With wild trout quietly lurking in 2,300 of its 2,900 miles of trout streams, Virginia’s state slogan should be “Virginia is for Anglers” instead of “Virginia is for Lovers.” In addition to water discoverable by those willing to wear out boot leather in search of a sparkling mountain stream in a private setting, Virginia has over 600 miles of delayed harvest and put-and-take destinations close to population centers and associated road networks. Trout fishing Virginia doesn’t leave much to be desired!
Trout Fishing Virginia: Fishing the Mountainous West
Not surprisingly, the best fishing is in the mountainous west. A 30-minute side trip off I-81 at Abingdon leads to Whitetop-Laurel Creek, a freestone wild trout stream that is the jewel in the Virginia crown. Whitetop has two special regulation areas (single hook artificial) in addition to put-and-take. Whitetop is a medium-sized stream, typically 20 to 30 feet across, featuring the standard set of pools, riffles, and runs associated with perfect wild trout habitat.
Its close proximity to the Virginia Creeper bike and hiking trail built on a converted railroad bed with a wide, smooth surface and a gentle gradient makes it both unique and accessible. The trail gives those willing to sweat a bit the opportunity to get away from any real or perceived pressure near the trailheads.
Instead of making a strenuous hike, smart anglers use a bike to move quickly from spot to spot. Given the popularity of the trail, there are numerous places to rent a mountain bike in both Abington and Damascus. For example, the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop in Abingdon, charges only $25 for a full day rental of a high quality bike (no department store cheapos) with an angler friendly after-hours return policy, allowing you to catch the evening hatch.
A few cable ties on a rod tube converts a rental bike into a fishing machine ready to travel miles on the trail to find great fishing destinations!
For advice on Whitetop, check in with the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop in Abingdon. As a full-service fly shop, it has gear, guides, and friendly staff. In addition to guiding on Whitetop, their service covers the nearby trout heavens on the South Holston and Watauga tailwaters in Tennessee as well as smallmouth on the New River and the James.
Use a 4 or 5 weight rod and fish the prime time from April through the middle of June with quill gordons, march browns, stoneflies, blue wing olives, sulphurs and even green drakes all making an appearance. Before you go, understand the trick to fishing Whitetop!
Since the Virginia Creeper trail gradient runs downhill from north to south, most bikers start at the northern terminus for an easy ride, coasting most of the way down to meet a bike shop shuttle at the bottom. In addition, bikers sometimes stop to either watch or have a conversation as they take a break. If you prefer solitude, start fishing at the lower end at either the well-developed Straight Branch trailhead on US 58 (36.644122, -81.739857; restroom, picnic tables and bike rack) or the middle trailhead in Taylor’s Valley (36.630216, -81.707967; no facilities). Once the bike traffic eventually reaches your location, slide over to one of the many sections out of both ear and eyeshot of the trail.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Looking East for More Fishing Opportunities
Heading East, the next major trout stop has to be the South River outside of Waynesboro just off I-64. While the South River has a sad history as little more than toxic dump for the effluent from various industries lining the banks and even catching fire once, miracles do happen. As a result of the hard work of the Shenandoah Valley Trout Unlimited Chapter and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), the river was completely cleaned up and now leverages the large limestone springs south of town pumping thousands of gallons of clear, cool water into a revitalized fishery for wild browns and the normal mix of stocked trout.
The South River is wide with an easy, wader friendly gradient.
While the town of Waynesboro has an easily accessible, stocked urban fishery under delayed harvest and put-and-take regulations, a better bet is the four-mile-long special regulation area south of town opened to the public in 2011. Fishing there requires a free landowner permit obtainable from the VDGIF website or the South River Fly Shop; a full-service store only a block from the river with guide service covering not only the South River but the Shenandoah, James, Jackson and mountain streams in the Shenandoah National Park.
A feisty South River brown trout giving a dirty look as he tries to wiggle free.
In what is a consistent theme for trout fishing Virginia, the best fishing is between April and June with sulphurs, light cahill, and caddis (check with the fly shop for the specific variant) being the flies to use on the end of a 4 or 5 weight rod. The special regulation area requires anglers be on their best behavior to prove to the landowners the risk they took in opening their land to public use was justified. Never stray from the marked angler trail and only use one of the five designated parking areas. All lead to good water with my favorite being the section upstream from South Oak Lane (38.043038,-78.925506).
Trout Fishing Virginia: Fly Fishing the Blue Ridge Mountains
Just north of Waynesboro, the Blue Ridge Mountains scream, “Fish here!”
Two choices. East slope or west slope? I recommend the east slope since the water is more reliable. The smaller streams on the west slope may go bone dry in years of drought (Paine Run, West Branch Naked, and Madison). The two largest west slope streams, Big Run and Jeremy’s Run, are popular destinations primarily accessible via a tough hike from Skyline Drive. If you want to fish the west slope, check with the Mossy Creek Fly Shop for real time advice.
Paine Run and other small west slope steams can completely dry up in a bad year as shown in this photo from 2010.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Focusing in on the East Slope
Moving to the east slope, the famous Rapidan River is always a good choice, but do not neglect its lesser-known neighbors – Conway, Rose, Hughes, and Hazel Rivers. Ignore the “river” designation – these are small streams where short 10 to 15 foot casts do the job for waiting brook trout that will eat just about anything presented properly.
Key flies are Mr. Rapidan, mosquito, adams, blue wing olives and terrestrials (ants and crickets).
This is ideal Tenkara water with either the 8’10” Tenkara USA RHODO or Temple Fork’s 8’6” Cutthroat rods being the weapons of choice. Not a fan of Tenkara? A 3 or 4 weight works fine. Fishing is physically demanding given the need for stealth, with slippery rocks, large boulders, and dense underbrush making streamside movement challenging. Leaving the feasible, yet strenuous, hike to each of these rivers from Skyline Drive to the very fit, most anglers usually approach from the foothills.
The parking area for the Hughes River at the Old Rag Mountain parking lot (38.589848,-78.315321) is approximately a half mile from the trailhead (38.573030, -78.295552) and the public water is another half mile beyond that via an easement across private property. Public pressure on Hazel is controlled by the limited parking (3 cars) three quarters of a mile from the Park boundary (38.614976,-78.256624; walk up Hungry Horse Lane).
Getting to the Conway requires bumping over a rough dirt road doable on a gently driven “flatland” vehicle to reach a small turnout at 38.432682,-78.4338. Once there, bushwhack west and carefully slide down the steep 20-foot embankment to reach the stream; the trail is on the far side. There are good hiking trails adjacent to the Rapidan, Conway, Hazel and Hughes rivers.
The Rose River is worth the hike!
The Rose River trailhead has room for six or seven vehicles (38.514334,-78.365769). After entering the Park, anglers can begin fishing immediately by walking 100 yards downhill to the stream. However, the best fishing is upstream from where the trail takes a permanent sharp turn away from the stream, leaving the angler in deep forest with not even a beaten game path next to the stream. Regardless of which stream you choose, bring a canister of bear spray or noisemakers (whistle or air horn) since the Shenandoah National Park has a robust population of black bears.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Targeting Metropolitan Areas
Metropolitan area anglers in eastern Virginia can also get a trout fix; albeit not in a very scenic setting. For example, Accotink Creek is literally within earshot of the Washington DC Beltway and is a delayed harvest stream just under 2 miles long (38.817891, -77.223881). It’s a sad, lazy puddle of water with muddy banks, overhanging trees and nothing interesting beyond the stocked trout.
Accotink Creek… grateful it is stocked, but no expectations for typical trout scenery.
A better, more scenic option during the stocking season is Chopawamsic Creek on the Quantico Marine Corps Base (38.528413, -77.381977). The best fishing on Chopawamsic is beyond the final vehicle gate. Walk or “fish bike” upstream to the dam; paying special attention to the two ponds at the top. The creek is open to the public, but everyone, military and civilian alike, must have a Quantico license ($10) available at either the Game Check Station (38.512500, -77.388636) or on Base at the Marine Corps Exchange sporting goods counter (show your driver’s license at the gate). The Base Commander usually closes vehicle access at the turnoff from the main road when the trout are gone.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Some Final Takeaways
In an article this short, I cannot discuss all the great places for trout fishing Virginia. In particular, where you may want to go depends on season, where you happen to be and what is close by. Unlike the days long ago when we would find out about fishing locations through friends and family, there are no secrets any longer. Actually, that is a good thing. Secret water might get polluted or developed if it does not have a constituency. Google “paint branch brown trout” for an example of a wild trout stream in Maryland that would have been wiped out if kept secret.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has gone the extra mile to ensure anglers know every opportunity to wet a line via the interactive map available on the VDGIF website. Not only does this increase license revenue and the sportsmen spend in local areas, but it gives everyone the opportunity to experience a broader set of locations than are documented in books, websites, or whispered about at Trout Unlimited meetings; spreading the pressure.
Visit the Kayak Hacks Fishing channel on YouTube for fly fishing and kayaking hacks (tips and tricks). For stream specific guidance on trout fishing Virginia, visit catchguide.com or check out Steve’s books available on Amazon:
- Wade Fishing the Rapidan River of Virginia
- Wade Fishing the Rappahannock River of Virginia
- Wade and Shoreline Fishing the Potomac River for Smallmouth Bass
- Wade Fishing the North Branch of the Potomac: Including the Casselman, Savage, Youghiogheny and Trout Streams
- Maryland Trout Fishing: The Stocked and Wild Rivers, Streams, Lakes and Ponds
- Hacking Fly Fishing
Originally published in Southern Trout Magazine. Reprinted with permission.