» Scott fly rods Dispatches from the Potomac

Words and Images from Ed Felker

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Shenandoah Brookies: Cracking the Code

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fall Foliage, Brook Trout and the Company of Dogs

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The sun was just peeking over the mountains, flooding Rose River Farm with golden morning light when Team Orange and I passed by on our way to the Shenandoah National Park, so I stopped to take some photos there. Fall in Madison County, Virginia is special, and I was looking forward to immersing myself in it for a day.

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But we had a lot of hiking ahead of us, up Cedar Run and down White Oak Canyon is almost a nine mile loop, so we didn’t linger too long. Winnie, taking advantage of the missing barrier that usually keeps them in the back of the car, indicates she’s ready to hit the trail by jumping in the back and up to the driver’s seat. And sitting backwards because she is odd.

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When we arrived at the park, the lot was more full than I’ve ever seen it in the morning. There was a large group of hikers gathering at the trail head, so I flashed my annual park pass to the ranger and slipped ahead of the group. The lower elevation parts of the park are at peak fall foliage. In fact the most spectacular colors I’ve seen this year are along the road that leads to the park entrance near Syria. But on the trail you don’t spend much time at the lower elevations, climbing starts right away and continues for almost four miles.

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Sometimes I’ll rig a fly rod and carry it with me, trying different pools along the way for the beautiful native brook trout that live here. But it’s a rugged trail at times, and managing both dogs and the fly rod seemed problematic, so I packed in a rod, assembling it once we arrived at my favorite spot. Here, isolated from the busy trail, we set up for a few hours of fishing, playing and relaxing. Winnie approves. (Note to self: Why do I always pack in drinking water for the dogs when I hike along fresh, clean water?)

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I have a 3-Weight Scott fly rod that is perfect for this kind of fishing, but being a 2-piece rod it comes in a very long tube that’s hard to hike with. So I brought my 5-weight Hardy rod which packs more comfortably. I sat on a fallen tree, dogs by my side, putting the Hardy together and watching the pool. Brook trout were rising. I couldn’t see what they were eating, but I’m actually not much of a ‘match-the-hatch’ fisherman. My fly progression for brook trout goes like this: Parachute Adams > smaller Parachute Adams > Stimulator > Stimulator with a dropper > Wooly Bugger > End. But none of those worked, and the fish kept rising. I finally caught a natural with my hat, looks like a pale yellow stone fly (I have included a grey hair in the hat for scale). I had a few variations of a Yellow Sally in my fly box, tried them all. I got a few strikes but no hook sets. I wondered later if the softer set of the 3-weight rod would have made a difference on these fish, some of which were pretty small. Maybe even a subtle set with the 5-weight was just pulling the hook right out of their mouths.

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But here’s the thing. I went through many, many fly changes, even going back to some I had already tried. I’d give the fish a rest while I changed flies or had a snack of futzed with the camera, then go back and cast some more. I watched a hundred rises, including a quite large brookie come out from beneath a boulder and roll on a surface fly in the same spot a dozen times. I got strikes, maybe ten or so (none from the big fella), but no hook ups. At one point I was changing flies and I looked up to find Finn swimming around in the pool. But moments later the trout were feeding again.

It occurred to me that I don’t think I have ever been as patient as I was at this pool. I had every reason to be frustrated and discouraged, but there was a tranquility surrounding me, and I honestly think it was the dogs. I loved having them there, and it’s fun to watch their different personalities at work. Finn mostly watches me. He wants to be near me but quickly got bored of the fishing and found a spot with a good vantage point to just lie down. Winnie, on the other hand, was fascinated. She followed the fly as I cast it, and then followed it on the water. When fish would rise she would perk her head up and focus on that spot. After a while she started whimpering every time the big one rolled on the surface. It seems she sensed there was a connection between what I was trying to do and what those rising fish were doing. She didn’t know what was gonna happen, but it was going to be fun!

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But alas, nothing happened. I eventually put the rod away, with fish rising all around and swimming right up to the shallows, and decided to try to get some photos. I took probably forty pictures of these wild brook trout in their natural habitat, which is a pretty special experience. It’s okay that I wasn’t able to catch any, at least I captured a few.

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I found a can of Virginia-brewed Full Nelson in the bottom of my backpack while I was looking for a second fly box. Since it is against the law to have alcohol in the park, to be in full compliance I disposed of the beer. But before I did, I let the cool waters of Cedar Run chill it to optimal disposal temperature.

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After that most enjoyable few hours fishing and enjoying the company of my two best friends, it was time to hit the trail again. We could have gone back the way we came and shorten the hike by several miles, but I decided to push myself and continue up to do the originally planned loop. This morning my back, my right hip, left knee and both feet are questioning my judgment, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s a beautiful hike, though, and Team Orange had a blast. Here they spot a squirrel along the trail.

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I was relieved to get to the top of White Oak falls and began our descent. Even though every step of the descent is a foot-pounding, bone-jarring reminder that I am old and I’m carrying too much weight around. This panorama shows the lower falls at White Oak. Trout don’t live in ugly places. (I encourage readers to click on the panoramas in this post for a better view.)

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It was a very long day, and these great dogs deserve the sleep they fell into about a minute after getting in the car. I hope they aren’t nearly as sore as I am today.

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