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  • Matt Reilly


The older I grow, the less I care about material things. Sure, as an angler, material things—such as boats, gear, etc.—can facilitate experiences, but it is the memories that are treasured. They are all gifts. Time is a gift, and so it is during the pause taken at Christmas that I find myself reflecting on the year I’ve had and what it’s meant.

In 2019, I was blessed to spend more time on the water than I ever have in a year—some 200-plus days.

Many of those days were spent chasing smallmouth bass. Fairly often, I’m asked the question: What’s your favorite fish? I usually respond with something akin to “Whatever’s in season,” but, overall, I think smallmouth take the cake, and introducing others to the fish and the places they live has brought me great joy.

There was the weekend in May of the first Reilly Rod Crafters hosted smallmouth camp on the New River, when I got to fish with some of my favorite people for two days before teaming up with them to guide clients from around the country. We were dealt a poor hand, but played the cards we had—high water, dirty water, heavy wind—and found many great fish.

There was a Father’s Day Saturday spent with my dad on a smallmouth lake, which we got blown off of, only to find a wreck and backed up traffic on the road leading out. We parked the boat and pulled out the camping table and chairs and made lunch while the other drivers stressed in their cars. The following day, we floated a remote section of river and watched as a giant smallmouth ate a hooked rock bass by the side of the boat, twice.

There was the day that I spent with regular Adventures Afield reader, Bill Marley of Troy, showing him the ropes of fly fishing for smallmouth bass, and watching him catch one of his biggest ever.

And there was the big fish of the year, a thick 23-inch fish that ate a topwater bug in plain sight for a client-turned-friend of mine back in August.

This year has also been my most productive and successful musky on the fly season to date, with dozens of fish landed, including a giant 48-inch fish caught on a scouting float before the season really got underway.

Musky have become a true obsession and passion for me, both in fishing and guiding. They are an incredibly unique and challenging target, and so catching one on the fly is a feat. Watching someone else catch their first and realize a longtime dream, is something to behold.

Several firsts happened this past season, including the first musky for a good friend of mine, Bailey, who experienced all the highs and lows of musky fishing in just a few days. The first day he fished for musky, he had a fish eat his fly, and a follow to the boat. The second day, I caught a musky, and he caught a 30-inch walleye, and I will never be able to accurately describe the polarity of his disappointment and my excitement in that catch. That same day, he had a follow a few yards from the take-out, and the following day, he caught his first fish at dusk in the same place.

There was another weekend during musky season that I will never forget. The first day, I fished with some newfound friends who guide for trout in Tennessee. Within 30 minutes of putting in, Clint had a musky eat his fly. A few minutes later, Brady caught the fish. We had follow-after-follow for the rest of the day, and at the end, I caught one on a prototype 12-wt. rod. The next day, my musky trip fell through, and another friend of mine, Christian, and I went trout fishing. I forgot my net, and of course Murphy showed up. We landed a dozen or so fish over 14 inches, including a 27-inch brown trout that barely fit in Christian’s landing net!

There are many things I hoped to accomplish in 2019 that haven’t been done. My hunting exploits were limited to a single limit of squirrels, and I’ve yet to put a deer in the freezer for 2020. With any luck, I’ll check that off while I’m home for Christmas.

There are places I’ve been meaning to explore that I haven’t seen, yet, and new adventures and skills I’ve been meaning to chase. But, in the field, 2019 has been a resounding success, perhaps mainly because I’ve been able to truly experience the outdoors, day-to-day, through the seasons, as I’ve always dreamed of being able to, and I’m eternally grateful to everyone who has made that possible.

Merry Christmas to you! I hope your years have been full of joy and magic.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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