By Gerald Almy
There's no question about it. For the ultimate in brook trout fishing one needs to travel to the cold waters of northern Canada, where orange-bellied fish of four and five pounds smack huge streamers and large dry flies with a vengeance. I've done it a number of times, and it's a blast.
My most memorable trip was a five-day float in canoes down the Sutton River through Polar Bear Provincial Park. (We didn't see any polar bears, only one black. And that was a good thing because the park rules didn't allow us to carry a weapon!).
The brook trout fishing most of us are familiar with takes place on a more modest scale, on headwater streams where the quarry is measured in inches instead of pounds and a foot-long fish is a trophy.
Even though the brookies are much smaller in these settings, there's still much pleasure to be derived from fishing clear, cold, unsullied headwaters.
The fish are usually a strenuous hike in from roads, which discourages other anglers and gives you the chance to enjoy solitude astream on many days. And numbers often make up for the fish's small size, with catches of several dozen trout a day not uncommon.
Brook trout in headwaters can be challenging to catch, too. That's not usually because they are selective in what they'll strike, but rather in other ways. The brush-choked, tight quarters in which they are found make casting difficult. The fast, gurgling water and twisting currents can create problems with drag. Pockets and eddies where the fish hold are tiny, requiring pinpoint accuracy in deliveries. And the shallow, clear waters make the fish skittish.
Always approach native brook trout quietly, with slow movements. Keep your profile low and wear drab-colored, or even camouflage clothing. Use the upstream approach most often, so you can work in close for a precise cast, yet avoid spooking the wary trout.
Since thick brush and trees often line small streams, accurate, drag-free deliveries require creative casting. By staying in midstream, you can sometimes shoot a backcast straight downstream behind you under the overhanging canopy of trees. Other times you might have to punch out a bow-and-arrow delivery from shore, or roll cast.
No matter what cast you settle on for each piece of water, be sure it is delivered with slack in the leader, or the current will catch it and drag the fly. Any unnatural action of the offering like that will send native brook trout burrowing back down into the bottom rocks to hide.
Long rods are a handicap when fishing these waters. I like a 6-7 foot rod taking a 3-5 weight line. A light, single action reel, double-taper floating line and 7- to 12-foot leader tapering to a 4X-7X tippet completes the rig.
Nymphs, streamers, dries and wets will all take brookies. Terrestrials such as beetles, ants and grasshoppers are especially effective, since much of their food tumbles in from land. Sometimes it also pays to tie on a pair of flies -- either two wet flies or a nymph with a buoyant dry on a dropper as a strike indicator. In high water, try a streamer in size 6-12 worked back with sharp tugs of 6-12 inches and pauses in between.
Virginia has lots of headwater brook trout habitat, all in the western third of the state. Some of the best streams are found in Shenandoah National Park. Here 40 streams offer fishing for the native trout with artificial lures and flies only. Some of the streams are well known such as the Rapidan, Hughes Run, Naked Creek and Jeremy's Run. I've enjoyed many outings on those waters, but like exploring the lesser-known ones, too.
Buy a topo map and GPS and then hike in from Skyline Drive to fish them. In a few cases, you can also approach from below the Park boundaries, hiking uphill instead of down.
The Rockingham Branch of the Quality Deer Management Association is holding its annual banquet on May 18 at 5 p.m. at the Am Vets Post 7, 1340 Liberty St., in Harrisonburg. Numerous guns and lots of other merchandise will be given away in raffles. Proceeds will go towards deer habitat projects and getting youth involved in hunting. For more information or to purchase tickets, which include QDMA membership, contact Brett Martin, 540-465-2670, or Mike Hughes, 540-290-5346.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.