I enjoyed going through my photographs of 2015 and picking out my top twenty. The annual exercise serves as a reminder of special places, fascinating people and amazing wildlife encountered over the past twelve months. All but two of the photos this year were taken in Virginia. One of the exceptions is the first image, below, showing Patrick Fulkrod of the South Holston River Company releasing a brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga River in Tennessee.
While I didn’t hand raise any Monarch butterflies this year, I watched dozens of these beauties go through their magical life cycles on my milkweed plants. I caught this female emerging from her chrysalis, and watched her with my camera as she unfolded wings of flame.
Dove hunting with friends has become a favorite new tradition each fall. And when the hunting is slow, as it was for me this year, you can always work on your still life photography. A well used Winchester Model 12, a fine Orvis case and the only dove of the day combined for, to me anyway, a calming blend of textures and colors.
This copperhead ventured a little too far out into the travel lane to soak up some early morning warmth stored in the asphalt. He is deceased. But it’s the first one I’ve gotten to see up close, so I felt compelled to photograph him.
Ed Clark of the Wildlife Center of Virginia released this red-tailed hawk after many, many months of rehabilitation. The bird, ill with severe lead poisoning, by all accounts should have died. But when Ed and his staff encounter an animal with an extraordinary will to survive, they join in the fight, and are committed to doing everything in their power to help.
At a birthday party for my friend, these kids jumped around under an amazing evening sky.
I saw more black bear in 2015 than in all other years combined. This youngster watched traffic go by along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
The Washington, DC area was treated to a unique spectacle this summer as dozens of WWII era war planes gathered in formations and flew over the region in the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. I have much closer shots of the planes, but I thought this image of a couple watching the distant plane had a vintage feel to it that suited the day.
Naturalist Brian Balik and I spent some early fall mornings cruising Skyline Drive in search of wildlife. But even when the animals aren’t cooperating, the scenery never disappoints.
While photographing the Middleburg Hunt before the Christmas parade, I was lucky to capture Devon Zebrovious making this elegant turn, resulting in one of my all time favorite portraits.
Speaking of models, my friend Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholics is the most photogenic person I know. I loved this relaxed shot of him taking a break from brook trout fishing along the Rapidan River. That Pelican cooler has traveled all over Virginia this past year, which is particularly cool because I just learned that Pelican is actually a Virginia-based company.
I spent a lot of time looking for reptiles to photograph this year, but I spotted this beautiful northern water snake while trout fishing. Luckily I had my camera handy and captured this image in early morning dappled sunlight.
This five-lined skink, warm from the sun, moved very quickly. But I lucked out and got this cool shot of the beautiful critter.
This was a great year for turkey sightings where I live. These two composed themselves perfectly for a nice shot along our driveway. Carrying a camera in the truck almost every day has resulted in far more photographic opportunities this year.
On assignment covering the dedication of a home built for a combat wounded hometown hero, I quickly walked past this cool scene of waiting escorts and kept thinking about it. I was glad they were still there when I went back to photograph them.
Frog eggs, probably from a wood frog, sit just below the surface of a vernal pool.
Low light is the bane of my photography. But every now and then I capture an image I really like, and sometimes it only takes a couple hundred snaps of the shutter to get a keeper. Dominion Power lines create an interesting composition on this lightning shot.
Owl sightings are rare for me, so any time I see one is a special occasion. I spotted this Great Horned owl at nightfall and was thrilled to have my camera with me at the time. The light was obviously limiting, but every now and then a silhouette is just what a scene calls for.
I struggled shooting this sunflower field with photographer Martin Radigan, but love the mood of this one keeper from the evening. I look forward to trying this again next year.
I am thankful for everyone who takes the time to read this blog, and I hope you enjoy this collection of my favorite shots of the year. Let me know your favorite in the comments!
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.
Today I loaded up the dogs, camera and fly rod and headed down to Madison County, Virginia to explore the upper portion of the Rapidan River. The source of the Rapidan is located where two streams come together high on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That spot is also the site of President Herbert Hoover’s summer retreat built in 1929, Rapidan Camp (or, as it is also called, Camp Hoover). You can drive much of the route up the mountain, but high ground clearance is a must, and four wheel drive is recommended. Once you turn off the main road, it’s a rough drive up an extremely rugged and steep road. I drove to the end of the accessible road (seven miles that feel like twenty), not passing a single human, and parked at the gate marking the last stretch up the mountain on foot to Camp Hoover.
I’ve done my fair share of exploring around the Virginias, and I can’t recall ever feeling as remote, as far removed from any other person anywhere in this region as I felt today. I hefted the backpack weighted down with drinking water for the dogs, and we crossed the gate and headed uphill, surrounded by crisp air, brilliant sunshine and total silence but for the soothing nearby rush of free, clean and infinitely abundant drinking water for dogs.
This portion of the Shenandoah National Park is so remote, I broke my Always Keep My Dogs Leashed In Public Parks rule (okay that’s not just my rule, it’s actually the park’s rule too), and let them run ahead and explore. However, the terrain was so remote that I started feeling the real possibility of a bear encounter. The last thing I wanted was for the dogs to spook a bear, or come between a bear and her cubs, or to piss off a bear and then run back to me, leading that pissed off bear back to me. So I decided it was best if we all just walked together.
We (okay, I) took a wrong turn at one point, adding a couple miles to the hike. But exercise was a goal for the day, and besides, if I had not made the error, I would not have seen these cool icicles.
This fireplace was mainly used for photos of President Hoover and his distinguished guests. Heads of state, era icons such as the Lindberghs, Mrs. Thomas Edison, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Finn and Winnie have all been photographed here.
Source of the Rapidan located and historical photographs secured, we headed back down the hill, our sights now set on the wild brook trout that populate the river. If I was a brook trout, I would love this spot right here. I am, however, not a brook trout. Nor do I have much of an idea about where they live or what they eat.
Dogs, as it turns out, are not particularly helpful when it comes to fly fishing. But they are genuinely good company, and it was fun having them along.
When I found a spot to fish, I needed the dogs to just stay in one spot so they wouldn’t come in the water and disturb the fish I was not catching, and also it’s critical to know where your dogs are at all times when you are casting a fly line. They were really great today. Winnie is fascinated by the casting of the fly, she follows it with intense focus, and watches it drift along the current while it is not being eaten by a trout. She, it seems, would make a great fly fisher.
After a good hike and some fishing, I like to stop for lunch. Ideally, a local place with some character. The Pig ‘n’ Steak, complete with NASCAR legends laminated into the bar top, fit the bill nicely. I drank this delicious brew, wolfed down a burger, and split the fries with Finn and Winnie. Total tally for the day, Fish caught: 0, Humans encountered: 0, Bears encountered: 0, Awesome day had: 1.