In the studious treatises that have celebrated the mythology of trout for the last 500 years, streams are always clear as air and cold as melting snow, anglers are generally knee-deep in rapids that gurgle in perfect pitch and the sacred fish are caught only by casts that graze perfection.
So Rodney Hawkins was a bit disappointed Saturday to find himself sharing a small piece of the Rose River with about 60 men, women and children, elbow to shoulder, casting kernels of corn to small trout that were easier to catch than a chill in February.
"This is just too crowded," said Hawkins, 16, dressed in rubber waders and equipped with textbook-perfect trout gear. On both sides of him, anglers with stubby Fiberglas poles or lines tied to tree limbs were busy catching stocked fish, branches and one another.
The opening day of trout season is a spring ritual as predictable as any spawning run. White-haired grandfathers and wide-eyed kids stake out favorite spots beside fast-moving water to catch marvelously colored trout.
In Virginia's Madison and Rappahannock counties, which begin about 70 miles southwest of Washington and climb the eastern slope of the Shenandoah Mountains, trout season is as much a part of the local rhythm as church bake sales and spring plowing.
Anglers travel hundreds of miles to fish rivers like the Rose and the Hughes, which begin under tangles of mountain vegetation, then gush down rocks and ridges to flatland farm country. Along the way, they are stocked each year with thousands of hatchery-raised trout, obligingly naive, especially on opening day.
"This is a big day down here, a very big day," said Diana Cheston, who, with her husband Whit owns the Syria Mercantile Co., the kind of general store you don't often see outside Norman Rockwell paintings. On opening day, Diana and two clerks were kept busy selling bait, bamboo poles and wicker fish baskets to families of anglers wetting lines in the Rose just a few yards across the road.
"In the winter, everything kind of stops around here," said Diana, a city-bred girl who moved to a small town in Madison County a few years ago. "Money disappears. We carry everybody around here on credit until the money comes back again. The fishing season kind of opens that up."
On Saturday noon, when the season officially opened, the Rose River looked like the scene of a mass baptismal. It wasn't long before fish that had been raised on hatchery food pellets were swallowing almost anything on a hook.
"Come here, fish, come here, fish," said Turner Graves, 6. He was on his hands and knees, chasing his first fish, a 10-inch trout that had jumped the hook as it was pulled ashore and was now trying to flip-flop back in.
Graves was surrounded by a dozen of his kin who were fishing a busy pool of the river just 100 yards below the family-owned Graves Mountain Lodge. "It's a good way to promote fishing for our children," said Rachel Graves, who held a camera around her neck, ready to capture her own riverside treasure. "If you're fishing, you're not going to get into a lot of trouble."
While she was talking, a 5-year-old nephew, Roby Camper, reeled in his first trout. Uncle Jim Graves got the hook out of its mouth, then handed it to the boy. He held the trout stiffly in both hands, staring intently at its gasping mouth, afraid it might disappear if he took his eyes from it.
About a mile downstream, about 200 kids, aided by parents, fished a portion of the Rose that was reserved this day for children 12 and under. The project is an annual cooperative effort between Virginia's Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries, which stocks the stream; the Graves brothers, who own it, and members of the Rapidan Chapter of Trout Unlimited, who volunteer their time and expertise.
"Trout season used to open April 20 every year," said Jay Reed, a white-haired fly caster who has been fishing the Rose and the Hughes for more than 45 years. "But they changed it to the first Saturday in April because whenever the 20th fell on a weekday, all the kids would skip school to go fishing."
Reed was enjoying the sight of so many kids catching so many fish. But he said his own fishing would wait until later, after the crowds had departed for another year and the surviving trout had time to get a little smarter. Soon enough, they would be more than a match for mere men.