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  • Matt Reilly


Seems it’s getting harder and harder to find something we can all agree on these days, but one thing is for absolute certain—it’s cold. As I write this, the thermometer has ditched all but a single digit, the ground and local waters are frozen, and my inflatable raft has shrunken into a collapsed heap—a diminished and dejected version of its normal, river-runnin’ self. Cabin fever season is upon us. So, as we all wish for warmer weather and adventures in the outdoors—and as is a tradition of mine this time of year—I’ve compiled a short list of adventures to be planned for a warmer time—daydreams of a sort, to keep you occupied when the door is frozen shut.

Hike/Fish the Grayson Highlands

The Appalachian highlands of southwestern Virginia, including Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak at 5,728 feet, is a landscape unlike any other in the Old Dominion. Spectacular mountain vistas, a herd of wild ponies, beautiful mountain balds, and classic wild trout fishing make this an experience any Virginian should have on their bucket list.

Take a weekend trip to Grayson Highlands State Park, and camp in the developed campground near the trailhead at Massie’s Gap. From the trailhead at Massie’s Gap, it’s a nine-mile round-trip hike to the peak of Mount Rogers, where the open, grassy balds that cover most of the landscape turns to dark, lush spruce-fir forest home to some of the most rare species of salamanders in the state. Wild ponies can be seen throughout the hike, and will present many photo opportunities.

Finish the day back near camp by fishing Big Wilson Creek, Quebec Branch, or Cabin Creek for native Southern Appalachian brook trout. Spend the next day exploring the infamous Whitetop Laurel Creek near the town of Damascus, or the South Fork of the Holston River near Marion. Both offer superb fishing for wild rainbow and brown trout in a beautiful setting.

April or May would provide the best weather and scenery. Or June. The rhododendron blooms in June.

Canoe-Camp the Middle James

The James River, one of Virginia’s premier smallmouth bass fisheries, comes alive in the summertime, when the nights are comfortable, shoes are a good idea but not necessary, and river ratting rules. It’s also braided with islands, ideal for camping.

Haul your own, or rent a craft from James River Reeling and Rafting in Scottsville. Find a couple of good friends, a sunny weekend, and get to scouting. Google Earth is a great tool. Use it to find a float with islands near the midpoint that is between 10 and 20 miles in length, if you plan to fish your way down the river. Otherwise, consider opting for a bit longer float.

Plan to camp on an island mid-way through your float on the first night, and bring along food, a grill, fire supplies, and a tent or hammocks. Keep gear to a minimum. But do bring a heavy spinning rod and bait it with cut sunfish for channel cats of flatheads at night. It may make for a great meal.

Chase Pickerel in the Weeds

Pickerel are one of the state’s most underrated game fish, in my humble opinion, and are often quite active early in late March and April, when they follow warming water temperatures into the weedy shallows where they lay their eggs in late winter. These hard-fighting ambush predators are voracious and plentiful in several state lakes, rivers, and small local warmwater streams.

Chickahominy Lake is a favorite venue for chasing the toothy critters. More reminiscent of landscapes further southeast, the Chick’, as its parent river is often called, is a very fertile fishery lined with cypress trees and knees, and is filled to the brim with chain pickerel. Old Chainsides is fond of flashy lures that imitate baitfish, but will eat a variety of offerings. Small, white swimbaits and in-line spinners are both good bets.

Some farm ponds and larger tributaries to local warmwater rivers host these fish, as well, and are best explored from a kayak or canoe. But the bottom line is: find shallow weeds, and you’ll find pickerel. And they’ll do their best to shake the frost off of the winterized angler.

This is just a start, but you get the idea. What do you want to do in 2018? Virginia is incredibly diverse in fish and game species, from the highlands of southwest Virginia to the tidal marshes of the Tidewater. With the waters all locked up and the majority of the hunting seasons gone with the wind, take this time to plan your next grand adventure. I hope to see you on the water.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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