"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.
"That's called pulling out all the stops," he admits. "When you fish this river 300 days a year, you learn all the little pockets."
Our baptism complete, he takes us to a scene stolen from a West Virginia travel brochure: a long pool lined with shadowy slabs of stone, with the stream trickling to another pool below, sun tickling the water and not another soul in sight.
It is here that Breitmeier's guiding talents really shine: "There's a 15-inch brown about six feet to the left of that last cast." I loft my fly out there and wait. The fly starts to sink and I see nothing; Breitmeier sees it all. "Lift! Lift!" he shouts before I even feel anything. I obey and, for a brief moment, feel the exhilaration of hooking a decent size fish. But I hold the line taut and the fish is gone, my fly in his lip. "You gotta let 'em run," he coaches.
At the end of our day, Breitmeier spots a foot-long brook trout, its belly the deep raspberry color of a spawning brookie. "You have one chance," he says. "Don't miss." For once, he is wrong. I miss my first cast and land the second one on a rock, just above the fish. I tug gently, rolling the fly into the water.
A hit! I set the hook, and the fish runs fast and hard for two minutes before I lead it into Breitmeier's waiting net. A quick photo op and it's free again, newly suspicious of certain members of the insect class.
For most weekend getaways, five hours of fishing would make a pretty full day. Not in Pocahontas County. In waning daylight, I wheel my mountain bike into the Elk River Touring Center's self-serve bike barn (tools, pumps, grease, gear), change an old tire and head for Gauley Mountain, a mile away. Within seconds of entering the forest I spook a great horned owl out of a creek bed. The bird alights on a branch 25 feet over my head and peers down, weighing me as predator or prey.
The trail is vintage Pocahontas: loamy, almost spongy earth crosshatched by gnarled, damp roots and embedded rock, presented in a tight single-track trail. I climb a ridge that opens to a meadow with a tire-width trail, wildflowers whacking my knuckles. I descend a series of butter-soft switchbacks through pine forest so uniform that I lose the trail twice and am forced to backtrack.
The next day Gil Willis takes me to Tea Creek Mountain for two hours of tough riding. We traverse fields of watermelon-size rocks, which vault us from our bikes more than once, and watch helplessly as our tires spin on slick, off-camber roots. But the effort is rewarded: The final 2 1/2 miles of Tea Creek is all downhill, and we see the forest as the green blur of our periphery. The only other living creatures we encounter are a deer and a bright orange salamander crawling through the rocks. "Where in the heck do you think he's going?" Willis asks.
Not too far, I'm sure; he's got it all right here.