August 29, 2014
By Harry Murray
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 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-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.
Access the head of the Hughes River by parking at the Shaver Hollow parking area off Skyline Drive, just north of milepost 38. Follow the Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail 1.4 miles down the mountain to the Nicholson Hollow Trail, a path that parallels the stream down to the bottom of the mountain.
You can reach the lower reaches of the Hughes by taking Route 600 from Nethers. A half-mile past the bus parking for Old Rag Mountain is a small parking lot on the right and the Nicholson Hollow Trail. This leads you up the mountain to the best fishing.
White Oak Canyon Run
White Oak Canyon Run lies just south of the Hughes River and is one of the most popular streams in the Shenandoah National Park because of the 10-inch-plus brook trout that are distributed all the way up into its headwaters.
Numerous waterfalls add a special flavor to an angler's experience on this stream. Additionally, they help ensure good fishing during the summer when trout in lower-gradient streams become wary in depleting water. These steep sections enable you to sneak in below pools without scaring the trout. And since some of the pools are deep in the head, they inspire a confidence in the trout that they don't have in shallow water. Even after the hatches are over, they take any terrestrial insects that the current brings them. I've had great fishing here with #16 and #18 McMurray Black Ants and #14 and #16 Flying Beetles.
To reach the head of this stream, park at Limberlost on the east side of Skyline Drive and hike 0.1 mile down the Old Rag Fire Road to White Oak Canyon Trail. This trail follows the stream all the way to the bottom of the mountain and affords excellent access.
To enter this stream's lower reaches, take Route 643 north from Syria to Route 600. Follow this west to the parking lot beside the stream and follow White Oak Canyon Trail up the stream.
Big Run is the most remote stream in the Shenandoah National Park. I've always felt it holds the largest brook trout, some pushing the twelve-inch mark.
There are excellent hatches of Quill Gordons and March Browns (Stenonema vicarium) here in April and Sulphurs (Ephemerella dorothea) in May. Even though some of the pools are deep, the trout will move to shallow feeding stations to feed on both the duns and the spinners.
When I first started identifying the aquatic hatches on the trout streams in Virginia in the 1960s, my friend Art Flick was a great help and inspiration. It always amazed him that Virginia trout would feed so well on the spinners because, he said, the trout in his favorite New York streams wou Backpacking and spending the night is a great way to fish the remote sections of Big Run. This will often give you long stretches of the stream to yourself because most anglers leave in the early evening for the two- to three-hour hike back to their cars. It is also the only way to take advantage of the fine evening fishing. Otherwise you would be hiking back up the mountain in the dark, which is not wise in rattlesnake country.
The easiest way to reach Big Run is to park at the Doyles River parking area on the east side of Skyline Drive, just south of milepost 81. Take the Big Run Loop Trail from the Big Run Overlook down the mountain 2.2 miles to the Big Run Portal Trail. Since the stream is small here I like to hike down the trail to the vicinity of where Rocky Mountain Run comes in from the north.
North Fork of the Moormans River
The North Fork of the Moormans River is a fine stream draining from the southeastern side of Shenandoah National Park. I've always liked the upper half of this stream best because the gradient, cover, and food supply is better here than in the lower section and there is a great brook trout population.
My favorite time to fish these stretches is late in the fall when the stream is often low and brook trout as big as 12 inches cruise the pools instead of holding on feeding stations. I like the challenge of sight-fishing to these wary, cruising fish.
Ant and beetle patterns work best, especially toward the fall season when the consistency of hatches decreases.
You can reach the lower section of the stream from Route 614. Park at the upper end of the reservoir and hike upstream. The top of the stream is accessible by parking at the Blackrock Gap parking lot just south of milepost 87 on Skyline Drive. Walk across the Drive and hike down the North Fork Moormans River Road until you cross the stream. The best water is the two-mile stretch downstream.
South Fork of Piney River
The South Fork of Piney River lies partly in the George Washington National Forest, northeast of the city of Buena Vista and on the east side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It holds a good population of wild brook trout and a diverse aquatic insect population. Quill Gordons, March Browns, and Sulphurs are the more prolific hatches and the duns are best imitated with a #14 Mr. Rapidan or a #16 Sulphur.
The gradient and volume of this stream varies considerably over its length, and I've often taken advantage of this to improve my fishing on specific days.
I started in the lower section one cold, snowy day in late March. The stream was higher than normal and even with weighted nymphs and extra weight on my leader, I didn't get a strike. Finally, I got out of the stream and drove up to the headwaters. In this smaller volume of water, I had excellent fishing, taking brookies on drys.
There are many nice areas along the stream to camp if you decide to fish for several days, but be sure not to camp or fish on private land.
Shoe Creek, a fine brook-trout stream, is a feeder that comes into the Piney River from the north above Alhambra. There is private land along the lower reaches of Shoe Creek, but upstream there is great water with good access. I've always had my best fishing here in the spring, since both streams get low during the summer.
