Explore, Experience and Enjoy the Beautiful Smith River in Southern Virginia

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wildflowers and Wild Trout

If you have been waiting for the first spring wildflowers to show themselves before you officially declare winter is over, then wait no longer, get out and enjoy. It seems like just yesterday there was 6 inches of snow on the ground and now these little jewels can be seen popping up all over the place. If you enjoy these seeing these beautiful little harbingers of spring, now is the time to get out and enjoy them while they last. There annual appearance seems to be the last nail in the coffin for "old man winter" but enjoy them while you can, their appearance can be as fleeting as a rally on wall street.

Darrin Doss called and said he had an itching to go after some native trout on Saturday and thought Rock Castle might be the best place to give it a shot. We could even get the "triple crown" there, a Brown, a Rainbow and a Brookie, and it's close to home. At the very least, Rock Castle is a favorite for photography, and we would be assured incredibly scenic fishing even if we didn't catch a single trout.

Heading over in the early afternoon, we were both wondering whether spring wildflowers were out yet at this elevation. I knew our usual spots for wildflowers in Henry County were already seeing Bloodroot, cut-leaf and spring beauties, but what about over in the gorge, will anything be blooming there yet. We were not to be disappointed and both of us were regretting not bringing our good cameras since we had opted for taking along our small "point and shoots." After all, the primary purpose of the trip was fishing right?

Rock Castle is a very popular spot for hikers, scouts, birders, photographers and the fly fishermen. The parking area off CC Camp Road is small, so on a beautiful day, be prepared to find a creative way to fit your vehicle in a spot. We squeezed in as best we could and stepped out to be greeted with the chilly mountain air which meant a few more layers were going to be needed for this trip. After gearing up and heading into the woods, we were reminded why this is such a popular area. It's incredibly gorgeous. It's only about 45 minutes from Martinsville and the scenery is worth the drive. Spring was just showing itself with tiny yellow and white buds peeking out on a few of the early blooming trees and shrubs and a hint of green as new leaves began to show. Just a few yards up the trail and we were greeted with a bankside covered in bloodroot, their brilliant white star blooms on fragile succulent stalks, rising up through the dead leaves and relegating winter to a distant memory. It was going to be a good day for wildfowers, I was wondering if the trout were to be as cooperative.

The plan was to hike in deeper up the gorge and fish the upper waterfall pools, working our way back downstream at dusk. It's really hard to pass up those first beautiful emerald green pools that beckon with deep green recesses under the rhododendron and rock outcrops. The plans changed, and we decided to just hit the good spots on the way up.

Darrin and I are about the same when it comes to our tactics, and we will continue to work a pool that we know holds fish, regardless of whether they cooperate. A fun way to fish these challenging waters when you are with someone else is to leap frog upstream. One goes in below a good spot and the other heads upstream and works their way back. You fish towards each other until you cover a section of stream...then head up the trail and start over in the next likely spot. This way you get to fish close and see the other's catch, or lack of, but still cover the stream without getting in each others way. This is not the Smith River where you can stand side by side and walk upstream covering both banks. Fishing here is a real challenge, and you really never get much of a cast, only a flip of the rod, which sometimes even puts your fly where it needs to be.

Darrin slipped in below the first pool and I worked my way upstream and then down to the upper pool. Making the first hook-up of the day, I pulled in a typical Rock Castle sized brown. "Hey Darrin, could these trout be any smaller," I called out. Darrin reminded me that , "Hey, if we were trying to catch big trout, we wouldn't have come over here!" True.

The creek was running large with springtime snow and rainfalls contributing to the volume. At least there was good water to fish, but I think the trout had plenty of food to choose from and so they were not as anxious as during low water times.

Further up the stream I caught the second fish of the day and this time it was a tiny, little rainbow. These fish are really small, but if you think you need big fish to have fun, you are missing the point. Just fooling these little wild trout in these gin clear waters can be quite a challenge.

Fishing finally took a backseat to wildflowers, and we began to stop more frequently along the banks. Getting out of the stream at one spot, we noticed the area was covered with Virginia Bluebells some already starting to bloom, that was a treat.

Trout fishing in these tiny mountain streams and photographing wildflowers both employ some of the same techniques....only the bloodroots are easier to sneak up on than trout!

Darrin gets close to his subject!

