A Guide to Small Stream Fishing in Virginia for Native Trout

Expert Baily Dent shares about small stream fly fishing for trout in her home state of Virginia, covering everything from where to fish to the perfect presentation.

A man holds a small brown trout in his hand. They are both partially submerged under moving water.

Photo by Hunter Brumels

I was lucky enough as a teenager to get into the sport of fly fishing without having to take a trip out West. While staying at a cabin along the Jackson River in Bath County, Virginia, I was first exposed to the pure thrill of catching a rainbow trout on the fly. Living in Virginia presents an incredible diversity of options for fly fishing with many wild-trout streams. This is a sport that you are able to do all year round in some of the world's most beautiful places. There are thousands of miles of Virginia waterways that are designated stocked trout waters or have bass, sunfish, black crappie, channel catfish, and trophy smallmouth bass, but my favorite waterways are the naturally sustaining fish populations—which include everything from rainbows to brown trout, and my personal favorite, the brook trout!

The Appalachian mountains are the origin point for brook trout populations the world over. Brook trout you find out West were not native to Montana and Colorado and are often referred to as "invasive brook trout" as they were transported from their native home in the Appalachian mountains—ranging from Georgia all the way up Eastern Canada. These are the oldest species of trout in the world and our small mountain streams here in Virginia are an angler’s playground for catching them.

Most of these fish are in the 6-10” range, and large brook trout in the northeastern United States are 12-14”. While some of the brookies found farther to the north can range upwards of +20”, this is highly unusual, even in Canada. They may be small, but they never disappoint in their colorful finery with beautiful blue halo spots and bright orange fins and bellies, voracious appetites, or their tiny but feisty and furious fights when hooked. There is no better surprise than hooking into a brookie that runs line and makes you wish you had chosen that Battenkill Disc over the click pawl reel!

We are also lucky enough to have many bodies of water that are native trout streams with naturally reproducing populations of rainbow and brown trout. While catching +20-inch hatchery fish is always fun and widely available to anglers in this area, most any experienced angler will tell you there is nothing that compares to hooking into a wild fish. While they may not have the size of their stocked counterparts, the challenge of catching these wily and cunning survivors and the level of their fight when hooked makes it well worth the challenge!

Where to Fish

A waterfall glides down large rocks amongst fallen autumn foliage.

Photo by Baily Dent

Living just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, one of my closest and favorite wild trout streams is the North Fork of the Moormans River. This is about six miles of mountain stream water with a naturally sustaining brook trout population. There are several other great options throughout this park including St. Mary’s further to the south, Payne’s Run on the western side of the park in Waynesboro, Doyle’s, The Rose, Hughes, Big Run, and White Oak Canyon to the north. Also partially inside the park as well, as its own public land, is the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area.

The Rapidan River is the main focus of this area and, inside the park, features the former summer retreat of President Herbert Hoover at its headwaters. President Hoover lived at this camp for most of the spring and fall months, and it was where he and his prestigious guests, like Charles Linberg and Thomas Edison, enjoyed trout fishing.

Also accessible from both the Shenandoah National Park and Rapidan Wildlife Management Area is the Conway River. This special fishery not only features native brook trout but is also home to wild brown trout.

Other great opportunities for native small streams lie in the western mountains of the state inside The George Washington National Forest. This area features one of the largest native fisheries, The Dry River. The Dry is a large freestone stream and is one of the most densely populated native brook trout streams in the Mid-Atlantic region. There are 11 miles of easily accessed water full of on-average 8-11” brookies. Further upstream there is also a nice fishable section of water called the Skidmore Fork that is full of more native fish species and offers some of the best fishing.

A man crouches on the bank of a stream in shorts and casts. To his side is a large, fluffy black-white-and-brown dog.

Photo by Baily Dent

Located within both the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests is Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness. This seven-mile stretch of freestone stream offers some remote fishing over its 6500 acres and is teeming with trout. Hone Quarry Run, Piney River, and Shoe Creek are other productive native brook trout streams within the Jefferson National Forest. North Creek is also one of the hidden jewels within the Jefferson National Forest, producing not only native brook trout but also an extremely healthy population of wild rainbow trout.

The Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is the southernmost park in Virginia that features two really lovely native fisheries. Big Wilson Creek is a fishery that produces some excellent native brookies as well as wild rainbow trout. The White Laurel is one of the hidden gems of the state and one of the few watersheds that present an opportunity for an angler to achieve a Trout Slam—catching a native brook trout, wild rainbow, and wild brown trout. There are several other rivers and lakes in Virginia that anglers can achieve this on, but most are stocked with one of the three species of fish, so finding a fishery that supports a healthy trout habitat and extensive population of native trout species is truly something special.

