Fly Fishing Secluded Water with a Neighbor

Notwithstanding that the local watershed continues to be low and unreplenished due to lack of big storms, there is still some good fly fishing to be had towards the end of this summer in the high mountains. 

Working a Section of a Creek in August

This August fellow Abingdonian, outdoorsman, and neighbor John Hortenstine, my son Karl, and I took a mid-week, evening fly fishing trip to one of our local trout streams in Southwest Virginia.  John took us out to one of those relatively unknown spots that anglers usually don’t reveal on websites. 

Blindfolded and sworn to secrecy before we were allowed to enter his car, John drove us to a secluded stretch of water where we were treated to some nice fishing.  Once on the water, John and I took turns working the various pools as we worked our way upstream.  Karl started several pools downstream and brought up the rear as a sweeper, fishing each of the downstream pools after they were rested for a while and documenting our trip with photography. 

Only John was getting all the action when we started out.  While he might contend it was solely due to the skilfulness of the angler in question, at the time I suggested it was the fact that he was using a lighter tippet (the final part of the line that connects the leader to the fly), and that the fish were more interested in the particular pattern, or type, of fly he was using.  John caught several nice fish right out of the gate, while my dry fly was just getting some rises and some looks, but the trout were ultimately not interested in the Parachute Adams I was offering.

SW Virginia Rainbow

When the water is super low, your approach is a big part of the fishing.  “Spooking” the fish by a clumsy approach will dampen, if not totally destroy, your chance of catching trout.  While the water is not always extremely clear in the Appalachians, when it’s low like it is right now in late summer, the fish will easily spook if you are not cautious.  Even poor or unnecessary false casting of the fly line (where the line shoots out over the water before the actual cast of the fly out onto the water) will spook a rising trout in these little creeks.

Stealthy Approach to Trout-Laden Pool

Of course, the flip side to the low water is that you have a better chance of actually seeing more of the trout in the pools and other places where the fish are more likely to be holding in the smaller water.  We saw several trout at a time in some of the pools, and a few were lunkers. 

An additional benefit to being quiet on the water is that you may see additional wildlife.  About halfway through our fishing, a small deer busted through the brush at the bank less than 100 feet from where we were fishing, and stopped right in the middle of the stream.  It froze for a few seconds when it saw us.  Then it crossed and was gone.

As we were fishing in this fashion, John had one rise—and a sip, or take—by a particularly large trout in a 2 foot slow-moving pool of clear water.  The top part of the trout actually broke the surface of the quiet pool as it opened its jaws and slowly and deliberately sipped the fly.  I immediately estimated this trout was 18-22 inches!  It was clearly visible in the water since the entire length of the trout was only an inch below the surface at the time it sipped the fly.  We both watched mesmerized.  Seeing a take like that is impressive on any level, but when it is your fly that is being taken it can send chills up your spine.  You draw in your breath with a silent gasp and your heart skips a beat.  This is what a dry fly fisherman lives for. 

There was a momentary pause—we both knew this was a great fish.  Then, timing it properly, John attempted to set the hook . . . but just at that moment the lunker ejected the fly as deliberately as he had taken it.  The fish turned and returned to his lie at the bottom of the pool as the leader and tippet with the fly attached was withdrawn back towards us.  The whole thing almost seemed to happen in slow motion.  Watching it was agonizing, but awesome.

John's Nice 'Bow Caught on a Dry Fly

 Setting the hook with a dry fly on a rising trout is much more difficult than on a nymph or streamer (let alone setting the hook using spinning tackle), because with the dry fly there is a longer period between the fish’s actual strike, or take, of the fly and the moment to set the hook.  Getting the timing just right to set the hook while the fly has been taken, but before it is ejected, is challenging.  While there are sometimes violent strikes, if the trout are rising and merely gently sipping surface flies, the angler must concentrate, time the hook-set perfectly, and generally use more finesse to catch the fish.  A large trout like the one we almost caught may be even more finicky, as it may have been caught before and is probably even more cautious than most fish.  It takes a lot of skill, and also a little bit of luck, to catch a seasoned trout on a dry fly.

My Turn
 After a while, we finally switched out my rig to use a smaller (6X) tippet and to change my fly to a pattern similar to the one John was using. Within a few minutes I started to get some rises and more interest from the trout.  I had several takes, but also was unable to set the hook.  Towards the end of the evening, however, I caught a beauty, too:
 
My Colorful August ‘Bow

In the end, there was plenty of wealth to spread around.  Last but not least, Karl got into the action with a nice, fat rainbow in one of the largest pools we fished.  He now has the fly fishing “fever,” too:  He is getting his own fly rod for the fall. 

This was a great little evening of fishing.  Willing trout, close to home, and a cool summer evening:  It’s hard to beat that. 

P.S. — John did not really blindfold us; we were, however, truly sworn to secrecy!

Karl's Chunky Rainbow

 All photos in this article by Karl Thiessen.

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The New River, Part I: Alleghany and Ashe County, North Carolina

This is the first of a short series of articles that will examine the New River, the largest river which flows through Southwest Virginia, and the source of great outdoor opportunities in the region including paddling and fishing.

Canoeing the New River in the North Carolina "High Country" - Click to Enlarge

Purportedly the second oldest river in the world (only the Nile in Africa is older), the New River predates the Appalachian Mountains (themselves some of the oldest mountain ranges in the world).  Geologists explain that this river existed before the tectonic shift that caused the uplift of the Appalachia range.  The river more or less continued its present-day path during the tectonic shift, cutting through the mountains as they were created.

The New begins high in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina. The New actually starts as two rivers, the North Fork and South Fork of the New. These two forks join in Ashe County before flowing north and west through Virginia into West Virginia. The mighty New ends when it confluences with the Gauley River to form the Kanawah River, which flows into the Ohio River at the West Virginia/Ohio state line.

In the 2001 bestseller Far Appalachia, author and radio host Noah Adams travelled the length of the New River from North Carolina to West Virginia, recounting the scenery, his interactions with local residents along the way, and his autobiographical musings about his own family’s heritage in the region.  In the book, Adams notes that there are two views as to the source point, or the true beginning, of the New.  On the South Fork, it is somewhere near Blowing Rock; on the North Fork, it is somewhere on the upper part of Snake Mountain, one of the highest peaks in northwestern North Carolina.  (As an aside, Blood, Sweat and Gears, the well-known challenge century road bike race that starts and ends in Valle Crucis, NC every June, traverses the high road over Snake Mountain.  I can attest it is very difficult climb on a road bike.) 

My son Karl and I did our own “section” paddle trips and travels to different parts of the New River Blueway, or paddle trail, over the course of this summer.  For non-hiking readers, a “section” hike is the partial completion of a long trail, like the Appalachian Trail, in “sections”.  Most hikers on the AT, for example, are section hikers, not thru hikers.  We applied this concept to the New River, taking on several distinct sections of the river to observe and experience the river along its course.  This article is the trip report about the first section.  In June we travelled from Abingdon to Ashe and Allegheny County to paddle a 13-mile stretch of the South Fork of the New (above the confluence).  This section of the New is part of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina.  An excellent map of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina is here.

This section of the New is also recognized as a National Scenic and Wild River.  National Wild and Scenic Rivers

possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, [and] shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

This section of the river is also part of the North Carolina New River State Park (there is also a New River State Park in Virginia, but that is for the next article). We elected to paddle the section from Wagoner Road to Route 221. The trip is about a five or six-hour paddle, not including stops.  Here was our route:

Wagoner Road to Route 221

In North Carolina the New River is still a moderately sized river.  Both the North Fork and the South Fork are navigable.  There are apparently some trout in the upper reaches of the New River, most notably high on the North Fork section.  However, where we were paddling the river was already somewhat warm (compared to trout waters).  The section of the New from the confluence to the Virginia state line is supposed to be a fairly good smallmouth fishery.  We were above that section.  We fished the 13-mile stretch of the South Fork intermittently with light spinning tackle, and did not catch anything.

Yes, That's Really Rhododendron on the River! - Click to Enlarge

The flora up in the North Carolina High Country is a bit different from down in the New River Valley in Virginia.  For example, there were rhododendron on the banks of the river and stands of pine trees mixed in with the hardwoods.

Make no mistake, although moderately sized, this is still a powerful river.  There are numerous boulders and riffles that I imagine cause current changes to a much greater extent when the river is at a higher cubic feet per second (CFU).  We ran the river in low water, however it is probably quite a different river during the springtime.  On this section of the New, where it is designated a National Scenic and Wild River, there are relatively few homes or other signs of development.  You go through whole sections of river where the trees come right down to the water, and there are no homes visible up river or down river.

Geese and Goslings

 On this paddling trip, we saw geese, beaver or otter, osprey, and ducks.  There were also hunting blinds set up in some of the open fields along the river.  The water along the 13-mile stretch we paddled was mostly flat or moderate Class I rapids.  There were a few submerged rock shelves over which we had to paddle, and we almost bottomed out in a place or two.

Overall, this is a nice paddle trip.  It may be a bit long for some folks.  There are shorter alternatives along this route, and both up river and down river from the section that we completed.  The New River State Park has several access points.

One thing we did not do, that should be done if you are in the area, is have breakfast or lunch at Shatley Springs Inn, an old inn and restaurant that is a true old-timey place renowned for its family style dining with delicious North Carolina country food. 

Breakfast at Shatley Springs and/or a canoe trip down the New would be an excellent day trip down from a camping trip in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area in Virginia. We have in fact done this in the past. 

Cumulus Clouds Over the New River

Directions

It takes about 1 1/2 hours to drive from Abingdon to the Route 221 Bridge crossing (where the New River State Park is located, and where we rented our canoe).  From Abingdon, drive to Damascus, then up Route 58 past the Beartree Lake area.  Up on the mountain, Route 58 makes a sharp right-hand turn.  You can continue on Route 58 through Whitetop, or instead stay straight on Route 603, aka Konnarock Road.  Either one will eventually take you to Route 16/Route 58 south.  I prefer going via Route 603 over to Route 16, as it is a straighter road.

