Chris Dollar: Shenandoah National Park offers a great local fly-fishing getaway | COMMENTARY
By Chris Dollar
Mar 01, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Somewhere just beyond the heavy winter mist that billowed like steam off the Blue Ridge Mountains, Old Rag jutted out its long stretches of bare rock. Hiking its trail has the unique distinction of not only being the most popular trail in Shenandoah National Park, but also its most dangerous.
I wasn’t there for the hiking. We’d come to the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge to try and catch a trout — brook trout ideally — though I knew that was a long shot. However, I’d have to wait until a fast-moving winter storm had passed to wet a line. I wasn’t in any hurry; Why freeze your fingers, or worse, in a sleet storm when you can be toasty warm inside a modern, Mongolian-style yurt?
We were staying at one of the cabins on Rose River Farm, owned and operated by one-time Annapolitan Douglas Dear. In 2003, he and his wife Jennifer purchased the land in Madison County with the goal of creating an exceptional fly-fishing getaway close to the metro areas. And that they did. If you’re looking for a great getaway that offers an uncrowded fly-fishing experience close to home, Rose River Farm fits the bill very nicely.
Once the weather cleared, I geared up and entered the turbid water, which rushed past my calves at bullet train-speed. Swollen by the storm, river conditions were not looking good. Around a bend in the river I came upon a fisher, far more expert than I’d ever hope to become in three lifetimes. He was working a quiet tailwater. I paused, then offered the reflexive head nod of acknowledgement. Frozen in concentration, he ignored my gesture.
Instead I fished a sloppy spillway while the fisher worked his idyllic stretch. Disgusted by my poor manners, it rose up to his full length and unfurled his blue-gray beard. He looked like Gandalf. It flew downriver, squawking its disapproval like a deranged pterodactyl. I felt bad for pushing him off his spot, but not bad enough not to fish it. The fish gods repaid me for my encroachment by guiding my fly into a low-hanging branch.
After a couple fish-less hours I took a break. I sat on a boulder and watched the billions of water molecules roll past on their way toward the Rappahannock River, and eventually the Chesapeake.
Then I started to trek upstream, walking briskly at first until I lost my balance. I suddenly realized I wasn’t 30 years old and pulled a makeshift wading staff off a pile of bank strainers. After that close call I carefully made my way upstream, picking my path as deliberately as one does a steamed crab.
I found a calm deep pool, perfect except for the tricky birch branch that slung low on the downstream side. I tried to cast left-handed to bend around the impediment; the cast was bullocks of the highest order.
I crossed the river to get a better angle on the pool that looked so promising. Once, twice, 10 times the small, olive wooly bugger swept past the hole. Finally, something I did paid off. Despite not having a strike indicator on my leader, I felt the undeniable tug of something animate and vigorous. With my thumb and forefinger, I pinched the fly line to “set” the hook. Pulses of energy burst up the line, through the guides and radiated up and down my limbs.
It wasn’t the brook trout I was hoping for, but of the life lessons this pandemic has reinforced in me is that sometimes you take what you can get, and like it. At first, I thought it was a creek chub but later realized it was a fallfish. As the largest native minnow species in Virginia, fallfish can reach 20 inches and weigh up to two pounds. Mine was half of those measurements. Don’t let their genealogy fool you into thinking they ain’t worth your time. They are.
Silvery hued with a torpedo-shaped body propelled by a broad tail, they put up a spirited fight, especially on three-weight fly gear and a 5x tippet. It’s no surprise they’ve earned the nickname “Shenandoah tarpon” and “James River bonefish.” In fact, last year the Department of Wildlife Resources added the species to its Virginia Angler Recognition Program.
The next day we drove up a fire road to the trail head of the Rose River, located within the national park. The wind had cranked up, making treetops sway, creak and moan. Off to the right, a steep raven lead to the cascading Rose River, its magic a much-need distraction from the chaos of the past year. I’d purchased an annual trout permit for the national park, and, in my head at least, I was already planning return trips for later this spring and fall.
Once again on the dry pavement of the Old Blue Ridge Parkway, we headed east toward home, a bit melancholy about leaving the Rose behind. Briefly we paralleled the Robinson River, and came to a halt. In the opposite lane were state crews in huge work trucks with tanks laden with hatchery trout. Two game wardens escorted the fisheries crew as if they were carrying a load of gold bars. Rainbow bars more likely.
Then, the whole caravan pulled into the parking lot of an old Methodist church set on the banks of the Robinson at the same time a fly angler was pulling on his waders. Divine intervention or plain dumb luck? I’ll never know.
Through Feb. 28, 2021: CCA-MD’s Pickerel Championship. Details at ccamd.org.
March 8: “Charting the Course for Striped Bass,” hosted by Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Speakers include Allison Colden, Maryland Fisheries Scientist CBF, Mike Waine, Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director American Sportfishing Association, and Dave Sikorski Executive Director Coastal Conservation Association Maryland from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Sign up at cbf.org.
March 10: Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s online public meeting to discuss ASMFC’s Public Information Document on Amendment 7 for striped bass from 68 p.m. Visit mrc.virginia.gov.
March 15: Potomac River Fisheries Commission’s online public meeting to discuss ASMFC’s Public Information Document on Amendment 7 for striped bass from 6-8 p.m. Visit prfc.us.
March 22: Maryland Department of Natural Resources online public meeting to discuss ASMFC’s Public Information Document on Amendment 7 for striped bass from 6-8 p.m.
April 9: Deadline for comments for ASMFC’s Public Information Document on striped bass. Email your to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Striped Bass PID” in the subject line.