Latter in the day, Darrin worked a small hole for 25 minutes with 6 different flies before finally pulling in another little rainbow. We never got very far up the creek, just a little past the campground, and we didn't get the "triple crown" today, but just being here and watching the woods wake up to spring was more than enough.

This place is special. One of those Southern Virginia gems hidden away just enough, enjoyed and protected but still accessible to most anyone willing to make the journey.

Now is the time to get out and enjoy the beauty of what early spring offers in our neck of the woods. Don't put it off by waiting for the perfect day, or warmer temperatures, the wildflowers wait for no one.

Article by: Brian Williams

Photos by: Darrin Doss and Brian Williams

Edited and posted by: Vicky Thomas

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Evening Paddle on the Smith

After a very long day on Saturday, I should have just stayed home to rest on Sunday....but it's spring, and the fabulously warm weather and sunny skies were calling. No way was I going to be able to rest today. I did manage to sleep late and get a little work done in the morning, but I could only stare so long at those blue skies before I had to get moving. "Hello, this is the river calling, can you come out and play?" Work is long but time is short. Time to get moving. Fish or float...that was the only real decision to be made today.

Should I head over to Kibler Valley where I knew Darrin would be fly-fishing, or should I hit the river closer to home? Stepping outside on the deck, the wind made my decision for me. These March winds can be brutal on both fly-fishing and boating and in retrospect, maybe hiking would have been the better option? Nah, how bad could it be? I decided I'd do the Mitchell Bridge-to-Morgan Ford run. The section between Mitchell Bridge and Morgan Ford is 7.3 miles. A nice length for a 3-hour trip, but it would prove to be a 5 1/2-hour trip this time.

I've been downstream from Mitchell Bridge, and upstream from Morgan Ford, but had yet to do the entire section at once. Patty was planning on a 4-mile run at Fieldale Trail, and she was taking the puppies with her so she would help me with shuttle logistics.

Normally, winds are not much of a concern on the Smith as the high banks deflect much of the force; however, on this paddle, a strong March wind would be relentlessly blowing upstream against me for most of the trip. It seemed for every one stroke forward the wind blew me back two. It was going to be a long trip. I began to wonder if I should have put in at Morgan Ford and gone upstream to Mitchell Bridge, I doubt it would have made much difference today. I received permission from a landowner to park at Morgan Ford, loaded the canoe on the Volvo, and the dogs in the back, and we were off to set shuttle at the downstream end. It was 2:30 PM....a little late to get on the river for a long trip, but I like being out past dark, so what the heck.
A view from Morgan Ford Bridge looking upstream, the old Morgan Ford Bridge Stone pilings can been seen about 200 yards upstream.

Finally, we arrived at the put in at Mitchell bridge. I off-loaded the canoe, tossed in my gear and headed to the river. Patty pulled away and I watched as the dogs pressed noses against the back glass wondering why 'mommy' had left 'daddy' on the side of the road, even though they have seen this drill before...it was 3 PM. The wind had really picked up, and as I approached the river I knew it was going to be a long trip. The good news was the water level was about 6 inches above normal so the shallow rapids would not be an issue today.

I really like this "little used" section of river even though it's difficult to access. The neatest thing to me are the beautiful rock outcroppings viewed from the river at a variety of locations. Generally speaking, the downstream river left side is mostly wooded with hardwood ridges, occasional rhododendron patches, and the familiar rock outcrops. River right varies from low bottom land and clear-cuts to some rock outcrops and an occasional hardwood ridge. About 3.2 miles into the trip you approach the area known as "The Bent." This is a very large bend where the river is actually traveling southeast then turns northeast for a couple of miles before heading south again. There are really only class I rapids on this entire section of river; some are more like strong riffles with others having the occasional rocks, but easy enough to navigate without making any real moves. The only decision is where is the deepest part of the rapid to make it through. Just past "The Bent" when you begin heading northeast, you see the large "Whale Rock" on river right. This was the name I got from Bill Trout's Dan River Atlas, and it seemed like a good one to me.

A nice outcropping with some deep pools and a hardwood ridge with rhododendrons and huge beech trees further up. At this point, you know you are almost halfway.

Just past Whale Rock is a very nice spot to stop and relax for a while. It's a huge bar of rounded river rock with a set of rapids and a nice easy place to get out and stretch. I haven't seen a name for this place so I just called it "Gravel Bar Rapids." This will be the logical spot to stop and take a break on large group trips. Break Reed Ford further downstream would also make a nice place to stop as it has similar gravel bar areas to stop on.

I stayed for quite a while here; it was such a nice place to wade out in the river and make a few casts. I couldn't keep the shiners off my nymph, but they were fun. It was just nice to wade around and enjoy being out here. I knew by the GPS I was only about halfway and probably would not make it out before dark so there was no real rush now.

The Canada geese were keeping ahead of me all the way downstream and would squawk with my impending arrival, fly off and land somewhere out of sight. Belted Kingfishers swooped up and down the river cruising for a meal. Muskrats paddled silently across stream, dipping underwater and out of sight as I edged closer. The rock outcroppings were by far the highlight of the trip and there was even a few small rock shelters to explore.

Here is one of the larger rock shelters along the way. I had to climb up and check this one out from the inside.

Back on the river again, the sun was dipping close to the ridgeline, and I knew I only had about 30 more minutes of daylight. The moon had already come out so paddling in the dark should not be too bad, but I did start to pick up the pace somewhat.

More beautiful rock outcroppings along the way.

The sun begins to set.

I kept waiting to see a landmark known as "The Big Rock." This was a site Linda Dillard had taken Jenn and I to see 1 year ago. We had hiked a long way down the old wagon road that had run from The Bent to Eden, NC. Mr. Charles Terry had accompanied us on that day and told us all about the area and how the folks would walk from here to Eden to work at Spray Cotton Mill.

The Big Rock was a place for fishing and swimming and some weekends there would be quite a crowd down there. It's not that accessible any longer so the area does not see the kind of visitation it did in the past. Where was it? I knew by the GPS I was not there yet but once I passed it then it would only be another ½ mile to the bridge. I knew it was river right somewhere.

This was not "The Big Rock," but it was still a nice big rock.

A huge sycamore had fallen nearly across the river, and as I drifted past it I recognized the bend and where I was. Yep, just ahead was the big rock and then the stone pilings, and then Moargan Ford Bridge.

It was "full on dark by now," and I really don't recommend paddling in the dark, but I myself enjoy it. Rapids are defiantly dangerous in the dark, but I knew there were only a few shoals and riffles ahead. I put my headlamp on, but it's really much easier to navigate by moonlight if it's out. The Big Rock hangs out over the water; I drifted silently underneath, turning on my headlamp to get a closer look.

A lone star shines in the twilight sky as I slide past, or maybe it was Venus? Closer now. Morgan Ford pilings should be next. Will I be able to see them?

This is what the Old Morgan Ford Stone Bridge pilings look like in the daytime.

I could see the pilings silhouetted against the night sky and hear the water lapping around the base as I slid past, but I could barely make out the stone works. I flipped on my light and took a closer look, then drifted on down toward the iron truss shadow of Morgan Ford Bridge. Not much to see this time of night but the moon and the tree line.

Article and photos by: Brian Williams

Edited and posted by: Vicky Thomas

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Is Spring out there anywhere?

The first day and spring seems like a long way off now. Where was all this snow back in December? I must admit the big, fluffy flakes drifting silently down were beautiful, and the arrival of a flock of slate-colored juncos on the back deck feeders reminded me just why these denizens of winter are called "snowbirds."

I had put fresh bird seed out for my feathered friends early this morning before the snows came. The Blue jays showed up first, followed by the mourning doves and goldfinches before the wet stuff started falling.
Living in Florida for the past 18 years, the arrival of "snowbirds" had a quite different connotation but the little gray and white juncos hopping from deck to the feeding stations were quite different from the "condo-commandos" that invaded the sunshine state every year.

A female hangs out on the deck, picking through spilled seed as a male junco takes a break on the railing and shakes off the snow.

Tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees and a white breasted nuthatch all had came for the party. Later on, a flash of red signaled a quick stop for a male cardinal. But the snow belonged to the juncos and they spent hours pecking through the piled up flakes to get the millet seed below, stocking up before heading north. Perhaps they'll decide to hang around a few more days...I hope the snow does not.

It's still coming down out there, even harder now, so I'll make sure to get up early and re-fill the feeders in anticipation of tomorrows lunch crowd.

Article and photos by: Brian Williams
Edited and posted by: Vicky Thomas