At Route 16/58 head south to Mouth of Wilson.  Drive through Mouth of Wilson.  Here Route 16/58 split.  To get to the New River State Park at the Route 221, bear left and stay on Route 58.  After about 1 mile there is a junction with Route 93.  Turn right on Route 93.  This turns into Route 113 at the NC state line.

Drive on Route 113 for about 8 miles, until it junctions with Route 221.  (At this intersection is a BBQ restaurant called Motleys.)

Make a right on Route 221.  Route 221 is a very twisty road, taking you through the small community of Scottsville, NC (just a few homes and churches) and after about 5 miles on Route 221 you will see the signs for the New River State Park.  A nother mile or so and you will cross the New River.  Immediately on the right there is an old General Store with inadequate parking right on Route 221.  Behind this store is New River Outfitters.

Note:  There are plenty of other outfitters in the area.  National Geographic makes an excellent map of the entire New River watershed, it is Map 773, New River Blueway, and it contains names of most of the outfitters in NC, VA, and WV with their locations identified clearly on the map. 

Note:  This area of North Carolina is very rural, and the roads are very twisty.  Getting around is not intuitive until you know the roads.  Carry a good map, use a GPS, etc.  In addition, this makes getting to and from the canoe/kayak drop off points difficult.  This is another reason using an outfitter in this area is good idea.

Abingdon Cupola and Steeple

This photograph was taken on the morning of Sunday, June 26, 2011.  I awoke early to get ready for the first of several paddling trips we have taken this summer on the New River.  In each trip, we left Abingdon early in the morning and witnessed a great sunrise as a sort of prologue to the adventures ahead of us on the river. 

On the first morning, as I prepared our fishing tackle and provisions in the kitchen I noticed the sky was a brilliant pink and purple in the East as the sun began to rise.  I drove to Main Street and took some quick photographs of the scenic skyline of Abingdon.  Note you can see right through the shutter-adorned window of the Washington County Courthouse cupola.  In the foreground is the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church steeple.

The photo below shows more of the skyline.  The purple periphery framed the pink background of the rooftops.  The dramatic sunrise was an auspicious start to our first trip to the New River this year.

Southwest Virginia Fly Fishing

This weekend was a fly fishing marathon of sorts.  My son and I covered three different streams in three days, shopped for fishing gear and talked fishing with numerous people about fly fishing, researched fishing opportunities around the region, and caught some nice fish while escaping the oppressive heat that seems to have taken the nation hostage this summer.  On Sunday afternoon, I caught my first large rainbow trout since purchasing a new fly rod. 

Southwest Virginia Rainbow Trout
Beautiful Rainbow on a Sunny Afternoon

As you can see from the photo above, this fish was about as long as my forearm from elbow to the middle of my hand.  We estimated him about 15 inches and about 2 pounds.  I caught him with a nymph in about 1 1/2 feet of water near a cut bank.  My rod was a 5 wt, and I was using 6X tippet.   He jumped once and ran twice, the second time pulling line out from the reel.  We enjoyed that sweet whine of the drag as the trout pulled the line as he straight-lined it up river.  We had about a five minute fight to get him close enough to bring him in, and we promptly released him.

The Catch
 

The Release

This is a great time of the year to get up into the mountains for recreation since it has been so hot lately.  We enjoyed temperatures in the low to mid 70s most of the time we have been fishing this weekend.  That said, the water is extremely low, so the fish may not be as responsive as at other times of the year.  The heat puts a lot of additional stress on trout, who require the colder water to survive.  We therefore have minimized the length of fights or playing the fish out too long, as in the heat it is difficult for them to recover.

Fly Fishing Somewhere in Southwest Virginia

The Southern Appalachians boast some of the best fly fishing in the Eastern United States.  That declaration, while seeming strange on its face—fishing for trout, a cold water fish, in The South?actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Streams and rivers originating from springs and filtered runoff from mountains, relatively remote pockets of forestland, and steep valleys providing lots of cover and protection from the heat of the sun combine to make the streams of this region good for trout.  Within a 60-mile radius from Abingdon there are numerous “blue ribbon” trout streams in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee that provide first class fly fishing opportunities.  Many are tight creeks and smaller streams, but there is definitely some wonderful fly fishing in this area.

Little Southwest Virginia Rainbow

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a good place to start to get some basic information on regulations and fishing locations in Southwest Virginia.  Abingdon is fortunate to have an excellent and well-equipped fly fishing shop, Virginia Creeper Fly Shop, whose owner Bruce Wankel is always welcoming, provides useful information, and also guides local waters.  Mountain Sports, Ltd. in Bristol also sells fly fishing specific gear and has knowledgable staff about fly fishing in the region. 

Here is a map of the major trout streams in far Southwest Virginia(including the Abingdon area) and a map of the major trout streams in the area to the north and east in Southwest Virginia (including Wythe and Grayson counties).

All photos in this article taken by Karl Thiessen.