“Fishin’ for squirrels?” he asked as I yanked at my line, which had cat’s cradled itself into a nest of overhanging branches. It was the first day of deer season, so I tried to take this hunter’s comment with a smile. He was feeling good about hunting, I was feeling miserable about fishing…and the worst was yet to come.
Let me backup.
The day had started better than usual with a hot breakfast and pleasant conversation with family. With my belly full and spirits high I set out for the Hidden Valley Recreation Area along the Jackson River in Bath County, Va. This portion of the Upper Jackson River above Lake Moomaw has a reputation as a good little trout stream, and although I had never seen it and the weather was chilly, I could not resist the opportunity for some fall trout fishing. I usual pack up my gear at the end of terrestrial season due to the fact that I hate nymphing…a lot. But I like fishing, and I had nothing else to do, so I glanced at the map, hopped in the car with my trusty 5wt and hit the proverbial dusty trail.
It didn’t take long to get off track. A wrong turn put me at the Hidden Valley campsite, which is not where I wanted to be, although it took me about 20 minutes to realize this and then find my way to right spot down the road. Strike one.
I eventually found the correct parking area, donned my waders, and strung up my rod. I opted for a dry/dropper rig to make myself feel a little better about the nymphing; at least a fish could take a crack at the bobber. The best portion of the Upper Jackson is a special regulation area above Hidden Valley; due to the mandatory three mile hike in, it does not get as much pressure as the rest of the river. This was my plan, but I put the kibosh on that when I realized I had forgotten to bring any blaze orange for the walk. Oh, well. Plenty of other water to fish, right?
In an attempt to not get shot, which would have been a real bummer, I decided that walking in the river upstream was probably my safest option. I was greeted with ultra-skinny water so I just began hoofing it, until I felt something funny below my feet. I looked down to see the felt sole of my left wade boot flapping in the current, hanging on by a sliver. Nothing is quite as unappealing as handling a sopping wet, frigid slab of felt in 40 degree weather. Strike two.
Undeterred, I pressed on. I tested a few holes I thought looked promising but saw no fish. Not even a sign that any fish had ever inhabited that stretch of river in history. It was about this time that I ran into Mr. Wise-Cracking Deer Hunter. Needless to say, morale was pretty low at this point, but I was able to keep it together long enough for him to get out of ear shot before I let my true feelings be known to the woods at large (Hey, he had a gun!). I broke off my flies, tied on another tandem rig – which seemed to take an hour but in actuality only took about 55 minutes – made my way to the next pool…and promptly got snagged in another stream-side bush. I do not consider myself the world’s greatest fisherman by any means, but even this was a little too much for my already frazzled nerves.
“Could this day get any worse?” I thought to myself as I tried to tug my fly out of this demon bush. Then my rod snapped in half. Steeeerike Three.
As I stared down disbelieving at the broken pieces of my favorite fly rod, I felt like Roy Hobbs picking up Wonderboy after that final foul ball. Unfortunately, I had no husky, wood working bat boy to bring me a Savoy Special, and there would be no floodlight destroying homerun on this day. It was a soul crushing end to what, until that point, had been a merely soul tenderizing day.
During the long, humbling walk back to the car I thought about all the things that can go wrong on a trip. I had covered most of them already: got lost, forgot essentials, came unprepared, broke vital equipment. Needless to say, it was not the finest day I’ve had on the water, but then again, I was on the water. Even though I was having a, let’s say “tough,” day out there, I could not help but smile as I schlepped back downstream, thinking about all the other good days I’ve had fishing. Sure I had gotten skunked, lost a bunch of flies, ripped apart my boot, broken a rod, and been heckled by a random stranger, but things could have been worse. I could have been doing something else besides fishing.