Virginia's 3 Best Trout Streams
September 30, 2010
Here's what every fly-angler should know about three of the top trout waters in the Old Dominion. (April 2009)
The good news is that Virginia is blessed with an abundance of good water. And the bad news? Virginia has so much to offer the fly angler, in fact, that one hardly knows where to begin. Most of us have limited recreation time, and we don't want to squander it experimenting: We're all looking for the sure thing, the honeyhole that justifies the opportunity cost of the entire trip and makes dusting off all that gear and burning all that gas worthwhile.
The Rapidan is a first-class small trout stream whose beauty (and the possibility of hooking a native brook trout) makes it a favorite with Virginia anglers.
Photo by Beau Beasley.
My deep sense of fellowship with my brother and sister fly anglers has compelled me to do a great deal of fishing research across the Old Dominion so that when they ask me, for example, to recommend the top three trout streams in the state, I am ready with an answer that I can defend. I will gladly share the results of all that research with you now, dear reader. You can thank me later.
Making the short list of Virginia's top trout streams is the Jackson River. The lower portion of the Jackson River is a tailrace that begins at the base of Gathright Dam. The dam normally releases 58-degree water from Lake Moomaw via a 200-foot tower. Released directly below the dam, this water has two very positive effects: First, the river receives 58-degree water year around, which the trout love; second, because controlled releases carefully regulate the influx, this part of the Jackson can be perfectly suitable for fishing when other waters within 100 miles are out of their banks after heavy rains.
Anglers will need written permission from the Army Corps of Engineers' Gathright Dam office to fish directly below the dam; the fishing permit is free and is good for a year. Too busy to pick up a permit? Don't chance fishing here then: Local sheriff's deputies patrol this area daily.
The area of the Jackson directly below the dam has bathrooms and a place to launch small boats, but that's where the good news ends. In 1996, local landowners filed a claim contending that they not only owned the river bottom but the fish in the river as well, and that this ownership was passed on to new owners as they purchased the property. Before this issue arose, guides and other anglers would float the river and fish as they went along. Much to everyone's surprise, the case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision commonly referred to as the King's Grant or King's Crown decision. The court agreed that not only did local landowners possess the bottom of the river (effectively preventing anglers from anchoring their boats), but the fish in the river were also their property. These sections are well marked along the river -- and I must say that they are the most ominous signs I've ever seen as an angler. If you see one of these warnings, you would do well to heed it.
The King's Grant area begins roughly three-fourths of a mile below the dam and continues to Johnson Springs, where it officially ends. Anglers can fish all the way from here to the Westvaco/Meade Landing near Covington. Landowners who claim King's Grant rights below Johnson Springs may approach you; these folks were not part of the lawsuit, however, and therefore the court did not validate their claims. Personally, I try to be at peace with everyone: If a landowner confronts me, my approach is to respond politely and move on.
Anglers will find easy access available to several sections of the lower Jackson, including Johnson Springs, Jack's Island, Smith Bridge, Indian Draft and Petticoat Junction. Should you choose to fish directly below the Gathright Dam, you ought to call ahead to learn when and how much they are releasing. Flows above 400 cfs, although rare, mean that the area directly below the dam is too swift to safely fish. For the latest information on scheduled releases (updated daily by 9 a.m.), call (540) 965-4117.
If you plan to wade fish the Jackson, you'll need chest waders. You may notice a brownish algae on some of the rocks; this is Didymosphenia geminata, lovingly referred to as "didymo" or rock snot. Be sure to clean your wading shoes when you leave.
The Jackson offers plenty of casting room, so come equipped with your 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight rods. You won't find tight cover here, so don't hold back: Go ahead and cast your line up to 60 feet if you're able. Weight-forward floating lines are the order of the day on the Jackson, although sink tip lines also work well. Effective fly patterns include traditional trout patterns like elk hair caddis, blue wing olives, and terrestrials like Steeves Bark Beetle in sizes 14 to 20. A popular streamer here is Dover's Peach Fly in sizes 6 to 10; rumor has it that the Orvis Company Store in Roanoke orders these patterns by the gross to keep up with fly-anglers' desire for them during peak demand in the spring and early summer. For more information on the Jackson River, contact the Orvis Roanoke Company store at (540) 345-3635.
Next up on our short list of top streams is Virginia's famed Mossy Creek. About a three-hour drive from the nation's capital, Mossy Creek runs through the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, what was once the heart of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Conveniently accessible from Interstate 81 near the hamlet of Bridgewater, Mossy sees visitors from around the country -- and, in fact, the globe. Upon seeing Mossy for the first time, one might wonder why anyone would travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to fish here, in what amounts to an ordinary-looking spring creek. The answer is quite simple, really: Mossy's monster trout give new meaning to the term selective; if anglers can make it here, they can make it almost anywhere.
The headwaters of Mossy Creek begin on Mount Solon, from which the river zigzags erratically like a drunken sailor across farmers' fields and private lands for nearly seven miles before it empties into the North River. Although Mossy flows through both Rockingham and Augusta counties, it's the three-mile stretch of fly-fishing-only water in Augusta County that draws the attention of most fly-anglers. This Special Regulation Trophy Trout Stream is surrounded by privately owned land, and if not for the consideration of the landowners, this jewel of the Commonwealth would remain out of the reach of most anglers.
Fishing Mossy Creek is not for the weak. Although there are few trees to grab your fly, there is also little room for mistakes here. Drag-free drifts and delicate presentations are crucial. The funny thing is, it's also the place for plopping large leggy-type flies and trolling 6-inch streamers along undercut banks and near heavy vegetation.
Anglers can use a wide variety
of fishing techniques on Mossy; the key to success is patience and experience. Although you will be tempted to fish beneath the bridge near the parking area, these trout have seen more fly-anglers than you have, so move on either above the bridge or below. The barbed wire fencing looks menacing, but new wooden fence crossings were added in 2005, making trips in and out of the creek much easier and safer.
Hip boots are all you need to fish Mossy Creek, because no wading in the creek is allowed at any time. The creek's banks are often very soft, and the unwary angler could accidentally fall in if the bank gives way. Be aware that grass-covered holes dot the area along the bank, too; tread carefully. Your rod may be between a 4- and a 6-weight, and up to 9 feet since the creek doesn't have much of a tree line.
Remember Mossy's canny trout, though: If you cast your shadow on the water, say goodbye to a bite. Weight-forward lines are most effective here. Nevertheless, informed anglers often throw big patterns like Trow's Minnow -- a killer streamer in sizes 6 to 10 -- so you can effectively use sink tips as well. Some anglers opt for traditional dry-fly patterns, but the larger trout often feed on streamers like Kraft's Kreelex or Howell's Big Nasty, a very effective crayfish pattern. For more in-depth information, contact Mossy Creek Fly Fishing at (540) 434-2444.
Mossy Creek is a fly-fishing-only stream. Anglers may keep one fish over 18 inches. If you do, however, I personally believe that you should be summarily shot! You will need a special permit from the landowners and the VDGIF to fish the public-access section of Mossy Creek. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to VDGIF, Verona Office, P.O. Box 996, Verona, VA 24482. The permit, good for a year, is free.
Rounding out our short list of top three trout waters is the Rapidan, the best-known trout stream in the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) and perhaps, some would argue, in the entire Old Dominion, for two reasons: First, fly-anglers know that the Rapidan is the best place in Virginia to catch wild brook trout. Second, President Herbert Hoover loved fly-fishing the river so much that he built a camp at its headwaters where he entertained the Prime Minister of Great Britain, as well as other international dignitaries.
Once while fishing the Rapidan, I noticed a large stone fireplace with a chimney standing by itself in the middle of a small clearing. I asked a park employee if one of the cabins had burned down leaving only this majestic stone fireplace in its stead. The employee grinned and informed me that the fireplace had been built to serve as a prop: President Hoover and his fellow luminaries would gather around it at the end of the day. Essentially, this grand stone chimney was merely a setting for photo ops.
In the summer of 2006, the Fly Fishers of Virginia assisted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in stream sampling the Rapidan. I watched as some USFWS employees shocked the water while others netted the resulting stunned fish.
They then passed the netted fish to volunteers with buckets who carried the fish to a holding area until the biologist on the scene could weigh, measure and count the specimens. I saw some nice brook trout that day -- some measuring up to 9 inches long. But I was amazed by other catches, including a huge selection of suckers, crayfish, sculpins, and other minnows, along with a yellow-bellied catfish. And the strangest net of the day? An eel over 2 1/2 feet long in one of the larger pools.
Anglers can access the Rapidan from Route 662 near Wolftown; park at the end of the road and then hike upstream. To fish higher in the park next to Camp Hoover, access the Rapidan from Route 649 (Quaker Run Road). This is a long and winding road that doubles back on itself in places, and when the hard surface ends, you will still have 7.5 miles of rough road before reaching a locked gate.
The drive will take you in and out of the SNP as well as the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area before the road ends; keep your eyes on the road as you pass other vehicles and pedestrians. Take the time to walk upstream or downstream if you see a car parked on the side of the road; distance makes good fishing pals. To view Camp Hoover, park at the end of Route 649 by the locked gate and then hike up the service road for about a mile. Yes, it's a hike to Camp Hoover, but it's worth it -- and besides, you can always fish on the way up.
The Rapidan is a great place to throw dry flies and also to nymph, but regardless of your preference, bring plenty of flies: I've found that the surrounding trees are unusually hungry. If you tend to lose sight of your fly in the white foam of the river as I do, use a neon highlighter in purple or yellow to color your post. The contrasting colors make it much easier to spot your fly in all that foam. The fish don't see the top of the fly anyway, and the highlighting gives you a much better chance of tracking your pattern as it heads downriver. Remember, too, that the resident trout of the Rapidan are old hands at spotting anglers; they know to bolt upon your approach. Stealth is the key.
Because tight cover characterizes the Rapidan, I recommend using smaller and shorter rods -- think 6.5 feet and 2 to 4 weight. Even in the deepest pools, you can hit it big here with weight-forward floating lines if you merely add split shot for depth. Plenty of times, you needn't cast anything but your leader.
The preeminent fly here is the aptly named Murray's Mr. Rapidan. You can also fish terrestrials very successfully in sizes ranging from 12 to 20. Though you might run the occasional streamer around in a pool, most anglers nymph with BH Hare's Ear, BH Prince Nymph, and Pheasant Tail in sizes 14 to 20. To learn more about fly-fishing the Rapidan, contact Murray's Fly Shop in Edinburg at (540) 984-4212.
Because Virginia has been blessed with so much great water, anglers often find themselves overwhelmed with their choices. I hope that this short list alleviates a little bit of that analysis paralysis. Many readers will quibble with my choices and wonder why White Top Laurel or the South Holston or Big Tumbling Creek or Back Creek or another favorite stream didn't make the cut. Hey -- I had to start somewhere. But I'm open to correction and more than willing to continue my research for the benefit of all. For more information on Virginia waters, visit your local fly shop and check out www.vaflyfish.com or www.tristatesportsmen.com.
(Editor's Note: Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is the director of the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival and the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters. He lives with his wife and children in Warrenton, Virginia.)