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If ever we’ve needed the restorative powers of nature it’s during this difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more people are finding peace and rejuvenation by getting outside. For those of us who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, there’s an abundance of ways to explore the outdoors.
Fishing, of course, ranks right up at the top of that list. It may surprise some people to learn freshwater trout fishing can be outstanding not only as the leaves turn majestic shades of crimson and gold, but well into the heart of winter in the freshwater tributaries that drain into the Bay.
I’m no trout fishing prodigy, but I do revel in matching wits with wiley, wild trout in quiet waters that pulse down from the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. These trout streams, enveloped in wilderness, only seem like they’re far removed from population centers. The fact is, most are closer than you may think, many with modern amenities close by. Many Bay watershed residents can be wading a trout stream in only a couple hours’ drive or less.
There’s a mythology surrounding fly fishing that it is hard to do, and reserved only for the well-healed. True, there are many nuances to the sport that are challenging to master, but anyone can catch a fish on a fly.
The innumerable small creeks and streams that spider through the Bay’s 64,000-mile watershed are tailor made for fly fishing due to their intimacy and solitude. At the risk of sounding a bit elitist, fly gear is simply the proper tool for landing fish that typically weigh less than a pound and live in narrow streams. Using spinning gear, in my humble opinion, is akin to hacking away at a fine New York strip with a butcher knife or slathering a fried soft-shell crab with mustard. It just isn’t done.
Below is a mere sampling of the countless trout fishing options that abound in the Chesapeake watershed’s sweet waters. You’ll run out of time before you run out of places to trout fish. Many of these places are nestled in the cradle of American history, places that whisper our nation’s proudest moments.
For a small state, Maryland has out-sized trout action. Formed from the coldwater springs born of the Allegheny Mountains, the Savage River is one of Maryland’s top fishing destinations for trophy wild brook. This tributary of the famed Potomac River also holds brown and rainbow trout, the browns being the dominant species.
Fall trout fishing within Savage River State Forest, which at 54,000 acres is the largest park in the state forest system, can be stellar particularly at Poplar Lick and Big Run, two of my favorite places to fish. According to Maryland’s DNR, these and other nearby streams routinely support more than a thousand wild brook trout per mile. It’s not uncommon now to catch brookies a foot long!
Trophy brown trout, John Mullican. Photo courtesy Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Inland Fisheries
Other good trout waters in Maryland include the upper Gunpowder and Patuxent rivers. Access points include Gunpowder State Park and Patuxent River State Park, respectively. The upper Potomac courses through Maryland from West Virginia, and offers plenty of pretty trout water. Both forks of this famous river offer good fishing, and there are state parks in the area that offer lodging and camping, including Cacapon Resort State Park in the eastern panhandle of the mountaineer state. The park’s name derives from a Shawnee phrase meaning “medicine waters.” It is close to the town of Paw Paw and the Paw Paw Bends, known for great paddling and fishing. Situated on 6,000 acres on the state’s highest eastern peak, Cacapon Resort State Park offers amenities all year round and is on my list of places to visit. In addition, The Cacapon and Lost River system is the easternmost stronghold for brook trout populations in the state of West Virginia.
The very upper Potomac separates Maryland from West Virginia, and its North Branch is considered a “must fish” stretch of trout sweet water. While there are no guarantees, it’s possible to score a trout “Grand Slam” – brook, brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout in the upper catch-and-release section. From the Keyser to Cumberland section of the river, smallmouth bass dominate the scene but panfish are also present.
The Old Line State’s neighbor, Virginia, boasts more than 2,800 miles of trout streams, and because the season is open year-round you’ll never tire of trying new streams to fish. Virginia’s diversified trout habitat supports both wild and stocked trout in good abundance. Two prime destinations are the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain streams. The high elevation keeps water temperatures relatively low year-round, and you cannot beat the views of the region’s picturesque valleys, containing limestone spring creeks that trout love.
Good waters to fish for reliable trout action in Virginia include Hogue Creek, Passage Creek, Shenandoah River, and Madison Run. Moving south along the mountain chain the Rapidan River, North River—both the tailwater and gorge—and Shawvers Run are good picks. Mossy Creek near Bridgewater and Dry Run in the George Washington National Forest warrant a visit.
Trout Unlimited chose the Rapidan River as one of the best winter trout fishing destinations in the country. “This is a great destination winter fishery for native brook trout in the mid-Atlantic region. The river starts in Shenandoah National Park and flows off the shoulder of the Appalachians. Most, if not all, of the trout found in the national park are native brookies, but there are browns in the lower reaches. Milder winters on the fringes of the South make the Rapidan a great winter fishery, particularly in late winter (late February and early March), where brookies are actively feeding both on nymphs and dry flies.”
Rapidan River, photo courtesy Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources
“All you need to explore these wild streams is a day off, a valid (state) fishing license, tin of flies, and a 4-weight fly rod,” says Seth Hinder, a fly fishing guide.
Guide Seth Hind, photo by Chris Dollar
One of the waters that should be on every angler’s list is Codorus Creek near Kraft Mill. Codorus Creek, which eventually drains into the Susquehanna River can be fished from the 3,500-acre Codorus State Park, nestled among the pastoral hills of southern York County. The creek offers easily accessible and wadeable water, making it an ideal stream to hone your casting skills while offering a chance at a true trophy trout. However, Hinder cautions to keep an eye out for low-hanging branches that can “dog your casts as you stalk through aquatic vegetation, searching for the gnarly rainbow and brown trout that propagate throughout.”
While it doesn't rank with western states in size, the keystone state is large by Mid-Atlantic standards, in fact downright huge when compared to Maryland and West Virginia. So you’d expect the number of parks through which you can gain trout waters is extensive. Here’s a partial list, in no particular order:
Mountain streams like Reeds Gap Run in Reeds Gap State Park hide small populations of native trout. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania DCNR
Need some help getting started? Reach out to your local tackle shop and outfitters and consider hiring a guide. Their expertise helps ease the learning curve when fishing new stretches of trout water. Do-it-yourselfers, of course, can easily spend several hours or several days exploring, or settle for a couple hours of wade fishing.
Fly outfits from three weight to five weight are ideal. Sink tip lines, intermediate sinking lines, and sinking leaders are helpful tools in the pursuit of winter trout. Proven trout catchers include streamers (#8-#10), olive and dark-colored Wooly Buggers (#8-#10), midges (#18-#24), stoneflies (#18-#20), and sculpins (#6-#10). Consult the local fly shop to dial in on what the fish are taking.
I wear breathable, medium-weight waders over two base layers made of fleece and high performance, moisture-wicking material. [Note: Maryland is among several states that has banned felt-soled wading boots to prevent spread of invasive species.] As odd as it may sound, test your waders in the bathtub to make sure they’re water-tight – sure beats finding out there’s a pinprick leak when you’re standing in chilly waters! Also, don’t forget your wading belt – cinch it tight near your chest to keep water out in case you take a spill. Walk slowly with a wide base, using a wading staff as a third point of contact. In deeper, cold streams it is an indispensable piece of safety gear. Consider wearing a PFD and plan your escape strategy before you enter the water. Both CO2 inflatable PFD or foam-filled work well. And don’t forget the safety whistle.
More information about trout fishing and regulations by state:
Savage River State Forest's more than 54,000 acres of rugged terrain challenges hikers, hunter, anglers and mountain bikers alike. The secluded forest provides shade during warm months and a cool place to camp at night.
Shenandoah National Park is your escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—plan a hike, a meander along Skyline Drive, or a picnic with the family.
Gunpowder Falls State Park protects the stream valleys of the Big and Little Gunpowder Falls and the Gunpowder River. The long, narrow 18,000 acre park ranges from tidal marshes and wetlands near the Bay to steep, rugged slopes upstream.
Codorus State Park is covers 3,452 acres in the rolling hills of southern York County. Lake Marburg, which predominates the park, has 26 miles of shoreline and is a reststop for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The lake is also popular with sailboaters, motorboaters, and anglers.
The 5,900-acre Bald Eagle State Park is in the broad Bald Eagle Valley of northcentral Pennsylvania. The 1,730-acre lake laps the flanks of Bald Eagle Mountain, surrounded by forests, fields and wetlands.
Forbes State Forest is a Pennsylvania state forest in Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry District #4. The main offices are located in Laughlintown in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in the United States. Mount Davis, the highest peak in Pennsylvania, is located in the forest.
The 224-acre Susquehannock State Park is on a wooded plateau overlooking the Susquehanna River in southern Lancaster County. Besides the awesome view, the park offers a variety of recreational opportunities for year-round fun.