A very belated introduction
It dawned on me while reading another intro that I never introduced myself to the forum. Hello, everyone! I currently live in Maryland but grew up in Southwest Virginia fishing the Smith River. A chapter of TU recently formed there -- Smith River Trout Unlimited -- and I put together a short letter about fishing the Smith a long while ago... By way of introduction I am sharing it here. Hope it is not too long or boring!
Fishing Days on the Smith
I grew up fishing the Smith but in the days before the Clean Water Act, TU, Fisheries Management (except stocking rainbows), etc.. Fishing was much different.
I grew up in Philpott in the house that the Philpott clan now refer to as the Creek House. It sat just where Mill Creek entered Town Creek to create a great deep fishing hole. Thatís now gone since the new road was graded out and a steel culvert installed. In my day the mouth of Mill Creek was buffered by a huge rock that prevented washout from flooding. After the Culvert was installed the next big flood washed out under the culvert creating a barrier to migration. This may have been repaired: if not it should be as Mill Creek used to hold a lot of brookies and was almost never fished except by us local kids.
Town creek held a lot of trout as well. Trout ran up from the Smith and populated the creek all the way to Henry. The flats just above the train trestle was a great place to fish especially upstream where the bottom was rocky and there were some deep pockets. In late evening the top would seem alive with rising trout. At that time, Town Creek was crossed by a cement bridge covering steel culverts. It flooded with almost no rain. The floods scooped out deep holes on the downstream side of the bridge that always held hungry trout. Plus the riffles below the bridge was full of crayfish and hellgrammites for bait. I could walk from my back door to any of these spots in less than a minute.
I did almost all my Smith River fishing in the area from just below where the new plant stands (then an open field) and the first rapids below the dam. Only a few people lived up along the river then. What we called the old Keaton house stood just by the first rapids and downstream a ways was ďLemons CabinĒ named after the game warden who lived there off and on. He sold licenses, hooks, sinkers, worms and cold drinks from a little stand in his front yard. Just in front of his cabin was a great fishing hole. When I was older we would wait on hot days for the river to subside after power generation, wrap a six pack in a fish net and refrigerate in the icy water. We would drink it, fish, and cool off in the frigid air. I understand that the deep holes along the bend here were the home of some of the monster trout.
My favorite place, however, was just before the first houses on the road running from Philpott to the Dam. It was just pull off beside a steep path leading down to a narrow ledge along the water. If you went down too fast, you got a drink. The ledge was only wide enough for two people at most. I would get up just before daylight, drive to the stream, and fish for a short while as I had to have the truck back for my father and I usually went to school. If I caught anything I would clean them on the river and rush home in order to fry them up for breakfast. I do recall missing a lot of school though.
I did fish some in Bassett. My father had a grocery store on Main Street and the River was right behind. A short scramble down the bank and we were standing in the Smith. In the fifties and early 60s, Bassett was a thriving town. There were lots of stores downtown and there were houses in between. The river bank was varied with yards, giant trees, small islands stretching all the way from the middle bridge to downtown. It was a great place to play and to fish. There was a small island behind the store and it seemed like every soft drink bottle thrown in the river ended up in the chute between the island and the bank. Then there was a $.02 bounty on bottles then and I could make a couple of bucks by just scooping them out and returning them to the store. As the furniture business expanded more and more of the old Bassett disappeared as did the riparian line and the island. Infill for parking lots took a lot of the old shoreline and limited accessibility.
I achieved my first fishing notoriety on the Smith fishing in a deep hole just behind the funeral home. I was eleven, I think. The local hardware -- Blue Ridge Hardware-- ran a fishing contest on opening day with prizes awarded to the largest fish. There was an under-12 group. On opening day I caught an 8 inch rainbow and marched down the street to enter it in the contest. I recall the smirk on the face of the guy who weighed it and measured it. After 6 pm I stopped by to see the winners announced in the window.. Lo and behold I was the winner of the 12 and under bracket. I got 5 shares of stock in Bassett Furniture, a new baseball glove, a Mickey Mantle model Louisville Slugger baseball bat, a case of Dr. Pepper, and a few other prizes: real loot in those days. It seems no one else had bothered to enter. The next year the Hardware announced that there would be minimum size requirements to enter -- sore losers, I guess
We almost never fished below Bassett. The swinging bridge that crossed the Smith behind the office building was about our limit. Our understanding then was that the River was too polluted and filled only with trash fish: suckers, chubs, and the like. We caught the occasional trout at the bridge but mostly we entertained ourselves trying to get suckers that pooled there in large numbers to bite something. The area behind the Public Library, however, always seemed to produce fish. A friend of mine fished from a big rock across the stream and always seemed to catch trout including the occasional 20 incher.
The furniture plants did not pay much attention to using the river as a dump. I can recall seeing the river run a deep, brick red from North Bassett to Stanley town. Nor was there much of other pollution control. All the houses in Bassett with indoor toilets dumped waste directly into the Smith and those without indoor facilities built out-houses lining the river. By the time the Smith ran the gantlet from the North Bassett mirror plants, the formaldehyde based pressboard plants in Bassett, and tons of finisher flushed into it at Stanley Town, itís a wonder any living thing could survive. Thank God for environmental regulation!
I donít think I saw more than two fly fisherman on the river during those days but somehow I got interested in learning. Like most people around there, I was a bait fisherman --corn, salmon eggs, worms, hellgrammites we collected from Town Creek. I later graduated to spin fishing and followed a normal progression. (I guess) I bought a big Shakespeare fiberglass Wonderrod; nine feet long and, by todayís standards, as floppy as a spaghetti noodle. It came as a kit with an automatic reel that I learned to hate immediately. I switched it for a South Bend copy of a classic Pflueger reel. I still have it. Almost all reels then were designed to be right hand crank. The fishing orthodoxy said you cast with your right hand and then switch hands to crank with your right hand. The South Bend is right hand crank so I donít use it. However it is still perfectly fishable.
I tried to learn to use the setup correctly but I never got the whole picture. The problem was there was no one around who could mentor newbies. I found an alcoholic football coach who showed me about three casts in the gym before he felt a huge thirst coming on. My biology teacher was a fly fisherman and fly tier. He spent a few minutes teaching me but it wasnít long enough to sink in. Of casting, I knew little: of leaders and tippets, which fly to use, how to present a fly, I knew absolutely nothing.
I tied lazy ikes, spoons, and broke-back minnows to the leader and casted away. A good cast would send it 50 feet but like as not I would snap it off like a whip and send it flying 50 feet the wrong way. I could only fish facing directly upstream or down as every backcast was guaranteed to become tangled in the trees. Eventually I leaned about dry flies and purchased a bunch from Herterís. Herterís was the mail-order Bass Pro and Cabelas rolled into one. All their catalogs contained only black and white line drawings of the product. Buying hand drawn flies without any prior knowledge is a dodgy business: all mine ended up in size 12 and were patterns that appealed to me rather than to fish! I still have some of these and I still fish them. I ran across some Adams in an original Herterís box not long ago. They sold for 12 cents each! The hackle was very sparse but they fish wet as well as any soft-hackle fly.
The Smith did try its best to kill me once. I had just graduated from bank fishing to wade fishing by buying a new pair of rubber waders. They were heavy and heck and not at all breathable. I was wading just upstream from Philpott and kept hearing a roaring in my ears. I couldnít figure out what it was. It got progressively louder and I turned to see a wall of water rushing downstream from an early release at the dam. The area I was fishing was between two eroded perpendicular banks. The best I could do was lumber over to the bank, toss my rod up, reach up to grab some tree roots and pull myself up the bank. By the time I got up the water was over my feet and dragging hard. From then on I checked the release times before I went out in the day.
Most of my fishing took place between 1964-1969. I caught mostly stocker rainbows; I donít recall every catching a brown. In the way I divided the world, brown trout were downstream of the mouth of the Town amongst the rocks while rainbows were above the mouth. That they seemed to concentrate this was probably had a lot to do with stocking. Before opening day the tank trucks would appear. Fish were merely dumped out of the truck from the bridge. This was a pretty fair fall. Stunned, they would sort of swim in circles and stay bunched together for a long while eventually dispersing. Come opening day the banks would be lined right where the stock trucks parked. It seemed there was no elbow room between fishermen eager to get their limit of six. Many, if not most, fisherman were gone within an hour! The giant browns of the eighties were way before my time. My younger brother fished avidly during that time and tells me some great stories but I never saw them. A fifteen inch rainbow as a gigantic fish for me!
I joined the Air Force in í71 prodded by a draft notice I knew was coming any day and didnít fish again until my 40s. Then other obligations to family and career drew me away from fishing again. Two years ago I talked my wife into taking a class. She loved it and we have been fishing since. We primarily fish the Gunpowder and tributaries but the limestone creeks of Pennsylvania are only an hour away so we go there as often as we can. Weíve also recently fished Colorado..
The reason I started this was to tell you how happy I am to see the Smith get the kind of stewardship it deserves. I very happy to see a TU chapter in Martinsville and to see trout fishing along the entire length of the river. It is also pleasing to learn that the river supports guides and, if I read it right, a drift boat service... WOW...that is truly a great change. My apologies for being so long winded but once I got started I just kept writing? My best to you and to T.U.