Back in the early 1930s, President Herbert Hoover brought the power of Washington to this high, hardscrabble place, where the Rapidan River tumbles out of the rocky Blue Ridge mountains.

Hoover came to catch trout and did so well he decided to build a fishing camp on the mountain.

Now, more than a half-century later, thanks to the good offices of the U.S. and Virginia state governments, the wilderness is wilder than it was in Hoover's time. The woods abound with deer and turkey and the native trout are thick as ever, maybe thicker.

"I've seen photographs of the area in Hoover's day, before the Shenandoah National Park was established," said Washington trout fisherman Jay Sheppard, "and it was pretty much deforested. I'm sure the habitat is better for trout now than it was then."

There aren't many countries where wilderness gets re-established by law, and fewer still where anybody with a fishing license can tackle the same trout waters a president chose to build his camp on.

Last weekend the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited rented rough-and-tumble Rapidan Camp, the old support facility for Camp Hoover, and for two days fly-fishers roamed 16 miles of the pristine Rapidan, which is public water. Everybody caught fish.

And although they were little fish -- in fact, tiny fish most of the time -- they weren't just any old fish. They were pure, native brook trout, never stocked, never fed, wild as cougars and a great challenge to catch.

"As far as anyone can tell, these fish have been here since the last Ice Age," said Dick Blalock, who organized the trip.

When I chided Blalock about the size of the fish and the fact that regulations prohibited keeping anything you caught, he chided right back. "It's not size or numbers that count," said he, "it's the quality of the experience."

The quality of the experience of fly-fishing the mountainous headwaters of the Rapidan is considerable.

For starters, the stream shows essentially no sign of human interference, which isn't bad for a place a 2 1/4-hour drive from Washington.

The woods are pines and tall hardwoods. The water is shockingly cold and gin clear as it plunges from one rocky pool to the next.

The trout are lean and hungry. "Because there's so little food for them, they are extremely nonselective in what they eat," said Blalock. "They'll take just about anything that floats down the river, and they'll hit just about any fly you throw."

But the trout also are unreasonably wary. You have to practically crawl on your belly to get within casting range. "The Catch-22 of the Rapidan," said Blalock, "is that the fish will take any fly, as long as you don't get close enough to cast it to them."

Fishing the Rapidan thus is as much hunting as fishing. After an hour or so of plodding non-success, I found myself lurking behind boulders, dodging behind trees and crouching in the brush like a cat on the prowl as I worked upstream from pool to pool.

Fishing this way you become lost in time, your only objective to somehow get to the next pool without spooking your prey. The wash and burble of the creek is your music to fish by; you can go all morning without seeing a soul.

The fly I used was a Mr. Rapidan, a tiny, local concoction of feathers and thread no bigger than a mosquito. You tie this character onto line finer than the finest human hair and flip it ahead onto the water, where it dances along on the surface with the currents.

You watch the fly riding in the dappled water and imagine the brook trout lurking nearby, under a rock ledge.

The fly coasts downstream, past a boulder. A flash, a splash, a strike. Hookup!

This happened five times one morning. I had thought I'd resent turning the fish loose after fooling them so cleverly, but when they were in the hand, bright-colored and wild, strong, helpless, sleek and beautiful, it was hard to imagine anything but putting them back where they belonged.

Ah, wilderness . . .

The Rapidan is the largest of a number of small streams that roll east out of the Blue Ridge from the peaks along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Almost any of these streams big enough to hold water all summer will have wild brook trout.

Regulations vary, but the general rule in the park is fly-fishing or fishing with single-hook artificial lures only, and a limit of five fish over eight inches. The Rapidan and Staunton are strictly fly-fishing for fun, using barbless flies, and all fish must be returned to the river alive.

To get to the Rapidan, take Route 211 from Warrenton to Sperryville, then 231 south and 670 west to Criglersville, then rough and rocky Route 649 over the mountain to the river. It's a long haul, and worth it.