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  • Matt Reilly


The inaugural smallmouth camp, hosted by Charlottesville-based fishing rod manufacturer, Reilly Rod Crafters at Fariss Farms and Iron Heart Winery on the banks of the New River, was a success earlier this month, despite a strong curveball in the form of heavy rain and resulting high streamflow on the New River.

On Sunday, May 5, eight anglers from around the country convened at the Farm to fish and learn from some of smallmouth fly angling’s best, including legendary Charlottesville-based guide and fly designer, Chuck Kraft; Scottsville-based guide L.E. Rhodes of Hatchmatcher Guide Service; Susquehanna River guide, Brian Shumaker; William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing; New River guide, Jim Richmond; and myself.

Almost immediately, the guests were occupied in the yard at the Farm taking fly casting lessons from world-class fly casting instructor, Joe Mahler, of Fort Myers, Florida.

The 48 hours that followed were full of long days on the water, fly tying and casting instruction, fellowship, home-made dinners, and a heaping (but not altogether unhealthy) helping of bullshit.

Topwater Amidst High Water

Mention fly fishing for smallmouth to most people familiar with the pursuit, and they’re likely to envision long summer days; low, clear water; popping bugs; and explosive takes. Summer fishing. That big, long sweet spot that lasts from late spring all the way into mid-fall. It’s some of my favorite fishing, by a long shot, and what (I believe) most smallmouth fly anglers look forward to.

May—the height of spring—on the contrary, is typically subsurface time. Streamers and big, heavy, bottom-bouncing flies rule.

We were lucky enough to have the tables turned on us.

As we drifted slowly down a small warmwater tributary, I did my best to dip my oar blades only when necessary, keeping noise and surface disturbance to a minimum while keeping the raft in position for the anglers in the stern and bow to make accurate casts to the bank. For May, and with a raging New River close by, the water was relatively low and clear. The sun beat down on my back. My unprotected hands burned. Summer was in the air despite the calendar date.

Only the fishing didn’t reflect summer. The fish seemed slow. Overnight temps dropped substantially, lowering the water temp, and it was still early.

We ate an early lunch. Things were still slow. It was my hope that the sun would peek over the trees enough to warm the water and get the fish moving around a little more later in the day.

Refueled with ham sandwiches, fructose, and some less natural treats, we hopped back on it. In the bow, MJ, a Floridian angler with a fantastic cast and a reputation within her own circle for single-handedly saving the pornography industry as a health care professional, was fishing a subsurface baitfish imitation. On a hunch, I gave Gary, who was fishing out of the back of the boat, a topwater fly similar to MJ’s offering.

A few casts later, MJ made a picture-perfect cast to a shadowy pocket of slow-moving water tight to a stump along the bank. As soon as the fly landed, a smallmouth of about 12 inches slowly moved in to inspect. After a few short seconds, the fish turned its head and returned to its lie. Just then, Gary put a cast in the same spot. Just like before, the fish emerged from the shadows and locked onto the fly. But this time, it didn’t put on the brakes. Just like a brown trout sipping a dry fly, the bass opened its mouth, sucked in the bug, and dropped its head, without missing a beat. Gary set the hook, and the fish went airborne before being coaxed into the net.

Excited at the opportunity to fish topwater so early in the year, and after suffering a morale blow when the New River jumped its banks, we all tied on topwater bugs and enjoyed some phenomenal fishing for the remainder of the day.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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