Waist-high water shot through a canyon filled with heavy boulders, slippery sand and various types of fish. I stepped carefully to avoid taking a cold swim in the tail water section of Virginia’s Jackson River, an uninviting experience in heavy waders.
Sweat dripped down my forehead until a welcome cool breeze slipped over the water surface, creating an air conditioning effect that made inhaling deep breathes of sweet mountain air a pleasure.
I stopped and took a long look at the beautiful Allegheny mountainside filled with various hardwood trees starting to show fall colors. I briefly thanked God for allowing me to be in this paradise while taking my mind off the task of walking on a cluttered river bottom. I took another step and almost went head over heels when one of a million submerged rocks tipped, throwing my weight off balance. I immediately shortened my steps and moved forward – much slower.
I held a light-weight flyrod in my right hand, making balance even more of a challenge. But I was after a fish that is hard to find in the United States, a wild mountain rainbow trout. Sure, most of us have caught stocked rainbows raised in a hatchery, but as Tom Kirlin, my guide from Clifton Forge, Va. had told me, “These fish are hatched in our waters and are wild and wary.”
His words proved to be true.
I finally reached the far bank that was covered in bushes of different varieties. My flyrod, a six-weight Sage ZLX, was pre-rigged on the bank to avoid tying on leaders and a fly while rushing water slammed against my legs. I looked around the scenic area and then started stripping, floating weight-forward flyline. The expensive line slipped back and forth through the air until I had fed enough out to make an adequate presentation.
Soon my fly gently landed against the bank and slightly under a bush. I focused on the spot, not trying to see the fly, a size 18 Poison Tung. I could place three of the tiny flies on my thumb, meaning it was invisible to my old eyes from 10 feet away. A slight twitch of the fly must have given it a lively appearance because a boil of water showed a trout took the bait. I raised my rod to set the hook – nothing!
The rainbow took my bait, quicker than any human mind could register, and I missed the hook set. I tried again while grumbling under my breath, same result. The wild trout were just too fast. I slipped more line out to a different spot, made sure my line was tight – a challenge in the fast-moving water – and waited. The strike came quick as a flash of lightening but my barbless hook drove home.
My six-weight flyrod took a deep bend as the wild trout started diving and running for the safety of rocks or brush. I clearly had hooked a good trout, maybe over 4 pounds, I surmised while picking up line whenever possible. Finally the trout was close, and I looked down to see what might have been a pound fish that fought like a lunker. The darned fish would not give up.
The little trout used up his allotted energy minutes later. I admired it in my net, with vivid colors of pink and salmon that rivaled numerous hatchery trout I had caught over the years. I released the fighter and was splashed by cold water as it disappeared. That trout was still active, and I learned why they called their trout wild.
“I especially like to fish this stretch of water on bright sunny days in January or February,” Kirlin said. “We catch a lot of rainbow and brown trout then, and they were all wild reproduced here. The river is 50 to 60 degrees then because it is warmed in the dam.”
Most trout caught throughout the summer are hit and miss. Other rivers in the area provide smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing. But purists return to the stream in the fall for another bout with wild mountain trout.
“We have a lot of insect hatches in the fall,” Kirlin said. “Today the current was brisk and our flies were moving quickly between the back eddies and main flows. Significantly deeper areas around big boulders where food dropped down to the trout were good spots. We usually catch a lot of fish in these areas.”
GREAT FISHING IS NEVER BY ACCIDENT: “Brown and rainbow trout are wild in the Jackson River’s tail water because of perfect habitat for spawning,” Paul Bugas, aquatic regional manager for North Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, said. “Food sources are there for good fish growth. Lake Moomaw’s lake bottom water is released through chutes from the Gathright Dam, ensuring river water never becomes too warm for trout in the summer.”
The Jackson River tail water, an 18-mile stretch between Moomaw and Covington, Virginia, holds a dozen generations of wild fish. The original trout were stocked about 10 years ago. Perfect reproduction areas gave the rainbow and brown trout everything they needed to produce fry. Many float and fish this area, although some portaging may be required depending on the time of year. The portages may be over exposed rocky areas during low-water periods.
“Trout reproduction saves us thousands of dollars each year,” Bugas said. “The state did one stocking and this fishery took off. Wild fish are more challenging to catch, more colorful and good to eat. The region has many smaller mountain trout streams. These areas are at the mercy of nature and fish tend to be smaller.”
Bugas believes that the Jackson River has not reached its potential as a fishery. Sample shock surveys in different locations indicate the forage and fish quality will only improve. The river could easily support 1,000 trout per mile of combined species – browns and rainbows. The brown trout are constantly growing in this great cover and unlimited forage.
“Brown trout may be caught in excess of 20 inches,” Bugas said. “I have actually shocked up 23-inch browns. Rainbows are not quite as big, but are more abundant. Trout fishing purists tend to release browns and keep the smaller rainbows. The exception is when a big rainbow trout is caught. Most veteran fishermen release these bigger trout to grow even bigger and hopefully become trophies.”
The Jackson River has slot limits. You are only allowed one brown trout over 20 inches daily. Most currently are under this length and released. The daily limit for rainbow trout is four per day. Trout between 12 to 16 inches must be released. Most use fly rods and tiny flies, but bait fishing with spinning or Spincast equipment is permitted.
You can find public access spots on the Jackson River by checking the Virginia Parks and Recreation website listed at the bottom of this article. A few areas on the river are posted off-limits to fishing, so be advised. Not all entrances to the river are on public ground. The river’s water that passes by Covington tends to be warmer and does not provide adequate trout conditions.
NON-RESIDENT FISHING PERMIT REQUIREMENTS: Non-resident fishing licenses are $47 with a $47 trout stamp. You may purchase a five-day non-resident permit for $21.
CONTACTS: Want to try your hand at catching a wild mountain trout in Virginia? Then call Tom and Dawn Kirlin at 540-862-7999 or check their website at www.riderupoutfitters.com. For more information about fishing for Virginia wild mountain trout, check their website at www.dgif.virginia.gov. Roanoke info, call (540)-853-2000 or check their website at www.roanokeva.gov.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org