Fishing Virginia’s Famed Brook Trout

Photo: Kyle Mccann

Fly-fishing purists and beginners alike can benefit from hike-to-fish options across miles of mountain streams teeming with native brookies.

Untouched mountain streams, beautifully colored wild fish, and voracious takes to a delicately placed dry fly: The pursuit of Virginia’s native brook trout has all of the elements that a fly-fishing purist could desire. Tucked into the storied Blue Ridge Mountains, you’ll find fish dotted throughout numerous ranges, near and far from the Parkway and national parks and forests. Your best bet is to grab a map, a short and feathery fly rod, look for a blue line (indicating a stream/river) and take a hike! 

Though you might assume that the brook trout is a trout by its namesake, they’re actually in the Salmonidae family and a subspecies of char. The largest brookie ever recorded pushed the scales over 15 pounds and it’s not uncommon to find large specimens in northeastern Atlantic coastal areas. But that’s not the case in Virginia. Expect your average fish to range from 6 to 10 inches, with a trophy being any wild fish above 12 inches. 

Where To Find Brook Trout in Virginia

Unlike the non-native brown and rainbow trout of Virginia, brook trout require cold water for survival; they thrive particularly well with permanently cool or cold water spring sources. Start your search for Virginia’s native brookies in mountain streams that are typically surrounded by forest coverage, which helps stabilize optimal water temps (under 75 degrees in the summer). One note on helping sustain healthy fish habitats: Above 68 degrees, fingerlings are in high danger of mortality, and above 72 degrees, fish populations are severely stressed and better left alone. 

The most revered location to target this Virginia native is in Shenandoah National Park and its 70 fish-abundant rivers and streams. Featuring a conservation-minded fish management plan to protect these native residents, the park does not stock fish within its boundaries, meaning that trout (of all kinds) are wild fish born in their natural habitat. Notable rivers providing consistent numbers of fish are the upper reaches of the Rapidan River, the Rose, Conway and Hughes to name a few. With thousands of miles of ideal brookie waterways spread throughout Virginia, there’s no shortage of streams to explore. 

Another federally preserved area, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest provides more-than-ample opportunities. Combined, the two forest systems cover 1.6 million acres and offer over 2,300 miles of streams. Best bets for a brookie in GWJNF are North Creek, Dry River, North River, Laurel Fork Creek, Big Stoney Creek and the South Fork Piney River. 

Outside of national parks and forests, Rapidan Wildlife Management Area (one hour north of Charlottesville) and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (three and a half hours southwest) also provide exceptional options within their boundaries. Need a quick-strike creek mission closer to Charlottesville or Roanoke? Try the North Fork of the Moormans (located near the southeast boundary of Shenandoah National Park).

Photo: Kyle Mccann

Brook Trout Tackle Tips

What the native brookies lack in size, they make up for in their action-packed willingness to take a dry fly. Because of their preferred habitat, bug hatches can be prolific, from spring to fall, making fly pattern selection relatively straightforward. A parachute adams, elk hair caddis, or purple haze will fool most interested parties. And in the summer, terrestrials like beetles, ants and stimulators will do the trick. In the cooler months and the warmest of days, look toward deeper pools and find success with a dry-dropper rig, nymphing or a slowly stripped wooly bugger. While targeting these beauties with a fly is the most common tactic, they can also be fooled by a well presented in-line spinner, worm or fly larvae attached to a light spinning-reel setup as well. 

To harness the full experience, a 2- to 4-weight fly rod on the shorter end of the spectrum is your best bet to cast most efficiently, as most creeks are lined with trees and bushes, offering minimal backcasting space. Additionally, you’ll have less weight to carry if you decide to hike farther into the more remote streams. Add to that setup a 2- to 4-weight fly reel packed with a small creek-specific fly line to load the rod in tight quarters, and you’ll be set for success.

Pro tip: One fly in particular can stack the odds in your favor: Mr. Rapidan. Dating back to the ’70s where it originated at Murray’s fly shop in Edinburg, Va., the Mr. Rapidan fly family was created specifically for choppy mountain water. When it comes to both floatability and visibility, many local anglers swear by this fly as kryptonite to the native brook trout. 

Extend the Adventure

The rustic Rapidan Camp, originally the mountain getaway for former President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, offers overnight shelter with a view to the past (subject to reservation availability) along with direct access to the Rapidan River.

Looking for a more bare-bones trip to add extra days? Jeremy’s Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park offers beautiful views, ample backcountry camping locations, and frequent side-hikes off a well-manicured riverside trail along a stretch that’s teeming with your target (a backcountry camping permit is required.)

More Info

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.