Like many anglers, I have a soft spot for small mountain streams. The solitude, the scenery, and the familiarity of a high-gradient creek are comfortable commonalities that you’ll find across the world. Aside from the difference in riparian foliage, streams I’ve fished from South Carolina to New Hampshire to Colorado all feel very similar and, to a certain degree, approachable. If you’ve fished these waters, you’re well aware that it isn’t difficult to fool some very opportunistic trout. That doesn’t mean that all the fish, particularly the bigger or older ones, are pushovers. But fishing plunge pools can be one of the highest percentage fly fishing ventures out there.
But do you remember the first time you fished a small mountain stream? If your experience was anything like mine, the only facets of the day that you could call high percentage were “parts of the body below the waist that got wet” and “flies left in the trees.” I stumbled and snagged my way through six hours of fishing on a rocky little Virginia creek called the Conway River in the Shenandoah Mountains.
As young teenagers sans driver’s licenses, a friend and I were quite pleased to learn about our local Trout Unlimited Chapter’s “fish with a member” program. I can still remember putting my uncased department store fly rod and duck boots into the guy’s fly fishing arsenal that he claimed was his trunk. I didn’t know that one needed more than a single fly box, let alone enough of them strewn across the back of a Honda Civic to obscure the upholstery. This introduction didn’t give me a lot of confidence that I was going to be very successful on my own, but at the same time that I could mimic this professional angler and land a trophy or seven.
I don’t remember much of that drive, which would become the first of innumerable into the region for fishing. However, I do recall that my friend and I exchanged glances that communicated “we’re far enough into the woods that no one would hear us scream.” I also recollect thinking, upon seeing the stream, that we’d taken a wrong turn. The Conway is a smallish river that begins just east of Skyline Drive before flowing for nearly 15 miles to join up with the more famous Rapidan. The highest reaches are tiny pools that hold brook trout, but as the stream widens and deepens the rainbows and browns take over. Where I first encountered it, we were planning on fishing in tight quarters.
Again, if you’re used to fishing these streams you know how perfect this can be. But for a newish angler that is used to bass ponds and spacious delayed-harvest rivers, this can be quite the shock. Where do you stand? How do you cast? Are there even fish in there?
Within five minutes I was wet up to one knee and had lost two flies. Grumpily, I slogged upstream weaving my unwieldy nine-foot rod through the underbrush. My net got stuck on something and jerked me backwards, like the river was using a vaudeville hook to put me in my place. I’ll cut to the chase: I didn’t catch any fish. I don’t think I saw a fish. Even though I was damp, out a paycheck’s worth of flies, and troutless, it was still a great day.
The TU member that brought us circled back after a few hours to check in. After making sure the two muddy and scratched up youngsters had merely fallen down a lot, and not attacked by a badger, he took us down to a prototypical plunge pool. He pointed out the spots where fish would be: right at the point where the water falls into the pool, off to the sides in the eddies, at the tail out right before the water speeds up. He showed how a sidearm cast oriented with the streambank would reduce hanging up on the trees, and that a bow-and-arrow cast could eliminate that all together. My ten-o’clock/two-o’clock paradigm had been shattered.
Then, I got the most important lesson of the day. The fly fisherman that brought us, probably in his early 30’s, said that this was a really difficult day because of the weather and the water conditions. Perhaps sensing our despondence, he talked about how he only caught one small brookie. It had rained the previous day, and the creek was quick and off color. But, it was a nice sunny day today. There were some deer we’d seen, and a handful of upland birds. Plus, he took the time to talk about those things to teenage boys. Risky stuff, that.
I came to that river a skeptic. I’ve seen that look from many a hiker in the years since. Like a person walking through a mall in a scuba suit, a fly rod toting, sandaled man popping out of the brush onto the trail high up in the mountains might be a strange sight. “There are fish in here?” Well not on the trail, no. But there are fish, and they are as beautiful as they are hungry. Once you figure out the game – or are shown how to play by someone who takes the time and effort – it becomes easy. As easy as fishing for wild fish can be, at least.
If I had to guess from what type of stream I’ve caught the most trout over the course of my life, I’d probably lean towards small mountain streams. Even after living on a decent-sized and well-stocked freestone river for years, I’ve probably caught more brook trout on the “blue lines” than every other trout in every other stream combined.
Doing it for all these years, even the smallest of trickles catches my eye. The bridge and culvert pools along backroads sparkle with promise, and the isolation of the headwaters beckons me back. These are some of the most fragile waters, but also capable of being the most resilient. Right up the hill from much of the development and sprawl, they harbor and hide the native and pure strains of fish that have since gone from the waters below. There are special streams, special fish, and special memories high up the creek.
For some good maps and concise descriptions of the Conway River and other Shenandoah Park streams and how to fish them, I like Beau Beasley’s book “Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters.”