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  • Matt Reilly


“I’m dropping out after today.”

The declaration was one part joke, two parts intent, and escaped daily into a warm, bluebird sky from behind a bottom lip bit in collegiate compliance.

Once you’ve invested years of tireless angling and observation, and compiled and analyzed a few thousand fish’s worth of fishing logs, you come to recognize Go-Time for what it is.

It was Day Four of what was to be a week-long warming trend, and March’s winds were moving in response. Friday afternoon would see 75 degrees, and Saturday would bring a sharp cold snap—30 degrees and the possibility of snow. Local stream flows were double average from spring rains, and dropping slowly. In other words, it was Go-Time, and I knew it.

With the looming reward of escaping to the mountains in search of big wild trout, I crammed my schoolwork into the dark hours, and shaved all unnecessary habits from my routine.

Thursday afternoon found me speeding towards a Virginia mountain valley, eyes glancing nervously from the road towards the snaking creekbottom below. An eagle soared overhead—casting a shadow over the river’s course and the farm fields surrounding it in its lower reaches—it too content in the spring sun’s gaze.

I found the water and realized a dream. Rivers—in their ideal state in my mind’s eye—run full and deep. From snow runoff, their runs and holes are highlighted an icy blue. Wonder and possibility are retained when the gravel of the streambed is not too visible. And so this river ran.

Within these holes and runs and un-seeable gravel lots lies the year’s most promising opportunity to tangle with a big fish, for they find confidence in the slight discoloration, and large prey is disoriented in the chaos.

Likewise, I tied on a large fly and worked my way upstream, methodically, keeping contact with the gravel and opportunity.

Opportunity took me by surprise a few casts into the afternoon, when a sizeable brown snapped at my fly and released it in the same breath. An hour and a half later, opportunity returned with conviction, and ripped my fly into the undercut of a rock ledge. My Tycoon Tackle Scion throbbed under the pressure of a large flash, and a thick 24-inch wild rainbow initiated an adrenaline-soaked chase downstream.

Friday was a continuation in the weather trend, and the joke in my daily threat to abandon academic employment was further diluted with intent. The wind was raging harder; the sun, shining brighter. A storm was coming, and the front was shaping up to be a dramatic one.

This time, I found the water slightly lower. The currents were calmer and the water clearer, though still rich with opportunity.

Brown trout are homebodies, particularly in small mountain streams, and so I started the day with a hit list. Patiently, I placed my fly along the current seam of the first run, working my way upstream. Redemption struck where she should have—in a pillow behind a large chunk rock in the streambed where she showed her face the day before—but held on, and rewarded me with 21 inches of wild butter-belly and shimmering bulls’ eyes.

It’s funny that fishermen yearn for redemption so avidly, and yet release her graciously once achieved. I was pondering this thought as I examined my tippet and discovered nicks that could cause me to lose another big fish, should I be so lucky. I retied.

In the act of retying my fly, my focus shifted from my knot to the water in the background, captured by unexplained movement. My heart ricocheted about my chest, more than it would for any fish, when I quickly recognized the brown figure lumbering over the limestone streambed towards my wading boot as a hellbender salamander—18 inches of giant, beautifully adapted, rare salamander.

With shaking hands, I reached for my backpack’s side pocket and squeezed my eyes tight in thankfulness for having remembered my waterproof camera. A few moments interacting with, and studying the awesome intricacies of the animal left my spirit enriched.

God must have been smiling on me and rewarded my responsible stewardship, when granted redemption in that large wild brown trout, with more blessings; for the afternoon ran on, and more wild trout came to hand—approximately 40, with most being larger than 12 inches. The term “golden light” comes to mind—that moment of perfect elemental combination that results in a truly magnificent circumstance, as recognized by photographers and outdoorsmen, alike.

As I write this, the weather has turned stable; the water, low. I’ve hardly threatened to abandon my studies for the river, and my nighttime motivation has shrunken. The conditions are not prime for my mind to wander, but they will be again.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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