Who would know better about the value and excellence of fishing guides than a man who has learned from them? And become both a friend and a fine fly fisher in the process. In an area with “the best flyfishing in the world.”
Twenty-two millenniums a go, the cold lost.
In southwest Virginia, prairies of ice slowly receded off the great ridge we call Appalachia… slowly melting, sheering, and fighting gravity, the great last deliquesce filling aquifers and forming two prime systems of perfect mountain water.
After it all settled down, the valley was teeming with life. Wooly mammoths and mastodons. Great cats. Unimpeded migrations of a boundless array of species.
Local lore had it, that even when Jamestown was colonized, a squirrel could hop from tree to tree from Suffolk to Saltville and never touch the ground.
But while some animals have come and gone, the one with the greatest impact is us.
So here I am. A simple southwest Virginia fly fisherman. And this prelude explains what all us fly anglers know.
. . .that fly fishing is not about the fishing.
It is about the balance between heart and soul and our appreciation for what we have been provided.
It explains why we reach down, and pull up a rock on the South Fork of the Holston River to gaze as small insects reveal themselves, because we know, today’s menu is a la carte.
As anglers, as we wade and drift down our rivers.... sometimes deep in thought, sometimes without a care in the world, we see Virginia from the water out and we know how incredible we have it here.
When you fly fish, catching a fish is not ordained by industrial-strength line. Our rods weigh ounces and the sport is called angling, because of the complex geometry that must be used to catch a fish with a hook smaller than your thumbnail.
As measured by diversity, Southwest Virginia has the best fly fishing in the world because our season is all year long, and our choices are vast.
From ancient times, we still have the mountain brook trout, which is an arctic char, and found in almost any clean water about 2,500 feet. We have our version of barracuda—the monster musky of the New and James rivers. We have the classic German brown trout and dancing rainbow of the South Holston or Jackson.
The last count was 5,000 miles of fishable water in Southwest Virginia.
If you are new to fly fishing, you have also just hit the jackpot, because based right here in these mountains, the sport of fly fishing is embodied by three local heroes, known globally as the best in the business.
The Game Changer
Blane Chocklett, from Roanoke, is shy by nature. He is humble, and he is probably the best trout, bass and musky fly fisherman in the world.
Ever since he started fishing, the greats knew this kid had something. Not only can he catch a fish on a fly in any water, anywhere, Chocklett has invented a whole new class of flies that have revolutionized the sport, and closely connected it to the bait and lure world.
In any fly shop in the world now, if you ask, do you have any “gummies’?” they will say yes.
Trust me, I have dropped his name everywhere!
Fly fishing with Chocklett is akin to having Jordan Spieth take you out for a round of golf.
If you possess good habits, he will make you better, and if you have never fly fished, chances are, you will be better than most people in just a few days.
On the hottest, sultriest days of the year, he will drift you down the James or the New, tricking the bronze back bass off the banks. On the grayest, coldest day of the year, he will take you big-game hunting for musky.
A thousand hatches ago, before Chocklett and I waded in the Jackson, he sat me down in the high grasses off the bank. Impatient after a few moments, I kidded him and said, “Oh, this is a great way to make money....I pay you to take me to a stream and we sit down and watch this water!” ... and he looked back, and said very calmly, “Well, Richard this might explain what part of your challenge is... I am watching the birds over there... they are swooping on something... probably mayflies... you see I want to ‘observe first’, then ‘fish second.’ Slowly and deliberately, he looked in his fly box, and tied on a fly based on his eyes not his heart, and that was the first wild rainbow I had caught in my life, on a summer evening on the Jackson River in 1998.
As old friends, we floated down the New River recently. Chocklett was concerned as I was, about the change in the small mouth fishing... the amount of sores. At times, we feel so powerless to help but that will not stop either of us from trying. Chocklett not only taught me how to fly fish, but he taught me, the whole point is to keep fishing and to keep learning.
The Family Guide
Shawn Hash, the CEO on Tangent Outfitters in Pembroke, is the best outfitter in the state.
It doesn’t matter if you are the Global Head of Xerox or husband and child, Tangent will guarantee you an incredible time. Let’s be real, some outdoor guides are just so hard core that you realize the reason they fish for a living is because they should not work with other people. No one wants to be screamed at when he is working a fish and the fish comes off. If you lose a fish with Tangent, Hash will most likely have you laughing so hard that you will want to take a break to regroup.
I honestly don’t know how he does it. All his guides are amazing because he has instilled a culture of customer care that should be a model for all companies, in and outside of fishing.
And if fly fishing is not your thing, Tangent will take you spin fishing, tubing, canoeing, mountain biking and overnight camping. This is because Shawn Hash loves the outdoors, and he has one of the biggest offices in the world.
The Southern Gentleman
Bruce Wankel owns Virginia Creeper Fly Shop in Abingdon. Tucked in far southwest Virginia, Wankel is at the gateway to Mount Rogers, and minutes from The South Holston River. The SoHo is considered the top fishery on the Eastern Seaboard and has one of the largest wild trout populations in the world.
As with Blane Chocklett and Shawn Hash, I have fished with Bruce Wankel through thick and thin. He was my very first coach when I entered the Team USA Process. Because fly fishing can be so traditional, I was abashed to call him and ask him to help me learn how to not just fish well, but how to out-fish others in a head-to-head format.
Without missing a beat, he said come on down here, and we sat in his office, and went over the rules with a fine-toothed comb, he took me out like it was my first day, and we worked on the basics all over again.
Wankel is the master of both the technical and the art fly fishing. He has taught me it is the small movements that make the biggest difference, and there has never been a day where we have fished, that I have not come home and thought, “wow, this was amazing.”
Wankel is literally one of the finest men I know.
After our second practice on the South Holston, he was the one who had to tell me my dog had passed away while we out. He told me to focus on one thing, which was driving safely back home.I choked back the tears and I soldiered on. When I saw my back door, my wife was holding the phone: “Honey, Bruce is on the line... just making sure you are OK.”
It is not easy being a fly fishing guide. They lead by example and with a gentle hand. Fly fishing is the sport of small things. It is not about how big of a fish you land, but about the fact you are out, trying to learn something new each day.
These local heroes bear the expense of boats, gear and time, and they battle currents and weather to teach a sport to men and women who want the thrill of casting a line for things unseen.
In southwest Virginia, I love fly fishing, because through the friendship I have learned this balance between water and nature is determined by our love and support of each other.