There are a few other notable fisheries located outside of national park and forest land that are public water and are maintained by chapters of Trout Unlimited. The South River in Waynesboro, Mossy Creek in the Shenandoah Valley outside of Harrisonburg and Buffalo Creek in South Western Virginia are a few of our special regulation waters. Each of these areas requires a special landowner permit to fish but is easily obtained for free on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website. These special regulation waters all provide fishermen with the opportunity to catch wild trout (with creel limits instead of catch-and-release-only restrictions) and provide some of the most unique Virginia fly fishing experiences, known to produce the kind of trophy fish you see people posting on social media!

Accessibility

One of the hardest parts of targeting native trout is finding access to the water you plan to fish. Most of the fisheries I have discussed are deep within national parks and don't always have easy access. So for some, you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle or to plan on spending some time hiking in order to get to your fishing spot.

Many of these areas, such as Ramsay’s Draft and the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area, offer copious campsites and make for a great multi-day trip just to see how much water there is to cover and how much ground there is to travel.

You’ll want to make sure you do a little research and plan your outing. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources is a great place for fly anglers to find information on public access points and trails, maps on all these streams as well as license, fee information, regulations, and a daily stocking schedule. Calling a local fly shop or reaching out to a Curated Expert are other ways to get more information on planning your day on the water!

Gear Requirements

Fishing small streams requires some unique gear that you might not always use in other fishing situations. Oftentimes, you are fishing narrow streams that are only a few feet across and have dense foliage encroaching upon the waterway. These areas are also hard to access and can require some bushwhacking through the underbrush and other heavy vegetation. For these reasons, a smaller, lighter fly rod is a must. The ideal small stream fly rod is a 7’6” 3-weight. These rods are short enough to maneuver through the woods to reach your destination and still have the backbone for those larger 12-14” brookies you are lucky enough to encounter every now and then! Because these streams are oftentimes so shallow and clear, a superfine fly line is recommended. These lines are finer and usually a more muted color so that it blends better with the canopy above you and is less likely to spook the fish on a cast. Several companies make fly lines specifically for this purpose, such as the Orvis Superfine Hydros, which is my personal favorite fly line for brook trout fishing.

Because most of these fisheries are so remote, you often are doing quite a bit of hiking to reach the fishable water. A good pair of ultralight waders and boots are usually a necessity for small stream anglers. These items feature superior breathability which will offer you greater comfort as you will be considerably more active than if you were fishing a larger body of water. Hip waders are another great option for small stream fishing as streams are usually not much deeper than mid-thigh in the deepest pools. I recommend a stocking foot hip wader so you can still invest in a quality pair of wading boots which will give you superior traction on wet rocks, will last for the long term and give much-needed support when hiking through mountainous terrain to reach the water.

Lastly, make sure you have your fishing license! You need not only a freshwater license in Virginia but also a Trout stamp as well if you are going to be fishing stocked trout water between October and May. From June 1st through September 30th, you do not need a trout stamp. There are daily, yearly, and lifetime options as well as special rates for visitors from out of state. These are easily obtained online through the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Fly Selection

Someone holds a yellow and brown fly in metal forceps. The author stands in the background and casts.

The Mr. Rapidan fly. Photo courtesy of Baily Dent

One of the best parts about small stream fishing is that it is one of the best opportunities for dry fly fishing. Brook trout are extremely opportunistic and frequent feeders, so strikes on a dry fly are quite plentiful and quite aggressive for such small fish. On the best days of fishing, it is not unusual for an experienced angler to catch 30-50 fish in the course of a few hours!

There are a few patterns I always make sure to have plenty of in my fly box when I head to any native trout stream, especially one with brook trout, but these lures will work almost any day on all native species and will allow you to match the hatches of the best trout streams.

The Mr. Rapidan is a fly local to central Virginia and was developed by local Angler Harry Murray and named after the Rapidan River where it was created. This fly doesn’t really imitate any particular insects and is just a fantastic stimulator fly that brook trout especially can’t seem to resist any time of year. If I were to only have one fly in my fly box, the Mr. Rapidan would be it.

Parachute Adams are always a go-to fly for any species and the Purple Parachute, in particular, is like filet mignon to brook trout. If they will not take one of these, then they are not taking dry flies, period, and it’s time to tie on a dropper.

In the summer, brookies feast heavily on terrestrials such as beetles and ants, so always make sore to have a good selection available in your box.

In colder weather or the hottest parts of the summer months when water temperatures are at extremes, brook trout will behave just like their larger cousins and slow down and stick to the deeper pools. At times like these, a dry dropper is a great combination to fish. Pheasant Tail nymphs are always found in my fly box and are usually a sure bet. Zebra midges are another that almost always produce fish. Most of the mountain streams have a healthy population of crustaceans, so mini crawfish nymphs are always great to include in your box and squirmy worms never hurt to have on hand either. Hare’s Ears and Copper Johns are two classics that you should always have on hand and round out any well-stocked box.

Deeper pools are often where you will find those “trophy” brook trout. Don’t be afraid to tie on streamers in these pools as these little guys have eyes bigger than their stomachs and will smash a Wooly Bugger with the same abandon as their bigger relatives. Clouser Minnows and crayfish flies always produce, and I always make sure to have some of the Chuck Kraft Classic Kreelex in a variety of colors. Kreelex is another Virginia-developed fly, and brookies are just as susceptible to this modern classic as any trout species. Dead drifting these baits in faster riffles with more oxygen in the summer can be especially productive just as it is with larger trout, and stripping streamers in the early fall to males who are almost ready for spawning is always something else!

Presentation and Casting Techniques

Taken from afar, the image shows the author using the bow and arrow casting technique above a small stream.

Using the bow and arrow cast. Photo courtesy of Baily Dent

These two factors are going to be your biggest influences on whether you catch a few native fish or if it’s going to be a 50 brook trout kind of day. One of the most fun parts about fishing native streams is the stealth factor that is involved. Due to the smaller size of the water and the lack of depth, the fish are much more aware of what is happening above them. For these reasons, it’s more akin to hunting than fishing. You need to almost stalk the water. Stay lower to the ground, move slowly, and stay out of the water and off the gravel as much as possible!

Fishing my way upstream is one of my favorite tactics as well. The fish tend to be looking upstream as they are feeding and, by making your approach and casting from the bottom of the pool to the top, you offer less opportunity for your quarry to catch sight of you and spook.

Most of the pools are going to be narrow and only a few feet in length. With the amount of vegetation that tends to be growing over these small streams, an approach from downstream gives you an opportunity for a decent backcast on a longer pool and sets you up for a more precise drift down to the fish on a shorter run. Sticking to dark spots or shady areas with a dark background will help keep from casting a shadow over the pool and disturbing the fish.

Identifying the seam in the water is also key here. Spooked native fish leave little room for multiple casts so making sure you take the time to read the water and plan your presentation is essential. Take the time to observe the pools as you approach and take note of whether the fish are sitting directly in the seam, to the sides of it, at the head of a pool, or down by the tail. This will give you the best opportunity to utilize your first cast and place your fly appropriately in the seam for their feeding habits, giving you the greatest chance of success.

There are many instances in small stream settings where you will find the need to utilize and perfect a couple of special casts. The most common and useful cast you will become proficient at to become successful in a small stream setting is the roll cast. This cast requires almost no backcast and yet will give you the greatest distance and still provide a delicate presentation of your fly. To perform a roll cast, you strip the line out in front of you, bring your rod up and just slightly behind your shoulder at about 90 degrees, just enough that your line forms a D shape with your rod, then you bring your rod tip forward in a quick, smooth movement to shoot the line out.

The other specialized cast that you need to master on small streams is the bow and arrow cast. This is especially useful in situations where fish are hiding under low limbs, between tight rocks, or under logs or outcroppings. There is no backcast of any kind needed to perform this, as you actually spool in much of your line, pinch your fly between your fingers (careful of your hook!), and gently bend back your rod tip until there is a nice bow in it. Use your rod tip to sight where you want your fly to land and then release! This is also one of the best ways to cast without any chance of the line landing on the water spooking these little guys. It takes some practice to master but is well worth the effort! If you want more information on these two types of casts or want to learn about other techniques, check out this article on casting.

The author squats above a creek in waders while holding a large brown trout out of the water above her floating net. She has a big smile on her face.

Photo courtesy of Baily Dent

Small stream fishing is not for everyone, but it affords some incredible opportunities to truly connect with nature in some of the most remote and beautiful settings in the world. The solitude of these remote location offers a true escape from modern life and lets you slow down and return to a simpler way of being. It creates an excellent opportunity for us to connect with a more primitive form of self as most native streams provide idyllic multi-day backpacking and camping excursions. It also gives anglers a chance to observe and experience the importance of conservation and, through this, educate others on the subject.

If these all aren’t reason enough to give it a try, the take by a native fish on a dry fly is truly what the sport of fly fishing is all about, and there is absolutely nothing more thrilling than finding and landing that monster native fish that every angler dreams about posting on their Instagram!

If you want to get geared up to try it for yourself or if you have any questions, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.

Like this article?
Share it with your network

Written By
I started fly fishing when I was in my teens with my Grandmother on family trips. Over the last 25 years I have been lucky enough to fish out west in Colorado and Wyoming as well as the Adirondacks in New York. The list of places I hope to go is growing ever longer with New Zealand and Iceland with...

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read Next

New and Noteworthy