragons had not yet been discounted.

    One of my own experiences brought about a similar emotion. I arrived to an empty home one late night in mid-February, after dark. Before I could open the front door, a blood-curdling scream erupted from just inside the treeline at the edge of the back yard—the likes of which I would have assigned a vengeful spirit or a witch, had I been born in the 17th century. After banishing the image of a frightened little girl from my mind, I recognized its source as a bobcat in heat.

    For the same reason that outdoorspeople today relish in the mystery of nature, it was once feared by those who faced its overwhelming uncertainty every day. Thankfully, we have, in this day and age, come into understanding of the natural world, and overcome the fearfulness that led to violent reactions against several apex predators, and the irresponsible utilization of available resources.

    So what has been lost? Largely, personal discovery and the novelty of unanticipated encounters, I might offer.

    To celebrate discovery and ponder this idea, I sacrificed the comfort of indoors for the foreign moods of a nocturnal forest one fall night. A large moon shed light on my experiment. I brought a light, albeit just a backup, in case of an emergency. Nothing else burdened me, as I took a seat against an ancient oak tree in a creekbottom as the last slivers of daylight burned out.

    Watching darkness fall is a dramatic experience. Light recedes from optical interpretation, until a certain level of darkness is achieved, at which point there is no more light to be lost, and the eyes have adjusted to brave the situation. The world is quiet, and then, by imperceptible degrees, it’s not.

    On this particular night, the moon rose early. A few moments passed after base darkness was achieved, and then moonlight began to wax the woods, enlivening a neighborhood of slender shadows.

    Soon almost inaudible clues gave away bulges emerging in the tops of several trees. Moments passed, and they began to descend, as shadows. Many more moments passed, and there was a community of bulges riffling through the leaves adjacent to the creek, occasionally bumping into one another and hissing. Raccoons, I gathered.

    A form I can only attribute to a fox amble by, keeping out of the commotion, tight to the foot of a ridge, apparently unaware of my presence.

    In my eyes, Eden danced in the moonlight.

    And in this, I was romanced. I came to realize that, in nature, the more you come to know, the less, you realize, you really know. Mystery and wonder persist, and only in chasing the desire to know, do we come to appreciate what we have.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Friday, February 5, 2016


Under normal circumstances, creeks, rivers—bodies of water—usually give sufficient warning before they reveal themselves to a wandering angler. An analytical eye on the terrain while driving slowly towards a perceived destination, chest leaning slightly up on the steering wheel, is all it takes—unless you’re in the downtown district of a major city.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Looking down at the water from the overgrown and crumbling parking lot of an abandoned building, I wasn’t surprised I had almost missed it. A small freestone creek, no wider than 10 feet across, gushed over river rock 10 feet down in a gully that navigates a hodgepodge of residential lots, industrial facilities, and businesses. Even the short bridge that I drove over failed to harness enough of my attention to signal the proximity of the stream.

    My mind questioned by what device there could be a viable population of wild trout occupying the water below. Machine shops, abandoned car washes, and other impenetrable surfaces bordered the stream’s course for miles, surely keeping it stocked with a hefty supply of automotive chemicals and other pollutants. Lawns and roads took up the remainder of the immediate bank, contributing still more chemical pollutants, as well as novel trash items like pizza boxes, onion sacks, and wire fencing.

    “There’s no way,” I thought.

    Still, the creek had a reputation for fish, and so I returned to my car, and suited up.

    Fishing a favorite double nymph rig, my first cast landed in the head of a small run that spanned the width of the creek. Within a few seconds of hitting the water, the fly line stopped suddenly, and a quick hook set pulled a bottle rocket from the white water and sent it careening downstream. I let slack line slide from my line hand, and started my downstream chase.

    My opponent’s energy was running out, and I had him folding under the influence of my long rod in the tail of a long run. Guiding his head towards me on a short line, I plunged my net underneath its form and scooped.

    What superficially appeared to be a roadside ditch creek, accented by the occasional oxygenating riffle, had rewarded my preliminary effort with a sizeable wild rainbow, taping at about 15 inches—one I’d be proud to have pulled from even some of the larger streams and creeks in the vicinity.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” passed through my mind, prompting me to take a more critical look at the water. Small patches of water cress colored the bank in a few spots. Tree cover was marginal at best. If the cress did indeed indicate the presence of springs throughout the creek’s course, they play an important role in keeping the stream cool year-round. Still, though, I couldn’t rationalize the success of the wild trout population in front of me when considering the chemical and domestic pollution I can all but guarantee plague the water quality.

    “Maybe it’s a fluke,” I thought.

    An hour and a half later, after catching 12 small to average wild rainbows in a single run under the confused gaze of two brothers playing catch with a football in their backyard, the thought that my first fish was a “fluke” had fled my mind and dissipated into the background traffic noise.

    The brothers’ own house caught my eye as I glanced upstream, planning my next attack. From the back door of the house, concrete steps descended to ground level where they met a large concrete slab, presumably the foundation of the house itself. The tip of the structure extended into the water along the bank, catching a short pocket of water in its tail and creating a dynamic eddy.

    My formal training on the Shenandoah Mountains’ brook trout streams has made it near impossible for me to pass up such a lie, even for its small size. From head to tail, the pocket was no more than two feet long.

    My nymph found its head and stopped abruptly. My rod doubled on the hookset, the captured yielding no ground. A long, brown back breached, facing upstream, and kicked itself out of the pocket to roll downstream with two labored fans of its tail.

    Positioned for the cast sharply downstream, I kept my rod tip high, handled my net, and waded to midstream to collect the trout on its run downstream. The battle expired shortly, as I had current and tool working for me, and the weight of a brown trout of about 18 inches sagged in the silicone basket of my landing net.

    As I ungloved my hands to handle the fish, I glanced nervously upward at the house towering over me. I can be a nervous guy in the city, but for fish, I can make an exception.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginia