When David Coffman was putting together our trip to southwest Virginia, including finding guide recommendations for a day of fishing on the New River, one name topped the list: Shawn Hash from Tangent Outfitters. The trip, a six-day odyssey through a beautiful and rugged portion of my beloved home state I had never set foot in before, brought us on the final day to Pembroke, VA where we met up with Shawn.
It was a beautiful day, but windy. I brought my 7-weight fly rod, which is a nice smallmouth rod in the wind, but I was not in the mood to fight it all day. We were there to relax and catch fish, and when the gusts are into the 35-40mph range, you leave the fly rod in the tube and grab a spinning rod. No apologies there, I love fly fishing but it was not the day for it.
I love a brown trout. My favorite fish ever was a medium sized Yellowstone Cutthroat. Brookies, rainbows, salmon, steelhead, stripers, shad, they’re all special, really. But I have a particular affection for the Smallmouth Bass. I learned to fly fish clumsily throwing wooly buggers to smallies in my home waters of the Potomac and the last couple miles of the Shenandoah before the two rivers meet as one. I’ve fished from banks, waded for them and caught them from a kayak. On one kayak trip not far from where we now live, I caught my personal best smallmouth, about a 17.5 incher that towed me around for a while before I got it in.
Well that personal best was bested by a beefy 18-incher within 40 yards of the ramp where we put in. A good day already. But it gets better. I have never seen so many consistently big, hard-fighting smallmouth. One after the other we were pulling in fish measuring 16 to 18 inches. Then I hooked into a particularly heavy one, and the moment Shawn netted it, he said, “citation!”
I have never caught an official citation, or trophy fish of any species. A smallmouth has to be 20 inches in length to qualify, and this one is about 20.5″. It weighed in at 4.75 lbs. To get a citation of one of my very favorite species of fish is extremely special to me. But amazingly, probably seven of the biggest ten smallmouth I have ever caught, were caught on this day out of the New River.
But remarkable things were happening for the guy in the back of the boat, too! David, editor of the VDGIF Outdoor Report and a lifelong outdoorsman, declared this the best day of fishing of his life! He was reeling in a “mediocre” smallmouth, maybe 12-13″, it was up on the surface close to the boat. I was watching it when what I presumed for an instant was a shark of some sort crashed up through the surface of the water after the smallie.
That night we celebrated with a great dinner at the nearby Palisades Restaurant, cigars and a few drinks. What a special day on the river, and I couldn’t be happier for David. I got my very special citation smallie, and he has a fish of a lifetime he will never forget. Wow.
That night we stayed in one of the riverfront cabins run by Tangent. This is the view from the porch. I didn’t think to get photos of the inside but I can’t recommend the cabins highly enough. Modern, comfortable, meticulously clean. Just a fantastic experience all around. I will absolutely return to the New River to have some fun with Tangent Outfitters!
The Dominion Riverrock Festival in Richmond, Virginia seemed like a fun event, and when I learned that there was a “Filthy 5K” mud run, and that you could run with a dog, I decided to enter for precisely two reasons: I needed a ‘deadline’ to motivate me to get off my ass and start exercising, and I have the perfect dog for such an event. Finn loves mud and water more than I love not exercising. Which is quite a bit.
So for a couple months I ‘trained’ intermittently, running a few miles here, taking several days off there. But I didn’t really change my bad habits and never lost any weight in the process. So when the event came around, I was ill prepared. Running is hard for fat old guys.
But to be honest, a mile into the race I knew I could finish it, albeit very, very slowly. This, by the way, is much better than not being sure if you will survive. So I spent the considerable time it took to run it encouraging Finn, who of course did not even notice he was running a 5K.
Hey here comes Jay! Our friend Jay, who generously hosted us at his home in downtown Richmond for the weekend, went the extra mile (okay 3.2 miles) and ran the race too! Here he is pushing through the last obstacle before the finish line!
