Wading in Rockingham

I wanted to share a few tidbits of a weekend spent in Rockingham County. My wife and I had driven out early Saturday morning to meet up with friends and prepare for a wedding later that evening. As always, my wheels began to spin, devising ways to get out into the woods for a turn, hiking or fishing. I thought of cold water in thin streams running down from the eastern edge of the Appalachians, of getting lost somewhere in Shenandoah National Park, of breathing mountain air again.

The weather hadn’t been conducive the week prior. It had been hot, dry, and the water levels were low. The first stream I reached (the pencil-thin blue line on Google maps) was bone dry before I’d even trekked up toward the Park’s higher elevations. Not a good sign. Another half-hidden dirt road led farther into the shade of the woods and another stream, this one free flowing and cool, but no more than a few feet wide and inches deep in most places. With the tree cover, there was no room to cast. I just let out the line a bit to pull downstream and hoped for the best. I splashed around for an hour, feeling silly, eventually deciding to return to the car and head back to the Shenandoah River crossing I’d sited five or so miles back.

It was here that I would spend the rest of my time that afternoon as well as a few hours early the next morning. There’d been plenty of room to cast and several feet of depth to walk around in my new chest waders. I stepped carefully amongst the rocks, easing out from the shade of the bridge and experimenting with a half dozen flies, not really knowing what I was fishing for. By the end of it, I’d hooked a few adolescent smallmouth, a green sunfish, and, somehow, a dragonfly. Not too momentous as far as landing the Big One goes, but a satisfying day—a river day—and that was good enough for me.

Night at Featherfin

I had my druthers and took the rare opportunity this weekend to camp and explore someplace new, take a break, try some fly fishing, be in the woods, etc, etc. I mapped out my radius of travel, an imaginary string pinned to Portsmouth and fanning out some 200 miles by land, where all viable paths run west and south. I’d been dreaming of cold mountain streams and native trout, but transit time at rush hour squashed any hopes of getting to National Forest land before dark. So after some erratic web searching and mulling over my notes from previous trips, I quickly planned an excursion into the Featherfin Wildlife Management Area for the freedom of dispersed camping (with a valid fishing, hunting license, etc.) and its inclusion of several miles of the Appomattox river, near which I could set up a central camp of sorts and hit several sections of water on foot.

The day was extremely hot and the night all but promised to be as oppressive. After a bit of trial an error and many a wary look at overgrown service roads, I found my spot not far from my pull-off, just near the river bank. I strung up the hammock, unpacked the fly rod, and set at it in the failing light. When it was too dark to see the tippet in my hands, I set the gear on the bank, poured some Ramen in the pot and helped myself to the salted broth and thin pasta. The heat was on, the stickiness, and in the dark with the slight breeze and gurgle of the river, shallow enough for only a pair of boots in most places. I hooked a few green sunfish, most with mouths no bigger than the flies they’d tried to swallow, turquoise and gold iridescent stripes narrowed just in front of the gills. They stared back at me resigned and wide-eyed.

The week prior had been especially difficult, mostly for reasons I won’t expand on here, but I’d thought that a night out on my own may have been just the thing, and in some ways it was. I tried to stop and listen, take in the night, then the day, sit beside myself and watch the river flow down along the gouged tree and tall grass, strip of sky above not quite cut by the sun’s rays. I waded up and down, never quite finding the section I was hoping for, someplace with cover in the water and none overhead. In the heat and undergrowth it felt more of a jungle-scape than hill-country river basin, but such things are what they are. I was less than thirty miles from Sailor’s Creek battlefield and of course, not far from Lee’s surrender at that fateful courthouse just over 150 years ago. I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers out, uniformed, traipsing and camping in this same Virginia heat. What might their thoughts have been, their gripes? Would they have had the time or the notion to appreciate the landscape they’d found themselves to occupy? I imagined that nearly every field and forest and river on which they’d marched, camped, died looked like the places I now seek out for my own escape, far cries from the urban sprawl and industrial rivet of Hampton Roads.

Sometime late in the morning I set out to Farmville for a coffee and a second breakfast (the stove-heated can of kidney beans lasted only so long), before shooting up to Richmond for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) rally and subsequent march on the governor’s mansion. The day heralded other events in other places, but I’ll be sure to remember Featherfin as sure as I’ll be to return.




Gunning for Trout in western North Carolina

A vacation had been in the cards for some time. Memorial day offered another 24 hours of opportunity past a rare, open weekend, and with a few extra days off of work just prior and a proper trip was in the making.

It was going to be my first opportunity to try some real fly fishing on real trout in real trout rivers that could have graced the cover of Field & Stream, but I had a lot to learn before wading in, like how to do it, where to do it, and what with.

We were situated somewhere between Bravard and Hendersonville, West by South, on a remote property used for growing hydroponic lettuce and lavender beneath the ghostly traces of long-haul power lines. I’d already packed my old fiberglass fly rod wound with its original fly line and a newly glued tip eyelet, along with a handful of other spinners, mostly for the kids. $75 later and I was strolling out of the outfitter with half dozen flies, leader, tippet, and a North Carolina license.

Over the course of the next few days, I practiced in a nearby pond, thick with lily pads and crawling with blue-gill waiting for the drop of green larvae from the trees or water striders or in the very least nightcrawlers. That’s what I imagined, anyway, though it seemed they found mostly what they sought in the dark slime beneath the lilies. Made for some easy practice, though I tangled many a line in the roots just below the surface. The boy caught more than I did, some on purpose, with his two-foot push button, hook and split-shot, cast twice as far as I ever did.

I’d make several trips into both Pisgah National Forest and Dupont State Forest, wading into the Davidson as it snaked through the former, and seek out the dark, rhododendron-laden alleys of the latter, those leading to loneliest bends of the Little River. I managed to get out twice a day most days, usually early in the morning and then later in the afternoon when both kids were napping. The most easily accessible parts of both parks were overrun by late morning, with the stretches of river lawfully posted for trout (either for keeps, delayed harvest, or just catch-and-release) predictably the most popular. Few others were actually fishing in one form or another, most likely out on borrowed time between gullywashers and other more steadfast springtime rains.

I had my moments, times when all I could hear was the garble of the river and the wind through the leaves, forgetting to think or sometimes watch my line as the crows overhead island-hopped from pine to poplar. I caught two small ones on accident, one brown trout and another I couldn’t identify, both hooked while I stood untangling a bird’s nest or fixing the reel while the tippet laid downstream.

The days went by slowly, the hours spent on the river less so. The morning before we left, I hiked out early in search of a hole I’d discovered two days prior, one in whose translucence I watched a dozen trout, some the size of my forearm, slink around and ignore the dries I was dropping from overhead. I was forced to leave without a hit and had returned this final morning in a drizzle, wading from farther upstream after overshooting the turn-off that had been too obvious to a brood of pre-pubescent boys in bucket hats and cheap cologne.

The water was muddied and, as far as I could tell after two hours of directionless casting, devoid of any fish. Nearly content with the weekend’s experience, I walked the mile or two back to the parking lot down away from Triple Falls waving to the cascades disappearing behind me, rumbling and elemental. At the last minute I swung left just past the footbridge and eyed the shallow rapids not 50-yards down trail. Stepping out onto the rocks, I cast into one of the pools next to the bank and hooked a brookie almost right away. Gently reeled and led back to the shallows on the opposite bank where I’d set my bag. In the stillness of that small pool he hovered, ten or twelve inches, painted like the topside of Messerchmidt, beautiful. I easy the hook out and watched him dart off to the rapids downstream, returned to my rock, and repeated the act. Another brook trout, similar size.

An older couple appeared just down the bank and the man clambered over to watch. A singular moment. We all eyed the trout as it swam off, smiling.

Fishing and other Thoughts

I never intended to pick up another hobby. But I suppose anyone that knows me well enough could easily concede it’s one of my more or less endearing qualities, depending on your point of view. Makes Christmas and birthdays easier, though it also means I’ve accumulated a lot of crap over the course of my life.

Most of these interests come and go, victims of life circumstance, while some just wax and wane with my changing tastes, dwindling free time, and aptness for inspiration from unexpected sources. They’re often chosen pursuits, a clear decision, an opportunistic purchase. But the angling thing crept in, slowly, steadily.

It probably began with the canoe – a willful grasping at the outdoor life I often wished I had – that became something I practiced without remorse or loss of interest. It was an endeavor I could share with my son, and often, something that helped to clear space in my mind, to lose myself in my environment, out on the open water literally a block from my front door.

The Elizabeth River became my wilderness, its squared shoreline tracing either side of the thoughtful, urban aesthetic of Norfolk, the stark steel and gunmetal gray of the Portsmouth shipyards, the rows of colonial Old Towne houses, the Naval Hospital complex. For a time, a cheap fishing rod with a push-button reel from the thrift store just seemed to do the trick. A couple of successful night escapades with a seasoned fishing friend, and little by little it became something on which I can spend a few guiltless hours, when it was conducive, and sometimes when it was not.

As with the luck that usually finds me in some form during another Craigslist perusal and then thirty-some dollars later, I’ve now found myself in possession of a dozen and a half old rods, nine castoffs from the dark corner of a storage unit, all but one with the open bail-type reels. I’ve matched reels to rods in the way that seemed most functional to my amateur sensibilities and swapped the handles to my preferential right side, disassembling only one and oiling them all. Not a bad haul – three shorter fresh/saltwater rods (as best I can classify them) including an old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck 535, two surf rods, and the real gem – a vintage Garcia 2637-A fly rod.

The “fly” niche of the fishing world once evoked for me images of old men in hip waders and wicker baskets, thigh deep in forest streams casting off thick line as if with a bull whip. The unexpected coupling with distance trail running had tugged at my fascination not all that long ago and sparked an interest in the sport too weak to justify the investment in all of the requisite gear. A few months and a not-so-serendipitous purchase later, I’m staring at this beat-up little piece that I hope will offer a fitting introduction to it. I marvel in its simplicity – the fiberglass rod, two-piece aluminum Martin reel, faded green fly line. I’m still intimidated by all the components I don’t yet have, but all in time. At least for now, opportunities for fly fishing will be scarce relative to the ease with which I can cast into the brackish water of the Elizabeth.

Hopefully I’ll be headed out early tomorrow morning to try out a few of the smaller rods. I’ve already set them up with some simple bottom rigs, and with my modest tackle and some experimental bait, decent weather and a little luck, my hopes are high.

Report from the next day:

I caught the changing of the tides sometime just after twilight, paddling in the cool stillness of early morning as the mist collected over the Norfolk skyline. For nearly four hours I sat in near silence. H joined me for the last two, deftly casting his simple float rig from a 30″ pole, reeling it all back in as soon as the bobber hit the water, over and over, a strange discipline borne of the natural impatience of a three-year-old.

I used the old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck rod with cork grips, quickly noticing the marked difference in responsiveness, the flex and give of the rod as compared to any of newer, cheaper setups I’d used previously. For something that was surely consumer-grade, it was still manufactured in the USA, and is just as functional to me now as the day it was made (not unlike my Harmony H-62).

By the end of the morning jaunt, I’d caught nine or ten Croaker, all throwbacks, and paddled home as the sun climbed from the South-East, beating now from a cloudless sky.  It was nearing lunchtime and both H and I were longing for ice water and a sandwich, midday respite following a morning that was itself a reset from a more frenetic life.