The completion of the Skyline Drive in 1934 granted visitors access to the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and provided anglers a “golden gate” to the headwaters of Virginia’s finest brook-trout streams. Since then the creation of federal and state forests and parks has formed the largest highland primitive area in the eastern United States, with more than 1.2 million acres of forest lands and 1,000 miles of stream protected from development. These public lands are open year-round, with exciting fishing for primarily wild brook trout from spring through fall.
The Shenandoah Valley is one of those few places remaining where you can wander up a mountain stream and in quiet, tranquil surroundings cast your dry or nymph on a 2- or 3-weight line to native-strain brookies. Ninety percent of the trout in these streams are wild. In spring before the backpackers take to the hills, or in fall when schools are back in session, you can have these highland streams to yourself.
The same holds true for the southwest corner of Virginia. The Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and the Grayson Highland State Park are home to some of the most challenging freestone fishing in Virginia. Like their northern counterparts, these areas contain healthy populations of wild trout, easy roadside access, and developed trails and campsites. There are nine campgrounds and over 300 miles of trails in the Mount Rogers area alone.
But roadside access will only get you so far. Having to make the trek back to your car at the end of the day can take hours away from your fishing. Hiking and camping in Virginia’s forests will allow you to reach stretches of water that are not as heavily fished, and because you don’t have to hike out, you can make the most of your fishing time.
Though the effects of summer can take their toll on the low-altitude water of Virginia’s eastern plains, a resourceful angler can find fish year-round in the high country of the Appalachians, where the water stays cold enough to support trout all year.
Good Blue Ridge trout fishing often begins in March after the water sustains a temperature above 40 degrees F. for several days. The most abundant hatches in Virginia occur during the months of April and May, and the probability of catching several brook trout over 10 inches is high. As summer sets in and the water levels subside, anglers have to adapt to easily spooked trout that are finicky feeders. Cooler water temperatures accompany the arrival of fall, and the trout are once again aggressive as they prepare for spawning and the coming winter.
Fishing is best with 61/2- to 71/2-foot rods matched with 2- to 3-weight lines and 9-foot leaders tapered to 4X or 6X tippet. Because a good number of Blue Ridge rivers are canopied by bushes and trees, casting with shorter, lighter rods makes it easier to present small flies with delicate, accurate casts.
To explore the type of fishing that suits you best in this area, I’ve selected the finest streams in the Blue Ridge Mountains and explained what you can expect to find in them. The following waters were selected based on the quality of trout fishing they afford, their assured legal access, and their ability to handle fishing pressure. I will start in the northern part of the state and profile the waters you will encounter while driving south.
The Hughes River is one of the finest brook-trout rivers in the Shenandoah National Park, with good fishing from late March through November. During a dry summer, the Hughes holds up better than other streams in the area, though the water levels may get extremely low.
I especially appreciate the way Hughes River brook trout feed on the surface early in the season and are so willing to take dry flies. The Quill Gordon (Epeorus pleuralis) hatch is often in full swing by early April and I can catch many large brookies on a #14 Mr. Rapidan dry fly. In fact, this was one of the streams I had in mind when I designed this fly more than 20 years ago after some of my students requested a pattern that would float well, be highly visible, and match several of our best early hatches. A #14 March Brown and a #16 Murray’s Flying Beetle are also valuable patterns that will match early season hatches.
Three streams make up the Hughes River drainage, and you can always find fishable water levels by going above these feeders if the stream is high and below them if it is low.
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