Tuesday, May 23, 2017

PADDLING, FISHING OPPORTUNITIES ABOUND IN CENTRAL VIRGINIA

Thinking about plans for summer outdoor fun? Nothing says “summer” quite like a day spent on the river boating, fishing, or both. Luckily, moving water is a resource that Central Virginia has in ample supply. The James River, Virginia’s founding river, and the Rivanna River provide nearly 100 miles of floatable water in the heart of the Old Dominion, along with world-class smallmouth and catfishing that only gets better as the summer progresses. Several outfitters are set up on each of these rivers, too, working to provide you with an experience catered to your interests.

    The James River flows almost 55 miles through Central Virginia towards its mouth in the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, its many riffles and long flats are lined with beautiful scenery and wildlife, and hold trophy-sized smallmouth and catfish (and other species) to keep the angler busy.

    Ashley Denby realized the boating potential of the James River in establishing James River Reeling and Rafting, an outfitting company based in Scottsville, on the banks of the River.

Two happy James River Reeling and Rafting customers. 

    Seven days a week, from April to October, Denby rents everything from tubes to rafts, and offers self-guided trips to accommodate every skill level, from beginners tubing a few lazy miles downriver, to trail-blazing river rats camping out on the river overnight. Rental prices include everything you’ll need on the river—a shuttle to and from your destination, a boat, life jackets, and paddles, and a map and cooler if requested.

    Despite the name, James River Reeling and Rafting doesn’t provide fishing equipment or instruction. If fishing is your activity of choice, you’re better off hiring a local guide seasoned on the James River and the personality of its famous smallmouth and catfish.

    L.E. Rhodes is a guide of nearly 20 years who specializes in fly fishing for smallmouth bass, and is intimately familiar with the James River.

    “The James River offers some of the best quality smallmouth fishing in Central Virginia,” said Rhodes. “You may not catch the number of fish in a day as you would years ago, but the average size of 14 to 17 inches, along with the fish up to and over 20 inches that you’ll encounter, makes for an awesome day on the river.”

    Rhodes, who can teach fishermen of all skill levels how to be a better smallmouth fisherman, is as easy-going and enthusiastic of a guy as you’ll encounter on the James River or anywhere else. And why shouldn’t he be, spending his days teaching others in one of his favorite places?

    “I love to share my experience and love of the James and it's smallmouth with all,” said Rhodes.

    Brian Bodine, owner of Razorback Guide Service, based in Scottsville, is another such character. Bodine has offered hunting and fishing trips on the James River year-round for more than 20 years, and has spent the last 30 years learning the intricacies of the River.
Brian "Razorback" Bodine with a citation James River smallmouth. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Though Bodine also offers light tackle smallmouth trips, he also specializes in catfishing.
“Catfishing has grown in popularity over the last few years,” said Bodine. “Though the upper James doesn’t get the 100-pound blue cats like the Richmond area, we do well. We catch flatheads up to 50 pounds and blues into the upper 30's. Plenty of meat fish in the 5-8 lb range as well.”

    Want to experience the best fishing the James has to offer? Bodine offers a specialized trip starting in late afternoon fishing for smallmouth, and then switching over to catfish as the sun goes down.

    Dear to residents of Fluvanna County, Charlottesville, and beyond, the Rivanna River is a prominent tributary to the James, and also offers excellent boating and fishing.

    Gabe and Sonya Silver work to convince Rivanna visitors of the River’s boating potential through their family outfitting business, the Rivanna River Company. Based in Charlottesville, the Silvers rent tubes and boats, and offer both self-guided trips and guided tours and instruction on the River.

    Fishing on the Rivanna is similar to the James River, in that it has many of the same target species, though in a more intimate setting.

A healthy Rivanna River smallmouth. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    “The Rivanna boasts a wonderful smallmouth population, and can produce trophies,” said Spotswood Payne, fly fishing guide for TheAlbemarle Angler. “There are also good populations of big gar and carp, too, and even the occasional goldfish. The Rivanna also provides a bit more gradient than the James, and can be quite fun to paddle at higher flows.”

    Payne, who also guides on the James River, notes that the Rivanna is also steeped in a rich history, something that is strongly evident while floating it, and played a significant role in the settlement of Charlottesville and Monticello.




