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