With the early March sun struggling to melt the last of the winter’s snow, I pulled into the parking area at the Massie Gap campground in Grayson Highlands State Park. This was going to be good. While the lower section of Big Wilson was getting hammered after the winter stocking, the road fishers were nowhere in sight up here. According to the park information, the trail to Big Wilson is a steep 0.7 mile climb that they rate as “difficult”. Perfect.
I yanked my gear on quickly to keep the morning cold from penetrating the several layers of clothing I wore, punched the button on my GPS to mark the truck as a waypoint and strode over to the sign at the trailhead to look at the challenge ahead. The Wilson Creek trail runs down a steep grade and then follows the gentle uphill gradient of the creek for a mile or more. It is well marked by RED blazes on the trees, so even though the trail was covered with a 3 inch crust of lingering snow, I knew it would not be a problem finding my way. Besides, I had a map and the GPS. Pretty tough to get lost with that combination.
The first part of the trail down to the creek is pretty gentle, but then it takes a steep pitch down. The really hard part is only 0.25 mile and then it eases up. I took a short break at the end of the pitch to consider my options. Should I follow the trail to the creek or just cut over? I could hear the strong rushing noise of water and it did not seem that far away. I decided to follow the trail for another 100 yards or so and then cut down at the first chance.
That strategy landed me on the creek at a “bridge” constructed out of two random logs that spanned the creek bed. You would have to be insane to try and walk across that with the rocks and the water underneath. Since I was not here to hike, that was not an issue for me as I slid down the snowbank into the cold water.
36 degrees. Rats. Water that cold would mean I would have to really get lucky to catch anything. Trout do not move much until the water temperature breaks above 40. But, I was here. It was beautiful. And there was an entire new world to investigate.
I rigged up my 4 wt rod with a BWO with a small stonefly dropper. I hoped that as the sun hit the stream, it would change the temperature enough to coax the trout into a small amount of activity. Ready to roll, I started to roll cast into the current; looking for the seams and trying to get my fly into the right place.
This was tight! Even though there was no vegetation on most of the trees, the rhododendrons still had all their leaves and formed a protective shield on the creek; promptly grabbing my fly. After losing the rig, I knew I had to be more tactical with tighter shorter casts. I waded to the middle of the stream to take advantage of the natural, narrow break that occurs at the center and slowly worked my way upstream. I peppered the likely spots and managed to avoid further loss of flies. No luck. Nothing moving.
As I continued upstream, the character of the gradient changed from gentle to steep causing me to climb over some pretty huge boulders to find pristine, hidden pools nestled in places that were totally inaccessible given the icy conditions. These were summer spots and an attack on them would have to wait a few months. The additional obstacle of the slick ice and snow made fishing them a madman’s gambit on this day.
I switched out the BWO and moved to a double nymph rig with a stonefly on top and a small prince on the bottom. Since I was snagging the bottom, I knew these were bouncing at the right depth. Still no luck. I pressed on and diverted around a snaggle of thick brush and boulders by hopping back on the trail. When it veered back to the creek, I slid back down and moved over to the water at another steep pitch where water spread out like a fan over broad, flat rocks. This might be the ticket! That water would warm a bit over the rocks and the pool below might harbor some active trout.
I moved cautiously over, poking my wading staff at solid cracks to gain some leverage when disaster struck. My cleated boot slipped a bit and I fell a few inches against the boulder. As my thigh connected with the boulder, I heard a sharp crack. No, not a bone. Something worse. I knew instantly what had happened. I looked down in horror to see my 4wt dangling in two pieces held together by the fly line. While the Personal Locator Beacon I always carry would get me out of a broken bone pickle, that would not help with a broken rod. This trip was over.
Total Vertical Gain = 475 ft
Sadly, I gathered the shattered pieces, took one last longing look at that warm pool and staggered back up to the snow covered trail. It could have been worse. Besides, I had a backup rod in the truck and the lower section of Big Wilson was waiting for me.
The walk back to the steep pitch was not bad. Since I had moved upstream, it was mostly a traverse that trended downhill until the trail turned sharply up the mountain for the hard climb out.
As a veteran of many hikes in Colorado, I was aware of the “Swedish lock step”. This is a technique that everyone should apply to any climb uphill. When you take a step uphill and shift your weight to the uphill leg, continue the uphill stroke to actually lock your knee. This allows your straight leg to bear the weight of your body without having to keep your leg muscle tight to hold a bent leg.
In effect, it gives the muscles of that leg a short rest as you reach forward with the other leg. Step, lock, step, lock, step, lock. Try it the next time you have to move up a steep hill. You will save plenty of energy and the climb will be easier.
In short order, the truck heaved into view. This hike was done. Fishless, but satisfied with the morning, I sucked down a hot cup of coffee and loaded the truck to head to the lower, stocked section for the afternoon.
Bottom Line: A classic trout location. If you are in shape, the walk will be worth it just for the scenery. The higher up I walked, the better it got. The tough hike down to the water probably eliminates all but the hardy few. Since there was still a good layer of snow on the ground, I could not assess if the area had trash or other indicators of heavy pressure. Given the walk, I’ll bet you will be the only person on the water if you visit.
Getting There: Mapquest yourself to Troutdale, VA. From Troutdale, go south on 16 and turn right onto 58. Follow 58 to Grayson Highlands State Park. Turn right and go up the hill. Take the second right after the overlook at Massie Gap. The trailhead is at the left right before you enter the campground. Here’s the park map.
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
Trailhead. Some hardy soul walked in ahead of me but gave up. Those tracks turned back at the steep section
Looking upstream from where I hit the water
Downstream from where I hit the water
Taking a short break in the sun
The higher you go, the tougher the climb gets
The “warm water” pool where my rod broke.
The trail is well marked with red blazes
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore