West Virginia’s biggest – and wariest trout!
On The Fly Freshwater
Featured photo by Polly Dean.
Article by Jimmy Jacobs
The average trout angler will find West Virginia’s Elk River is anything but normal. From its formation at the junction of the Old Field and Big Spring Forks in Pocahontas County, down to the Rose Run Bridge in Randolph County, this flow stands apart. Farther downstream, the last 21-miles of trout water retreats back to the norm by becoming a put-and-take, stocked flow.
To begin with, if it is a big rainbow or brown trout you are looking for, the upper Elk is the place to target in the Mountain State. Trout up to the mid-20-inch range inhabit that part of the river. Also, with two sections of catch-and-release regulations in place, those fish are always available for a fight.
That is the good news – now for the bad. These fish are not push-overs. Catching them requires skill, patience and local knowledge. Still, many anglers point to the Elk as perhaps the best, big trout river in the eastern U.S.
Along this upper course, there are three separate sections of water. Well, actually two pieces of water, separated by a stretch of dry land.
The upper most is known as the Slaty Fork Elk. On The Fly South covered that 5-mile stretch in an earlier article (Slaty Fork Elk River, October 2020).
Just before that part of the river running through a forested valley reaches Dry Branch Road, the river disappears from the surface at what is called the “sinks”. For several miles along a roadside portion, the riverbed is dry, except during periods of heavy rain. Obviously, it is not trout habitat.
Downstream, the river reappears on the surface at the Elk Springs Resort and Fly Shop property. The resort waters are open to fly fishing only for a fee and the big pool behind the fly shop is guaranteed to have some larger fish.
Below that private area the stream parallel’s Valley Fork Road, offering some public access. This lower catch-and-release section extends down to Rose Run Bridge over the river. Some of the pools are quite large and deep, offering possibilities for lunker-sized trout in its 2-mile length.
One factor to consider when targeting the upper Elk River is the water level. During the winter into spring months the river usually is at its highest levels, making the fishing slightly easier. Indeed, February to April tends to be the best of the year for angling here. This is a time when common patterns of flies like Parachute Adams, Pheasant Tails, bead-head Princes or Hairs Ears are likely to turn the trick.
On the other hand, during the drier summer and fall the river shrinks in size. At those times, the fish holding in the larger, deeper pools can be very wary and finicky. As mentioned earlier, big trout in the Elk can be difficult to fool. Just how difficult is the task during low water?
Dropping in at the Elk Spring Fly Shop can be an eye opener. This emporium bills itself as the largest in West Virginia and offers more than 800 fly patterns for matching the hatches. But the scary part is when the staff starts talking about 12-foot leaders with a 10X tippet! Until visiting there, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a 10X tippet. On the end of that you may have to be presenting midges as small as No. 26.
You’ll recall we also mentioned the need for skill when fishing the Elk. Just imagine that tiny midge attached to a veritable spider web being sucked in by a 24-inch brown or rainbow! For most of us, such a fight would likely be a brief one. But that is just what might happen on this river.
You could just stick with standard-sized leaders and flies and hope for the best. When we tried that tactic on a pool full of rising fish on the Elk it was frustrating. On a few drifts one of the more curious big trout would come up to eye the offering, but turn away and sink back to the depths. Only smaller fish are likely to fall for that ruse.
The bottom line is, if you are up to the effort, the lower catch-and=release section of the Elk River can deliver some outstanding fish. That is if you can fool these big boys and girls and handle them on light tackle!