Shenandoah Backcountry

I always feel sneaky when requesting a backcountry permit in Shenandoah National Park. Maybe it is because it feels like such a valuable thing given away freely, a free pass into a backcountry wonderland full of waterfalls and wild trout. Invaluable experiences awaiting.  


As I often do, I picked a location with no set plan other than exploring the water and spending the night. On this trip, I chose a stream I knew nothing about other than the fact that it had at least one waterfall, which seams to be a prerequisite for most streams in the park. Waterfalls mean steep terrain and steep terrain means pools in between waterfalls. Brook trout are known to frequent these pools.


The plan was to approach the trail from the top, where it intersects Skyline Drive and fish my way down with all my gear, set up a hammock to sleep, and then hike and fish my way out the same route in the morning. It happened to be ‘free entry’ day into the park and the trail head swarmed with people in almost intimidating numbers. From experience I guessed that most these people were not fishermen and would likely not make it much more than a mile down the trail. This assumption proved correct and most folks stopped hiking at the first flagship waterfall. I plucked a few trout from pools along the first mile of trail before hurrying further downstream away from the crowds.


Minimal gear and high calorie to weight foods made for a light pack that was surprisingly comfortable to hike and fish with, remaining nimble enough to rock hop along boulders and scramble under fallen logs. The camping gear I carried on my back. I had loaded a handful of dry flies, nymphs, and streamers in a beautiful leather and sheep wool fly wallet handmade by my cousin that I wore in a fanny pack around my waist along with my camera and other miscellaneous fly gear. This allowed quick access to switch out flies and re-apply floatant with minimal adjustment.


In the first pool I came to, I picked up three nice trout before switching out my ant fly to a more visible yellow sally. From then on, every pool I cast to yielded at least one strike. The sheer density of trout in the smallest of pools is astonishing, every fish immaculately colored and healthy.


I quickly lost count of trout landed and as the sun dipped behind the ridge, I began looking for a place to sleep. The terrain was steep, rocky, and heavily wooded; a nightmare for finding a spot to pitch a tent. Fortunately, I brought a hammock. I found a pair of trees far enough from the stream to honor the backcountry camping 100ft distance requirements, but still near enough to hear the endless churn of falling water. The sounds of the water were soothing, but more importantly they block out the sound of crackling twigs and rustling leaves in the night, enabling me to blissfully ignore the wild creatures sharing the forest. Just before dark, I finished my salami and cheese with crackers, filtered some water, and hung my food in a tree a good distance away. I had spotted a bear while driving to the trail head and the memory was stubbornly fresh in my mind. Even with the food hanged and the stream blaring and the hammock nestled around me, my nerves still kept me from peacefully drifting off to sleep. I foresaw this problem, for which I brought whiskey.


I am not a morning person, but when the sun pokes through the trees at 6am, there is little to do but roll out of bed. Down at the water, a few insects lazily rose from the stream slipping in an out of the morning beams broken by trees. I packed up camp and began rock hopping my way back upstream. Although insects were in the air, the trout hadn’t yet keyed in on the overhead feast. Even with no fish rising on their own accord, they kindly made an exception for my yellow sally. Just as the previous day, every pool of a relatively fishy look offered at least one rising trout. The highlight of the morning came back at the main waterfall attraction, fortunately before the days masses descended. As I hiked up the steep trail beside the falls, I noticed the distinctive outline of a seven inch trout in a small pool in the midst of the falls. The pool was no larger than a placemat and completely inaccessible from above or below. How the trout came to be in that pool is a mystery. Did it get swept over the falls or could it have grown from a fry in that tiny pool? Shenandoah National Park has a way of putting trout in the most stunning and unusual places and I hope to explore them all.


Blue Ridge Blue Lines

Thunder echoes in the distance like some great invisible engine while the rain comes down thick and steady overhead. The dense tree canopy intercepts the drops, combining them before sending them on to the forest floor to continue the journey towards the river. For weeks, the storms have moved through the mountain. Loose dirt and debris has been washed away and now the river flows full and fast, but the water is clear. In the deep pools and slow back eddies, wild brook trout keep free from the aggressive current. But above the surface, there is much activity, a flurry of new life, a hatch. The trout cannot resist the action for long.

The rain is my cover. Heavy drops silence my steps and disrupt the water surface, obscuring the trouts wary vision. The environment is working in my favor, but my own excitement betrays me. There is so much water to cover, new water that I have never seen before. Fly fishing rewards patient and thoughtful movement, but punishes quick careless motion. My mind is occupied with the mystery of what lies beyond the bend and it is reflected in my movements. Bumbled casts and slippery feet, I am fishing too fast, and it is painfully confirmed with single a missed step. Eyes locked on a seam, I shuffle my feet forward while adding line to my false cast when the left side of my body collapses into the water. It is as if someone pulled the riverbed from under my feet. In a split second moment, I know that I’m going into the knee deep water, I accept it, but I refuse to let my Winston rod suffer from my mistake. My right arm shoots towards the sky as far from the impact zone as my reach allows. My body can handle cuts and bruises, but the thought of crunching the emerald green rod, turning my four piece into a five piece, makes me sick to my stomach. The rod survives without a scratch and I with only a few bruises. My clothes are completely soaked but the river only finishes what the rain had started. I am fishing too fast, so I stop.

For a long time I stand still, letting the river flow through my legs. The rain continues to fall, adding weight to my body and saturating what is left of my dry clothes until the water drips back into the river. I become a silent feature of the landscape, a passive piece in an existing system. Around me things begin to move, no longer hesitant of the clumsy presence trudging upstream. A mayfly lands on my arm and a trout rises. I make a cast. The fly twirls between the raindrops, bobbing and spinning like a drunken dancer for only a moment before it plunges beneath the water fastened to the mouth of a wild trout. I set the hook and the trout clears half the pool in one terrific leap, landing in the swift current. For a moment the trout works the current pulling line, threatening to drop down a small waterfall into another pool, but gentle pressure from the tip of the rod guides the fish back to hand.

The rain breaks in the afternoon. The clouds part and timid beams of light stretch down to the river where steam rises from the wet stones. The rain has stopped but there is a steady drip off the wet leaves, a soft rhythmic sound. Now the real hatch begins. It is not overwhelmingly dense or even consistent, but utterly diverse. From the shallow river rises mayflies, caddis, midges, stones in all sizes and colors. Bright yellow mayflies lazily glide through the air and jet black caddis zig and zag above the water, golden stoneflies and gray stoneflies crawl on the rocks, ants and beetles adorn the banks. The menu has been set and it is a balanced meal. The trout gorge themselves. They launch attack after attack on my beetle pattern until the fly is shredded and soaked and no longer floats. To my left, a beam of sunlight illuminates a flat moss covered boulder like a spotlight does a stage. I sit down to replace my fly with another pattern that is durable and will float high and well, a Royal Trude. Before I return to my feet, I breathe in the setting and watch the rising fish at the head of the pool. I wonder what lies beyond the next bend. Maybe I will find out today and maybe not. There is no hurry and I won’t rush.