Shenandoah National Park Fly-Fishing

by Jerry Tarbell

Many years ago I made a transition from trying to fish name brand trout streams that were usually stocked to keep them famous to fishing almost exclusively for wild trout. That transition involved a lot of exploration in order to find out where wild fish still existed in numbers and sizes that could hold my interest. Here in the East the only true wild fish are Brook Trout. Yes, there are reproducing Browns and Rainbows here in the East, but I consider them an oddity that started with stocking. Out West there are not only wild Rainbows, but also Golden Trout and about fifteen subspecies of Cutthroats.

So where do you find wild Brookies within a reasonable drive of Frederick? There are local streams in the Catoctin Mountains that have them, Garrett County, MD has even more and the fish tend to be larger and then there is Shenandoah National Park just to our south in Virginia (VA). You can find them elsewhere but not in sizes and numbers worth bothering with. Pennsylvania has lots of them but most of the better streams are a good 4-8 hours away. You might as well head for New York and New England where it gets even better.

Here I will begin a discussion of the Shenandoah, which I will shorten to simply “The Park”, in what may become a series on the topic of Brook Trout fishing.

The Park is about 2 hours away, however one must bear in mind that by the time you get from the north end in Front Royal, VA to the south end in Waynesboro, VA you have gone 105 miles. To get to most of the better streams you will drive at least another hour from Front Royal.

There are requirements for fishing in The Park. First you need a Virginia Fishing License. Since you won’t be fishing stocked waters, you do not need a Trout Stamp. A simple freshwater license will suffice and can be got at most Walmart’s, like the one in Front Royal. You can get a temporary license for a short trip or purchase an annual one, depending on how many times you might want to go.

You will have to pay a fee to enter The Park. Fees have gone up because funding for the National Parks has been cut by the current Administration. Right now it costs $30.00 per vehicle for the standard seven-day pass. I have a Senior Lifetime Pass, but those are up to $80.00. If you go in a group on a bus, the bus fee is downright nasty. Trips to National Parks are not cheap anymore, but they have to charge it to maintain the Parks.

Next it would be handy to get some maps of the place. They will hand you one at the gate but I just hand it right back. Better to buy the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), maps, which come in 3 sections labeled; North Section, Central Section and – you guessed it – South Section. These are Topographical Maps that are much more detailed. They will show not only the streams, but most of the existing trails, roads and structures like cabins, Visitor Centers, waysides, Picnic areas, Campgrounds, etc. More importantly they show elevations! The first thing you might notice is that this mountain chain is a tad bigger than our Catoctin’s, which top out at under 2000 feet. There are 2 peaks in The Park over 4,000’, “Stony Man” and “Hawksbill”, both in the Central Section. The rest of the Park averages somewhere around 3,000 feet in elevation at the top. Bear this in mind because it factors in when you go to find a stream to fish. Be prepared that you might be doing a rather nasty hike. There are sections of these streams that are in downright rugged terrain. If you aren’t in decent physical condition for that, please do not try these streams. So make that another requirement – your physical condition.

Once you’ve obtained your fishing license, Park Pass, Maps and are physically fit, there are probably well over 100 streams including their tributaries. I have not found any yet that don’t have some trout in them. Most are wild Brook Trout however; a lot of The Park streams are stocked once they get down off the mountain chain into the private land in the Rappahannock and Shenandoah Valleys. These trout are capable of swimming upstream into The Park and often do. I have only caught a couple of Browns in my years fishing there but one of them made its way up from the town of Syria several miles in the Rose River and then about another half mile up one of its tributaries.

I was shocked when I found a Brown over a foot long on my line and released it up onto the bank so it wouldn’t be feeding on Brookies anymore. The Conway River in particular is known to have a reproducing population of Browns in the lower section, but I like the headwater section and have never caught one up there. If you are a Brookie fan like me, be prepared for the possibility of a surprise.

Tackle-wise, keep it small. These streams aren’t all that big and do not handicap yourself with a nine-foot rod. I use a seven-foot, three-weight exclusively. I can reach across most of the bigger pools with a cast, but you often do not have room to lay out a lot of line. A simple roll cast or even the old bow-and-arrow shot will catch a lot of trout. Approaching the stream might be your biggest issue. Brookies are spooky and if you try to stand on top of them to fish they will notice and go find a rock to hide under. I catch a lot with just my leader and a short piece of fly line showing out of the tip but that is because I stay low and kneel. Knee pads help. I also hide behind trees, logs, rocks, Bears and anything else I can find.

Speaking of which, be prepared for hazards, two of which can be found in fairly good numbers: Black Bears and Rattlesnakes. A can of bear spray in your vest is not out of the question, but it won’t deter the snakes. Just get away from one if you see it in time. The bears usually run, but I’ve had a couple that did not! Another hazard, particularly if you plan to wet wade in shorts like I often do, is poison ivy. The Park is full of it. I’ve stepped out of a stream only to find myself in a mini-forest of it. Learn to recognize and avoid it and do not hug a tree that has a bunch of hairy roots climbing the trunk of it!

Most of the better streams are on the Eastern slope in the Central Section, but that’s is a topic for another article.