Wednesday, February 22, 2017


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


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