As Originially Published in The Virginia Sportsman, Winter Issue 2023
Story by John Kelly
Fly fishing has a way of getting inside your heart and staying there. Once you find your way to the water, chances are you’ll find your way back, even if it takes a while.
Wes Hodges had his first fly fishing experience at the age of 13 at a Boy Scout camp in Colorado. His mother had given him $100 spending money, and as Hodges likes to tell it, he blew a good piece of it on fly fishing right off the bat. It would be the first time he would bet on the sport, but certainly not the last.
The sights and sounds of those Colorado days never left him. As it usually does, real life intervened in his story, including a ten-year stint as a sniper in the 82nd Airborne that included multiple tours in Iraq. When Hodges returned stateside for good, Hodges landed in North Carolina, and then at Virginia Tech, where he found himself a home away from home on the New River and began working as a part-time guide. “I absolutely fell in love with it,” Hodges remembers.
After a brief stint in Ecuador and a six-year flirtation with corporate America, Hodges and guiding finally made it official with the founding of Wesley Hodges Fly Fishing, located in the heart of the Alleghany Highlands, one of Virginia’s most remarkable natural playgrounds, The company runs between 500 and 600 trips each year on seven bodies of water, including the New, James, and Jackson rivers, and offers an overnight full-service lodge and dining experience for up to 14 as well as camping and glamping options.
The business quickly proved a natural fit for Hodges’ interests and abilities. The only thing that can match his passion for the outdoor sporting life is his passion for and interest in people. “I am very intrigued by everybody I meet. I ask a lot of questions and really want to learn who they are and what they want to do. To me and my guides, it is about much more than just taking people fishing.”
Hodges’ military experience is another key to his success when it comes to the preparation and precision his clients have come to love. “A good experience is generated by the whole gamut of day, from always being on time, to being properly dressed to looking like a professional and having high-end, well-maintained equipment to making our lunches by hand on the water,” he said. In fact, clients have likened their sandwich stops to a premier deli experience on-the-go. Also harkening back to his training, Hodges and his team put communication at a premium, with frequent check-ins from the moment of booking to the float itself to make sure the team has all the information it needs to deliver the premium experience its clients deserve.
He and his fellow guides (8 in all) begin each day at 5:00 AM attending to every detail and monitoring a myriad of variables including weather and water levels, among others. “We talk every day,” Hodges said. We share information. Every day of the week at least one of us is on the water, so when you look at some 600 floats a year we do, you have what is basically a constant living fishing report that we have that allows us to shape each trip we do based on what our clients are wanting and what the fish are doing.”
Hodges is also careful to properly match his clients and their needs with the right guide from his team. “Each of our guides have different personalities. Me? I am a damn hammer, man. I keep people at it. I keep ‘em going. Some other guides are more passive. They may be more likely to say to a client, let’s really get absorbed in nature, and I am hammering clients to hit that, hit that hit that!”
In fly fishing, as it is in real estate, the top three factors are “location, location, location.” That puts the Alleghany Highlands at the top of the list for fly fishers not only in the Mid Atlantic, but around the country. “We have seven bodies of water we can float on,” Hodges said, “and they are on different sides of the mountain, so we always have fishable water. We can adapt every single day. I recently did the math and determined that there are somewhere between 350 and 400 miles of water for our guide team to lead trips on.”
As if the stunning waters aren’t enough to new and established angler alike from around the nation, Hodges explains that it is what those clients see, or in this case, don’t see on the rivers’ banks that is perhaps most remarkable of all. “Alleghany County is the outdoor mecca of Virginia or a reason,” he said, “but what most of our clients comment on is the just how ‘wild’ it truly is. The land here is very much untouched. There is hardly any development, you don’t have wave after wave of people coming in, and you don’t have to wait in line for anything. It’s just the wide-open national forest.”
