Fly fishing for brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park is unlike any other type of fishing I have ever attempted. Throwing small flies at small fish in small water with a small rod can be frustrating. Casting is a challenge when the pool you’re fishing is so small you don’t have enough fly line out to adequately load the rod. And whipping a leader with a dry fly at the end of it back and forth trying to propel it forward is like pushing a rope. I’ve had a good day fishing SNP before, although really just the one. But I love the park, and wanted to figure out how to fish this water. I needed professional help.
As luck would have it, I am friends with a lot of great professional fly fishing guides, among them Kiki Galvin of Ms. Guided Flyfishing. Kiki enjoys great success fishing the waters of SNP, so I asked her for help. I also ran into my friend Tom Sadler who guides with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. Tom is extremely familiar with the streams I like to fish inside the park, and he echoed a lot of the things Kiki had shared. My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters advised me on fly selection too. But fly fishing instruction is a lot like any other type of learning — at some point you have to actually do it, and do it with some success, before it registers.
For instance, Tom and I sat together at an outdoor writers event, at a round table that seats eight. He told me he throws flies in pools the size of that table. Now, people can tell you this till they’re blue in the face, but trust me: Until you start pulling fish out of table-sized pools, you simply can’t believe those pools are worth fishing. And once things start clicking, all of a sudden you look at a mile long stretch of the Rapidan, or the Upper Rose, or Cedar Run, and you realize there are literally hundreds of pools and pockets that can and do hold fish.
I spent the weekend at Rose River Farm. The luxury rental cabins there are just minutes away from all three of the rivers I mentioned above. It is the perfect ‘home base’ to hit several streams in a weekend or even a single day. So, armed with new knowledge of reading water, fly selection and fishing techniques, I hit the park with high hopes. Kiki told me to throw a dry fly even if I don’t see them rising. It was early morning, the water was still cold, I saw no rises. I tied on a dry fly — a size 16 parachute adams — but still didn’t fully trust any of this, so I tied a pheasant tail nymph dropper below the adams. I assumed if there were any takers that morning, they would hit the nymph. But on my third cast, in a pool I swore I could see every inch of and seemed to hold no fish, out of nowhere a brilliant flash of gold and orange swirled on that adams. A gentle tug on my Scott 3-weight and the hook was set in the corner of his mouth. After briefly exchanging pleasantries he returned my fly and I slipped the fish back into the cool, clear water, where he promptly disappeared. How such a flamboyantly colored fish can be so well camouflaged, I do not know.
And that’s how it went. Brook trout kept coming after my fly. Standing alongside a pool, high sticking and reaching to the far side of the current, keeping the fly line and even the leader out of the water to reduce drag, they ate that adams. Standing at the bottom of the pool and fishing up to tiny pockets alongside the water rushing in at the head of the pool, with a “drift” lasting only a second or two before the fly gets sucked under, they ate that adams. Fishing nymph droppers in bigger, deeper pools where I still didn’t trust that the little tykes would come all the way up from the bottom, they came all the way up to eat that adams.
I mentioned I’ve had a good day before fishing the park. But this was different. I will have bad days again, that is certain. But as I hiked along these waters, tossing flies in pockets of water I would have walked right by a week ago, my trust in what I was doing grew with each catch. The formula for success with fly fishing is a moving target. The flies will change with the seasons, maybe terrestrials in the summer, stone flies in the winter. They may change day to day, or hour to hour. Maybe smaller flies, maybe larger, maybe 6X tippet instead of 5, maybe evening instead of morning. As I continued to catch fish, tending to find them in similar environments within the pool, I could readily recognize those conditions in the next pool, and the next. Every pool is unique, with different dynamics in the current, depth, shape and size. But I began fishing with something I had never fished with before on these mountain streams: Confidence. And that’s what made this weekend’s success more meaningful than a single, right place right time banner day at a single pool.
That’s not to say I have it all figured out and that these fish are easy. They are equal parts finicky and aggressive. They are lightning fast and don’t like to sit still when they’re caught. They are slippery as hell and can spin around in a net so fast they’ll make a bird’s nest out of your leader in the time it takes you to wet your hands to handle them. And once the hook is free, they don’t much care for sticking around to have their picture taken. They will make you drive on roads so bad your fitbit will register a thousand steps just from having your hand on the steering wheel. They will make you hike for miles through thorns in waders and boots. They will make you buy a new fly rod just for them. But then one day you will find yourself in the woods. You will push through the curtain of trees and the muffled, distant sound of rushing water that has accompanied you on your hike will become suddenly crisp and loud. You will step into the water and know that you are sharing that space with one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. As your fly dances in the current, you will stare at it with all your might. And when that thing of beauty darts up from the bottom, breaks the surface and takes that fly — that fly you brought so far to place exactly there exactly then — thoughts of effort and past frustrations and the ones that got away will all be washed downstream.
Every Spring for the past eight years, central Virginia’s ordinarily tranquil Rose River Farm bustles with energy and purpose as dozens of volunteers and supporters come together to hold a truly special event. Project Healing Waters aids the physical and emotional rehabilitation of thousands of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and related activities. The annual 2-Fly Tournament is the organization’s flagship fundraiser, and this year over $200,000 was raised to support 167 PHW programs in 49 states.
It takes hundreds of men and women from every corner of this nation and beyond, from all walks of life, to make this event happen. Countless volunteer hours, generous donations from individuals up to major contributors such as The Orvis Company, community support, tireless dedication of the Project’s leadership and some rare and welcome cooperation from the weather all culminated in one remarkable weekend. Those two days go quickly, but the bonds formed, the friendships made and the good that is done will have a lasting impact.
The 2-Fly Tournament is held Sunday, but Saturday’s traditional Bluegill and Bass tournament at the farm’s largest pond is a popular ‘tune-up’ to the main event. Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing guide William Heresniak brought his drift boat along, and SGM Jeremy Bruns, US Army, cast for some bluegill from the boat. The tournament was run by long-time supporter Cory Routh of Routhless Outdoor Adventures.
Saturday evening’s banquet begins with another favorite tradition, the escort of the servicemen and women by the Virginia Patriot Guard.
The Gold Top County Ramblers are always a fantastic addition to the Saturday evening festivities.
Capt. Kimberly Smith, USMC, receives a few pointers from a volunteer, and for the camera.
Rose River Farm owner and PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear welcomes everyone to the dinner. “Every year the 2-Fly just seems to get bigger and better,” Dear said. “It is really a tribute to the many volunteers that make this such a great weekend for the Vets.”
Major Nicholas “Nick” Warren, USMC, was the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Warren is the pilot for Marine One, the Presidential helicopter. One does not get that assignment without being extraordinary at their job. But Nick is as friendly and humble a man as you would ever hope to meet.
The evening included an address from Keynote Speaker John C. Harvey, USN (ret.), and moving testimonies of three PHW participants on how the program has changed, even saved, their lives. Not one person in attendance will soon forget the power of those testimonies.
Donations in the form of silent auction bids continued throughout the evening. Happy supporters went home with artwork, fly fishing equipment, guided trips and selections of items donated by each of the program’s 14 regions.
But reveille comes early, as it always does. So the participants, staff, volunteers and special guests had to say good night to a memorable evening and prepare for the great day ahead.
Sunday brought a stunning sunrise, and some butterflies in the stomachs of a few participants.
In perfect weather, fishermen geared up, posed for photos, strategized with guides and teammates, and fueled up with coffee, donuts and a touch of pre-tournament adrenaline.
When the horn sounded, the first shift of anglers entered the water on their assigned beat and put lines in the water. First-time volunteer guide Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholic Outfitters flew in from Missoula to be a part of this event. He guided Colorado’s SSG Brian Christensen, ARNG. The pair, who Brian said have similar personalities, bonded over the experience of competing together. “We were a perfect match,” Brian said of his new friend. The two have been in contact since they both returned home to the Rockies.
SGT Justin Burdette, US Army, finds success at the ‘Road Hole.’
SSG Kevin Gabert, ARNG, hooks up as guide William Heresniak readies with the net. Kevin and William were paired with Brian and Joel, and the team grabbed second place in the Pro/Vet category. “Kevin’s skills were top notch,” Heresniak said of his teammate.
Guide Eric Stroup directs Jeremy Bruns to yet another Rose River rainbow. Jeremy’s team, with SGT Kyle Pletzke, US Army, and pro guides Eric Stroup and Michael Hatfield, respectively, came in First Place in the Pro/Vet category.
Michael Hatfield waits for SPC Kyle Pletake, US Army, to get that ‘bow a little closer.
Fly Fishing legend Lefty Kreh has been a long-time supporter of Project Healing Waters and our wounded and disabled servicemen and women. He gives generously of his time, for which there is incredibly high demand. He tirelessly gave casting lessons to beginners and tips to more experienced casters. Kreh’s sacrifices, as a WWII combat veteran from the Battle of the Bulge through his selfless devotion to today’s veterans, simply can not be overstated.
Former Army Ranger Jason Baker, an excellent fly fisherman, nets one of many for the day.
The hot fishing Brian and Joel experienced in the morning cooled off a bit for the afternoon shift, but they still did well. Here Joel stretches out to net another beauty.
Just because it’s a competition, doesn’t mean there isn’t time to smile and share in a special moment!
The Washington, DC area’s own Fly Fishing Consultant Rob Snowhite watches Capt. Kimberly Smith, USMC. They were paired with SSgt. Chris Matthews, USMC and former Marine, perennial guide and devoted PHW supporter Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters. The team was aptly named “Semper Fly.”
In addition to counting the number of fish caught, each team measured no more than three trout for the day, getting points for every measured inch. Measuring a strong, slippery, angry fish under the pressure of tournament conditions is as hard as, well, measuring a strong slippery, angry fish under the pressure of tournament conditions. Stuff, as the saying almost goes, happens.
In the end, a few went home with trophies. But all went home with smiles and memories, hopefully enough to last a long time. They deserve that. They earned that. We owe them that.
Professional fly fishing guides Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholics both volunteered their services at the Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm. Harold, a generous supporter of PHW since its inception, and Joel, who flew east from Missoula, MT to participate in his first PHW event, are both good friends of mine. So with an extra day after the tournament before Joel had to fly back, Harold invited us to come out and fish his home water, the stunningly beautiful North Branch of the Potomac River.
The forecast the night before our float was abysmal. By the next morning it was even worse. Rain, 15-20mph winds, gusts to 30. No good for fly fishing, or rowing. But we only had one day to fit it in, so I messaged Harold with a Go/No Go option. Harold, in his signature style, replied, and I quote, “Get your ass up here!” So we headed to western Maryland to meet Harold.
The weather started out quite beautifully, actually. But the fishing was slow. There had been a whitewater release into this tailwater for two days before our float, which can certainly impact fish behavior, and after the first couple miles it became apparent that it had. But if anyone can find fish in that river, it’s Harold. And if anyone can coax a fish who doesn’t feel like feeding to take a fly, it’s Joel. Sure enough, guiding and fishing skills combined for the first fish of the day. Joel netted this wild rainbow and got the skunk out of the boat.
It was such a relaxing, comfortable float. Beautiful scenery, easy conversation and frequent, hearty laughter made it hard to even notice the rain that started at about the half way mark.
It picked up steadily as we readied for lunch. Thankfully Harold has a special lunch spot with a covered picnic table. We waited out the heaviest rain of the day in comfort, fueling up for the next few miles, and toasting our day with Kettle House Double Haul IPA that Joel was kind enough to smuggle out of Missoula.
But we weren’t ready to give up on the fish just yet! Harold strategized what to try next. We had seen a couple rises — the first of the season for that stretch of water — so on my rod he rigged up a big dry fly with a big, flashy nymph trailing about 40″ behind it.
Joel really enjoyed watching Harold’s guiding style, and how he organized his boat and his gear.
We pushed off in a light, steady rain, and rededicated ourselves to the task at hand: Catching fish.
I was standing in the front of the boat, casting to my left. I had been watching my fly not get eaten for so long that even though I was focusing intently on the dry as I drifted it slightly ahead of the boat, I wasn’t expecting any action when it finally happened. First I saw a big trout swimming around underneath my dry fly. Well that’s interesting, I thought. While I was waiting for him to come up to slurp the dry, the fly started to move. Curious, I thought. Then Harold pointed out that the reason my dry fly is moving is because the fish is just chewing on the nymph like a piece of deer jerky while I watched him like an idiot. He said this in many fewer words than I used, but I know him well enough to know that’s what he meant. So I set the hook, finally. Fish on!
That beautiful 18″ wild rainbow is, by a wide margin, my biggest fish ever from the North Branch of the Potomac. And it ranks among my favorite trout ever for a few reasons. It’s a big fish for me, certainly. It’s a big fish for that river. It’s a fish I worked hard for, despite nearly botching it at the most critical moment. But more important than all that it’s a fish caught on a memorable day, a day full of stories and laughter, a day spent in the company of great friends.
There was only one thing left to do: Harold needed to get a fish. So Joel took over the sticks and rowed while Harold fished, and it wasn’t long before he put a few more fish in the boat.
In the end, we were soaked, smiling and laughing like fools at the takeout ramp as we toasted once more. As for that initial forecast, it could not have been more wrong. This day started out good, and ended up perfect.
I have some incredibly talented friends in all walks of life. I want to spotlight two men, both former Marines by the way, who are such experts in their field, they literally wrote the book on it.
Scott Olmsted is editor-in-chief of the NRA’s American Hunter magazine. He is a former Marine rifleman, NRA-certified rifle instructor, graduate of premier shooting schools and an expert marksman. For his book, Make Every Shot Count! Get the most out of your hunting rifle under field conditions, he combined his wealth of personal experience and that of other experts such as U.S. military Special Forces personnel, shooting instructors and big-game guides to provide the reader with a comprehensive approach that will make any hunter a better shooter. From the Safari Press web site:
We all like to think we are pretty good with a rifle in the field. But we all have limits. Of course, most of us can punch holes in the ten-ring off the bench, but conditions on the range differ greatly from real life. And it’s not too difficult for most of us to make an 80-yard shot from a solid rest in the field. But when that big mule deer appears at the head of the canyon 250 yards away, when your rifle is buffeted by a monster cross-wind, and when you can’t get comfortable, can you make an accurate, killing shot the first time, every time?…
In addition to his descriptive writing, color photos depict the critical placement of a rifleman’s feet, legs, shoulders, arms, hands, and head for making accurate shots on big game. Besides providing readers with the most effective visual examples of what to do and how to do it, these photos devote special emphasis to how your limbs can create maximum stability and the steadiest shooting platform for any shot.
This is a very high quality book just loaded with helpful information regardless of whether you are a high level hunter who’s a great shot, or a relatively inexperienced hunter who makes avoidable mistakes like me. Find it at Safari Press.
The new release from Stonefly Press, 50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish by Terry & Wendy Gunn, is receiving accolades from fly fishing’s heavy hitters. Kirk Deeter, Editor of TROUT magazine, Editor-at-Large for Field & Stream calls it “the most comprehensive ‘where-to’ with ‘how-to’ I’ve ever seen.” It covers the very best tailwaters across the U.S. and Canada, with detailed maps, information about access, terrain, tactics, everything you’ll need to know to have success in these special waters.
One of these waters is the North Branch of the Potomac River in Western Maryland and West Virginia. When you are looking for someone to write a chapter on the North Branch, there is only one individual on that list: My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters. Harold knows this water and these fish like nobody else, and works hard to get his clients on great fish. If you have never fished this river, you will be flat out stunned at the beauty of the North Branch and the fish therein. The first brook trout I ever caught came from this water, with Harold as my guide, and it remains one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever had the privilege to behold.
In addition to using his vast knowledge and skill to assist clients, Harold gives generously and works tirelessly to help wounded servicemen and women through Project Healing Waters. Please visit PHW’s web site and find out more about this great program if you are not familiar with it. And while you’re shopping this holiday season, please consider making a donation to help heal those who serve.
I’m extremely proud of Scott and Harold, congratulations guys. Ooh-Rah!