July 7 - 12 2007- Dunbar Creek, PA., Shenandoah National Park, Va.
1:00pm - 3:30pm
Trips such as this make me realize how much I miss the East Coast, especially unpretentious places such as Southwest PA and Northwest Va.. The places are beautiful and the people are genuinely pleasant, obey the traffic laws and will go out of their way to help you if possible. Case in point, I found myself in a hospital in the middle of my journey and the hospital admitting nurse went out of her way to help me get the required care without going through the Emergency Room and incurring the $250 fee for simply walking through the door.
She went so far as to call local clinics and offered to call the various hospitals I would pass as I traveled across the state. Here at home I would have received a curt “ I can’t help you” and “No I don’t know where else you might get your tetanus shot.”
The people made this trip. Not the fish. My Grandmother spoiled me by cooking my favorite down home dish not once, but twice during my two day visit. I no doubt packed on some extra backpacking weight but it was worth it. Nothing beats Grandma’s cooking, east coast burgers (the stuff we get out here is crap) and Friendly’s Fribbles.
My first day in PA., I spent some time at the local hunting and fishing store. It was new since my last visit and sported a fully Orvis equipped fly fishing section. This store was definitely unique for this area and it was nice to have some fellow fly fishers to talk to about the local waters. I queried them about local conditions and they me regarding Golden Trout and California fishing. We had a great time and they confirmed that my choice of Meadow Run as a stream to fish this trip was a good one.
The next day, license in hand, I made my way to Dunbar Creek. Fishing wise, Dunbar Creek wasn’t crowded. There was one fellow dutifully hammering the weir pool which seems almost mandatory among the locals. I started at the weir pool downstream from him and made my way upstream. Usually I start my fishing well below the weir pools but today I planned to fish two streams and had little time to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever been skunked on Dunbar but on this trip the fish didn’t come to hand as I expected.
The stream was at a good level and the water temps were at a decent 59 degrees but I only managed to catch one trout. I made my way upstream between the weir pools and “shiner” after “shiner” hit my dry fly. I figured where the dace minnows (“shiners”) where, the trout where not but I never managed to figure out which water would get me consistently into trout. I didn’t see or scare a single trout as I made my way up stream. The larger pools which surely had trout were filled with crayfish hunters and folks trying to cool off.
Satisfied that I’d given Dunbar Creek my best shot I headed up the mountain to Meadow Run. Meadow Run is a nice creek not too unlike Dunbar in topography, only without the weir pools. The area was quite crowded with tourists hiking and rafting the Youghiogany River but my section of Meadow Run was empty.
I had high expectations for Meadow Run and quickly made my way downstream to an area I knew. The river was lower than I had seen it previously but I continued downstream hoping to find some fishable water. While I rigged up my rod, I soaked my thermometer in the stream. When I pulled it up it read 70 degrees. Ouch. No trout here. The guys at the shop were so sure Meadow Run would be good and it dawned on me that perhaps I didn’t know where to fish. Sure we talked about where to fish but that presumed good flows and cool temps. I didn’t have a topo or any other kind of map and didn’t know where the gradient steepened or where to find cold water springs. Both of which would put me on better holding water. I made a mental note to pick up a topo map and carry it on my next visit.
With fishing a bust and time to kill, I headed to Fort Necessity. Fort Necessity is a pre-revolutionary war fort. The battle at which was the first skirmish of the French and Indian War and was the first significant military battle of a then recently promoted Colonel George Washington. It was the only time he surrendered to an enemy during war. It’s located on the National Road aka the National Pike, the first interstate road commissioned by the US Government which runs from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois; as such, it was my route back to my grandmothers as well as my route to Shenandoah Park the next day.
Monday I got a late start and didn’t arrive at Shenandoah National Park until after 6pm or as I like to say “the Deer Hour”. The drive from Pa was pleasant. I took the National Road from PA to Maryland. For most of its way through PA, the National Road is more of an open country road than a freeway. In Maryland you hit a proper freeway and speed picks up. From Maryland I made my way south, briefly driving through West Virginia and finally ending up on Route 522 in Virginia. I didn’t know it then but for most of my trip I’d find myself bouncing around route 522, leaving it for a new and improved road one day, only to find myself back on 522 in some rural setting the next. My grandmother tells stories of seeing chain gangs along side the road when making this trip in her younger days.
