My first experience on the Rapidan River was ignominious: I was caught in the role of the poacher -- a naive, unintentional poacher, but a poacher nonetheless.
It was back when one didn't have to be a senator or cabinet officer to rent the late President Hoover's rustic but spacious log hideaway in Shenandoah Park. My friend's father was something high in the Navy and was able to reserve it for a few days. We didn't know what his position was, nor did we care at the time. All we knew was that we got to spend a crisp fall weekend at this woodsy retreat, breathing deep of spruce and pine as we played chess on the porch, and chasing shrews across my friend's sister's bed with the broom.
Best of all, we got to fish the delightful, no-kill trout water of the Rapidan, which cascades past the cabin door. It was there on the river, clambering over granite boulders and stalking across the pine- needled forest floor, that we spent most of our weekend.
With the bold curiosity of youth we tried our tiny Flatfish plugs and Panther Martins with bent-down barbs on the skittish native trout. Far too often our desire to get close -- to see the goings-on in the pools and glimpse our orange-bellied quarry with the olive flanks -- sent the chary fish darting for the protection of dark, hidden crevices when our shadows streaked over the water. Nothing would draw them out for a half-hour after that.
But back in those days there was a "foreigner" amid the native brook trout that have inhabited the Appalachian Mountain stream for thousands of years: the rainbow trout. Big, pink-striped fish of 18 to 22 inches were stocked by the state to add a larger thrill for those unimpressed by the subtle beauty and craftiness of the small, cadmium-speckled brookies. Where the brookies were shy and difficult to approach, the big rainbows were dumb and too big to hide even if they'd wanted to.
As we hiked downstream on our final morning at the camp, we noticed a sign saying we were "now leaving Shenandoah National Park, state fishing regulations apply." Hmm! Did that mean we were out of the "fish-for-fun" stretch? We mulled this question over as we caught a few of the small brook trout and released them gently.
Then we saw him: A monster of a rainbow hanging placidly in a small pocket under a dogwood. Our hearts thumped wildly. I flicked a tiny Shyster spinner in from upstream and swam it back and forth in front of the fish. On the fourth swing he struck.
The fight was weighty, but slow and plodding. When I beached the fish it didn't take us two seconds to decide "fish-for-fun" regulations were not in effect on this part of the stream. We hoisted the massive rainbow and headed proudly back to the cabin to show off our catch from "the waters where you can keep them," we were dead sure.
And dead wrong. The park ranger met us halfway back with a worried look. A fading memory has mercifully blocked out the details of that encounter. The only impressions that remain are of a very warm and gentle ranger, but one who was stern and intelligent enough to convince us that we'd done a pretty crummy thing, that "fish-for-fun" regulations indeed extended beyond the park boundaries, and that killing trout was something we didn't really want to do much of from then on.
Sheepishly, I offered to put the fish back after dragging him over my shoulder for the last 20 minutes.
The ranger declined the offer.
Further rebukes greeted us at the cabin, rather than the hero's welcome we'd anticipated.
Hoover's cabin is pretty much out of circulation for poor folks these days, but the Rapidan's trout are not. You won't be tempted, knowlingly or otherwise, into poaching a big rainbow: The Virginia game commission stopped stocking them years ago.
Jack Hoffman, chief of the fish division, says, "The commission decided to keep the Rapidan River as a wild brook trout stream and instructed us to discontinue stocking any fish in the 'no creel' area. There is always a danger to a wild trout population of introducing diseases or parasites from hatchery fish."
There is also a danger of rainbows squeezing out the native brook trout, which are vanishing from their once-wide distribution throughout the East.Farther south, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the brookies are in such dire straits that fishing for them is no longer allowed. It's said that nearly 90 percent of the streams have been taken over by stocked browns and rainbows.
The 40-odd streams in Shenandoah National Park are doing much better. They represent one of the few remaining strongholds for the little brook trout -- a fish that is actually a char. Restrictive fishing regulations, inaccessibility and a no-stocking policy ensure that they will remain for future generations to enjoy. The Rapidan and its tributary, the Staunton, are the only trout streams in the state to have totally "fish-for-fun" regulations. It is also one of only a handful that you can drive up to, albeit on a rather miserable road. Because of this accessibility, no-kill regulations were essential to preserve the Rapidan's fragile population of native brookies. Only single barbless- hook artificals are allowed.
Both spinning and fly fishing are legal, and both work well on the Rapidan. The highest priority during low-water fall conditions is to respect the trout's skittishness. Wear drab clothes and keep a low profile when approaching the water.
Choose the tiniest tackle you can find for spin fishing. A rod of 4 1/2 to five feet and reel spooled with two-pound line are perfect. Panther Martins, Flatfish lures, and tiny Mepps spinners will all take brookies at this time of year. Occasionally a small shad dart or marabou jig will do the trick. Work all of these from downstream, retrieving the lure just slightly faster than the current.
Wet-fly and nymph anglers take trout on such patterns as Black Gnats, Tellico nymphs, caddis larvae and stonefly nymphs. The brookies are such willing risers, however, that most fishermen like to go for them on top. Use a six-or-seven-foot rod, three to five weight line, and eight-or-nine-foot leader tapering to a 6X or 7X tippet. The brookies want something that looks realistic, but aren't too choosy what exactly it is. Terrestrials such as black and brown ants, beetles and crickets work well, as do Blue-winged Olives, Adams and downwing caddis patterns. Sizes 16 to 20 are best.
When they're in a feeding mood, which is most of the time, it's possible to catch and release 20 or 30 brookies in a leisurely day's fishing. The trout should be taking on their rich spawning hues before long, and the air in the mountains already has a delightful nip to it that invigorates the spirit.
Take U.S. 211 through Warrenton to Sperryville. Go south here on Route 231 almost to Banco, then right (northwest) on Route 670 toward Criglersville. Make a left just past here on Route 649, which leads over a mountain and down to the river.