John Carlin’s Outdoors | Lessons in fishing on the Jackson River

Some trout are smarter than others, and some are smarter than people

ALLEGHANY COUNTY, Va. – The Jackson River flows cold and clear out of Lake Moomaw. So cold and so clear it is a perfect haven for trout — one of the best trout rivers in Virginia. One of the few large enough where you can fish from a boat or a raft.

“We’ve had anglers from all over the world come here to fish this river,” fishing guide Mike Rennie said.

And when they come, Rennie is one of the people who takes them.

“It keeps me busy pretty much from early spring until all the way through early summer,” he said.

I’ve been fishing my whole life, but the Jackson River trout are notoriously fussy. And I needed some help. That’s how I found myself floating down the Jackson with Rennie. He explained the rod and reel set up with which he’s had the most success.

“You’re gonna have two flies on there. So the big thing and fishing this is when we’re anchored up you always want to upstream cast,” he said.

It was already looking like a day of learning new techniques. The thing about old dogs and new tricks surfaced in my mind.

“I like the technicality of this river. Coming out here at shows your skill level as an angler sometimes,” Rennie said.

Ahhh yes. Your skill level as an angler. It’s not something you always want to know. The Jackson River felt like taking the SAT’s.

“Yeah they’re not forgiving on this river,” he admitted.

The river’s clear water and abundant insect life mean the trout are wary and not always eager to bite on a fly, which has to, therefore, be perfectly presented.

But, after a while it started to work.

A quick tug, and a nice rainbow came to net. “You fished that pocket perfectly,” Rennie told me.

Along the river, the late spring colors were showing off. There’s not much sound except for the flowing water and it’s hard to remember that lurking beneath the riffles are some seriously big fish — brown trout as big as your arm.

Mike’s client’s have caught them.

And while I was searching for that perfect presentation, I hooked onto one.

The rod bent over double and the fish began taking the slack line near the reel from between my fingers. Mike urged me to try and turn the fish, and to “get its head up.” I was trying to do all that, and manage the line so the slack was gone and I could play the fish from the reel. Alas, the fight didn’t last that long. One quick run and the brown had broken me off, resulting in some four letter fishing words.

“You broke off...that was a big fish right there,” Rennie said.

Suddenly the scenery and serenity meant nothing. The fish I just lost could have eaten the one I had already caught. I was out of my league. I failed the test.

“You need to be a little bit more controlling of that fish. You let that fish do what it wants and I can tell you it broke you off on those rocks,” Rennie said.

So now I was getting lessons from the trout and Rennie. I tried to soak it all in — but my day was turning to mush. If there is a fishing version of the yips, I had it.

What’s amazing is how many people want to risk feeling like I did right then, on the off chance they might catch one.

“Fishing brings a lot of money to this area of the world. Eco tourism in Virginia is huge and this being one of our premier trout fisheries draws a lot of people to the area,” Rennie said.

Mike tried to let me down easy. He pointed out that the water was low and clear like the sky — factors that always work against fishing.

We would catch one more little brown trout before taking out four miles downstream from where we started, Approximately at a store with the memorable name of Petticoat Junction.

But suffice to say most of the fish we drifted over were in no danger of being caught.

That’s OK, I’ve got plenty of time to study. And there’s a big brown with which I’d like to take a re-test.

About the Author

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.

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