Right about now an escape to a cool, high-country trout stream sounds pretty good to most of us, doesn’t it?
I was fortunate enough to enjoy that escape and pick up some fly-fishing tips from a young guide with an old guide’s experience in a visit to Virginia’s Dan River recently.
Cole Stewart has been fly fishing pretty much since he was old enough to prowl the steep country of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he’s gotten a whole lot better at it since becoming a guide at Primland Resort, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection spread around the world, not far from the tiny village known as Meadows of Dan, Virginia.
Primland is a unique upscale resort dedicated to outdoors sport, including fishing, kayaking, hunting and, of course, golf. You can not only chase stream trout but mountain lake bass here, hunt pheasants, chukar and quail, and with luck maybe bag an 8-point whitetail buck in the fall season, or a big gobbler in spring. The property spreads over some 12,000 acres of mountain forest and valley just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the elevation a usually-cool 3000 feet. (They’ve had none of the fires, smoke or heat that’s plaguing trout country across the west this year.)
The Dan River is a spring-fed stream in its upper reaches, becoming a tailwater stream further down-river. The result is prime trout water year-around, and the no-harvest rules inside Primland keep the fishery pristine and productive.
Stewart’s favored summer tactic is to fish the classic “Hopper and Dropper” setup on a 5-weight fly rod. A size 8 or 10 foam hopper goes on a 5x tippet about 18 inches above a size 16 bead-eye wet fly. The hopper keeps the sinking fly from snagging on the rocky bottom of the Dan, and also acts as a strike-indicator—a “bobber” in other words.
We geared up at the lodge’s well-equipped gear lodge with chest waders and wading shoes and loaded into a heavily-used 4 x 4 for the trip to the river, down a series of dirt switchbacks that would have challenged a mule.
Deep in the canyon of the Dan, the air has a pale chartreuse hue from all the vegetation on the walls above, and the air smells faintly of blooming rhododendron and mint. Bear trails, yard-wide slides down the hill, show where the bruins come to drink.
“I’m not much of a bear hunter,” says Cole as we pass yet another trail. “You shoot one bear you’ve shot ‘em all—I like whitetails because every rack is different. And turkeys—now they really get my heart going—go easy now, there’s a big brown trout in this next pool.”
And sure enough, there is. Because the Dan is not harvested, the fish here take up long-term residence in certain locations, and Cole knows them like old friends.
Though the trout are lightly-fished, they are not idiots like hatchery trout, however—it takes a decent cast and a good drift to fool them.
“A 15-inch fish in here will be 6 years old or more and it’s been caught several times,” he says, showing me how to roll cast the hopper/dropper upstream for a drag-free drift. “So if you do things wrong, you don’t catch that fish.”
I’m a fair-to-middlin’ saltwater fly fisher with a few tarpon and a whole lot of redfish and snook under my belt, but fishing a fast-flowing stream with light gear requires a whole new set of skills. Cole is patient, however, and before long I get that perfect drift on the perfect pool and the hopper takes a quick dive showing that somebody below has grabbed the wet fly.
A sleek 14-inch brown, a quality fish on this stream, soon lies gasping in the net, poses for a few quick photos and then slides back to his domicile. Not long after comes a series of little 10-inch browns, all eager to eat in the same riffle, then a nice rainbow, and then, amazingly, a 14-inch brookie.
“This brook trout I think is a refugee from downriver stocking,” says Cole. “That’s the only way it can be this big—and the color doesn’t look like our native brookies, either—it’s a lot brighter.”
It definitely is, a sparkling jewel of a fish. Be that as it may, we photograph the brookie and put it back for Stewart and his clients to catch next time around. We have, by accident, caught a mountain slam of all three species of trout found here.
The river meanders on for miles through the depths of the valley, with lots of slicks and runs, an occasional small waterfall, pools up to 3 feet deep—sort of a Disneyland for trout, designed by nature, and without the usual trails along its sides or the debris left behind by anglers who don’t believe in packing out what they pack in. It’s a look back into what trout streams once were, a privilege to experience, even for a little while.
Primland’s accommodations and restaurants are world-class, from the lodge itself, which sports a one-of-a-kind observatory attached, to cottages overlooking plunging gorges to full-sized homes adjacent the greens. Find out more about the resort here: http://www.primland.com.
By Frank Sargeant, Editor