Week 14. Harry Murray: Shenandoah Bronzebacks and Brookies
Virginia fly-fishing is best known for brook trout, smallmouth bass, and Harry Murray.
Harry started Murray’s Fly Shop in the stream-side village of Edinburg in 1962, and since then has taught hundreds of anglers to fish, created Virginia’s most famous fly, and gained a lifetime of knowledge of the Old Dominion’s mountain streams and big rivers.
From his home base in Edinburg, an angler can be on the North Fork of the Shenandoah within minutes. If they keep heading south up through Edinburg Gap and over Massanutten Mountain, they’ll meet the big brother of the Shenandoah River, the South Fork. These are two of the best stretches of smallmouth fishing in the world, and Harry knows every meander and pocket for miles.
Shadowing the valley are the jagged peaks of Shenandoah National Park, home to some of the oldest mountains in North America. The ice age deposited arctic char in its streams and they survived as brook trout, one of the prettiest and hungriest trout. Harry has been stalking these brookies for decades and created one of the most deadly dry flies, the Mr. Rapidan.
Harry has imparted his knowledge to generations of anglers through his On-the-Stream Schools for both smallies and brookies. He’s also the author of Trout Fishing in the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia’s Blue Ribbon Streams, and Fly Fishing Techniques for Smallmouth Bass. Murray’s Fly Shop also hosts seminars and offers trips with six guides.
I caught up with Harry on November while he was away from the water while letting the brook trout spawn to hear more about his favorite flies, gear, and of course his own personal 52 week season.
Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What are you home waters?
For smallmouth, I mainly fish for smallmouth of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, the South Fork of the Shenandoah, the James River, and the New River. I was meeting with the state biologist in the James and remarked that I never have as much luck there — he joked that I’m just spoiled fishing the Shenandoah because we have so many good bass here!
I also fish for trout in the streams in Shenandoah National Park. I will fish for trout other streams like Big Stony, since it’s right outside the door of Murray’s Fly Shop, but most serious fisherman feel that Shenandoah National Park is the best place for trout since it is not stocked. Nothing against the stockies, but they leave a lot to be desired.
What’s a year in the life look like for Harry Murray? What are your core fishing seasons?
I would separate between bass and trout…
Smallmouth fishing typically goes from the middle of April to about the first week of November.
The North Fork carries about two-thirds of the water volume of the South Fork, so early in the year when the water is too high on the South Fork, we do must of our fishing and schools on the North Fork. As the South Fork gets lower through the season, we’ll switch over to it around late June.
In terms of temperature, I start getting action when the water temperature is around the low- to mid-50s. The North Fork never gets too extreme on the high end, and I can catch good smallmouth well into the ‘80s, though the water level can be a problem in high summer. The South Fork carries more water so we’ll play that on a seasonal basis, but generally speaking, I find that its excellent fishing on both the North and South Fork all through the summer. The big water on the James and Potomac, however, can get so warm that the they turn off.
We try to use flies the match the natural food, so early in the seasons, that’s various minnows, crayfish, or the Murray's Hellgrammite, which to imitates the Dobsonfly larvae. Later in the summer, it’s darters, sculpins, creek chubb minnow.
Smallmouth will keep going until November. I know when to stop if I get skunked three times in a row — if I get skunked three times in a row, then I’ll move on!
We’ll fish for trout from the middle of March into September. When the water temperature hits around 40-42 in the Park for a few days in the early spring around the middle of March, the aquatic insects will get going with the epeorus pleuralis (quill gordon) and the fish will start getting active. Once the water starts getting consistenly in the 40s, other mayflies like the the dark blue quill and March brown will start hatching, and so will caddisflies, and the brook trout start feeding really well.
If you wanted to pick only one month to fish, it would be April. I get really excited about the mayfly hatch in April and there are so many aquatic insects hatching, you can’t help but catch fish!
The stoneflies arrive by May and June, and can go late into July. After that we go to terrestrials — the Murray’s flying beetle is really my meat and potatoes. Of course, the Mr. Rapidan is always good too.
The brook trout start spawning around the first week of October, and will spawn until the second week of December, and we don’t fish for them during the spawn. Most serious anglers agree that it’s not good to fish during spawning season.
As a follow-up, is it OK to fish for trout in the park during the dog days of summer?
I’ve been taking the water temperature of the Park since the early '60s, and have never recorded above 68, so I think the water temperature is OK as long as it’s not too low.
If you had to use only three flies, what would they be?
- Murray’s parachute Mr. Rapidan. I was asked to designed a fly in the ‘80s that would float well, and match the early hatches of the quill gordon and March brown fly, and what I came up with was the Mr. Rapidan. I’ll use a #14 early in the year, drop down to a #16 by May, and to a #18 in late summer.
- Mr. Rapidan black ant. I”ll use them in the summer, in sizes 14-18.
- Murray’s flying beetle with elk wing, size 14-18.
These three flies will catch 99% of the fish in Virginia. I don’t fish under water much — once the water temperature hits the 40s, they’re going to feed on top.
What kinds of rods do you use?
For smallmouth, a 9-foot, 7-weight, Scott Radian rod.
For trout, a 6-foot, 3-piece, 3-weight, Murray’s mountain trout rod. I was asked to design it about 15 years ago for trout fishing east of the Mississippi, and it’s one of Scott’s top selling rods.
You’ve been praised by Charley Waterman as “one of the world’s best trout fisherman,” and you’ve made your home in the Shenandoah Valley. What makes Virginia waters unique and so great for fishing?
I caught my teeth fly fishing seriously in Montana with anglers such as Charlie Brooks and Charley Waterman. Everything I learned from them, I took back to Virginia to our waters. There is tremendous overlap between wade-fishing for smallmouth bass in drainages like the Shenandoah and what they do in drainages like the Madison, Henry’s Fork, and the Yellowstone. Its so similar in terms of the size of the water, the flies you throw at them like streamers that I tell my students that if you want to learn how to fish places like the Yellowstone, the smallmouth rivers in Virginia are a great place to learn.
Any other advice you would give to the mid-Atlantic angler?
I’ve been teaching as much as I the “pop-strike” for many years as a way to protect the trout. When you are fishing, and a trout takes your fly, and you’ve set the hook, and you’ve got him — at that point, you’ve already fooled him and you’ve already won. What I recommended is that you stay tight to that trout for a few seconds, and let off the rod pressure, and let him off. Two-thirds of the fish will be abel to get off the hook in a second if you let them off. To me, 99% of success is that hook set — you don’t need to take them out of the water for a picture. Seeing them swim away is satisfying enough.
Also, fishing in the mid-Atlantic, you need to know when to be able to walk away from the crowds. There are beautiful places all over Shenandoah National Park, with over 20 fishable streams. You need to be willing to walk another one or two miles. It’s such a rewarding experience just being away from it all, even if you’re not catching anything. It’s the same thing on the Shenandoah River. If someone is at one access point, there’s 30 more. It’s amazing how many opportunities we have just an hour from DC!