Mud Bath to Mossy Creek

Transforming a muddy river back into a perfect stream can be done. Beau Beasley tells how a cow wallow became an Augusta County gem.

I was more than a little nervous as I pulled on to Interstate 81 heading north toward what I knew would be a challenging day of fly fishing. A new friend was in town from Arizona for only two days, and I wanted to impress him. We had only one shot at a fishing trip, and I knew that this gentleman had fished all over the world.

Under the circumstances, the destination was obvious: Mossy Creek, Virginia’s most famous trout stream. Nevertheless, I had taken a gamble coming here. Yes, Mossy’s famous for its large trout, but make no mistake: It’s equally infamous for being very tough to fish.

Running through Augusta County just a few miles from the hamlet of Bridgewater, Mossy Creek zigzags across farmers’ fields like the crayon drawings of my 3-year-old daughter—first to the right, then to the left, then straight for a while, but only for a few yards before again veering off, as if in search of the end of some imaginary page. In fact, Mossy’s cold clear water is constantly searching for the path of least resistance, dodging small embankments and tumbling over rocks. With ease, it traverses newly plowed fields, slipping serpentine-style beneath barbed wire fences that keep cattle from treading on its fragile banks before finally emptying itself into the North River and becoming part of the greater flow surging toward its ultimate goal: the mighty Chesapeake Bay.

If you find yourself fishing Mossy, you’re as likely to bump into an ambassador as you are a local farmhand. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which issues free passes to fish the venerable stream, reports that guest anglers hail from every state and numerous foreign countries.

Washington bigwigs like to frequent these waters as well. Funny, though—the fish don’t seem too impressed with the anglers’ pedigrees or credentials; indeed, all men (and women) are equal before these trout. How is it then that such a small stream—so small in some places that a 12-year-old with a running start could jump it—with such finicky fish has attained such status? Simple: Mossy is home to huge trout (some of which exceed 7 pounds), it’s open to the general public, and it’s managed as a fly fishing-only stream. What gives the Mossy story its twist, though, is that this hasn’t always been the case. Indeed, the mascot of Mossy Creek really ought to be a phoenix rather than a fish, for rarely has something so fine risen from the ashes of something so faded and forgotten.

In the mid-1970s, Urbie Nash, a hydrologist, staunch conservationist and (then) President of the Shenandoah chapter of Trout Unlimited, began to cast about for some stream reclamation work to involve his chapter. The most likely recipient of the chapter’s beneficence, however, appeared to be more of a befouled ditch than a pristine trout stream: Thirsty cattle had worn down its banks and churned up its bottom as they entered it for a quick dip or a drink. The beasts also felt no compunction about relieving themselves in the creek whenever the need arose.

And then there was the issue of access: The stream was almost entirely surrounded by private landowners who were unlikely to accept with alacrity uninvited guests traipsing across their family farms and leaving trash in their wake. To top it off, as far as anyone knew, Mossy held no game fish at all—and certainly no trout of any kind.

Urbie Nash and his intrepid band of TU members took these formidable obstacles into consideration and came to one inescapable conclusion: Restoring Mossy sounded like a fantastic challenge! (Conservationists are an odd bunch, without a doubt.)

They approached all of the surrounding landowners with a simple proposal: Let TU reclaim Mossy and restore it to its former (pre-cattle) glory. TU members would help erect fences to keep out cattle, reseed the stream’s banks to provide cover and prevent erosion, and add habitat for fish.

The last card up Nash’s sleeve proved to be his best: Larry Mohn, a fisheries biologist with the VDGIF, had agreed to stock Mossy at no cost to the farmers if they would allow the public access to the creek. Finally, TU members agreed to watch over Mossy with an eagle eye to spot inappropriate public use of the stream or of the surrounding land.

The farmers agreed, and the result has been one of the most successful joint conservation efforts in the history of the Old Dominion.

I had warned my guest to expect some very finicky fish, and Mossy’s curmudgeonly denizens had been true to form. By the end of the morning, I had completely struck out—but my guest hadn’t had any luck either, so I didn’t look completely inept. In fact, I was nearly ready to call it a day and suggest a late lunch when I spied a bank with an overhanging tree branch. I tossed in my pattern. As my fly gently cut through the burbling water, a flash streaked from beneath the undercut bank and my fly line went taught.

Adrenaline pumping, rod twitching and reel screaming, I shook off my lethargy and held on as the angry trout surged upstream with my fly. A feisty game of tug-of-war ensued, but I finally overcame the butter-colored brown trout, and he grudgingly came to hand. After admiring him briefly, I released him back into Mossy’s cold water. No, he wasn’t the monster I had hoped for—but he was big enough to impress. So as far as I was concerned, he might as well have been Moby Dick.

If you’d like to try your luck at fishing Virginia’s most famous trout stream, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to VDGIF, Verona Office, P.O. Box 996, Verona, VA 24482. The permit, good for one year, is free. Fishing on Mossy Creek is for fly anglers only, and no wading in the stream is allowed at any time.

To improve your odds, I strongly suggest that you contact one of the following shops for advice or to hire a guide: Albemarle Angler (434-977-6882), Blue Ridge Angler (540-574-3474), Blue Ridge Fly Fishers (540-563-1617), Dominion Outdoors (540-337-9218), Mossy Creek Fly Fishing (540-434-2444), Mountain River Outdoors (434-978-7112), Murray’s Fly Shop (540-984-4212) or Orvis Roanoke (540-345-3635).

Virginia Fly Fishing Festival

This is the largest event of its kind in the state, drawing anglers and others from across the Mid-Atlantic and promoting both the quiet sport of fly-fishing and good stewardship over the Old Dominion’s natural resources. Held each April on the banks of the South River in Waynesboro, the event is unique in its support of Virginia fisheries: Half of all profits are donated to stream conservation. Lectures, presentations, demonstrations, live music and wine tasting are included with admission. Major sponsors include Orvis, Subaru and the City of Waynesboro. For more information call (703) 402-8338 or visit VaFlyFishingFestival.org. Interested in visiting Waynesboro before April 2007? See Waynesboro.va.us/tourism.html

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