There are few places more steeped in Southern lore than the Shenandoah Valley in the western portion of Virginia. Using the town of Lexington as our headquarters for targeting wild brook trout in the Old Dominion, that history literally surrounded us.
Lexington is the home town of Virginia Military Institute and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (as well as being the general’s final resting place). Once we headed out to go fishing, it was along the Lee-Jackson Highway, traveling north to the crossroads at Steeles Tavern and on into the George Washington National Forest. Our destination was the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area and its namesake river.
The St. Marys River is a rough and tumble flow rising near the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Big Levels area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a fishery, the stream has a checkered history. Starting in 1910 up through World War I, the Pulaski Mining Company virtually destroyed the fishery with its iron mines in the St. Marys’ valley. The resulting acidification of the water continued to limit the fishery for eight decades.
Then in 1999 the state dumped 140 tons of limestone sand in the river and its feeders to counteract the acid. In the ensuing years the wild, native brook trout have reclaimed these waters.
Parking at the edge of the wilderness area on a weekend, the lot was full of vehicles. All but one of those turned out to belong to hikers and backpackers, leaving the water to myself, Polly Dean and that one other angler.
The river was running a bit high from earlier rains, which, along with its naturally shallow, tumbling nature, limited the holding water we could fish. On the other hand, drifting a dry fly through any deeper runs and pools produced strikes from brightly colored trout in the 6- to 9-inch range.
Bigger fish exist here due to the special regulations limiting anglers to harvesting only two fish per day that must be larger than 9 inches. That leads to a preponderance of brookies of just under that size limit, with the possibility of occasionally taking a bigger one. By Southern Appalachian brook trout standards, that is a good population.
Any angler wanting to mark a native Southern Appalachian brook trout off his bucket list of species will be hard pressed to find a more scenic area in which to do it. Best of all, it doesn’t require a multi-mile back country hike to reach the fish.
Jimmy Jacobs has been fishing the trout waters of the southeastern states for more than 50 years. He was the editor of Georgia Sportsman magazines for a quarter century before retiring in 2014. He also was the outdoor columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for eight years and was an on-air fishing reporter for Fox Sports Outdoors for four seasons. Additionally, he served as editor of Southern Saltwater Fly Fishing Magazine.
Today he is a partner in ON THE FLY SOUTH, The Journal of Fly-Fishing Destinations and More in the Southeastern States, Caribbean and Central America.
Jimmy is a member of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association, Georgia Outdoor Writers Association, and Southeastern Outdoor Press Associations. In 2015 he was inducted into the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame. In 2017 he also was elected to the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians Hall of Fame and the Georgia State University Athletics Hall of Fame.
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