Wild Virginia Trout
by Jim Sowder
We will travel the length of Virginia in search of wild trout in this article. Beginning in the northern portion of the state and the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, weÕll discuss one of its best known native trout streams—the upper portion of the Rapidan River. Moving southward we will cover the North Fork of Buffalo River and Little Stony Creek. WeÕll finish with the Whitetop Laurel Creek on the western face of the Mt. Rogers range, just above the Virginia–Tennessee border. In total, we will cover nearly 250 miles of Virginia, some of my favorite fishing spots, and some of the stateÕs most scenic locations.
Born and raised in Virginia, I have fished the state all my life. Being from Lynchburg, a city on the James River and near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the vast majority of my fishing has been on our fresh water streams and lakes for trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and the other fish that inhabit our waters. Down through the years IÕve expanded my fishing techniques from casting rods with live bait and lures—I still have my first Zebco 77—to fly fishing with both surface and below surface flies.
Brook trout are VirginiaÕs only native trout. They are technically char, but IÕm not one to worry about the scientific names of fish and aquatic insects—so in this article, they are trout. The stateÕs wild rainbow and brown trout population are naturally reproducing or naturalized fish introduced to parts of Virginia in the 40Õs - 60Õs and have little resemblance to the hatchery fish of today. Apart from their size, the most immediate and distinctive feature of these native and naturally reproducing fish is their coloration. The brilliant reds, yellows, whites, blacks, and olive greens of these fish are remarkable. Another telltale sign are their eyes. Wild trout tend to have noticeably larger eyes as compared to their hatchery-bred distant cousins.
The average mountain stream brook trout in Virginia is only in the 6 – 8 inch range. A 12-inch native brook trout is quite the catch. Their life span in mountain waters is only three to four years. This is attributed to the sparse food conditions they live under. As a result, they have a reputation of being aggressive eaters—they simply canÕt afford to let calories float on by. This would suggest they are easy to catch. But hit a native trout stream during low, clear water conditions and a blue sky day, and you will be lucky to see one as it darts toward the rocks, much less catch one.
Depending on the water, wild rainbow and brown trout tend grow larger than the brook trout. These trout will typically look for larger food sources than the brook trout. Brown trout are known to be more selective targeting minnows and other larger food sources.
Each of the streams discussed in this article include special regulation sections. These regulations restrict the size of fish kept or enforce catch-and-release all together. A rule requiring single-hooked artificial lures and no live bait tend to suggest fly fishing gear but spin fishing is legal.
As for equipment, every fisherman has his or her preferences about fishing gear. For the Virginia mountain streams discussed in the article I use a 7 ½ foot, 3 weight fly rod that IÕve had for several years. My rod is what I would consider a mid-range expensive rod that I ordered from a large national brand outfitter company and my reel I brought off an online auction website. If you want one of the more expensive rods, be sure to buy one that offers a lifetime replacement policy.
On these mountain streams you will find that falling is always a possibility and there is nothing worse than ending your day early with an expensive, three-section, two-piece rod in your hand. I like the bright colored floating fly line I have on my reel. Its visibility helps me properly mend the line to control drag and in deep pools it helps in detecting strikes. I wear waist high waders as they allow me to wade through deeper pools to cross the stream.
I used to wet wade during summer months but IÕm more conscience of snakes than I used to be and now I always wear my waders. Felt or the newer synthetic material soled boots are a great aid on moss covered rocks.
The upper portion of the Rapidan River in Madison County is best known for Camp Hoover and the past presidentÕs retreats to this fishing stream. This section can be reached by hiking down from the Skyline Drive (Milam Gap Parking area between mileposts 52 and 53) or by driving up from Criglersville on Rt. 649. The drive in can be pretty rough so take care regarding what type of vehicle you take there.
Once you reach the river there is over two miles of water directly assessable along the road. I typically park anywhere above the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area boundary and up to the fence at the boundary of the Shenandoah National Park. The Rapidan River is a very popular fishing destination. I learned itÕs important to drive up the stream from where you plan to start fishing to look for other cars parked along that section of the river.
Even if I donÕt see another car I carefully keep on the lookout for wet footprints on boulders as I fish upstream. Wild trout will remain undercover for a period of time once alerted to a fisherman. I learned the hard way that fishing behind another person on one of VirginiaÕs native trout streams can be a lesson in frustration.
Native brook trout is quarry on this stream. Spring and early summer are great times to fish the Rapidan River. As the water begins to warm and the metabolism of the trout begins to rise, top water dry fly action is at its best. I like to fish slowly testing every section of each pool, often covering no more than 100 yards in an hour as I make my way up stream.
My preferred fly is the Mr. Rapidan, size 12 – 18. Not only is this fly named after the stream, but also its high-visibility yellow top is a tremendous aid in seeing the fly. Keeping your eyes on the fly as it drifts is extremely helpful in quickly detecting rises and setting the hook. I recommend this fly to beginners for this reason and all others because of the success it brings me on Virginia wild trout streams.
If you reached the stream by driving up from Criglersville, you can take your car only as far as the fence at the Park boundary. From there itÕs just under a mile walk up the road until you reach Camp Hoover. Prior to the current day presidential retreat, Camp David, this site served as the place the fishing enthusiast President Hoover escaped to for relaxation. Several of the original buildings are still standing. The camp sits at the head of the Rapidan River on the ground between the junction of the Laurel Prong and Mill Prong. During the high water time of spring, you can fish and catch trout up each prong.
A few years ago we had an unseasonable warm New YearÕs Eve. With New YearÕs Day air temperatures expected to hit the low 60Õs, I headed toward to the Rapidan River. I caught eight brook trout on a size 14 Gold Bead HareÕs Ear nymph that day and I canÕt think of a better way to start a new year.
North Fork Buffalo River
The special regulations portion of North Fork of the Buffalo River in Amherst County lies at the end of Rt. 635. This section of the stream is within the George Washington National Forrest, so be sure to have a National Forrest Stamp in addition to a Virginia state fishing license. A small parking area offers space for only a few vehicles. To reach this point you must ford the stream twice, so depending on the condition of the road, a high clearance vehicle can be a must.
The Buffalo River is a native brook trout stream. It is not a large stream, so success on this river can vary greatly depending on the water conditions. During a drought season or other low water conditions I have found that I need to satisfied with the scenery and simply being outdoors. The section below the parking area tends to hold more water, so I often start at the last ford and began to fish up from there. Just above the parking area Little Cove Creek joins the Buffalo River. A short hike up the creek brings you a very nice waterfall that isnÕt marked on any of my maps.
As you fish further up the Buffalo River, the gradient becomes noticeably steeper. Be prepared for a strenuous outing with time spent climbing large rock formations as you move from one plunge pool to the next.
IÕve had my best results fishing small parachutes, size 16 – 18, on this stream. One day I caught a dozen or more trout on an Adams parachute, on another day a Sulphur parachute did the trick. A unique aspect of the Buffalo River is the crayfish—they are bright orange, looking like tiny steamed lobsters in the stream.
Little Stony Creek
Probably more Virginians know of Little Stony Creek in Giles County as the stream that the 70 foot Cascades waterfall is on then know it for wild trout. Being close to Blacksburg, the two-mile hike up to the waterfalls is a pilgrimage that many Virginia Tech students take during their college days. But just below the hiking path is a stream that holds a very nice population of wild brook and rainbow trout. The special regulations portion of the creek within the Jefferson National Forrest is very accessible lying at the end of Rt. 623 off of US 460 at Pembroke.
The first time I fished Little Stony all I had was a spinning rod. So consistent with the special regulations, I cut the treble hook off of a 1/16 oz. black Roster Tail spinner and pinched on a single hook. I catch several trout with that gear. IÕve carried a fly rod on all of my trips there since then. Because this stream holds both wild brook and rainbow trout I like to keep count of how many of each I catch and how.
I donÕt know if my experiences are the same as for other fisherman but one thing I have noticed is that I seem to catch about the same number of each trout if fishing with a dry fly. Using a size 12 – 16 Elk Hair Caddis or Royal Wulff, IÕll catch each trout and very often each type out of the same hole. But I catch many more Rainbows when fishing with a nymph. One day fishing a bead-headed Mr. Rapidan nymph I caught 15 trout, all Rainbows.
Whitetop Laurel Creek
Tributaries of Whitetop Laurel Creek in Washington County flow down off of Mt. Rogers, the highest mountain peak in Virginia. Originally a Brook trout stream, these fish were largely killed off as a result of logging in late 1800Õs and early 1900Õs. Under the direction of the USDA Forest Service, the forest recovered, the water quality improved, and stocked rainbow and brown trout took hold and reproduced.
Today, Whitetop Laurel Creek offers some of the best wild trout fishing around. Adding to the interest of the creek is the Virginia Creeper Trail. The trail follows the train bed of the old Virginia Creeper railroad that for years moved timber off the mountain and materials back up to sustain the communities that existed there. The train bed and the trestles that span the creek are well maintained.
The Appalachian Trail shares a portion of this trail and hikers and bicyclists heavily use this section. Several companies offer rides to the top of the mountain providing cyclists a 14-mile, all downhill, ride back to Damascus. The section of Whitetop Laurel Creek that I fish is accessible via Rt. 58. Heading east about four miles out of Damascus, there is a parking lot providing ready access to the trail and creek. From this point, there is about two miles of fishable water upstream before reaching a sign marking the Forest Service boundary.
The trestles along the trail are numbered. Heading up stream from the parking area, Trestle #22 soon crosses where Straight Branch joins Whitetop Laurel. I tend to walk up stream and start fishing just before Trestle #23. If there is a hatch going on IÕll dig out of my fly box whatever best matches the rising insect. If I donÕt see insects in the air IÕll start with a terrestrial, either a black ant or beetle, if itÕs a warm enough day for the real thing to be out and about.
For both I use a high-visibility version with white or bright orange on top it. I simply canÕt track a black ant through the shadows and seeing the rise is critical to quickly setting the hook. Otherwise, IÕll start casting a larger bead-head nymph, or size 10 Olive Wooly Bugger through the larger pools looking for a one of the nicer Brown trout that inhibit the waters. Annual fish surveys by VDGIF measure rainbow and brown trout populations in the Special Regulation sections of this stream. Rainbow trout over 12 inches and brown trout over 18 inches are often recorded.
The last time I fished Whitetop Laurel Creek I got quite startled when I felt something moving against my leg. I looked down to see a large dark brown thing flopping around my foot. After I jumped back and calmed down enough, I realized I had stepped on a large hellbender. ItÕs not every day you step on a 1-1/2 foot long salamander. The good news, besides not really hurting the thing, is that hellbenders require very clean water to survive—a very good sign for Whitetop Laurel Creek.
Have a great time adventuring these trout waters. Let us know how you do.