    Consider these backyard destinations for fun and relaxation this summer, and you may just discover something spectacular.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

GOD'S COUNTRY

Road-weary and fish slime-crusted, I was chipping anxiously away at a newspaper column in the booth of a highway rest stop-associated fast food joint somewhere in the small state of Massachusetts. I had a meeting with a campfire and a spring creek full of brook trout 100 miles east before the sun went down, but my progress was being hindered by my inability to put into words the majesty I’d found in the few days before.

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    What I’ve found to be true of the western part of the Bay State is that it sits shadily catty-cornered to the portion of the East overrun with development and industry, and is not quite as well-loved for its northern forest atmosphere as are the rest of the New England states. As this thought fluttered into my mind, I caught the gaze of an elderly lady sitting with her husband a few feet away. I wasn’t unaccustomed to lingering—even cautious—stares from others; an unwashed, alone, far-from-home, young traveler, I’ve learned, raises certain flags. Nonetheless, after a few minutes, the lady got up from her seat and came to find the one across from me.

    “You look like you’ve had some adventure. Where are you going?” she asked.

    Relaxed at her apparent understanding of my for-the-time transient lifestyle, I answered that I was headed for the coast—Cape Cod—but that I had spent a few days in the fringes of the region called the Berkshires, and that I had been pleasantly surprised by what I had found there. Her eyes glowed, as did her husband’s, now swiveled in his seat to look onto the conversation.

    “That’s God’s Country. We love it there,” she waxed, before painting a romantic landscape of memories with the perspective of a gone-away native come back.

    I was familiar with the sentiment, and had used it myself on a number of occasions, otherwise unable to describe a landscape with the mystique and power it holds. To me, it communicates a spirituality strongly tied to the natural world and a respect for it in respect for its creator. God’s Country.

    But its utterance in that setting was striking to me, a relative stranger to the state of Massachusetts, if only subtly. I had previously only heard the term used to describe a different kind of landscape.

    A year or so later, smallmouth fishing with friend and fishing guide Brian Bodine on the James River, I heard the words again.

    In the summertime, Brian and I fish a stretch of the river around Scottsville on a weekly basis after I get off from work. Brian has been doing this for years, and is intimately familiar with the water, structure, and fish that call it home. We had caught plenty of fish throughout the evening, and were feeling pretty content.

    Then, in the fading light of the evening, before firing up his welded aluminum boat’s jet motor, Brain looked dreamy-eyed upriver and told me of a place with seemingly endless rocky cover and smallmouth—big ones—around every corner.

    “That’s God’s Country,” he said. And by the look in his eyes and the warmth in his voice, I knew it was.

    I feel at home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it was there that I heard those words again, most recently.

    I was laying on my back, throwing my gaze south as far as the atmosphere would allow over layers of blue slopes, the warm rays of a warmer-than-typical autumn baking my front. Roan Mountain, the southernmost point of what has become my home range, was my bed. The swath of mountains extending northward to Shenandoah—and the rivers, hollows, and trails that exist there—have been the focus of my intimate attention for the 20 years I’ve been alive. God’s Country, if ever I’ve known it.

    As I stared south, deeper into Tennessee, I was staring into the unknown. 

    As my gaze wandered over the landscape, they came to focus on a scene in close. Three middle-aged women sat with backpacks unshouldered on a rocky outcropping at the very peak of the mountain, also looking south. They talked as close friends, equally comfortable with silence as with the voicing of deep, though spontaneous thoughts. One pulled a book from her backpack, and the three of them closed their eyes and spoke from the heart, to something unseen.

    They ceased speaking when their eyes opened, and none moved immediately. After several moments, the woman with the book returned to her pack slowly and traded the book for an urn.

    Together the women dispensed the contents. The dust lit on a breeze bound south, filtering through the autumn light, over God’s Country.


    And my faith in humanity was restored.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS ALIVE AND WELL FOLLOWING HISTORIC WILDFIRE

On November 28, 2016, a wildfire of unprecedented scale swept through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and spilled over into the surrounding community of Gatlinburg, claiming 14 lives and burning a total of 17,904 acres, and forever changing the lives of those in the greater GSMNP community. Today, spring is coming—has come. Gatlinburg is bustling. And it is clear that the ecosystem will recover smoothly, and the community, though branded with the memory of hometown disaster, will return to its position as a viable tourist destination, stronger for it.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    What began as a small 1.5-acre fire smoldering slowly in the duff—the layer of organic matter on the forest floor—atop the popular Chimney Tops on November 23, 5.5 miles from Gatlinburg, was rapidly bolstered into a raging blaze four days after Thanksgiving when winds registered up to 87 MPH ripped through the Smokies, already bone-dry due to several months of drought.

    The scene was chaotic and undoubtedly sorrowful; and the impacts on businesses, families, and livelihoods cannot be downplayed. However, despite the sensationalized portrayals of the situation that has colored people’s perceptions of what remains of the GSMNP, the reality of the impacts of the fire is hopeful.

    Of the Park’s 522,427 acres, only 11,410 acres—roughly 2 percent—were consumed by the fire. What’s more, because of the high winds that contributed to the rapid magnification of the fire, about 65 percent of the area that was consumed was only very lightly burned, resulting in burned undergrowth and the bases of trunks, but very few dead trees. The area of the Park that was burned intensely—about 1,000 acres—represents just 0.2 percent of the entire area.

    Bringing even more hope, GSMNP Management Assistant, Dana Soehn, pointed out that “The fire occurred outside of the growing season, so most vegetation was dormant. Trees and shrubs were only highly effected in about 10 percent of the burned area.” In a brief walk through the forest, adjacent to one of the most heavily burned areas, buds are becoming visible on even the smallest of saplings.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The soil within the burn zone is relatively intact, too. “Duff layers, root mats, and seed banks are mostly intact in over 90 percent of the burn area,” said Soehn, and it shows. Daffodils, grasses, and groundcovers have emerged from the now moist ground as some of the first signs of spring.

    To ease the worries of those who value the Park for its wildlife viewing opportunities, wildlife have shown no signs of suffering. According to GSMNP Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver, only two of an estimated 1200 black bears inhabiting the Park are known to have perished due to the fire. Many, in fact—including the majority of the black bear sows—were had already begun hibernation when the fire swept through.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    Species that prefer open woodlands—like bats, of which the Park houses 13 species, 4 of which are critically endangered within the Park—will find refuge in the newly created habitat, as will deer, which thrive around edge habitat and in new growth forests. Turkeys were observed in some of the burned areas almost immediately following the fire. A winter burn affects a stronger spring green-up and a long sightline, which provide the birds with food and security.

    The fisheries within the Park were perhaps the least effected, though 55 miles of stream were engulfed in fire. “No impacts from fire relative to nitrates, sulfates, pH, or temperature have been found,” said GSMNP Fisheries Biologist Matt Kulp, citing 20 years of previous baseline data. “There has been no significant difference in sediment in the streams, either,” said Kulp, as he released a healthy wild rainbow electroshocked from a Little Pigeon River tributary stream.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The 31 miles of trails closed because of impacts from the fire have mostly been repaired and reopened to the public.

    Recreation, in the form of wildlife watching, fishing, and hiking, will resume in the Park this spring, providing little reason for visitors to postpone vacations and trips to the region. The community, which sees 11.3 million visitors annually, remains fully functional. In fact, record visitorship for the month of December was recorded the month following the fire.

    Ecologically speaking, wildfire is a natural event intrinsic to eastern ecosystems, and may even be interpreted as beneficial to the diversity of habitat and wildlife within the Park. What’s more, the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire will offer a unique opportunity for visitors and scientists to study and become familiar with wildfire, which has been largely avoided through management for recreation. The GSMNP is, and will continue to be, a natural treasure in the heart of the East.

    Want to help the Smokies? Go see it for yourself.    

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

OUTDOOR RETAILER DUMPS UTAH OVER PUBLIC LANDS DISPUTE

On Tuesday, February 14, Patagonia, a domineering outdoor brand, announced that it would not continue to attend the biannual Outdoor Retailer trade show, historically held in Salt Lake City, if it didn’t relocate from the state of Utah. The reason? Utah’s stance on federal public land conservation.

Utah—66.5 percent of which is comprised of federally owned public land—is a frontrunner in the movement to transfer federal land to the states. Many sportsmen and women are concerned that following through with this intent will result in the states’ massive selling-off of these once-public lands to private owners for development or personal ownership, eliminating the ability to use them for recreation.

    In late January, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz introduced legislation in Congress that would revoke legal authority from Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service authorities, followed by another bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 states across the west. Shortly thereafter, yet another Utah Congressman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, sparked national research into the possibility of the 
    
    Trump administration rescinding protection of the 1.35 million-acre Bear Ears National Monument designated by Obama as a lame duck. Gov. Herbert then submitted a resolution urging the newly-installed administration to do just that.

    Following Patagonia’s ballsy maneuver, on Thursday, February 16, the Outdoor Industry Association issued an ultimatum to Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert: Cease efforts to scrap Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act, rescind Bear Ears National Monument, and transfer federal public lands to the states, or they would sever their ties with Utah and take their heavyweight trade show elsewhere.

    Just hours following the conference call, the Outdoor Retailer show announced that they would be leaving Salt Lake City following the summer of 2018.

    Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market is the most comprehensive and lucrative trade show of its kind, annually attracting thousands of vendors marketing gear and apparel for outdoor and adventure sports including hiking, backpacking, cycling, climbing, water/paddle sports, fishing, mountain biking, running, adventure travel, and more. All of these sports depend upon public lands for their enjoyment, making Utah’s public lands political atmosphere particularly offensive to the show.

    The show annually funnels $50 million into Utah’s economy, making it a true heavyweight attraction for the state. Patagonia’s igniting move was intended to raise awareness of the show’s political and economic contradiction.

    “Patagonia will no longer attend the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah and we are confident other outdoor manufacturers and retailers will join us in moving our investment to a state that values our industry and promotes public lands conservation,” Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, wrote following the official announcement.

    The high-profile company was right in their expectation, and the outdoor sporting public has widely praised them for their stewarding leadership regarding this important issue, proving quite plainly that on issues involving intangible virtues, money trumps talk and affects change most effectively.

    Though the show will convene in Salt Lake in the summer of 2018, Outdoor Retailer is actively in search of a new home, and is taking bids from other states that have a strong tradition of outdoor pursuits and public land celebration. Utah is being ignored, which has created internal conflict within the state’s government, severely crippled by the loss of so much annual revenue.


    Hopefully, this loss will inspire Utah’s representative leadership to rethink the value of outdoor recreation and the public lands that permit them. Given Utah’s leadership on the public lands transfer issue, their conversion may be a pivotal moment in this land war that will prove to be nothing less than vital for the future of outdoor sports in America as we currently and freely enjoy them.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

AUGUSTA LEADS LOCAL CHARGE AGAINST NATIONAL FOREST FRACKING

In late February, the Augusta County Board of Supervisors voted to ban hydraulic fracturing by way of a zoning ordinance, making it the first county in the Old Dominion to totally prohibit the invasive natural gas drilling practice. The move has been praised by sportsmen and conservation groups, as it effectively protects clean water and wildlife in the county, which includes 193,000 acres of the George Washington National Forest and countless headwater streams.
A fracking drill pad in the Pine Creek Valley of Pennsylvania. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process of pumping pressurized chemicals, water, and sand down drill holes in the ground to crack open fissures in shale which contain small amounts of natural gas.

    The practice poses potential public and environmental health issues, since spills threaten to contaminate ground or surface water with hydrocarbons and other fracking fluids. The chemicals included in the pressurized fracking fluids are often undisclosed, and different companies use different mixtures. Such lack of transparency has been cause for suspicion.

    Furthermore, constructing a drill pad requires the clear-cutting of several acres of forest. Lights on the drills are often left on at night, illuminating surrounding forest and disrupting normal wildlife habits.

    But the impacts of fracking are hardly felt just at the drill site. Infrastructure is necessary to construct the pads and to shuttle materials and product. Roads must be constructed for the large trucks that are used to haul equipment and the actual drill to the site. Pipelines—akin to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline—are necessary for funneling captured gas to market. Both of these structures inevitably cross many headwater streams.

    Considering the current need to harness new energy sources in the United States, and considering the alternative strategies, fracking natural gas doesn’t stand to be an environmental no-go, as continued coal mining could be labeled. However, it must be done responsibly and transparently. That means knowing where fracking is a responsible choice and where it is not.

    In the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, the construction of roads and natural gas pipelines crossing headwater mountain streams would be a risky gamble of our prized native brook trout—the official state fish—, the ecological health downstream, and the state’s water supply. Nearly four million people—whether they know it or not—source their drinking water from National Forest land in Virginia, including those living in Richmond and D.C.

    What’s more, much of Augusta’s geology is “karst,” meaning it is comprised of soluble rock, commonly limestone and dolomite. Thus, any pipeline leak would be very likely to contaminate groundwater in a large area and eventually reach surface water.

    Despite the potential dangers, the National Forest Service allows hydraulic fracturing on forest lands across the country. However, following a November 2014 announcement, the current plan for the George Washington National Forest allows hydraulic fracturing on 177,000 acres, where private mineral rights and leases to oil and gas companies are pre-existing.

    Augusta County’s decision to ban such activities is, in fact, legal. The Virginia Code grants local governments the authority to “regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine” land uses, such as “the excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.”

    Still, the decision to install an outright ban on fracking may ruffle some industry feathers, though some experts speculate that a ban will be more effective in deflecting potential lawsuits than a seemingly always-porous regulatory process. Regardless, considering what we have to lose in the mountains of Augusta County, the ban is essential.


    Augusta County’s assertion of a ban on fracking is a clear and confident placement of the value of natural resource health and clean drinking water over the potential gain offered by natural gas fracking.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

HAUNTED BY WATERS

I had a dream, once, of a stream I knew only by name.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Given the statistic in hours I spend regularly pouring over, scrutinizing every faint, squiggly blue line of even hopeful consequence, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Its very form—its tributaries and bends—gave way to brown trout of beastly proportions, chasing streamers meant for the likes of them. The best part was…no one else knew about it.

    In my waking hours I put more logic to the illusion. The flow in question is a tributary to a wild trout stream heavily fished in Virginia. It’s long and runs a hollow elevated more than a half-mile above sea level. It’s stocked in a short, half-mile portion, and I had reason to believe that the water downstream, leading all the way to its mouth, remains cold year-round. All of these elements are indicators of a potentially great wild trout stream.

    So I put boots on the ground. I spent a rainy fall afternoon plying its dark corners with a meaty fly. One with enough seduction and substance to persuade the kind of fish I was after, the kind of fish I had dreamed about.

    As such fishing is, the action was slow, until, about halfway through the morning, I saw a dark, trailing figure explode on my fly as I was pulling it from the water to make another cast. There was no good hookset. No real contact. And so the fish was lost to the raindrop-stippled depths and the wondering, hopeful realm of my mind that manifests itself physically, actually, sparingly.

    But I wasn’t fuming. I didn’t smack the water in disgust. As any fisherman knows, a brush with a beast is encouraging, bordering on infectious. What was an ambitious hope was realized as a more-than-possible reality.

    But was it the only fish? Were there more shouldered wild trout cruising the creek of my personal discovery? Was it a fluke? A river has many faces. A single trip is not sufficient in defining a river. So, what, in fact, had I found?

    I’ve known and had tremendous success on other rivers like this. Rivers few others fish, but hold many fish, trophy fish, regardless.

    One such water I fished for the first time at an average streamflow, on a bluebird day in early October. Local lore fills the runs and bottomless pools with trophy brown trout—the largest brown trout, it’s sometimes said, in the state of Tennessee. I never believed it, not based on my own experiences angling it, which could be counted on a single hand. But the rumors persist, and flames don’t burn in the absence of fuel.

    Four months after my orientation on said river, a window of opportunity arose. A thick layer of snow fell in early February and covered the valley irrigated by the river. Runoff brought the river’s flow up several feet. A few days after it began to recede, I had a free afternoon.

    Figuring high, falling water would be the time for any monster brown trout in the river to show their faces, I packed my biggest stick and fly box and headed for the stretch of river I knew best. I had never caught more than a handful of average-sized fish there, but the roiling current gave me hope.

    The second cast of the afternoon roused anger in a foot-long brown, which hammered a brown Woolly Bugger swung against a hemlock-lined bank.

    In the next pool, I met the rumors. She was holding perfectly in dead-still water, affected by a limestone protrusion several feet from the near bank, nose pointed into a ripping run. When I set the hook, not much moved for several seconds. Then she surged upstream, and then down, creating long, deep pulses in my fly rod. I couldn’t chase her downstream, and when she was finally tired, I lost her to the ripping current and a hole worn in her mouth by the hook.

    The next day I returned looking for the rumor I had lost. She was nowhere to be found, but, from a deep pool, I managed to pull a half dozen wild browns over 12 inches, along with several smaller ones.

    The following day, I caught, and saw, nothing.

    On this cold, windy February afternoon, there’s little to think about but the fish I haven’t caught, and the rivers I haven’t known.  I spend hours studying my maps, guessing at the potentials of various rivers and streams. I think about the places I have fished, once, maybe twice, and what they have to offer that I haven’t seen. I think about those secrets out there, waiting to be discovered, and the ones I may never get to. And when night comes, my eyes don’t close.


    I am haunted by waters.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

SNOWED IN

The weather is highly variable in southwestern Virginia, but a few things are for certain. If it’s gonna’ get cold and spit, pour, or dump snow it’s gonna’ be in February, and I’ll be holed up, sleeping late in my on-campus apartment with no school or possibility of fishing to busy me. And even after the weather has departed for the end of the month, or some surprise visit in March, and left a legacy of ice, my two-wheel-drive won’t be making it to the river, and the brown trout will be having a jolly old time in the runoff in the mountains without me. It’s a peculiar and uniquely frustrating situation to live through—like a bad trip, if you’ve got the right fascination.


Photo by Matt Reilly
    Annually, upon this occasion, I find myself waking in a gray morning without intention. A sense of urgency reaches me through the gloomy face of winter. Water levels are up, dirty, and like the dingy chaos of a river coursing with runoff, there is a haze in the air that obscures reality, clouds the known. Finned legends emerge from enigma.

    There is a spring creek that rises just off the college’s property that is of little consequence and hop-across proportions until it feeds the pond in front of the cafeteria. I walk past it several times per day, and rarely notice the water in it. But when snow or rain hit hard, the water comes up, brown and frothy, and it catches my unyielding fancy. Only in the direst of circumstances does it become a destination.

    I abandon my living quarters without breakfast or any gear, but for a fly rod and a streamer of black and purple—something that can be seen in brown water—and head for the creek.

    The raging current has worn away the banks a few feet, greatly increasing its size and creating an almost unending succession of undercut banks, accentuated by the roots of trees on the lawn, now exposed. I’ve forgotten how rocky the bed is, but the roiling current, full of soft, almost still, pockets of water, reminds me.

    There is no one in sight, but why would there be? It’s early morning and there are no classes, no cafeteria hours, no reason to leave bed. No reason but a spring creek and a burning, bordering on desperate, need to tangle with the unknown.

    My first cast is directly upstream, to the near bank. The fluorescent fly lands in a slow pillow of water, inches from the dirt. A hard jerk-strip, and the fly jack-knives headfirst under the bank, below a tangle of roots. A second brings the fly back into view, and I watch it suspend there among the turmoil.

    Excited by the performance of my fly in the water and the ease with which it’s imparted action, I send a similar second cast to the opposite bank, upstream. For a second, it sits motionless in a micro-eddy, shielded from the ripping current, but a subtle twitch brings it closer to being swept away.

    Just as the current begins to grab the fly, a wake and surge of energy grabs the fly and straightens my fly line. A paddle tail erupts recklessly from the rolling current, as the fish points its nose down into the creekbed and struggles for leverage to get upstream.

    When it achieves the perfect balance and finds water to surround its tail, the fish blazes a trail upstream, slicing through the flooded river like a bird through air, taking to the air several times, and coming down into the narrow channel perfectly every time.

    As I chase the fish upstream, my line goes limp. Like it changed its mind, the fish reverses course and begins charging downstream. This time with twice the speed. I reel like mad to maintain tension on the fish, but as it approaches my position on the bank, I can sense the leader heading for the surface.

    In a moment of supernatural confusion and instinct, I pull my net from its holster fastened to my back. The fish takes off mere feet from me, and comes crashing down into the rubber basket of my net. I drop to my knees to submerge the fish in the net, and behold its majestic novelty—a brown trout of 22 inches, or 24, or 26.



    Pleased but still frustrated, I push away covers and lumber into the kitchen. Snowed in. A late breakfast is a good breakfast, I figure, and crack some eggs in a frying pan—the kitchen a refuge from the frozen windows and tile floor. I’ll spend the day tying streamers to target browns when I can finally get on the water. Something black, with some purple for contrast, maybe. Or perhaps something bright, to catch their interest.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Thursday, January 12, 2017

WHAT I ASKED FOR FOR CHRISTMAS

It’s remarkable to me that the society that I’m familiar with has gone and made just about every holiday about getting things, and stolen the attention away from their real meanings and the personal relationships that make these times special. Maybe it’s just my individual perspective, but it seems a bit backwards.

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Even our most family-oriented (might I say, wholesome?) holiday, Thanksgiving, which is confounded by no Easter baskets or Christmas gifts, and which is intended as a day of thanks for the bounty of life, is immediately followed by perhaps the greediest day of the year, Black Friday. The premise of Black Friday is not necessarily greedy. In fact, it’s the opposite—to provide shoppers good deals on items they wish to give as gifts for Christmas, a religious holiday hijacked by marketing and turned into an occasion of exceptional decadence.

     The cultural standard of Christmas presents as materialistic is, in my experience, so strong that even the idea of gifting “quality time” is seen as “cheap” or a cop-out by many, though too many of us don’t spend enough of it with the people who count. After all, to those ni your life you can be either a do-er or a be-er. You can do things—buy presents, support financially. Or you can be things—a cherished fishing buddy, friendly company in the deer woods. If you can guess anything from the tone of this article so far, you might guess I prefer the latter.

     Nevertheless, I made a Christmas list this year. Some of the things I got. Some I didn’t. But, on the eve of another college semester, as I write this, the ones I got are more than enough.

     On the top of my list was a musky—that long, mean, toothed fish of my most recent dreams that I have yet to lay a hand on. And that musky was to be, by its very elusiveness, a team effort, put in the boat by one of a handful of fishing friends with which I have the pleasure of floating with just a handful of times in a year. After all, musky fishing is mostly hanging out with friends in a boat freezing your butt off and smiling and talking about the good times. It’s admittedly a miserable time, at times, but a mighty fine retreat any day.

    I’m not a duck hunter, at least not by upbringing. I’ve been meaning to get my feet wet in the sport of waterfowling, though, and that inaugural trip was second on my Christmas list. A long-time school friend of mine and I have long been wanting to hunt together over winter break. He’s a neighbor, and yet it never seems to work out. There’s a river—a small one—not far from our homes that is floatable by canoe and that flows through public land. A jump-shoot of sorts was the medium for the meetup, and the ducks the added bonus. The cherry on top.

     I am an upland bird hunter by upbringing, though you wouldn’t guess it. The poor situation of upland species in Virginia is partially to blame, but I’ve been known to saunter through a few riverbottoms following a beloved setter on occasion with an eye for woodcock. I’d heard of a local resident population of the birds, not subject to the seasonal migrations of the “mainstream” population, and resolved to take my dad, a woodcock enthusiast who’s not fired a shotgun at one in some time, and our Irish setter, Maggie, out one day in search. That was wish number three.

    Friend, magazine editor, and fishing guide, Chris McCotter, the man who gave me my first ever magazine assignment, and a character I haven’t spent time with in several years, reconnected shortly before the holiday season, and made plans to fish Lake Anna, where he operates a guide service, over my winter break. It was, of course, tentative, as all outdoor plans are, and so I hoped Christmas would bring me that chance to rekindle a friendship and see a part of the state I’ve been missing.


    Truth be told, a few of these Christmas wishes weren’t granted, but they are still valuable to me. In this hour of my life, when free time is relatively abundant (some may say) but seasonally available, I’ve come to cherish moments with those I see rarely, and the novel outings that I know I’ll remember for a long time. Those gifts, in my mind, are what the “holiday season” is all about.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

MUSKY FISHING

The air was cold as we stood by the put-in on the upper James River at sunrise, rafts unloaded and tied off. Ten-weight fly rods rigged with sinking lines; leaders of 80-pound fluorocarbon; and foot-long, triple-articulated bucktail flies were strung and loaded, along with fly boxes, dry bags, and a net as wide as the boat. Smiles and adrenaline-induced trembles were all around.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    We hadn’t seen a fish in a full day of fishing, but there was another new day ahead of us. Maybe we would see a fish. Maybe we’d have one show interest in one of our flies. Maybe we’d catch one. Maybe we wouldn’t. That’s musky fishing.

    What’s not to love about a fish with the potential to reach lengths of over 50 inches; that sports a shovel maw of razor sharp teeth; and that chases down and eats full-grown sunfish, chubs, and suckers, best imitated by massive streamers?

    Perhaps their sheer elusiveness, their fickle stomachs, and their habit of following flies to the boat without eating. For Ben Rogers, in the raft with friend and Albemarle Angler guide, Spotswood Payne, it’s been five full days of hard fishing since he’s seen a musky. Not caught but seen. Almost 50 hours of casting heavy gear in cold, winter weather without seeing anything more than empty river. But that’s musky fishing, and that’s what makes the sport so infuriatingly addicting.

    “The fish of 10,000 casts,” they call the mighty musky, and though it’s maybe a slight exaggeration, the sentiment is effective. As I row downriver through the thawing December morning, both rower and fisherman in each raft is devoted to the bank and to his fly, to teasing mystery from the darkest, deepest corners of the river, in hopes that it shows itself as a fish. Every cast, every pass on a piece of structure, every day spent on the water is another attempt at striking the low odds.

    We dropped into a long flat of slow, deep water around 10 AM. My fly struck bottom and lodged on a rock. As we rowed closer to retrieve it, the long, wavering form of a musky backed off from the rock where the fly was stuck, back into the abyss. We were on the board. To get a follow—to have a fish take interest in your fly—that’s success in the game of musky fishing.

    In the tail of the same flat, Spotswood had a follow on his fly—had the fish to the boat, but not hooked. So we backed off and rowed back upstream, and hit the same bank with both boats in succession. It’s perceived that musky sometimes need a wakeup call. The second boat in the string, more often than not, gets the fish to eat. So second passes are necessary over fish that have been seen, though nothing came of that one. Two more sightings came in the tail, as we prepared to shoot the rapids to the next hole.

    After noon, we dropped into yet another flat, this one deeper, darker, and more promising, as the streamflow on the James is less-than-ideal. Low and exceptionally clear doesn’t leave much room for mystery and sulking musky.

    David Gregory, who rode in the bow of my 14-foot raft, had hooked a 46-inch musky on his first float on that very same flat. It’s been 12 trips for him, and one year, since that fish, and he hasn’t boated another. But that’s musky fishing.

    We worked both banks through the flat diligently, twice. David yelled “musky!” as I was figure-eighting, pointing to a fish from the rower’s seat that was deep beneath my fly. Because musky are ambush predators, they can often be triggered to strike by a side-profile of prey, which they can t-bone with their shovel mouths. For this reason, we strip our flies to a few feet from the rod tip, stick it several feet under the water, and stir the river in a figure-eight pattern after every retrieve. Evidently a fish gave my fly a look as I was doing this, but I didn’t see it in time to react, and the fish moved on. A chance missed. That’s musky fishing.

    We neared the takeout as the sun was retreating and the chill of winter night was reborn. I had another musky come out from underneath the boat and take a look at my fly, but moved on without consequence.


    Eight hours of fishing with six fish sighted and four follows was counted as a success, though no fish were boated. As we rowed the final stretch to the takeout in the dim evening, there was joking and light spirits, and plans of sticking it to the fish tomorrow, hopeful that then cast number 10,000 would come. That’s musky fishing.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian