Yet another weekend of high, blown out water on the major smallmouth rivers in Virginia pushed Lon and I back to the Shenandoah National Park. I had heard from a SwitchFisher reader that Doyles River was productive and protected as a result of the grueling hike required to reach the River. It sounded perfect to me, but I did not really appreciate the definition of “grueling” until I survived this hike.
Lon and I were fat, dumb and happy as we drove out to Skyline Drive. After paying the fee at the Ranger Station, I pointed the truck south and we endured the 20 mile drive at the excruciatingly slow 35 mile an hour speed limit that is strictly enforced on Skyline Drive. As we drove towards the trailhead, we discussed the advice the Ranger had given us when we paid the fee. We asked him for recommendations on the best way to get down to Doyles River and the Ranger recommended we hike in from the Jones Run instead of the Doyles River trailhead. He assured us we could fish Jones Run as well as Doyles River. When we eyeballed the map, it appeared that Jones Run was a longer walk but it looked like a gentler gradient as the trail ran with the contour lines, “gently” dropping as opposed to the precipitous nature of the Doyles River trail that cut directly across all the contour lines to reach the valley. Not knowing any better as both options looked tough, we decided to go with the Ranger’s advice.
After gearing up and surviving a little bit of initial confusion at the trailhead on which way to go, we headed towards the Jones Run Falls. The minor confusion stemmed from the intersection of the Appalachian trail with the Jones Run trail at the boundary of the parking area. The Appalachian trail runs parallel to Skyline Drive in this section, so if you remember to go downhill, you will choose the correct trail. Normally when we walk into a location, our conversation centers on the weather, conditions and likely flies to use when we reach the water. Here, it was a constant litany of:
“This is going to suck on the way back out”
“This is going to kick our butts on the way back out”
“We are going to hate life on the way back out”
Granted, I’m 57 and I’m lucky to be in shape to do this type of a hike but this would’ve kicked my butt at 30. The trail winds its way down a gentle gradient until you reach the falls. Here the trail takes a dramatic pitch straight downhill as you navigate tight switchbacks that go directly down the face of the mountain. Once you reach the bottom of the falls, the trail levels out but continues its torturous downward pitch. We breathed a sigh of relief as the trail finally leveled off in the valley floor. We passed a group of campers and asked them if they had been fishing. They told us that they had not, but had seen plenty of fish when they walked by the Doyles River Falls around the corner. It turns out that “around the corner” is about a half mile up from the confluence of the Jones and the Doyles. We decided that we wanted to fish the higher volume of water that would be downstream of the confluence so ignored the upstream guidance and started to bushwhack our way downstream. Once you leave the trail, there is no trail — pretty obvious statement.
With an eye on the time and the assumption that would take us twice the time to get back out as it did to walk down, we pushed downstream as far as we could tolerate as we passed pristine plunge pools and sparkling runs. We finally could not stand it any longer and Lon peeled off as I continued another hundred yards downstream to put a reasonable distance between us so we could both fish up this narrow river. That hundred yards grew to 200 as I continued to see good-looking water downstream. I finally reached my breaking point — not physically, but mentally — as I could not stand to ignore any more of the great pools that I passed.
Just as I was settling in at the first pool I was going to attack, I got a call on the radio from Lon that the Mr. Rapidan pattern was already productive for him. I tied one of those on as well as a size 16 black fly dropper and flipped it into the pool. It only took three casts and the brookies began to attack it. I even had a hit on both flies at the same time. As I crouched behind the rock in true mountain fishing form, the trout attacked anything on top. I was able to work this pool for 30 to 45 minutes; missing far more fish than I caught. The brookies here are large and healthy, and it was not uncommon to pull in fish that were 8 to 10 inches long. I stuck with the dropper idea until it became obvious that it was screwing me up more than was helping as the dropper would get tangled or hung up. We were both using 7X tippet to make sure that we had the maximum amount of drag free drift on the small hook sizes we were using.
