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

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, February 24, 2008

SYRIA, Va.

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.

Dear, fishing upstream, took longer to connect. "It looks bad when you can't even catch fish on your own stream," he grumped. Before long, he'd found his mojo and was battling one trout after another.

Dear, who retired from the commercial mortgage business to develop properties on his own, bought the 200-acre farm five years ago with the primary aim of establishing a trout-fishing operation. He built a lodge of massive western spruce logs with a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains, fenced cows off the stream and moved a few rocks around to improve the habitat. He stocks about 250 to 300 trout a month in season to keep the population up and allows catch-and-release fly-fishing only.

He is board chairman of Project Healing Waters, a national nonprofit organization that teaches injured veterans how to tie flies and fly fish, and welcomes the vets to the farm from time to time. In May, he'll host a "two-fly" tournament to raise money for the charity, at which 10 teams of veterans will compete.

The rest of the time, he limits traffic to four anglers a day to keep the pressure down.

I've fished the Rose River a half-dozen times over the years. I always was impressed by the water quality and the beauty of the place but disappointed by the scarcity of fish, unless you were willing to battle the crowds just after the stocking truck left.

"The key to good fishing on streams like this is catch-and-release," says Dear. He'll get no argument from me.

* * *

State stocking trucks are on the move in Virginia, where trout season is open all year, though the best days still are a month or more away. To track the stocking status of individual streams, check the Web site http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing. For information on Dear's operation, go to http://www.roseriverfarm.com. Beasley's book, "Fly Fishing Virginia," which includes good maps and covers all sorts of fishing from oceans to mountain streams, is available at http://www.beaubeasley.com.

In Maryland, where many of the top streams are closed for stocking most of March, stocking schedules are at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries.

Meantime, trout enthusiasts should mark their calendars for the following events:

¿ March 19, "A Night to Remember" with fly-fishing legend Lefty Kreh, who at 83 still is churning out fine instructional books. This session at Boatyard Bar & Grill in Annapolis honors Kreh with appearances by Flip Pallot, Bob Clouser and others. Tickets are (gasp!) $500, with proceeds to benefit the Maryland Coastal Conservation Association. Call 410-280-8770.

¿ March 29, National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited holds its 33rd annual Angling Show at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda. Check for details at http://www.ncc-tu.org.

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