Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Excitement and anticipation seemed to boil within us, warding off some of the chill and threat posed by a heavy, oppressive sky. Fog hung thick and low, and drizzle fell from it to soak the alpine crest of Black Mountain. Wind slanted it sideways and drove the chill deeper.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Just a day before, my brother, Phillip, and I toted backpacks peacefully into the heart of West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness, set up camp, and angled for sprightly brook trout along the middle reaches of the Middle Fork of the Williams River. But on the peak of Black Mountain, we stood another day into a weeks-long cold, wet spell plaguing the region, on the opposite side of the wilderness area, poised a few hundred feet above the Forks of Cranberry, with enough food in our packs to last us four more days. Donning waders and rain shells, we began sloshing our way down the mountain, ready for what the coming days would have in store.

    Research, travel to, fish, photograph, and report on notable fly fishing destinations throughout the East Coast—herein lies my job description, at least for a large fraction of the summer. It’s a tough life, but it’s my life, and I’ll deal with it as such. The Cranberry Wilderness was the first on my hit list, and did its best to invoke the fictional dread I attribute to this lifestyle.

    It hardly succeeded, though we made camp and fixed dinner in a steady, cold rain that second night, after a six-mile hike through mud puddles and downed hemlocks and spruces. The next morning—Day 3—we awoke to the peaceful sound of snowflakes stippling the tent’s rain fly. The air outside of the sleeping bags was harsh and raw.

    The gurgling of the North Fork of the Cranberry just outside the door prodded us along. Snow is at least gracious, as elements go, for not soaking you to the bone. We boiled water for coffee and shoveled in some form or another of dried oats, and exchanged sleepwear for waders and rain shells, once again.

    Existing information can’t seem to make up its mind about the state of the headwaters of the Cranberry River. Do a few internet searches, and you’ll find as many people talking about wonderful brook trout and wild trout fishing in the Forks of the Cranberry as you will naysayers yelling “dead river.” This, and because I refuse to propagate commonly rewritten, un-researched information in my writing, is why I wanted to devote several days to experiencing these rivers before writing about them.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Phillip spent the morning plying the runs and pools of the small North Fork with a fly rod and various nymph patterns, while my industry was achieved with a camera and tripod. Snow grayed my compositions until noon when, fishless, Phillip suggested what had been on my mind all morning.

    We gathered food and water bottles, stuffing what we could in our wader pockets, and began hiking downstream as the sky opened to reveal a comforting blue that had been absent since the beginning of the trip.

    Not a fish was seen in the upper or middle reaches of the North Fork, and so a cautious eye was held to the stream’s course as we wound downstream at the mercy of the foot trail. The story was static, all the way to the mouth.

    At the bottom, we encountered a water treatment station, equipped to dose the inflowing North Fork with limestone powder just a few hundred yards before its confluence with the South Fork—a sign suggestive of an acidified upstream ecosystem.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    With the goal of netting a few fish before nightfall, Phillip waded into the main stem of the Cranberry River, just downstream from the confluence of its two headwater streams. I remained up on the cliff bank, shooting photos and giving instruction. A few casts in, Phillip nailed a stocky rainbow.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Our spirits were recharged that night, after a spirited walk back up the North Fork to camp, a strong fire, and a hot meal.

    The next morning, we high-tailed it downstream to the main stem. I did a quick study of the benthic macroinvertebrates in the South and North Forks, looking for signs of pollution-intolerant species—mayfly and caddis larvae—and found several. However, a few hours combined fishing on both forks yielded nothing from the North Fork, and two stocked rainbows and a single native brook trout from the South Fork. Not even a fin caught my attention in the former.

    Nevertheless, the latter half of the day we spent slaying chunky rainbows in the main stem of the river, having come to terms with the compromised system.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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