Doyles River is a stream where you can’t ignore anything. It seemed like, even in the narrow sections, that every large rock had a pool behind it that was a foot or two deep. There was just enough water in the small sections to support at least one fish that was big enough to be a thrill to catch. In the larger pools, I switched to streamers but they turned out to be uninteresting to the trout – dry flies only. Once I lost my last small Mr. Rapidan, I switched to mosquitoes and general attractor patterns and continued to have good success.
Total measured using my Garmin 60CSx was 1,586 ft
A few words on the environment. The river is tight. I recognize that the water levels we experienced were a result of the high amount of rain we’ve had over the last couple of months. I imagine that in a normal year, the levels are lower. However, the size of the fish we encountered argues that there is enough water in this part of the Doyles River to support decent growth. The river has a cobbled rocky bottom and cuts through a fairly steep canyon. There’s a small shelf on each side of the river that you can bushwhack your way through, but it is not easy going. The river is protected by thick band of vines and small scrub saplings that will make you wish that you had not assembled your fly rod up at the confluence. In fact, don’t do that. As the shelf approaches the river, it drops off with a 10 to 15 foot pitch that forces you to locate your entrance and exit points from the water with care. There are plenty of trees that have fallen in and across the river that cause the water to back up and form good pools. Do not ignore the runs if there is at least a foot or so of water in them. They will support decent sized fish in addition to the hundreds of small fingerlings that will jitter and chatter at your fly as it drifts by.
This was a spectacular day! We worked up the river for 4 hours and just as we reached the confluence Lon’s rod broke. I carry a collapsible spin rod in my backpack but it would have been inappropriate in such tight water to use that type of gear. There simply was not the length to allow a spinner to be thrown and put into motion except in the largest of the pools. We looked at each other and agreed that we need to go get one of those very short mountain pack rods that Flyfishing Benefactors sells. One of those would have fit perfectly in our backpacks and been a good emergency rod to use when something like this happens. I’m sensitive to this because I broke 2 rods so far this season as a result of untimely falls on hard rocks that broke tips. That’s not such a big deal if you’re reasonably close to your truck but is a tragedy if you are 1,500 vertical feet and 3 miles away from your vehicle. I’m definitely going to order one of the pack rods before I venture back into the Park again.
Since it took us an hour to walk down, we assumed it would be a two hour hike on the way back out. With that in mind, we headed back up the mountain at around 2 PM because we want to see what the North Fork of the Rivanna looked like and maybe throw a fly or two at smallmouth. I’ve got take a minute here and brag on both of us. It took me 63 minutes to get out and Lon was right behind me. Not bad for two guys in their mid-50s. But! If you are not in good shape, don’t even think about trying to walk into this place. The hour on the way back out was like being on a stairstepper. 1,500 vertical feet down and back up in a single day is a lot! Granted,,much of it was on gentle uphill grade but it’s still a long way. In total, we hiked over 7 miles to get in and out of this location. I’m sure that’s what protects the fish here from pressure. We saw no evidence of other humans once we left the trail at the confluence. We left every fish we caught in the river and would certainly expect anyone else who goes here to do the same
Bottom Line: Superb mountain fishing. IF you are in shape, you will have a great time here. If you are not in shape, don’t even think about walking in. I looked at the map and following the Doyles River trail would have added 200 vertical feet to the 1,500 we did but would have cut off 1.25 miles from the hike – your choice!
Getting There: From Rt 29, turn west on Rt 33. Follow it up to the turn onto Skyline Drive. After you pay the entrance fee, turn south and go to mile marker 81 where the parking area is for the Jones Run Trail. Follow the Jones Run trail to the confluence of Jones Run and the Doyles River.
Google Local Coordinates: 38.230258,-78.693888
Secrets Revealed? No. This is a very public location that is documented in the following places:
Date Fished: 06/26/2009
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Typical Doyles Brookie
You can sit on a pool like this for 30 minutes and catch 5 – 6 fish
Wherever there is a deep hole behind a rock, there is a fish
These gradient breaks are typically unproductive
Did anyone say it was tough going? YES
Classic park pocket water
Scenes like this make the walk worthwhile
Still smiling… but the walk out was ahead of me!
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore