Holy Water... you know it when you see it. When I got my first look at the Rapidan, I knew.
Truthfully, it's a bit unassuming. It's not unlike the scores of other trickles that become creeks that eventually dump into the big waters along the Eastern Seaboard that eventually find their way to the sea. It's got the boulders and the plunges, the slicks, and the deep, clear pools where, during the warmer months, brook trout gather in congress and race each other to the surface after dry flies.
That said, the Rapidan is ... seductive. It's one of those streams that's wonderfully satisfying to the imagination. For the first-timer, it's captivating. As we drove up the rough dirt road into Shenandoah National Park, we'd catch an occasional glimpse of the river through the winter-naked hardwood forest. For me, it was like a good fireworks show. At every glimpse of the river, I'd see a deep green pool, or a frothy, white cataract rushing over time-worn rock, and I'd let out a gasp of audible appreciation. I hadn't wet a line, but already I was picturing wild brook trout attached hopelessly to a tight line.
The river in early March is just starting to come to life, to emerge from winter. The trees are still bare, but there's the promise of green the eye can almost see with a long, deliberate stare into the woods. In a few short weeks, the dogwoods and the redbuds will bloom, and the forest will shield the river from view almost entirely.
But this day, the river revealed herself just enough to elicit excitement, and, for a lover of brook trout where brook trout belong, I was plenty turned on. All I was missing was a pocketful of singles and a $10, watered-down cocktail.
My good friend Tom Sadler and I had concocted this visit in the early days of February, when the thought of small-stream angling seemed incredibly foreign to me from my basement man cave amid the white and wintry environs of frigid eastern Idaho. At home, the backcountry wouldn't be ready for an earnestly cast fly for months, but in the heart of Appalachia, the brookies would be looking up.
At least we hoped.
Tenkara rods at the ready, Tom and I wandered down to the river over the forest floor carpeted in last fall's leaves. After a few fly combination concoctions, we settled on a high-floating Adams as an indicator trailed by a small bead-head nymphâ€“Tom went with a Copper John, and I trailed the dry with a small black stonefly imitation, largely because Tom had seen the real thing after turning over a rock or two when we got to the water.
Carved violently into the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, the Rapidan is the kind of river the ancients had in mind when they created the Tenkara system. The long, supple rod reaches just far enough, and allows for pinpoint casts and ideal drifts among the manic currents of a river whose water can't make up its mind.
Keeping in mind that winter was technically still upon this temperate clime, we anticipated sluggish native char that might need to have their Trojan meals delivered to directly to them. While that proved true early in day, we were later able ditch the droppers altogetherâ€“the brookies hit dries as the day wore on, sometimes with the determination they can't be trusted to exhibit until the weather warms and the trees sport summer attire.
On one occasion, a large fish charged the Adams and came nearly all the way out of the water in the process. Sadly, I missed the brook trout, but I was no less thrilled at the sight.
Tom is a full-on Tenkara convert, and I'm slowly becoming more appreciative of the counterculture fly fishing technique. On this day, on the Rapidan, I began to appreciate Tenkara, not for its quirkiness or its "next big thing" allure, but for its sheer effectiveness. With twelve feet of rod to maneuver, and about the same amount of level line, there is virtually no nook, cranny or crotch of the Rapidan that can't be fished with an ideal drift. The Tenkara, if we were up to no good, could be a deadly troutslayer on a stream like the Rapidan.
We caught a reasonable amount of fishâ€“truthfully, more than I expected, given the gray, overcast day on the shoulder of winterâ€“on my first visit to the Rapidan. And we took the obligatory detour to river's genesis, where the Mill Run and the Laurel Run collide just below a destination that's nearly as his historic as the river itself.
In the 1930s, President Hoover constructed "the Brown House," a Blue Ridge retreat situated right between the two streams that converge to form the Rapidan. Today, the site is a tourist destination mostly, although both the Laurel Run and Mill Run are perfectly fishable. We didn't bother on this day, choosing instead to fish the mainstem of the Rapidan itself. But it was good to see the presidential hide-away positioned atop the river, and it's good to know that, eighty years ago, an American president could be seduced by the Rapidan's trouty visage.
I'm grateful for the chance to experience one of our country's signature trout waters, and I'm humbled that the river's native brookies fell for a few of my offerings on this cloudy March day.
And I look forward to visiting the Rapidan again and seeing her in a new, but equally alluring outfit that changes patiently with the seasons. Thanks Tom and Matt. I owe you one.