Thursday, December 28, 2017


For just over a year, now, I’ve been fishing for a figment. A figment of rivers large and mysterious. A dragon, in aquatic form, full of sharp teeth and angst. A figment feet long but easily hidden and sparingly seen; vicious, but only occasional moved to feed. 

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    In a year’s time I’ve only managed to be on the river searching for this figment a week of days. Another half dozen I’ve spent rowing others down the river, hoping they too will assign reality to the figment, and keep me company in desperation. But in a year’s time I’ve tied a few dozen flies, read a mountain of articles and scientific papers, and talked to anyone that would listen—including you, reader, who may have read my fanatical, poorly organized words about the almighty musky, the object of my obsession.

    Most of the non-angling folk are unaware of the musky’s existence so close to their safe, warm beds. 

    “That lives in the river?” they gasp, incredulously. 

    Indeed they do. I’ve seen a few dozen, but it occurs to me that if it weren’t for the historical success of anglers like me and the hands of scientists physically on the flanks of the creature, I’d have little reason to believe my sanity not drowned in the river. An appropriately shaped log, or even a shadow of the right dimension, after all, when paired with the rippling surface of the river, can fabricate a lot of things.

    But I’ve written all that off, for this figment has been realized. 

    My story is not an uncommon one. Nicknamed the fish of 10,000 casts, the musky often demands days, sometimes weeks, occasionally more than a month (in one friend’s case) on the water in order to grace an angler with its presence. They are a fish of low odds and probability. The more time spent on the water, the more likely a fish in the boat becomes, and the more tools you earn to put the odds ever more in your favor. 

    My seventh day came on a cold, blustering, mid-December day, fishing alone on one of my home waters. The mid-morning sun pushed the mercury over the freezing mark, and the wind beat it back down, shoving my raft around the river and my casts out of form in the air. The water was exceptionally clear and the sun was shining bright. I was swimming a few new flies, hoping they’d push my odds into the black. As both captain and angler, I worked slowly down the river, analyzing cover to anchor in strategic positions, and then trading oars for a fly rod in the bow. 

    The wind roared through the height of the day. Early afternoon brought a slight respite. I worked through it, stoically searching for the figment of the river.

    Cast. Strip. Pause. Strip. Pause. Repeat. 

    My eyes drifted to my watch as the sun began its decent into the mountains, and the musky sunk deeper into the river, retreating again from reality. And when the light faded to the harsh pre-dusk hue that makes the river’s surface a mirror and turns the fishing into a mindless salute to the expiring day, the world turned upside down. 

    Halfway through my retrieve I stripped my fly into something solid. But this time the flexed butt of the rod told the story not of a rock or log, but of a living thing. 

    A well-matched tussle ensued. A tug-of-war between man and beast unseen. I made my way frantically to the middle of the boat, as my net, massive in circumference, was stored in the back. My rod very literally doubled in my rod hand, I used my left hand to extend the net. After a handful of tense minutes, leverage trumped raw power, and the figment broke the surface tension and succumbed to the net bag. 

    I celebrated briefly, still in shock. Then, a working man with a job to finish, I dropped back into the rower’s seat, secured the net handle so that the fish was safely and securely in the water, pulled the anchor, and rowed to shore to tape and admire the fish. 

    The tape measured 40 inches of musky, on the dot, and I thanked my lucky stars as I beheld them and preserved them in film for perpetuity.

    Despite the hours of dedicated work invested in the fish in hand, the moment was fleeting. I lowered it back to the water and saw it off. Lazily, it slid below the mirrors surface and waved a languid goodbye, and the finned memorial to my sanity returned to the river.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


In an age of rapid population growth, LCD overload, and unprecedented cultural disassociation from nature and the outdoors, when mass marketability rules, often in favor of more traditional, refined values, outdoor television has been stolen from the everyman. A family of family and friends from Central Virginia is stealing it back. 

The Mason-Dixon Experiment focuses on providing viewers the raw experience of a family-oriented outdoor lifestyle, over adrenaline-soaked cut-shots and badassery.

    Back in 2013, hunting partners John Miller and Britton White were sitting on a tailgate of a truck having lunch when they came up with the idea of trying to put together an outdoor TV show. They conceived the idea and the name, The Mason-Dixon Experiment (MDE), but life and full-time jobs got the best of their forward momentum until 2015, when White began talking to church friend, Eric Umstead, a graphic designer, about how to get things up and running. White’s wife, Jessica White, and father, Junior White, both got involved, and the idea started to gain traction.

    “We want to bring a different side of the outdoors to TV that will show folks that it’s not always about your catch or harvest, but about the experiences you have, good or bad, in the great outdoors,” said Britton White. 

    The Mason-Dixon Experiment team, family people who promote the tagline “Shoot straight and get your kids outdoors,” also promote a strong family and conservation ethic. 

    “The Mason-Dixon Experiment is all about the next generation of outdoors-person,” said Umstead. “Our children and grandchildren are becoming more dependent on a system that might one day let them down. Being self-sufficient—hunting, fishing, camping, cooking, etc.—shouldn’t be dying skills, but basic human rights that enable us to provide for our families no matter what comes to pass. Our goal is to promote outdoor pursuits and to educate everyone on the benefits and enjoyment of a sustainable outdoor lifestyle.”

    Right off the bat, the team started filming every time they went out in the field.

    “We got some good, some bad, but again, it’s about the experience,” said Britton White. 

    After filming for a full season, they had compiled enough footage for five episodes—enough to start—and each subsequent season brought more and more footage and more episodes. Today, The Mason-Dixon Experiment can be viewed on Gen7 Outdoors and The Hunt Channel, both online, digital media platforms. 

    “We chose digital media because we found that the majority of our followers—males 18 to 44 years old—were consuming information differently than back in the 80s and 90s,” said Britton White. 
    “It seems all signs pointed to streaming and digital media.”

    The show airs both live and on-demand on Gen7 Outdoors, airing live Mondays at 11 AM, Tuesdays at 7 PM, and Fridays at 11 AM. The Hunt Channel is currently on-demand only. And short episodes will be airing on CarbonTV starting in 2018. 

    Though the show’s primary subject is hunting, the team does film fishing and other outdoor content, too, often in the form of live videos from the field. 

    “We have aspirations of adding a food preparation aspect to it, too,” said Jessica White. “We want to show that this is not just a sport to us, but that we use it to provide for our families. Britton and I haven’t bought beef in four years.”

    Along with the success that The Mason-Dixon Experiment has seen in its short time, there have also been the quiet struggles that face any entrepreneurial endeavor. 

    “Another aspect of this is money,” said Britton White. “It takes money to do what we do, and it’s not cheap. Trying to manage personal expenses with the expenses associated with MDE can be stressful.”

    “In the home, it’s difficult because Britton and I both work full time jobs and MDE takes up additional time,” said Jessica White. “Ultimately, we really feel like we have something special, so to be able to put the time in is worth it.”

    “MDE has been a blessing to all of us. Our pursuits with MDE have become an extension of our daily lives, our interactions with each other and with those we come in contact with at work, school, church, and community,” said Umstead. “We have made strong connections with other outdoor teams, our sponsors and followers, and the benefits far outweigh the challenges.”

    To support pure, local outdoors, follow the team on social media, watch the show, and reach out and give feedback. And take a kid hunting. 

    “We want to build a community around what we are doing,” said Britton White. “The tradition of hunting and the outdoors goes back further than any of us, so trying to keep that legacy going is our main goal. Our youth is our means to keep that tradition alive and moving forward.”

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


The allure of the outdoors has many different flavors, angles, reasons people strike out over land and water.

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    There are the fish that live in striking settings. An eastern small stream devotee will hike miles through mountainous terrain to meet the spritely brook trout, a species whose trophy specimens could, in most cases, be measured with a standard caliper. They’ll invest many late nights tying imitations of insects onto hooks, fold maps into oblivion, and purchase four-wheel-drive vehicles just for the chance.

    And I like to believe that most who set their sights on the brook trout do it equally for the chance to tangle with one of the Earth’s most beautiful creatures and for the associated opportunity to explore through the senses the East’s most quintessential setting. Appalachia, the hollows and springs and wild foliage blazes, are in the flanks of the brook trout, and if you’re the kind of human I’m talking about, you understand my logic.

    Similarly there is the game. The whitetails that Americans so highly tout, both for their cunning and their beauty. Hunters infected by whitetail fever will spend the better part of a year making purchases, scouting, and dreaming, all in an attempt to make more decadent their existence during the few weeks or months that pursuing their infatuation is legal. Biology is important in any game that requires the participant to become a part of it for a particular species. And so there are the books and papers and camera trap surveys that hunters fill their off-season with, if only to make themselves more familiar with their quarry, to become more capable predators.

    Through this comes the oft misunderstood paradox of hunting. How could one love the animal it intends to kill? Love, in my experience, is largely made up of respect and appreciation, with a little bit of chemical obsession for longevity. The whitetail hunter comes to love the whitetail and the place it lives—the field edges and hardwood groves—and learns to live for the day when breathe becomes opaque, when dream becomes reality.

    These traditions are often solitary endeavors—exercises in individuality made richer by the absence of people and the elements of the unnatural world we imbue ourselves in daily. But collectively, there is a community of individuals who walk on the same plane, who love the brook trout and the whitetail, the hollows and fields, and the sight of ripe persimmons and yellow hickory leaves and breathe condensing into a fog in the morning. There is a conglomerate who feels and hears the same things.

    And in those people there is another angle to the outdoor experience. For the more I come to know and love my own waters, and the more I travel and explore others’, the more I find myself pondering the stories of the people who call these places foreign to me theirs.

    On a small spring creek in western Montana, I encountered a group of college friends, long since graduated and geographically dispersed, reunited over beers and the nostalgic potential of their home water. Some brought their kids. Some wished their fathers could be there.

    I fished the evening away thinking of those relationships, with each other and the river. I thought about the slaving fly shop owner and guide I knew in the town over who invests his time on the bigger rivers for his customers, but yearns for the soul-refreshing joys of wading alone the small creek that dissolves the stress of small business ownership into something worth it. I thought about the kid not much older than me who was cutting his teeth on the river as a part-time guide for a local outfitter. And my evening was richer for it.

    I’m reading Hemingway, currently, as I have several times before. I’m re-reading his short stories, actually, as an appreciative courtesy to a friend with whom I’ve shared water in spirit, who sent me the collection just the other day. I met Irv in a pizza joint parking lot after I noticed our vehicles shared similar stickers from far-away waters. He grew up on a river in north-central Pennsylvania I’ve grown fond of, a place I’ve learned lessons and made stories. We’ve shared other waters, too, it turns out, but his story is most rich in north-central Pennsylvania.

    And so I was driving to my own home water, thinking about Up in Michigan and Irv’s river and mine. A hulking, white-nosed fox squirrel darted in front of me, but made the last-minute decision to scramble up the nearest post oak. And then I thought about fox squirrel hunting and how fall was coming, and the way evening autumn light looks in an old farmstead being reclaimed by oaks and maples, and the people who would have lived there and done it and thought about it all before me.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Thursday, September 14, 2017


“I’d just like to learn something, get a better bearing on what these late-summer fish are doing,” I said over my right shoulder, delivering a passive prod to Jared Tuck, a seasoned smallmouth angler from Wytheville, as he slung another cast to the bank from the back of the raft.

The author releasing an trophy smallmouth to fight another day. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    “Yeah, it’d be nice to catch one, though,” said Tuck.
    “We’ll catch a couple,” I said, attempting to anchor the fate of the day with the optimism and confidence necessary in hunting trophy fish.

    An osprey launched itself into flight from a prominent pine along the long, rocky shoreline, the rhythmic sound of air under large, beating wings syncing with the whirling baseline of oar strokes pushing up-lake against a light but steady breeze.

    Zach Taylor, also of Wytheville, and a virgin to the smallmouth bass that famously fin the New River near his home, cast from the bow, silently wishing too for that first fish of the day.

    On the first day of our junior year of college, Zach and I met as roommates, and quickly established common ground in fishing. Upon learning of his uninitiated smallmouth career, I made his introduction to the hard-fighting bronzeback a priority, and we endeavored to float the New at the next opportunity.

    Tuck, who grew up fishing the waters of the New, was our across-the-hall neighbor, and one of the 20 freshman residents I was charged with advising. We talked about fishing and smallmouth and the New River more often than not when we didn’t have work to do, and when we did.

    But it was a year before the three of us found time to fish together, and, ironically, we weren’t on the river, but a foreign water of which little is publicly known. Its potential as a smallmouth fishery made me eager to discover its secrets, to learn to catch its fish so as to be able to guide anglers to trophy smallmouth on it. When I pitched the fishery to the boys, they were eager, too.

    Tuck swapped to a topwater lure. It landed with a splash next to the bank, and he began working it to the boat in a zig-zag powered by short, upward jerks of the rod tip.

    “My dad caught a nice smallmouth on this thing on the New,” said Tuck, without confidence.

    As we approached a small creek mouth, Tuck fired his lure to the bank under a small overhanging limb. Before he could begin his retrieve, a V-wake pushing parallel to the bank sprouted a bucket mouth and inhaled it with a loud splash.

    Tuck cranked down and set the hook. I dropped the oars. In a few seconds we all saw a large flash of bronze. I grabbed the net, and, being in just a few feet of water, hopped out of the boat. A few tense seconds passed before we saw the flank of the fish again. Tuck raised his rod tip, and I shot the net underneath of the fish and around its head and lifted.

Jared Tuck with an 18-inch smallmouth taken on topwater. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    We all celebrated as I pulled the fish from the bag, handing it to Tuck. The first fish of the day—about 18 inches—was the fish we were looking for—a day-maker, and a trophy fish in just about anyone’s book, especially for a foreign body of water.

    Tuck traded me my camera for his fish, which he held up for me to photograph. We measured the fish and I snapped more photos as he lowered it back to the water.

    Zach caught my attention with an excited grunt from the front. I looked over my shoulder to see his rod bent statically. He was snagged.

    But he was reeling. Then the rod throbbed and the fish jumped. As I stood in the water dumfounded, Tuck tried to hold on to his fish to complete a double, but lost his grip in excitement. Zach’s fish bull-dogged around the boat for almost 30 seconds before he succeeded in turning the fish’s head towards the surface. As the brute flared its gills in preparation for another head shake, I caught it with the net and pulled it from safety.
Zach Taylor with a 20-inch smallmouth--his first ever. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    “Dude!” I yelled at Zach as he stared in disbelief at his first smallmouth ever hanging in the net.

    Catching up to the events that had unfolded, we shared fist bumps all around. We measured Zach’s fish, which taped at just over 20 inches—a trophy smallmouth, a citation certified by the game department, and a hell of an introduction to the species. I took my camera back from Tuck and handed the fish to Zach, his hands shaking.

    We snapped photos and released the fish, and celebrated those fish for the rest of the day, made complete in just a few short but memorable moments.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Thursday, August 24, 2017


On the evening of Monday, August 14, after a day full of training for my position as a Head Resident Advisor for Emory & Henry College, I went fishing, to wash away the day, and to take back the part of me that becomes diluted when I spend more than a few days in town and on concrete. The only difference between that evening and all the others I’ve spent doing the same thing, is that it immediately followed a human tragedy of the highest degree that unfolded in my hometown of Charlottesville.

    In the days following, I watched the documentaries and photosets and interviews that erupted around the explicit demonstration of violence-provoking white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies in town over the weekend, which resulted in the loss of Heather Heyer, and the injury of several others. I was initially thankful that I wasn’t local on the day of the protest. I then became somewhat hardened and disappointed that I was not local on that day, and in the days following, to stand with the shell-shocked and the threatened, those who know and love my home for what it is—a home and a community. I remain not frightened but appalled at the capacity for hatred in my fellow human. Perhaps I knew of the racial hatred that still lingers in the dark corners of our society. Perhaps I’d never known its true power.

    I call this a human tragedy of the highest degree because organized hate, when allowed to prosper and fester, leads to action. As it was demonstrated in Charlottesville, hateful action leads to murder and death. Genocide—and genocide is a human wound infected. Each is just a limb of the same sick, murderous beast, and should be identified and opposed, as such. 

    “We greatly outnumber the anti-white, anti-American filth, and at some point, we will have enough power to clean them from the streets forever,” said Robert Ray, a writer for the neo-Nazi publication, The Daily Stormer. “That which is degenerate in white countries will be removed.”

    On the day that I went fishing, I did so as a white person—a white, heterosexual male in the twilight of my college career. And so I went fishing safe. Not explicitly threatened by the agendas presented in Charlottesville on Saturday. My individuality—my ability to freely go fishing in America, to freely pursue happiness and comfort, and to freely exist as I was born—has not been held as an obstacle to the greater good. I am white. I am American. And I am proud of who I am. 

    And it is because of this identity—my racial identity—the same identity of those that stood on the side of hate and racism in Charlottesville, that I feel a burning and paramount need to renounce and condemn, with the utmost potency and sincerity, the evil, bigoted actions, beliefs, and agendas of the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that revealed themselves in my hometown over the weekend. 

    My America, my Virginia, my Charlottesville is a place of inclusion and diversity, where a rich blending of cultures and understandings stands in favor over a homogenous, outwardly discriminatory and ignorant society. Despite my privilege, and my inability to truly sympathize with those who have had their identity and lives rhetorically threatened, I hold individuality as a unifying feature of our collective existence, as a country, a state, and community. For as long as one of my fellow countryman’s individuality and freedom is threatened, so will I consider my own. Much blood and sweat has fallen to place this kind of racist behavior in our past. We cannot regress now. We cannot.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Kids, they sat there waiting. Just three—an unbalanced number. One can talk to the other two but not with complete comfort lent by another on the periphery. They checked their phones nervously, sipped drinks and chatted half-heartedly, saving the fully robust body and flavor of spirited camaraderie for the arrival of the fourth. One fretted over a woman gone silent. The others sat idly by, grave in muted support, each on the cusp of change.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    The hallmark neon glow of a Mexican restaurant sign cast an electric hue onto the glass table, feigning the air of the high school Friday night lights, less the buzz. It was close to closing time, perhaps a bit past, but the group had held the doors unlocked before, and the owner and waiter are accommodating. Perhaps they empathize with the romanticism of the ritual. Maybe they’re just polite.

    The fishing in the rural countryside during the summer months is best at dusk — and the sun sets late. So, dinner is set aside, displaced by fishing, and either takes an early hour or a late one. Late is the preferred option, as it provides a time for reflection. Food tastes better with the mind stimulated by the spirit of activity and even more when it is heading to a hungry stomach.

    A bell sounded faintly as the expected fourth in the party cracked wide the restaurant’s front door. Two of the heads at the booth against the outside window swiveled, and the third looked welcomingly on. Changed from wet shorts and a dirty fishing shirt, he celebrated the novelty of a cool summer night in the South with weathered blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a seasoned trucker hat that tamed dirty brown hair, greased by humidity and the seemingly vaporous concoction of fish slime, pond water, and algae.

    He wore a retired, victorious confidence like that old fishing shirt. He’d spent years fishing the same pond the four fished that evening, casting poppers with a fly rod from a canoe or from the bank long into the night, listening for the telltale splashes of feeding largemouth to alert him of their presence on the end of his line.

    Taking the inside position at the booth, he assessed the attitudes of the others, as they were altered slightly after leaving the carefree world of the evening’s fishing and entering the world of the continuous ebb and flow of issues, problems and solutions. One continued, still, to glance at his phone nervously, worried over the stance of a girl on a recent dispute—his heart and mind battling with neither gaining the upper hand for any long interval. The other, a periodically ill-tempered but altogether nice guy reassured the other, comfortable in his own relationship with a girl, whose fickle deviations are met with his scoffs and temperamental dismissals. The other, more reserved and whose demeanor most closely matched that of the fourth’s, had no horse in the race, and so interjected none.

    By the dictation of the culturally instituted formula for success, the four were staring down the beginnings of college educations. Having completed the seemingly monstrous task of surviving 13 years of school, a short period of irresponsible and unhindered celebration was followed by a heavy sense of the unknown. School was a known. Leaving home wasn’t. By pure necessity of physical distance, some girls would be left behind in a hazy memory of life’s summer. Others would be clung to until strife and stress eventually eroded affection. Families and familiar places would become distant relatives and vacations. Local ties, as they were then, though they forwardly denied it, would be lost.

    The fourth worried, then, over no such things, but had previously, and knew fully of their power. He too would lose a girl, would move away and be distanced from all things familiar. But he had spent the evening teaching the kid whose demeanor most closely matched his own how to cast a fly rod and the student learned and caught fish. A large fish fell to his own efforts in the last shade of light before darkness. The fish sounded and buried itself in weeds, requiring a wading retrieval, as he had performed dozens of times before.

    In those moments he found comfort, ambition and fulfilled purpose—and a dream for a lifestyle built around those ideals. Unsure of the path forward but intent on the end goal, he made the decision to delay formal education and revel in fish, personal realization and what opportunities might come.

    The waiter delivered food and all deep-thought processes were derailed. Smiles were passed around. Life went on.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Adventure-scarred canoes lashed to its pontoons, a fully-loaded DCH-2 Beaver circled one of northwest Ontario’s thousands of jagged lakes to point its propeller parallel along its length. As it began its descent, the unbroken amalgam of boreal forest and shimmering water was transformed from a glorious abstract painting to a very real and intoxicating—almost threatening—wilderness. Like a seafood-zeroed raptor, the collective eyes of the four anglers aboard dilated.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The night before, in a pine-panelled cabin owned by Wilderness North, a Thunder Bay-based outfitter, Mark Melnyk, the operation’s Chief Fishing Officer (CFO), weaved a suspiciously lofty description of the fishery we were set on.

    A spiderweb’s wispy vein of a massive watershed, the river is accessible only by bush plane and canoe.

    “You’ll need a five or six weight,” said Melnyk, stolidly. “Start with 3X tippet…Big foam hoppers…There are brook trout over five pounds.”

    Mark Taylor, Chris Hunt, Paul Smith, and I chuckled nervously, pointing the hoppy contents of tall Northern Loggers down our gullets, attempting to marry dumfounded excitement with realistic caution.

    When the Beaver found its feet on the water, we lost the reigns on our expectations.

    Joe Boyce and Keith Missewace, Canadian natives of the Objibwe Nation—our river guides—freed the canoes from their lashings. We piled out of the aircraft, tossing gear into the boats, and splashing into the cool water of the rocky lake. 

    We rigged rods. Five- and six-weights for the brook trout. Finishing with staunch tippets and large, brightly colored grasshopper patterns, we formally entered the fantasy Melnyk sold us the night before.

    Chris and Mark piled into one canoe with Joe. Paul and I filled out another, with Keith in the stern. Joe ripped the chord on a four-stroke bolted to his square-stern. Paul and I reached out and grabbed Joe’s aluminum walls, and the gas-propelled craft carried us down lake towards the outlet.

    Water began to flow and our canoe complex disassociated as the head of the river came into view. A scraggly, moss-covered white cedar arched over a shallow riffle. Joe, the elder of the two guides by about two decades, in the lead, stepped out of the canoe and strung the craft with a rope through the riffle to a gravel bar. Keith, 21, followed suit.

    Canoes grounded, we stepped out picked our positions.

    Chris got into position first, at the head of a long, sweeping run that trotted slowly down the outside bend of the river. Presenting downstream, he hooked up quickly, but lost the fish as suddenly.

    Mark waded the inside bank to position himself halfway down a swifter, shorter run with a soft pillow behind a rock in the center. Paul cozied up to Chris, casting downstream. I, looking for room, found it behind the rock that Mark wasn’t fishing.

    I slapped the foam on the water as hard as I could to alert the fish of its sudden faux turmoil, and, with the rod tip high, began skittering the hopper in short, four-inch jaunts in between pauses.

    On the second cast, I watched as a royally large and crimson belly rose to the surface, propelled like a rocket ship by ivory-tipped fins. An aggressive, splashy surge sucked down my fly.

    I set the hook without hesitation, fully prepared, as I should have been fishing such a spot—a textbook trout feeding lie, though one that I have fished time and time again to no avail on less-fertile rivers. My six-weight flexed. The trout ripped line from my hand.

    Joe sided up to me slowly, standing to my left. Relatively unenthused, the net held slackly by his side, he nudged me.

    “You just made me $10,” he said, with a devious grin.


    “I bet Keith you’d catch the first fish. You had the right spot.”

    A resident of Fort Hope, Joe has fished this river his whole life. It’s a four-hour boat ride and some sustenance pike fishing that separates him from his home, but he makes the trip a few times a year to fish for ‘brookies,’ anyway.

    $10 didn’t sound like much—not compared to the thrill of catching a foot-and-a-half-long brookie on a skated fly, but size alone didn’t speak to the true value of what Joe netted a few minutes later.
The brook trout we had traveled by land and air and water to discover swam through the heart of a virgin ecosystem, unadulterated, unaltered by human industry. A wild place intact. Joe’s, and Keith’s, backyard. Their birthright and spiritual endowment.

    A few moments after releasing my first fish, running about 18 inches and three pounds, Chris hooked into and landed a fish approaching 24 inches and six pounds.

    It was then evident that the two Objibwe fishermen were trading nominal sums of a far more bountiful fortune.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


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


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


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


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