Peter Brookes: Bonkers for Brookies

Peter Brookes

Go ahead and admit it, it’s downright frustrating.

They go out of their way to ignore you, aren’t much for chit-chat if you do get together (which is always your responsibility), and they can’t wait to get away from you the first chance they get — and, oh yeah, let’s just say it — they’re pretty slimy.

Your in-laws? Nah, I’m talking about brook trout.

And while the first part of the annual “brookie” season is winding down in Virginia with lower water levels and warmer temperatures, it’s never too late to plan for the fall when the action picks up again in the mountain streams and rivers.

It’s often said that trout only live in beautiful places, which is one of the great things about fly fishing, right? — and hunting for Shenandoah National Park brookies is no exception to that old chestnut.

Indeed, in the spring, there’s nothing more pleasingly distracting from the craziness of modern life — indeed, therapeutic — than working your way up a beautiful, cascading mountain stream in one of America’s most famous national parks.

The other great thing about brookies, besides their brilliantly colored dappled beauty, is that unlike their trout cousins — and your in-laws — they’re not a snooty bunch.

Since spring-fed mountain streams/rivers have less bug life than the waterways that wind their way through the area’s valleys and lower elevations, brookies tend to be opportunistic feeders that jump on any morsel of food that floats by.

That’s good for the angler.

They will often hammer your #14-18 fly (e.g., Royal Wulff or Royal Coachman) with abandon, rocketing to the surface from their numerous hiding places around a roaring plunge pool.

Oh, yeah, I probably should mention that brookies aren’t big fish.

While they range from 6 to 10-plus inches here in the national park, the limited food available — including your fat-free, no-calorie flies — keeps them more than modest in size.

Indeed, if you’re not careful, you can easily find a little one unexpectedly attached to your back cast. Oops!

There are lots of great guides along the spine of the park, but I really enjoy fishing for brookies — or native trout — in the park with C.T. Campbell of Page Valley Fly Fishing Service (www.pagevalleyflyfishing.com).

Campbell is a Luray native and a long-time National Park Service trail supervisor who has been guiding for brookies (and for smallmouth bass on float trips on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River) for years.

This guy knows the park like nobody’s business.

Besides getting you on and keeping you on the fish, a day — or more — on one of the park’s mountain rivers or streams with Campbell is like taking a field trip with a park ranger.

In other words, skip buying the glossy park guide book.

As the mountains green up in the spring and you’re moving upriver from pool to pool, picking off fish, he peppers you with his knowledge about the park’s history, flora and fauna, which I’ve found fascinating.

Just don’t get him started on morel mushrooms, which grow wild in the forest and are highly coveted by gourmet (and even non-gourmet) chefs for their unique flavor — he’s a fanatic.

I was recently fly fishing for cutthroats and rainbows in northern Idaho. On the float, I happened to be sharing the drift boat with a fine fellow from California who — surprisingly — inquired as to whether I had ever fished the Rapidan River in the park.

I wanted to say with a wink and a nudge, “No, never heard of it … and if there were such a river, no trout in there from what I hear,” not wanting some Klinkhammer-casting California carpetbagger to elbow in on one of the park’s watery jewels.

But as we chatted about it, while pulling some accommodating “cutties” and “bows” into the boat, it dawned on me that if someone from southern California — all the way across the country — was asking about it, it’s not really much of a secret.

Indeed, stalking brookies on the spring-fed mountain streams and rivers in one of America’s most incredible national parks during peak season should be a bright-red line item on every outdoorsman’s “before-you-kick-the bucket” list.

Peter Brookes has a home in Fort Valley and scribbles about the great outdoors here whenever he can. Brookesoutdoors@gmail.com