St. Marys River Wild Brookies

Located in the southern portion of Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley, the St. Marys River offers a feast for the eyes, as well as an abundance of native brook trout for the angler.


On The Fly Freshwater

by Polly Dean

May 2020

Cascading through a canyon in western Virginia, the St. Marys River offers plenty of breathtaking scenery. Over the years the St. Marys has run its course through the hard sandstone to create this steep-walled gorge known as the St. Mary’s Wilderness. The hard-stone bottom creates cascades, as the river rushes along its path through the George Washington National Forest.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

This native brook trout stream has a history of catching more than its share of attention from more than just anglers. Besides its natural beauty, a hike through the gorge reveals remnants from when the area was heavily mined for manganese in the early 1900s. It was even the site of a one-time DDT experiment conducted by the federal government in the 1940s. No permanent damage was done to the river by that later event, and the U.S. Congress declared the 10,000-acre watershed a wilderness area in 1984

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

However, evidence of the mining activity can be seen in the form of old cables and slabs of concrete. Even after the disruption of the terrain had recovered, chemical analysis showed that the stream was highly acidic due to both acid precipitation and the acidity of the sandstone the stream flows over. Brook trout generally can survive acidic conditions, but many other species, some of which those trout feed on, do not fare well. In an effort to help alleviate the acidification, a campaign was initiated in 1999 to dose the St. Marys and five if its tributaries with 140 tons of limestone sand. This was done with a helicopter, with the sand being directly applied to the streams. Biological and chemical monitoring continues today. The results, including the return of acid-intolerant species, has been encouraging.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Even though the trail along the river is rated moderate and can be challenging at times, the two-plus-miles of it along the river are helpful for angler access. It often is a narrow rocky pathway that requires scrambling over rocks. A moderately-sized waterfall with a swimming (or fishing) hole rewards those making the trek to the end. The trail crosses the river in several places and can be hard to follow according to many reports from hikers. But for anglers it is adequate and provides welcome access to many fishing holes.

The St. Marys is a stream where a wading staff can be very useful. Photo by Polly Dean.

If one finds using a wading staff to be helpful, you may want to have it along here. You won’t find much in the way of sand or gravel bottom, but instead, what I call “bowling-ball-sized” rocks that can be challenging to walk across over the course of a day.

Our recent visit to the St. Marys River came just after a period of heavy rainfall. High water in the area definitely played into the decision to fish this smaller stream for wild brook trout. The water was a good bit higher than normal, but even so, it was clear and we were able to wade and fish it. Being in a gorge this was also a stream where after a lot of rain, the water level falls fairly quickly. We did find that to be true over the period of days we visited and fished the stream.

Even so, there was a lot of water flowing through this small to medium-sized creek. We explored most of two miles of river and noticed that there wasn’t much in the way of slow holding water where a brook trout was likely to be. I even scanned the edges for any eddy water that usually forms during high water on trout streams and makes good places for a brook trout to get out of the current. I didn’t see much of that either. The stream is comprised of mostly, swift, shallow water, but with interspersed runs and seams into which to drop a fly. There were also some slow deep pools, but they were not abundant.

With the high fast-flowing water we used larger, No. 12 dry flies such as Parachute Adams, March Browns and Thunderheads. I threw an Olive Wooly Bugger a good bit as well in the deep runs, while my fishing partner continued to fish topwater patterns. When we did hook a fish, the wild brookies exhibited hues straight from the artist’s palette.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Virginia’s regulations for the St. Marys River allows for six trout at a minimum size limit of 9 inches to be kept a day. Only single hook, artificial lures may be used. No bait can be used or in possession. This applies to that portion of St. Marys River upstream of the entrance gate at the edge of the National Forest.

To locate the St. Marys River, visit the website of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and check out the Area 2 map in their Trout Fishing Guide.

While You Are There

Just south of the St. Marys River is the town of Lexington, Virginia. Its mixture of accommodations, dining and history make it a great place to headquarter a fishing trip to the St. Marys valley. Besides being the home of Virginia Military Institute, Lexington contains the home and burial site of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Even the hotels of the town have a historic bent. The Hampton Inn in the historic district is on the site of and incorporates buildings of Col Alto, the plantation home of James McDowell, the 29th governor of Virginia and later a U.S. congressman. In the center of Lexington, you’ll find the Robert E. Lee Hotel, built in 1926 and now fully remodeled. On its second floor, with a veranda overlooking the city, is its fine Italian theme restaurant the Rocca Bar Ristorante. Just across Main Street is the Southern Inn Restaurant, which has been serving up its wide variety of menu items since 1932.

%d bloggers like this: