MARSHALL PLAN: Your river, my river, our river

The arrival of spring this year has been wildly inconsistent—we have had blustery nor’easters, rain, a couple warm days and a few days of snow. Despite all the swirling winds the natural world still seems like a welcome refuge from the constant barrage of politics, scandals and rumors of scandals that thoroughly infect our minds like a cancer emanating from one beeping electronic device or another.

It’s time to leave the smartphone for a few hours and take a step outside.

One of the many benefits of being a fly-fisherman is the skill of observation, the Buddhists refer to it as mindfulness. Simply put it is the ability to observe what is literally underfoot or within reach. It is an acquired skill and it’s much more difficult to possess when you are young. It is a discipline to see the natural world as an integral part of a larger fishing experience, not just as a background for your fish selfie.  For example, if you took the time to look at the insects circling blooming plants you would instantly know what the fish are feeding on.

Time moves at a different pace in the natural world. Humans tend to over-manage time. The tide, moon and seasons move at a subtler pace.

Recently, time caught up to one of my fly-fishing heroes. Author and fly-fishing icon Bernard “Lefty” Kreh, 93, passed away on the same day many mourned the passing of Stephen Hawking, a man equally beloved by students of physics and the universe.  Both men taught us that the complex can be taught to be accessible.

“If you’re interested in catching hickory shad, they arrive when the shadbush and the dogwood bloom. If anglers had the time to spend in the wild all day and study this stuff, they wouldn’t need fly-fishing books or newspaper columns, because everything in nature reveals itself. That is my job: to take the time to see nature revealed and pass along what I learned to people who could not be there,” wrote Kreh in his auto-biography.

Two weeks ago, Woodie Walker, a community conservationist with Friends of the Rappahannock, gave a presentation to the Silver Citizens Club, a Parks and Recreation program in Culpeper.

His presentation included insight on the Rappahannock River that flows 187 miles total miles from Chester Gap to the Chesapeake Bay. The river and its tributaries flow through 18 jurisdictions in its journey to saltwater. Miles of the river flow through Culpeper County.

Following his presentation Walker informed the club about the upcoming Wild and Scenic Film Festival (Saturday, March 31st at 5:30pm) at the University of Mary Washington’s Dodd Auditorium.

He was especially thrilled to meet Jean Scott, a member of the Silver Club, who received an award last year for her role in the removal of Monumental Mills dam on the Hazel River, a tributary of the Rappahannock. The dam’s removal returned the river to a pre-European settlement flow pattern.

Last year, Scott was honored by the Virginia Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, at its annual meeting. Scott’s award states, “Natural Resource Conservationist Award 2017, “For outstanding contributions to the conservation of Virginia’s aquatic resources.”

Walker presented Scott with a few passes for the ten-film river-focused festival.

“We would be an honor for Mrs. Scott to attend,” said Walker. “She has certainly helped the Rappahannock watershed.”

Personally, the magic of spring on the Rappahannock comes down to moments—moments that happen 40 feet down a line where a tiny hook wrapped in a flash of pink flutters.

Beneath the rushing water comes a flash of silver—-instantly it swirls to the surface and leaps before turning sideways to maximize its leverage in the river current.

The first shad of spring brings joy to the heart before finding its way into my landing net.  I release it to continue its journey.

Along the shore of the Rappahannock River people and wildlife converge after a winter that stayed a bit too long. Ospreys circle overhead and dive with precision to snatch fish. This is the annual spawning run for the anadromous shad—a notable Virginian.

The shad, both the Hickory and American varieties are historic, beloved, and even political. The poor man’s tarpon as it has been called, is usually the first fish to knock the dust off your fishing reel in the spring.

On a fly-rod it fights admirably.  A shad has a tenacity that most freshwater fish lack. One can instantly tell that a shad has endured the harsh realities of the sea.

A shad returning to the river was born there a couple years ago.  It returns to the ocean in maturity and returns to its birth river repeating the cycle of life. The shad’s journey coincides nicely with the first outbreaks of spring fever. The annual shad run in Fredericksburg has consistently inspired work-dodging and school-skipping for hundreds of years.

Historic accounts state that troops on both sides in the Civil War took pause from blowing each other’s heads off to catch a few shad. The shad run was powerful enough to pause warfare.

Gene Mueller, a local outdoor columnist described the shad run well in 2009.

“Fishermen stand near a couple of sandy islands, sloshing about and firing their small lures into the river, fully aware that the law of averages was on their side. Sooner or later one of the shiny-scaled fighters had to be swimming past them on its way to suitable spawning pools and along the way look at a shad dart. Shad are very democratic that way. If something irritates or interests them, they often instinctively take a swipe at it,” he wrote.

Sounds like the perfect fish to cook at a political gathering, right?  Shad-planking has been a political institution in the Commonwealth since the 1940s—-but honestly, I can’t be bothered with politics when the fish are biting.

Nature always keeps its promises.