Where’s the best native brook trout fishing in Virginia? Most East Coast anglers would point to Shenandoah National Park (SNP). True, most of the 30 streams that tumble out of the 300-square-mile park do have first-rate trout fishing, but angling pressure is often high.
World-famous streams such as the Rapidan River, Big Run and Moorman’s River are indeed filled with wild brookies, but visit just about any park water on a pleasant weekend and you’ll be hard pressed to find solitude and water that hasn’t been flogged.
Why so much pressure? The SNP is within a two-hour drive of suburban Washington, D.C. It’s that simple. When the weather takes a turn for the better and the weekend rolls around, hordes of fly fishermen pack up their sport utility vehicles and head straight for the Park. A handful of other anglers, however, drive past the SNP and head for the streams within the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.
This Department of Agriculture land, which used to be divided into two separate national forests, covers nearly 1.7 million acres of mountainous terrain in the western third of the state. Typically, it consists of knife-sharp, hardwood- and pine-covered ridges, gently rolling forested foothills and deep, dark hollows blanketed with mountain laurel and wild rhododendrons.
Wild Trout Prevalent
State fisheries biologists have found wild trout populations — mostly brookies — in 29 of Virginia’s 100 counties. Over 200 streams totaling about 2,300 miles of water are known to have wild trout and give mid-Atlantic anglers plenty of opportunity to look beyond the SNP. Less than one-tenth of that total mileage, by the way, lies within the Park’s boundaries. The rest spill over moss-covered boulders and across gravel-bottomed riffles through the hollows and valleys of the national forest and privately owned land.
“I’ve never seen anything written about streams like Dry River, Little Stony Creek or just about any other wild brook trout stream outside of the Park,” said Billy Kingsley. “That’s one reason the national forest’s trout streams are so good. They get overlooked by all but a handful of trout fishermen.” The 35-year old guide enjoys fishing the waters within the borders of the Park, but he insists the best native trout fishing lies outside this popular East Coast tourist destination.
“Simple,” said Kingsley. “The streams in the Park get pounded. And in the summer, stream levels drop significantly and the fish have a hard time finding enough food to go around. There are plenty of streams in the national forest that have good water flow throughout the driest parts of the year and trout can spread out and find a better supply of food.”
Kingsley adds that although most dedicated trout fishermen release their catch, too many anglers keep these wild trout for the dinner table. If only one angler per weekend keeps a six-fish limit from a stream in the Shenandoah National Park, that’s over 300 fish removed per year. The small waters of the national park simply can’t handle that kind of harvest.
That’s also why the Kingsley is convinced the brookies are bigger on average in national forest waters. The harvest rate for national forest brook trout is typically lower than that of the Park’s, simply because angling pressure is lower.
Of course, big is a relative term. Biologists have determined that an 8-inch to 10-inch fish is usually 3 years old. That’s a grandfather in brook trout years. Twelve-inch fish, although rare, are caught on occasion, and Kingsley has even battled brookies up to 14 inches, but he admits those fish are written down in his personal record books and never forgotten. Most Virginia brook trout don’t live to see their fifth birthday.
Royal Wulffs, March Browns and Quill Gordons work wonders on national forest brook trout, but are, at times, nearly impossible to see. The white froth created by waterfalls and riffles can camouflage even the lightest-colored flies, and bits of floating debris add to the confusion of keeping track of a tiny size 16 skating on the surface. Even in flat water, dark-colored flies are tough to manage against the dark, often shaded water of these mountain streams.
That’s why Kingsley uses high-visibility patterns most of the time, especially early in the season when water levels are moderate. Take a look at his fly box and you might think he was matching the Velveeta or marshmallow hatch.
“Food is pretty scarce in just about all of Virginia’s mountain trout streams,” said Kingsley, “so competition is fierce. Just about any pattern will work during the peak months, so I like to use flies I can see.”
His favorites look like insects straight out of a Disney cartoon, including day-glow Yellow Sallys, but they work incredibly well. He ties what he calls a high-visibility Wulff, which is nothing more than a bastardized version of a Royal Wulff with bright orange wings. A similar fly called a Mr. Rapidan, developed by noted Virginia fly fisherman Harry Murry, is also dynamite on small mountain streams. This pattern is similar to a Royal Wulff also, but it has sulfur wings.
Kingsley’s other favorites include Patriots, Royal Trudes and pink-winged Pink Lady’s Slippers.
“I tie these Pink Lady’s Slippers for the old-timers who like to fish for brookies but can’t see too well,” said Kingsley. “They definitely don’t look like any bug I’ve ever seen, but they work great.” He uses a pink turkey flat for the wings and natural moose mane for the body.
Thankfully, size is of little importance to wild brookies. They’ll pounce on a size 12 Mr. Rapidan just as eagerly as they will on a tiny size 18. Don’t be afraid to try a bigger, more visible fly.
Spooky Fish And Tight Places
“Nothing is more important than a stealthy approach and a quiet presentation,” insisted Kingsley. “These fish are real spooky. One step too close or one too many false casts and you’ve ruined the hole.”
In some cases, it’s possible to sneak up behind a mid-stream boulder, poke your nose over the rock and work a pool from a rod length away. For the most part, however, it’s best to simply keep a low profile and make the longest casts possible. Use whatever cover is available to camouflage your presence. Sometimes, a hands-and-knees approach is the only way to get within casting range of some fish. And always fish your way upstream.
“I’ll stand back and watch a hole or a run for a few minutes before I start working it,” added Kingsley. “It helps if you can pinpoint rising fish.”
Ideally, it’s a good idea to work a pool from back to front. The bigger brookies will often lay at the tail end of a flat or pool, particularly when water levels are up, so that’s a good place to start.
“You can almost always catch at least one fish out of a good-sized hole, but if you work it right, you can catch several,” he continues. “The key is to get the back fish first.”
Most dedicated brook trout anglers like smaller rods. Typically, 7-1/2-foot, 3-weight or 4-weight rods are ideal for casting in these often tight conditions. Some anglers like 7-foot, 2-weight wands and a handful of fanatical wild brookie anglers even use 6-1/2-footers.
Longer leaders, up to 9 feet in low water conditions, are a must and ultra-thin tippets, 5X or smaller, are mandatory.
Smaller mountain streams are usually veiled by a tangle of hemlock, alder and witch hazel branches. Some pools are better left for the most daring or the most foolish casters. A few are better left unfished. Either way, take lots of flies. These overhanging branches are adept at reaching out and grabbing flies on backcasts. More often that not, your fly will be snagged on a twig just out of reach.
Thankfully, however, there are always a few holes that are open enough to work thoroughly and some streams are even big enough to fish without worry of overhead snags.
Finding Good Water
Contrary to popular belief, the best wild brook trout fishing in Virginia’s national forest isn’t always off the beaten path. Kingsley and I caught dozens of these colorful little natives in the shadow of a busy highway that cuts through a mountain pass that divides Virginia from its neighbor to the west. Cars whizzed by as the two of us dropped Pink Lady’s Slippers and Mr. Rapidans into shaded pools teeming with healthy brook trout. If those travelers knew what treasures lie just off the asphalt, they might have taken a break from the driver’s seat.
In one-half-day of fishing Rockingham County’s Dry River — the longest wild brook trout water in the state, by the way — we encountered no other anglers. Week-old bootprints on waterside sandbars were the only evidence that someone else cast to these same fish.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forest has something to offer every angler in search of a quality native trout fishery. Areas designated as “wilderness” are scattered throughout the western portion of the state. Many of them have a wild trout stream or two running through them that can only be reached by foot. Dusty forest service roads or two-lane hardtop highways parallel other first-rate waters. In other words, wild brook trout are just about everywhere in the public lands of the western third of the state.
Virginia’s native trout don’t need much water to survive. Typically, any stream that has a constant, year-round flow will have at least a few fish. “Brookies will even move up into tiny, intermittent feeder streams when they have enough water,” said Kingsley. “When they start to dry up, the trout just head down to the main creek.”
In other words, find some water in the national forest, and you’ve probably found some trout.
When To Go
Water levels fluctuate from season to season, but typically maintain a good, constant flow in April, May and June. Although insect hatches begin as early as late March, things don’t really pick up until mid-April. Even then, cold night mountain nights will chill streams enough to keep insects and trout inactive until late morning. In other words, eat a leisurely breakfast before trekking into the mountains.
In the summer, water levels drop and fish congregate in the deepest pools, particularly if it’s well-shaded. Catch one fish from a crowded hole and you’ve more than likely put the rest of the fish down, so plan on covering as much water as you can. Typically, cool mornings and late afternoons are best in the heat of the summer.
Maps And Information
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries publishes a freshwater fishing guide that lists every wild trout stream in the state. Also included is the species of trout available (a few have browns and rainbows as well as brook trout), what portion of each stream is on public or private land and what portion of each stream is foot, four-wheel drive or two-wheel drive accessible. It also lists the USGS quardrangle map on which the stream can be found. This free publication can be obtained by writing VDGIF, Freshwater Fishing Guide, 4010 W. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23230-1104.
The U.S. Forest Service office in Roanoke sells maps of the 12 ranger districts in Virginia. These topo maps show national forest boundaries, forest service roads, campsites, trails and streams. For more information or to order a map, write them at 5162 Valleypointe Pkwy., Roanoke, VA 24019-3050 or call (540) 265-5100. Maps are $5, including shipping and handling.
The DeLorme Mapping Company publishes the Virginia Atlas and Gazeteer, which shows most roads and streams within the national forest. To order, call (800) 227-1656.
Kingsley guides anglers on wild trout streams in the Allegheny Mountains around Harrisonburg, Va. He can be reached at his Harrisonburg fly shop at (800) 304-8675. Bobby Hill also guides on the wild trout streams around the Shenandoah Valley. His number is (540) 828-4455.
For trips in the mountains of southwestern Virginia call the Roanoke Orvis shop at (540) 345-3635.
Leave a Reply