Slaty Fork Elk River

On The Fly Freshwater

Featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs

The Birthplace of Rivers

By Jimmy Jacobs

The Elk River rises in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. This stream has been called the Birth Place of Rivers, as well as the best trout fishery in the state. Some anglers claim it is the best in the eastern U.S.

It was that reputation that drew the On The Fly South crew to the river. But, as we discovered, those latter two declarations, don’t mean it provides easy year-round fishing.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

The Elk River is formed in the Slaty Fork community where Big Spring Fork and Old Field Fork join at its headwater. For its first 4.6 miles, as it flows through a virtual wilderness area on national forest property, the flow is referred to as the Slaty Fork Elk River. The section ends at the mouth of Dry Branch. However, the fishing ends earlier, where the river dives into a cave to flow underground down to Elk Springs. From that sink hole down to the mouth of Dry Branch, the Elk’s bed is completely dry for most of the year. Once the water reemerges, it is then known as the Lower Elk or Elk Springs section.

On The Fly South’s Jimmy Jacobs testing the waters of the Slaty Fork. Photo by Polly Dean.

The Slaty Fork Elk actually is a medium-sized stream, but it does have some pools that are quite deep. The river also has both rainbow and brown trout, many of which push or exceed the 20-inch mark. That’s because the limestone bedrock of the region is ideal for producing plenty of aquatic insect life for forage. That condition also makes for some dependable and prolific insect hatches.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

The downside, on the other hand, is that matching the hatch is important. Which also produces the necessity of fishing very fine leaders and flies as small as No. 26. This is especially true in the late summer to early fall when the water is quite low and crystal clear in the Elk. That is the conditions we encountered on our venture to the Slaty Fork.

Undoubtedly the best time for fishing the Slaty Fork is in late February into April. The spring fishing leads into the summer months, when the water table falls, the fish head to the deep, still pools and the fishing gets quite technical.

At this time of year, you can stand on the edge of the pools watching large, splashy rises, while having the fish ignore any fly that is big enough for you to see on the water!

The action can pick up some in the late fall and early winter when the trees lose their leaves and quit sucking up all the ground water. With more water left to flow down the Slaty Fork, the fishing is not quite so difficult.

Photo courtesy of Elk River Inn & Cabins.

One bit of local knowledge concerning the big trout on the Slaty Fork is to forget the notion that high, off-color water is not fishable. In fact, that condition can be ideal for hooking the biggest rainbows, and especially the browns, on the stream. And, we’re not talking just about slightly stained water. Local angler in the know head to the Slaty Fork even when it is running high and nearly mud red! They ply the water at these times with some very big flies, often bigger than 4-inches in length. The old adage holds true at these times that to catch a big fish, offer it a big bite.

The trail along the old rail line. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

The entire length of the Slaty Fork portion of the Elk River is a catch-and-release area, allowing only artificial lures. Access to the stream is by foot travel only, following old abandoned railroad tracks along the shore. At the upper end of the Slaty Fork the track is a single set of rails, but quickly branches into a triple set of tracks. These date back to when the line was used first in the logging industry and later to haul coal.

The ancient box car between the trail and the river. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

One particularly large pool that holds fish at all seasons can be located by watching for an old box car sitting on blocks between the tracks and the river. Just past the old car, the trail goes right to the river bank. The pool can be seen just upstream from this point. It also is the pool that most frustrated us – lots of fish rising, but ones we never figured out!

The “Box Car” pool on the Slaty Fork. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

To reach the Slaty Fork, travel to the community of that name located on U.S. Highway 219 (Seneca Trail) to the north of the town of Marlinton and east of Snowshoe Mountain ski resort area. Turn to the northwest on Industrial Drive (Road 219/12). It appears you are entering a lumber yard, but this is public road. Proceed to the end of the road and over the hump by the sign for “No Camping.” You then are in a parking area with at sign for the Slaty Fork.

Follow the trail across a very dilapidated trestle over Big Spring Fork, with the trail then continuing downstream along the Slaty Fork.

Starting down the trail across the old rail trestle. Photo by Polly Dean.

Although access to the lower end of the Slaty Fork is described as being on Dry Branch Road (Road 219/21), coming in from that direction requires a very tough walk up the rough, rocky dry streambed from a parking area near the mouth of Dry Branch.

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