As a flat-topped ten-year-old in Newport Rhode Island, the first time I threw a wiggling nightcrawler underneath a bobber into a reservoir, I was smitten with fishing. The thrill of watching that bobber plunge underwater and the pride in bringing home a stringer of yellow perch to my mom inspired a life- long passion that has resulted in some amazing excursions and an immersion into the natural world that surrounds every place I have called home.
I moved to the Charlottesville area in 1982 from northern California where fall and winter meant steelhead and salmon runs up the Russian River. Trout were the native species in the watershed and ling cod, red snapper, and halibut could be found in the cold ocean from jetties and boats. It was big fish fishing, and I knew I would miss it.
There are a couple of things you have to get used to here. First, we tend to call almost every body of moving water, a river. It may look like a small stream to you but it’s a river here. They earn their reputation in spades after a couple of days of rain when they turn into whitewater monsters and kayaks sprout like mushrooms on car tops around town. While there are some stocked reservoirs around which provide our drinking water, it is the rivers that provide fishermen like me the most enjoyment. The rivers here begin in the mountains and the fresh cold headwaters and spring creeks are home to native brook trout. Fly fishing for these brilliant fish has become my favorite past time, my Zen place, my place to commune with what I consider the real world.
There are several access points to these wild streams and each begins the same way; the asphalt turns to gravel, the gravel to dirt, the dirt to ruts and suddenly there is rushing water beside you, cascading down the mountain with waterfalls, pools and riffles. Casting is tricky with a very narrow tunnel of clear air between the overhanging trees and brush on each side. I have discovered however that if you lose your last fly you can nearly always find another on any hard to reach branch overhanging a good pool. The dry-fly fishing can be excellent with brookies and browns up to fourteen inches but usually much smaller. The wonder is in the place, mossy boulders, fern covered banks, huge timber and not a soul do you see, all just thirty minutes from my office in Charlottesville.
Once the terrain softens and mountain rivers like the Moormans, Conway, Roach and Middle combine to become the Rivanna, The Rapidan, the James and the Shenandoah, the rivers become floatable by canoe or kayak and the fishing centers more on our prize game fish, the small mouth bass. Fly fisherman can be very productive with poppers and wooly buggers but so can kids with spinning rods and lures or bait like live minnows and mad toms (catfish fry). The small mouth are finicky and present more of challenge than their beefier brethren, the large mouth bass which frequent nearly every farm pond and reservoir. They are also known to fight much harder and love to leap into the air time and again to throw the hook.
As these waters that drain the Piedmont and flow to the Chesapeake Bay reach the Tidewater, the salt water fish that spawn in the fresh water provide an excellent fishery. Striped bass, also known as Rockfish come up the James River all the way to Richmond as do several species of shad. Recently several dams that have prevented shad from reaching Charlottesville have been breached to allow this historic fishery to return and last year saw the first hickory shad and American shad caught in the Rivanna River.
The beaches along the Atlantic are legendary for surf fishing, something entirely unknown to west coast fisherman. Fabulous and delicious salt water fish migrate up and down the coast with the seasons all within easy casting distance of the shore. Make sure you have a good stout 11 foot rod that can cast four ounces of lead for you might well hook into a fifteen pound striper, a ten pound bluefish or a 30 pound red drum. More than likely you’ll be catching dozens of little spot, croaker or pinfish…but you never know. That’s the fun of it.