This was a good year for viewing the fall foliage in Southern Appalachia. Here are some photos from the Buller Fish Hatchery in Smyth County, Virginia in early October.
The colors are starting to really show in the High Country. This photo of a sugar maple in Grayson County was taken on September 25, 2011. This weekend and next weekend (October 1-2 and 8-9) will probably be the peak times to view fall foliage in the Southern Appalachians at elevations above 4000′, with mid-October being the peak viewing times for lower elevations in Southwest Virginia.
This past Sunday afternoon my sons Isaac, Karl and I went for a five mile loop hike on the Iron Mountain Trail / Forest Road 84 off of State Route 600 in Smyth County. These photos were taken at the Skulls Gap scenic parking lot, which is about 3500′. The colors are starting to change at higher elevations and all foliage is taking on that golden hue in the evening that signals autumn has arrived. Click on any of the photos to enlarge to appreciate the panoramic views.
This photo taken with a point-and-click camera shows Brumley Creek the day after the heavy rains from Tropical Depression Lee last week. Normally, this creek is only about 10 feet wide during low water. As a point of reference in the photo, the distance from the bank on the right side to the large tree in foreground in the middle of the creek is about 15 feet (and the width of the stream from the tree to the other side is at least about another 10-15 feet).
We went down to the creek in the evening to look around, and to see how high the water would have risen from the storm water runoff. Usually this section of the creek is quiet, but there was a roar from the water that you could hear as soon as you opened the car door.
How do trout survive in such a rapidly changing environment? This week over at the Orvis Fly Fishing Blog Drew Price explains. Simplifying the explanation, the torrential flow we view from surface is moderated at the bottom, and there are places where the fish can hold and stay safe.
A little bit about Brumley Creek: Technically, it is the closest trout stream to Abingdon. It’s a small stocked creek less than 10 miles from town. It doesn’t have a reputation for producing large or many fish, as there are not many holdovers from the previous seasons. It’s also not regulated, i.e., it’s open to all fisherman who hold a trout license during the stocking season. As stated above, it’s also small. It’s still a pretty little creek though.
Note that this description is of the stocked lower section of the creek, which has about 1/2 mile or so of fishable water, on Trout Road. The creek flows from Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and down off of Clinch Mountain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
All photos in this article by Karl Thiessen.
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.
This is the Appalachian Trail footbridge that crosses Straight Branch Creek near Damascus, Virginia. This photograph was taken on Saturday, July 9, 2011. If you click on the photo and enlarge it, you can see the white blaze on the anchor tree on left of the footbridge in the background. In order to obtain this composition, I waded into the center of the creek and set up a tripod. I slowed the shutter speed slightly in order to capture the movement of the water in the foreground.
Tommorrow the Town of Abingdon will officially open the new Alvarado Station on the Virginia Creeper Trail during a ceremony at the site of its construction. Earlier this week I drove out to Alvarado for an evening run and an inspection of the new facility. Painted white with green trim, the new Alvarado Station matches the design and colors of the restored train stations further up the trail at Green Cove and at Whitetop.
The new Alvarado Station has restrooms and has a nice parking lot that will accommodate more vehicles at this area of the trail. The additional parking at this section of the trail will hopefully take some pressure off the parking areas at Watauga Road and in Abingdon on busy weekends.
Over the years Alvarado has become a more interesting spot on the trail. The Abingdon Vineyard and Winery, a small winery across the South Fork of the Holston River, is a day-trip destination in and of itself. While personally I am usually too engaged in exercise on the trail to stop for a glass of wine, it would be a pleasant break if you were taking a more leisurely ride on the trail. The winery is located less than a half-mile down the road from the Virginia Creeper Trail. You could easily ride your bike there from the trail. The wine tasting room is at the junction of a small creek and the South Fork of the Holston River.
There is also a small store/restaurant called the Old Avarado Station that is right next to the Town-owned, new facility. The store has cold drinks, snacks, baked goods, and barbecue. The location of this store is the “last stop” when you are travelling from Damascus to Abingdon on the trail, or is the first stop on the way from Abingdon to Damascus that has food or drinks.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Alvarado is a locality on the Virginia Creeper Trail about 8 miles from Abingdon and 5 miles from Damascus. By car it is reached by taking Route 58 east in the direction of Damascus.
About 6 miles from Abingdon, turn right on Osceola Road, aka County Road 722. After a mile or two Osceola Road turns into Alvarado Road, aka County Road 710, which crosses the North Fork of the Holston River. About 100 yards past the bridge there is the parking lot and new Alvarado Station.
In eastern Tazewell County lies Burkes Garden, an isolated, circular mountain valley nicknamed “God’s Thumbprint.” The people who have lived here for generations apparently have known for a long time they own one of the most idyllic mountain valleys in the South. In fact, at one time agents of George Vanderbilt inquired about building his gilded age mountain estate here. The local population refused to sell out, and he instead built his house, The Biltmore, at another location outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
Burkes Garden is the location of a scenic half-marathon called “The Varmint.” Saturday, June 11, 2011, was the 18th consecutive running of The Varmint. The race is named after a peculiarly large coyote that was killing sheep in the valley in 1952. As the story goes, this varmint was difficult to catch or kill, so a professional big game hunter was called in to get the beast. They eventually did get it. The coyote itself can be viewed at nearby Crab Orchard Museum.
Prior to this year I had run this 13.1 mile race a couple of times, so I was curious to go back and see how the race had changed. To get to Burkes Garden, you have to drive over a mountain that separates the valley from the rest of Tazewell County. The road, named Burkes Garden Road (Route 663), is about 2.5 miles in length from the base to the top and climbs considerably; I would estimate somewhat less than 1000 vertical feet. Coming down into Burkes Garden at 7:30 AM, there was a fog which completely engulfed the valley.
As I approached the race, I was surprised by how many people were there. There were well over 300 people. The Varmint Half-Marathon is run in conjunction with a 5K road race, so some of the people who were there were obviously there for the 5K. Nonetheless, the half-marathon has grown a lot since 2002 and 2004 when I last participated. This year there were groups of runners from Virginia Tech University and West Virginia as well as the more expected contingent of runners from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee with the State of Franklin Track Club.
The half-marathon is essentially a tour of Burkes Garden. The race is staged and the start/finish line is at a school in the community. Racers travel in a counter-clockwise fashion around the valley. This is one of the more scenic races in the region. You have to appreciate the scenery, because this is a tough and very hilly course. The first six miles are constant hills. Your legs will get pounded. Thereafter the hills continue, but they are less pronounced. The last three miles of the race is one long, slow climb with one small out-and-back detour back to the finish line.
After I ran The Varmint this Saturday I retraced the race route and took some photos of the course. These are presented in the order a runner would see these views during the race. Click on any of the photos in this gallery to enlarge and read a description of them.
The roads are very lightly traveled in Burkes Garden. This would make for a great afternoon family or casual mountain bike ride, or a challenging road bike route if combined with the climb over 663 from Tazewell.
Route 663 actually continues southeast all the way through Burkes Garden and travels up over Brushy Mountain, where it eventually intersects with the Appalachian Trail at the peak of the mountain, then continues down the other side via switchbacks to connect with Route 42 in Bland County. Leaving Burkes Garden Route 663 however turns to gravel and is essentially an unimproved forest road. This could be another mountain bike option as well.
Burkes Garden is one of those increasingly rare places where the beauty of the countryside is simple and still pure. There are no restaurants and no stores in Burkes Garden. There are also no neon or electric signs, no flashy or tacky homes, and no unnecessary distubances to the pastoral countryside. It’s easy on the eyes. It’s just a great place to sit back and relax—especially after 13.1 miles.