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Virginia's Heritage Trout Streams

Virginia's Heritage Trout Streams

Do you miss the days of the traditional trout opener in western Virginia? If so, try out the excellent angling on the state's Heritage Trout Waters this year.

Glen Moorer of Marion gets the net under a large trout he caught from big Tumbling Creek, one of Virginia's Heritage waters. Photo by Bruce Ingram

By Bruce Ingram

When I was a sixth and seventh grader at Conehurst Elementary School in Salem, which was in the 1960s and thus so long ago that the educational concept of middle school did not exist in western Virginia, a highlight of my spring - indeed my year as a whole - was the opening day of trout season. Occurring annually on the first Saturday in April, this epic event was much anticipated by my peers and myself. We usually whined and begged so much that eventually one of our parents would condescend to take us to the nearby Roanoke River. There we would proceed to pursue rainbows, browns and brookies; in our minds, we had entered the marvelous adult world of angling for trout - a species far more mystical than the humble bluegill, which was our usual quarry.

Many years, as I recall, people would be allowed to legally begin fishing at high noon of opening day. But few among the assembled multitudes actually waited until that time to do so. I remember vividly the hordes of anglers that would encircle a single pool, and the conversations that took place as the minutes slowly passed. The most commonly asked question was what the time was, followed closely by "My watch says 11:33; what does yours say?"

Invariably, someone would possess a watch that was some 10 minutes faster than the timepiece of anyone else's. And, just as invariably, the watch that was fastest and the most inaccurate time keeper was deemed by the masses to be the one with the right time and would then be given the official status of being "correct" and the one we would go by. But in the end, even the time registered by that highly respected watch would not be acknowledged by the crowd.

For around 11:48 a.m., some overly zealous adult would decide unilaterally that noon had arrived and would make a cast into the pool. With shouts of rage, the congregation would universally condemn the actions of this individual, and jeers and catcalls would rain down upon the accursed soul.

The onslaught of insults would then rise to a new level when - on that first cast - that person would reel in a trout, usually a wildly thrashing rainbow, to his net. But then a second person would heave a squirming mass of night crawlers into the pool, quickly followed by another man who would chuck a salmon egg into the deep. The catcalls would then cease because all of the rest of us had started to fish as well.

When I became a teenager and a high school student, I no longer needed an adult to take me fishing on opening day. The first year I could drive, which was 1969, I remember taking a 1966 Ford Galaxy to Jennings Creek for the opener. The next year, I drove a 1962 Chevy Malibu (which was a fiery red convertible and a major upgrade in prestige to the staid Galaxy) to the big event, and I felt quite grown up. Amazingly enough, although I was quite impressed with how I looked in the Malibu, girls still were quite unimpressed with me; and I struggled to find a date, just like the bad old days when I tooled around in the Galaxy.


The most memorable event of the 1970 opener was when an older gentleman and I becoming embroiled in a rather stimulating discussion concerning which one of us had caught a hapless rainbow. Our lines were hopelessly tangled, which seemed to happen a great deal in those days, and the man and I could not agree whether the 'bow had hit his salmon egg or my in-line spinner.

In 1995, the last traditional opening day took place in the Old Dominion. I vividly recollect taking my then 8-year-old son Mark along on an excursion to Craig County's Potts Creek, the two of us in the company of friend Paul Calhoun of Roanoke. Mark caught his first trout that day, and I told him to always remember that he had experienced an opener.

In 1996, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) went to a year-round trout season, where fish were stocked without the season being closed. This was popular with many Old Dominion sportsmen, including this writer, who had grown tired of the crowds of opening day and who desired to trout fish during the winter when hunting seasons were closed and bass fishing was difficult.

Nevertheless, many anglers understandably missed the traditional opener with the camaraderie, camping out, and gatherings of old friends that this event entailed. Over the ensuing years, these individuals lobbied the VDGIF to re-institute either the traditional opener or something like it. Several years ago, the department chose the latter option, and in 2003, for example, the VDGIF designated 16 streams as being "Heritage Trout Waters." VDGIF biologist Larry Mohn specializes in trout management and explains the philosophy behind the program.

"The idea of the Heritage Day program was to satisfy the demand of that segment of the trout angler population that preferred an opening day," said Mohn. "Our recent surveys have shown that 75 to 80 percent of our anglers do not want to go back to an opening day. That still leaves 20,000 anglers who would like to see opening day returned. To try to provide a compromise for these anglers, we developed the Heritage Program."

The same 16 streams that were designated as Trout Heritage Waters for 2003 are scheduled to retain that status for 2004. Among those 16 bodies of water are the state's three fee fishing areas: Clinch Mountain, Crooked Creek, and Douthat Lake. That trio will tentatively be closed for five days before the April 3 opener. The other Heritage Waters will be closed on April 2. On April 3, fishing can begin at 9 a.m.

"No changes for our Heritage Waters have been proposed for 2004 nor do we expect any significant expansion in the future," said Mohn. "Our criteria for the program was to hold the number of waters to those which we could stock in one day, and we only added those waters where the landowner/agency managers approved."

Mohn describes adding the three fee fishing areas to the Heritage Waters program as being "a no-brainer." The VDGIF never eliminated opening day on these waters. Prior to the Heritage Day program, the state had a one-week closure and an opening day set for each fee fishing area. Interestingly, the biologist says that some data now exists from the first two Heritage Days in 2002 and 2003.

"Response was very favorable," he said. "The only consistent complaint was that the streams were too crowded, and if we had all the streams open like before, that would solve the crowding problem. The actual figures showed that, fairly consistent across all waters, the Heritage Day pressure was only about 20 percent of the historic opening da

y pressure.

"In terms of creel surveys, our estimated creel on the first Heritage Day was that only 5 to 10 percent of the trout were caught. This was quite interesting considering that most people consider these streams fished out after a day. We had very high fishing pressure, but only a small percentage of the trout were creeled."

The 16 trout Heritage Waters for 2004 are as follows (with the county where they are located within parentheses): Beartree Lake (Washington), Bark Camp Lake (Scott), Clinch Mountain Fee Fishing Area (Washington), Cripple Creek, Ravens Cliff area, (Wythe), Crooked Creek Fee Fishing Area (Carroll), Douthat Lake Fee Fishing Area (Bath), Jennings Creek (Botetourt), Lake Whitten (Tazewell), Liberty Lake (Bedford), Lincolnshire Lake (Tazewell), Middle Fork Holston River (Smyth), Passage Creek (Shenandoah), Pedlar River, upper, (Amherst), Pigg River (Franklin), Rose River (Madison), and Tinker Creek (Roanoke).

I was very glad to learn that Jennings Creek, a favorite stream from my teenage years, is among the group. Tom Rudisill, a Botetourt County high school English teacher from Roanoke, lists Jennings Creek as his favorite Heritage Water.

"The thing I like best about Jennings is the easy access," said Rudisill. "People can drive right up to the side of the stream, find trout water, and hopefully even catch a fish. Two other neat things about Jennings are the scenery and wildlife. A lot of vegetation such as hemlocks and rhododendron live along the creek and are very appealing. Fishermen are likely to see wildlife from butterflies to deer."

Jennings Creek is very easy to reach. The Arcadia Exit off Interstate 81 is the best stopping off point, and sportsmen can then take Route 614 to the stream itself. As an added angling incentive, Jennings flows into the nearby James River.

Another fetching Heritage destination is Tinker Creek, which can be reached via Route 11 and is near both Roanoke and Daleville. Ben Bowles, a 14-year-old freshman at Lord Botetourt High School, is a fan of the stream.

"Tinker Creek is a great place for someone my age to fish," said Bowles. "The stream is shallow enough so that people can wade; and when Tinker is stocked, the fishing is pretty good for quite a while. I like the fact that I can go somewhere and bring fish home to eat.

"I also like the state's Heritage Trout Season. I especially like the anticipation of waiting for opening day. Tinker is usually very crowded on opening day, but the fishing is still good. And after opening day, I can go to Tinker after school and still catch trout or just sit on the shore and eat lunch."

The Commonwealth's three fee-fishing areas are also excellent destinations for this spring. For each of them during the fee season, a daily permit is required, in addition to a Virginia freshwater fishing license. I have been visiting and fishing 60-acre Douthat Lake, which lies near Clifton Forge and Covington, since I was in grade school, and this fee fishing area remains a popular destination for families. Part of the fee fishing area consists of Wilson Creek, hard below the dam. This small section of the creek has been designated as "children only." I stopped by this area last summer and was heartened to see a number of trout finning about a pool. This would be a marvelous place to take a youngster who has not been introduced to trout fishing, especially if a parent could do so soon after the creek has been stocked.

Additionally, children 12 years of age and under can fish throughout the fee fishing area, as long as a permitted adult accompanies them. The total creel of the twosome must not exceed the limit.

Another enticing feature of the Douthat Fee Fishing area is the four miles of Wilson Creek, the lake's main tributary, is included under the fee designation. Wilson is a marvelous stream to walk along, and the highland habitat is simply gorgeous with great rhododendron and river birches growing along the stream.

Of course, the main fishing feature at Douthat has long been the lake itself. The body of water is extremely deep and clear, making light line and a sensitive ultralight spinning outfit must gear. Mealworms are a popular live bait, as are two old favorites: corn and salmon eggs. The fee fishing season runs from the first Saturday in April through June 15 and again from Sept. 15 through Oct. 31.

Douthat State Park is a superlative destination for families; swimming, picnicking, and cabins are part of the package. For more information, contact Virginia's State Parks at 800-933-PARK.

For those who relish plying classic waterfall/pool mountain streams, the Clinch Mountain Fee Fishing area near Saltville provides excellent angling opportunity. The major attraction is Big Tumbling Creek, which comes cascading down from the highlands of Western Virginia. Also worth checking out are two of Big Tumbling's tributaries: Briar Cove Creek and Laurel Bed Creek. Trout are stocked daily except Sunday throughout the fee fishing period. At the Clinch Mountain Fee Fishing Area, the season runs from the first Saturday in April through Sept. 30.

The third member of the trio is Crooked Creek. Situated near Galax, this fee fishing area contains five miles of a meadow stream that meanders slowly through wood lots and fields. The outside bends that form on Crooked Creek typically offer the best water depths and harbor the largest trout. Fishing must stop at 7 p.m. every day so that the creek can be restocked. Otherwise, the fee season runs the same as it does at Clinch Mountain.

For those trout enthusiasts living in Northern Virginia, Passage Creek can be a delightful part of an angling itinerary. This freestone stream, which flows through the Shenandoah Valley, offers excellent access and is fairly open - two important considerations if an adult fisherman has children in tow.

Southern Piedmont anglers were not left out of the Heritage Day festivities either. The Pigg River in Franklin County is a gently flowing waterway that winds its way through wooded dells and fields. The stream is also a Category A water, which means that it is stocked once in October, once in November or December and January or February, twice in both March and April, and once in May. These releases should ensure an ample supply of trout for the April 3 opener.

In far Western Virginia, the Middle Fork of the Holston is worth a close look. Often overshadowed by the smallmouth fishing on the North Fork of the Holston and the trout action on the South Fork of the Holston, the Middle Fork does not have the size or reputation of its sister waterways. Like the Pigg River, the Heritage section of the Middle Fork is a Category A stream.

When fishing Heritage streams, Tom Rudisill likes to fly-fish, although he makes little attempt to match the hatch. The schoolteacher recommends four very general flies: Adams parachutes, blue-winged olives, various nymphs, and terrestrial patterns. Actual sizes of these patterns will vary greatly, depending on local conditions. I prefer the same lure I did some three decades ago - an in-line

spinner. Of course, the usual assortment of worms, minnows, salmon eggs, and corn will work just as well as any fly or lure.

I have no idea at which junkyard or recycling center the cars of my salad days, the old Galaxy and Malibu, are spending their final days, rusting in peace. But I do know that adults of my generation can relive their youth or - better still - introduce the youth of today to trout fishing through Virginia's Heritage Day program. For more information on trout fishing in the state, go to the VDGIF's Web site: Stocking information for put-and-take streams can be obtained by calling (434) 525-FISH. The information is updated after 4 p.m. for each day trout are released.

Editor's Note: The author's seventh period English 9 Honors class at Lord Botetourt High School helped edit this story.

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