It all looked so placid. Then Cedar Creek came into view.
Lebanon Church really has a church, a flawless white country church nestled in a dale. It sat basking in the bright spring sunshine Saturday. The forsythias, brilliant yellow and blooming full in the city, were pale and barely blossoming in the Shenandoah Valley.
A perfect cool morning in the country. But why did tractors lie idle in the fields?
Why? Because all the farmers, along with all the factory workers and all the city folks who filed through here last weekend, already were on the streams, waiting for noon chimes to toll the start of Virginia trout season.
Pity the poor urbanite who looked at his calender Friday, saw the season-opener and rose at dawn to make the drive to the mountains.
Cedar Creek, just west of Lebanon Church on Route 55, looked like a country carnival. It was jammed.
We pressed on, up the mountain almost to the West Virginia line, then down a muddy fire road through the George Washington National Forest to a small back stream called Paddy's Run.
We fell under the shadow of rocky peaks called Three High Heads..t"Nobody will be in here," we reasoned. "They like the easy water by the highway."
The backwood trout fanciers had arrived the night before. Campers were strewn along the fire road, starting at Vance's Cove and running two miles downstream, all along the best water. The aroma of campfires wafted through the woods and no 50-foot stretch of the rocky mountain stream was without at least one fisherman, poised and ready.
Virginia starts its trout season at noon for some antiquated reasons that have to do with forest-fire danger. "We start on a Saturday, oddly enough, at the request of the school boards," said Jack Hoffman, head of the Fish Division. "They told us those mountain boys are going out fishing on opening day no matter what."
The mountain boys were there in force, along with the mountain men and women and girls and even infants.
Alan Eckelman and I, late arrivals, strolled along the tumbling steam and darted into the bank wherever a likely trout hole appeared. Somebody was already there, every time.
They sat on rocks or stood on the bank, smoking and consulting their watches. "Three minutes to go," said one, "but I'll wait an extra two, just to be sure."
There was no starter's gun, though it wouldn't have seemed the least bit inappropriate. When the sun hit its zenith, lines began flicking out into the cold, fast water, and within five minutes we had watched five trout pulled from behind rocks and from open water, including one slim rainbow from our creek.
From then on, it just got harder.
"Oh, there's plenty still in there," Ed Haynes of Sportslyvania County said later in the day. "They're just scared to death."
He was cleaning his limit of rainbows and brook trout while his wife tended the campfire and oiled the skillet. Haynes fishes Paddy's from spring to fall, always with a fly rod, and the opening-day crowd didn't slow him down. He picked up fish in a hurry, using a Tellico nymph with a small lead weight, while the bait-slingers thrashed the water less successfully with corn kernels, cheese balls and worms.
"It'll get better in a week or so," Haynes said, "Less fish but less people in your way, too."
Paddy's Run, like other stocked waters in the Virginia mountains, has the look and feel of real trout territory, even though it's stocked, not native trout water.
It's worlds apart from the slow, silty streams in suburdan Maryland that opened for business three weeks ago.
The delightful advantage of places like Paddy's Run, which borders the GW Forest, is that primitive camping is permitted wherever a tent or trailer will go. It makes for a complete change of pace from city life, catching and cooking in the fresh air with the rumble of the creek close by.
Paddy's Run and the larger Cedar Creek are about two hours' drive from Washington, west of Front Royal on Route 55.
That's about as close as a Washington-area angler can go for mountain-trout water.
Some other recommended streams in that area:
By Stony Creek and Little Stony Creek near Columbia Furnace. Follow Route 42 west from Woodstock.
Passage Creek near Elizabeth Furnace. Take Route 55 west from Front Royal, turn south on 678 and look for signs.
Gooney Run above and below Boyds Crossroads, take 340 south from Front Royal.
The National Forest offers an updated list of stocked trout waters for free and a sportsman's map of the northern forest areas-the Lee District-for 50 cents.
Make requests to George Washington National Forest, Harrisonburg. Va. 22801.