Fishing in Virginia during the summer of 2015 was a special occurrence for me, signaling the first time I would have a chance to catch a fish in the state where I was first introduced to fly fishing. My grandmother is from Clifton Forge in the Shenandoah Valley, so my family would make a trip up to the area each summer while I was growing up to visit her home, send my cousins off to camp, and enjoy time together in the Blue Ridge. The winding, country roads between I-64 and the West Virginia bring back memories of my grandmother making her famous comment, full of a genuine sense of astonishment at the area’s simple beauty: “Mercy, would you look at all that natural rock!” I spent countless hours learning to skip rocks in the Cow Pasture River, chasing lightning bugs, and playing hide and go seek with my cousins at Fort Lewis Lodge in Bath County. It was there that I first picked up a fly rod, an old Orvis Clearwater that my cousins found in their attic but did not think they would use. As a child I was accustomed to seeing the grainy photograph of my dad holding a 10-pound salmon in our living room, as well as a shot of my mom kissing her first ever fish on the fly, a 7 pound rainbow, from my parents honeymoon, but my parents had given it up for more time in the woods when my brother and I were born. I was nine at the time, and my dad was excited to show me the basics of casting in the field next to the lodge’s dining room. After that lesson, there would be no looking back.
Seven years later, I was in the car with my mom driving to Lexington, an hour from my where I first touched a rod, to attempt to catch my first fish in the state. Mom graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1989 in the first fully co-ed graduating class, and we were returning to campus to do a college visit and see some of her old classmates. I was put in touch with one of the biology professors and the head of the Environmental Studies Department, Professor Robert Humston, who was also a competitive fly fisher. It was June, and he had a few of his students on campus for the summer to help with research. One of them, Oliver Nettere, was an avid fisherman himself and agreed to take me for a float down the Maury River, the main body of water that flows through town before it eventually enters the James and heads toward Richmond. The Maury has a healthy resident population of small mouth bass, bluegill, rock bass, and various other panfish, as well as musky closer to the confluence with the James. I met up with Oliver at “Bean’s Bottom,” an off-campus fraternity house on the river. It looked just how it sounds, but was a super cool spot nonetheless. Oliver showed me around before we got our gear situated in the back of his pick-up and headed upstream to our put-in location. We carried an Old Town canoe that he’d gotten from the school’s Outing Club down a narrow path along the river, then hauled it down to the water.
The Maury has a diversity of habitat, from long flat sections with shallow rock slabs and gravel flats, to deep, slow moving pools and riffles. Fishing out of a canoe required one person to row and steer from the back while the guy in the bow manned the rod. This adventure also entailed repeated stops at the heads of riffles, portaging the canoe downstream over boulders and fallen trees, and trying not to tip as we reboarded our craft. Having never seen this river, it was a fun expedition of the area and certainly a blast in terms of fishing. The bass had a hard time resisting the feathery, baby blue popper. We caught a diversity of species, including small-mouth, rock bass, blue gill, chubs, and even a sucker. I also really enjoyed getting to know Oliver and share a day of fishing together while he told me about his college experience at W&L.
The following day, I met up with another friend and former student of Professor Humston, Nate Adkins, a W&L alum. Along with fly fishing, he is passionate about bow hunting and competes in archery. I did not even realize there was such a thing as professional archery, so I certainly enjoyed learning about a new sport. There are so many tangential hobbies that I have heard about from people I have fished with along the way that I would love to try, but I can only have so many myself.
Nate and I spent most of the day fishing in West Virginia, where we had success with the smallies, but stopped in Raphine, Virginia on the way back to Lex to hit one of his favorite streams for brook trout. St. Mary’s is a creek that flows through the Blue Ridge and is well known by locals for hiking up to its waterfall and swimming hole. We put together a three-wt. rod, which I soon found to be overkill for these fish. After walking up the trail a quarter mile, we hopped into the river and casted a small stimulator at the base of a riffle. Within seconds, a 4-inch brookie came soaring out of the water to eat it, unable to fit the fly in its mouth. I chuckled and cast in the same spot, and again, the fish aggressively missed the fly. On the subsequent cast, the fish somehow defied physics and the hook stuck into the side of its mouth as I raised the rod and sent the fish flying into the pool behind me. Once I picked it up again and set it in the water beneath me to remove the fly, I was amazed by how perfect its fins and spots were. This was the first time I had ever fished a native brook trout stream in the Appalachian Mountains, and it didn’t disappoint. They have so much color and detail to their spots and the marbly pattern on their back. And, with their eagerness to take dry flies, they make for a fun fish to catch. There are streams much like this all throughout the Appalachians, many just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I fell in love with that little stream and would return many times in the coming years with subsequent visits to W&L, where I would eventually enroll as a student allowing me to continue to chase those gorgeous, native brookies.