That night I drove the first 35 or so miles of the park’s famous Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive runs north to south through the park for 105 miles. It alternates between skirting the western rim and providing views of the Shenandoah Valley and following the eastern rim with views of the Virginia Piedmont. It truly was the deer hour. With the exception of a herd of deer in a Yosemite parking lot, I ran across more deer on this drive than any other place that I’ve visited.
I stayed in Luray, Va.. A pleasant little town centrally located to the northern and central streams of the park. From Luray I was told that I could reach any of the parks streams within an hour and a half. This proved to be true and I reached the Rapidan, the furthest river I’d chosen to fish, in just over an hour. This was actually more time than I would need but I drove under the 55mph speed limit and simply enjoyed the dense green forest, open fields and farms along the way.
I fished the Rapidan River on my first full day in Va. with Larry Puckett, the VA. Trout Unlimited President and a fellow cane rod maker. Larry volunteered to be my guide on the Rapidan and I took him up on his offer. The Rapidan wasn’t a river that I had originally planned to fish but everyone I spoke with about this area insisted that I had to fish the Rapidan for it’s historical significance if nothing else. The Rapidan is famous for Camp Hoover, a fishing camp were President Hoover entertained guests. Who better to fish such a place than with the TU President.
Larry picked me up in the tiny town of Syria (pronounced sir- ria). We drove through town and up a dirt road to the river. We seemed to zig zag in and out of the national park until we came to a resting point just at the park boundary. We parked and hiked down a fire road for a bit, crossing the stream once, before bushwhacking a few feet to the stream.
The Rapidan here was on the small side of a medium. Although Larry declared the water level low, the guys in Los Angles would love to have similar water levels at this time of year. Larry dropped in his thermometer and it read 70 degrees. Great… I figured we pack it up and head back to were we had first crossed the stream but Larry thought that the deeper pools would be cooler and hold some fish. This wouldn’t be the case and we’d catch nothing but Dace Minnows or “shiners” all morning. At one point a largish fish flashed on my dry beetle imitation, we both figured it was a trout but no, it was a 4 or 5 inch minnow.
We fished up to our initial crossing point and were fishless. The water temps here were 66 degrees but no trout. Just like at Dunbar Creek, if there were minnows, there were no trout.
We left the stream here and hiked back to the car. Larry took us further upstream. Here the stream was smaller and the water level was higher, higher than Larry had expected. I don’t recall what the water temps were but they were good and Larry started catching fish almost immediately. It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch a fish. I’d get plenty of strikes but probably missed the first 15 or so. All season I’ve been focusing on slowing my strike down for fishing on Butterball and other creeks and now I needed a lightning quick strike. In one of the first pools I had strikes in 5 different holding areas and missed each and everyone. The small fish were lightning fast. Fortunately, the larger fish were a fraction slower. Where the smaller fish seemed to slash at the flies, the larger fish rolled on them. The takes from the larger fish were more deliberate.
Larry hunted the big fish in the big fish pools and caught good sized fish. I was more curious in where and what size fish hung out in which types of lies and hit all the small pockets and all the out of the way places most folks pass up. I was trying hard to get a good bead on where the Brookies would be hanging out and had to remind myself that I wasn’t fishing for Rainbows or Goldens. The bigger fish that Larry was catching seemed to like a cast to the top of the pool and would intercept the fly mid pool. They didn’t hang out in less shallow pockets like the large Butterball Browns nor the cushion at the tail like Greenstone’s big 'Bows. But as always, I had fun catching medium sized fish in those less obvious places.
As the day wore on I became more and more timid with my casting and this meant two things- flubbed casts and more casts to make up for it. Early on I had lost 2 of my 3 beetle flies and with 1 fly left I tried really, really hard not to loose it. This started to become counter productive and the last half hour of the day my fish strikes dropped way down. Not that it mattered; we’d caught plenty of fish……even if my catch rate was something like 20%.
At one point it started to rain and thunder. I became a bit concerned but Larry assured me that the thunder storms here were not “killers” like they are in the high sierra. We didn’t see any lightning and a quick scan of the bank didn’t reveal any lighting charred trees so I ignored it and the storm quickly passed. At mid afternoon we bushwhacked our way back to the cars.
The following day I fished White Oak Canyon run and visited the Harry Murray Fly Shop. White Oak Canyon run was rumored to be a very beautiful stream and known for a series of waterfalls and cascades, one of which drops 86 feet.
The lower portion of White Oak Canyon run is close to the Rapidan and the day before I made a quick scouting trip to its lower reaches. The stream was low but a hiker I met said he felt that upstream near the waterfalls the water level was fine. I hoped that like on the Rapidan, the upper portion of stream would be fuller than the lower. I also visited Cedar Run, which was the 3rd stream on my list bit was pitiful sight.
From the top of While Oak Canyon Run Larry suggested that I hike down the trail about 20 min to just above the first waterfall. This is what I did. I hiked down stream until I found the stream conditions improving and then hiked until I started to see side trails to the stream.
White Oak Canyon Run was much smaller than the Rapidan and presumably the fish were slower than their Rapidan cousins because my watch rate on White Oak Canyon Run was way up. Both my first and second casts were intercepted by fish. At this point I should note that on my last cast the previous day I had lost my last beetle imitation. I didn’t have very many beetles and hadn’t purchased any because I thought I’d simply pick some more up at a local fly shop. Well, there were no local fly shops and the only shop in the area was Harry Murray’s shop, well outside of Luray.
Fortunately, Larry gave me me about a half dozen of his personally tied beetles and I’ll be forever grateful. With 6 beetles I worried little about loosing the fly and started putting it where it was needed. The fish rewarded my efforts. At one point, I spooked an 8 or 10 inch Brook Trout from under a rock as I waded through a small pool. It was possibly bigger because fish always look smaller to me when seen in the water from above. I can remember on the Madison River fishing over what looked like 12 inch fish only to find out they were much, much bigger.
White Oak Canyon Run reminded me a bit of that new fork of Butterball Creek I fished earlier in the year. The stream was cold, 59 degrees, moss covered many of the rocks and fallen logs littered the stream. If the stream could produce 10 inch brook trout, I imagine it could produce whopper Butterballs.
On the Rapidan I felt that I got a pretty good feel for were the Brookies liked to hold and on White Oak Canyon Run I fell into my standard stick and run pattern. 3 to 6 good drifts or a fish and I move on. The fish I caught were between 5 and 7 inches. I caught a single fish in each pocket and then moved on to the next. In a few places there were very large pools that formed at the base of several very large and wide rocks. In these pools I fished slower and hit all points of the pool. I’d catch a fish at the tail and then cast to the mid pool. Miss two strikes at the mid pool and I’d throw a cast to the slow water on the left. Catch a fish there and cast to the right of the plunge at the head of the pool. Miss a fish and the next cast was made to the fallen log on the right of the pool. By varying my casts to different and opposite sections of these larger pools, I was able to pick up several fish throughout.
After hiking out of White Oak Canyon I drove an additional 20 miles down Skyline Drive to mile marker 65 and the Swift Run Gap park entrance. There are 4 ways into the park. You can enter at either end of Skyline drive or at either Thornton Gap or Swift Run Gap at mile markers 32 and 65. Luray was a short distance from Thornton Gap and so this was the entrance I used each day. I wanted to see some more of the park but had no plans to drive the entire 105 miles so instead of driving up to Thornton Gap on my way to Harry Murray’s fly shop, I drive to Skyline Gap. I’m glad I did. This took me past Big Meadow, a very large and beautiful place with the highest concentration of rare plants in the park. Plant's aren't my thing but I sure can appreciate the beauty of such a place.
The drive was again pleasant. I ran across a small black bear feeding, presumably, on blackberries beside the road. Once out of the park however, the drive to the fly shop couldn’t end quickly enough.
I think Harry Murray has written every magazine article that I’ve ever read on fishing the park. In fact there was a very tempting article on Big Run in a recent Eastern Fly Fishing. Big Run is in a remote section of the park and would probably qualify as BDTS (Black Diamond Trout Society) fishing. Now that I’ve got the lay of the land and my bearings, it will definitely be on the menu for the next trip.
The fly shop is in the quant town of Edinburg in the north central part of the Shenandoah Valley. Murray is quite the self promoter and upon entering the shop the visitor immediately encounters a large display of Harry Murray books, VHS tapes and DVDs. I picked up a VHS tape on small stream fishing and upon watching the video discovered that in addition to Murray’s Mr. Rapidan Dry Fly there exists a whole family of Mr. Rapidan patterns, the common denominator of which appears to be their effectiveness in local streams more so than actual appearance or tying style. In watching the video I also learned of the McMurray Ant, Murray Fly Floatant and Murray Fly Drying Patch.
It seems a bit much but if that’s what it takes to maintain the only fly shop within driving distance of the waters I chose to fish, more power to him.
I took the scenic route back to Luray, through the George Washington National Forest. In 2 days I'd got a pretty good lay of the land surrounding the park and will be extremely comfortable here on my next visit..
My third and last day I wasn’t quite sure were I was going to fish. I contemplated going back to White Oak Canyon Run because it seemed like a sure thing as far as conditions go but rejected that idea for the same reason. I wanted to stick to my guns and fish the 4 streams that I had laid out in planning:
I’d fished the first two. I’d checked out the Cedar Run on my way back from the Rapidan. It looked pitifully dry. The gradient steepened upstream and the stream is supposed to contain very deep pools but in such dry conditions it would akin to fishing the weir pools on Dunbar Creek or shooting fish in a barrel. It just didn’t seem right- that left Brokenback run.
The Murray book describes Brokenback Run as a “ rich stream” which produces trout which “show rapid growth” and “produces excellent dry fly action through much of the season.” Sounds like an excellent place for mid summer fishing but with the current drought conditions the stream was too low. I hiked up Brokenback Run hoping to find some fishable water but it was not to be. I’m intrigued because the stream wasn’t very large and didn’t seem particularly more “rich” than the others. I’d like to come back earlier in the season or during a normal water year.
My fall back stream was the Hughes River. I hadn’t planned to fish the Hughes but Brokenback Run was a feeder to the Hughes so it seemed a natural fall back. Larry gave me the low down but warned if I didn’t get there early the bite would be off. After my hike up Brokenback Run, I didn’t have much time to fish the Hughes; I didn’t make it as early as Larry warned and I didn’t make it as far upstream as Larry suggested so I probably didn’t experience the Hughes at it’ best.
The Hughes didn't impress. The water
temps were fine and the water levels good. Conditions seemed fine but no
fish- spooked or otherwise.
A week later I’m still black and blue. I’ve got 3 or 4 tear marks on my wrist that look like I lost a fight with squirrel. Some scrapes on my right shin which have already healed and huge knot on my left shin which is starting to regain its proper color but is still swollen. It's strange because I rarely bruise.
This is where the Emergency room visit comes in. I hadn’t had a tetanus shot in close to 10 years and I figured the squirrel marks were deep enough to warrant getting one. The hospital staff bent over backwards trying to figure out a way for me to get a shot without having to register in the ER. Our local Ca. Kaiser has a shot clinic, you simply go in and get what you need. No such luck here. I settled on an ER visit but was pretty much at the bottom of the triage list and after an hour I decided I had to get back on the road and finish my drive to Williamsburg. It had been a week since I’d seen Vita and I was eager to get to the hotel but not before stopping for a childhood favorite of mine- the Friendly’s vanilla Fribble (a milkshake made with soft ice cream). The perfect way to end a long day and a long trip.