Virginia's Top 5 Trout Streams

Rapidan River
  |  Gorp.com

You may hear from Virginia fly shops that Shenandoah National Park is crowded. It is. But Shenandoah National Park is a must for all anglers fishing Virginia's trout streams.

Despite the fact the park has the most traffic of any national park, solitary fishing is easy enough with a hike of a mile or two (well, sometimes considerably farther), and a topographic map is needed to reach many of the streams.

The park sees lots of campers and hikers, but there are over 40 freestone streams to choose from to seek refuge from the visitors. Most of the streams tend to be indistinguishable from one another, but there are a few that are more distinctive. Most of the park's streams are catch-and-release only with the change in regulations a few years back.

The Rapidan River is possibly the best of the park's waters and certainly one of its most scenic, easily its best known. It's an easy hike to the upper Rapidan (the road to the upper section is terrible), and the lower section can be reached by automobile. Special regulations apply to this boulder-strewn stream, but out of the park, there are no restrictions.

The Rapidan does see its fair share of mayfly hatches in the spring, but terrestrials work on the pocket water and pools most of the season, especially in late summer. I like ant patterns in the heat of summer and early fall. Flies should be bouncy and visible to both the angler and the small (6- to 12-inch) native brook trout found in every stream.

Brookie Bonanza

The streams rush down steep gradients, rarely slowing down long enough for the small trout to become picky about the next meal. Attractor flies like the Royal Wulff, Adams, and a local favorite, the Mr. Rapidan, are frequent producers.

Terrestrials are the best flies to imitate when summer heat draws the streams low. Ants, beetles, jassids and grasshoppers are a few of the best to use on these narrow, brushy streams. Light rods and light leaders are necessary to work through the dense foliage.

The Rapidan is still recovering from the floods five years ago that damaged habitat in the lower stretches. The river is a gallimaufry of pocket water, pools, riffles, chutes, glides and runs, all of them holding trout.

The Rapidan is one of the most scenic rivers east of the Mississippi. Leave the nymphs at home. Bring a box loaded with bright attractor flies. And a camera to capture the brilliance of the native trout.

Rapidan River Practicalities

Species: Wild brook trout. Remember to immediately return all these fish to the water and only use artificial flies or lures with single, barbless hooks.

Gear: Fly rodders should stick with short, light rods, 6 to 7 feet for 2- to 4-weight line. Stick with the lightest tippet you feel comfortable using. I recommend 6X. Wade wet or use lightweight hippers.

Flies: Attractor dries, small caddis, mayfly imitations and terrestrials are the most effective patterns for the Rapidan and all other all waters in Shenandoah National Park. The most famous is the Mr. Rapidan, developed by local legend Harry Murray. Another successful pattern is the red, white and blue attractor dry fly called the Patriot. Stick with patterns that, while small, have high visibility and float well. If you want to nymph (and I can't imagine why), small generic mayfly and caddis patterns work well.

Fly shops: Murray's Fly Shop, Edinburg, (540) 984-4212; Blue Ridge Angler, Harrisonburg, (540) 547-3474; Angler's Lie, Arlington, (703) 527-2524; Thorton River Fly Shop, (540) 987-9400.

Regulations: All streams in the Shenandoah National Park require anglers to use single-hook artificial lures and flies. Spincasters have success using small spinners, but the majority of fishermen are fly fishers. Most of the park's streams are catch-and-release.

Directions: From Washington, D.C./Arlington, travel west on I-66, southwest on Highway 15/29 to Culpeper. From Culpeper, take Highway 29 south, turning west on Route 230 to Wolftown. You can also take I-66 west to Skyline Drive and turn south, but you have to cut east to Sperryville then south on Route 231. Shenandoah National Park, Luray, VA, (540) 999-2243.

Suggested reading: Trout Fishing in the Shenandoah National Park, by Harry Murray (Box 156, Edinburg, VA, 22824); Virginia Fishing Guide, by Bob Gooch (University of Virginia Press); Virginia Trout Streams, by Harry Slone (Backcountry Publications).

State agencies: Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries, P.O. Box 11104, 4010 Broad Street, Richmond, VA, 23230, (804) 367-1000; Virginia Division of Tourism, 1021 E. Cary St., Richmond, VA, 23219, (804) 786-4484; 1-800-VISIT VA.

Note: Because Shenandoah National Park is less than two hours drive from Washington, D.C., solitary weekend angling on the well-known streams is next to impossible. You might try some of the tiny streams in the Jefferson and Washington National Forests for your brook-trout fix.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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