This fact is hardly lot on Hodges’ customers. “When we take people on floats in the summertime, one of the first things they notice is that they don’t’ see a home on the river. You can go from the Upper James, where our Lodge is, for about 50-60 miles and you won’t see a house. On top of that. If you fish during the week, you probably won’t see another soul on the water. We have it to ourselves.”
Hodges and his guides welcome everyone from beginners to the most experienced anglers. “I love working with the entire spectrum,” he said. “With beginners, it is about teaching them the proper habits, really starting from scratch instead of trying to correct habits. They get really excited, and that excitement is contagious. Then, with the more experienced people, if they are not turning fish right off the bat, they can really get in their heads about it. That’s another challenge I love. In the end, it’s about relationship building, because as I always tell people, I am in the relationship business, not the boat turning business.”
For more information and to book your trip today, visit wesleyhodgesflyfishing.com.
Beauty and solitude are also at a premium for stream-loving fly fishermen in the Alleghany Highlands, whether you are heading off on your own adventures. It’s always easy to find well-spaced access points, especially given that some 50% of the land there is within a national forest. The 2,350 Lake Moomaw, a hotspot for trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, perch and panfish. Doutthat State Park’s lake and streams are well-stocked with trout during the Spring and Fall and bass and panfish all summer long. Even more opportunities await on the Cowpasture River, Dunlap Creek, Jackson River, Potts Creek and Smith Creek.
Those looking for a more private experience can choose the 485-acre Escatawba Farms, located in the heart of the George Washington National Forest, and known for an abundance of heavy rainbow brook and brown trout. It’s two-mile-long Dunlap Creek runs through two gorgeous miles of mountain terrain, and the property also includes three spring-fed ponds. To guarantee a peaceful and quiet experience, Escatawba Farms limits the number of rods on the stream each day.
While guests there can expect privacy, they should not expect an easy fly-fishing experience. “I don’t stock an artificially high number of fish,” said owner Derrick Barr, now in his 25th year of running Escatawba Farms. Located in Covington, Virginia, the site regularly draws fishing enthusiasts from throughout Virginia, North Carolina and beyond, and boasts a return guest rate of 85 to 90%. “We make it a natural experience, and with this clear water, which has all the characteristics of a spring creek, you really must be on top of your game. We get a lot of experienced anglers coming through here – you have to use small flies, and a lot of the time you need double and triple rigs, and a lot of times double and triple rigs and 6x and 7x tippets. Fly fishing is a thinking man’s sport, and you really have to figure it out.”
Barr came to the fly-fishing business a quarter century ago after a trip to Montana, where he realized that if people loved the sport enough to fish there all winter, they would certainly do the same in the more temperate Virginia winters. It was basically love at first bite. “I feel like a rich man, because as they say, if you do what you love, you won’t work a day in your life.” Even after all these years, Barr finds thrills in even the smallest moments. “It is pretty cool when you can look up one day and see an 18-inch Brown Trout on a size-23 zebra midge and bring it to hand, that’s a pretty cool feat. If you can do that, you do just about anything else.”
To plan your Escatawba Farms escape, visit escatawba.com.
The region offers a variety of lodging experiences, from high-end resorts like The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to hotel and small inn experiences like Cliff View in Falling Spring, Virginia. This nature lover’s dream getaway along the Jackson River offers its own fly-fishing experience, along with plenty of hiking and a beautiful 18-hole golf course that serves up stunning mountain and river views throughout. The property features nine uniquely designed bedrooms along with a fully stocked kitchen, dining room, living room and plenty of gorgeous outdoor spaces to choose from. Casual dining at its finest is available at The Brewhouse at Cliff View, one of the newer and more popular restaurants in the Alleghany Highlands – known for its juicy burgers but featuring a menu with something or everyone, plus live entertainment, plenty of cold beverages and live entertainment.
For more information on all that the Alleghany Highlands have to offer, visit visitalleghanyhighlands.com.
Photos Courtesy of the Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Tourism