Fly fishers are enamored with minutiae. We care about the tiny mayflies hiding under rocks, their nuanced colors, and whether their wings are opaque or transparent like cellophane. And we don’t need a giant expanse of water with huge fish to quench our thirst for adventure. A small headwater stream in a remote, wilderness setting offers its own challenges and surprises, like a black bear roaming the riverbank, or a brightly colored native brook trout sipping Quill Gordons in a bouldery mountain pool.
Aficionados of small-stream fishing know that the waters running down from the mountains of Shenandoah National Park may be the finest collection of headwater streams in the mid-Atlantic region.
President Herbert Hoover discovered this when in 1929 he established the presidential retreat known as Rapidan Camp, where the Mill Prong and the Laurel Prong streams join to form the Rapidan River.
Just 75 miles from Washington, D.C., Rapidan Camp was the perfect place for a fishing president to spend his summers, and today—
inside of Shenandoah National Park—it’s a well-preserved wilderness area that sees relatively little angling traffic.
While Skyline Drive is a tourist attraction that can be bumper-to-bumper on some weekends, some of the park’s backcountry brook trout don’t see a hook all season.
More than 25 years ago David Haskell, who was the chief fisheries biologist in the park at the time, came to me and asked me to write a book on the trout fishing there because, he said, “Most anglers are fishing only two or three streams, and they are missing out on some wonderful trout fishing.” Despite my ensuing books, many of these streams are still seldom fished.
If you’ve ever found yourself complaining about crowded conditions on stocked trout streams in the lowlands, consider a short hike into one of America’s most treasured landscapes.
Early spring may be the best time to fish the park because of the excellent early season hatches, and the small size of the water. All you need is for the water temperatures to hold at highs of 40 degrees F. for a few days in a row, and in normal water conditions, the brook trout will start feeding on hatching mayflies.
While large watersheds take some time to warm in the spring, these small streams react quickly to a change to warmer weather.
If the streams are high at low elevations, you can still find clear water and good fishing by parking on Skyline Drive and hiking down the trails to fish the upper sections of the streams. Or you can start at the lower park boundary and hike several miles upstream to get above the high water.
The great joy of this season is that while fly fishers elsewhere are probing the depths of larger, turbid waters with nymphs and strike indicators, spring in SNP is all about dry-fly fishing.
The Epeorus pleuralis mayfly is the first heavy hatch in these mountains and the trout feed heavily on them from mid-March until mid-April. Eastern fly fishers know these mayflies as Quill Gordons, and they are one of the primary reasons I developed the Mr. Rapidan dry fly. Both the Mr. Rapidan and the Catskill-style Quill Gordon dry fly in size 14 are effective during this time.
Paraleptophlebia adoptiva is our next major hatch, starting in late March until late April. This delicate little mayfly is very heavy on many park streams, and during the beginning of the hatch, the cold water and cool air can slow down the escape of the duns from the nymph shucks, and it can take some time for the mayfly duns to dry their wings sufficiently to fly away. When this occurs, I’ve seen dozens of them floating around and around in the back eddies with large brook trout sipping them in. Use a size 16 Blue Quill.
Stenonema vicarium (March Brown) is the largest mayfly in the park, and it shows itself a little later (mid-April into early May) in warmer water conditions, so the trout often respond to it aggressively. Use a size 14 March Brown or Mr. Rapidan.
The Stenonema fuscum (Grey Fox) and Stenonema canadense (Light Cahill) follow the March Browns, and last through May, but these hatches are not nearly as heavy as the March Brown hatch.
The next “big thing” is the Ephemerella dorothea (Sulphur) hatch, which begins in mid-May, and lasts through June. I remember one evening when my son and I camped in the upper reaches of a Shenandoah stream. There was a long narrow pool just above our tent, and we counted 11 brook trout feeding on Sulphur spinners in that pool alone. Use your favorite size 16 Sulphur imitation, and you’ll likely find outstanding fishing.
One specific stonefly hatch, Isoperla bilineata, holds its own with our best mayfly hatches, and it surpasses all of them in longevity. These delicate little yellow beauties begin hatching in April and can last until July. [See “Little Yellow Stoneflies” by Henry Ramsay in the Aug-Sep 2012 issue for details on this stonefly species, and tying instructions for the Little Yellow Stonefly. The Editor.]
In June the hatches wane and terrestrials surpass aquatic insects in importance. During the summer the streams become low and the fishing is challenging. The hatches, cold water, and eager trout you find in the early season make March through May the best season to explore the small streams of SNP.
Most park anglers like 3-weight fly rods that are 61/2 feet to 71/2 feet long. Because of the presence of rattlesnakes and copperheads in these mountains I always carry a Sawyer Extractor Snake Bite Kit.
A large part of my fascination with these streams is the individual personalities they develop as you come to know them. It would be meaningless, and a disservice, for me to attempt to reveal all of their character and challenges. While we might tread the same streamside path, or cast from the same rock, you may not see what I see, yet you may see much more than I.
Fly fishing in Shenandoah National Park is more than catching beautiful wild trout, more than inhaling its striking beauty, more than sinking into its peaceful solitude—it is a
filling of a previously undetected void, with an emotion of complete satisfaction that only God can give.
Harry Murray opened his fly shop in 1962 (murraysflyshop.com). He has written more than six books on everything from fly tying to trout tactics, and has designed more than 50 of his own fly patterns.
Fly Fishing Shenandoah National Park