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Five-Star Trout Waters at Your Feet

By Dr. Peter Brookes

Photos by Dr. Peter Brookes

It’s a special time of year: Oscar season in Hollywood—and spring trout season in the Old Dominion. You can sense the excitement and feel the electricity in the air—well, at least for Virginia trout fishing!

In my humble opinion, it’s far past due that we take a moment and recognize our larger-than-life stars… our top performers… our leading Virginia trout waters. Why should Tinseltown get all the fame and glory?! As such, I am ready to risk my writing reputation (such as it is)—and the few social media followers I have, including my mother—in a selfless effort to try to hook you up (pun intended) with Virginia’s five-star trout streams.

I hope you can fully appreciate the difficulty of this undertaking with so many great nominees to choose from: The Old Dominion has a lot of talent when it comes to waterways filled with wild and stocked brook, brown and rainbow trout. According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR):

Virginia contains over 3,500 miles of trout streams, in addition to numerous ponds, small lakes and reservoirs. The total includes over 2,900 miles of wild trout streams and about 600 miles of water inhabited with stocked trout. Virginia’s diversified trout habitat offers a wide range of trout fishing opportunities.

(To put this into perspective, the distance from Richmond to Hollywood is about 2,600 miles.)

So, even if you think my picks of wonderful salmonid waterways in Virginia are bogus, there are a lot of other places for you to wet a line for “bows,” “brownies,” and “brookies.”

But first a little about my methodology, which, admittedly, is less than scientific and is, unfortunately, not based on the latest and greatest artificial intelligence algorithm. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure for this highly competitive contest, I haven’t fished every trout water in Virginia—nor have I employed an overpriced, independent accounting firm to review the results. But that aside, I do a good bit of trout fishing in Virginia; I also know a fair number of trout fishers and guides, who have—let’s just say—strong opinions about which waters are meh, good, or great for trout.

I also spoke with DWR Aquatic Education Coordinator Alex McCrickard, who was very helpful as usual. Lastly, I made no attempt to rank these five-star trout waters; that’d be just way too hard for this mere mortal.

Okay, now that I’ve done all of the necessary excuse-making, blame-sharing, and throat-clearing, without further ado:  The envelope, please!

Shenandoah National Park (SNP):  The SNP is an amazing place for trout fishing, especially for our beloved brookies. Even with hundreds of brook trout streams across Virginia, the SNP is native brook trout nirvana.

On the SNP’s eastern slope, the Rapidan, Hughes, Conway, and the Rose rivers all have brookies; the Conway River also has some browns. Over on the SNP’s western slope, Jeremy’s Run, Paine Run and the Big Run also have brooks.

A photo of a colorful brook trout with a fly in its mouth lying on a hand with moving water beneath.

A Shenandoah National Park brookie.

Bonus: If you are a veteran (like me), active military or a Gold-Star family member, you’re eligible for free entrance to national parks, including the SNP. Moreover, you may be eligible for a Military Lifetime Pass—an incredible deal.

Whitetop Laurel: A real fave of Virginia’s trout anglers—and included in Trout Unlimited’s guide to America’s 100 best trout streams—this southwestern Virginia water is near Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the highest point in Virginia at 5,700-plus feet.

You’ll have an opportunity to stalk stocked browns and rainbows as well as wild rainbows, browns, and brooks. And for non-fishing  family and friends, Whitetop Laurel is also close to the Virginia Creeper Trail and the famous Appalachian Trail.

In the less-celebrated “Stranger Things Have Happened” category of our competition: I actually notched a Virginia trout slam challenge (i.e., brook, brown and rainbow trout in one-day) in that area last spring.

Jackson River: In the western-part of the Old Dominion, the Jackson River is a top-notch trout fishery, which offers awesome angling above and below Lake Moomaw and the Gathright Dam for all three Virginia trout species.

Above Lake Moomaw (aka the upper Jackson), you’ll find a combination of stocked and wild rainbows, browns, and brooks. Below Lake Moomaw and Gathright Dam is the Jackson River tailwater, where there is a mix of stocked and wild rainbows and browns.

A man standing in a river, holding a large rainbow trout in both hands.

The author with a nice Jackson rainbow.

Some say that fishing the famous Jackson River is a necessary rite of passage for the Virginia trout angler.

Mossy Creek Located in the Shenandoah Valley, Mossy Creek is a must-do, especially for the fly angler.  This “classic limestone creek,” which also makes Trout Unlimited’s top 100 list, is well-known for its challenging brown trout fishing.

Though stocked with advanced fingerlings, this spring-fed creek grows some brutishly big browns due to the abundance of forage. Anglers enjoy hatches, and with grasses that often come up to the water’s edge, hopper (i.e., terrestrial) fishing can be fantastic.

Oh yeah, those big browns are smart, so fill your fishing vest pockets with patience, and if you’re bringing lunch, pack some humble pie. What’s that saying: “It’s the hard that makes it good”?

Smith River Lightning does strike twice and another tailwater makes this prestigious podium this year. Smith River is in southern Virginia and provides year-round trout fishing with cold water released from Philpott Dam.

Head to the Smith to hook into stocked rainbows in the designated put-and-take section or wild browns in the special regulations section. Fly anglers: Look for dry fly action from mayfly hatches.

I’ve not fished the Smith—and it’s a “sleeper” in this competition—but I’m booked to fish it in June. I can’t wait.

To the winners, I want to congratulate you on this prestigious piscatorial prize. You eked out victory from the highly talented likes of Cripple Creek, Big Tumbling Creek, the South Fork of the Holston River, Crooked Creek, the Roanoke River, South River, Beaver Creek, Pound River—and so many more.

I also want to thank all of the Virginia trout waters for competing for this angling accolade; many of you could have easily been here on the stage instead of these five. Come back to compete next year; I know you will.

To our audience: Don’t delay–get your Virginia fishing license here. Also, know where you’re fishing, including the regulation/restrictions and hydropower generation schedule for that area. These can vary from place to place and even day to day. For instance, is a permit, a permission slip, or a stamp required?

Now, you can bang out angry emails to DWR (and me) about how I got this five-star winner’s list soooo wrong. But can I suggest that instead of doing that, wouldn’t a much better use of your valuable time be to grab your fishing gear and head to a wonderful Virginia trout water?!

At least about that there should be no argument.

Dr. Peter Brookes is an award-winning outdoor writer. His favorite trout stream is the one in which the trout overlooks his sloppy cast and hungrily eats his fly anyway. 

  • March 12, 2024