Shenandoah National Park Fly-Fishing: Part V

by Jerry Tarbell
Read Part I in this series | Read Part II in this series | Read Part III in this series | Read Part IV in this series

Continuing the series on “The Park”, as I said in the February installment, it will take several articles to cover all that you can find to fish in the Central Section of “The Park”. So get out your map and let’s continue our journey in the Central Section!

We have now reached the two most famous streams in “The Park”. The Rapidan River became famous even before Harry Murray named a fly after it. He was writing articles about it and it was the first stream in “The Park” to go to Catch & Return regulations. Its fame is also attributable to a couple of Presidents. There are people fishing it that might not know “The Park” has any other streams. The Conway River is its next-door neighbor to the South and shares the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area with it. Both streams get a lot of action.

The fortunes of these two beauties suffered a big hit in June of 1995 when a heavy convection storm settled in on the top of the mountain above them.
It rained hard for at least two days and the amounts that fell are guestimates because the gauges overflowed! Farms and homes were lost and fish were found in the middle of fields when the water receded. The streams were a mess for several years afterward. If you want to see it, there is video on the Internet of the Route 29 Bridge being washed out by the Rapidan’s floodwaters. One tributary, Garth Run was devoid of fish completely and has since been restocked with Brookies from other streams in an attempt to revive it. I will be checking it out this Spring for current status. The other streams have recovered in the 23+ years since the flood and are good again.

The biggest problem with both streams is access. The roads from the bottom out of the Criglersville, VA and Wolftown, VA areas are not well maintained and I personally do not like driving them. However, I was recently told that they have been worked on due to the heavy rains last year and are better than they were the last time I tried them. If you try them, your vehicle should be a 4WD and anything less could have difficulty. For the Rapidan River, there is a fire road from the top but it is about 4.5 miles long as it twists its way down from Big Meadow to Camp Hoover (i.e. Rapidan Camp). The fire road down from Bootens Gap to the Conway River is shorter but in lousy shape.

Way back in the early eighties, I was among those that fished the Rapidan regularly.
I’ve since discovered a lot of other streams and haven’t fished it lately. Frankly, I think a lot of the others are better streams. There are some nice fish in it, but the Rapidan still suffers from too many fishermen. President Herbert Hoover liked it so much that he built the first presidential retreat right in the fork where Mill Prong and Laurel Prong meet to form the Rapidan. The only President to be there since Hoover was Jimmy Carter, who stayed there with Roslyn for a weekend. Yes, Jimmy fished it. White House staffers can still use the cabins so be prepared.

So if you don’t mind driving a nasty road or hiking a long way down from Big Meadow to fish a stream where you are more than likely to be searching for a stretch where there isn’t already somebody fishing, have at it. The road from the bottom, if you want it, is Route 649 out of Criglersville, VA. Personally I’d rather fish another stream.

The Conway River can be that stream. It does support a good population and some of them in the lower section are reproducing Brown Trout. Higher up the River it’s all Brook Trout. Route 615 out of Graves Mill, VA can get you up into the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area to the Conway River, but this is some ugly road and I’ve been hiking down to the headwaters from Bootens Gap at Mile Marker #55. I like that headwater section in spite of the fact that there are some rustic campsites along it. I use the Campsites for access to the stream. This is a stream I try to hit just about every year, sometimes in both Spring and Fall.

There are some tributaries to look at. At the bottom of the Rapidan, the Staunton River has recovered as it caught that flood very badly. Access is from a trail that is located from the dead end of Route 662 out of Graves Mill, VA. This road used to go all the way up along the Rapidan, but the flood took care of that permanently. The Staunton River is a decent stream, steep in parts, which can yield mixed results from year to year.

The Pocosin is the lower tributary of the Conway River and Harry Murray likes it. I find it below average most years. Bottom access is from the town of Fletcher, VA. There is also top access from a trail at Mile Marker #60 that takes you past an old church complete with a grave yard. There is also a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), cabin there. Higher up there is a thing called Devil’s Ditch. Harry says it is aptly named. Be prepared to face a devil of a gorge with all the trimmings of tough navigation. However, some of the places that are harder to get to have the most Trout because few people try it. So here’s one for you if you like that sort of thing.

There is also South River, but it has only a small headwater section in “The Park”. I tried it from the bottom off of Route 642 near Stanardsville, VA with below average results. It might be a good stream further up from where I was fishing, but that might be a bushwhacking hike.

In my next installment will be in the South Section of “The Park”. I can cover it all in one article because I don’t know much about it. I’ll spend some of it talking about tactics. Continue to exercise!