Virginia's Top 5 Trout Streams
The Allegheny Highlands of northwestern Virginia are lightly populated, thickly forested, and home to the 1-million-acre George Washington National Forest and some of the better trout streams in the state, including the large limestone tailwater, the Jackson River.
The Jackson River is a wide river, fishable by boat (the preferred method in the tailwater section), stocked with rainbow and brown trout, many of which hold over through the winter and grow to bragging sizes.
Like many of the limestone streams in the state, springs feeding this river keep it cool, filled and fishable throughout the hot summer days. The best section of the Jackson to fish is the 13-mile stretch of the Gaithright Wildlife Management Area.
The Jackson River has become a worthy trout producer in its middle 20-mile section below Gaithright Dam because over the last few years, coldwater flows have been regulated. But—and this is a big but—access has become an issue the last few years.
And access to the tailwater section, which runs through mostly private property, is under constant review of public access for anglers. All that means is that if the tailwater sections are difficult to access (an ongoing battle between anglers and landowners for 30 years), anglers will have to try their luck in the underrated upper freestone stretches.
Big Water, Small Flies
The river below the dam is big water, in places 100 feet across. Like most tailwaters, the featureless, slow-moving water provides few obvious targets for the fly rodder. Long pool after long pool are separated by ample pocket water and riffles. The long still-water sections requires long leaders, sight casting, and plenty of patience.
But if you cast and mend well, you can have incredible success with small flies dropped onto a long, flat glide to a rising trout. You'll probably run into anglers who tell stories of catching 20-30 fat browns and rainbows, some better measured in pounds than inches. But with all the pressure on the Jackson, you will find these to be exceptions to the rule.
The river is heavily stocked, but regulations prevent creeling any trout, so the Jackson has the potential to become one of the better streams in the East. The potential is good for naturally reproducing populations of trout. The river has hatches of mayfly and caddis, and fly fishermen can have luck with both dries, nymphs and sculpin patterns.
Almost all the water is wadeable with hip waders or lightweight chest waders, but most anglers will float the tailwater section. Keep your eye out for marked property and make sure to check the regulations book for updated rules. Landowners are serious and if you want to avoid trespassing and/or a shotgun encounter, be aware.
Jackson River Practicalities
Species: Brown and rainbow trout, both wild and stocked, live in this wide limestone stream. Your catch will normally measure in the foot-long range but you might tie into some of the big fish 16 to 20 inches long. The biggest browns lurk under overhanging banks and in the deepest holes.
Gear: An 81/2 foot, five-weight rod is the ideal stick to wave at these big browns, but you can wield a 4- or 6-weight as well. If you plan to spinfish, you can upgrade from the usual ultralight gear and use your smallmouth bass rig. Wear chest or hip waders with felt soles.
Flies: Elk Hair Caddis (#12-#18), March Brown, Dark Hendrickson, Blue Winged Olive, Patriot (#10-#16), Sulphur (#16-#18), Midges (#18-#24), Black Fly Larvae (#18-#20), Crayfish (#2-#10), Muddler Minnow (#2-#10), Woolly Buggers (#2-#10), Helgrammites (#2-#6), stonefly nymphs, Beetles, Hoppers, ants, Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph, Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear.
Fly shops: Outpost Fly Shop, Hot Springs, (540) 839-5442; Jim's Fly and Tackle, Charlottesville, (804) 978-7112; Stoney Creek Tackle Co., Charlottesville, (804) 973-5151; The Tackle Shop, Charlottesville, (804)978-7112.
Regulations: The river is heavily stocked, but regulations prevent creeling any trout, so the Jackson has the potential to become one of the better streams in the East.
Directions: From Roanoke, travel north on US 220 to VA 39, turning west until 621, turning north to the Hidden Valley Recreation Area. George Washington National Forest, P.O. Box 233, 101 N. Main St., Harrison Plaza, Harrisonburg, VA, 22801. (540) 433-2491.
Suggested reading: 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.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication