I was too busy to see it, but my family sure did. I was becoming a grouch, gaining weight, burned out from working 30 years for a large pharmaceutical company. My wife decided that it was time for this NJ boy to take a trip down to Virginia to visit our oldest son at James Madison University (Go Dukes!) and to wander the back roads to get away for awhile. So we loaded up the truck and down route 81 we went. It was in Virginia that I discovered the secret elixir that actually reverses aging. The fountain of youth called fly fishing. I’ve always loved fishing with my Dad, but as time rolled on and deadlines loomed, trips become few & far between. Getting to the Jersey shore to enjoy surf casting or party boat fishing became increasingly difficult. Work timelines seemed to replace tight fishing lines more often than not.
“If you're too busy to go fishing, you're too busy”
One winter, while sitting in Barnes & Noble, sipping a Café Mocha, I happened upon an article in a magazine about fly fishing and became intrigued. Actually it was a picture that drew my attention to the article. A man, standing next to a frozen waterfall, fishing. I thought, wow, I’d love to be there right now. It appealed to me on several levels. First, it was fishing. Second there was an aesthetic quality about it. The beauty of the hand tied flies and the natural places they could take you. Lastly was the solitude. Coming from the metropolitan area, I would love to just stand knee high in a river and get away from it all. Away from everyone!
I normally try to do things on my own through research and practice. But getting older and less patient, I broke down and decided to book a fly fishing guide to speed up the learning curve. There was a shop in Harrisonburg Va., the same town that JMU was in. I called to book a date. The young man on the other end of the phone asked questions for several minutes. To better understand what type of client I would be, I latter found out. My wife mentioned I talked longer to him on the phone than I normally do with her. He learned I was a novice and would be content with any fly fishing experience he could provide. Well, it rained hard for 2 days before my trip. When I called to confirm the day before, he said he cancelled all his other appointments. The rivers would be too swollen and the experienced flyers probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the current conditions. I on the other hand, would take any fishing I could get and was still on. He took me up to the mountains of the Winter Green Ski resort where we fished a small but fast moving river for Native Brook Trout. The rough water would act as good cover for a novice. He taught me the subtleties of ‘high sticking’, proper fly presentation and the hand work needed to land these lighting quick fish. I’m proud to say I landed 6 native Brookies that day, I’m not proud to say how many I missed. But I can say that these fish are the most beautifully colored creatures one could hope to lay eyes on. Not many people would say a fish is pretty, but the dark green backgrounds with yellow and pink dots, some with blue halos are exquisite. After my lesson, I came to the realization that I had not thought about work or deadlines all day. I was completely focused on these ‘purty lil fish.’ I spent a whole day without tension, heartburn, and no stress headache. This Fly Fishing beats pharmaceuticals any day and no side effects or hefty insurance bills to boot! Could this be the new wonder drug everyone is searching for ?
“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after”
Henry David Thoreau
My son’s sophomore year we decided to hit the back country roads again. This time after visiting the future biology teacher at JMU, we wound up in Syria Virginia. Home to Graves Mountain lodge, Syria Mercantile and the Rose and Rapadan rivers. I signed up for a two day fly fishing school offered at the lodge to further my education and my relaxing. Each day consisted of an hour of slides in the classroom (lounge) and 5 hours out on the Rapadan River, way up in the mountains of the Shenandoah National Park. The 30 minute drive up into the park was rough, and we left paved roads and all signs of civilization behind quite quickly. Along the way we actually had to stop and move fallen trees off the road to pass. Once we arrived at the guide’s spot, the hike down into the river was even more physical. But once you descended into the ravine, all other thoughts seem to fade away. The sound of rushing river water being pushed left and right by car sized boulders and ancient trees was just awe inspiring. I found myself taking breaks from the fishing to just sit and take in the sounds and the scenery. The river’s music was more than any i-pod could aspire to.
I had quite a day, catching and releasing several fish. I’m learning more each time out. Unlike the last time I fished, in a rain gorged river and turbulent water, here I actually had to stalk the fish like I was hunting. Climbing behind boulders, casting into clear calm pools of pristine water, trying not to spook the Brookies. You can’t always see them, but their there. If you don’t believe me, just stick your head out from behind the boulder and you’ll see several fish dart for cover. Now that you just calmed that pool for a half hour, might as well move on to the next one. After landing several Brookies and covering about a quarter mile of what seemed like Pleistocene epoch terrain, I decided to hike back up to my truck. As I ascended out of the river and up the ravine, I noticed there were downed trees everywhere. Turns out a recent Nor’easter took the tops of many of the older dying trees. They were scattered about like a giant bunch of Pick-Up-Stix® . It seems one of the prevalent trees to the Blue Ridge Skyline, the Eastern Hemlock is being systematically destroyed by an invasive bug from Asia called the hemlock woolly Adelgid. This slow growing, 160 foot giant may have met its match in these tiny little bugs. It was first observed in 1988 but is now in all sections of the Blue Ridge and threatens to eliminate all eastern hemlock stands in the park. Hopefully Biologists can find a way to save these beautiful native evergreen trees.
As I was climbing up over a huge tree, I found myself perched on the trunk, facing a giant rock with a large hole excavated out from underneath it. As I straddled the tree in my waders trying not to snap the tip of my pole, I began to hear rustling from underneath the rock. I remember thinking, oh no, please lord, not a bear, not a bobcat, and before I could get my legs over, it jumped out on to the log next to me, looked at me for a second then jumped off the tree and sailed across the river. It covered the ground that just took me 30 minutes of bush whacking, in 30 seconds. What had just made me fill my waders with liquid other than river water was a huge turkey. I had never seen one in the wild before. I was quite impressed with its size and its flying ability. My heart was racing but I realized I had a big smile on my face (something that doesn’t happen much anymore). As I waited for my pulse to slow down I peeked under the rock and found a large round nest of twigs and leaves with a clutch of large speckled eggs neatly arranged. I pulled my camera out of its waterproof pouch and snapped a few pics for the great ‘fish’ story I would be able to tell. My first day on the river was eventful and had gone by quick. I didn’t even think to eat the lunch I packed. But I also didn’t think about things back at the office, and that was a plus.
“Fly fishing helps you understand just how important your big, real life problems… aren’t”
The second day on the river I caught and released a few more Brookies. I used both dry flys and nymphs. I even honed my skill at anticipating the strike and setting the hook rather than ‘corn fielding’ the fish (setting the hook so hard the lil’ guy gets airborne and flung across the river). As I was enjoying the scenery I thought to myself, I could get used to this fly fishing thing. Being out in God’s country, taking in the vistas, catching a fish here and there and all the while, lowering my blood pressure. I’m not sure why insurance companies don’t reimburse their clients for fly fishing trips. Doctors should start writing brook trout prescriptions as preventative medicine. If you get a chance to visit the Shenandoah National Park, it’s well worth the trip. But be prepared. It’s not for the weak of shock absorber or the weak of knee. Hiking up and down to the river with waders and fishing gear was no easy stroll…but it may be one of the most rewarding experiences you ever have. It may even make you smile again.
“Some go to church and think about fishing, others go fishing and think about God”