THE PINEY RIVER FISHING TRIP
My daughter was invited to a college visit with her parents on a Sunday, to tour the school and see if it met her needs. I knew of several places to fish in the area since it was not too far from home so I suggested to my wife and daughter maybe we should take two cars and I could leave early and fish for an hour or so before our 12 noon arrival. They both agreed and I was off with a hall pass to meet up with some Virginia Brook trout.
It had been quite a few years since I last visited the Piney River. As I drove in to the small community my memory was jogged with different reference points: Buildings and small and significant landmarks. But all the while when the river is first spotted and you start to drive next to it, you begin to scan the trees for Virginia game and wildlife stocking water signs.
It seemed the last several visits, I was able to fish at the small cross-roads community there by the bridge, but I did not spot a stocking sign until at the entrance of the George Washington National Forest. Either way, to be allowed to fish or not, the posted signs did not bother me too much because I was just excited to see the clear clean water of a mountain river not the muddy brown of the lower James back home in Richmond. The flowing bubbly white water of a mountain river works your imagination up that this may be the day you make the perfect cast to catch that perfect trout.
Oh yea, I'm into to casting. I am a fly castaholic. Maybe more than I am willing to admit to other fly fisher people. Just the same, I get off seeing how hard a cast I can make to place the fly in such a tight one inch area, followed by a perfect drift. This is really why I'm here. My brother and I used to say it's not about the fish; it's about the entire Revolution (???). I can't wait to get lined up and get out of the gate to start picking apart the river.
It seems as if more property is posted these days. My mind volleys back into the reasons why all of the water I pass before I enter the George Washington National Forest is posted. I am disappointed that I can't stop and work some water. I pass by a spin fisherman just below the Piney River Baptist Church which is a half of a mile below the entrance to the National Forest, but I am afraid to slow down and speak with him about where it's legal to fish and where it's trespassing. So I slow down, take a gawk and keep on cruising to the entrance. REFRESHING, the water looks clean and clear. I am very happy to be here on a foggy cool morning, a week before Easter.
The Virginia mountain landscape at this time is mostly the colors of brown and gray with some greenery starting to spring out splashed on the non-evergreens in the forest. Mix in some evergreen cedar and rhododendron. Amongst my favorite, wild dogwoods spot the area with white light that look like popcorn growing on small twig trees. Wow, "it's really pretty" I thought. No wonder it's our state flower. They actually light up the forest on this misty dim lit morning.
As I pass through the entrance to the National Forest, I spot a few campers but see no other signs of people. Just the way I like it. No hustle and bustle or sounds of outboards or humming of passing cars like it has been in Richmond fishing the James annual shad run. There's just peace, quiet and dim lights with the cool air and the rushing of water through the stream.
I think it actually starts as a stream here in the forest and then widens and becomes a river. I really haven't checked to define it, but it's gorgeous and I'm glad I'm here. I get out of the car, open the trunk and begin to line my rod to start the quest of casting. While doing this, in my periphery I see a rise - a big rise. My adrenaline starts to rush and I can't choose a dry fly soon enough. Not much of a hatch but I do see specks of ash-looking flecks in the air - few and far between - some bugs are around. I try to intentionally slow down and look upon the water as a map; trying to read every inch in my future casting path. Trying to set up a plan, a game plan of action of where my first cast will be able to land, not to spook any fish, so more casts can be repeated. I saw no more rises like the one when I first arrived. Was it just a dream, a hope for an admitted dry fly snob? I thought it but did not want to believe it, so I tied on a small size 20 elk hair go-to caddis for my first assault.
After several very long strips of line, I was ready. I felt that, since the fish had risen so close, I might begin there so as not to spook right from the get go. Being a fly casting instructor, here I was, as if I were teaching myself. I like seeing the back cast loop unroll. I tell my students to watch their back cast when practicing and learning to cast. Sure, some casting experts feel that you shouldn't have to peek at your back cast, but I am no proponent of that.
I say the more weapons, the better, while in pursuit of the fish. I begin my false cast to get the proper amount of line out to hit my hopeful rise target. I make several passes over the spot - no takes. So I did humble my inner dry-fly self, but to no bounty. ??? I begin to scan the boulder-surrounded pool trying to spy my entry in to it, much like a middle ages fort that protects the Knighted state fish of Virginia. I refer, of course, to the Brook Trout, and to separate them from their environs, I must find the precise entry points to present them with a small imitation tasty meal.
After several casts working the entire pool and every spot I thought a trout may lay - twenty six to be exact - not the first sniff or refusal, not a fish in sight. I began to realize that, like most of my non- hatch outings, I can keep making trophy casts to no avail or switch to the dreaded nymph and drag the bottom for pay dirt. Since it's the most productive way to catch trout, but the least seductive way to fish, I was humbled and brought my line in to tie on a size 18 bead head nymph.
After I moved around the rampart of stones and boulders of the brookies' fortress, I tied the nymph on with dismay and started to look even deeper in the feeding lane which fed this large pool. I saw the flash of a fish on the feed. Moving down deep, a foot or two below the surface, staked within his small quadrant, eating breakfast. I thought to myself, "he has a guest and that fish is mine". The one-on-one battle began.
After looking closely at my prey and summing up my tight casting options, I decided that the only way to present the fast sinking nymph to this goring brookie would have to be on my back cast.
The cover from the trees, limbs and boulder allowed me to make a forward cast up stream and a presentation on my back cast right beyond where the water riffled into the pool. My bead head would have enough time to sink and the forward cast would allow me enough line to cover the distance to make the presentation.
This cast needed to be longer than a dabbing. It was much like a hard wind cast in salt water where it always blows. Sometimes the only shot at a productive cast you will have is your forward cast into the wind followed by a big wide wind-loving back cast presentation.
I started by false casting and stopped my back cast presentation high and it started at the end of the riffle and sank deep to the fish table but no take. I always think of Joe Humphries saying about nymphing –" if you're not losing flies, you're not nymph fishing." It drifted right through the feeding lane with no strike and I picked up and repeated the cast a couple of more times until -- pay day-- the bookie was mine. The line stopped, I lifted the rod tip quickly enough and the fish was hooked. I managed to keep the line tight with excitement and pulling my line with the rod tip straight up in the air; he flashed and fought like a pacific sailfish.
Once I retrieved him, I wetted my hands to lightly take the barbless hook out. No picture, no glory for me, just satisfaction of fooling nature. I plopped him back in his cool comfort zone of water to eat, live another day and fight another fight.
It was all in the correct order of fishing things. The time on the water, as Jack Hemingway once spoke of in his book, A Life Worth Living - Fly Fishing as the New Quiet Revolution (fact check), everything fit into place; from the awareness of Mother Nature, reading the water, trying to calm one's self from the anticipated excitement, the choice of one or two flies that you have confidence in, and the proper presentation with you faults and capabilities in mind and how to pull it all together. The strike, the landing, and the release of the speckled knight back into the safety of its fort.
Oh yes, and the inner confident gratitude in my psyche, that he was to be mine that day, made for a great few hours to spend on the Piney River. I sure hope my daughter decides on this college because it will help me cure the empty nest syndrome and fulfill my outdoor casting addiction.
Andrew Stiles is a Certified Casting Instructor with the Federation of Fly Fishers, and has been fly fishing around the world for over 40 years.
Andrew teaches the finer points of fly casting and fly fishing to various community and charitable organizations, plus teaches classes on the subject at John Tyler Community College and Randolph-Macon College. In 2011, Andrew also instructed at the Euroclave Federation of Fly Fishing / Danish Fly Fishing Festival in Kolding, Denmark