The Rose of Shenandoah Park

Virginia’s Rose River may not be a flower, but its brook trout are pretty as any blossom!

On The Fly Freshwater

November 2022

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

Shenandoah National Park in northwest Virginia is an angler’s wonderland. More than 90 streams of varying sizes support the park’s population of trout. Those fish range from introduced rainbow and browns to wild brook trout. With regard to that latter species, however, there is even more variety.

When it comes to our native brook trout, some of us from the South exhibit a bit of piscatorial xenophobia. If the fish in the water are not the Southern Appalachian strain of brookies, they may be wild, but they’re not “native.” In fact, recent research suggests that the Shenandoah Park contains three strains of wild brook trout. On the western slopes of the mountains the streams are inhabited by Ohio River eastern brookies, while  the northeast side features an Atlantic strain of the eastern fish.

But, if you want to be sure you are catching a true native of the South, the headwaters streams of the Rappahannock River system on the east side of the park holds the surest bet.

A Southern Appalachian brookie from the Rose River

Among those waters, the Rose River is an easily accessed stream that can scratch your native, brook trout itch. This small creek – which belies its name as a river – flows into the Robinson River, which feeds the Rapidan River, that in turn empties into the Rappahannock River.

The stream rises beneath Fishers Gap in the national park and flows eastward between Spitler Hill on the north and Doubletop Mountain to the south. After exiting the park, the Rose passes through the hamlet of Syria, Virginia, around which it is stocked with rainbow trout. On the other hand, the upstream waters in the national park hold only native brookies.

The Rose River averages no more than 20 feet wide along the parkland course, but offers plenty of room for fly casting. The periodic flushing of the valley by rainwater surging down the steep slope of the mountains has left a rocky streambed with very little creek-side foliage to snag a fly. The canopy of hardwoods shades the stream, but it’s high enough that it, too, is out of the way for casting.

The Rose offers plenty of room for casting.

The water in the Rose ordinarily runs crystal clear, as it dodges around rocks and leaps over occasional mini-waterfalls. At the foot of these small cascades the plunge pools often are 3 feet deep or more, even in the dry months. Although rather infertile, as are most bookie waters, the stream provides plenty of cover and enough food to support a good population of brook trout.

These fish look like they have leapt from an artist’s tableau, decked out in brilliant hues of orange on the fins and vermillion spots along their sides. Virtually every pool or run holds at least one of these fish that reach the 7- to 8-inch size range.

It is a short drive west up County Road 670 (Old Blue Ridge Turnpike) from Syria to the parking lot at the national park boundary. From there the gated and graveled Rose River Fire Road continues to follow the river upstream. This lot also is the trailhead for the Rose River Trail.

The Rose River Fire Road and trailhead of the Rose River Trail.

When the On The Fly South crew visited the Rose River, it was in the fall during the annual dry season. That left us wondering if the lack of water in the stream would make the fishing tougher. As we geared up in the parking lot, we struck up a conversation with another angler who planned to walk upstream a mile before starting to test the water with his Tenkara rig. Having fished the river before, he assured us the brookies were plentiful and that we would not being getting in each other’s way. Soon after he headed upstream, another angler came walking down the trail, headed for his vehicle. That meant that despite the earlier assurance, we likely would be targeting water that may already have been fished.

Once on the water, our concerns about low water and other anglers quickly dissipated. Tossing buoyant attractor flies, such as Parachute Adam and Royal Wulff patterns, delivered frequent rises from the brookies. Many of the fish struck with reckless abandon, as if they hadn’t seen a morsel of forage in a week. So much for worrying about the stream having already been fished that day!

The bottom line: the Rose River is an excellent bet for tangling with wild Southern Appalachian brook trout in the Virginia highlands. Making it even more attractive, you can drive right to the action, since the stream has brook trout all the way down to the boundary of Shenandoah National Park at the foot of the mountains.

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