Okay, a couple things here. First, I love this picture and I loved the moment. The ‘glow’ after we had finished the race we had worked not very hard preparing for. Finn’s weight on my foot just felt, I don’t know, I just liked it. But what I didn’t like is what happened right after I took this photo. This post is about Finn, really, and I hesitate to even bring this up. But I know Jay will insist upon its inclusion here, so…
We’re standing here, like this. Finn leaning on my foot. And this old guy trots up to me from across the parking lot, all excited, and says, “How’d you do in the race???” I said, “I think we won!” He said, “Really?” I said, “No. Not really.” He said, “Oh. I was just wondering if anyone else over 60 finished ahead of me.” I said, “And you fucking asked ME??” He said, “Well, yeah, I don’t know.” I said, well, I don’t recall exactly what I said so I will paraphrase: “Sir, I appreciate your enthusiasm, you are right to be excited about what I am sure is a fine performance among other gentlemen in your age group. I commend your efforts to stay fit into very, very old age. However, you are mistaken. While my hair is grey, and I am walking with the grace and athleticism of a man who had knee replacement surgery this morning, I assure you that I have just celebrated my fiftieth birthday and, with all due respect, take considerable offense at your inclusion of me into your age group. Please be on your way.”
Afterwards we were hanging around, drinking beer, and Finn became very interested in the pool where the Ultimate Air Dogs dock diving competition would be held the next day. I decided Finn had to at least try it.
The next day we watched some cool events taking place. This is called slack line, and I had never seen it before. People jump on these wide, thin, flexible straps and do flips and all kinds of other tricks. It’s mesmerizing to watch!
Another event I’ve never seen before is bouldering. Don’t ask me how a person can climb up something that is well on the wrong side of vertical. But these incredibly strong athletes were fun to watch scale these obstacles.
The rains came for a time around noon. Finn, as he had been the whole weekend no matter what we asked of him, was a trooper. He literally endures any activity I ask of him, any conditions presented to him, with bright, smiling eyes and a firm wag of approval. But here he enjoyed a little shelter under the beer table for a few minutes until the worst of the storm passed.
Alright, here we are at the dock diving pool! We started him on the ramp so he would get used to the idea, and also so once he swam out to get the toy (a borrowed tennis ball) he would know how to get back out of the pool.
The Riverrock festival was lots of fun, and we enjoyed many cool new adventures and great company. But the highlight of the weekend was, plain and simple, Finn. This amazing dog endured probably sixty dogs on leashes too long, with inattentive handlers, getting right in his face. He simply stood there. He was approached by dozens of people who wanted to know what he was. Or to tell me how pretty he was. Or to tell him how pretty he was. One person after the other was captivated by him. “What amazing eyes.” “That dog rocks.” “That is the coolest dog I’ve ever seen.”
And people wanted to pet him. Which I’m used to. I ask to pet dogs all the time, and people want to get their hands on Team Orange often too. But this weekend I noticed something different, something more. And Jay witnessed it too. But a lot of people just felt compelled to gently put a hand on him. They would rest a hand on his head while standing in a beer line, or run a finger down his back as we passed walking in a different direction, or place a hand on his rump as they squeezed through in a crowd. They did this without a word or eye contact, they just seemed drawn to have contact with him.
I’ve had dogs for a long time, and I love bringing them with me when I’m out in public. But I have never been so thrilled, so proud, so happy to have a dog in a crowded public place as I was to have my sweet boy Finn at the Festival. He behaved perfectly, and I just couldn’t be more proud of my Riverrockstar.
A few weeks ago, my friend Chris and I went to the river to set up game cameras, hoping to capture images of the beautiful wood ducks that have proven so skittish and difficult to photograph. On that same day Chris spotted where the owl had been hiding, so we decided to set up my camera trained at the owl. The camera Chris brought we would set up low on a tree in a little cove where I have spotted wood ducks before. It has a bracket that screws into a tree trunk, then the camera slips over the bracket and you’re ready to go.
Except we forgot one thing: To keep an eye on the river levels. An earlier rain was still having an impact downstream, and in no time the camera was underwater. Being airtight and buoyant, however, it simply lifted up off the bracket as the water got higher, and floated away.
We assumed it was lost forever. But tonight when I went to retrieve the bracket and scout another wood duck location I did some looking around. Low and behold, I spotted the camera in a debris pile less than fifty feet downstream of the tree on which it was mounted. Although it wasn’t above water for long before the water took it away, Chris and I were both anxious to see what was on the memory card! The camera, while it was on its little adventure, took 1,470 photos. Here are the highlights…
This is most likely a Great Blue Heron. I’ve seen them in this cove before, and while this neck is very white like that of an egret or something, some Great Blues have a mostly white neck. Regardless, pretty cool capture. But, cool as it is, I really wanted wood ducks.
And finally, the last creature to show up (not counting the spider on the cam in the first shot) is the one writing this story. I was as surprised as that rabbit to see this camera down there, and when the flash went off I knew it had continued working the entire time.