Fly Fishing in the Virginia Piedmont
A writer explores a sport beloved by her father, brother, husband and son for the first time.
I'VE NEVER BEEN ONE for bait-and-tackle fishing—casting your lure, sitting on your duff and waiting for the orange bobber to dunk. Fly-fishing, on the other hand, has always seemed like more of an art.
Aficionados of fly-fishing (mostly men) speak of its pristine settings and even the fish themselves with a kind of reverence. Books and movies—from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It to David James Duncan’s The River Why—have romanticized the sport, intimating that there’s something mystical about the connection between man, rod, water and fish. The fact that my father, brother, husband and son all count among the faithful only made me more curious over the years.
Which is what ultimately compelled me last spring to book a guided fly-fishing outing at Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia. I love those verdant hills and valleys within viewing range of Old Rag Mountain, whose craggy top I’ve climbed a dozen times. Thereabouts, cellphones are blessedly useless, and the air has a cool and tangy sweetness almost year-round.
Rose River is popular with “Western-style” fly fishermen because it’s easy to wade into its freestone bottom without muddying the waters and spooking fish. Photo by Ed Felker
ON AN APRIL AFTERNOON, my husband, Pete, and I head west in traffic during a downpour. But the next morning dawns clear and cool, with mist curling through the valley below our cozy hilltop yurt. As the primary accommodation at Rose River Farm, the yurt is far more luxurious than its name suggests, featuring 17-foot ceilings and leather furniture. I want to savor my coffee and the gorgeous view from our porch, but my guide awaits. I make a mental note to book the place on another occasion for a writing retreat.
With its pastoral setting and stocked stream, the 200-acre farm—which also produces grass-fed Angus beef and peaches—is an ideal place to cast your first line. The Rose River springs up just south of Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park, and winds for nearly 9 miles (roughly a mile and a half through the farm).
Doug Dear, a former investment banker from Northern Virginia and now a private investor who owns the farm, describes the main attraction as “Western-style” fly-fishing, meaning it’s easy to wade into the river’s freestone bottom without muddying the waters and spooking the fish. As a bonus, the stream is also more open than others in the area, so beginners have plenty of room to cast without getting their lines tangled in overhanging trees.
Before I can begin, I have a few knots to master, including the clinch knot, the double clinch and the surgeon’s knot, which my guide, Gary Burwell, demonstrates with ease. We spend a leisurely 20 minutes practicing tying in a gazebo that overlooks the water. By the end, my fly is knotted to my tippet (a light, nearly invisible piece of line to fool the fish), which is then knotted to my leader (a heavier transitional line), which is knotted to my weighted and colored line.
Lures, such as these Little Black Stoneflies, are made of feathers, hair and beads. Photo by Amy Brecount White
Fly-fishing is named for the unweighted, manmade lures that—if all goes well—land on the water as lightly as a fly. (Except that the flies in this case are decoys made of feathers, animal hair and beads.) Casting depends on a rhythmic coordination of hand, rod and line.
Although the April air still has a wintry nip, it’s warm in the sun. “There’s a bunch of fish rising right here in front of us,” Burwell motions to Pete, eyeing the signs of an active insect “hatch.” Ninety percent of the time trout feed underwater, he explains, but during a hatch, the fish feed on the surface, leaving telltale circles.
Pete picks a Black Caddis fly that resembles the bug that’s hatching this morning and casts nearby, while Burwell steers me toward a farm pond where I can practice.
“The casting motion is like picking up an old-time phone,” he explains. “You want to bend the elbow and try to keep the wrist straight.” To achieve this stance, I’m wearing a wrist brace that attaches my right hand to the rod, so I can’t bend it even if I try. I cast with my right, noting how the rod “loads” with energy as it flexes back and stops, then releases that energy down the line as I move the rod forward.
After an hour of casting practice, I move to a stand of birch trees on the riverbank to try my luck.
SEASONED ANGLERS WILL tell you there’s a sixth sense to knowing where the trout are hiding. In the lingo of the sport, a fly fisherman graciously “presents” his fly to the fish, which then decides whether or not to strike. I venture into the clear water in borrowed waders and cast across to a deeper spot. With a small amount of weight added to my line, my particular fly—a “wet” fly type known as a Woolly Bugger—is designed to sink and imitate the crayfish below the water. (Dry flies stay on the surface.)
“Keep your rod tip low,” Burwell says, “so when that fish hits and you pull back, you have a good chance of setting the hook. You gotta be really quick.”
Apparently, I’m not half bad, because my strike indicator soon dips below the surface. Almost instinctively, my finger clamps down on the line, and I pull the rod back to my ear. A moment later, I feel the satisfying tug of a 15-inch rainbow trout tight on my line.
Following Burwell’s instructions, I reel the fish in slow and steady, allowing it to tire itself out from thrashing, and soon it’s in my net. Burwell expertly removes the hook and tells me to wet my hands so I don’t harm the fish.
The river is catch-and-release, so I bend to submerge my prize, taking a moment to admire the trout’s patterned scales and pinkish streak before setting it free. Holding the fish firmly, I rock it from side to side in the water until it knows up from down. Then there’s a press of raw muscle against my hands, a splash, and it’s gone.