The Cast Aways

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 23, 2002

"The best thing about fly-fishing is that trout tend to live in beautiful places," says Dave Breitmeier from the bank of the Elk River, near Slatyfork, W.Va.

He's got a point. We're beside a small pool on the river, with our waders in the burbling current and the sun planing through the forest. Breitmeier is guiding two of us on a half-day of fly-fishing. We're starting in a small side-water, maybe 30 by 100 feet, to determine just how much teaching (vs. guiding) he'll need to do for the rest of the day.

Not that it matters much to us. We're deep in Pocahontas County, a slice of West Virginia where, legend has it, sheep outnumbered people until about 20 years ago. The county is virtually engulfed by the Monongahela National Forest, a stack of burly hills that are the closest thing to real mountains within a few hours of Washington.

So fish or no fish, we are in the middle of nowhere and have much of the Elk River to ourselves for the day. Besides, Breitmeier is confident: Despite poachers who have ignored catch-and-release laws and stressed the trout population, the river still carries strong numbers of native brook trout and wild rainbow and brown trout, many in the 20-inch range, and remains one of the mid-Atlantic's premier trout streams.

Cathleen and I have fly-fished only once before, so Breitmeier's work is cut out for him. But Cathleen lands her first few casts pretty much as instructed. "It's a gender thing," Breitmeier laments to me. "Women are just better at this than we are."

At six-foot plus, with a long blond ponytail and khaki fishing vest and shorts, he looks the part, but distorts his image somewhat by his near-constant consumption of cigarettes. He's been guiding the Elk for five years and fishing for 32, and he takes a sane view of his passion. "You stand around in a creek and you look like a moron. But stand around holding a graphite stick, and suddenly it's all okay."

We found Breitmeier through the Elk River Touring Center, a lodge, restaurant and fulcrum of outdoor fun where we stayed for the weekend. Owners Gil and Mary Willis also arrange mountain biking instruction, multi-day bike tours along the Greenbrier River (you ride between B&Bs; they shuttle your bags) and, in the winter, cross-country skiing tours.

Their inn is on 150 acres on the Elk River and includes one of the better restaurants in the county, a gear shop and a bike shop.

The lodge -- with five rooms, supplemented by a five-room farmhouse and five cabins -- is laid back, mixing touches of a modern country inn and suburban home. A six-stool bar is adjacent to the dining room and a small gear and clothing shop. There's a TV room and a sitting room with a fireplace, but we took refuge -- with beers and guitar -- on the covered wooden deck out back, as a steady rain soaked the broad field behind the lodge. The clientele ranges from the mountain-biking and snow-sport set to L.L. Bean-clad B&Bists seeking quiet time in the hills.

The Elk River wiggles through the Allegheny Mountains, joining the Kanawha River about 180 miles west of Slatyfork. The Elk is pretty, at times almost stunning, as it washes between stands of hemlock, white oak, maple and hickory, often within earshot of a road but sometimes not. No, it's not Montana, but it's a heck of a lot closer to D.C.

Cathleen's beginner's luck eventually wears off -- and mine never kicks in -- so we spend an hour refining our casts, untangling knots and removing hooks from our skin.

Breitmeier leads us downriver, Marlboro in his pursed lips, to a murky, drought-reduced hole cut off from the stream flow. I land a six-inch brown, which we release.

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