The waters are welcoming
But the currents unknown
Use caution swimming
The river has a life of its own
SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK
I have this photo thanks to a Floridian friend with a camera and a day to kill. Shep and Justin made the trip from Panama City to musky fish with me in early March of 2020, where this sign hung on the porch of our A-frame cabin overlooking the New River. Justin took several photos that day, all of which I admire and appreciate (macros of my gear and flies laying inert on the deck boards), and while most have more significant subjects, this is the one that carries the most weight with me.
On the morning of what would have been our second day on the water, I sat staring at the words, the sign, or maybe just the air around it for minutes. We’d faced high sun and winds—tough conditions—the day before. I managed to make a singular fish move with a fly, but only after knocking on a high-percentage door for a good long while. We had another day ahead of us. The winds were lower, and the light a little more diffused. New dice, and we had work to do.
But, only a few minutes before, I’d received a call from a friend. Jim was then an old guide on the New River and a lifelong mutual friend of C huck Kraft’s. I met Jim through Chuck several years before, when I moved to southwest Virginia for school and took up fishing the New. After staring at that sign for what seemed like most of our morning, I made the decision, unhooked the boat, and met Jim at his home to start our trek to Charlottesville to see Chuck for what would be the last time.
Chuck and I fished for the last time in September of the year before, on the lower New River, on one of the old guide’s favorite floats. He made a total of four casts, due in large part to shoulder pain, but he caught a smallmouth, nonetheless—what I believe to have been his last.
During a large portion of his career—the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s—Chuck would book several back-to-back guide trips and leave his home base of Charlottesville for a temporary residence in a motel in Pearisburg. From there, he was able to introduce his clients to one of the greatest smallmouth rivers in the world when it was in its prime.
The New River was firing on far fewer cylinders in the summer of 2019. In fact, it may have been at a many-decades-low in terms of its smallmouth population. Chuck saw that on our last float together, which may have emphasized his belting, celebratory laugh when I urged our buddy, Dirk, in the front seat, to make a cast to a specific spot only to be rewarded with a nice smallmouth upon doing so. As a guide, I’ve always wondered why I’m deserving of praise when the 119th call I make pays off. As a guide, Chuck never lost his appreciation for a smallmouth rising to the surface to validate such a call.
I still have the last voicemail he left me, asking me to call him back so he could apologize unnecessarily for a doctor visit that would alter our plans for a trip to Arkansas’ White River. I missed the phone call because I was on the river with another friend musky fishing. On that beautiful, overcast, clear water fall day, we moved five big fish with flies. I called Chuck on my drive home, and we lamented over shoulder surgeries, big brown trout, and how musky, more than just about any other fish, can drive a person to drink.
Looking back, the words on that sign on the cabin on the river align strongly with the essence of the musky pursuit, of fishing in general, and of life itself. There’s a lot to be gained and a lot to be lost. Sometimes, one outweighs the other, but a wise person learns to live for the rollercoaster, to bear the lows and celebrate the highs. If you can do that with good people around, all the better.
The day after our trek to Charlottesville, we resumed our musky hunt. It was the day of the full moon—the Worm Moon—in March, and by the end of it, we got word that the old man was gone.
And so it’s during this week, perhaps more than any other—on the cusp of another Virginia smallmouth season, and at the conclusion of a winter’s musky campaign and weeks spent at the vise restocking my fly boxes with variations of Chuck’s foundational smallmouth patterns—that these memories return. And I’m thankful to have them.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian