It had been over two years since I had hiked into the park and I was anxious to see if that was still as good as I remembered. With all the smallmouth rivers still blown out from the recent rains, I rounded up Jim and we headed to the Hughes. The first big difference I noticed was that all of the parking areas near the trailhead were now clearly posted as illegal. This forces you to park in the Old Rag Mountain parking area that is a half mile walk from the trailhead. The best way to approach this problem is to drop your gear off close to the trailhead and leave your buddy with it while you drive back to the parking lot. No need for everyone to walk a half mile hauling all the gear – after all, you’re going to get plenty of exercise as you finish this River.
After jogging back from the parking lot, I linked back up with Jim and we began our walk up the gentle grade along the Hughes. Thankfully, nothing had changed. The trail is still pristine, the water was sparkling, and the pressure was light. Granted, I did not expect to see anyone at this hour of the morning (eight o’clock) but this held true for the rest of the day as well. I only saw one other fly fisherman on the water. Just like before, there are plenty of hikers grinding up the trail with no purpose other than exercise. I just don’t get it. Why walk in the woods if you can’t go fishing?
I told Jim that I wanted walk quickly up the trail and start fishing near the junction of Hannah Run — a small, pathetic stream that trickles in to the Hughes from the Northeast. Do not bother to fish up that tributary unless you are truly hard-core. Jim was happy starting to fish on the lower reaches where the river runs a little bit wider and on a flatter gradient. With that, we parted and I moved as fast as I could to get up the trail. After crossing the junction with Hannah Run, I walked an additional quarter-mile and then cut left to get back to the river. Between Hannah Run and the stream crossing point that occurs at 2.6 miles from the trailhead, the river is protected on one side by the steep hill and the trail side by dense, thick brush. If you are a trout hiker who enjoys a brutal walk to get the water, this is where you should fish. It took me a while to wind my way through the thick undergrowth to reach the stream. I broke out of the brush and slid down the bank to find myself looking at pristine water. This is true pocket water. The maximum distance you need to cast is probably 15 feet – enter the world of the roll cast!
There are a few things you need to understand about fishing this part of the Hughes. The first I have already alluded to — there is no easy way to get here. The second is that you need to be in good physical shape to climb over the rocks and fallen logs that protect the stretch of the river. There is no easy way up or down stream. As you fight your way from pool to pool, you will have to climb over rocks and wiggle under fallen trees. In other words, it’s perfect!
I came to this section of the Hughes on purpose. The last time I was here, I walked up closer to Corbin Cabin and fished my way downstream from there. At the trail crossing point, I remembered that the river falls into a steep series of waterfalls to enter a high gradient stretch. On my last visit, I noted that I needed to fish this section and was here to do that. As you work your way up the stream, you’ll go from small plunge pool to small plunge pool. While you can fish the shallower riffled areas between the pools, you only see small brookie living in those areas. The typical fish in those stretches ranges between 4 and 6 inches at most. In the plunge pools, the brookies grow big reaching 9 to 12 inches in size. As you can see from the pictures below, the backbreaking physical exertion to fish this part of the river is well worth it.
These trout are wary! You only get five casts at each pool before they know you are there. If you cast more times than that, you need to recognize that all you’re doing is getting practice. On this day, the fish were anxious to take anything off the top. I even had them hit my strike indicator the few times I switched to nymphs. I use dry flies most of the day because that was the most exciting thing to do. They hit Mr. Rapidans, mosquitoes, attractors, and ants in sizes ranging from 12 to 16.
The best bite was in the morning; tailing off around 1 PM. That was okay because I’d reached the end of this stretch and literally had to claw my way up the steep bank to get to the top of the ridge as the first step in beating my way back to the trail. I ended up having to cut my way out using the garden shears I carry in my fly vest. I didn’t realize how much noise I was making pushing my way through the undergrowth until I finally fell out onto the trail in the middle of a group of wide-eyed hikers. From their looks, I’m sure they thought they were about to encounter a bear! While I was dirty enough to be mistaken for one, I reassured them that I was only after fish. I moved back down the trail to link up with Jim as it was close to the time we had to head back anyway. I fished a little bit in the gentle gradient section at the bottom to fill in the time before I had to meet Jim and leave.
Jim reported the same good results on the lower section. He had plenty of good action in the morning and it had only just calmed down. We walked our way back out and repeated the process of getting the truck. We left all the gear and I jogged down to the parking lot to get the truck.
Bottom line: If you’re going to fish the Hughes or anywhere else in the park, do it within the next couple weeks before the water warms up. It was running a brisk 60 agrees on this day but as the water temperature increases the fish will become stressed. You should avoid fishing in the park in the heat of the summer to protect these delicate fish. A final point is that if you are going to stray from the trail, you need to be in shape. At 57, I’m grateful that I can still go where I go to get to the fish. This event today involved 7 miles of hiking, jogging and bushwhacking with a total vertical gain of over 600 feet!
One resolution I did make at the end of this day was that I needed to come back here more often than once every two years!
Getting There: To get to the southern entrance of the Hughes, go south from Sperryville on 231 and turn off on 602 towards Nethers. Continue until you get to the Rag Mountain lot. You have to park there as all the parking closer to the trailhead is now posted. Follow the Nicholson Hollow Trail – it runs right next to the Hughes.
Google Local Coordinates: 38.589848,-78.315321
Secrets Revealed? No. This is a very public location that is documented in the following places:
Flyfisher’s Guide to Virginia
Virginia Trout Streams
Virginia Blue-Ribbon Streams
Fly Fishing Virginia
Date Fished: 05/23/2009
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Downstream from the start point
Upstream from the start point
Beautiful waterfalls mark the area
The reward! Most of the guys I caught were this size
Typical bushwhack to get up river to the next spot
Plenty of pools like this!
Fishing the gentler section at the bottom
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore