Outdoor Adventures: Fly-Rodding the Shenandoah River

| June 30, 2013 | 0 Comments | Columns

Man fly-fishes along a river in a scenic environment, much like that of the Shenandoah.

Imagine you aren’t stuck in Stop-and-Go this morning. You don’t need to drop anyone at the Kiss-and-Ride. No one is hitting his brother. Again. There is no cubicle here either. You’re dressed down so far you couldn’t pass for business casual at a bowling alley. Perhaps you eat breakfast on the run again, but today it’s only because you can’t wait to get where you’re going. And so it goes when you embark on a day of fly-rodding the Shenandoah.

It’s true- you don’t have to fly to Montana for excellent fly-fishing. There are miles and miles of prime fly-rod water on the Shenandoah, owing to its abundance of shallow water, numerous and eager smallmouth bass and six full months of prime fishing each year.

On the North Fork and South Fork Shenandoah, the limestone ledges that create excellent fish habitats also help to preserve the beauty and tranquility by effectively eliminating the presence of powerboats. You can fish the Shenandoah from a canoe, but this is a lovely river for boys and girls who aren’t afraid to get their feet wet and work the best spots. It’s actually hard to believe there is a place this wild and beautiful so close to the gridlock and population density of outer suburbia. I had the glory of this river in mind as I set out last weekend in the fish-mobile to Edinburg, Va., home of the first family of Virginia fly-fishing, to gain a little river wisdom.

The drive from Bristow is a just over an hour to Edinburg, Va., where Jeff Murray operates Murray’s Fly Shop (www.murraysflyshop.com) with his father, Harry. Jeff is an accomplished fly-fisherman and teacher, as well he should be; he learned from his father who has been thoughtfully and creatively plying the waters of the Shenandoah since before most of the fishermen and fisherwomen I know were born. In fact, since 1962, the elder Murray, a national celebrity in fly-fishing circles, has run his fly shop in Edinburg where he developed many of the deadly-effective techniques discussed in his now-classic book Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass.

While the class I attended on this particular weekend is perfect for the absolute novice, Jeff was also able to adapt his teaching for me and a couple other class members who knew the basics and were ready to take our skills to a new level. Jeff is without peer in his knowledge of fishing the specific conditions of the Shenandoah, but if it is your intention to fish western rivers for trout one day, the basics you learn in these classes will give you the foundation you need to do so. Also, Jeff once bragged to me that he had the most expensive fishing reel in the area around lake, which I secretly attributed to his dexterity at fishing. Murray’s Fly Shop runs a variety of two-day schools and shorter sessions for smallmouth bass fishing and mountain trout fishing throughout the year, any of which will take the fear out of fly-rodding.

So after a morning slideshow on the basics of assembling and using the tackle, locating smallmouth bass in the river, and selecting flies that match the natural foods available at various times, we all piled in our vehicles and headed to a private farm that afforded our class easy access to a lightly-fished section of the North Fork Shenandoah.

Nevertheless, I should emphasize that one of the wonderful things about fly-rodding the Shenandoah on your own is the abundant public access to water, especially on the South Fork. Once you have the basic fly-rodding skills, there is more public water readily available than you could fish in years. While the water itself is public, I didn’t see even a single kayak make its way down the North Fork all weekend on “our” section adjacent to the farm. Since I already knew the basics of fly-fishing, Jeff sent me down to a nice section of the stream while he worked with the total neophytes on casting.

He and another guide from the shop rotated between students on the river, patiently answering questions and gently correcting sloppy habits. On the first day of the school, the water was still cool enough that underwater flies were still producing best, so I spent some time using some of the sunken-fly tactics that I had read about in Harry Murray’s Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass. It was a real kick and a benefit to have Jeff stand in the river with me to give feedback on my execution of the methods his father had pioneered in these waters.

As the afternoon sun warmed the stream, some of the other students chose to try floating-fly methods under the watchful and patient eyes of our teachers. Seeing a smallmouth bass throw its bronze body out of the water to smash your fly on the surface and then bolt to make strong runs and additional leaps while your reel is screaming is about as good as it gets, but I forced myself to stick with the underwater methods I had specifically come to learn on this trip. Murray’s sub-surface methods are also well-worth knowing because they allow a dedicated angler to take fish under a wider range of conditions than the surface poppers that are so fun to fly-cast along the shaded banks where smallmouth bass are most vulnerable to them.

What one soon learns about fly-rodding the Shenandoah is that the wide variety of possible methods makes the sport accessible to the beginner, yet intriguing for the experienced angler too. By the end of the weekend, I had caught (and gently released for the sake of tomorrow’s fishing) a respectable number of fish, but more importantly, I had learned some valuable new techniques and gotten some pointers on improving the ones I already knew. Some of my classmates hadn’t held a fly-rod before, but all of them were started in the business of fly-rodding the Shenandoah-or any of the other smallmouth streams in the Mid-Atlantic.

So is fly-rodding the Shenandoah, or any other river, for you? It’s worth mentioning that almost nothing you’ve heard about fly-fishing is true. For instance, it’s not just for men. Roughly a quarter of fly-fishers are actually women, and I promise that all women become twice as beautiful after they learn how. (My wife is afraid this statement is sexist, but don’t we all find people who share our interests more attractive?)

Maybe you’re worried it’s an elitist thing? It probably was 100 years ago, but now even people like me do it, so clearly it has become very democratic. Expensive? If you decide you like it and you buy the gear you need (Murray’s has loaners for students), the ongoing costs for outings are very low-can you say that about golf?  Perhaps you fear it will be hard to learn?

The newbies on our outing all caught fish the first day, and while there were probably a few errant casts into trees, by the end of the weekend, everybody had a good start in the sport and could fish solo. Many fly-rodders will tell you however, that catching fish is hardly the whole point. For so many of us who live a hectic life full of work, long commutes and a myriad of evening destinations to sojourn with the kids in our soccer vans, fly-rodding the Shenandoah is a chance to wander.

As the song goes:

“Oh, Shenandoah, it’s far I wander.

Aa-way, you rolling river!

Shenandoah, it’s far I wander.”

Wander your way on down to the Shenandoah. And bring your fly-rod.

Preston Lazer is a teacher-librarian by day, a diaper changer by night, and a hiking-fishing-backpacking nut all day. This is the first in a series on outdoor opportunities within a reasonable drive of Bristow.


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