Fly Fishing the Shenandoah in Spring

Fly Fishing the Shenandoah in Spring


Winding through the shaded, hardwood forests of Shenandoah National Park are some of the finest brook trout streams in the Eastern United States. Established as a National Park in 1935, the fishing remains as good today as it was in the days President Herber Hoover made his summer camp on the banks of the Rapidan River. The 200,000 acre Park is one of the largest wilderness preserves in the Eastern United States, making it a paradise for backcountry anglers who enjoy solitude, and don't mind stretching their legs to find the best water.

Shenandoah old-timers know spring is the best time to fish these rivers. Sparked by warmer water temperatures, the trout awaken from their winter dormancy, and feed on the heaviest mayfly hatches of the year. Starting with Quill Gordon emergences in mid-March, and ending with Light Cahill and Sulphur hatches in May and June, I'll take you through the very best of what the spring season has to offer, and then share with you some of the waters I've been fishing successfully for more than 30years



March Hatches 

In the middle of March, water temperatures reach the low 40s which is the turn-on point for good brook trout feeding. This is also the temperature at which Quill Gordon (Epeorus pleuralis) mayflies start hatching. When Art Flick and I first identified this hatch in the early 60s, we were amazed to find how early the hatches started. I've kept stream notes every year since that time, and found the average starting date of the Quill Gordon hatch on most Park waters is about March 15. After a long winter of very little feeding, the trout break into a feeding frenzy when this hatch appears. There are simply too many insects on the water to ignore. release As I fish my way upstream during the Quill Gordon hatch, I break each pool into small pieces, and fish each productive feeding station very carefully. Anglers who rush to the head of the pool and start casting before they study the water often miss the best fish. The first spot I expect to take a trout is what I call the lip of the pool--the soft spot where the water slows before plunging out of the pool. Often the largest trout in the pool will hold in this feeding station, sipping in mayflies as they pass overhead. My favorite fly for this hatch is a #14 Mr. Rapidan dry fly. I designed this fly specifically for the hatches and conditions you'll find in the Park in the early season. It floats well in choppy currents, is easy to see, and has caught a lot of fish over the last 15 years.


Mr. Rapidan EmergerMr. Rapidan Emerger
HOOK: Mustad 3906B, #12-#16.
THREAD: Tan 6/0 prewaxed nylon.
TAIL: Ringneck pheasant tail fibers.
RIB: Copper wire.
BODY: Brown Hare's Ear dubbing.
WINGCASE: Mallard flank dyed dark gray.
COLLAR: Brown speckled Indian hen back.


Occasionally the streams are a little high in March, and then the most effective tactic is fishing nymphs upstream dead-drift through the deep pockets and runs. Some of the best nymphs include: Mr. Rapidan emerger (#12-#14) , Red Squirrel Bead-Head (#12-#14), and Murray's Cranefly Larva (#12-#14).
Blue Quills (Paraleptophlebia adaptiva) mayflies start hatching in late March and overlap the Quill Gordons. Frequently when the air temperature is low, Blue Quill duns can't make a hasty getaway from the stream surface. When this happens, the currents push them into the backeddies where they drift helplessly around and around as they struggle toward flight. Naturally, this sets up a bonanza for the trout, and they hold just beneath this flotilla of duns and sip them in as they go by. This event can afford some easy dry-fly fishing with a #16-#18 Blue Quill dry fly, but I've also had trout snub all my standard dun imitations while feeding selectively on flies partly trapped in their nymphal shucks. If the fish are selectively feeding on this stage, try a #16 Blue Quill Floating Nymph.



