With a sense that the smallmouth season had ground to a close on the Rappahannock and Rapidan, I wanted to go check out some of the mountain trout streams to see what shape they were in as I switched gears and rekindled my passion for trout. I had not been to White Oak Canyon since 2006 and decided that it would be as good as any place to go to conduct the switch. I enlisted Lon and we headed out at the crack of dawn; reaching the lower parking lot a little before 9 AM. The first thing we did was walk a quarter-mile to the bridge over White Oak Canyon to see if it had any water. On the drive up, we had been casting anxious eyeballs on the Robinson River into which White Oak Canyon feeds. It was as close to a dry creek bed as you could get and still call it a “River”. The view from the bridge was not good. There was a small trickle of water running downstream and we faced the dilemma of what to do. We decided that since we were here anyway, we would head upstream in the hope that some of the deeper pools would still be active.
White Oak Canyon is not a trout hike for the timid or out of shape. As you can see from the elevation profile the net vertical gain was almost 1,000 feet. However, that’s a net gain. Looking at my GPS, the actual gain with all the little ups and downs that the mapping application would not pick up was almost 1,600 feet. If you’re not capable of dealing with that strenuous of a hike, I recommend you not go here — especially since the better water starts above the second falls that is over a mile from the trailhead.
We skipped past the swimming hole below the first falls and followed the switchback around to the top where we abandoned the trail and shinnied along the steep mountainside to get to the ledge overlooking the falls. The water was disappointing. The trickle we saw down below persisted up here. After a few halfhearted flips at pools that could not have been over 6 inches deep, we bushwhacked our way up the streambed. We did not encounter fishable water until reaching the deep pool at the base of the second falls. It looked like there was plenty of water spilling in but upon closer examination, you could tell it was only a thin sheet sliding down the sheer rock face that loomed above the pool. Lon started to work the pool with some dry flies and the “little guys” were happy to attack his fly. The older, bigger fish are much smarter than their younger counterparts and declined to participate.
After watching Lon for a while, I resumed my climb up the steep mountainside. You really have to be careful here and test you footing as the surface of the rocks can become slick when damp. I moved cautiously to the top of the precipice and was rewarded to discover another nice, deep pool. I stood and fished this pool for an hour without catching anything. There was activity — fish were attacking my Adams pattern but they were the miniature trout that are aggressive but are not big enough to inhale a fly. I did see some larger fish huddled on the bottom but even when I pulled various streamer patterns in front of them, they expressed no interest.
Giving up, Lon and I continued to climb our way upstream. The net of fishing here is at the pools that are worth stopping for are few and far between. However, the ones that do exist and hold larger fish are all routinely deep — much deeper than two or 3 feet. After fishing these without catching anything to brag about, I worked my way upstream until I was closed out by the sheer cliff face you can see in one of the pictures below. At that point, we moved back to the trail and followed it 100 yards up the mountain just to see what else was in front of us. The answer was, “not much”. Still just a trickle water and when I climbed another 50 yards upstream to peak above a fallen log in hopes of seeing another treasure pool, I was disappointed to see that the trickle continued upstream… but there was another log in the distance and the promise of better water… but I was out of time.
Bottom Line: While White Oak Canyon is an exceptionally scenic place with dramatic cliff faces and waterfalls, it’s just not an exceptional fishing destination. Granted, there are plenty of smaller trout that range in size up to 4 to 5 inches along with a few larger versions, but there just aren’t enough to make this a fishing trip. In fact, this was more of a hiking/mountain climbing event. However, I do need to point out that this recon was done at low water levels. I’m sure the big boys know that as they huddle in the deep cracks to avoid predators – they may come out when the fall or spring rains fill this stream to capacity. A final note of caution to anyone who reads this is that the trout will start to spawn within the next couple weeks and you should not hit the mountain streams while that is going on.
Getting there: Locate the town of Etlan on MapQuest – it’s on VA state route 231. Follow the signs for White Oak Canyon – From the north, turn right onto 643 and follow it until it deadends in a T-intersection. Turn right. Go about 3.6 miles or so and you should see the sign to turn left to enter the White Oak trailhead area. You will have to pay a fee to enter the park (recommend an annual pass as it is good for all entries).
From the ranger shack at the top of the parking lot, head to the northeast and you will pick up the White Oak Canyon Trail. Just follow the trail – well marked with the blue blazes on the trees – and try and contain yourself as the water immediately starts looking good.
Google Local Coordinates: 38.539187,-78.348484
Secrets Revealed? No. This is a very public location that is documented in the following places:
Date Fished: 10/9/2009
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A glorious morning view – sun and crisp air!
This is the path upstream… rough walking!
Skip the lower falls and move upstream to this one
Looking down from the top… this is mountain fishing!
Long, hard climbs to small pools like this one
There were very few of these deep pockets
Another deep spot… very few larger fish
Eventually, you close out in this canyon
A rare flat spot
View upstream from the turn point
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore