In the Dead of Winter, Fly-Fishing on the Rose River Still Is a Lure

Beau Beasley of Fairfax shows off a rainbow trout caught at Rose River Farm, which is known for beautiful scenery and abundant trout.
Beau Beasley of Fairfax shows off a rainbow trout caught at Rose River Farm, which is known for beautiful scenery and abundant trout. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, February 24, 2008


Folklore has it that prime time for trout fishing arrives when buds on the trees get as big as mouse ears. Even in a mild year like this, that's still many weeks away. The itch to go trout fishing is something else again -- you never know when it may strike.

Fortunately for the Washington area trout fishing community, options exist even in the dregs of winter. A handful of limestone streams run at constant temperature all year in south-central Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley and along Maryland's northern border, though trout in these rich waters are mostly educated natives and tough to fool. It's a game for experts, really.

Now comes an option for inept to moderately skilled flyrodders like me, a pretty place where even a duffer can set the hook on plump rainbow trout. Beau Beasley, a Fairfax firefighter who wrote "Fly Fishing Virginia," a guide to that state's top waters, has only kind things to say about the Rose River in Madison County.

It's a hard place to dislike. The Rose is a gin-clear freestone stream that tumbles out of the Blue Ridge into a picturesque farm valley in the shadow of Old Rag Mountain, an hour and a half's drive west of the Beltway. The Rose long has been stocked by the state in spring but gets pounded by put-and-take anglers. Usually, little is left to fish for after the hordes pass through.

But in recent years, a mile-long stretch of private water just downstream from Graves Mountain Lodge has been set aside for catch-and-release anglers. For a $75 daily fee they can fish at Rose River Farm, where stocked trout are abundant and not too picky.

Beasley lured me there last week with promises of big fish and plenty of 'em. He was not exaggerating. In half a day, four of us, including farm owner Douglas Dear of Great Falls, caught dozens of trout in the 1 1/2 - to 2-pound range, all on flies despite a whistling cold wind.

The rainbows were stacked in deep pools, clearly visible if you donned polarized sunglasses. Even with the stream running high after a couple of rainy days, the water was so clear that pebbles stood out in the sunlight.

Just watching trout in those conditions is engrossing. They lurk in feeding lanes, holding station with gentle sweeps of the tail, and lunge after hatching insects or tiny bits of bait floating by. Nothing is more graceful than the smooth, slashing strike of a feeding trout.

Even dumb, hatchery-reared rainbows are smart enough to notice when a lumbering human invades their pristine habitat, so it pays to watch and wait and think it through before wading in. Whatever can go wrong probably will, and once you've spooked the herd with a slapdash cast or a tangle of line in a tree, it takes time for things to settle out.

Beasley, Dear and I meant to fish together, but as always happens on trout streams, we soon drifted apart as one after another was mesmerized by the trout in a particular hole and stopped to observe. It was too windy to fish dry flies, though the fish occasionally slapped at tiny midges coming off. I tied on a small black woolly bugger with a bead head, eased into the tail of a long, slow pool and cast upstream of a fallen tree limb.

I've been fishing for trout (badly) for more than 30 years but it still amazes me every time a fish slides over to smack a tiny fly bouncing along a rocky stream bottom. I missed two solid hits before finally hooking up, and let out a whoop when the two-pounder shook its head and launched a spray-filled leap.

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