April Hatches

marchbrownMany anglers feel April is the best month of the year to fish these mountains because three major mayflies are hatching, and water temperatures and water levels are perfect. I enjoy hiking into the remote sections of the Park to fish the headwaters during this season because the fishing can be outstanding, and the scenery is exceptionally beautiful. The ridges are draped with blooming dogwood and red bud trees, and the hollows are carpeted with trillium wildflowers in full bloom. The tactics in the headwaters and feeder streams are not extremely demanding. Typically, each pool will hold several rising trout, and any natural drift with a #14 Mr. Rapidan dry fly will catch them. The lower reaches of the larger streams present much more demanding fishing. The March Brown mayfly (Stenonema vicarium) is the largest mayfly you are likely to see in the park, and when the nymphs become active, they migrate from the deep portions of the pools to the shallows. I've seen many large brook trout move into thin water to feed on these nymphsand emerging duns. This activity is usually manifested to us by what I call "busy water". You don't always see the fish, but you see the effects of their movements on the surface.

seamTrout in the shallows are usually taking more nymphs than duns, simply because there are more nymphs present. However, I prefer to fish dry flies, and take many nice trout on the surface. Use a #12 dry fly during the March Brown hatch. Nymph fishermen should tie on a Mr. Rapidan bead-head nymph or Art Flick's March Brown Nymphs both in #12-#14.
Grey Fox mayflies (Stenonema fuscum) start emerging about a week after March Browns make their first appearance. These mayflies are slightly smaller and slightly lighter in color than March Browns, but the tactics I use are nearly identical. Frequently both of these duns are on the water at the same time and the trout feed actively on both of them. My favorite flies for the Grey Fox hatch are a #14 Grey Fox dry fly or Ginger Quill dry fly, and for wet-fly fishing, a #14 Grey Fox nymph.
castlineThe lip in the lower part of the pool which was so good during the Quill Gordon hatch in March is still an outstanding place to find large trout. An additional feeding station that becomes very productive during March is the area along the edge of the main current flowing from the head of the pool into the mid-pool area. The trout hold along this narrow interface where the fast water meets slow water and sip in every natural insect that drifts by. If this "seam" continues as much as 15 feet down into the pool, you can catch several trout by systematically casting to the lowest fish in the pool, and then moving up. Don't cast to the more active risers near the head of the run until you have covered all the water below, or you could be spooking fish you don't know arethere.


May Hatches

In May, stream levels in the Park drop, and the natural insects become smaller. As a result, the trout become more cautious than they were earlier in the season. Light Cahill Mayflies (Stenonema canadense) start hatching in May, and ants, beetles, and other terrestrials are present in large numbers along the streams. Although the numbers of fish caught in May may not be as high as early in the season, the fishing is still very rewarding. There are still many rising fish, and matching wits with them at this time of the year is a challenge. shallowBefore I make my first cast, I study the water in order to pinpoint possible targets. The trout don't rise frantically this time of year, so it may take a little time to identify each fish in the pool. Many people have a bad habit of shooting the first cast out to the first rise they see in a pool, spooking the largest fish in the process. A #16 Light Cahill is a good match for the natural mayflies. A #14-#16 Crowe Beetle is a popular fly for matching the beetles, but I catch many more trout on a Murray's Flying Beetle #14-#16. I use three different ant patterns in thePark, my choice being governed by the whims of the trout. My first choice is usually a #16-#20 Mr. Rapidan Ant. My son Jeff designed this easy-to-see fly specifically for fishing Shenandoah National Park. It's my ace in the hole when I see trout refuse other dry flies. I also use black and cinnamon McMurray Ants in both in the same sizes as a change of pace.



June Suphurs

The last mayfly of the spring season is the Sulphur mayfly (Ephemerella dorothea). These insects start emerging in mid-May and may last until late June. This is a great hatch because the duns start coming off about two hours before dark, and then about an hour later the spinners start coming back to the stream. During the last hour of the day, the trout feed heavily on this concentrated food source. In some good pools I've often seen six or eight troutall rising on separate feeding stations during this event. During this hatch, approach the water stealthily, and make a very delicate upstream presentation showing the fish only the fly and a short section of 6X tippet. My favorite Sulphur patterns are Ed Shenk Sulphurs in #16-#18, the Gray Yellow No Hackle Dun #16-#18, and the Hair Wing No Hackle Sulphur Dun.

Written By: Harry Murray