Rappahannock River: A river as complex as its fly fishers

A large measure of the Rappahannock River’s popularity among fly fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts spawns from the diversity of its landscapes and fishing possibilities. It is a scenic 195-mile river that flows from stream-like origins in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Chester Gap to the Chesapeake Bay. The river’s current moves beautifully from mountains, into foothills, then farmland, forest, suburbs and even urban settings before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The name of the river comes from an Algonquian word that means “river of quick, rising water” and it’s still a valuable lesson to ponder when a hard rain falls. Throughout history the Rappahannock has been intrinsically weaved into American and Virginia history. It was the home of Virginia’s oldest settlements, George Washington played along its banks as a boy and it played a pivotal role in the American Civil War.

The people who enjoy fly fishing the Rappahannock River from the Piedmont east are as varied as the fish they pursue. Some focus on smallmouth bass, some on the spring run of shad. Others marvel at the contrast of urban streets with quality angling. Many are simply content to just take a slow paddle in a kayak.  

The river offers a stunning variety of fish. In the spring there are spawning fish from the Chesapeake Bay including shad, white perch, herring and stripers (also known as rockfish). In the summer, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish are the primary target of local fly fishers. Other bonus catches include carp, gar and even eels.

The Rappahannock is also great because you can fish it in a variety of ways. Try fishing from the bank, or get in and wade, kayak, canoe or use a motorized boat below the fall line in Fredericksburg.

Owen Conner fly fishes from a rock on the Rappahannock River. Photo by Marshall Conner

One treasured spot for fly fishermen is the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. It takes a bit of determination and stamina but the walk or paddle is richly rewarded. The confluence feels like a step back in time to the river’s past.  

“I love fishing where the Rapidan and Rappahannock meet—the confluence of clear pristine waters offer excellent smallmouth fishing in the early spring and during the summer months when the fish seek shelter in the deeper holes. I like casting small black wooly buggers with a tiny brass bead– that’s always worked for me. One can have many hours of enjoyable bass fishing and beautiful scenery on the river. It’s always a good time there with family, friends and fellow fishermen,” said Tim Powers, an avid fisherman from Orange County.

Simply put the best spots are where fish are caught. Step one of any adventure is finding your own place along the river. Access can be tough due to property boundaries, farms and terrain. There are notable areas along the river perfect for wade fishing or float fishing.

One regional fly fisherman and fly-tier is Owen Conner, a uniforms curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He enjoys spending his free time on the river and creating flies to catch the variety fish that appear throughout the year.

“As a fly fisherman I think we all wish that our river was some sort of Montana stream, pristine and untouched. We like to imagine a place no one has walked since the Native Americans. When I grew up fishing on the Rappahannock I always tried to imagine something like this. The reality of our river however is different, whether it’s loud young college kids floating by in their inner tubes or some strange homeless person crouching in the woods that you stumble on, it usually reminds you we live in a small city, and it is actually an unusual urban place to fish,” said Conner.

To this fisherman there are many factors that enhance his trips to the river. He likes many of its more isolated areas and surprisingly the urban areas closer to his home.

“To me, the beautiful thing about the Rappahannock is that it’s different. It has a quirky personality, much like the City of Fredericksburg. It is a river that changes not only with the seasons but by the hour-of-day or day-of-week. If and when you pick the right time, when nobody’s around even the most heavily populated areas can feel pristine, surreal and quiet. It’s all a matter of picking that right time and place. It’s also amazing in its size and power. It’s a river that commands respect. I love it. It’s my home,” he added.

As a fly-tier the thrill comes when a fish falls for his artistic creations of feather, fur and hook.

“There’s nothing really connected to the river about why I tie—I just like a challenge. Fishing with a Mepps and a spinning rod wasn’t hard enough for me. It lacked art, nuance and the soothing rhythm of a fly cast. Tying your own flies makes fishing more personal. It’s organic. If I, or someone I made a fly for succeeds in catching a great fish it’s rewarding. I am honestly as happy for them as I would be myself,” said Conner. “I like seeing my fly in the photos.”

Best times to fish tend to be dawn and early evening when low light and cooler temps charge up a fish’s willingness to feed. Attention should also be given to tides on the river. Water movement on a high or low tide can be keys to success. The best fishermen think like a fish, some are even skilled enough that others will seek and even pay for their expertise.

“I caught my first striper on the fly in the Rappahannock in Fredericksburg. It was a life changing moment. I didn’t fish the river as much as I should have while I was in college at the University of Mary Washington. I’ve learned a lot since that time. The water was always so clear above and below the old dam area. I’ve watched carp swim in holes 20 feet down. The river was so close to my house and dorm. Maybe that’s why I’ve become so immersed in urban fishing. I live not too far off and should get down there more often,” said Rob Snowhite, a guide, podcaster and fly-fishing consultant.

Snowhite is an urban and suburban fly fishing guide and instructor in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. he’s also a fly fishing consultant. He provides expert knowledge and advice to fly fisherman in Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C. area and beyond, according to his website robsnowhite.com

“Think of me as a personal trainer, coach, or tutor for the angler. I specialize in urban and suburban fly fishing for warm water species like striped bass, carp, catfish, sunfish, gar, snakeheads, largemouth and smallmouth bass,” says Snowhite from his Facebook page. “We will work on your casting, identifying fish and insects that fish eat, where the fish are and why and how to catch them.”

The Virginia Department of Game and Fisheries uses a citation based program for large fish. These are a nice basis for what is large or worth bragging about. The department’s website is helpful and packed with info on places to fish, licensing, fish identification, and maps to find your own inspirational fly fishing spot on the scenic and historic Rappahannock River.

Families form bonds in the Rappahannock River. Marshall Conner and his son Liam have made fly fishing a father-son tradition. Photo courtesy of Marshall Conner.