The anticipation makes it nearly impossible to sleep. Yet another adventure in the mountain rivers of West Virginia is knocking on my doorstep and the restlessness is palpable. The day’s hours of planning and preparation added to the excitement; the crescendo of giddiness stretches the eyelids and lashes wide. Tomorrow’s angling trip is going to be a good one, even if I don’t get wink of shut-eye.
Wade fishing for trout never gets old. Stream conditions are constantly changing. In fact, the only constant here is change itself. Like the relentless movement of a river, a fluid approach and open mindset create a blank canvas—one that is painted as the day unfolds. No two trips are the same. The guarantees of uncertainty and discovery lead me back again and again, every experience unique in its own way.
Fortunately for adventurous anglers, the higher elevation streams that flow from the roof of the Mountain State present the perfect settings in which to take a dip and pursue our finned friends. Whether it be in a fast, shallow riffle that barely covers your ankles or waist deep in a pool of dreams, West Virginia’s 600 or so trout streams present opportunities for anglers of all skill levels and desires. I indulge in everything from little runs wide enough to jump over to the grand and extensive drainages like the Gauley, Elk, and Potomac rivers.
Trout—especially native brook trout—are high on the favorites list. Casting to these wild and elusive creatures in cool, cleansing waters produces big smiles and fond memories. Rainbow, brown, and tiger trout are oft in abundance. One might even hook a palomino trout, or as locals know them, the golden trout. These hatchery fluke and sheer freaks of nature present themselves as slivers of banana with a hint of strawberry, scurrying under the cover and confusion of moving water.
Summertime is the right time, and wet wading for these fish is pure joy after spending months in synthetic or neoprene waders, wool socks, and heavy fleece pants. All those extra layers tally up to a lot of baggage, creating an artificial barrier that numbs the body’s senses.
Today, I’m wading in nothing but a pair of sandals and shorts. I can feel the hairs on my legs methodically waving back and forth in the cascading brook. The fluid dynamics against my skin help uncover variations in velocity, at times revealing micro-pockets of calm water that could potentially hold the catch of the day.
I’m also able to detect subtle differences in water temperature, occasionally uncovering an underwater spring as I wet wade through a pool. These cooler waters of these isolated springs draw trout near as the surrounding water temperatures increase. In a fascinating temperature inversion, springs also hold fish during the winter—their warmer confines will be more hospitable than the bone-numbing temperatures of snow and ice meltwater. Knowing where these little underwater anomalies are located in various streams is a good thing to file away in the memory bank.
Fishing with a catch-and-release mindset, I take into consideration that trout are a cold-water species—one that becomes stressed as water temperatures climb into the dog days of summer. Dissolved oxygen content decreases with the rise in water temperature, leaving these fish in a state of lethargy, which can eventually result in death. Native brook trout are particularly sensitive, while the rainbows, browns, tigers, and palaminos tolerate slightly warmer conditions. A small digital thermometer is a useful tool—once the mercury climbs to 70 degrees, it’s time to take my fishing exploits elsewhere.
On this particularly gorgeous July morning, the water registers at a chilling 64 degrees. I gently maneuver along the stream bottom to get into a proper casting location. Gracefully shuffling one foot after the other among the slick and irregular stream bottom is an art unto itself. Even when employing the utmost caution and calculation, a stumble or quick dip still happens to the most sure-footed billy goats. Luckily, when it’s warm outside, an unexpected swim typically results in little more than a bruised ego.
The morning sun finally crests over the ancient spine of the Appalachians, and I can begin to see a cluster of small insects flying over the cover of a fallen limb. As daylight penetrates the thick forest canopy, glistening wildflowers with morning dew help to illuminate the stream. The faint silhouette of a fish appears just off to the side of the submerged timber, lurking below the water’s surface within mere inches of the hovering insect cluster. I think it’s a brook trout, and a nice one at that.
There is no rush here; a strategic slow and lazy approach makes sense. The infamous Ferris Beuller quote echoes through my mind: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
Heeding those thoughtful words, I take a deep breath and slowly pan my vision across the temperate landscape. The rugged terrain of rhododendrons, lined with boulders the size of small cars and a bisecting stream, can only be described as ‘God’s country.’ I have reached my destination, and a cast is in high order.
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. My right hand cradles a small fly-fishing reel and accompanying six-foot bamboo rod, while my left is holding the brightly colored line. A metronomic rhythm begins as my body generates speed and distance, a series of pulls and tugs on the line that propels the practically weightless feathered creation in the airspace above the stream.
The artificial fly touches down quietly on the surface and instantly disappears in a chaotic wave of turmoil. There’s nothing faint or subtle about this particular eat; the trout has given its immediate stamp of approval. The fly line slides through my hands as I impart tension and resistance, eventually tiring the hungry brook trout as it runs laps around the isolated pool.
Taking a knee, I bend down and wet my hands before handling my prize, helping to ensure this beautiful foot-long brookie’s survival for future aquatic adventures. The trout healthily swims away, returning to its pristine home among the pocket of calm water and fallen limb. I can already feel this warm weather excursion into the mountainous cold water is just what I needed today. It’s what I need everyday.
Craig Miller is a master angler and owner of Serenity Now Outfitters in Lewisburg, WV.