The fish gods don't care
The sun has yet to make its ascent over the Appalachian horizon as I slide into my waders and string up for the day. “Morse” by Nightmares on Wax blasts through Buffy’s speakers (my Explorer) as my black coffee cools on the truck bed and smoke from the nearby paper mill clogs the valley sky line in a thick, white veil of economic necessity. For a wild trout fishery, the smell is off putting. But I guess anything that desecrates such wilderness can’t smell good (similar to the goo monster from Fern Gully). Despite this, the Savage River flows on.
It is a new morning on a new river. A light mist rises off the cold, black water in the early morning light. In a few hours it will be running clear and my mere shadow will spook anything resembling a trout, but for now its depths contain nothing but potential. For lack of a better word, the setting couldn’t be more….savage. Hell, I feel like I’m part of a Blitzen Trapper jam. But as I make the final preparation to my hopper set up and look out onto the stream, it hits me. You are so lucky to be here. Welcome to the land of Savages.
At the recommendation of Beaver Creek Fly Shop owner James Harris – I drove up to the Savage to explore this river system for myself. I spent an afternoon and the full following day on the water chasing these wild trout. Located 40 minutes to the south of “The Queen City” (Cumberland, MD) near the towns of Piedmont and Keyser, WV (about 3hrs from the District of Columbia) – the Lower Savage River is a tail water that stretches through Western Maryland’s Savage River State Forest before meeting up with another top 100 TU fishery, the North Branch of the Potomac.
The Savage is divided into two sections (the Upper and Lower with the Upper Savage being more of a brook trout fishery), the Lower being where most fish since it contains a mixed bag of wild trout and a strong population of browns, brookies, and a few holdover rainbows who migrate up from the North Branch. One of Trout Unlimited’s top 100 US trout streams, there are no dumb stocker fish here. Trout are educated and finicky. Technical fishing is a must.
The Lower Savage plays host to a myriad of trout water loaded with riffles and pocket water, as well as some deeper pools below some small falls. When fishing this water, it’s important to work your way out from the bank out as fish tend to hold in the places you wouldn’t expect them to. Think of fishing 3-dimensionally instead of 2-dimensionally as fish can be holed up under rocks or cuts in the bank. They won’t be happily munching in the middle of pools and runs like most stockers. Also, leader and tippet definitely come into play here. Anything over 6x and you’re asking to be skunked – hard. Also, natural flies are a must. Watch your flash. No bead heads. No indicators. No leader (I directly tied on 4lb fluorocarbon with a loop knot at the end to attach a foot or so of 7x tippet for my flies with another loop knot). SO MANY RULES! But if you can adapt and make the necessary adjustments – you know, letting yourself try something new and actually embracing it – you might even catch some fish.
For me, the Savage was a learning experience. Beautiful water that was easy to (mis)read and trout that are as wild and educated as any found on the East Coast. I definitely took my lumps. But you know what? I wasn’t skunked. I managed to adapt my technique and slow down. I fished the shoreline on out and looked for places where a smart trout would be. I offered up my best presentations. In a day and a half on the water, I fooled three browns, one decent rainbow (13”), and a small brook trout. The browns were split between a hopper fished along the bank, my technical nymph set up, and the bow and final brown fell for the dropper. It was tough fishing. There were definitely stretches where getting a bite seemed impossible. Then on the third drift by the exact same rock, a trout would rise from the depths and destroy a dry. This is a river for those who want to have their trout fishing skills and faith pushed to the brink – a place where the last cast can be the only cast that even mattered that day.
While highly touted by most publications as Maryland’s “crown jewel” trout water, the Savage is by no means a fit for all anglers. Technical fishing, tough wading (slick, uneven rocks, strong current), and fussy, wild fish being the main slights— but for anglers looking for the challenge of chasing truly WILD TROUT and perfecting their technical game– this is the place for you. Also, Niner’s Canal Pub on S. Mechanic Street in Cumberland has an incredible selection of craft brews from $4 on down to help you lick your wounds after a long day on the water.
I will be back.
West Virginia's Monongahala National Forest plays host to a diverse and thriving ecosystem that harbors one of the elite trout waters in our region. Located 3 hours from The District (a breathtaking drive through the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Moutain ranges), the South Fork of the North Branch of the Potomac River (can we change it to Monongahala River or river of three ofs?) is an accessible fly fishermen's paradise and with over 90 miles of fishable trout water, how could you not fall in love? Having attempted this trip previously (our crew got snowed out in March), Cullen, Kenny, Trent, and I descended upon Monongahala's Smoke Hole Canyon with the full intention of getting away from it all, drinking a few beers, and ultimately - sticking some trout in the face.
We made our way into the park around 10pm Saturday night and after accidentally squatting overnight in a family campground (the locals were cool with it) under the brightest moon I've ever seen, we woke up to that stillness you can only find in the mountains. It's hard to describe when the shackles of 4G and cell service are lifted - a strange elation of knowing you're doing what you love and there are literally ZERO distractions or things to pull you away from it. In other words, we were going to have a full day on the water. As we packed up camp at 6:30AM the next morning, a few tops were popped (bud light and makers mark is a good a heathanistic sacrifice to the trout gods) before tying up the laces of our wading boots, throwing the wands (fly rods) on the roof rack, and hitting the road.
Our campsite, which ran next to the river through the put and take section of the South Fork, had some good looking trout water so we decided to not waste any time and get after it. Splitting into two "teams" - Kenny and Trent vs. Cullen and myself for A) biggest fish and B) most fish (spoiler alert: pay up boys) - we spent the morning fishing from 7am-12pm and managed to get into some fish.
The morning, highlighted by Trent's solid 12" brookie, was mostly spent catching small rainbows, fall fish, and the occasional smallmouth. Although the fish were smaller in this section, action was plentiful and the fish wild and absolutely gorgeous (no ugly stockers here). I spent the day throwing nymphs (size 16 prince, pheasant tail, or hare's ear followed by a foot and a half of 5x and size 22 midge) and managed to catch 25 trout in the morning to put our team up 29 to 26.
Meeting up at noon to crack a few more tops and pound some turkey/bread sandwiches we traded notes and rerigged. The absence of a Monongahala Monster was peculiar. Not one person had hooked into a trout over 12" in a river reknown for Hawg Johnson encounters. We decided that it'd be best to fish the C&R section by working our way upstream from the section just below it. Although the "competition" was still on, I fished with Trent while Kenny and Cullen paired up s little ways downstream.
Upon moving a little further up from Trent, I noticed what I thought were three palominos (orange rocks) in a good looking pool and decided to beat it to death with my nymph set up. After pulling a few small bows, the indicator shot under and a solid 18" bow erupted from the water. Luckily, Trent was nearby with his GoPro and after helping with the netting, managed to get some incredible underwater release footage. With our first "big" fish out of the way, we could relax, the instagram itch quelled, our beloved website/blog/reputation salvaged all upon the survival instinct of a wild fish. We pulled a few more nice fish from the pool before heading up to fish the first few runs of the C&R section to cap off the day.
Splitting off from the group, I managed to find a great looking pool at the start of the C&R section. I made an adjustment to my rig (upping the split shot and tying on a size 18 egg pattern), the indicator shot down and a healthy 16" bow flashed. After getting some more underwater footage, I went to picking the pool apart and eventually ended up pulling a solid brown (15") and a couple more rainbows before I was distracted by the victory wails of my compatriots.
While I was in the run below them - Trent, Kenny, and Cullen were doing quite well up river. Kenny landed a bigger brown, Trent his best bow of the day, and Cullen chipped in with a few nice fish himself. Occasionally looking upstream to see how they were doing, I noticed Trent was shirtless in the middle of the pool. Weird. A few minutes later, he was still there, Kenny and Cullen looking on excitedly. Then I heard it - a combination of yehti screech and triumph. An eruption of emotion that is only appropriate when one holds what they seek. To Trent - that was a 22" rainbow trout. After taking some pictures, we released the fish back into the depths of its pool.
The perfect end to our day? Fuck that.
This is only the beginning Monongahala.
Before I left for the trip I had to prepare myself for the challenges of pursuing a musky with a fly rod. While there is a cult of avid anglers seeking one of the ultimate high-risk, high-reward species in the sport of fly fishing, there aren’t many of them, and they’re not normal. Musky fishermen are nuts, plain and simple.
Muskies are the largest member of the pike family, and their name is an abbreviation for muskellunge. This fish can grow to intimidating sizes, depending on age (they can live up to 20 years) and food source. The average musky in most waters today is 30 to 38 inches in length and about 8 to 16 pounds. Thick-bodied fish in the upper 40-inch range or larger can tip the scales at 30 to 50 pounds.
Finding muskies generally involves locating ambush points or hiding places in deeper pools of water. Known as the fish of 10,000 casts, a good day on the water for a musky fisherman often includes just seeing a fish; a great day could be witnessing some fish follow your fly or strike at it; and an exceptional day of musky fishing means you actually caught a fish.
The right equipment is paramount, and I upgraded big time when I chose to go out with my friend and guide, Matt Miles (mattmilesflyfishing.com), a true musky junky. Matt spent his entire 20s as a guide and trout bum in Colorado before moving back home to Virginia where he now guides for freshwater striped bass, smallmouth bass, trout and musky. Most of his guiding is done out of a Boulder Boat Works drift boat, a welcomed treat for any fly fisherman. This boat has it all.
Matt is also a crazed musky fly tier. His fly box can be daunting for the first-timer.
The approach I use to cast these big 12-14 inch flies is the water haul. Instead of false casting and double hauling, I simply threw one back cast about half of my desired cast length, and let the fly sit on the water for just a second, followed by a forward cast. The added drag from the water on the fly loads the rod and makes it easier to cast accurately at shorter distances. An adequate fly rod and line for this situation makes all the difference: on this day I was using a Beulah Blue Water Series 9’ 11wt with a 300 grain sinking line.
Our morning started out slow, not seeing a fish for a few hours. Keeping in mind muskies are window feeders, we were hopeful the afternoon would yield some action.
The first fish I saw came out of nowhere and struck my fly. After a hard strip set and rod lift, I realized there was no tension on the line. He left as quickly as he came, and the hook never went in his lip. Shit. Musky have poor vision (and a blind spot between their eyes to boot), and often times they rely on the mechanoreception from the lateral line to locate prey. This can lead to short-striking, of which I was now very aware. It was painful to behold.
After that miss and another follow from a bigger fish without hooking up, the morale was visibly low, and my arm was killing me. I came into this trip with a troubled elbow, and throwing heavy musky flies with an 11wt rod for hours on end was not a part of the treatment plan.
I was now in a deep hole and needed to get my fly down in the water channel to get their attention. An old tree trunk lay at the bottom of the river, and I felt confident there might be some fish in the area. I sensed the strike before I ever saw a thing. On this retrieve my fly was overcome by the fish… and I knew it was a musky.
Thankfully, the hook did its job, and I was able to get some great photos with this 40” 20 pound fish.
Seeking this top-of-the-food-chain predator is known to push the limits of fly fishing sanity. Though I was fortunate not have to throw all 10,000 casts, it’s certain I will never forget my first musky on the fly. When it comes to pushing the envelope of physical and mental anguish - size matters.
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