When I was at the Harrisburg Fly Fishing Show this winter, I listened to a talk by Colby Trow of Mossy Creek Outfitters. Colby spoke at length about the Shenandoah River Valley, and the great fishing that exists there. He flashed pictures of massive smallmouth bass, brown and rainbow trout, beautiful brook trout, and enough pictures of musky to get anyone excited. A few days later I contacted Colby, and booked two days with his guides to fish for spring creek trout or for musky, depending on what was hot in the local fishery.
This past Tuesday, I met up with Shane, one of the fly shop’s guides, to fish for rainbow trout and brown trout in Mossy Creek. Mossy Creek is a spring creek, meaning it is fed by cold water springs rich in nutrients and perfectly balanced at the right PH-level for both bugs and trout. It is also private water along most of its length, and I was able to fish a section in the backyard of a friendly land owner.
The fishing was fantastic. The fish were big, and tough enough to not be easy, but would eat the right, well-presented pattern. We fished dry flies to start, and I was able to bring a few rainbows and brown trout to the net.
As the sun rose, the fish were less apt to rise, and Shane switched me to a dry-dropper combo. The drys were large – big, fat patterns that looked like cicadas or grasshoppers. From the dry, we hung traditional bead-head nymphs. The nymphs caught the most fish, but the biggest fish of the day, a 20″ brown trout, nailed the dry pattern after appearing from under a much smaller fish, and gave me a fun fight up and down the creek.
I also hooked another two rainbow trout in this size class, and they fought like everglades snook, rushing into brush along the banks, diving under debris on the river bottom, and leaping from the water to throw the hook. The rainbows won out, and I was never able to net any of these bruisers.
The fishing at Mossy Creek was often sight fishing, where I was able to observe a feeding fish, time the fish’s movement in a hole or lie, and then drift my fly through the lie at the right angle. The water was slightly stained, and walking upstream allowed us to sneak up behind the fish without spooking them. Once spooked, these fish would zip away and disappear.
We fished hard all day, taking a break to drive into downtown Harrisonburg for Mexican food and some beer, and then returning to fish out the day. Thunderstorms ended the trip a little early, but not before we made plans to float the Shenandoah the next day for musky and smallmouth.
I met Shane the next morning at a put-in on a southern portion of the South Fork of the Shenandoah. He had a couple rods rigged up with 400 grain sinking lines and foot-long fly patterns, and another couple rods rigged with floating lines and small streamers. The game plan was to sight cast fish where possible, and blind cast along likely riverbank lies. The fly I started with was slick: A small (3″), white game changer, custom tied, bright white, and visible from 70′ away. I would cast the fly inches from the bank, twitch the fly three times, and hope to see it disappear. Usually, 8-10″ smallmouth would dart out and whack the fly, and I would hook a fish or two. The brightness of the fly made the sight fishing work extremely well, but unfortunately no big fish came to the net on this sweet little pattern.
As we made our way farther downstream, I switched to a crayfish pattern, heavily weighted. Shane trained me in how to fish the fly: Cast it out, and using the rod, sharply yank the fly line (with enough acceleration to cause a ripping sound on the water’s surface) about 6″ in distance. This would cause the fly to hop up off the river bed before darting down to the bottom. I caught a fish using this technique, but only one (I was not too good at getting the speed and timing right). We switched back to the game changer, and I continued to pluck away at moderately sized fish, with a couple 12″ fish thrown in.
At one point in the trip, Shane broke out the Musky rod, and told me it was time to fish it. He pointed into the water, and I saw the 40″ long body of a huge musky. I excitedly started casting, but the rod (an 11wt), the sinking line, and the massive, heavy fly (as long as my forearm) were miserable to cast. I toughed it out, and gradually got a little better at casting it (going from 30 foot casts to 50-60 feet). And, the big accomplishment came: I got a follow from a small 30″ musky. By the time I realized a fish had followed the fly I was already pulling the fly from the water to recast it – an error on my part. When musky follow a fly, you can entice them to strike by putting the rod tip into the water, and swinging the fly in a figure 8 pattern only inches from the rod tip. Pumped up at the prospect of a musky on fly, I kept casting. We drifted over not one, or two, or three more musky…but six! None were interested in the fly, regardless of how much I was sweating from casting, and as we neared the end of the “musky drift” I switched back to the smallmouth rig.
While the smallmouth fishing was not great, it was fun. I caught between 30 and 40 fish, including smallmouth, rockbass, and bream. The fish were aggressive, but the biggest fish (16″-18″) were spooky and picky in whether or not they ate. I’ll be back to fish the river again in a couple weeks, and when I do, I hope to find some of the bigger fish ready to rock and roll.