A Vagabond Fisherman Finds Harmony on a Treasured Virginia Creek

By Mike Tapscott

The buzz of my cell phone alarm woke me from a deep slumber in a cheap motel on the edge of Harrisonburg, Virginia. I rolled onto my side, fumbled for the phone on the nightstand, hit the button to turn off the annoying sound and read the time: It was 4:15 a.m.

After taking a quick shower and dressing, I walked outside to my Subaru parked a few feet beyond the door. I drove through the early morning darkness past auto parts stores and fast-food franchises on the town’s main business thoroughfare and turned left onto a road that ran between the tin buildings of a poultry plant. My destination was the 257 Grocery. I wanted to be the first fly fisherman to cross the store’s threshold after it opened at 5:30 a.m.

The road left the town and entered the rolling pasturelands and corn fields of the Shenandoah Valley. Barns, farmhouses and silos formed black silhouettes against a cobalt sky speckled with the occasional sparkle of stars. A golden glow on the eastern horizon hinted that the sun would rise within an hour.

Country store owners in the Shenandoah have successfully fought the Dollar General juggernaut that is steadily driving locally owned crossroads stores toward extinction. The 257 Grocery stands at an intersection behind two gasoline pumps and a gravel parking lot. I arrived just a few minutes past the scheduled 5:30 opening. A middle-aged woman wielded a spatula at a grill behind the counter, frying up palm-sized mounds of pork for the sausages-and-biscuits preferred by rural Southerners eating breakfast on the run. 

“Did I make it in time to get a fishing permit,” I asked the woman, fearful that other, more avid trout anglers had beaten me to the allotment of fishing permits for Beaver Creek. Only four anglers can fish Beaver Creek per day and I knew the creek attracted dedicated fishermen, some of whom may have awakened earlier than I did to snatch the coveted permits. 

“You’re the first one today” she told me. “Sometimes people are waiting in their cars out front waiting for me to open the store so they can sign up.”

I invested too much in this angling adventure to let somebody beat me. I was ten days into a 34-day fishing trip that carried me from my Mississippi home through 10 states in the Appalachian Mountains. I had already stalked rainbows, browns and brookies in narrow mountain streams in North Carolina and drifted tiny nymph flies in a Tennessee tailwater and would fish waters in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont after leaving Virginia.  

This was my third, month-long, solo fishing trip in as many years, an annual getaway that I conceived upon recovering from cancer in 2020 and turning 65 a few months later. I altered my approach to life, convinced I was in a race against time and needed to pack in as much fun as possible before a bad back, or worse, limited my recreation.  After a 40-year career in journalism and law in which I took just one vacation that lasted more than week, I disappeared each summer for extended escapes to mountains and trout streams. I vaguely knew where I wanted to go when I pulled out of my driveway for each trip but let fishing successes and failures dictate my specific itinerary. 

On this latest iteration of the annual angling adventure, I wound up at the Mossy Creek Fly Shop in Harrisonburg, a stylish college town in the valley just west of the Shenandoah National Park. The fly shop owner suggested I try a two-mile stretch of Beaver Creek managed by the Massanutten Chapter of Trout Unlimited with the approval of farmers whose land bordered the stream. So here I was before daybreak at 257 Grocery signing a guest registry and receiving one of the four coveted fishing permits.

I returned to my room for a little more sleep and then left again after the sun rose, retracing most of my route to 257 Grocery. Daylight revealed hillsides where black-and-white dairy cattle grazed and juvenile corn stalks grew. Farmers lived in two-story, frame houses beside white barns, many of which had native stone foundations. Tall silos completed the trinity of farmstead structures. Mennonites worked much of the land, their farms revealed by clothes lines with flapping denim overalls stretching from farmhouses to barns. Women in ankle-length dresses and bonnets pedaled bicycles to and from crossroad stores.

At the instruction of the fly shop proprietor, I drove to the Ottobine Elementary School across a rural road from Beaver Creek to park my car. I arrived just before school as children piled out of a line of cars. Feeling like some creepy interloper and uncertain what else to do, I joined the cars and immediately felt out of place. I left the line and parked as unobtrusively as possible in a parking space in front of the school, only to be redirected to a gravel parking lot on the far side of the school buildings by a stern-faced schoolmarm.

I pulled on waders, assembled a fly rod and walked across the road, the air yellow and hazy in the morning light. A wooden, hand-painted sign that read “Beaver Creek,” nailed to a fence post, confirmed I was in the right place.

I have fished for trout in the four corners of the USA, from Vermont to New Mexico and Georgia to Washington state. I’ve wrestled brown trout in wilderness rivers where I worried about grizzlies, balanced on boulders in tiny blue line streams in the Smokey Mountains and dredged nymphs through southern tailwaters stocked with rainbows. 

Beaver Creek felt different.

This creek was neither wild nor completely domestic. It was pastoral, a flyfishing idyl that conformed to my imagined, more refined fishing tableau of England. I’ve never wet a hook in the UK or traveled outside London, but I have started (but never finished) The Compleat Angler and viewed videos of anglers in English chalk streams. In my mind, our angling cousins across the ocean toss dry flies in gentle streams passing through meadows where sheep graze. They reach the water by walking down country byways fronted by centuries-old cottages.

Beaver Creek followed the contours of a steep hill on which one of the landowner’s home and barn sat. An asphalt drive crossed the creek and followed a serpentine path up the emerald hill to the home. Barely wider than the distance an Olympic long jumper clears, the creek alternated between slow runs and riffles that whispered the song of moving water. The creek flowed through open grassland studded with dun-colored rolls of hay, disappeared into thick stands of saplings and emerged again into pastures or cornfields.

A tiny slice of Beaver Creek

Beaver Creek hasn’t always been as healthy as it is today. Volunteers for Trout Unlimited returned the stream to its pre-agriculture clarity by planting trees, grasses and wildflowers along its border and restoring eroded creek banks. They then restocked it with trout, which confirmed the quality of the water by reproducing. In exchange, landowners allow four anglers to fish the catch-and-release stream each day. Everybody won. 

I walked beneath fruit trees and tried to avoid trampling wildflowers bursting into blues and reds as I picked my way to the edge of the creek. I hesitated to dip my wading boots into the clear water, fearing that I was threatening some delicate and fragile watery world nurtured by dedicated anglers. The urge to catch fish, however, prevailed and I waded a couple of feet and began casting.

I drifted dry flies — yellow sulphurs and elk hair caddis — through a slow run without success. I moved downstream and continued to float flies through successive flat waters and riffles. Still no hits. I chose dry flies because of the thrill of watching the splash when a trout attacks a floating, faux insect and continued with them long past the time that logic dictated another strategy. 

I parked myself behind a series of boulders that sat in water on the near bank, forcing me to extend my casting arm over the water and flick my line upstream with backhand casts. After a couple of fruitless drifts with dry flies, I gave in and rigged up two wet flies – a midge and nymph – beneath an orange bobber. (That’s a “strike indicator” to snobby fly fishermen.) My luck changed on the first drift. The bobber plunged beneath the surface, and I set the hook. 

The fish fought valiantly, zig zagging from one bank to the other and bending my willowy rod double. I was forced to extend the rod over the stream to guide the fish away from the boulders that could entangle the line and snap it in two. After a few minutes, a husky, 17-inch rainbow made its way into my net. I caught a couple more rainbows at this spot and few more upstream, all on the wet flies, before I quit for lunch.

I walked back to my car to retrieve peanut butter and honey for lunch when a couple of men replacing a roof on a home across from the school intercepted me. The older man was loquacious and kept telling me about the nefarious conduct of the local Mennonites before I could escape. I suspected that the Mennonites farmers, by dint of hard work and thriftiness, may engender resentment among some of their neighbors.

I fished awhile in the afternoon heat with mixed success and then went back into Harrisonburg for ice cream. I returned in the comparative cool of late afternoon determined to reach my goal of snagging fish on dry flies. I tied on an elk hair caddis and moved upstream into a copse of deciduous trees sheltering the creek and achieved success. My floating caddis disappeared into watery eruptions as rainbows fell for my fake insects.  

It was a satisfying conclusion to a memorable day.

As I drove from Beaver Creek back to Harrisonburg and my cheap motel (“Cheap motels” are important to my self-image as a trout bum.), I dwelt on the moving parts and cooperating parties that contributed to the Beaver Creek fishing experience. A word came to mind: Harmony.

So many people in the rural valley worked in harmony to create a wonderful trout stream and associated angling. The local Trout Unlimited chapter persuaded farmers to let them perform the digging and planting that transformed the spring-fed waterway into a refuge for trout and a healthy, scenic stream. Landowners reciprocated by opening their property to anglers. The clerk at 257 Grocery interrupted her early morning grilling to register Beaver Creek anglers without any clear financial benefit for the store. Ottobine school loaned its parking lot to fishermen for no reason other than being a good neighbor. The fly shop promoted the whole enterprise. The roofers who disliked the Mennonites…..well, we’ll disregard them.

The beneficiaries of this harmony? The obvious are rainbows, brookies and browns swimming in the piscine version of Heaven. Farmers enjoy an attractive stream bisecting their pasture and row-crop land, and anglers pursue trout that sometimes exceed 20 inches. 

Then there is the unintended beneficiary:  A gypsy fisherman from Mississippi relieved to be cancer free and doing his best to enjoy life as much as he can before creaking knees or a sore back slows him down. For that, I’m grateful.

— Mike Tapscott is a semi-retired country lawyer in Tupelo, Mississippi, who has finally achieved his dream of spending more time on a trout stream than in a courtroom.