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River of Death

Kayak fly fishing in the Blue Ridge Mountains is as tough as Quantico Marine officers' boot camp.

River of Death

(Al Hassal art)

It was to be my first kayak fishing adventure since April, 1959. “I don’t want to go,” I told my wife. “I’m 76 years smart, if not old.”

Fifty-five years is a long hiatus to recover from a near-death kayak experience. In ’59, the kayak advantage in reaching untouched trout streams as they unlocked from winter ice in western Massachusetts was too much for a college freshman to resist. One-man Klepper kayaks seemed just the ticket back then when we pool-hopped and fished our way downstream on the North Branch of the Deerfield River. Kayaks were just entering the vision of boys (and a generation) who had more guts than brains.

No sweat. We launched two kayaks with no helmets, no life vests, one paddle, one bamboo fly rod each, and a few flies. “No guts no glory! Wild rainbows up to 3 pounds here we come!”

A mile downstream I did an Eskimo roll, with no roll; my head bumped rocks as I floated downriver until I pushed free of my stomach skirting. Free of my kayak, I splashed desperately in the 39-degree water into the shallows. I sat there shivering, wondering where my bamboo rod had gone, and watched my kayak disappear around a bend. The kayak wrapped around a large boulder downstream, and the next day it took three strong football players on a rope to pull it free. The Wes Jordan Orvis bamboo rod became a river orphan, hopefully to find the hands of another, smarter, fly fisher.

My updated adventure, my potential guide assured me, would be down the idyllic North Branch of the Potomac River, 7 miles of leisurely paddling through Blue Ridge Mountains clad in October russet and gold. He said there would be fat, silver-sided rainbow trout in the riffles, and deep-chested smallmouths waiting in the ledge pools for my yellow-body popping bugs.

“There is no way I am going to risk that river. I’m not risking a kayak just to catch a few large, fat rainbows and perhaps eight or ten smallies. It’s too risky at my age,” I reassured my wife again before heading south on I-81. She just looked at me and smiled, “Have fun. Be careful.”

My retired Marine Corps friend, Denny, and I loaded our kayaks with fly rods and life vests at a rough launch site. Our guide Pete gave us instructions: “Keep your bow pointed downstream at all times. If you hit a boulder and get sideways, you’ll turn over.”

With that advice Pete launched. I followed him closely in the misty morning shroud that hugged the dark October river. The water was gray-opaque before the sun rose, and I could barely see a foot into it. But I could see large boulders peeping above the water downriver, and swirls and humpy water to the left and right suggested an ominous, boulder obstacle course I would have to navigate.

Pete zigzagged his kayak like an obsessed water spider. He paddled this way and that, then reversed course upstream, coming to rest beside where I held tight to a boulder . . . watching apprehensively. My thoughts of rainbows and smallies had vanished. Denny and I, rank novices, were headed into deep trouble, if not death by drowning.

“See, you can do this,” Pete said cheerfully as he turned and shot back downriver, with me urgently digging with my paddle to follow. Denny waited upstream behind us, struggling, unsuccessfully it turned out, to keep his kayak from turning sideways against a boulder and flipping him into the 50-degree water.

I watched Pete navigate the first rapids. He dug with his paddle, driving the nose of his kayak this way and that through the boulders seen and unseen in the humped and swirled water that concealed them. I decided that if I could not imitate Pete’s assertive kayak attack drives through the boulder fields, I would probably hit an unseen boulder, turn sideways, and roll into the cold water. My waders would fill with water, turn into a sea anchor, and drag me to the bottom. There I would die, while my precious fly rods and empty kayak floated away.

I resolved to attack the river by reading the water just ahead; driving my kayak continuously and aggressively this way and that; never taking my eyes off the now-clear water that lay ahead; reading it for its obstructions seen and unseen; paddling desperately this way and that, often when it was almost too late.


The near misses came fast and unexpectedly. My bow lodged on an unseen boulder and I began to turn sideways. I dug deeply left and right with my paddle and swung the kayak back in line with the current and dug deeply again. Still hung.

I continued to paddle-dig and shift my weight left and right in the kayak until I was fully free. I desperately searched the water to my front, spotted another water hump, to the left, and a boulder swirl to the right.

A large boulder loomed directly ahead. Trapped, I back-paddled left and right desperately, then rear J-stroked paddle-right, pulling the bow back and to the right and then dug deeply and strongly with a left-hand stroke to shoot the kayak forward.

So it went, from obstacle course to obstacle course, all within yards of each other. Within minutes I was shaking, scared, and tired. So when a long slick appeared ahead, I back-paddled to slow my drift and looked to shore for a break in the boulders where I could ease in, grab a rock, rest, read the water ahead (uh, not for trout or bass rises) and perhaps enjoy the sunrise and landscape.

The sun peaked above the mountain ridge to my left and its rays penetrated the river mist, turning it into a white, gauzy envelope. The only sound was the murmur of the river. No fish rises appeared on the 100-yard flat below me. I examined the boulders to my left and right, including the one where I clung. They appeared to be of dark trap rock, probably igneous in origin, torn off the mountainside to my right, perhaps by earthquake. That was the extent of my geologic musings. Would I dare to fish?

Denny was somewhere upriver behind me and water-spider Pete must be upriver too, probably helping Denny recover from a spill. The wading where I had lodged my kayak was too bouldered and slippery with algae for me to chance it, though I had a strong wading staff on board. There was six miles of river like this ahead, with our takeout scheduled for 4 P.M. Could I make the long obstacle course ahead? Or would I dump multiple times, losing all my gear and paddle and perhaps my life?

What had made me abandon rationality and common sense for this dash down the “river of death”? Was it just for the chance at another honey hole, where large wild rainbows and smallmouths lay in their unspoiled innocence awaiting my flies?

The answer was obvious. The only way out was downriver and the only fishing lay ahead. And the only way to reach it was to attack the river with the kayak. I thought: “Go for it! You can do this. And you can catch fish on the way. “

Forty minutes later Pete appeared, skimming along the water, up and downriver in pure and exuberant delight. He’d pause, retrieve a spinning rod from the three holders on his bow, cast to the bank, and spin crazily to give maximum action to his gummy lure. He caught large chubs, one after another, but no smallmouths or rainbows.

“Denny dumped,” Pete shouted. “He’s okay but drenched and shivering. I helped him retrieve all his gear and dump all the water from his kayak. He should be here momentarily.” Denny suddenly appeared, paddling hard and zigzagging to avoid the boulders.

“What the hell did we get ourselves into? This is as risky and demanding as boot camp,” he muttered as he slid alongside where I held my boulder.

River of Death
(Al Hassal art)

So it went, until a whitewater riffle suddenly appeared downriver. Pete signaled me to fish and I slid my kayak into the boulder shallows, climbed out, grabbed the wading staff and my rod loaded with a #4 stonefly nymph. I positioned myself solidly in the boulders, cast the nymph across-stream and into pockets 60 feet away, and let it tick and bounce along the bottom. The take was hard, and a wild rainbow about 18 inches long leaped from the water again and again. It came to hand five minutes later.

Another about the same size came from the same spot ten minutes later. Both fish had shown brightly in the autumn sun as they lay upside down in my hand. I released each as a gift from the river of death. I was still alive. And so were they.

An hour later we pulled our kayaks and headed for an Italian restaurant. I was dry but Denny was still soggy. We agreed our victory on the river of death had been hard-won, almost as hard-won as our 11 weeks at Quantico Marine officers’ boot camp.

But we both agreed: “In both cases, once is enough.” Later we wet-waded shallows on the South Fork of the Potomac as a gentle evening glow settled on the river and Canada geese honked hauntingly, their wings whispering as they flew upriver overhead. We fished silently, me with popping bugs, Denny with spinning lures. We were happy and alone there together, with full lives behind us.

John Randolph is publisher emeritus of Fly Fisherman magazine.

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