To reach the South Fork of Piney River, take Route 60 east from Buena Vista for about 20 miles to Route 778. Follow Route 778 north to Lowesville and take another left onto Route 666. Follow this to Jacks Hill, where you take a left on Route 827. This becomes Forest Service Route 63 and parallels the stream. To reach Shoe Creek, take Route 745 off Route 827 at Alhambra and follow it to the national forest land.
North Creek is one of the best streams in the Glenwood Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest. I often think of this as three streams in one and fish it accordingly to take advantage of the best water level.
The lower portion is a good stocked trout stream, but by fishing upstream from the North Creek Campground you can begin picking up a fair number of wild rainbows. In the section just below where Cornelius Creek enters this stream, at the end of Forest Service Route 59, I catch both rainbows and brook trout. Upstream of this feeder, I catch more brookies than rainbows.
Cornelius Creek carries approximately half the water volume of North Creek and I've caught only brook trout there. I've had my best fishing in March, April, and May. During the summer, North Creek often gets so low that the trout become wary but they can still be fooled with a #14 March Brown or a #16 Sulphur.
Apple Orchard Falls, a 200-foot-high waterfall, has attracted national attention. It lies about two miles upstream from the parking lot at the end of Route 59.
North Creek is on the west side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, east of the town of Buchanan. From I-81, take Exit 168 onto Route 614. About a half mile past the village of Arcadia, take Route 59 to the left. Route 59 takes you up the stream, past the campground and on to the end of the road where North and Cornelius creeks join.
Whitetop Laurel lies in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, where the ridges reach over a mile high and provide cool water to this fine stream throughout the season.
Many interesting features attract visitors to this area on the southern edge of Virginia. At 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers is the highest point in Virginia and there is a magnificent spruce-fir forest at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet in the Crest Zone. Over 10,000 acres in three different areas are congressionally designated wilderness areas with nine developed campgrounds and more than 300 miles of fine trails.
Because the streams are this far south, the trout fishing often starts in late February and early March. Dark stoneflies appear on the snow along the stream in February, but at this time you will get the best action with weighted nymphs, such as a Mr. Rapidan Bead-head Nymph or a Hare's-ear Nymph (#10 and #12). There is a good population of wild rainbows here and some surprisingly large browns in the deep pockets.
The conventional hatches of March Browns and Light Cahills (Stenacron interpunctatum) are good in April and May. By summer the terrestrials become an important part of the trout's diet and #14-#16 Murray's Flying Beetles and Black McMurray Ants are effective.
My favorite part of this stream is the Taylor's Valley stretch, which can be reached by taking Route 58 east from the town of Damascus about one-half mile and turning south on Route 91. Follow it for about two miles, then turn north on Route 725, which leads to the gate beside the stream.
Big Wilson Creek
Big Wilson Creek, just east of the village of Mill Creek, close to the southern Virginia boundary, is one of the finest mountain trout streams I've ever fished.
The abundance of wild rainbows and brook trout in the upper reaches of this stream hide in the pools below the numerous car-size boulders that shunt the stream between the steep ridges and slow it to form perfect feeding stations. The dry-fly fishing is excellent from March until November, with deep pools giving the trout excellent protection, even during the low-water periods of summer. Wise management of this area will assure that this fine stream will provide future generations the same great trout fishing we enjoy today.
Hatches of Yellow Sallies (Isoperla bilineata) in May and June are best represented with a #16 Little Yellow Stonefly. During the summer heat, switch to terrestrial patterns such as parachute black ants or Murray's Flying Beetles.
To the west is Grayson Highland State Park, to the north is national forest land, and to the northeast is Little Wilson Creek Wilderness Area. Little Wilson Creek is a small stream that enters Big Wilson Creek from the east in one of Grayson Highland State Park's steepest areas. Because the Little Wilson carries a third of the water compared to Big Wilson, you can find outstanding fishing in it when the Big Wilson is too high to fish early in the year.
My favorite access to Little Wilson is found by taking Route 58 from Damascus to the village of Mill Creek. About a half mile east of Mill Creek, take Route 817 northwest. I like to drive to the end of this road and fish upstream from this point.
Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains offer a broad variety of trout fishing that can provide serious fly fishers with excellent fishing. The gratification you find by exploring these beautiful headwater streams is truly exhilarating.
Maps of Blue Ridge streams are available from the Shenandoah Natural History Association, Shenandoah National Park, 3655 US Hwy. 211 E., Luray, Virginia, 22835, or you can contact Murray's Fly Shop, P.O. Box 156, Edinburg, Virginia, 22824.
Harry Murray is the author of Trout Fishing in the Shenandoah National Park and Virginia Blue Ribbon Trout Streams and the owner of Murray's Fly Shop in Edinburgh, Virginia.