THE CHUCK STORIES: JIM AND THE RAFTS
The story I’d like to try to tell begins in the late 80s, though it doesn’t really. It really starts before that, with a wild boy in Clifton Forge, the major settings being the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers. Or, maybe it should start even earlier, on a mid-spring day in 1942—an exciting one, I’m sure, for a hunting and fishing family.
Truth be told, the story should probably start, as any person’s should, well before their first day. But chasing that tale won’t get me where I’m trying to go. The reality is, the story should start in all of these times and places and more. For there are many beginnings to the story, because there are many stories.
One in particular that’s been canonized in my sphere seems to me to serve as something of a beginning. So I’ll start there.
It was the winter of 1988, and both Jim Richmond and Chuck Kraft were in attendance at Mark Hangar’s outdoor show in Fishersville, manning booths for their respective guide services. It was the conclusion of Jim’s first season as a fishing outfitter on the New River, and Chuck had just wrapped up his fourth official year guiding clients to smallmouth bass and trout on the James River and the trout fisheries of the Blue Ridge.
In conversation during the slow periods of the show, Chuck, who had by that time established a reputation as a great guide and fly tyer, became aware of Jim’s relatively shallow fishing knowledge, and probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day. But, Jim had been operating out of a whitewater raft fitted with a rowing frame, and at the time, Chuck was rowing an aluminum Jon boat on the James, and was sure that the James was “too shallow and too ledgy” for any inflatable anything. But he must have been curious.
The following year, Jim and Chuck met again at the same show, and Jim invited Chuck down to the New to fish and row a raft on the river. Chuck made four or five trips down that summer, and opened Jim and his guides’ eyes to a number of new, and very effective, fishing techniques.
That fall, for a true test of the rafts, Chuck invited Jim and one of his guides, Charlie White, up to Eagle Rock on the James, with the idea of floating a section of Craig Creek, one of the River’s tributaries. He led them to an access point he had located, which amounted to a shallow ford that Jim calls “less than two inches deep.” The trio had to wrestle the raft off the trailer and drag it 50 feet over river gravel to a place deep enough to float, while Chuck serenaded the two New River guides with grumbles, complaints, and doubts that the boat would ever make it to the takeout.
Once they got underway, they didn’t touch another rock until they reached the takeout at the end of a tremendous day of smallmouth fishing, and Chuck figured they might as well try to replicate the day on the James.
In late October of that same year, Jim and another one of his guides, George Frantz, made the trip to Chuck’s home in Charlottesville, where they spent the night to float the next day. En route to Wingina the following morning, the group stopped by a fast food joint, where Jim parked the frost-covered raft in plain sight of the dining area.
While they ate, Chuck noticed someone sidle up to the boat for a moment, but didn’t think anything of it. When they finished eating and went outside, the raft was flat on the trailer, with 31 pocket knife-sized holes in the right-front quarter chamber.
Optimistic and confident in the raft’s ability, Jim patched the boat up as best he could with duct tape, re-inflated the boat, and spent the day rowing circles around places Chuck wouldn’t have dared take his Jon boat. By the end of the day, Chuck was finally convinced that a raft would indeed work on the James—and he had one in a month.
Jim has been a friend of mine for five years now, and though 50 years my senior, is one of my closest friends. I can remember clearly the day Chuck, post-retirement from 30 years of rowing a raft down Virginia rivers, and I sat bullshitting in his fly tying room and he sent me Jim’s way, as someone I might enjoy fishing with, being recently localized to the New River. I gave Jim a call from my dorm room one day, a day or two after he had returned from a redfishing trip to Louisiana, where he caught several large fish on one of Chuck’s famous fly patterns, the Kreelex. We spoke for an hour, and fished together for the first time on May of that spring.
Jim’s story is an important and well-known one to me, because I’ve heard it a few dozen times, and because Jim is one of my closest and most frequent connections to another friend of Chuck’s, another one mentored and influenced by the man. There are many (many) more Jim and Chuck stories. Most are comical. Many are impressive, and most I can’t do justice with just a keyboard, but it’s this one that stands out to me as a place to shove off from. I guess it’s because it’s the beginning of a long friendship, and something of a genesis of an era. And I guess it’s because a person’s relationships, their influences on others’ lives, and the experiences that they share with those people collectively become their own story after they pass on. Their legacy. And this is part of Chuck’s.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian