High water. It’s the bane of any river fisherman or fishing guide, and I’m sure I’ve opened my last three columns bemoaning it. When the rivers blow out for weeks at a time, there are really only a handful of things one can do—swallow depression, fish stillwater, tie flies, pray for a window of opportunity, or resign oneself to less important things—and two of those things I try not to do ever. Thankfully, when I blew into Fluvanna County a few weeks ago, we were blessed with a small window of
I came into town to see my mom, it being Mother’s Day, but, having been recently freed from organized schooling, and without another guide trip scheduled until mid-week, I didn’t have a reason to head home after the weekend. In fact, I had a reason to stay. A few weeks prior, a friend of mine, L.E. Rhodes of Hatchmatcher Guide Service, based on the James River in Scottsville, asked if I wanted to fish with him the next time I was in town. I agreed, quickly. L.E. is the kind of easy-going country dude I wish there were more of in this world—always quick with a handshake and smile, and always down to talk fishing. And he’s a phenomenal fishing guide, particularly when it comes to smallmouth bass.
After glancing at the streamflow gauge on my way home, I gave L.E. a call and asked if he thought the river would be in good shape. He confirmed my suspicious hope. The river was dropping steadily, with no serious rain in the forecast. There was a little stain still in the water, but it was getting clearer by the day. Perfection, in my book. It looked like we’d get lucky.
L.E. and I were scheduled to fish on Tuesday, leaving Monday ripe for an adventure of its own. So I hauled my own boat north, tracks aimed at an old haunt.
Chuck Kraft, a widely renowned fishing guide and fly designer, is another one of my angling and guiding mentors. He did his time as a guide for over 25 years on the James, Shenandoah, New, and Jackson Rivers (among more), and isn’t a resource I like to leave untapped for very long. I called him and asked if he wanted to float with me on Monday. Unfortunately, he had to pack to leave for his grandson’s graduation in Arkansas on Wednesday, but he agreed to fish with L.E. and I on Tuesday.
Nevermind. I’ll float alone when I must.
The next day I hunted prime smallmouth spawning water with a fly, and managed to boat a few nice fish, including a 19-inch fish that, anchor be damned, took me down through a set of ledges and into the tailout, leaving me to navigate the rapid with the oars while managing my line and the fish in my spare time. I reached the takeout right before the skies opened up and the trees turned upside down and the ramp turned to mud.
Tuesday morning I met L.E. and Chuck at the ramp early. Most of the day I spent in awe watching 50 years’ combined guiding experience row us around the river. Both Chuck and L.E., who apiece have a lifetime of experience on the James River, could predict the locations of exact fish based on where they, and their predecessors, had been for years. Of course, we caught fish—plenty of them—but the stories and the knowledge passed around the boat made the memories.
When we pulled into a shady shoulder along the bank for lunch, L.E. and Chuck traded stories from careers guiding some of the same people, of foraging in the yard and riverbottoms for food in years past. Chuck and I related similar stories of having chance run-ins with bobcats and foxes.
“Those kinds of things don’t happen unless you’re out there and let ‘em happen,” said Chuck.
Just before we shoved off for an afternoon of more fishing, I caught a glimpse of a coyote standing gallantly in shallow water downstream of us through a small whole in the foliage. L.E. saw him, too. Chuck couldn’t catch a glance before the canine began fording the river and disappeared into whitewater and white noise.
The rest of the day was similarly sublime.
On my way back home, the skies opened up again and the rivers blew out. L.E. started fishing stillwaters, Chuck left for Arkansas, and I drove, and punctuated the trip with an ongoing stint at my indoor desk tying flies and writing these stories. In the time since, family tragedy has struck, and the rivers remain high and dirty. And I think we’re all thankful for the time we spent when we could, during that brief window of opportunity.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian