It has been a couple of years since I last visited the North Fork of the Thornton. My last trip was a recon in the middle of the summer just to see how to get there and what the water looked like. When I arrived, I stared blankly at what appeared to be a dry stream bed and immediately wrote off this body of water in my mind. After reading others’ accounts of positive fishing experiences on the North Fork, I decided to give it another shot and pointed the truck here last weekend. I trundled in at six in the morning because I knew the parking was going to be limited based on my last experience. I was the first truck to arrive and pulled in; snuggling as close to the trees as I dared in the two truck parking area at the edge of private property. Even with that, it’s another 75 yards up the road before you cross the gate and enter into the National Park. It’s a little bit intimidating walking up the road and seeing all the posted signs on either side. Thankfully, the road provides an easement.
An easy trail welcomes you on the other side of the entrance. It’s a wide fire road that pushes a good distance into the mountain before degenerating into a small walking trail. Within 10 steps of crossing the gate, you’re faced with your first decision. The river to your left features visible large pools. Do you start fishing here or walk farther up the river to move yourself away from the pressure? I decided to skip these but you may want to take advantage of them. This is the largest water you will encounter on the river. However, once you enter and start fishing upstream, you will be captured in a small canyon that extends a quarter mile upstream.
Given my predilection to avoid pressure, I skipped this section and moved quickly up the trail. After walking for 10 minutes, I started to pay attention to the river again. You can see it bubbling on your left as you walk on the trail. And that’s the problem. It’s bubbling. At that point, the river is running through a flat section of the small valley that cradles the river between dramatic ridgelines. I started to become concerned since it did not appear to hold many fishable locations. There were dribbles of water dodging between small boulders and refusing to pool in any significant holding area that would be deep enough to support a decent size brookie.
Since I was here anyway and needed a good hike, I decided to continue up the trail. Eventually, it transitions from a fire road into a small trail terminating in a concrete post 1.8 miles from the trailhead that gives you several options. One option is to go to the left on the Hull School trail and that will take you back across the river. The other option was to stay on the Thornton river trail that parallels the river farther upstream. It’s worth taking a quick diversion on the Hull School trail. It’s only 25 yards and the trail deposits you on one of the larger pools in the river. Fish it and return to the Thornton river trail.
Continuing up the trail, it transitions into a general uphill rise that eventually drops back down to cross the river. At that crossing, there is a “good” (it’s all relative) pool so I decided to start my fishing at that point. The stream crossing is approximately 2 miles from the trailhead and I’m sure the pressure evaporated with every step I took away from the truck. That conclusion was immediately reinforced by the brook trout in the pool. I crawled up the left-hand bank, extended my Tenkara rod and began casting the light furled leader terminating with 7X tippet into the gentle current that ran against a large boulder on the other bank. Bang! An 8 inch brookie. Clearly, this was the place to be. I was using a size 18 blue wing olive and continued to get hits as I hunkered on the edge of the pool for a half an hour. I decided that this would be as good a place as any to begin my trek up the river bed and began dancing across the small boulders and dodging fallen trees to move upstream.
From here on out, you can expect randomly dispersed larger pools connected by a trickle of water flowing over a 10 foot wide river bottom. The other pools you’ll see are small 2 to 3 foot plunge pools that collect at the base of small elevation breaks behind large boulders. Each of these pools hold small trout but nothing big. Reserve your effort and attention for the “larger” pools that you will eventually encounter.
Your next landmark is where the faint trail crosses the river again. If you leave the river at that point, you’ll miss a couple really nice pools that are just upstream — so stick with it and fish in the river until you encounter a huge tangle of trees that provides a significant barrier to further progress. The good news is that the trail is just off to your right and you can climb up the steep bank to regain your footing and move quickly up river. I walked on the trail until it returned to the river at the 2.25 mile point. There are a number of good pools just downstream of that location that deserve to be fished. Upstream, it looked like the water gets skinnier and since I was already 2.25 miles from the truck, I decided to leave further exploration to another day.
Bottom Line: I need to change my opinion of the North Fork of the Thornton. It’s clear that there is not much pressure on this body of water since it is so skinny and the hike is so long to get to decent water. If you need a workout, this not that strenuous of a hike because the trail is level with a gradual uphill rise throughout its course.
The other key piece of advice is that the water is so skinny here that if you use spin gear you’ll be frustrated the entire day. With few exceptions (such as the initial stretch near the gate) none of the pools are long enough to allow you to get a decent cast and activate the action of your spinner. Even though this is not designated as fly fishing water, the terrain dictates that that is the weapon you need to bring.
Getting There: From Warrenton, head west on US211/522. Turn right onto Rt 612 prior to entering Sperryville and follow it to the end. If you cross the North Fork of the Thornton, you have gone too far.
Google Local Coordinates: 38.692611,-78.270807
Secrets Revealed? No. This is a very public location that is documented in the following places:
Flyfisher’s Guide to Virginia
Date Fished: 5/15/2010
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Initial view of the river beyond the canyon – skinny
Pool at 1st crossing
River runs wide and shallow in most places
Pools like this are the best to fish
Decent 6 – 8″ brookies…. note that the Tenkara rod does not have a reel!
Crystal clear water.. running over a wide bed
Plenty of fallen timber to make travel difficult
Another good pool
View downstream from the turnaround point
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore