Summer Fishing in Shenandoah National Park
Guest Post: Hayden Bassett
This post continues our tips on summer Trout angling, focusing on a specific fishery: The Shenandoah National Park. For a general overview on summer trout, check out our post Chasing Summer Trout.
Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is a 199,173-acre swath of land stretching north-south along the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia. Both the Appalachian Trail and Skyline Drive follow the ridge top for the full extent of the Park, providing trout anglers access to the cleanest and coldest year-round trout fisheries in the state. SNP encompasses parts of eight counties and stretches from the towns of Front Royal to Waynesboro. The 105-mile stretch of public lands protects over 500 miles of wild brook trout waters and is open for catch-and-release angling year-round in its 70+ streams. While many anglers in the region are familiar with these streams, too often they pass them over because of the time, energy, and planning required to fish their remote sections.
In the summer, the trout streams in the park are accessible from either the base of the ridge (in the valley) or from the ridgeline by way of Skyline Drive. Many of the most popular streams - North Fork of the Moormans, the Rapidan, the Rose, and others - are easily accessible from the base, and therefore receive the most pressure from day-trip fisherman, many coming from nearby cities. While these are very productive streams, which are primarily fished catch-and-release, you may still find fishing challenging due to pressure. However, as long as you aren’t tailing another angler and conditions are right, you are likely to have a decent day on any one of these streams.
The summer months, however, make back-country trout hiking some of the most rewarding fishing of the year. One of the best-kept secrets among trout anglers are the large pools of untouched water at the middle or lower extents of the park. Most of these areas border private land, and therefore, public access is only available by off-trail orienteering to points on a map. If you get an early start, many of these places are accessible with a long day trip from Charlottesville, Crozet, Waynesboro, Luray, and other foothill towns. The best fishing, though, will be found by anglers willing to camp in the back-country.
The park is open year-round to back-country campers who secure a free permit by mail or in person at one of the park gates. Overnight campers should park at one of the trailheads along Skyline Drive, and hike down to the lower extent of trout-bearing waters. Each stream has a section of large plunge pools at the toe slopes of the Blue Ridge, where the terrain begins to level out. In the summer, these pools have the benefit of receiving cool, fast-moving oxygenated water at a point where the stream begins to widen. This creates cool, deep, nutrient-rich habitat where a brook trout can grow over 10 inches in length. Every stream in the Park has one or two of these holes, which take a good amount of time to thoroughly fish. These streams also have countless pools and riffles throughout. The key to success on these streams is putting in the work - or should I say legwork - to finding them.
While not officially regulated as such, most fly anglers stay away from SNP streams twice a year: 1) spawning season in the fall (Oct.-Nov.) and 2) low water conditions in the summer. Optimal conditions follow rain. Hot dry spells, when water levels are at their lowest, is the time to leave the rod at home. These are stressful conditions for brook trout throughout the park, as they cannot survive in waters warmer than 75º F. Angling at these water temperatures simply brings them out of their cooler deep holds, likely stressing them to an unsafe level in the process. See our post on the necessity of using a stream thermometer while angling for summer trout.
However, during periods of heavy rain, when conditions are high and unfishable in the region's big rivers, chances are the conditions are great in the mountain streams. Rain elevates water levels to desirable conditions, cools the water temperature, and obscures the stream surface to better hide your silhouette. The rain also washes bugs and other food sources into the streams, putting the trout on the feed! My best fishing to-date in Shenandoah was fishing terrestrials in the rain.
If all of this talk is making you want to get out and on the water, it is time to start planning your next trip. However, your outing is going to take some research. Finding the stretches of water that don’t receive daily angling pressure will require careful study and the help of topographical maps and additional resources. Start by looking for references to specific stream names online and in books. After finding some stream names, a great resource is the VDGIF interactive trout map, which labels known brook trout streams in blue, and allows you to shift between terrain, topographic, and satellite maps. Find the streams you're looking at on the topographic map, and target the transitional areas where the water begins to level out (i.e. narrow spacing contours shifting to wider spacing contours). Next, find the major confluences of streams and the places where narrow gorges shift into more open valleys. Finally, plot out your course, sticking to fire roads and trails as much as you can, being sure to stick to public roads and public lands. Trespassing is a big issue around the park's borderlands, and is taken seriously. As a general rule of thumb, if there’s a route number on the road, you should be fine.
Once you arrive stream-side, be mindful that some times during late June through September can provide challenging brook trout fishing. It isn't uncommon that a half-day or full-day produces only a few fish, depending on the stream and your techniques. For that reason, it is important to be prepared and open to using several different fishing methods. Too many anglers arrive to the park with a box of carefully curated dry flies and the notion that it’s dry flies or nothing for Shenandoah brookies. I made this mistake on my first off-trail trek to wilderness waters in the park. I was four miles off-trail in July with a dozen dry flies, many of which had produced respectable brook trout on the same waters two months prior. A much-needed rain the night before had elevated waters to safe levels and temperatures, and many of the remote pools appeared worthy of a centerfold shot in Eastern Fly Fishing. For hours, I made my way upstream drifting dries and getting skunked, pool after pool, knowing full well the fish were there. I had taken a 6” brook trout on a black ant at lower elevations, but it wasn’t until I found a loose woolly bugger in my bag that I began getting hits from every likely holding spot.
In conclusion, fly fishing in Shenandoah National Park is something that all Mid-Atlantic fly fisherman should experience. Whether you've already been there, or if you've never been, consider taking a leap and exploring a stream off of the beaten path. It is on these remote waters that memorable days are made.
Hayden Bassett is an archaeologist and fly fisher from Virginia. When not digging, Hayden focuses his attention on the mountain streams and tail-waters of the Blue Ridge. His experience spans major US fisheries, but as an eastern freshwater angler, he enjoys prospecting for native brookies and holdover browns and rainbows in remote, inaccessible waters. (Instagram: @haydenbassett).